Full name, Gerald Stanley Wilson; born September 4, 1918, in Shelby, MS; mother was a pianist; married, wife's name Josephina. Addresses: Record company--Pacific Jazz, 810 Seventh Ave., Fourth floor, New York, NY 10019.

Dense, assertive brass; cool, dry reeds; strong doses of Mexican, Latin American and rock feeling; arrangements that showcase soloists; solos that complement arrangements. These are some of the elements that identify the various bands of Gerald Wilson. "You can always tell a Gerald Wilson arrangement. He has his own style," said vibraphonist/leader Terry Gibbs. "There's nothing more pretty than eight brass playing a whole chorus, with all eight notes moving, moving." So said Wilson, the maestro, in an interview with Zan Stewart for the January, 1997, DownBeat. "Moving" has been a hallmark of the Wilson style. From his early days with the Jimmy Lunceford Band to his current musical activities, Gerald Wilson has usually moved well ahead of the pack.

Wilson's family moved to Detroit from Memphis when he was about 14. Wilson had already grounded himself in a jazz tradition, through early piano lessons with his mother and sessions listening and talking with his brother Shelby. A Tuskegee Institute classmate of jazz legend Teddy Wilson, Shelby brought a jazz perspective to his younger brother. Detroit's Cass Technical High School, then a Mecca for talented students of many disciplines, provided the basis for Wilson's formal training. There, he was taught by Clarence Byrne, the father of trombonist/ band leader Bobby Byrne.

With this background, and still in his teens, Wilson launched his career, first as a trumpeter at Detroit's Plantation Club in 1936- 37, then touring with Chic Carter. In 1939, he joined the famous Jimmy Lunceford Band, replacing trumpeter/arranger Sy Oliver, whose charts, trumpet solos and vocals had helped propel this band to the forefront of swing groups. Oliver had shifted to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, where his arrangements were responsible for helping Dorsey record some of his greatest hits. Initially, Wilson was limited to playing trumpet, but soon he began to contribute arrangements to the Lunceford band, whose position was being challenged by many other groups of the day. Two of his best-known recorded arrangements for Lunceford were "Hi Spook" and "Yard Dog Mazurka," "the opening of which Stan Kenton appropriated, lock, stock, and barrel a few years later for 'Intermission Riff,'" Gunther Schuller noted in his The Swing Era. Composer credit for this hit Kenton recording is assigned to Kenton trumpeter Ray Wetzel. Schuller also pointed out that several Wilson arrangements helped sustain the fading Lunceford group.

By the time Wilson left Lunceford in 1942 and moved to California, he had established himself as a distinguished arranger. Once on the West Coast, he played with the bands of Les Hite and Benny Carter, picking up writing and arranging tips along the way. Next came a stint in the U.S. Navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, where Wilson performed and probably arranged in a band led by reedman Willie Smith, an old Lunceford compatriot. Trumpet section-mates there included the inimitable Clark Terry and Ernie Royal. Upon his discharge in December, 1944, Wilson formed his first band in the midst of the fermenting California music scene.

Wilson's band commanded immediate attention, and embarked on a successful performing tour throughout the country. Singer Joe Williams was with the band briefly in 1946, and they played Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago with stars such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis, Jr. Despite an enthusiastic welcome at New York's demanding Apollo Theater that capped-off this tour, Wilson decided to quit the business for a while. He felt he was not yet ready to sustain the responsibilities of leader, arranger, composer, trumpeter. Returning to California, Wilson spent some time playing and writing for the Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands through 1947 and 1949. During that time, he also began a long period of writing intermittently for Duke Ellington's band in 1947.

Throughout this period and well into the 1950s, Wilson managed to maintain bands of his own, mostly to play music which he had written and arranged. In addition, these writing and arranging skills lead to assignments for television and film work for NBC and MGM. He also conducted albums for a variety of artists, including Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Nat Cole, Billie Holiday and Harry Belafonte, as well as pianist Les McCann and guitarist B. B. King. Of his preparation for these responsibilities, Wilson told writer John William Hardy, "Nobody can say they have taught me how to write or orchestrate--I haven't studied with or under anyone-- but that is not to say I haven't studied long and hard on my own. I don't feel that my lack of formal training means that I am in any way limited in my approach to the job."

In the 1960s, with the dedicated push of producer Albert Marx for Pacific Jazz records, Wilson recorded a string of albums that showcased his own writing and arranging. Partly because this was studio work, and because of the exciting material, Wilson was able to attract some of the better musicians. Among these were: trumpeters Al Porcino, Conte Candoli and Carmell Jones; trombonists Bob Edmondson and Les Robertson; reedmen Teddy Edwards, Harold Land, Jack Nimitz, and Bud Shank; guitarists Joe Pass and Laurindo Almeida; vibist Bobby Hutcherson; drummer Mel Lewis.

