For more than fifty years, Gerald Wilson has been recognized
as one of the premiere composers, arrangers and band leaders
in modern jazz. Now in his 79th year, the elegant and gracious
master continues not only to create brilliant, sophisticated
music, but to reap ever greater honors for his timeless contributions
to American culture.
The perennially humble Wilson has garnered his share of accolades,
including five Grammy nominations, top Big Band and Composer/Arranger
honors in the Downbeat International Critics Poll, the Paul Robeson
Award, the NEA American Jazz Masters Fellowship, and two 1997
American Jazz Awards for Best Arranger and Best Big Band. In
1996, Wilson received the rare honor of having his life's work
archived by the Library of Congress.
As a composer and arranger, Wilson continues to produce prolifically.
His latest CD from MAMA Records, the double Grammy-nominated
Theme for Monterey (1999 Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance;
Best Original Composition: "Romance"), chronicles three
recent works. The album's namesake is a large-scale piece commissioned
by the Monterey Jazz Festival last year, celebrating the Festival's
40th anniversary. This set of five variations on a mesmerizing
40-bar theme, clocks in at nearly 45 minutes and is a testament
to the composer's sophistication and mastery. Wilson, who has
enjoyed a special relationship with the world-renowned annual
jazz event, also wrote and performed featured commissions for
its 20th and 25th anniversary, as well as making several other
appearances there during its 40-year history. The other pieces,
his rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime" and Parker/Gillespie's
"Anthropology" (based on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm"
changes), both commissioned by the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Foundation,
were premiered at the Library of Congress in 1996. "In my
recent works," stresses Wilson, "I've stayed away from
some of the symphonic devices I've used elsewhere. I want this
music to swing in any tempo, even the ballads. After all, this
is jazz, and everything must swing!"
Although not a household name, Wilson's talent is legendary
among jazz insiders. His groundbreaking compositions, intricate
arrangements and immediately recognizable sound put him in a
league of his own. In his prolific six-decade career as composer
and arranger, Wilson has been behind some of the greatest names
in jazz, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ray Charles,
Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Nancy Wilson, and Bobby Darin.
Beyond his jazz accomplishments, Wilson's symphonic compositions
have been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the
direction of Zubin Mehta. He even scored a top 40 pop hit with
El Chicano's 1970 version of his "Viva Tirado," a song
that has been recorded in at least 18 different versions, including
a hip hop rendition by Latino rapper Kid Frost.
Wilson began his life in jazz in 1937, when he joined the
musician's union and started playing professionally. Two years
later, at the age of 21, he was invited to join the highly popular
Jimmie Lunceford band in New York City. His impact was immediate,
contributing such powerful material as "Hi Spook" and
"Yard Dog Mazurka" to the Lunceford repertoire. After
four years with Lunceford and a stint in the U.S. Navy during
World War II, Wilson settled in Los Angeles, playing trumpet
and writing for Benny Carter and Les Hite. In 1944 he organized
the first Gerald Wilson Jazz Orchestra, featuring trombonist
Melba Liston and trumpeter Snooky Young among its members. Twice
touring the country, Wilson's big band made its mark in New York
City, receiving rave reviews playing the Apollo Theater between
bookings of the Ellington and Lunceford bands, and in Chicago,
landing a ten-week engagement at the Regal Theater and hiring
a young Joe Williams as the band's vocalist there.
Just as his orchestra was reaching a peak of popularity and
commercial success in 1947, Wilson dissolved the band. "All
of a sudden I was in New York city with my band. I was very successful,"
he remembers. "They were booking me everywhere and I had
contracts all over the place, and I realized that, 'Hey, this
wasn't what I wanted; there's still so much I've got to learn.'
The only way I could was to actually stop and really study. My
booking agent was ready to kill me."
