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Interviews

Gerald Wilson

By Published: May 17, 2004

We have 12 tones to use in music. If you

Gary Walker:The winner and recipient of so many awards that if I listed the mall, we’d be here the whole hour. Nominated six times for a Grammy award. An NEA recipient as a jazz master. His works are ensconced in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. He’s asked for them back by the way... No, he hasn’t. Because he ain’t done yet. They’ve got to make more space. The wonderful bandleader, composer, arranger, orchestrator, educator and energizer, Gerald Wilson is with us his morning. Gerald, thank you for coming down.

Gerald Wilson: Well, thank you for having me over to this wonderful jazz station here.

Walker: You were smiling during that tune there. That’s 1940...

Wilson: Nineteen forty-one. It brought back such great memories for me. Actually, it wasn’t the first arrangement that I made for the band when I joined Jimmy Lunceford, but it was actually my second arrangement and orchestration. So I love it when I hear it because I can see all the guys there, all the wonderful musicians in the Lunceford band. It just brought back great memories for me.

Walker: Those two tunes that we’re talking about right here, “High Spook” and that one there, “Yard Dog Mazurka” which Ray Wetzel kind of turned inside out and it became “Intermission Riff” later on for the Kenton band. But those two tunes, “High Spook” and “Yard Dog Mazurka,” you may or may not know this, were the inspiration for a young guy who when he heard those two tunes said “I want to be a jazz musician.’ And his name was Horace Silver.

Wilson: Horace Silver. Yeah. My dear friend. I just talked with him a couple of days ago before I left Los Angeles. He’s a dear friend and, as I say, one of my favorite composers and a wonderful person. So it’s good to be around him. I told him about two or three weeks ago that I’m sorry I didn’t meet you that day that you saw the band because I was there and he was just a little kid. But anyway, I see him now mostly every week or so. It’s just good. Horace Silver is such a great musician.

Walker: If you’re just tuning in this morning, our special guest is Gerald Wilson who has come from the west coast to what we like to call the best coast. And he’ll be leading his big band tonight made up of a bunch of New York cats, but many of those cats go way, way back with you in various places that you stopped along the way. You’ve done so much in your career. One stop was with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra and I think you and Jimmy Heath.

Wilson: Absolutely. I was lucky enough to be able to join the Dizzy Gillespie band in 1950 and Jimmy Heath at that time was the second alto player in that band because the first alto player in the band at that time was John Coltrane. It was a wonderful band. It had Paul Gonsalves. It had John Lewis was back on piano. Al McKibbon, my classmate from Detroit and so many of the great musicians in the Dizzy Gillespie band. Incidentally, I want you to know I actually knew Dizzy Gillespie while I was still in high school in Detroit. Because he came to Detroit in 1938 with Edgar Hayes’ band and stayed there for 12 weeks. We became great friends at that time

Walker: You’re talking about Cass Technical High School where people like Tommy Flanagan, Betty Carter and so many others passed through and you also spent some time there. Was it Cass High School?

Wilson: Cass Tech is the name of the school. I stayed there for five years. It was an amazing school because at that time all of the schools in Detroit were integrated. That was in 1934 when segregation was real big at that time. But it was a wonderful city, a wonderful school, as you know. Bobby Byrn, one of my classmates, his father was the head of the music department. Bobby Byrn is a young kid who at the age of 16, I think it was, he replaced Tommy Dorsey with the Dorsey Brothers orchestra. So he was quite a guy. So you can imagine what kind of school it was. It was music all day. Had it not been for Cass, I doubt seriously whether I’d be here talking to you today.

Walker: Wow, that’s quite a testimonial. Way back with the Lunceford band, 19 years old. But in 1943, I believe it was, took off on your own. Snooky Young came along with you. And everybody said, “You’re doing what?” He says, “This guy Gerald Wilson has got something going on here. And I need to get me some more of this.” And so you went out and you formed your own band, in your early 20s. You toured all over the United States, played some incredible venues. And back then you could do that, because we’re talking about the 1940s when the big band sound was alive and well, wasn’t it?

