At 87, Gerald Wilson casts a long shadow over the history of jazz. His new collection In My Time sizzles with power and joy, as a New York allstar ensemble ignites his dazzling arrangements. His musical associations and friendships catalogue some of the best musicians of the last 60 years: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson, Zubin Mehta, the list is endless. He is also a writer, arranger, composer, trumpet player and a popular teacher at UCLA.
All About Jazz: How's the new record [In My Time (Mack Avenue, 2005)]?
Gerald Wilson: It's doing good.
AAJ: I see saxophonist Kamasi Washington's on there.
GW: I took him with me. He didn't make the first record with us [New York, New Sound (Mack Avenue, 2003)], because he was in school here. He just graduated this year. He's only 22 years old. But I took him to New York when we played Birdland. I had this big thing at Birdland, so I took Kamasi with us. We also took him to Detroit with us this year. We played the Detroit festival the last two years. They had a helluva band in Detroit. Rodney Whitaker, bassist, he was the contractor. He knew all the musicians to have. He had four or five guys in the band that played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. That's who I'll be conducting when I go to New York.
I'll be at Lincoln Center for three days, which is an honor. You want to play in places like that, if you can. I'd like to thank the people responsible for that. I'm sure Wynton Marsalis would be one who knows what's going on there, so I'm sure he would have helped me, because we're good friends. His father [Ellis] and I are good friends, in fact I knew his father before he was born. It pays to have friends. I met his father when he was in the marines. They were here doing work here in Hollywood. We all did a broadcast for a jazz show they had on ABC. I had him over to my home, my wife fixed breakfast for him and we became friends. I met all of his boys, very nice young men. The twilight of my career is offering me the same kind of feelings I got in my early days.
AAJ: You've witnessed a lot of changes on both sides of the bandstand.
GW: Jazz should get more credit for what it did for black people. It was because of people like Duke and Ella and Nat King Cole that got the door cracked for us to go in here and play in these places. Duke, Ella, Nat, Count Basie all played the Flamingo Hotel. I'm the one who played the first night a black could walk in the front door. My band was the first black band that could go into the casino, that could eat in the coffee shop.
The NAACP had been working on that for years. In Las Vegas, I played the Dunes, the Flamingo, but at that time you couldn't go in the front door. You couldn't go in the casino at all. Dinah Washington at the Sahara couldn't get dressed in the hotel, they put a trailer outside. Then, in 1955, I played with Benny Carter's band. We opened up the first interracial hotel in Las Vegas, called the Moulin Rouge. Beautiful, brand new hotel, over in the black neighborhood. Everybody wondered what was going to happen, because Las Vegas was one prejudiced place. First time I went there a black couldn't do anything or go anywhere. They didn't have a big black neighborhood, very small. I went into Las Vegas with Benny, we opened up, nothing happened. I stayed there three months, we played three months there. Finally, the hotel did close.
I played the Dunes with Cab Calloway with his quartet after the thing was over at the Moulin Rouge. There was no need to be segregated anymore. The Flamingo made that deal with the NAACP and that was 1960. Before Martin Luther King, before Rosa Parks, things were changing already. They'd been working on it, not to belittle anything, because they still had a long way to go. It wasn't just Las Vegas.
I played for Martin Luther King. This is after I inaugurated integration at the Flamingo. They had one of the biggest rallies they ever had at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and they asked my band to play. I had the most popular black band in Los Angeles. I had Harold Land. I had Charles Lloyd. I had Elmo Hope. A helluva musician, Lester Robinson. I had the cream of the crop. They had Herb Jeffries, Jackie Cooper, Robert Culp, Mahalia Jackson. Things were really moving. I was a member of the NAACP as a kid in Mississippi.
AAJ: Weren't you involved with integrating the Los Angeles musicians union?