Gerald Wilson's use of multiple harmonies was a hallmark of his big bands, earning him a reputation as a leading composer and arranger. His band was one of the greats in jazz, leaning heavily on the blues but integrating other styles. His arrangements influenced many musicians that came after him, including multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, who dedicated the song "G.W." to Wilson on his 1960 release Outward Bound.
Wilson started out on the piano, learning from his mother, then taking formal lessons and classes in high school in Memphis, Tennessee. The family moved to Detroit in 1934, enabling him to study in the noted music program at Cass Tech High School. As a professional trumpeter, his first jobs were with the Plantation Club Orchestra. He took Sy Oliver's place in the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939, remaining in the seat until 1942, when he moved to Los Angeles.
In California, he worked in the bands of Benny Carter, Les Hite, and Phil Moore. When the Navy sent him to its Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, he found work in Willie Smith's band. He put together his own band in late 1944, which included Melba Liston, and replaced the Duke Ellington band at the Apollo Theatre when they hit New York. Wilson's work as a composer-arranger enabled him to work for the Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands. Wilson then accompanied Billie Holiday on her tour of the South in 1949.
In the early 1960s, he again led his own big bands. His series of Pacific Jazz recordings established his unique harmonic voice, and Mexican culture—especially the bullfight tradition—influenced his work. His appearance at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival increased his popularity.
He contributed his skill as an arranger and composer to artists ranging from Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and Ella Fitzgerald to the Los Angeles Philharmonic to his guitarist-son Anthony. Additionally he was a radio broadcaster at KBCA and a frequent jazz educator. Among his more noted commissions were one for the 40th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1998, which he revisited in 2007 with his album Monterey Moods, and one for the 30th anniversary of the Detroit International Jazz Festival in 2009.
1945-46, Classics, 1945-46
The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings, Mosaic, 1961-69
Love You Madly, Discovery, 1982
Theme For Monterey, Mama, 1998
Detroit, Mack Avenue, 2009
Interview by Molly Murphy for the National Endowment for the Arts
October 25, 2006
Edited by Don Ball
THE INFLUENCE OF DETROIT
Q: Were there any experiences when you were young that might have given you a glimmer that you might pursue jazz?
Gerald Wilson: Well, in my case, I come from a musical family. My mother is a musician. She's a pianist and she's a schoolteacher also and she played the piano for the school -- the small school that I attended in a small town in Mississippi. She started all of her children out about the age of four or five on the piano, started teaching them on piano, and then of course I was the youngest in the family. She started me out around about four on the piano and I learned little pieces and got to some other things pretty good, but later on I wanted to go to the trumpet.
But you were speaking about jazz. My brother loved jazz. He was a piano player too, and he would tell me about all the things happening in jazz. During those years I would get a chance to see many of the great jazz musicians coming from New Orleans, which is about 260 miles from my home, and they would have to come through my hometown to get to Chicago...and I got a chance to see many of them as a young kid around about seven and eight years old. I was just thrilled at all of these stories he was telling me, and he had all of the recordings that he would play them for me when he'd come home every year from school. I just got so I loved the music and I knew that was what I wanted to do. I would stay up late at night to hear Duke Ellington and Earl Hines and Claude Hopkins and all of the bands that were broadcasting and playing. At that time I decided this would be my life.
Q: You were really young when you figured that out.
Gerald Wilson: I was. I got away from the piano when I was about 10. My mother got me a trumpet. I wanted a trumpet. I wanted to be a trumpet player because I wanted to play in the school marching bands at the schools I attended. I wanted to be there with a horn.
I had seen the kids coming from Piney Woods, Mississippi. It was a music school. (It's still there by the way. It's big now of course. It's not a segregated school anymore.) I'd see these young kids marching and it was just a thrill to me and so I was lucky. My school that I went to in Shelby where I was born only went through the eighth grade. After that you had to go somewhere else to go to high school so I was lucky to go to Memphis, Tennessee. My home was only 80 some miles from Memphis and there I was able to go to high school and I had a great trumpet teacher there that taught our band. I actually went to the same school where Jimmie Lunceford had been a teacher and I had heard all about their band because they were very popular. They started in Memphis, the Jimmie Lunceford band, so it was just a good thing for me there.
I was lucky enough to go to the Worlds Fair in Chicago in 1934 and I got a chance to see bands there. I saw Cab Calloway and the Mills Brothers and this only got me more into it and of course with those places being different from the South, I wanted to go there to enjoy the other things that were good in the North but my mother couldn't send me to Chicago but she could send me to Detroit and so I was lucky enough to go to Detroit.
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.
ARRANGING AND COMPOSING
Q: I know you wrote and arranged a couple of tunes for that band. Were you just sort of waiting for the chance to do that?
