By Deardra Shuler
Gerald Wilson was conducting the Juilliard Jazz Band at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on the 5th Floor of Jazz at Lincoln Center the night of this interview. It was clear the man knew his music and was enjoying the 18 young musicians who made up the orchestra. Wilson who loves mentoring young musicians has taught jazz history at the California State University in Northridge for thirteen years and at the California State University in Los Angeles for six years, and still teaches at UCLA where he has been teaching for 17 years.
“I started in music at the age of 4. My mother was a music teacher and she started me on the piano. I went on to learn the trumpet” stated Wilson who was born and raised in Shelby, Mississippi. “The school in Shelby only went up to 8th grade so I had to continue my education in Memphis, Tennessee where I attended high school and studied trumpet. I went on to Detroit, Michigan where I attended Cass Tech. They had wonderful music courses there. By then, I knew my life’s mission was going to be in music. All of my family played music. My sister was a classical pianist for a long while and my brother played jazz piano before becoming a businessman” said the arranger/composer.
“I got a well rounded education in school. I learned how to write music. I learned harmony, orchestration, piano, percussion, one-string instruments and eventually went on to write movies, television and even wrote for the Los Angeles Philharmonic via an invitation from Zubin Mehta. The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned me to write a number and afterwards I wrote 4 other pieces for them. All my pieces for them were conducted by the great Zubin Mehta. He actually brought my work to New York when he conducted the New York Philharmonic and when he conducted the Israel Philharmonic which was founded in Tel Aviv. He took my music everywhere he appeared” claimed the 88 year old music icon.
At the age of 21, Gerald joined the Jimmie Lunceford band, before doing a stint in the navy during WW2. He moved to L.A. afterwards where he continues to reside. He played trumpet and wrote music for Benny Carter and Les Hite until he formed his own band, the Gerald Wilson Jazz Orchestra which featured Melba Liston and Snooky Young. At the height of its popularity, Wilson disbanded the band.
“I played my own band at the Apollo Theatre in April, 1946. We played all over the country. In 1938, I met Dizzy Gillespie, long before he was playing be-bop. We became friends because we both played trumpet and were studying to be writers. We remained friends up until Dizzy’s death. I even played in his band in the 1950s. It’s a great feeling to play here at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola because we were lifelong friends” said the octogenarian and band leader.
Wilson has many, many albums, the latest compositions being “In My Time,” and the double Grammy-nominated “Theme for Monterey,” (1999 Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance: Best Original Composition: “Romance”) which chronicles three recent works. “Theme for Monterey,” a large scale set of five variations comprised of a 40-bar theme was commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival in celebration of the festival’s 40th anniversary. “In My Time,” just won an award from the International Association of Jazz Journalists for the Best Band of 2006 in the World” said Wilson who’s been nominated for 6 Grammys. He has been honored for top Big Band and garnered Composer/Arranger honors in the Downbeat International Critics Poll, the Paul Robeson Award, the NEA American Jazz Masters Fellowship and two 1997 American Jazz Awards for Best Arranger and Best Big Band. Wilson was also honored when his life's work was archived by the Library of Congress.
“One of my Grammy nominations was for the music I wrote for Nancy Wilson. I was nominated for the piece I wrote on Mattadore Paco. My piece New York New Sound got nominated among others as well” recalled Wilson who is presently working on a new number for the 50th Anniversary of the Monterey Festival. “I plan to be back in New York in January for the International Association of Jazz Educator’s Convention in behalf of the festival” said Mr. Wilson. Gerald Wilson has taken his music to places such as Italy, Paris, Norway, England, and even traveled to Switzerland with the Carnegie Hall Orchestra. “I played jazz at Carnegie Hall at least 5 times” mentioned Wilson.
“Although I often compose and orchestrate classical music, I enjoy jazz the most. I find jazz to be very creative and quite unique. Via my experience in jazz, I’ve worked with folks like Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Julie London, and Bobby Darin, all wonderful people. I did country and western albums with Ray Charles. In fact, my music is in The Country and Western Hall of Fame” said the father of 3 and grandfather of 4.
And how will posterity record Gerald Wilson? “I think that I have so much written about me while I live, that already there is no more kick for me. I think I am known even in those places I have never been. I can’t complain. Life has been good to me. I continue to strive to be a good person and to continually create. I have had a wonderful career. Every goal I’ve set for myself, I’ve reached. Now, I am just having fun creating and moving onward looking to do newer and greater things.”