Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gerald Wilson: Biography

From the liner notes to Gerald Wilson And His Orchestra: The Chronological Classics: 1946-1954: “Gerald Stanley Wilson was born in Shelby, Mississippi, on September 4, 1918. Both his parents were musicians. He began on piano with some tuition from his mother. Wilson attended school in Memphis before his family moved to Detroit. He went to Cass Technical College and received an extensive musical education. Besides being a gifted trumpet player and an outstanding arranger, Gerald Wilson also plays tenor and alto saxophone. In 1936/37, he worked at the “Plantation Club” in Detroit and also toured with Chic Carter's band. In late 1939, Gerald Wilson replaced Sy Oliver in Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra1 where he remained until early 1942. . . . He then moved to the West Coast, where he worked with Les Hite, Phil Moore and Benny Carter. At that time and over the coming years, Gerald Wilson was also active as a composer and arranger for movie soundtracks. After a spell in the U.S. Navy, he organized his own big band in late 1944, from the beginning featuring young and progressive musicians. Wilson continued to lead his own big band on and off over the next decades but often took time out to compose, arrange and play with other leaders, including Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. His reputation among experts grew over the years and his recordings from the early sixties were artistically very successful. In 1963, his band was elected Number 1 by “Down Beat”, resulting in long-overdue recognition from a wider audience. Throughout the sixties and seventies, Wilson also arranged frequently for singers, including Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. In addition, he composed several extended symphonic works, which deserve to be better known. Besides ongoing studio-work, Gerald Wilson still [as of June, 2007] leads his own band in appearances at festivals and on shorter tours to this day.”

No less an eminence than Gunther Schuller will grant pardon if you are less familiar with Wilson than with Ellington; in discussing the conceptual heirs to Duke Ellington's advanced arranging techniques in Cotton Tail, Schuller mentions “such now almost forgotten bands as Gerald Wilson's, Elliot Lawrence's, and Charlie Barnet's mid-1940 orchestras.” (Schuller, The Swing Era 126). So there you go. Wilson, a contemporary of Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, is still alive today and still writing, arranging, and directing bands—you can see him directing bands at regional jazz festivals all over the country on YouTube! Wilson worked as a trumpet player and arranger for Jimmie Lunceford during the 1930's (see Schuller, The Swing Era 218-19) before embarking on a career as an arranger for a variety of artists, playing for the U.S. Navy during World War II, and forming his own band in the mid-1940's. He later formed a Los Angeles-based band in the 1960's and has since written for, performed with, and directed countless groups over the years. In 2006, Wilson directed Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in performances of his own material. At present, Gerald Wilson has been actively engaged in the forefront of jazz music for 75 years (excluding his years as a teenager learning to play, which would put him at over 80 years of continuous jazz musicianship). That is a record equaled only by Benny Carter (who had about a dozen year lead on Wilson) and maybe Clark Terry. Note also that Wilson, just like Carter, was one of those rare musicians competent on both brass (trumpet in the case of both men, trombone as well in the case of Carter) and reeds (alto sax in the case of both men, tenor as well in the case of Wilson).

1If you want to hear the section work of the very young Gerald Wilson, I recommend a 4-LP boxed set, Jimmie Lunceford: The Complete Jimmie Lunceford 1939-40. In that set, all of the recordings from Track 31 (Side 4, Track 5) include Gerald Wilson on trumpet. Wilson's first session with Lunceford was New York, August 2, 1939.

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