Saturday, October 28, 2017

"Mama Jazz" - Ella Fitzgerald at 100: A Review of Leslie Gourse's "The Ella Fitzgerald Companion"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Nobody probed to find out anything definitive or accurate about the childhood struggles of the young woman. Nobody realized that Ella’s hardships had forged her character as a loner and thoroughly committed musician in a brilliant and original American art form. Nobody seemed to realize that as a singer she was a genius, and certainly nobody predicted she would develop into a virtual flag of American popular music.”

“Given her inexhaustible inventiveness, and a range of nearly three octaves, she moved easily from a bluesy growl up into the stratosphere— with astounding clarity all the way. Ira Gershwin spoke for many composers when he said: "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." Her famous Songbook recordings of Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Rodgers and Hart are masterworks. Having excelled in nearly every noteworthy period of the modern jazz era, Miss Fitzgerald set a timeless standard. Young fans in Italy named her "Mama Jazz." That she was.
- Leslie Gourse, Jazz author

I am a big fan of compilations.

When used as a noun in English, “compilation” means the action or process of producing something, especially a list, book, or report, by assembling information collected from other sources [i.e.: assembling previously separate items].

It is a technique that I use frequently to put together the blog features that are displayed on these pages so as to give the reader a fuller view of the Jazz topic or musician that’s being profiled.

One analogy that comes to mind is going out to dinner and ordering a bunch of starters or appetizers as the main meal; you get a variety of tastes this way instead of one main entre.

Another form of comparison is when you load up the CD changer or Mp3 player with a variety of music and then select “Random Play” to achieve a broader sampling of the music instead of listening to just one artist perform.

More specifically, as part of my celebration of the centenary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald [1917-2017], a woman who young Jazz fans in Italy affectionately call “Mama Jazz,” I have queued up selections from the many Songbooks that Ella recorded for Norman Granz’s Verve label in the 1950s and early 1960s..

For those who may be unfamiliar with these compilations, they include selections from many of the Great American Songbook master composers including Duke Ellington [3 CDs], Harold Arlen [2 CDs], Cole Porter [2 CDs], George and Ira Gershwin [3 CDs], Rodgers and Hart [2 CDs], Irving Berlin [2 CDs], and single CDs of the Johnny Mercer Songbook and the Jerome Kern Songbook.

All of them feature Ella primarily with big bands with the music arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, Paul Weston, Buddy Bregman, Billy May, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

The assemblage of so much talent boggles the mind and let’s not leave out the beautiful conditions under which the recordings were engineered at the newly constructed Capitol Records recording studies on Vine Street, a block or two up from Hollywood Blvd, and the brilliant work of the many studio musicians who made these arrangements a musical reality.

Which brings me to Leslie Gourse’s The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary. First published in 1998, two years after Ella’s death, Leslie’s book is a compilation “... of articles, interviews and reviews that originally appeared in a variety of publications” which are divided into five [5] sections:

Part One: Spring Is Here: The Early Years
Part Two: How High The Moon - On Her Own, Recording With Decca, 1939-55
Part Three: Everything I’ve Got - Norman Granz and the Songbooks, 1955-65
Part Four: How Long Has This Been Going On?, Living Icon, 1966-80
Part Five: Evening Star - Last Years. 1981-96

The list of contributors is a dazzling array of literary Jazz luminaries that includes Henry Pleasants, John S. Wilson, Leonard Feather, Len Lyons, Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, Will Friedwald, John Tynan, Ralph J. Gleason, Bill Coss, Stanley Dance, Earl Wilson, John Edward Hasse, Dom Cerulli and Nat Hentoff.

At the time of its writing, Leslie Gourse had written about Jazz for almost three decades. She edited The Billie Holiday Companion (1997) for Schirmer Books and is the author of Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997). Her articles have been in several newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Chicago Tribune, Down Beat, Harper's Bazaar, and many others.

Leslie explains how she went about developing her compilation in the following Introduction to her book.

"The only thing better than singing is more singing," Ella Fitzgerald toid May Okon, author of "She Still Gets Stage Fright," published in the Sunday News in New York on September 8, 1957. Ella went on: "What greater honors could come to a gal like me than being invited to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Monte Carlo Gala, as I was this year— and having an Ella Fitzgerald night at the Hollywood Bowl (with Duke Ellington's band) as I did last July 20th?"

Ella Fitzgerald had been winning top honors in the music polls for twenty years by then, beginning with first place as a vocalist in the first Down Beat magazine poll in 1937. The next year, 1938, she had her first million-record seller, "A Tisket, a Tasket." Although her career went through ups and downs in the 1940s, she was still referred to as "The First Lady of Song" in several places that decade and in a headline in the New York Times by 1951. In the mid-1950s her career took a mighty upward swing. By 1953 she had firmly secured the management of jazz impresario Norman Granz, founder of Jazz at the Philharmonic. He had at first ignored her, considering her to be a pop singer, not a jazz artist, but he revised his opinion, and his eventual alert attention to details of her bookings, her public image, and her private problems and his decision to have her record collections — songbooks — of the country's greatest popular composers beginning in 1956 made her a superstar.

But the hefty singer, who was about one hundred pounds overweight for most of her adult life and who shook visibly and twined her fingers round and round self-consciously when she performed at Royal Albert Hall in London as late as 1954, never really learned to take her stardom and prestige completely for granted. Sometimes she mentioned a nightmarish incident that had happened when she was sixteen years old. She had been competing in an amateur show in Harlem, when she and her accompanist went in different musical directions. The pianist played the wrong chords. Ella started singing out of tune and then fled the stage, while the audience booed and hooted. She always referred to the incident as if it had happened the day before.

Every reporter who met Ella noticed immediately how unprepossessing and innocent she seemed. She asked other celebrities for their autographs—and then wondered if they minded. She marveled when anyone wanted her autograph or when a head waiter picked up a check in a restaurant for her.
She was so shy and complex that it was the rare writer who obtained permission to interview her.

One night in 1954 backstage at Basin Street East, a jazz club where she was performing in New York, she told New York Post columnist Murray Kempton: "The other night I was so nervous. This is home. If you flop at home, where do you go after that? Then Benny Goodman came in. You know, with a musician, he will notice something. And Benny is not the kind to come back and say 'Gee Sis, you were crazy' when you know you weren't. And I was hoarse that night." Kempton mumbled that, of course, Benny Goodman wouldn't have noticed. "I don't know," Ella said. "He didn't come back to the dressing room afterward."

Kempton called the resulting column simply "She," describing her as a kid though she was nearly forty and celebrating her nineteenth year in the entertainment field though she had been singing professionally since her teens. "She stands with those great arms, that self-deprecating smile, severely frontal in the Byzantine fashion, the mother, the little sister . . . the hope of us all ... a cultural force, a permanent tradition, a great river. ..."

At this time Norman Granz was taking over the helm of Ella's career. Granz had been wanting to sign Ella exclusively to Verve for a long time. He finally acquired the leverage when Decca wanted to release an album including artists under Granz's authority; Granz agreed to let Decca use those artists if Decca would release Ella from her contract before it ran out. Decca did it. Ella signed with Granz in December 1955, and she was poised on the threshold of a great surge forward in her career.

Kempton's article appeared during one of Ella's engagements at Basin Street East in 1954. Gathered to salute Ella were representatives of leading European jazz magazines including Jazz Hot of France and Musica Jazz of Italy; Ella's fellow singers Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, and Harry Belafonte; trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie; and other stars from Broadway, broadcasting, jazz, and the record industry. Congratulatory telegrams and cablegrams poured in from around the world. Ella received eighteen awards plus a plaque from Decca Records in honor of her 22 million dollars in record sales. Still in her future were the extraordinary years with Verve.

Ella went on to even greater acclaim. She won thirteen Grammys — the most for any jazz singer — and had one of the longest recording careers in history. Among her few rivals were Frank Sinatra and bandleader Benny Carter. She placed first in the critics' and readers' popularity polls of music magazines more often than any other singer. She even won a Grammy for a recording in 1990, when she was seventy-two years old, and her voice quavered, her vibrato quaked, her intonation wobbled uncertainly, and her once peerless sense of time wavered. She won in part because her name was still magical for the judges; no other female jazz singer had ever achieved her international fame. Most pop and jazz singers always say the greatest influences in their lives have been Ella and Louis Armstrong. Even Billie Holiday usually ranks after them.

The people who compile encyclopedias of the most important women and African-American women always select for inclusion Ella, and only Ella, among all the great jazz singers. In 1991 she ranked among the most notable African-American women in a book of that name. In 1993, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia featured her as the "First Lady of Jazz." In the section called "The Visual Arts" in the book Women of Achievement: Thirty-five Centuries of History, Ella shows up in the niche between the legendary, inspirational Italian actress Eleonora Duse and Britain's prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. If it is at least in part true that people are known by the company they keep, then Ella Fitzgerald achieved recognition as an uncontested immortal. In 1996 she was chosen for a profile in the December 19 magazine section of the New York Times, which saluted the great people who had died that year.

Yet less was known about her than any other jazz singer. Few celebrities in any part of the entertainment world had more misinformation written about their private lives than Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps only Thelonious Monk among all the jazz stars seemed as cloaked in mystery as Ella.

In the early years of her career, with her successful 1938 recording of "A Tisket, A Tasket" (three years after her first recording, "Love and Kisses," with bandleader Chick Webb), jazz criticism was a young art. Reporters assigned to write about her tended to poke fun at her and portray her as lacking in intellect. She was overweight, homely, girlishly ebullient, and Negro — all attributes that tended to make her fair game in those days for a writer looking for a way to write a flashily entertaining story. Nobody probed to find out anything definitive or accurate about the childhood struggles of the young woman. Nobody realized that her hardships had forged her character as a loner and thoroughly committed musician in a brilliant and original American art form. Nobody seemed to realize that as a singer she was a genius, and certainly nobody predicted she would develop into a virtual flag of American popular music. Even critic and contributor to Metronome magazine George T. Simon, who recognized her as a talented singer and wrote an item about Ella when he first heard her with Chick Webb's band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1930s, said he could never have foretold how great she would become.

Undoubtedly her feelings were hurt by the slights of the 1930s and early 1940s, when reporters depicted her as simple and childlike. They had no idea she had spent some no-doubt terrifying days as a street urchin and that her first marriage and her early romances (and some of her later affairs, too, according to rumor) were with slick hustlers. Her second marriage, to bassist Ray Brown, would last little more than five years, ending in divorce in August 1953; but that alliance was a casualty of their careers and does not reflect on their fine characters.

In 1949, Ebony magazine featured her as a star to be reckoned with. Little, however, was written about her private life. Her family history remained shadowy, for Ella divulged little, and what she did reveal, she tinkered with to make the facts more palatable to herself. Her manager, Norman Granz, and his staff, colleagues, and friends tended to shield Ella from interviews. Leonard Feather, whose career as an eminent jazz critic developed as Ella matured into a legendary singer, became her friend; to the degree that any writer established an intimate relationship with her, he was one of the few writers granted the opportunity to write about her with information gleaned in personal interviews. Even Edward R. Murrow, visiting Ella in her home in Los Angeles for his popular CBS show "Person to Person," discovered very little about her life behind the scenes. She had a niece and nephew with her on that show, but their names were not revealed, and neither was the identity of their mother, Ella's half sister, Frances, with whom, until Frances's death in the 1960s, Ella remained close and enjoyed, in the words of Stuart Nicholson, "one of the few enduring relationships" of her life.

Neither Ella nor Norman Granz ever published her memoirs or biography. They seemed to shy away from the very idea of a book or even articles about her life, although Ella once said she had thought about a book. But one day when a writer happened by chance to get Ella on the telephone at her house, she said in a shrill voice, "Call the office," and hung up fast.
When Ella was old and ill, a few tentatively probing articles and book-
length biographies were written about her — without her cooperation. For most of her life, the best information came from a handful of critics who knew her fairly well or from musicians who observed her closely when they traveled with her.