Wilson: Yes. Well you know Snooky and I were in the Lunceford band together. We played. We had played with a band in Ohio just a couple of weeks or so before I joined Jimmy Lunceford. Well, actually about a month before I joined Jimmy Lunceford. Then when Eddie Tompkins left the Lunceford band, Snooky came to join the Lunceford band. So we both left and went to California. Because we were waiting to be drafted into the service at that time. But it just so happened I didn’t get drafted for about a year, so in between that time I was just very fortunate. I was lucky enough to play with Benny carter’s band. Actually Les Hite’s band also. Snooky and I were with Les Hite’s band, which was a great band on the west coast. Actually Dizzy Gillespie played in Less Hite’s band at one time. So when Benny came to California, we joined Benny’s band. That was a chance to learn so much more from such a great musician like Benny. And then, of course, going into the service. Into the United States Navy. Another chance to go to school again and I was lucky enough to be there with my good friend Willie Smith out of the Lunceford band. Clark Terry the great trumpeter was there. All of the musicians were fine and it was another chance to learn so much about what I was seeking. I was just a great time for me during that period.

Walker: What a great time for me and what an honor for me to be talking to Gerald Wilson, who is one of a select group of the trumpet writers. Benny Carter would be another. Sy Oliver. Neil Hefti. Quincy Jones and yourself. That’s some pretty good company.

Wilson: They’re all my friends. As you say, Benny Carter was a great trumpet player himself. I actually replaced Sy Oliver. When he left to join Tommy Dorsey it gave me the opportunity to join the Lunceford band. Sy is my dear friend. I knew all of the guys in the band at that time. In fact, you know, during that period whenever the band would hit Detroit, a bunch of kids I attended school with we would just hang out with all of the bands from the time they got to town until they leave. So you knew everybody. Duke and Chick Webb. Ella and all of those people. So it was a chance to be with the people that meant so much and helped us so much, the younger musicians during that period.

Walker: Now here we are in the year 2003 and we still got some stuff to talk about here. A brand new recording. In fact you’ll be celebrating this for one night tonight at Birdland in New York City with a bunch of these New York guys that’ll be joining you and you’ll be celebrating New York, New Sound which is a new recording on the Mack Avenue record label, with your good friend Stix Hooper, who’s featured on a lot of these tracks. Stix also did some work for you back when, didn’t he?

Wilson: Yes he did, during a time in the 60s there when the Crusaders were in Los Angeles. I needed a drummer at one period and Stix came in to help me out, stayed with me for a few jobs. I also brought along their bassist Buster Williams. So it was really a great time. And I want to thank Stix for giving me this opportunity to be a part of this venture. I wanted to come and work with some of the wonderful musicians here in New York. You know, I kind of consider New York as one of my homes. I have quite a few homes. In fact, I’d like to name them if I could. I have my first home, which is Shelby, Mississippi. My second home is Memphis, Tennessee. I studied there for three years in high school. And also at a school where Jimmy Lunceford had been a teacher and a football coach.

Then my next stop was Detroit, Michigan. That’s my other home. And New York was my next home. And of course I thought at that time, there was a statement we had going along in the band and around New York: We’d leave New York to go to heaven. So I had planned to make my whole life right in New York. Every chance I get to come here, I’m eager to get here because this is my home. And of course Los Angeles is another one of my homes. And San Francisco is one of my homes because I lived there for about three years. So I’ve got all those wonderful homes in the United States and I’m just so proud to have a chance to be in those wonderful places. And of course the whole country. You know the Lunceford band played every state, every capital city in the United States except one, and that was North Dakota. So all the rest I’ve been to thanks to the Lunceford band and the other bands. I spent two years with Count Basie’s band, so that was another two years here in New York. I feel like it’s my home too. It is my home too, and it will always be.