Back in Los Angeles, Wilson devoted himself to refining his
knowledge of harmony and orchestration. "It wasn't that
I dropped off the scene," he says, "I was still playing
and recording, but I was into that mode of studying." Indeed,
in 1948 he went on the road as a member of Count Basie's big
band, a learning experience itself in what Wilson calls "the
cradle of swing." In 1949, he joined his good friend and
fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's group. "He wouldn't come
to Los Angeles without coming to my home," Wilson recalls
of the bebop pioneer. In Dizzy's band, Wilson helped shape the
repertoire with such progressive arrangements as "Out of
this World" and his own composition "Couldn't Love,
Couldn't Cry," which Wilson remembers as "a very advanced
number; one of the works I'm most proud of writing."
From the late 1940s through the '50s, Wilson was one of the
most active arrangers and orchestrators in jazz and popular music.
In addition to providing musical settings for Sarah Vaughan,
Ray Charles, Julie London, Bobby Darin, Carmen McRae and many
others, he developed a close working relationship with Duke Ellington.
That "little association," as Wilson calls it, lasted
until Ellington's death in 1974. Wilson also scored for motion
pictures (Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder) and television
(ABC's variety program, The Redd Foxx Show, serving also as the
show's conductor and music director), achieving a balance of
creative fulfillment and commercial success.
As much as Wilson enjoyed his involvement in popular music,
there was never any doubt about his first love. "I'm always
looking to get something new going. Because jazz is a creative
art form and if you start using the same rhythmic patterns and
harmonies over again, you're not creating. Fortunately,"
Wilson explains, "I've never really had a problem getting
my creative work heard; it always seemed something would open
up for me." He began his recording career in 1945 with the
Excelsior and Black & White labels moving to Federal in the
1950s. Later he inaugurated a long, rewarding relationship with
Pacific Jazz in 1961, which produced such critically acclaimed
albums as You Better Believe It!, Moment of Truth, Portraits,
On Stage and The Golden Sword.
In 1969, pursuing his commitment to creative expansion, Wilson
intensified his study of classical music, plunging into the scores
of Stravinsky, Debussy, Katchaturian, Ravel, Villa Lobos, and
Rodrigo. "I found a lot of things that have helped me so
much with my jazz scoring," he says. Already a master of
complex voicings-his smooth uses of eight-part harmony and polytonality
were always far ahead of their time-Wilson composed an extended
work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, titled "5/21/72,"
performed under the direction of Zubin Mehta. This lead to further
commissions in the classical form, including four arrangements
for the Philharmonic and the Joel Westmorland 200-voice interdenominational
One of the most generous of artists, Wilson has continually
sought ways to share his knowledge and passion, from hosting
a daily jazz program on L.A.'s KBCA in the early 1970s to teaching
jazz history for 13 years at California State University Northridge,
six years at Cal State L.A., and for the past six years at UCLA.
He is currently completing a book on jazz harmony. "It helps
keep me alive," he explains, "because jazz is such
a chain of evolution. I just try to be a person worthy of being
a part of this great art form."
In the 1990s, Wilson began recording with MAMA Records, while
remaining at the forefront of big band jazz with as busy a schedule
as ever. He calls State Street Sweet, his 1995 MAMA CD nominated
for a Grammy as Best Large Ensemble Jazz Performance, "one
of the best I've ever made." His 1996 MAMA album, Suite
Memories-Reflections on a Jazz Journey, is a chronicle of Wilson's
life in jazz. In a series of candid interviews, Wilson recalls
his experiences starting from the heyday of jazz in the '30s
and '40s to today.
In recounting his associations with other jazz greats throughout
the years, Wilson typically deflects credit and compliments to
others as he quietly goes in search of yet another peak to scale.
A tireless and creatively inexhaustible artist, Wilson rarely
takes time to bask in the limelight that he shares with the other
giants of jazz. Instead, with genuine humility, he says, "I've
given to jazz the best that I have." And, coming from Gerald
Wilson, that will always be some of the best there is in modern