Another reason for the lack of books about Ella was that her life lacked controversy, or anyway publicized controversy. It was actually a rather dull life compared with the lives, times, and antics of such stars as Frank Sinatra or Sarah Vaughan or Miles Davis or Rosemary Clooney. Ella never hit a photographer — well, not hard anyway, and not until her later years. And she never had a true nervous breakdown, although she did begin suffering from exhaustion in middle age, when she sometimes sang different concerts in two different cities on the same day. American publishers gauged correctly that the public would never make a run on the bookstores to buy the story of Ella Fitzgerald's life.

Not until Stuart Nicholson published his Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz in 1994 — the first major biography of Ella — did some of the folklore swaddling and obfuscating the facts of Ella's life begin to evaporate. Nicholson included so much documented factual material about her childhood, plus a wonderful discography by jazz historian Phil Schaap, that the book currently stands as the most authoritative biography about her. Nicholson's book is, for the most part, used as a criterion for accuracy, and virtually everything written about Ella before it appeared must be revised.

Ella told columnist Earl Wilson that she had been in the second year of high school — not A.W.O.L. from an orphanage — at the time that bandleader Chick Webb hired her, and Wilson let her claim go at that. About sixty-five years later, Nicholson's biography would reveal that she had been such a truant in high school that the authorities had plucked her out of her aunt's apartment in Harlem and sent her to an orphanage, from which she was indeed A.W.O.L. when she met Chick Webb. She was living by her wits, running numbers, dancing and singing for pennies in the streets of Harlem, wearing rags and men's shoes, and avoiding going back to her aunt's house because she was afraid the authorities might find her and ship her back to the hated "orphanage." And it becomes clear that so much misinformation dogged Ella's footsteps throughout her career because she purposely avoided telling people what really had happened. Perhaps she instinctively understood the old maxim popularized by the legendary African-American baseball player Satchell Paige: "Don't look back, your past may be gaining on you."

She continued to work into her seventies, even though she couldn't see
or walk very well, being beset by myriad illnesses. Some people thought she was a pitiful sight, hobbling onto stages, but the majority viewed her as an American heroine. Why did she keep going? As Jimmy Rowles, a pianist and accompanist who worked with her regularly for a while, told me, "I don't know what she would do without music. When she walks down the street, she trails notes." Rowles also recalled amusing tales about the way she concentrated on her repertoire and found new songs to sing wherever she went, even when she was traveling on airplanes. She always kept her road manager, Pete Cavallo, hopping to find sheet music.

Now that Ella has died, and because she was so close-mouthed, it seems unlikely that some details will ever come to light. But it's possible to speculate that Ella sang, with such joyousness in her sound and style, in part because, by singing, she could tame the memories of her early hardships and keep them at bay. The attitude she took in her singing made her a whole person and enriched the rest of us.

Murray Kempton aptly provides the keynote for this book. His writing reflects the reverence that Americans felt for Ella. The much-esteemed journalist and interpreter and commentator on American politics and culture, Kempton had been assigned to Rome, where he had been disturbed by encounters with some American tourists and by their peculiar values and lack of appreciation — or perhaps simply their innocence — of art and culture. Ella Fitzgerald saved the day for him. And so he wrote about her in "The Americans" in the New York Post on June 25, 1959:

. . . And yet there is an America to which I shall come home and I am grateful for the hope and memory of it to Ella Fitzgerald. She was here this spring . . .

She sang the cruel and demanding bop songs, and those survivals of the '20s, the most sophisticated work in the book, which she has made her special province. And then, unconscious of trying something more, absolutely unaffected, she put her hands together and sang Bess's part of the "You Is My Woman Now" duet from Porgy, which before I had always thought was a man's song.

It is, of course, the song of a loser, or a chippie, who has begun to feel the wonder of possible redemption, the tender of a second chance. I could not believe then that anything Violetta sings in Traviata is any wiser and more beautiful; after two months I do not believe it yet.

The lights were of the careless sort one expects at jazz concerts. She lowered her head and barely spoke these lines, and her face between speech and silence had those harsh lights on it; and there was a sudden
alteration of all ideas of a peace and beauty. That is the face of America. Grant Wood is already only quaint—a withered newspaper photograph— because he never saw that face. If we had a blessed Angelico, that is the face from which he would have worked. She was a child from the colored schools of Newport News when Chick Webb took her on to sing swing songs; she has no education except what she got there, as cruel a school as Palermo; she has never had a coach except her own interior.

Most of the literature about Ella Fitzgerald consists of reviews and previews of her performances. This book reprints a portion of those pieces and also includes those rarer pieces that address Ella's personal life and views. Sometimes the "facts" about her early life vary from piece to piece. It is my hope that this collection of articles in which she talked freely to her interviewers face-to-face will bring Ella vividly to life for the reader.

[Although I doubt that it was available to Leslie’s book due to the timing of its writing, I would also recommend to you that no overview of the literature on Ella Fitzgerald would be complete without the inclusion of Gene Lees’ “The Sweetest Voice in the World: Ella Fitzgerald “ which appears in his compilation - there’s that word again - entitled The Singers and The Song.

Should you find yourself with some spare time on your hands during the 100th anniversary of the year of the birth Ella Fitzgerald, you couldn’t do better than spending some of it by listening to Ella’s Songbooks [most of which are available on YouTube] and reviewing the wonderful selections about her life and music lovingly as compiled by Leslie Gourse in her wonderful tribute to “The First Lady of Song” - The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Gerald Wilson - Then and Now - [1918-2014]

© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"The story of West Coast big bands from the 1950s, especially those featuring black leaders, was largely one of neglect. …

Despite the excellence of his earlier ensembles, [Gerald] Wilson’s recording career was, except for a few brief interludes, deferred until the 1960s.”

 – Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960

The “Then and Now” subtitle for this JazzProfiles feature of 91-year old Gerald Wilson is correct, even though the more accustomed phrase is "Now and Then." Explanation to follow.

Thanks to the very same high school trumpet playing friend who dragged me all over Hollywood and the Sunset Strip [The Summit, The Sundown Club and The Seville] in the late 1950’s to hear what has since become know as the Terry Gibbs Dream Band, I also got to hear the 1960’s version of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra that recorded for Pacific Jazz during that period.

Only this time around we were students in college and the venues had changed to Shelly’s Manne Hole, The Memory Lane Supper Club, a Local 47 Musicians Union Picnic for members and their families [we were both card carrying members of that AFL-CIO affiliate] and Marty’s on the Hill on Slausen Avenue in Los Angeles.

In those days, my buddy worked at the Benge Trumpet Factory on Victory Blvd. in Burbank, CA and many of the Hollywood studio and West Coast Jazz players had a preference for Elden Benge’s exquisitely crafted trumpets.
As a result, my friend got to meet the likes of Al Porcino, Ray Triscari, John Audino, Stu Williamson and Frank Huggins, all of whom became his heroes and all of whom played Benge trumpets at one time or another as members of Terry Gibbs’ big band; hence the reason for of weekly “pilgrimages” to hear them perform.

In the 1960s, the group of Benge playing trumpeters was broadened to include Jimmy Zito and Jules Chaikin and they along with Al Porcino and Ray Triscari formed Gerald Wilson’s trumpet section [usually with either Freddie Hill and/or Carmel Jones in the Jazz solo chair] of Gerald’s Orchestra; hence the reason for the musical equivalent of a “new place of worship.”

There were no Jazz classes in those days; no university Jazz curriculums; no band camps; no instructional videos; no Master classes: if you wanted to learn how to play Jazz at the highest level, you practiced every day, listen to records and then went to the clubs and the concerts to observe and listen to how the pros did it.

Before I heard him perform with Buddy Collette’s quintet at Jazz City in 1958-59, I had no idea who Gerald Wilson was. After listening to him play for the first time, I thought he was a Jazz trumpet player with a modest tone who meshed nicely with Buddy’s alto sax and flute. Buddy’s quintet at that time also included Al Viola on guitar, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass and Earl Palmer on drums.
That was my first “Then” experience with Mr. Wilson. It was soon to be followed by my first “Now” occurrence as he seemed to come-out-of-nowhere to lead a roaring big band that issued 8 LPs on the Pacific Jazz label in the 8 years from 1961-1969!

How could it happen that a musician with the unpretentious abilities I had heard Mr. Wilson display as a trumpet player with Buddy Collette transform himself into the principal arranger and composer of one of the most striking sounding big band that I have ever heard – then or now!?

And this “Then and Now” cycle has been a part of my travels with Mr. Wilson’s music ever since as I’ve worked my way backward and forward with the music that he has made, and continues to make, over his long and distinguished career.

It boggles the mind to think that it has been 70 years since Mr. Wilson joined the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939 as a trumpet soloist and an arranger. Having been born in Shelby, Mississippi on September 4, 1918, Mr. Wilson was only 21 years old at the time that he took on these awesome responsibilities with one of the top big bands in the country.
As Mr. Wilson recalls: “When I got a chance to join them, 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.”Aside from the unbridled confidence of youth, the reason for this self-assurance was that Mr. Wilson knew from an early that he was going to be a musician. As a result of this awareness, while living in Detroit, he studied harmony and orchestration at Cass Tech in addition to working on his trumpet chops. So when the call came to become a member of the Lunceford band, he was ready, much to the amazement of all concerned.

In his own, non-ostentatious way, Mr. Wilson has never ceased to amaze ever since.
The reason for my unawareness of Mr. Wilson’s substantial, earlier career in Jazz until I “discovered” him in the late 1950s and 1960s on the Los Angeles Jazz scene could be chalked up to my overall youthful naiveté coupled with my relative newness to Jazz.

And yet, I wasn’t the only Jazz fan who thought that after Mr. Wilson left the Lunceford band in 1942 that he toiled in relative obscurity until his Jazz career was re-launched thanks largely to the records of his 1960s big band that Richard Bock at Pacific Jazz put out.
In looking back to the “then” portion of Mr. Wilson’s musical journey from when he left Lunceford to the re-formation of the 1960s version of his orchestra, Mr. Wilson was hard at work on the vibrant Los Angeles Jazz scene. He also led a band in San Francisco during this period as well as touring with and writing for a number of famous Jazz performers including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Billie Holiday.Thankfully this hitherto obscure period in Mr. Wilson’s career is richly detailed in an Oral History Project under the supervision of Steve Iosardi and UCLA. The project has been published under the title of Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998] and the book is authored collectively by the project’s principal interviewees, including Mr. Wilson.The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought that reading Mr. Wilson’s description of what it was like to be a part of the Jazz World in Los Angeles during and after the 2nd World War would provide a unique look at a time in the history of Jazz that would never come again.It also provides a captivating look at the vibrant musical world that Mr. Wilson created for himself and how what blossomed in his music in the 1960s when I first really became aware of it is really a natural extension of his continued growth and development that has made him one of the Giants of Jazz.

Part 2 of the piece will begin with a retrospective of Mr. Wilson’s career by the imminent Jazz writer – Doug Ramsey – and then follow with an in-depth look at the more significant recordings in his discography.

© Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Gerald Wilson
“Trumpeter, composer, arranger, and educator, Gerald Wilson has been at the top of his profession since joining the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939 at the age of twenty. He has performed with and written for most of the top bands, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington, as well as Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, and Billie Holiday. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra has been a mainstay for decades and is still performing and recording.

Gerald's talent for composing and arranging has taken him beyond the jazz field. He has written and scored for films and TV shows. His compositions have also been performed by the Los Angeles, Israel, and New York Philharmonics.

A long-time educator, Gerald has been a faculty member at several southern California universities. He is currently on the faculty at UCLA, where he teaches a course on the history of jazz. He has also been a musician in residence at colleges and universities throughout the country. Of the many awards that have come his way, one of the more recent is a National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Masters Fellowship.

