Art Works Blog

Sweet Home . . . Detroit

Washington, DC

Gerald Wilson conducts the world premiere performance of his composition "Detroit," a piece commissioned for the 2009 Detroit International Jazz Festival. Photo by Jeff Forman.

NEA Jazz Master Gerald Wilson doesn't seem to know his age. For a 92-year-old, he still travels across country, playing with two different bands in Los Angeles and New York, and still finds time to work on commissions in between. Last year, through the NEA Jazz Masters Live initiative, Wilson traveled to the Detroit International Jazz Festival to present the world premiere of his new composition, "Detroit," commissioned by the festival.

Wilson has a strong connection to the city---well, let's hear him tell it, from this 2006 interview with Molly Murphy:

One thing I can say about Detroit too that many people may not know: Detroit was at that time one of the most advanced cities in the United States because all of their schools were integrated. They were integrated. So this was the thing: that not only did I get the music thing I'm looking for but also I'm looking for freedom at that time. Do you understand? I think I was just lucky to go to Detroit at that time because had it been Chicago it would have been quite different. Chicago was not like Detroit.

When I went to Detroit I was 16 years old. The people that I stayed with, they were friends of my mother. They had lived in my hometown where I was born so they were not relatives but they were people who knew me and so I stayed there with them and I was able to go to Cass Tech in Detroit, which is one of the greatest schools in the world for music. It's like Juilliard. It's music all day long, just a couple of academics each year, and the rest is all music. I stayed there five years. I had to take piano again. I had to take one string instrument for a year, had to take orchestration, harmony. So they really prepared me for the time to get out into the world and then being in the city after a couple of years I started joining bands there that were fine young bands and learned a lot from the new bands I was with. These were the remnants of the McKinney's Cotton Pickers Band and I learned a lot from those guys because they knew a lot about music, stayed with them a couple of years, and then right out of there I got a call to join Jimmie Lunceford's band when I was 18.

You can read the entire interview here. Be sure to check out our other NEA Jazz Master interviews as well.

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