Born: September 4, 1918 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor/leader
Back in 1939, Gerald Wilson joined the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra as a trumpet soloist and an arranger. 66 years later, Wilson is still very active, having long been considered one of the top arrangers, composers and big band leaders in the history of jazz. 86 as of this writing, he has lost none of his enthusiasm, skills or creativity, and still manages to sound quite modern.
Throughout his career, Gerald Wilson has received incredible acclaim, including winning the Downbeat International Critics Poll both as a composer/arranger and for his big band, and winning the Paul Robeson Award, the NEA American Jazz Masters Fellowship, and a pair of American Jazz Awards. He has been elected to the Mississippi Jazz Hall of Fame, has had his life's work archived by the Library of Congress and has earned six Grammy® nominations. But his real legacy is his music itself.
Gerald Wilson, jazz’s reigning composer/orchestrator pays homage to his adopted hometown, Chicago on his fifth Mack Avenue Records release, Legacy. Composers Igor Stravinsky and Giacomo Puccini also receive Wilson’s musical tips of the hat. Wilson’s son, guitarist/composer Anthony Wilson, and grandson Eric Otis are also represented by a composition/orchestration apiece, thus extending Gerald’s musical legacy.
In 2011The Gerald Wilson Orchestra assembled for Legacy comprises many of the great jazz artists who've been Gerald's collaborators for the lion’s share of his Mack Avenue canon. A first-class rhythm section of pianist Renee Rosnes, guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash anchors the group. Trumpeters Sean Jones, Jeremy Pelt, Tony Lujan and Mike Rodriguez and trombonists Dennis Wilson, Douglas Purviance, Luis Bonilla and Alan Ferber stud the brass section. Antonio Hart Dick Oatts, Kamasi Washington, Ron Blake, Jay Brandford and Gary Smulyan comprise the reeds. Al Pryor continues as Wilson’s producer for this collection of tributes and portraits.
The musicians in the band were really into the music and they are brilliant players, enthused Wilson. They are at home everywhere they are, in every bar of music. The same can be said for the veteran bandleader.
Born in Shelby, Mississippi in 1918, Gerald Wilson knew early on that he was going to be a musician. While living in Detroit, he studied harmony and orchestration at Cass Tech in addition to working on his trumpet chops. In 1939, when he got the call to join Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra, he was ready. When I got a chance to join them, remembers Wilson, I was thrilled to death. The Jimmie Lunceford band was at the top of the heap at the time and they could outdraw everyone. They had such creative arrangements by Edwin Wilcox, Sy Oliver and Eddie Durham, and their musicians were very good. I made my first arrangements for them, Yard Dog Mazurka and Hi Spook.
After a few years gaining recognition for his work with Lunceford and after serving a stint with the U.S. Navy, Wilson settled in Los Angeles. He wrote and played trumpet for Benny Carter and Les Hite and led his own big band during 1944-47, making his first recordings as a leader. Despite the success of the first Gerald Wilson Orchestra, he decided to break up the band in 1947 and further his musical studies. Wilson knew that there would be time for other big bands, and he has always wanted to learn as much as possible about harmony and orchestration, and developing his own writing style.
In 1948 Wilson joined the Count Basie Orchestra for two years, and in 1950 he joined the Dizzy Gillespie big band as a trumpet player and arranger, where his contributions included his composition Couldn't Love, Couldn't Cry. In the 1950s he became very active as an arranger and orchestrator not only in jazz, but also for popular singers of the time and in commercial music. Among those he wrote for were Duke Ellington (including a classic arrangement of Perdido in 1951), Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Julie London, Bobby Darin, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and countless others. He also wrote symphonic compositions that were performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta, including the extended work 5/21/72, and was the conductor and music director for the ABC variety program The Redd Foxx Show. I did so much commercial work for so many years. I can't even count the amount of arrangements that I wrote. It's just in the last few years that I stopped doing commercial work altogether and have stuck completely to jazz. It takes a lifetime to be a jazz musician.
Gerald Wilson, who eventually gave up playing trumpet to concentrate on his writing, became particularly famous in the jazz world through his series of classic big band recordings for the Pacific Jazz label in the 1960s including “You Better Believe It,” “Moment Of Truth,” “Portraits,” “On Stage” and “The Golden Sword.” His catchy Viva Tirado became a top 40 pop hit in 1970 when recorded by El Chicano. He also hosted a daily jazz program on Los Angeles' KBCA in the early 1970s and taught jazz history for 13 years at California State University Northridge, and for six years at Cal State L.A., and now still teaches at UCLA. His 1980s recordings for the Discovery label further solidified Wilson's musical legacy, as have his regular appearances with his longtime L.A.-based orchestra. My band in Los Angeles has been together for decades and I have some players who have been with me for more than 15 years. We always enjoy performing around town at concerts and festivals.
Wilson clearly revels in his working relationship with Mack Avenue Records. His previous releases for the label are: New York, New Sound (2003), In My Time (2005), Monterey Moods (2007) and Detroit (2009). “They’re so nice to me and our arrangement is so comfortable,” he says. His albums receive maximum exposure��in the press, on radio and on Internet sites like YouTube.
“I’ve had a very fulfilling career,” he maintains. “I’ve reached all of my goals. I’ve played and written for all of the greatest jazz orchestras (Lunceford, Ellington, Basie, and Benny Carter among them), I’ve written for movies and television, I’ve written for concert orchestras and I’ve maintained my own band for many decades.
“Everything I write,” Wilson asserts, “from here on in, is going to be jazz. It’s the language I speak and it’s my music.”
The legacy of Gerald Wilson and the Monterey Jazz Festival are closely linked. From his first visits to Monterey in the early 1960's playing and hanging out with Diz and Monk to his commission pieces for our 25th, 40th and now 50th anniversary, Gerald's spirit has infused the festival with his unique brand of artistry, humanity and pure, swingin' fun. Gerald Wilson and the Monterey Jazz Festival have helped create a vibrant and long-lasting west coast musical spirit. It's a great partnership and we are honored to be associated with him! --Tim Jackson, General Manager, Monterey Jazz Festival
Playing with Gerald Wilson is always such a joy and an inspiration, as is hearing the results. … you'll also discover Gerald Wilson the person ... intelligent, wise, full of joy and classy, just like his compositions. --Jon Faddis
“Gerald Wilson is one of the greatest composers and arrangers living today. Monterey Moods, is another example of his genius.” --Kenny Burrell
“Gerald Wilson's longevity with his creativity alone gives testimony to his value as an international treasure.” --Hubert Laws