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Statement on the Death of NEA Jazz Master Gerald Wilson

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Gerald Wilson conducts the orchestra

1990 NEA Jazz Master Gerald Wilson conducts the Gerald Wilson Orchestra at the 2005 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony & Concert. Photo by Vance Jacobs

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of trumpeter, composer, arranger, bandleader, and educator Gerald Wilson, recipient of a 1990 NEA Jazz Masters fellowship, the nation's highest honor in jazz. Gerald Wilson's use of multiple harmonies is a hallmark of his big bands, earning him a reputation as a leading composer and arranger. Wilson’s fiery method of conducing his orchestras, even into his 90s, was always a highlight of his live performances. His band was one of the greats in jazz, leaning heavily on the blues but integrating other styles. Wilson continued to compose major works into his 90s, including Monterey Moods, which was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival and supported through an NEA grant.

In a 2006 interview with the NEA, Wilson described his education as a composer:"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."

You can read more about Gerald Wilson's life and career at arts.gov and listen to an NEA podcast with Wilson and fellow Jazz Master Roy Haynes.

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