Walker: We’re going to get into some of this new recording. It’s a revisit, however. And as I look through the glass I see his wonderful wife, Josephina. And I want to play this version of it. Every version is different because of the soloists and the members of the band that bring something to it. You’ll hear Kenny Barron on piano here and his old buddy Jimmy Heath on the tenor saxophone from the new recording, New York, New Sound: Today. Gerald Wilson our guest on Jazz 88.

[plays recording]

Walker: It is hard keeping up with Gerald Wilson, ladies and gentlemen. I gotta tell ya. Right there, a couple of family affairs for him. Recreations on his new recording entitled New York, New Sound on the Mack Avenue record label. He’ll be celebrating that tonight, for one evening only at Birdland in New York City. A piece right there called “Nancy Joe” for one of his daughters it’s named. With Sean Jones on the trumpet and Jesse Davis just burning up on the alto saxophone. Son Anthony Wilson on the guitar and Kenny Barron, reminiscent of Jack Wilson on the piano. And “Josephina” with Kenny Barron taking a solo again and Gerald’s good buddy Jimmy Heath on the tenor. You’ve got to know, as we were listening to this music, Gerald was sitting here going, “Wow. Listen to that Sean Jones. Listen to him.” He’s like me. He’s like me when I listen to this music, except he really knows it inside and out.

And man, I’m telling you he can hang. I remember back in Toronto at the International Association of Jazz Educators one night — I think the restaurant had closed, you know that palm area they had there in the lobby — They came and they asked us to leave. I said “what about those people I hear on the other side of the palm trees there?” And he said “we’re going to ask them to leave too.” And I mean it was late, folks. There was nobody else in the place. And as we got up ready to leave, I peeked through the palm and down at the end of the table was Gerald Wilson and some of his buddies sitting around, telling stories and laughing and having a good time. I just couldn’t hang any more. It was late. I mean, it was he late, late show was over and they were still hanging. This music makes you feel like that doesn’t it?

Wilson: Well, it makes me feel that way. I’m glad the musicians that play it, they play it so well and they give their own sound to it. It’s a different sound. It’s the sound of the people that makes the music. It’s like the Duke Ellington band. Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, Cat Anderson, Clark Terry and all those great musicians. They make the sound of the band. And that’s what the Duke said, so that’s good enough for me.

Walker: You did, I wouldn’t necessarily call it ghost arranging, but you did some work. You worked on “Anatomy of a Murder,” correct?

Wilson: I worked for Duke quite a while. I made my first two arrangements for him in 1947. They were for Columbia Records. Everything that I did for the Duke has been recorded and that includes 15 numbers I did for him in all during my career. As you said, it was like ghosting, but later on I got all of my credit for everything I did for the Duke and I’m so happy that he gave me the chance to be a part of his organization.

Walker: We played Nancy Wilson this morning and some of your work with her. I played a couple of things with you and the great Ray Charles. Dinah Washington, you went out on the road together.

Wilson: Billie Holliday.

Walker: Billie Holliday. And Bobby Darrin. You did some work with Bobby Darrin. I think it was Dinah Washington you went out on the road with and then when you were done with that tour, wasn’t that the tour when you disbanded because you said, “I don’t have enough time to learn. I need to learn more.”

Wilson: That was Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald and my orchestra and I had just hired a young singer in Chicago, where I had just been for 10 weeks at the El Grotto, named Joe Williams. And I realized that my band had reached the top already. We were right there. We had been to New York, we had already played the Apollo and they gave us a great welcome here in New York in 1946. So I said “I haven’t even started. I’ve got to get back and study so I can really earn what they’re giving me now.” So that’s what happened there.

Walker: This is a man that says I want to write for orchestra, I want to write for television, I want to write for film and I just don’t have the time to do all that stuff. So disbanded and had a million dates booked, so I’ll bet your booking agent never talked to you after that point. Couldn’t understand why at the top of the game someone would say “I need to disband.” And the answer was simply: a man who was dedicated to his art said “I gotta stop this in order to do this over here.” I heard you mention recently in an interview with someone about what I call a full service musician. Someone like yourself who not only plays, but also composes and arranges for the world of jazz, but also does it for the world of television and the world of film. You had mentioned someone like Terrance Blanchard coming along these days as someone who carries that kind of torch. You had that kind of torch too. We talked about “Anatomy of a Murder.” I wonder if anyone remembers the Connie Francis film “Where the Boys Are.”