Gerald was born in Shelby, Mississippi, on September 4, 1918. His mother, Lillian Wilson, was a schoolteacher at the Shelby Grammar School a position she held for some forty years.”

“My mother was educated and she graduated from Jackson College, which is now Jackson State University. She was also a musician. She played piano. She taught some of the early classes in music in Shelby. And then she also played in the church. So I got my beginning in music with my mother, who started all of us. The Wilson kids, my brother [Shelby James Wilson] and sister [Mildred Wilson] - we all got a start in music very young. So being around music all my life, it was easy for me to pick up on it and begin to like it.

My sister was a fine classical pianist. I had already heard her play compositions by Mendelssohn, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Beethoven. In my early days I knew of these composers, besides being interested in the music of the day, which was jazz coming out of New Orleans. When I was a child around five or six, I was already hearing Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and Papa Celestin. Before I left Shelby I already knew of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines and Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford. I was already listening to jazz before I left Mississippi.

I left Mississippi at the end of the eighth grade because there was no other place to go there. So I went to Memphis. I attended Manassas High School, where Jimmie Lunceford had once been a teacher. I started trumpet lessons there with Mr. Love, who was one of the pioneer music teachers of Memphis. But I had started playing trumpet before I left Shelby, only because it was a shiny instrument, I guess. I really should have stayed on the piano. It is the master instrument to my mind, because it has everything there.

Then my mother arranged for me to study in Detroit-had friends there from Shelby. When I started attending school in Detroit in 1934, mostly all of the schools were integrated. And besides, they had such a great music department where I attended, Cass Technical High School, which is one of the greatest music schools in the world even to this day. So I enrolled there, and I stayed in Detroit for five years, where I studied.

I played in the area with different orchestras and different musicians. I learned so much playing with members of McKinney's Cotton Pickers, members of bands that had been led by Don Redman and Benny Carter. And many of the fine bands they had in Detroit: Stutz Sanderson's band, Gloster Current, Harold Green, Bob Perkins-these were all bands that were very musical. It was a place to really learn about music.

Gerald remained in Detroit for five years, until 1939, when a wire arrived from Jimmie Lunceford, the leader of perhaps the most popular black band in the country. Sy Oliver - Lunceford's long-time arranger, composer, and trumpeter - had left to join Tommy Dorsey, and Gerald was asked to take his place.

Jimmie Lunceford had been to our school, Cass Tech, to hear our jazz band, and he had met me there. However, I had people in the band that knew me because I used to hang around the band every time they would come to Detroit, which would be two or three times a year. Sy would sit me up on the bandstand beside him at the Graystone, just let me sit there. I knew Eddie Tomkins and Paul Webster and Willie Smith and Joe Thomas, Earl Carruthers, Dan Grissom.

I received a wire asking me if I would like to join the Jimmie Lunceford band. I said yes. I just went down the next morning, picked up my ticket, some money, on the train, and I went to New York. Then, from that time on, I was on top because they were on top. They were not a struggling band. They were on the very top. June Of 1939. They were at the height of their fame. But the Lunceford band went higher after Snooky Young and I joined the band. He came six months after I did. We stayed there almost three years.

We made the film Blues in the Night here in Los Angeles for Warner Brothers in 1941. We played the Casa Mañana in 1940, the Paramount downtown, the Shrine Auditorium, where they had so many people they had to stop the dance. We were the biggest draw in the United States at that time, the Jimmie Lunceford band.

I was twenty-one years old. But you must remember, we were coming up at a different time. I was coming up out of Cass Tech. I could already read music, I could already write music. I was already into the modern things going around at that time in jazz because I was an aficionado besides. I had already met Dizzy Gillespie in 1938. 1 already knew Lester Young and Count Basie. So this gives you an idea of what we had to draw on as young musicians. You're right there with people that are doing it, and they're doing the very best.

The Jimmie Lunceford band, besides being an outstanding musical organization, had everything else. They had made it to the top. They knew what the top was supposed to be. Our costumes would take half of this room we're sitting in here to hold them. If we did seven shows, we changed seven times, from top to bottom. So you can see what kind of an organization the Jimmie Lunceford band was. But they were strictly on their music. They were a tough band to reckon with. You had to be really tough to get past us. [laughter] Yes. We would really tell you the real deal. You can go and listen to our records now. That proves it. Go and listen to their records today, and you will see how far ahead they were at any time during that period. The first number that they recorded of mine, "Yard Dog Mazurka," is just as vibrant today as it was then, and just as modern. You can see how far ahead I was.

My harmonic techniques at that time were very far ahead. When I left Detroit from Cass Tech, they were barely into four-part harmony. I'm still the only person that's very deep into eight-part harmony. I'm an orchestrator and an arranger and composer. That's my business. Of course, I'm one of the innovators of that. Much of my stuff you have to use if you're in modern music. If you're in orchestral music, you must use some of my inventions. Colleges don't even know what we're talking about here. They have an idea of what we're talking about, but they don't really know. I know all of the people that teach at colleges. We know what they do. They're not out here, they're not competing in the world. We know how much they know.

My band today is far ahead. I don't have just a band. I have an orchestra, really. A band is a commercial business. I'm not in it for the commercial business. I'm a musician. The music is what is important to me. That is my central drive. That is really what it's all about with me. I know that I have one of the greatest bands in the world. I don't know anybody in jazz today that would want to come up against me in writing. If he does, he's a strong man, and he's got a tough row to hoe. [laughter] And I don't know any you can find out there who will tell you that he wants to go up against me. And if you do, tell him to come on. [laughter] But that's not for an egotistical purpose. That is what I have done. I have studied all my life. I'm still studying.

Seduced by Sunshine
In February Of 1940 1 came to Los Angeles with the Jimmie Lunceford band. We had just finished playing a week at the Regal in Chicago, and we boarded the train there. By the way, it was like eighteen degrees above when we left. We had a Pullman and everything. Big-time band. I'll never forget that day in February. As I looked out the window of my bunk in the sleeper, I see this beautiful sunshine. We were somewhere like San Bernardino. And I said, "Well, this is going to be the place for me." [laughter] And when I got to Los Angeles and I saw how pretty it was, I said, "This will be my home." I was very impressed with Los Angeles. I made up my mind that day that I was going to live in Los Angeles.

I got off the train there at Union Station. They had a parade for us. This is how big we were. They had a parade from the station to the Dunbar Hotel, where we were going. to stay. Snooky Young and I, we didn't follow along with the parade. We were just milling around at the station and looking around. The parade was moving on, and there was this white guy who came up to us and said, "Are you guys with the Jimmie Lunceford band?" We said, "Yeah. We play with the Lunceford band." He introduced himself. "My name is Carlos Gastel." He managed Stan Kenton, he managed Benny Carter, he managed Nat King Cole. Later. Right then, he was just booking some little dances, so he had been the booker for us at a dance at the Glendale Civic Auditorium. So he was just looking for some guys in the Lunceford band to talk to. He had missed Jimmie, but he offered to drive us to the hotel, which he did. He drove us up Central Avenue to the Dunbar Hotel, where we registered. That was my first day in Los Angeles.

Central Avenue. I didn't think about it as anything so special other than the fact that it's where I can stay. It's the only place I can sleep. [laughter] Having been everywhere in the United States, I had seen all the black streets. Central Avenue is like Saint Antoine in Detroit or like South Park in Chicago or like 125th Street in New York or like Central in Cleveland. So at that time I didn't realize what it would mean to me later. Los Angeles would become my home, and Central Avenue would become an integral part of me.

The Dunbar was a very fine hotel, coffee shop, bar, dining room. The rooms were impeccable. The Nelson's, who owned it and ran it, saw to it that you had to be right on top of everything. You couldn't come in there with a lot of loud behavior. So it was a place of class. I enjoyed staying there. And it was near everything. It was right in the center. A couple of doors down was the Alabam; a couple of doors from that was the Downbeat; across the street was the Last Word; over here on the other side was the Memo; the Five and Ten was there; down a few blocks, Dynamite Jackson's; the Lincoln Theatre was up a few blocks. All of these places - the Elks. This is all Central Avenue. This was our place to go.

The first job we played was the Civic Auditorium in Glendale. Our next date was at the Shrine Auditorium down on Jefferson. Packed and jammed. Couldn't get in, there were so many people. And then we played a return engagement there before we left. But then we played the Paramount Theatre downtown for a week. We even went to the Casa Mafiana out in Culver City, where we played for six weeks. That was located on Washington Boulevard right out near the Helms Bakery. It was the old Sebastian's Cotton Club and was a big place. It would hold about, oh, I'd say fifteen hundred or two thousand. Then we'd stay here while we'd play San Diego. And we may go to Bakersfield, Fresno-because we'd play everywhere.

During this first trip, I went into the Alabam. It was a beat-up club. I said, "Why would anybody want to come in here, anyway?" [laughter] And I went in. But I heard some fine musicians that night. I went in and I heard Marshal Royal, his brother Ernie Royal, Lloyd Reese. Reese was playing trumpet and alto sax. [laughter] He was playing both of them and was recognized as being one of the finest musicians around the country. They were all playing with Cee Pee Johnson's band.

They had little groups playing at different clubs. Lorenzo Flennoy and his trio. A lot of trios around. Lee Young, Lester's brother. They had their group. They were working with Billie Holiday at the Trouville, which was in Hollywood. The Memo Club-they'd have some kind of maybe a piano player, a trio, a duo, or something like that. That was across the street from the Dunbar, like catty-corner. Lovejoy had a place where they used to have jam sessions. Upstairs place on Vernon Avenue and Central. All the guys would go there to jam-Art Tatum, the heavies. Duke's band came in town while we were here one time. I saw Jimmy Blanton, and he was up there jamming.

There were bands around Los Angeles. There was George Brown's band, Phil Carreon, and other groups that were playing at different clubs around. Of course, Red Callender-he was very popular at that time. He was a fine bass player. He was playing with Lee Young's group, Lester Young had joined them, and they were playing with Billie Holiday out at the Trouville.

So it was a lot of musical things going on during that period. Benny Carter was in town with a band. Les Hite had a band. Lionel Hampton formed his band in '40. I think it was '40. We were all talking down in front of the Dunbar there with Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ray Perry - this kid with Chick Carter's band. Dexter was very young. He was just joining Lionel's band.

We played our first engagement here in 1940. We came back again during the early part Of 1941. And this time, I believe we played the Orpheum Theatre. We made a movie for Warner Brothers, Blues in the Night. We were in that movie with Lloyd Nolan, Richard Whorf, Rosemary Lane, and Elia Kazan. We played the Casa Manana, because that's where Ray Heindorf, who was one of the music directors at Warner Brothers, used to come to see us every night.

I left the Lunceford band in April 1942. It was the time of World War II. I was 1-A, and I knew I was going to be called soon. I wanted to spend a little time kind of relaxed. I'd been with him a long time and needed a little time to kind of get ready for the service. And that's what I did. I came here.

But I didn't go for a while, so I went with Les Hite. I stayed with him for about six months. We played a long engagement at the Wilshire Bowl, which had become the Louisiana Club. The Wilshire Bowl was a fine nightclub that changed its name in the early forties to the Louisiana Club. It was on Wilshire near the Miracle Mile. But the Miracle Mile was nothing but open space in there. We played there for like two or three months. Every night. Big show. Big, big, big chorus line, big acts, big-time acts. All white acts, like the Rio Brothers and different kinds of singers. They had a black band, though; we were the black band. Mingus played with us there. And then Snooky was in the band. He joined Les Hite, too. He moved out to the coast, and he moved in.

Les Hite was always recognized as having a good band. He had good music. I did a lot of writing for him while I was in his band, and Gil Fuller did a lot of arrangements for him. He had been successful, and he knew how to front a band. And he was very popular. We toured, we played all up the coast here. Finally, he just gave it up. After all those years, he probably just really got tired of it.