Gerald Wilson: What happened was that I had studied harmony and orchestration and everything but I did one little arrangement for this band I was telling you about, the McKinney's Cotton Picker guys there, and it sounded pretty good. The next arrangement that I made was the first one I made for the Lunceford band after I joined it, and I didn't quite make it on that one. They played it one time and that was it. They never played it again but then my next one was a number that I wrote for the band called "High Spook" and it was one of the biggest hits that they had. Then my next one was also a bigger hit than that one, which was called "Yard Dog Mazurka." So at that time then I knew I was on the right track.
Q: You must have been nervous waiting to hear them play something that you wrote for the first time.
Gerald Wilson: All the time. In the beginning, yeah. You're waiting to hear -- how is it going to work? As I say, after those two worked, I kept going on and I kept writing. Now I have other numbers that I had written for the band that I had never heard before because I left the band but they played my music after I left. I arranged some numbers for the band after I left the Jimmie Lunceford band and so I was lucky enough to keep on writing for them, but by that time I knew what it was going to sound like before they played it. In other words, I know exactly how it's going to sound. I can hear it all because I have written it. I know this works. It's like you know that 2 and 2 make 4.
Q: You write everything by hand?
Gerald Wilson: No. Well, they didn't have any computers…Actually, my writing now has come down to a thing where I'm just a lucky guy actually. My grandson, he's a musician and he plays the guitar, he plays classical, he plays the blues, he plays jazz. He can do everything. He's studied hard. So all I do now, see, I have macular degeneration. I can't see to write and all I have to do is tell my grandson first trumpet, A, second space, dotted half note, whatever, eighth note.
Q: You're playing it on the piano.
Gerald Wilson: I'm doing it on the piano and I'm telling him where to put the notes because I'm actually teaching him how to orchestrate now. When he finishes with me he's going to be an orchestrator. He can write music himself but he wouldn't be able to write for big orchestras. When he finishes with me doing all this stuff that I'm doing, he'll be able to orchestrate. I can depend on him because my latest two albums -- that's the way I did it and it's all correct. There's no mistakes or anything. And so I'm lucky to have a grandson like that that can do that.
Q: When you're writing a composition are there any components that you try to keep in mind that you know will make a good composition or are you just finding your way based on your own judgment?
Gerald Wilson: You know, I decide which way I want to go harmonically and rhythmically and that's what I do. I just start from there. I don't make a sketch. A lot of guys would make a sketch and then they go back and they'll make the orchestration but I don't make a sketch. I never did, and when I put it down at first that's the way it's going to be and I still do that that way. I don't give it any other thought than that. If I get ready to start the work, I just go and start. Well, which way will I go today? How do I want to go today? Well, many of the things that are being done now in orchestration I have been able to advance because my harmony has advanced now from four part-harmony actually to eight, nine, and ten parts. I'll have a book coming out soon so that many of the writers can latch onto it.
Q: I want to ask you about some of your other compositions that have Mexican influence. I understand that you have an interest in bullfighting.
Gerald Wilson: Well, I'll tell you. My wife is Mexican and she's exposed me to her culture. We've been married 53 years and that's my other family now and I've been into that culture. I've been into, as you said, the bullfights. I've written 12 or 13 numbers for bullfighters.
I've been to Mexico. Of course, you can't get it all. They got a lot of music. They're very musical people and I learned to hear the sounds. When I wrote my first numbers for them, you wonder whether they're going to accept this music. Like I wrote a number for Carlos Arruza, who was the greatest matador in the world at one time, and you wonder if they're going to say, "Why should you write a number for me?" You know what I mean? But you find afterward they like it and so it makes me know that I'm on the right track there. I can write other ways other than that, than the way that I write in jazz, but that's all to my wife, because I'd be there with the family, because they exposed me to their culture. The same thing happened when we got to Spain. We knew the matadors. They knew who the guy is. He's the guy that writes music for matadors.
Q: One composition that you wrote that was sampled or performed by so many people --
Gerald Wilson: "Viva Tirado".
Q: What does that mean?
Gerald Wilson: "Viva" means to live. Tirado is the name of the matador. His name is Jose Ramon Tirado.
Q: Who was he?
Gerald Wilson: Well, he was a young matador that I saw during one of my first bullfights, not the very first one, I think it was about the second or third, but he was very young. I think he was still in his teens and I was just amazed at how he went about it. He was very brave and he did beautiful passes, which I didn't know all about the passes like I know now. I used to know the names of all of them and everything, but he did them well and so I wanted to write some music that would represent him. So a lot of the music represents the passes that he made. The rhythm that I will have in the notes that I'm playing is trying to catch these passes, to catch what they're doing. You see them doing things with the muletta and the cape . To try to catch that the cape was moving like this at that time. And he was very thrilled with it. He's still living. He doesn't fight anymore but he's still living. It made him one of the most famous bullfighters in the world.
