Jazz Icon: Gerald Wilson
A musical pioneer who has helped plant the seeds of jazz throughout history
by Brian W. Carter, Staff Writer
American Jazz trumpeterâ€¦big band bandleaderâ€¦composer/arrangerâ€¦ and educator are the many hats that Gerald Wilson has worn throughout his career. At the age of 91, Wilson has a long list of accomplishments including arranging for Duke Ellington, Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz artists.
Gerald Stanley Wilson was born in Shelby, Mississippi on September 4, 1918. Wilsonâ€™s family lived in the South during a time of racial segregation. Hoping for a better future, Wilsonâ€™s mother sent him to the North to live with family. Although he had previously visited Chicago and wished to move there, his mother sent him to Detroit. It was in Detroit that Wilson enrolled at Cass Tech High School, which was second to Juilliard at that time. He learned music from his mother, who was a pianist but began in depth study at Cass Tech. Wilson received a world amount of experience and exposure within the schoolâ€™s music department. He attended Cass Tech from 1934 to 1939 which he spent developing his talent and love for jazz.
Before he graduated, Wilson joined the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra in 1939 as a trumpeter. He wrote hits for the band such as â€œHi Spookâ€ and â€œYard-dog Mazurka.â€ It was around this time that Wilson began arranging for band greats like Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington. In the mid 1940â€™s, he formed his own band with moderate success. During WWII, Wilson performed briefly in the U.S. Navy with musicians Clark Terry, Jimmy Nottingham and other musicians. He stepped away from music briefly and returned in the 1960â€™s with a Los Angeles based band. They recorded hits such as â€œYou Better Believe Itâ€ and â€œPortraitsâ€ with the Pacific Jazz label. At this time, Wilson wrote a lot of Spanish/Mexican themed music inspired by his wife of over fifty years, Josefina Villasenor Wilson, who was of Mexican descent.
Wilson continued leading bands and recording in the following years. He worked with celebrities like Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles and Ben Webster. Wilson even got into television arranging for Red Foxxâ€™s television shows. He was the host of his own jazz show in the 1970â€™s for KBCA in Los Angeles. Wilson went onto teach Jazz history at UCLA and Cal Arts. He worked at UCLA for 22 years teaching jazz history. In the 1980â€™s, he recorded with Mack Avenue and MAMA, won a Jazz Master Fellowship grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1990 and taught at many different schools.
In 2006, Wilson conducted with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He put a special album together with producer Al Pryor and an all-star band for the Monterey Jazz Festivalâ€™s 50th Anniversary. The album, â€œMonterey Moodsâ€ was released on Mack Avenue Records in September 2007. Wilson retired form UCLA in 2008 and received the â€œTeacher of the Yearâ€ award. In 2009, Wilson conducted his 8th movement suite entitled â€œDetroitâ€ which was commissioned by the Detroit Jazz Festival for its 30th Anniversary. He entitled one of the movements â€œCass Techâ€ in honor of his old alma mater.
There is no doubt that Gerald Wilson has led a musically talented, gifted and rewarding life. His influence has played an integral part in music and Jazz history. At 91 years of age, it is clear Gerald Wilson will continue to inspire Jazz players and connoisseurs for years to come.