And then we went with Benny Carter. Our whole trumpet section from that band, we just went into Benny's band one night. We were tough. In fact, those four trumpets-we also went out and played the music for the special dance that the black dancers did in This Is the Army with this huge orchestra, Warner Brothers orchestra. And the four trumpet players were black: it was Snooky Young, myself, a fellow named Jack Trainor, and another kid named Walter Williams. We were the only trumpets in the band. But we guaranteed that we could play anything. [laughter] We could play anything you had between the four of us. We handled it all. So we went into Benny's band one night. And from that night on, his band was lifted from here to here. Do you understand what I'm saying? From here to here. [laughter]

J. J. Johnson was in the band. They had Teddy Brannon and Bumps Myers. Oh, he had some good guys. He had Shorty Horton, J. J., "Big" Matthews, trombone. These were guys right out of New York. That was the trombone section. And he had Kurk Bradford. We had taken him from Les Hite's band.

We went on back up the coast with Benny. Then we were playing at Hermosa Beach, a place called Zucca's Terrace. It was right in front of the Lighthouse. Upstairs. Benny played out there a couple of weeks, I think. I was drafted, inducted, while I was there. I was inducted into the navy. It would have been probably June of 1943. June, maybe July. In fact, some of the guys in the band took me to the induction center down on Main Street. I thought I was going to be rejected, but they took me. [laughter]

Anyway, I was off to the navy, which was a fine experience, by the way. I was lucky. I got in the ship's company band at Great Lakes. It's just about, I'd say, thirty-five or forty miles from Chicago. We were very privileged people. We lived in Chicago. Come at eight in the morning and leave at four in the evening unless you were performing that night. And then whenever you finished, you could go. In fact, I never slept another night on the base after I got out of boot camp.

My friend Willie Smith from the Lunceford band was there. Clark Terry was there. It was a band of fine musicians, so it was a great experience. It was good for me because it was another chance to just study and do music, because we did music all day. That was it. We played for things: graduation, we played for happy hours, we played for colors. Then we had our jazz band. And we broadcast every week, every Saturday night, over CBS, so it kept us busy. A lot of writing. We had some fine writers there: Dudley Brooks, who was from Los Angeles, a great writer. He
worked out at MGM, many of the studios. He was a fine pianist. He also did a lot of work with Elvis Presley.

So it really was a fine time at Great Lakes, because all I had to do was write and play. It gave me a great chance to study, experiment all of the experiments you wanted because we had like five trumpets in the band, five trombones, French horn, six reeds. That's the jazz band I'm talking about. Of course, our marching band was very large, and we did everything. They had handpicked all of the musicians.

But anyway, I only spent a year in the navy. I had a very bad sinus infection, so I had a medical discharge.

Then I came back to L.A. Oh, that was about July or August of 1944. When I got back, Central was getting into full swing. The Lincoln Theatre - they were starting to have stage shows every week. Before it was mostly movies. They had a pit band, they had acts, chorus girls, and they would change the shows every week. They had some great performers there like Pigmeat Markham, Bardu Ali. Bardu was the leader of the band, too. By the way, let me tell you some people that were playing in that band. Charles Brown, the great blues singer. He played piano. Yeah, he's a fine piano player. And Melba Liston was playing trombone in the band. She was very young. About sixteen or seventeen. Floyd Turnham, fine alto player that had been with Les Hite.

Bardu, he was a performer. He was like a straight man, and he would direct the band. He had been in New York, and he did the same thing in New York. He had a brother, also, who was in show business. He was a dancer. They used to call him the Beachcomber. And that was his deal. He was a showman.

The Alabam was now really looking good, had been remodeled. Curtis Mosby had it. Curtis was a nice man. He had been in the business. You know, he was a musician and had a band. And he had fixed the club up real nice. They were having regular shows in there. The Downbeat was coming on the scene. Across the street, the Last Word was happening then. In all, there were a lot of things going on now on Central Avenue and things were looking good. They were really looking good. You could tell that things were in good shape, because you could tell by how the clubs looked-real nice clubs, nice acts playing in the club, nice groups.

I played in the Downbeat with Lee Young during that period, Lee Young and one of the Woodman brothers. We called him Brother Woodman. He's the one that plays sax and the trumpet. And Joe Liggins was the piano player, and I was the trumpet player. In fact, we were the first people to do "The Honeydripper." Joe Liggins wanted us to do his number, "The Honeydripper," which later became a nationwide hit.

So Central was looking real good. The Dunbar was still nice. All the bands still came there. Duke and Count, Jimmie Lunceford. Joe Morris owned the Plantation. Oh, a beautiful club. Large place. They'd have shows, acts. I finished out an engagement with Billie Holiday with my band, which was a little later on. It was in '45. And Shepp's Playhouse was not on Central, but it was on First and Los Angeles, where the New Otani Hotel is. I played more than one engagement there.

From the Plantation to the Apollo

I organized my band in October of 1944. I was not really ready yet to form my band, but the opportunity came. Actually, I was going to join a band. I did a lot of work during that period with Phil Moore as trumpet player. I made many recordings with Phil on his own records. And he was also Lena Horne's musical accompanist and director, and I did all of her dates with Phil. He worked at MGM all the time. He did work for Nathaniel Schildkret. It's like ghostwriting. I've never seen his name on the screen. They did him really a bad deal. I kicked because they didn't put my name in Where the Boys Are and the other movies that I scored for. I kicked. That was even in the late fifties. But this guy was already writing music for MGM and other studios, too. Not only him - Calvin Jackson wrote many scores at MGM, many. I'm not speaking like one or two or three. I'm talking like ten or fifteen. Heavy, heavy scores, you know.

So I was very busy when I first got back from the navy. But, as I said, the opportunity came for me to get my band. From the time that I was ten years old, I knew that I was going to be a bandleader. I knew that. And I knew that I was going to be a bandleader that wrote music for my band to play, because I was already a great admirer of Duke Ellington. And listening to their records and listening to them on the radio, I knew that I was going to be a bandleader and I was going to be an orchestrator, an arranger, composer.

So my opportunity came, and I didn't let it pass. Herb Jeffries wanted to have a band, so he asked me to form his band. And I did. And things were going so good for Herb, I guess, that at that time he really didn't have time to be fronting a band. So there I was with the band. So Leonard Reed, who was the producer at Shepp's Playhouse, booked us in there. So that's how I got started with the band.
It was very good, because we broadcast two or three times a week over the radio. Had a fine show there. They had chorus girls and acts. And they had a lounge there, too, which was downstairs. It was like a bar. And Eddie Heywood's band was there while we were there, the band that had such great success with "Begin the Beguine," which was a big hit record for him and his band. That was in 1945. And we also played the Orpheum Theatre that year together, Eddie Heywood and I. We played a lot of things, a lot of dances and club dates over at the Elks Auditorium, which is on Central Avenue.

Now, my band, we were all from California. We had some fine players. We had Melba Liston; Jimmy Bunn was on piano, a fine young artist; Henry Green, who later became the mainstay drummer with the Treniers. We had some fine trumpeters: Snooky Young came with my band; we had Jack Trainor, who had been with Hite's band and Benny Carter's band. So we really had a fine band.

Melba was a fine trombone player. She was such a good trombone player, she could play it all. She could play lead, she could play solos, too-usually play it better than the guys. She joined my band in 1944, so she was maybe about seventeen. She was with my band when it disbanded, and she was with all of my other bands at that time. Really a fine musician. Still a fine musician. She's one of the finest writers that I've ever heard. In fact, I recorded a couple of her arrangements in 1945. I had another girl in my band too. Her name was Vivian Fears. She was a fine pianist. I had picked her up in Chicago. She had been playing with Fletcher Henderson's band. She was from Saint Louis. Another fine pianist, played real great jazz.

I played at the Plantation, which was on Central but way out in Watts. It was a large place with a lot of tables and chairs and a dance floor. It attracted big crowds, all different kinds of people, but you must remember that the bulk of the people that came there were black. And all the big bands played there: Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine. Billie Holiday sang there - I played there with Billie Holiday. I finished out the engagement she had there when Billy Eckstine left. As I say, it was a very, very nice place, a very nice place. Joe Morris owned it.

And also I played with my big band at the Downbeat club. I was the first big band to ever play in the Downbeat. I think it was owned by Hal Stanley, whom I knew very well, and Elihu McGhee. Now, Hal Stanley was also at one time managing Kay Starr. Hal was managing Kay when I worked at the Casbah Supper Club as a trumpet player with Benny Carter.

The Downbeat was a small club. I'd say it would maybe seat 125 people. As you walk in, to your left there's this fine bar. You'd walk around, and you could stand at the end. Because I remember when I played there, Art Tatum used to come in every night and stand right over there to hear my band. He loved my band. He would come in every night. He wanted me to play some of my numbers that at that time were considered to be far ahead, because I was already using harmonies that no other bands were actually utilizing. I was deep into six at that time. Yeah, deep into six-part harmonies. Anyway - we're getting technical here now - but yeah, you'd see that bar and then the tables and chairs. And the bandstand was in the center of the building over on the right side, and there were tables all out from there.

We played all kinds of things and throughout the West over the next couple of years. We went to New York in 1946. We played the Apollo Theatre, and we were sensational there. I followed Duke Ellington at the Apollo, and Jimmie Lunceford followed me. So we were in top company. But we were very good. At that time we had recordings. I had about, oh, I'd say twenty or twenty-five sides by that time. I recorded my first recording date in 1945 on the Excelsior label. That's Otis Rene's label, the same label that Nat King Cole was on at the time. So my records were going very good. I had a couple of mild hits.

We left the Apollo, went to Pittsburgh, and then we went on into Chicago and we played there at the El Grotto for ten weeks. They built the whole show around my band. Marl Young, who's now on the board at the union [Local 47], he came in and subbed in my band for a few nights while we were in Chicago. This is before he came to L.A. I did six weeks at the Riviera in Saint Louis with Ella Fitzgerald. Joe Williams was my singer. And we packed this club - it would hold about twelve hundred people-every night for six weeks. And to really top it off, they had a special night there, I remember, where Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong battled my band. [laughter] And people were lined up around the corner.

Walking Away from It

While I was in Saint Louis, I realized that I had already hit the top. I was already on top now. It was getting to be that way. My time was getting so that I would hardly have any time. The band was very popular. I had these weeks already signed with Louis Jordan, and then Eddie "Rochester" Anderson wanted me to tour with him. So everything was happening. I realized that I had hit the top too soon. I was not even near where I wanted to be as a musician, and I knew this. And, of course, when I said this to people, they said, "Well, what's wrong with the guy?" They just don't understand what you're trying to say.

Anyway, I made up my mind during the engagement in Saint Louis. I realized that this was not it. This was not it. And, of course, many people thought I was making a very big mistake, especially my booking office. I made up my mind that I was going to disband and return to Los Angeles, and I did just that. I paid off my men, and we came back to L.A., and I disbanded.

And then I started working with Phil Moore again, other people around town. I still had a lot of work to do musically. I started writing for a lot of people and studying, just studying and writing and playing just doing all kinds of stuff, and studying, as I said, studying very hard. I studied the classics, Stravinsky, Shostakovich,, Prokofiev, Khachaturian,, d'Indy, Bartok, Manuel de Falla, Villa-Lobos. I'm looking for everything. I'm looking for music to broaden my knowledge of music. I wasn't studying them to be classical. I was studying them to broaden my knowledge so that I could broaden my jazz. But as far as jazz writers, who was I going to study with? I was just about one of the best then and I knew it. Of course you're going to say, okay, there's a guy bragging. But I was doing it.

So I'm studying. I played with Benny Carter, with his small group. We played eight weeks out on Figueroa near Manchester at the Casbah with Kay Starr. Then we went into the Million Dollar [Theatre] with Nat King Cole. I played the Avedon Ballroom with Nat King Cole. That was downtown on Spring Street, right in back of the Orpheum Theatre. Fine ballroom. All the bands played there. And after that, I joined Count Basie in 1948, at the end Of 1948. But in between this time, I'm making recordings and playing all kinds of record dates, blues dates with people, artists, writing arrangements for different people, rhythm and blues, too. I was doing it all. So in 1948, about near the end of the year, Snooky Young had to leave to go back east, so I joined Count Basie.