WORKING WITH COUNT BASIE AND DUKE ELLINGTON
Q: You wear so many hats, conductor, arranger, trumpeter, bandleader, teacher. Do you identify with one of those things more than the other? Do you think of yourself primarily as one of those things?
Gerald Wilson: Well, after I went through all of the different phases of music that I wanted to write -- I wanted to write for other artists, singers, and I wanted to write for the movies, wanted to write for television, and eventually my ultimate goal at that time was to be able to write for symphony orchestras. My band was very successful during this period. It was 1945 and '46. I had made my first records and I had been very successful with them and I was out on the road. Actually, at the time that I decided that I was going to stop to study some more, Ella Fitzgerald and I were a team. We were playing in a big nightclub in St. Louis together where we broke all records together. And so it was there that I realized that I'm booked way up. I'm booked up for about a year and money that I had never thought of, you know, $100,000 worth of contracts, and I said, "This is not it. I want to go somewhere else." And I said, "The only thing that's going to get me there is to start studying again." So that's what I did. I disbanded my band after that engagement. Everyone said, "Well, you know, Gerald, he's kind of flaky, you know, and everything, he's crazy or something." And I said, "No," and I went on home and I studied and I studied and I studied. I'm studying a lot of classical music now too because I'm pretty hip with the jazz. On my own. I wasn't studying to learn how to write from any other writers because I wanted to write a different way. Even when I wrote classical I was going to write different. So what I did was I studied very hard and things begin to develop in my mind. That was '46, '47, '48.
In 1948, Count Basie asked me to join his band and I joined his band for two years so I came back to New York. I was with Basie and I wrote for Count Basie and I wrote for his first Carnegie Hall concert. I had eight numbers on his first Carnegie Hall thing. I learned a lot there because that helped me with my jazz because I was able to join the band when it was practically the original band. We had the original All-American Rhythm Section, which of course is Count Basie on piano, Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green on the guitar, and Jo Jones on the drums. I'm in the trumpet section. I can watch Jo Jones as he played the drums and see what he does when he plays certain things, how he does it, and over on Page, I can see what Page is doing because Page was one of the first ones to do what we called the walking bass. Instead of playing four notes he played more or less like scale. And so I'm able to watch him and I learned just what to do in the rhythm and I'm listening to Count, how he does on the piano. I'm just watching everything and I'm learning a lot from some good jazz arrangements because he had some fine jazz arrangers that worked for him, Jimmy Mundy and Buck Clayton, all these guys that worked for him. They were terrific so I was able to hear their music because I'm playing it and so I learned a lot by being with Count Basie. I spent the two years with him and then I decided to come back home to Los Angeles and that's when I got involved in television and movies and stuff, and the symphony.
My ultimate goal was the symphonic orchestra, and I got an invitation from Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to write a composition for their orchestra, which I wrote, and they liked it. It was very good. Then I scored four more things for their orchestra, so I had reached my goal. Now I'm going back to where I want to be.
Jazz is my life. That's my heritage because jazz was invented by the blacks of America, not the blacks from Africa. They don't have any jazz in Africa now. They don't have any jazz in Haiti. They don't have any jazz in Cuba. Well, you got two or three that dabble but you can't get it unless you get the environment and the other things that go with it. Like I can't play the Cuban music like they play. I can try to copy them but they can do it. You know what I mean? As I say, it's my heritage and now all I do is jazz. That's all I do. I wrote for all the vocalists, so many big vocalists, wrote for Duke Ellington's band for years. I wrote for Duke Ellington for many years. He called me to write for him. Duke was one of my favorite musicians. Actually, he was my favorite. He was my number one man.
Q: When you were writing for all these different bands like Basie and Ellington, would you write specifically for those bands' soloists?
Gerald Wilson: Well, actually writing for Duke Ellington was easy because he had all those great people there. They are the sound of his band. It's not just the music that he writes. That same music could be played by another band, but it won't sound the same because you won't have Harry Carney, you won't have Johnny Hodges, you won't have Lawrence Brown, you won't have Cat Anderson, you won't have Clark Terry and people like that. And so once you write it, it sounds like Duke Ellington wrote it. In fact, he didn't put on the record that it was orchestrated and arranged by Gerald Wilson. He just let the people think he wrote it. I kid about it all the time. He didn't want me to try to write like him. "I want you to write like you. You write like you want to write for me."
Q: What's your teaching schedule these days?
Gerald Wilson: I teach at UCLA and I've been there 17 years and I have the largest jazz class in the world. It's 480 students in my class.
