Gerald Wilson celebrated his 95th birthday yesterday. He looks back on a career studded with achievement as a trumpeter, bandleader, composer and pioneering arranger. Early on in his writing Wilson achieved the unexpected, incorporating daring classical harmonic techniques in his big band arrangements and making them accessible to general audiences. He is the personification of a lifelong learner. Following big successes capped by a sold-out tour with Ella Fitzgerald, Wilson dissolved his successful post-World War II big band because he thought he needed more study. From my notes for Mosaic’s 5-CD set of Wilson’s Pacific Jazz recordings (out of print but available as an MP3 download), here is a section about that period in the forties when he had reached the top.
He thought he had got 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 NPR’s 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 Basie disbanded in 1949, Wilson joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. For Basie 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 forties and had a second life when Cal Tjader adapted it in the fifties. During all of that extracurricular activity Wilson continued studying and preparing for his next steps.
The next steps included the 1950s Wilson band loaded with soloists including Joe Pass, Bud Shank, Carmel Jones, Richard Groove Holmes, Harold Land, Joe Maini and a broad cross section of the cream of Los Angeles musicians. Video from those days is scarce, but here are the closing moments from one of Frank Evans’ TV shows. Wilson’s band plays one of his favored forms, a blues waltz, “Blues for Yna Yna.” Wilson solos on trumpet, Teddy Edwards on tenor saxophone, Jack Wilson on piano.
To hear what Wilson has been up to lately—particularly in regard to his remarkable harmonic imagination—I recommend his 2011 album Legacy.