Well, here was another opportunity. Here's Count Basie's band, and I was already writing. In fact, I made my first arrangement for Duke Ellington in 1947 that they recorded here on Columbia Records. So my first orchestrations for Duke Ellington [ "You've Got to Crawl Before You Walk" and "You're just an Old Antidisestablishmentarianismist" ] were in 1947, which came off very well. Billy Strayhorn and I were great friends. He's one of my-I would say, a mentor, because he is one of the few people that actually helped me. That was way back in the early forties. You know, showing me things, how to do some things. Anyway, that started an association with Duke for me. He actually wanted me to join his band. Duke asked me to join his band the minute I got back from disbanding my band, at the Dunbar Hotel. [laughter]

Anyway, Count Basie needed someone to fill in for Snooky until Snooky would come back. He was supposed to come back right away. But I ended up leaving town with the band. They were at the Lincoln at the time. I played the Lincoln Theatre with him, and I left with him. I stayed with Count until way up into-that was '48, '49. 1 returned to Los Angeles in '49. So I did a lot of writing for Count during that period. I wrote a whole show, a theater review, for him. I did some other stuff for him that we played on dances. And when we went to New York, we did some recordings for Victor. I did most of the writing for all of the dates.

The Amalgamation

So when I got back in '49, Central Avenue was still hopping. And the union, of course, that's when they were getting into the amalgamation. So Buddy Collette and Red Callender-you know, they were my friends, my dear friends. And I remember they asked me to go with them and get in on the amalgamation thing. I joined their group. And I remember we went out to Los Angeles City College that first night that I went with them. We went out getting white musicians to sign the petition.

Hey, you know, I was from Detroit. There's no segregated unions in Detroit. And besides, what we were going for, I'm really for. So there was no problem there. So I joined their group and then I left, went back with Basie and finished out the year, '49, with Basie. In fact, I was with Basie when he disbanded. Nineteen fifty. So I stayed in New York, and I worked with Illinois Jacquet, and then I joined Dizzy Gillespie's band. I was with Dizzy when he broke up to get his small group. So big bands were folding. I went out on a tour with Billie Holiday. And then, after that, I came back to Los Angeles -that was 1950 - and did some things around town here, played, and then I -decided to do a show. I wrote a show called the "California Frolics Revue." We presented it at the Riverside Rancho. We were rehearsing at the union, over at 767.

Anyway, while I was doing this rehearsing, I said to Buddy, "How are things going with the union?" He said, "Well, we're not doing too much right now." So I took it upon myself- I had a friend of mine, I ran into him, he was a lawyer. His name is Calvin Porter, still in business here. He was a friend of mine from Detroit when I was going to school. So I ran into him one night, we were just talking. And I said, "You know what? Calvin, I'm with a group of people. We're trying to get these unions amalgamated. We've been getting petitions signed and trying to get it going."

So he said, "Well, it sounds to me like there's something you're not doing. Obviously, the people who are in power at the union are running the union just as they want to, because there's nobody to stop them. First you've got to go in there and get this thing on the floor at the union. You slip in there on a day, on a general meeting, but you don't let them know you're coming. You go in. You will say, 'I move to make a motion that there will be a special meeting called for the specific purpose of discussing the amalgamation of Local 767 to Local 47."'

I immediately told Buddy what we had to do. We immediately got in touch with everybody that was concerned with the movement and people that we knew would be for the movement. But we didn't have too much to worry about, because my band was already big enough to outvote them-the band that we were rehearsing upstairs. So we went about it exactly like that. The next general meeting, they didn't know what was happening. All of a sudden, all of these people come walking in. We picked up people in automobiles.

As the meeting got started and things were moving, I held up my hand to make a motion. I stood up and made it to the president-Leo McCoy Davis was his name-and I made that motion. "I would like to make a motion that a special meeting will be called for the specific purpose of discussing the amalgamation of Local 767 to Local 47." 1 was talking with Bill Douglass recently, who recently was the treasurer here [at Local 47]. He says he seconded it, but I don't remember. I thought it was Percy McDavid. It could have been Bill.

Now, what did this do? This enabled the amalgamation people to be able to go in and then vote their people into the Local 767 leadership, where Bill Douglass, I believe, became the vice president. Now, the reason I'm getting into this is because this has all been forgotten. I don't remember seeing Marl there that day, and I don't remember seeing Benny Carter there that day. I didn't remember Benny into it at any time until later, because we all wanted Benny to be with us. We wanted Marl because of his ability and his legal background at the time. But that was the day that happened.

I fought for the amalgamation. When I sit here [at Local 47] tonight, I know that I am the one that made the motion for the first special meeting called for the amalgamation of Local 767 and Local 47. 1 know that I said those words because I found out what to do to give us another spur in that movement, although you never heard of it. That was an important battle in the battle.

And then, later, after that show that I did, I got a job with the Joe Adams Show on KTTV, and my band was working that. Buddy was in it, and Red Callender was my assistant on it. I was the music director for the show. We were on TV every week with the Joe Adams Show. And I played a benefit to raise money to support the amalgamation movement at the Humanist Hall on Union Avenue. And you couldn't get in the place that day.

Then I left. I went to San Francisco, so I don't remember how they went on from there. I went to San Francisco, where I stayed for a couple of years. I had a band up there before I came back in 1954.

Those were the years that the Avenue really declined. By the time I got back in 1954, things had moved. The Oasis was the big thing. It was on Western Avenue. When I got back the blacks had gotten over to Western Avenue and over in there, Exposition and Figueroa. And Central Avenue, I guess, just kept declining. The theaters were gone, the Lincoln and all of that stuff was kind of just going down, and it was not happening anymore. Everything had moved west.

"There's no place like Central Avenue."

Central Avenue was a place where my people lived. So the point is that Central Avenue was just like 125th Street in New York, that's where all the black people were. They couldn't go any other place. Where were they going to go? They could work at a couple of places out here, but they couldn't go in the front door. So they were all there together, just like that. They had to stay here, they had to live here. Duke Ellington: you'd catch him right there at the Dunbar. Count Basie, right there. [laughter] We all had the same thing in New York. No different in New York.

Central has a lot to do with me. You must remember that I organized my first band here. It was here that I had a chance to determine which way I wanted to go, and I had inspiration here. As I say, Phil Moore was one of my biggest inspirations as a writer. And Calvin Jackson, who later moved here. I didn't mention it, but Calvin Jackson also wrote arrangements for Jimmie Lunceford when I was with Jimmie Lunceford's band. That's when he was just a freelance piano player and writer around New York. He later joined Harry James. Wrote a lot of stuff for Harry James. Then he went to MGM and did so much work over there for them. But all these people were here. And the other people were coming in and out all the time. Count's band was coming in and out. In fact, I rehearsed my first number with Count Basie here at the Aragon Ballroom when they were playing out there on the beach-Venice somewhere-another ballroom that blacks couldn't even go into.

Central is just as important as 125th Street in New York City, or South Park in Chicago, Cedar Street, I think, in Pittsburgh. They all have it. All of the cities have a street. It's the street where the black people live. And I think it's important to Los Angeles, no matter what color you are. And it was very important to the music, jazz, because it was a place where it lived. And everyone came there, all of the biggest. You don't come any bigger than Duke Ellington. You don't come any bigger than Jelly Roll Morton. He died here. He's right out there in the Calvary Cemetery on the Eastside here.

So jazz is very important in Los Angeles, and Central Avenue - There's no place like Central Avenue. Because I'd rather come here. When I got here that beautiful day, and there was this beautiful street with a beautiful hotel to stay in, the Dunbar, which I didn't have in New York City They didn't have a decent hotel for you to stay in there. But Los Angeles had the Dunbar Hotel and had that nice street, beautiful street. That's all I can say about it.

I would like to see a lot of my people into this [music] today. I'm not seeing that. In fact, I'm seeing less and less as I go about the United States lecturing on orchestration and composing and arranging. And I look up in a class of a hundred, and I only see one black, or I see no blacks. Two weeks ago, at the Grove School of Music, I lectured to the arranging class, and there was not one black there. That disturbs me. Where are we going to be, then? What are we going to do? Will there be one day that there will be no more?

But I'm talking about these things because I'm trying to explain to you what music, jazz, means to me and my people. Where are my people now? I'm a member of the board of governors of NARAS [National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences], the Grammy people, for the second time. I had two nominations. I have two first-place Down Beat [magazine] awards. I have many awards. But where are my young people that are coming up to carry on the thing for these people? We are a people here. As much as we can be swallowed up, we are still a people. Where are we going? What are we doing? These are the things I'm thinking about now.”

…. To Be Continued in Part 

© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Gerald has an uncanny harmonic sense which produces quite an emotional experience.” 
– Richard Bock

“Wilson’s writing leans toward thick, textured sounds in which the arrangements are as prominent as the soloists.” – Ted Gioia
“Your first ten years are thrown away. If you did pretty good for those ten years, you’re just starting.” 
- Gerald Wilson to Pete Watrous

“Writing is easy for me now. Writing is just a memory anyway – you just remember everything you learned and just put it down.”
- Gerald Wilson to Jon Garelick

“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

No doubt one of the reasons that for many of us the Gerald Wilson Orchestra of the decade of the 1960's seemed to appear fully formed from out of nowhere was due to the scarcity of available recordings that featured earlier variants of his orchestra.

Jazz fans should all give thanks to the advent of the compact disc, because it has helped bring forward some of the exciting, earlier recordings from Mr. Wilson’s Orchestra
Thankfully, too, Richard Bock of Pacific Jazz Records and Albert Marx of Discovery/Trend Records stepped in to prevent this scarcity from spreading further with a veritable explosion of Mr. Wilson on record in the 1960's.

Longevity has not diminished Mr. Wilson’s creative powers and this along with his accumulated body of work has afforded him a stature that has resulted in a number of recordings that continued to document his work well into the first decade of the 21st century.

This 2nd portion of the feature on Mr. Wilson will spend time with reviews of some of these recordings - “Then and Now?”
It will also delve into Mr. Wilson’s treatment of melody, harmony, rhythm and texture that combined to make his composing and arranging styles so distinctive.

Before doing so, let’s turn to Doug Ramsey’s always informative and insightful insert notes to The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra [Mosaic MD5-198] for a brief review of the salient features of Mr. Wilson’s career.

© -Doug Ramsey/Mosaic Records; used with permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The great lead trumpeter and soloist Snooky Young left Count Basie in 1944 to join a new band Gerald Wilson had formed in Los Angeles. "Everybody thought I was crazy for leaving Basie to go with Gerald," Young said on a National Public Radio Jazz Profiles program, "but it was a friendship thing. I wasn't aware of doing anything crazy and I didn't, because it was very good for me to play with Gerald's first band. We went on to New York and played the Apollo Theater, and for a young, new band, we did a lot of big things."

If Young was gambling, he hedged his bet with inside information. From the days when they sat together in the Jimmie Lunceford trumpet section, he knew the 26-year-old Wilson's abilities as a player and a composer-arranger. Wilson's early work for Lunceford sent advance notice of a writer who brought a new kind of harmonic richness to big band arranging. Musicians across the country took notice, as did an 11-year-old fan who said the Lunceford band was what made him decide in 1941 to become a musician. "There were two tunes that Gerald Wilson wrote for that band that just laid me out," pianist and composer Horace Silver said on Jazz Profiles. "They were on the same record, flip sides. One was called In SPOOK. The other was called YARD DOG MAZURKA. The arrangements and the melodies knocked me out."

Silver was not alone in his admiration. In 1946, Ray Wetzel purloined the essential elements Of YARD DOG MAZURKA to make INTERMISSION RIFF for the Stan Kenton band.