It was also during this period that Wilson developed a fascination for Mexico. His Mexican wife, Josephina, became the subject of one of his compositions, as has Mexican culture in general: bullfighters, pyramids, folklore. These themes are represented principally on 1966's Torero Impressions in Jazz: The Golden Sword, which includes such titles as "Carlos" (dedicated to bullfighter Carlos Arruza), "Mi Corazon," and three selections from a from a larger work, for the 2,000-year-old pyramid, the "Teotihuacan Suite." Wilson affected a Mexican persona; his on- stage and rehearsal demeanor with his orchestra is both commanding and exciting--not unlike that of a great toreador. It is not surprising that he did some acting, including a televised appearance in 1959's The Lineup.

Wilson studied the writing of modern classicists such as Aram Khatchaturian, Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Rodrigo. In addition, he incorporated many characteristics of rock music into his writing and arrangements, leading to the jazz/rock phenomenon that remains. Any residual doubts Wilson had about his ability to write with sustaining interest, such as inhibited him with his 1946 band, were dispelled when Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, commissioned him to write an extended work for that orchestra's 1972 season. Because of the scope and success of this work, he told writer Zan Stewart, "That was the day I realized I could compose anything I wanted." When Wilson came to New York in 1988 to conduct the American Jazz Orchestra playing his music, it marked his first appearance there in 25 years. That orchestra's manager, Loren Schoenberg, told New York Times writer Peter Watrous: "Gerald's concept is completely modern. The music he's writing here doesn't have much to do with the Lunceford style. . . . Gerald's pieces are all extended. . . . They're almost hypnotic. . . . Only a master can keep the interest going that long, and he does."

Wilson's approach is often compared to that of Duke Ellington. Each served as leader, composer, arranger and player. (Because of dental problems, Wilson laid aside his trumpet in the mid-1970s.) Like Ellington, Wilson considered his orchestra to be his main instrument, and though Wilson was never afforded the luxury of having the same instrument, with only evolutionary changes over a period of decades, his sporadic bands of the 1940s and the 1960s and beyond did attract a stable of some of the best players of the West Coast galaxy. It was for this changing cast that he wrote, and, like Ellington, he often altered arrangements to enhance a solo or the length of a solo to enrich the arrangement.

An example of Wilson's arranging skill for Ellington is pointed out in the five CD 1995 Smithsonian collection, Big Band Renaissance. In his collection notes Bill Kirchner wrote, "Though some listeners may be surprised to find a non Ellington/Strayhorn arrangement in an Ellington sampling, there are several reasons for inclucing this recording of "Perdido": it is an ingenious reworking of a tune introduced by the Ellington band in 1942, it enables us to hear a number of the band's soloists, and it is an electrifying performance--one of the best recordings ever--of one of the most frequently performed themes in jazz." Wilson's own band is also represented in this magnum collection.

Wilson and Stan Kenton are also often compared, and not only because they plowed the same California soil. Many musicians worked in both bands at one time or another; each band was heavy on the brass; each used Latin rhythms extensively; each played its share of jazz/rock numbers; each experimented with extended works. Whereas Wilson rarely traveled, Kenton was on the road for most of his career.

Wilson stays young by mentoring young musicians. He began teaching at California State University--Northridge in 1970 and also taught at Cal State--Los Angeles, then joined the faculty of the University of California in Los Angeles in 1991. These contacts with interested students and his continuing writing provide the challenges Wilson craves. As he told DownBeat's Stewart: "I have a big class, about 550 students, and I have fun with them. . . . I cover ragtime through swing in one section, bebop up through today in the other. It's really a kick."

by Robert Dupuis

Gerald Wilson's Career

Began first piano lessons with mother; family moved to Memphis, TN, then to Detroit, MI, 1932; studied trumpet and majored in music in high school; played in local clubs, 1936-37; trumpeter/arranger with Jimmy Lunceford band, 1939-42; played in Willie Smith Navy band, 1943-44; settled in Los Angeles, formed own first band, for which he wrote and arranged, 1944-46; with Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands, 1948-49; arranged for Duke Ellington, Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, 1950s and 1960s; wrote for film and television, 1960s; re-formed own band, 1961; recorded intermittently, 1960s; taught at college level, beginning 1970; continues to write, arrange and lead bands.

Gerald Wilson's Awards

Down Beat International Critics' Poll award for Best Big Band, 1963; Jazz Masters fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1990; Grammy nominations, including "State Street Sweet," 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 13 years ago

I am 61 years old and I have been listining to Gerald Wilson by the age of 14. I was buying his LPs at that time and I still have all of them and they remain as my most favorite recordings. Just this day I found two at a garage sale and had to have them as a back-up! I found it interesting the compairison to Stan Kenton..also one of the best. As a boy of 6-7 years my dad would take me down to Balboa to here him a"few block away" Wow what an experence.Any way to contach Mr. Wilson directly? Alan