Well, five days, six days ago I have just won the Teacher of the Year. And the way that they come to determine to give you this award is not from some committee. It's from your students. See, every semester your students evaluate you and that's what they use. They use the evaluation of the students, what they say about you. They say what you do and how they like you or why they like you or whatever they put and that's what determines whether you would win or not. So I'm lucky there and three months ago or two months ago I was in New York and I won first place with my latest album for my band [New York, New Sound], that I had the best jazz band in the whole world of jazz and you get that from votes. I won over all the bands that they had nominated. I guess there's no more I could ask for.
Q: What organization gave you that award?
Gerald Wilson: That's the International Association of Jazz Journalists. All of these people write for jazz magazines and the Times and [other media].
Q: What's the class you teach at UCLA? Is it a history of jazz?
Gerald Wilson: Yes. It's called The Development of Jazz. It's the history but by me being a jazz musician I'm able to give them some extra things than from a guy that's going to teach the history of jazz who just reads some books, especially one that came up from the days of Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory and those guys.
Q: Do you teach any smaller classes?
Gerald Wilson: No, but I conducted the band for a couple of years out there.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the content of the class you teach.
Gerald Wilson: When my students come out, see, they know all about the history of jazz and they can talk to anybody on it just from being in my class. Now the beginning of jazz actually started during the days of slavery. That's when it started. It started there. Okay. Then the first recognized style of jazz of course is ragtime and I tell them all about ragtime. Ragtime was primarily a style only played at the piano. Ragtime had no improvisation. No matter when you heard it, you heard it the same way every time. Scott Joplin, who was the King of Ragtime, he was a very learned musician, also went to college. He was a college guy. He was very learned and he's the one that changed ragtime from being primarily a piano style. It was when he wrote his book called The Red Book and he wrote out what the trumpet would play, what the clarinet would play, what the piccolo would play, what the violin would play, what the bass would play, tuba or string bass, whatever, and the drums, those instruments. He wrote this book and you open this book and all of his big hit numbers are in that book. They're in that book and that's when it ceased to be just a piano style. Now it was a style played by bands.
The same thing with the different styles that came right after, about the same time when boogie-woogie came in. Boogie-woogie was a big style in jazz and boogie-woogie was primarily a piano style. The same thing happened in that. Right after that the jazz writers and arrangers, guys who could arrange, started writing boogie-woogie out with bands and that's when it ceased to be primarily a piano style and that was when you found out that you could play boogie-woogie anywhere. One young piano player by the name of Jack Fina, who played with Freddy Martin's orchestra, he made a boogie-woogie number on Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee and then they found out that boogie-woogie could be played anywhere. It's like the blues. The blues can be played in anything. It can be played in Stravinsky's Petrushka and his Rite of Spring. It can be played in the church as you know. Now you go into churches. Now you see them in there with guitars and basses and drum and they're playing the blues. The chord structures they use are the blues. So the blues can be played in anything, any kind of music. In my class I teach all of that. When my students get out of there they know about it.
Then we go up through swing. That's the days of Count Basie. Well, Count Basie, he's not the first. He's not the first because he was with a show from New York City that got stranded in Kansas City, Missouri. Swing came from Kansas City, Missouri, not New York, not Chicago. It came from Kansas City because Bennie Moten's band recorded a number in 1932 called "Moten's Swing." They coined the word "swing" and Count Basie, as I say, got stranded there from this show that came from New York and Bennie Moten hired Count Basie as his pianist. Now Bennie Moten was a piano player himself. He was the piano player but Count Basie was such a marvelous piano player that he became the lead piano player man in the band. So he was there and he was able to learn the swing from there and so that's the story. So we go through swing and then when we come back we started with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker and those guys.
So they know all about them when we finish right up through now. See, we don't just stop there with the bebop. Finally, we've got from bebop into what they call free jazz and all of that. Then all of a sudden we're into Wynton Marsalis and all these young kids now that are playing jazz, so when they leave my class they know who all these people are because we have the recordings to play for them and we play music for everything we talk about.
RECORDING IN NEW YORK
Q: What are your present plans?
Gerald Wilson: I have a New York band now. I come to New York City to record. I'm on Mack Avenue Records and the reason that's done is because New York is still the place of jazz because all the jazz musicians came here. They all came here, those who were not born around here, but mostly all of the greatest jazz musicians you ever heard of came from some other place but you all come to New York. Coleman Hawkins didn't come from here. Charlie Parker didn't come from here. You got to come to New York.
I'm very busy right now. I'm writing on the 50th anniversary for the Monterey Jazz Festival. I wrote their 40th anniversary and their 20th anniversary so I'm working on their 50th number now. I'm writing a special piece. Now my theme for Monterey got me two Grammy nominations. So this number that I'm writing now, we'll present it this year at the Monterey festival and then I'll come to New York and I'll record it for Mack Avenue Records. It's a new composition so I'm writing it now and we have many pages on it already. My grandson and I are working like mad and we'll be ready.