The few recordings of Wilson's 1944-1947 band make it plain that the notice and excitement it caused were justified. Pieces like CRUISIN' WITH CAB, DISSONANCE IN BLUE and his arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s GROOVIN' HIGH establish that this young leader achieved a canny balance between the proven values of swing and the challenging innovations of bebop. The band was a hit in Los Angeles in its debut engagement of two months at Shepp's Playhouse, followed by a run at the Orpheum Theater, then dates in San Francisco, Oakland, Denver and at New York's Apollo Theater. At the Apollo, Wilson and his men followed Duke Ellington. The Daily News wrote, "A young band from California opened at the Apollo today, and you wouldn't know that Duke Ellington had closed."

There was something new and unusual in the density of Wilson's chord voicings, particularly in the brass section. In an oral history inter-view for the MAMA archives, Wilson said of his work in those years, "My record of GROOVIN' HIGH (1945) proves that we were the most adventurous orchestra of the year. No other bands were into what we did. My players were all playing bebop. My pianist, Jimmy Bunn, was on Charlie Parker’s LOVER MAN session. We had an arrangement of OUT OF THIS WORLD that I reharmonized the structure for - I used all alternate chords. If the [original] chord was B-flat minor, I used the alternative, D-flat major. About everything was alternate. Also, I used a couple of tempo changes."

And yet, Wilson's use of ideas - known in 20th-century classical music but rare in jazz - attracted listeners who might have been intimidated by a band like Boyd Raeburn's that was taking such notions a step or two further. It was not out of the question to mention Wilson's band in the same breath as Basie's, Ellington's, Herman's and Kenton's. Although the economic indicators were not good for continuation of he big band boom, it may be that Wilson had the talent, leadership ability and charisma to carry him through the hard times that caused most of the nation's big bands to fold by the end of the decade. He signed a three-year contract with Mercury Records. His band recorded with Dinah Washington, broke all attendance records in St. Louis on a tour with Ella Fitzgerald, was set to tour for 15 weeks in a package with Louis Jordan's phenomenally popular band. After less than three years as a bandleader, Wilson was at the top.

He thought he had gotten there too soon. In 1947, he disbanded. "I decided when I closed with Ella that I was going to have to study some more. I wanted to be able to write anything," he told Jazz Profiles. "I wanted to be able to write for the symphony orchestra; I wanted to write for the movies; I wanted to write for television. I wanted to be able to do it with great speed, great accuracy, and that's what I did. But I didn't stop playing."

Wilson holed up with scores, analyzing works by Stravinsky, Debussy, Falla, Ravel, Kabalevsky, Khatchaturian, Bartok. In a prodigy of self-teaching, he absorbed the techniques of those classical masters. He would apply their lessons for all the years of his long career. He achieved each of his goals, including works for symphony orchestra, motion pictures and TV, but especially writing prolifically for big bands, his own and others. Half a year into his study exile, he got a call from another leader asking him for help. It was Duke Ellington. He wrote for Ellington off and on for most of the rest of Duke's life, and occasionally filled out the trumpet section when Ellington needed an additional horn. Later in 1948, he joined Count Basie, playing and writing. "That was study, too," he says, "sitting where swing really happened. That great rhythm section was really the common denominator for swing." After Basic disbanded in 1949, Wilson joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band. For Basic he wrote the lovely ballad KATY and with Basie composed ST. LOUIS BABY. For Gillespie he arranged GUARACHI GUARO, which became influential in the development of Latin jazz in the '40s and had a second life when Cal Tjader adapted it in the '50s. During all of that extracurricular activity, Wilson continued studying and preparing for his next steps.

Before long, Gillespie Joined the parade of disbanders, forced out of the band business by changing economics, tastes and culture. Billie Holiday's manager asked Wilson to put together a big band to back the singer on a tour. Johnny Coles, Philly Joe Jones, Melba Liston, Willie Cook and a number of other fine musicians were among his players. Despite the quality ingredients, the venture did not go well. Crowds were small. "We were out on the road not making any money," Gerald says, "and Melba and I wound up feeding the guys and paying their rent and we went broke." He returned to Los Angeles.

In 1950, Wilson was music director for an L.A. television musical variety program than ran for six months. He arranged and conducted, but was never shown on the screen. Through the 1950s that was typical television policy regarding black musicians. In 1951, Gerald and his wife Josefina moved to San Francisco. His band in the Bay Area included trombonist Bob Collins, pianist Cedric Haywood, and two saxophonists, Jerry Dodgion and Jerome Richardson, who would become mainstays of the New York jazz scene in the late '50s and early '60s.

Back in Los Angeles in 1954, Wilson put together a band, in what was the beginning of what he describes as his commercial period, which lasted for most of the '50s. "I was doing a lot of writing in those days for shows, at the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas and other places, and for rhythm and blues artists, Jackie Davis among others. My deal in those days was mostly writing and orchestrating. The big band worked whenever we had an engagement."

Richard Bock, president of Pacific Jazz records, had a roster of some of the most prominent musicians in what had come to be called the West Coast Jazz movement. They included Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bud Shank and Bob Gordon. Bock did not have a big band on his label.
"I knew Dick Bock and had followed his work," Wilson told me. "The first time I approached him about recording, in 1953, was at a Billy Eckstine record date I was visiting. And there were other occasions through the '50s when I ran into him and brought it up. He explained that, for various reasons, it was hard to record a big band. But in 1960, he called me. He had set up a deal through Albert Marx to record me."

Wilson was under contract to Marx, the president of Discovery and Trend Records. Bock recorded the successful series of Gerald Wilson albums for Pacific Jazz, but Marx owned the records. As they do today, Wilson's sidemen constituted a cross section of Los Angeles jazz players, black and white, youngsters and veterans, from the studios and the clubs. They had in common the musicianship Wilson could quickly observe and sometimes sense in a potential member. His leadership is based on mutual respect and his magnetism, not on strictness. He has more in common with Ellington and Herman than with disciplinarians like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich. Trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, who has played for Wilson in recent years, talked on the NPR program about the first time he saw Wilson in action.

"The way he moved his hands, the way he grouped the guys together, his ability to talk, his ability to laugh, make the audience have fun. It was his whole impact, not just the 18-piece orchestra, but his person."
"I don't have any pep talks with my men at all," Wilson says. "We hardly rehearse, unless we're going to make a recording date. Maybe we'll run it over once or twice, not like these bands that rehearse every week. The music's there and it's always going to be a certain quality. I don't get angry at the guys when they miss a note. It doesn't bother me. jazz, to me, has to be loose. You can't be tight. When you get too tight in jazz, it isn't making it. Same thing with Duke Ellington. He let his band be relaxed, be loose, take it easy. Nobody gets excited here. You're late? Okay, so you're late. Let's play." ….

Wilson’s writing is absolutely up to date, or a bit beyond, while observing the eternal blues truths.

And so it remains in performances by his orchestras of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and a new century, in the ears, hearts and minds of his listeners, and in tangible form in the nation’s capitol. In 1996, the Library of Congress honored Wilson’s lifetime achievement by establishing a Gerald Wilson archive. Generations of musicians, scholars and admirers will be able to study a comprehensive collection of his compositions, arrangements, orchestrations and recordings….”

Before moving on to a review of some of the recordings in Mr. Wilson’s discography, perhaps an effort might be made at identifying those characteristics that make his style so distinctive.

In this regard, it might be helpful to keep the following distinction by author Mark Gridley from his Jazz Styles: History and Analysis in mind:

“By comparison with all other big bands, the Wilson band achieved a groove that more closely resembles hard bop. The moods were funky and earthy, as though Wilson had created a big-band equivalent to the organ/tenor sax combos that were common at inner city taverns during the 1950’s and 1960s.” [p. 291]

Also helpful is the following representation by Ted Gioia from his West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 which bears repeating from the opening quotations to this piece:

Wilson’s writing leans toward thick textured sounds in which the arrangements are as prominent as the soloists. Some have traced a Kenton influence in his work …” [p. 142].

Both Gridley and Gioia focus on the “texture” of Mr. Wilson’s music.
As we shall see, a number of other writers in their reviews of Mr. Wilson’s recordings also stress the “texture” of his music as something that makes it so unique and so appealing.

But what is a musical definition of “texture” which joins with melody, harmony and rhythm [meter] as a fourth building block used to create a musical composition?

Ironically, of these four basic musical atoms, the most indefinable yet the one we first notice is – texture.

Texture is the word that is used to refer to the actual sound of the music. This encompasses the instruments with which it is played; its tonal colors; its dynamics; its sparseness or its complexity.

Texture involves anything to do with the sound experience and it is the word that is used to describe the overall impression that a piece of music creates in our emotional imagination.

Often our first and most lasting impression of a composition is usually based on that work’s texture, even though we are not aware of it. Generally, we receive strong musical impressions from the physical sound of any music and these then determine our emotional reaction to the work.

Beyond the texture or sound of his music and the lasting physical and emotional impact it can create, Mr. Wilson’s music is also heavily rhythmic – the most visceral and fundamental of all the musical elements.

Music takes place in time and like many great composers, Mr. Wilson uses rhythms and the relationships between rhythms to express many moods and musical thoughts.

He uses rhythm to provide a primal, instinctive kind of foundation for the other musical thoughts [themes and motifs] to build upon.
This combination of powerful, repetitive rhythmic phrases and the manner in which he textures the sound of his music over them provides many of Mr. Wilson’s compositions with a magisterial quality.

Another of Mr. Wilson’s great skills as a composer is that he never seems to be at a loss for the new rhythms that he needs to create musical interest in his work. He is a master at using the creative tension between unchanging meter and constantly changing rhythms and these rhythmic variations help to produce a vitality in his music.
In his use of melody, Mr. Wilson’s approach to composing, arranging and orchestrating appears to have much in common with the Classical composers of the late 18th and early 19th century [Mozart & Beethoven as examples] in that he relies on a series of measured and balanced musical phrases as the mainstay of much of his work.
And like these Classical composers, Mr. Wilson is also careful not to let one musical element overwhelm the others: balance between elements is as important as balance within any one of them.

Mr. Wilson obviously places a high value on melody in his writing as his themes have a way of finding themselves into one’s subconscious and staying there a la – “I can’t get this tune out of my head.”

This is in large part because Mr. Wilson’s melodies are actually easily remembered short phrases, generally four or eight bars in length and these are often heard in combination with other similar phrases to fashion something akin to a musical mosaic with individual pieces joining together to create a musical whole.

Mr. Wilson crafts little melodic devices that are wonderful examples of the composer’s art. And he has learned over the years to base his compositions out of the fewest possible melodic building blocks because if there too many melodies, or for that matter, too many rhythms and too many different chords in a piece, the listener can get confused and eventually bored.

And on the subject of chords, the building blocks of harmony, here Mr. Wilson’s approach involving multi-part harmony is more akin to modern composers such as Debussy, Bartok and Stravinsky than to those of the Classical period.

Mr. Wilson pioneered the application of 8-part harmony to Jazz writing for big bands. Turning again to Doug Ramsey’s insert notes to the Mosaic set of Mr. Wilson’s Pacific Jazz recordings, he explains that “I asked the composer and orchestrator Jeff Sultanoff about the use of eight-part harmony in jazz and Wilson’s role in it. Sultanoff said:
“As Gerald defines it, it means that in an eight-part brass section, all parts are different, no doubling octaves and such. He was probably the first to do this, although other arrangers had tried similar things. I can think of Pete Rugolo as an immediate example, but he did not start doing it until 1946, whereas Gerald claims that he was doing it as early as 1945. I can also think of Ellington and Strayhorn who did not voice ensembles in the “standard” way. There are isolated examples of it in Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan’s work, but I don’t recall anyone doing it on a regular basis before Gerald.”

While it is always challenging at best to attempt to describe music in words, this overview of Mr. Wilson’s use of the four musical atoms – rhythm, melody, harmony and texture – may be helpful to listen for as we now turn to a review of selections from his discography.
As was noted earlier, the advent of the compact discs has once again made available music by artists who were recording before the advent of the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing album and/or who were recording for very small and relatively obscure labels [Excelsior and Black & White!].

Although, Mr. Wilson’s first recordings fall into both of these categories, many of them can now be found on three CD reissues: [1] Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra 1945-46 [The Classic Chronological Series #976], [2] Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra 1946-54 [The Classic Chronological Series #1444]; Big Band Modern [The Jazz Factory JFCD 22880].

The movie writer and actor Les Carter was quoted in Arnold Schenker’s insert notes to Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra 1945-46 as saying:

“Gerald does all things well. He is a craftsman in every way. He hand picks the musicians carefully, he selects the material, and then he bolsters the band and the audience with his own enthusiasm and exuberance. Gerald is a total musician. He touches all bases, and like a good a good director he is the man in charge.”

Three of the highlights on this CD for me are Mr. Wilson’s arrangements of Groovin’ High, Cruisin’ with Cab and One O’clock Jump, all of which indicate the very innovative direction his big band arranging was taking at this early date.

And Richard Cook and Brian Morton offer these observations in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD:

“After a short stint in the Navy at the end of the Second World War, the talented trumpeter and composer decided to form his own band. It was a progressive outfit … [with a] faintly experimental air … [and] these early recordings are full of interest.

Although he features as a trumpeter on Duke’s “Come Sunday” his main role is as arranger, turning in crisp, intelligent charts which anticipate the work of later years. There is already a signature Wilson sound: slightly dark, over-toned, regular without being robotic. … Even when the sound is less than pristine, the content I always involving.”

And here is Michael Nastos excellent and comprehensive review of Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra 1946-54 as written for

After leaving Detroit and arriving in Los Angeles, Gerald Wilson formed his first big band in 1944. By 1946 he was firmly established as a fine trumpet player, arranger, and composer, and was developing a style fit not only for modern jazz, but also eventually film scores. The dramatics apropos for both formats is evident on this second installment of Wilson's chronological recordings for the Classics reissue label, culled from recordings originally on the Black and White, United Artists, Excelsior, Federal, King, and Audio Lab labels.

There are five different mid-sized orchestras with musicians from L.A., all quite literate and displaying different areas of expertise, and Wilson writes with each player's individual sound in mindOf course they work as a unified whole, and you get to hear a lot of Wilson's trumpet work.

The Black and White sessions from 1946 have the band swinging very hard on the happy bop-bop "Et-ta," while hoppin' and barkin' for "The Saint." The opposite slow side is shown on "Pensive Mood" and the sad, dreary "The Moors." These tracks feature then-young trombonist, composer, and arranger Melba Liston, who of course would go on to great acclaim. Recordings from 1947 for United Artists and Excelsior feature vocalist Dan Grissom, showcased on two ballads, displaying a large range and somewhat effeminate style, and there's a finger-snappin' group vocal with Grissom, Liston, and Trummy Young, "Va-ance," that approaches the territory of the Modernaires.

Four more for Excelsior in 1949 reveal Wilson moving into film noir, hinted at by the spy movie piece "Dissonance in Blues" from the 1947 cuts, but more pronounced here. Wilson is assertive on his horn, and ramps up the dramatic tension on the stairstep motif of "The Black Rose" while also offering an expanded version of "Guarachi-Guaro," the second section infusing expansive oboe and flute. Here the outstanding West Coast alto saxophonist Buddy Collette also enters the fray.

Jumping up to 1954, Wilson offers up three two-part pieces all prominently showcasing the exotic vibrato flute sound of Bill Green — the hot and spicy "Mambo Mexicano," dynamic up-and-down desert dune caravan-ish "Algerian Fantasy," and slow-as-sunset "Lotus Land." These are much more provocative, but in addition, the band is loaded with all-stars like trumpeter Clark Terry, trombonist Britt Woodman, tenor saxophonists Paul Gonsalves and Teddy Edwards, and a very young Jerry Dodgion on alto sax. These cuts use pronounced world music elements in a way that Duke Ellington hinted at, and all are exuberant and levitating. The remaining pieces are the contradictory titled hard bopper "Romance," Khachaturian’s famous Spanish classical ballad "Bull Fighter," and a different "Black Rose" (unknown author) than the one written by Wilson heard earlier on the CD. This collection really drives home how this group, unique unto itself, was able to stretch stereotypical big-band jazz and take it into a new arena, fueled by the vast imagination of Gerald Wilson. The only unsolved mystery: un-attributed credits about various clearly audible Latin percussionists who are never identified.”

Writing in his insert notes to Big Band Modern, Matias Rinar offer the following comments on the significance of the recordings and its music:

This release presents an ultra rare LP by the Gerald Wilson orchestra for the first time ever on CD. Although he recorded innumerable sessions as an arranger and as a trumpeter, this is the only studio session recorded by Wilson under his own name between 1947 and 1961, when he began a long term recording contract with Pacific records. The only exceptions to this are two short vocal sides that were also cut in L.A. in 1954, for the small label called "Hollywood", under the title "Linda Hayes accompanied by Gerald Wilson and his orchestra".

What makes "Big Band Modern" even more interesting is that six of the eight tunes on the album were composed by Wilson himself. The two remaining pieces were written by contemporary European composers. "Lotus Land" belongs to the eccentric English composer Cyril Scott (18791970), who was known as a poet and occultist, in addition to his work as a composer. A dear friend of Percy Grainger, Scott's music was admired by Debussy, Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. Originally written for the piano, "Lotus Land" is Scott's most famous piece, arranged here by Wilson for his big band. Aram Khachaturian's "Bull Fighter" is the album's only other composition not written by Wilson. A Russian composer of Armenian origin, Khachaturian (1903-1978) was one of the leading soviet composers of his time, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich…..

Considering the dearth of Wilson’s recordings with his own band during this period, the 1950 concert recorded in San Francisco – which is included on this release as a bonus – is, without a doubt, an essential addition to Wilson’s recorded legacy, an extremely important discographic discovery. In fact, this concert has never been previously released on any format.

Of the concert's seven tracks, three of them - "Sea Breeze" and both versions of "Hollywood Freeway" - are compositions by Wilson, performed by his band with the addition of several superlative guest stars. Alto saxophonist Sonny Criss ... shines on the first version of "Hollywood Freeway", while the three tenor guests - none other than Stan Getz, Wardell Gray and Zoot Sims can be heard here in top form on the second one. The four standards are showcase pieces for the tenor soloists. We are fortunate to add two new performances to Wardell Gray's short discography. He plays here on "Nice Work if You Can Get It" and "Indiana". "Out of Nowhere" is a feature for Stan Getz (notice the way he quotes "Broadway"!). "It Had to Be You" is Zoot Sims' solo feature, but it is unfortunately incomplete at the tune's climax, because the original recording machine ran out of tape! However, Zoot can be heard well on the last orchestral tune.

Beyond the mentioned little inconvenience, the excellent sound quality of this concert is surprising. It was originally recorded in Stereo, which was a completely new technology in 1950. Together, both of these very rare sessions cover an interesting gap in Gerald Wilson's career, preceding the true gems that would come in the following years.”

And now we come to the bonanza that are the 1960s recordings by Mr. Wilson on the Pacific Jazz [8] and World Pacific [2] labels, all 10 of which have all been collected and reissued with superbly remixed audio quality as The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra [Mosaic MD5-198].

As has already been alluded to but bears repeating nonetheless, one shudders to think of what would have been the case for Mr. Wilson’s recording career had it not been for the perspicacity of Richard Bock and Albert Marx, the President of Discovery and Trend Records.

Between 1961 and 1969, ten albums – eight on Pacific Jazz and two on World Pacific – were recorded and issued under Mr. Wilson’s name [those Pacific Jazz LPs involving his work with trumpeter Carmell Jones and pianist/vocalist Les McCann are not included in the Mosaic set].
Ironically this gushing forth of recording activity for Mr. Wilson and his orchestra in the 1960s was occurring when the number of big bands was an ever-dwindling number. However, since Mr. Wilson chose to populate his orchestra with professionals musicians whose main livelihood was derived from work in the Hollywood studios, thus limiting it to local appearance and recordings, he was never subjected to the rigors of trying to make it on the road with his 1960’s orchestra.
Fortunately for Mr. Wilson, there was still enough of a big band Jazz market in existence in the 1960s and his exciting orchestra’s recordings did very well in terms of overall sales.

Here are two compendiums of the Mosaic The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra. The first is by C. Andrew Hovan writing in

“Even with the reissue boon that has resulted in so much obscure music seeing the light of day, certain artists have not fared well when it comes to the availability of their work. Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz imprimatur falls under the Blue Note/Capitol umbrella, but past reissues have seemed to focus on “cool school” items with sets from Chet Baker, Bud Shank, and Bill Perkins being the norm. Hard bop artists such as Curtis Amy, Paul Bryant, Frank Butler, The Jazz Crusaders, Charles Kynard and Gerald Wilson have been much less represented in the entire scheme of things. In Wilson’s case, out of the ten albums he made during his stay with Pacific Jazz, only two have ever been reissued on CD in the United States. This sad state of affairs is certainly put right with Mosaic’s new packaging of the entire output of Wilson’s Pacific Jazz sides as a leader, although the terrific sessions he arranged for Les McCann and Carmel Jones are not included here and will hopefully see their own reissue at some later date.

With experience as an arranger for Jimmy Lunceford behind him, gifted writer and bandleader Gerald Wilson set up his own big band in 1944 and has actively maintained an ensemble of some kind or another ever since. By the time he hooked up with Dick Bock and Pacific Jazz in 1961, Wilson had already become one of the most distinguished composers and arrangers of his era. Unfortunately, the mere fact that he resided on the West Coast meant that he was not as well known to record buyers of the time as Count Basie or Duke Ellington. You Better Believe It is notable for the appearance of organist Groove Holmes, soon to become a major seller for Pacific Jazz in his own right. “The Wailer” and “Blues For Yna Yna” are particularly choice on this memorable maiden voyage.

The first of many tributes to matadors (bull fighting being one of Wilson’s favorite pastimes), “Viva Tirado” makes its appearance on Moment of Truth. The homage scheme reaches its ultimate fruition on Portraits, with pieces dedicated to matador Paco Camino, master musician Ravi Shankar, composer Aram Khachaturian, and jazz great Eric Dolphy. Soloists Joe Pass, Teddy Edwards, and Jack Wilson play prominent roles in all three of these aforementioned quintessential albums.

Giving a jazzy update to pop material of the day was not uncommon during the ‘60s. Duke Ellington, of course, made an entire album of his own version of the score from “Mary Poppins.” Wilson was also ingenious enough to handle such challenging assignments, although the closest he ever got to an entire album of pop-inflected material was on Feelin’ Kinda Blues. Even here though, Wilson’s integrity as an arranger comes shining through on such unlikely numbers as the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and James Browns’ “I Feel Good.”

The Golden Sword, from 1966, is one of the best Wilson albums of the entire Pacific Jazz lot and it features the “Latin tinge” that Jelly Roll Morton often spoke of, with bullfighting and Mexican motifs also exploited to their fullest. “Carlos” is another tribute to a bullfighter, in this case being Carlos Arruza. Other highly attractive pieces include “Blues Latinese” and “The Feather.” Never content to stay too long in one area however, it was back to more traditional forms for the next set which documented a few evenings from the bands’ stay at Marty’s On The Hill in Los Angeles. Trumpeter Charles Tolliver, a truly inventive talent who has yet to receive his dues, makes his debut with the band on this occasion and his own early masterpiece, “The Paper Man,” is part of the program.

The final threesome of Wilson albums for Pacific Jazz ( Everywhere, California Soul, and Eternal Equinox ) carries us through to the end of the ‘60s. Occasional pop material figured into the mix, such as “Light My Fire,” “Aquarius,” and “Sunshine of You Love,” yet Wilson’s ability to transcend material (Oliver Nelson was another genius in this department) insures that each of these albums has more than enough valuable music to make for an easy recommendation. In short, the entire body of work as presented in this collection is worthy of rediscovery, not just those known entities. In addition, prominent artists to play a part in these closing sets include Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Ayers, Bud Shank, and Anthony Ortega

For devoted Mosaic followers the usual packaging remains constant; a 12 x 12 box houses the five compact discs and a 20-page booklet. In addition to a complete discography and session-by-session annotation by writer Doug Ramsey, there are a wealth of photos from such photographers as Ray Avery, Woody Woodward, and Francis Wolff.”
And the second compendium of the Mosaic The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra is by Harvey Pekar which appeared in the JazzTimes [April, 2001].

“These are among the finest of all large ensemble jazz recordings of the past 50 years, and Gerald Wilson is a great big-band composer/arranger/leader, although he has not received enough credit for a couple of major reasons. He came to the fore after the end of the big band era, and his outfits did not tour. Hopefully, this five-CD set will refocus attention on his major accomplishments.

From 1939 to 1942, Wilson not only played trumpet with Jimmie Lunceford, but also wrote charts for him, including "Yard Dog Mazurka," some of which was incorporated into "Intermission Riff," and "Hi Spook." During World War II he played in Willie Smith's Great Lakes Naval Training Station Band, and by the time he was discharged or shortly thereafter had assimilated a lot of bop into his writing style, as his earliest (1945 and 1946) big-band discs indicate. His recordings as a big bandleader were infrequent, however, until this series of LPs he cut for Pacific from 1961 to 1969.

The bands Wilson wrote for at that time were Los Angeles-based, post-bop all-star units containing top echelon section players and soloists including trumpeters Carmell Jones, Conte Candoli, Charles Tolliver and ace lead player Al Porcino, woodwind men Teddy Edwards, Harold Land, Walter Benton, Joe Maini, Jimmy Woods, Bud Shank, Buddy Collette, Anthony Ortega and Jack Nimitz, pianists Jack Wilson and Jimmy Rowles, guitarist Joe Pass, vibists Roy Ayers and Bobby Hutcherson, bassists Leroy Vinnegar and Jimmy Bond and drummers Mel Lewis and Frank Butler. The first album Wilson made with Pacific featured the work of organist Richard "Groove" Holmes, and it's a tribute to his ability as an arranger that he uses Holmes very sensitively, so that a nice balance is maintained between his playing and the rest of the band.

Wilson's compositions here reflect his wide range of musical interests. There are a number of blues of various sorts here, including his well-known blues waltz "Blues for Yna Yna." Wilson often wrote in 3/4 meter. "Aram" is interesting partly because of the inclusion of a taste of 4/4 in this mainly 3/4 composition. It keeps listeners on their toes.

There are also Spanish and Latin American influences here, as heard on "Viva Tirado," "Latino," "Paco" and "Teri," during which Wilson employs Pass playing acoustic guitar. There are many references in Wilson's music to things Mexican, including compositions dedicated to bullfighters in that country. Spanish composer Manuel DeFalla influenced "Caprichos," and there's also an adaptation by Wilson of a DeFalla theme, "Chanson du Feu Follet." Modal selections include Wilson's original "Patterns" and versions of "Milestones" and "So What." When Wilson's band wants to lay back its ears and swing, it does so with the best of them, as on "Emerge," "Eric" and "Perdido." And if you dig lovely ballads, try "Josefina," "El Viti" and a very nice cover of "'Round Midnight."

Wilson's arrangements are uniformly rich and full of contrasts. On "El Viti" he employs eight-part harmony for brass. The quality of the solos is consistently high. Not only is Wilson's band full of fine improvisers, they play with constant inspiration. Many are familiar to knowledgeable jazz fans, but a few aren't. Pay particular attention to the alto-sax work of Anthony Ortega, who played Charlie Parkerish solos in 1953 when he was with Lionel Hampton, but continued to evolve and improve his chops into the 1960s. Here his work may have a general similarity to Eric Dolphy's, but is quite original and full of imagination and surprises.”

To conclude this odyssey into Mr. Wilson’s musical world let’s turn to three of his more recent recordings: [1] Theme for Monterey - 2003 [2] New York New Sound - 2003 and In My Time 2005.

As Kirk Silsbee explains by way of background in his insert notes to Theme for Monterey[MAMA Foundation MMF 1021]:

“1963 was a momentous year for the Monterey Jazz Festival. Modern Jazz, in the form of Miles, Monk, Mulligan and the Modern Quartet, studded the bill. Clearly, the Monterey Jazz festival had come of age. Jimmy Lyons, the festival’s founder, had already presented the best of the remaining jazz orchestras from the Golden Age: Duke, Basie, Woody, Harry James. Now Lyons would indulge his own special passion, big band music, in an important way.

Gerald Wilson, at the cutting edge of jazz orchestration, was given the dominant big band forum that weekend in September. The Los Angeles bandleader whose musical lieutenants included Teddy Edwards, Harold Land, Jack Wilson and Joe Pass, would give the jazz world a message: the future is this way.

Riding on the success of its Pacific Jazz albums, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra delivered an object lesson in the possibilities of big band music. Demanding time signatures, multiple key changes, intricate harmonies and, above all, swing, were explored in a new and exciting way. Louis-Victor Mialy, reviewing the Festival for the Paris-based Jazz magazine, viewed Wilson’s showing as the most exciting thing he’d seen since Dizzy brought his orchestra to France in 1948.”

Echoing the tone of Mr. Silsbee’s remarks is this review of the recording which appears in Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD:

Wilson was a natural choice for the keynote new work at the 4oth anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival. Prestigious as such a commission is, no one could have expected a piece of such grave and joyous brilliance as Theme For Monterey. At more than three quarters of an hour, it has a scope and simplicity of purpose which few contemporary players would have dared, and yet repeated listening reveals a whole raft of subtle ideas, personal and musicological references. The 'encore' pieces, 'Summertime' and the brief bop exercise of Anthropology, offer just a glimpse of how a Wilson band attacks repertory material. Both arrangements were premiered at the Library of Congress in recognition of its archiving of Wilson's work.

The real interest lies in his suite of original themes. 'Lyons' Roar' is a dedication to Monterey Festival maven Jimmy Lyons; the main soloists are trumpeter Oscar Brashear, tenors Carl Randall and Randall Willis, and guitarist Anthony Wilson, who probably gets more space on the disc than he strictly deserves. It also features pianist Brian O'Rourke, who is the most effective presence of 'Cookin' On Cannery Row' and 'Spanish Bay.' The set is very nearly hijacked by the very first track, an exquisite thing called 'Romance', which highlights the bright, expressive soprano of Scott Mayo.”

As the album title makes obvious, Mr. Wilson was off to New York in 2005 to record New York New Sound [Mack Avenue Records MAC 1009] or as Harvey Siders explains it in his insert notes:

“For this album, the only non-laid back resident of L.A. was in a New York state of mind, and came up with a session that sounds like it was written by a cat half his age. Between the jet-propelled bookends of ‘Milestones’ and ‘Nancy Jo,’ are outstanding examples of Gerald’s thick-textured wide voicings providing plenty of stretch-out room for such stellar soloists as Jimmy Owens, Trumpet, Luis Bonilla, Trombone, Jesse Davis, Alto Sax, Jimmy Heath, Tenor Saxophone, and Kenny Barron, Piano.

Dig some of the highlights. ‘Blues for Count’ was suggested by Basie. Gerald told me: ‘Bill said: “Write it real soft then let it get loud,” ‘so I let it build from a triple pianissimo to a triple fortissimo.’ It makes the explosion at the end – a raucous, free climax – all the more effective. Check out Clark Terry’s “double” Trumpet solo, alternating between muted and open playing. Sounds like he’s beside himself. …
Coltrane’s ‘Equinox’ has a mesmerizing, repeated rhythmic figure that Wilson and especially the soloists use as a launching pad. Benny Powell, the first of four Trombone soloists, manages to “slide” in a quote from “Why Don’t You Do Right.” …

Another participant, pianist Rene Rosnes, summed up the leader’s charisma most eloquently: ‘If I were to watch a silent film of Gerald conducting, I would still be able to experience the swing of the music, his presence is that powerful.”

For In My Time, also issued in 2005 on Mack Avenue Records [MAC 1025], Wilson returned to Manhattan to lead an all-star big band through the ten tunes featured on “In My Time.” The centerpieces of the project are the three selections--“Dorian.” “Ray's Vision at the U,” and “Blues For Manhattan”--that comprise the suite titled “The Diminished Triangle.” “ ‘The Diminished Triangle’ is the study of diminished chords,” explains Wilson. “We have three diminished chords which add up to 12 different notes, and all musicians study the 12 tones. By using the diminished triangle many different ways, one can get a lot of different harmonic sounds. This suite gave me the opportunity to use a lot of eight-part harmony.”

Josef Woodward’s JazzTimes review of the album noted:
Commissioned by The California Institute for the Preservation of Jazz, and supported by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and marshaled by Cal State Long Beach educator Ray Briggs (for whom “Ray's Vision at the U” was named), “The Diminished Triangle” was debuted at Cal State L.A. on April 2, 2005.

Every selection on “In My Time” is filled with a sense of exhilaration, dense and distinctive harmonies, and stirring solos. “Sax Chase,” which in the 1980s was known as “Triple Chase,” showcases Wilson's talents as an arranger, and features stirring saxophone solos from Ron Blake, Steve Wilson, Kamasi Washington, Gary Smulyan and Dustin Cicero. On “Blues For Manhattan” Wilson explained that he utilized five-part harmony for the sax section, so that each player is performing a harmony of the melodic line without any doubling. One of the highlights on “Lomelin,” written for the great bullfighter Antonio Lomelin, is a dramatic trumpet solo from Jon Faddis. As evidence that Wilson’s music is inherently connected to his life, “AEN” is named after his son, guitarist Anthony Wilson, and for his two grandsons, Eric and Nicholas, while “Musette,” which includes a beautiful guitar solo from Russell Malone, was named after a poodle given to Gerald's three daughters. Also on this memorable project are Wilson's “Jeri” (named after his first-born daughter) and reworkings of Miles Davis' “So What” and Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale.” “I originally wrote an arrangement for 'Love For Sale' in 1953, using Jerry Dodgion on lead alto. 52 years later, I got to use him again on the new version.” Among the other soloists heard from along the way are trumpeters Jimmy Owens, Sean Jones and Jeremy Pelt, trombonist Luis Bonilla and pianist Renee Rosnes.

“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.”

Interviewed in 2004, Mr. Wilson had this to say which will serve as some closing thoughts to this profile:

"There's a few more things I want to do. The sound of my band is the harmonic structure that I use and I have a theory that I call eight-part harmony theory. They don't have it yet in the universities either. That is the use of eight different notes instead of four. Most bands are playing four-part harmony - a little five-part, a little six every now and then, but basically four parts. Now with my theory, you'll be able to write and use eight different notes. In other words, when you hear my brass shout down on eight different notes, it's going to wipe you out right quick, because there's so much in jazz. We have twelve tones to use in music. If you're just using four and five, what are you going to do with the other seven? There are other notes there. And everything is compatible on the piano. I do that to demonstrate to my classes. I just go and hit every note I can get my elbow and my hands and my arms on and hit them all at once. And then you hear the greatest chord you ever heard in your life. But you can't write that, you know, so you try to get as near as you can. My theory will be out in a new book that's coming out in about a year from now. My theory will be there and they'll have it, if there are young writers that would like to advance in harmony, they'll get a chance to see right there how to do it. It's there.”

Amazingly, Mr. Wilson was there “then” in 1939 when he joined Jimmy Lunceford’s band; he died in 2014 - 75 years of unending, Jazz creativity.

Through his hard work and dedication, Mr. Wilson has evolved into a Jazz composer-arranger sui generis.