Wilson: “Where the Boys Are.”

Walker: That was also something that you did in the world of film.

Wilson: Yes. That was for MGM. It was my first picture to work on. It was a great honor. I did others after that, of course. I worked with David Racksin over at Columbia. I did stuff at Universal and Warner Brothers. And then my other was, I wanted to write for the symphony orchestra, you know, so I had studied and studied hard and one day I got an invitation from Zubin Mehta to compose a number for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and after that, got a commission to do four other orchestrations for them which he took all over the world with him. He brought his to New York and played it with the New York Philharmonic, some of my work. He also did it with the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv. So once I got there I was ready for anything, so that’s what I had been working for.

Walker: It’s interesting that you talk about MQM being the first place that you did work for film. That was also the first place where Lalo Schfrin did film work and I think it’s because they were a recording arm, they were also a film arm too. Lalo told me, he said “I just want to do some of that.” It’s a little bit harder these days, but scoring for film, “Anatomy of a Murder.” Television shows, you were musical director for Redd Foxx.

Wilson: Yes. You know I would like to also put in a plug for another New Yorker, a fellow by the name of Calvin Jackson. I know people won’t remember him because he never got any credit also on the screen. But he did over 14 films at MGM. I mean complete. He was a fantastic writer, had done some work for the Lunceford band when I was with them in 1939 and 1940. I just wanted to give him that plug because a lot of credit he didn’t get during his time here.

Walker: He’s a member of so many hierarchies in the world of music and for the past 40 minutes or so I hope you’re getting an understanding about the wonderful world of Gerald Wilson, whether a member of the Jimmy Lunceford band early on or scoring “Anatomy of a Murder” and working not only with Duke Ellington, but working with Count Basie and so many others and working with so many singers over the years and his work in film and television as well. But also a member of Los Aficionados des Los Angeles. Talk about that if you would.

Wilson: That is an exclusive bullfighting club. And they have units all over the United States. It’s a very large organization. Each year they give you an award if you have contributed something to the world of tauromaquia, the world of the bullfight. It just so happens I have written a number of compositions for bullfighters, my first one being, of course, Jose Ramone Tirado who is one of the greatest of his time, a young man that thrilled me the first time I saw him because he was such an artist. I said I’ve got to write something to try to paint this young man in music. So I tried that and it kind of came off from him and became a big hit for me.

Walker: You make the distinction, and you’ve recorded that song four or five times, but you’ve also said there are 18 or 19 other versions.

Wilson: Absolutely. There are about 17 or 18 different versions of it, including some people that you wouldn’t expect it from. Like the guy that did the “Yackety Sax,” he did it. Percy Faith did a fine version of it. And many others. Jack Costanza. I can’t name them all. It was a big hit. It has been into some TV things too, by the way.

Walker: Gerald is someone who treats the world of bullfighting as an art, not a sport, because of the similarities between the artistry of the matador and the artistry of the jazz musician. And we will continue with our conversation with Gerald Wilson after we enjoy some of Gerald’s work.

[music]

Walker: Yet another and ever so fresh. Sounds like the first time you’ve ever heard it. “Viva Tirado” which is a tribute to Jose Ramone Tirado, one of the world’s greatest bullfighters. And the art of bullfighting, not the sport of bullfighting. And Gerald Wilson a member of Los Aficionados des Los Angeles, which is a very exclusive... Have you ever been in the ring?

Wilson: The bull ring?

Walker: Yeah.

Wilson: Yes, I’ve been in there numerous times. I knew all of the matadors by that time. I’d written for about eight or nine of them, had written numbers for them. So when I’d come in, they’d all treat me like I’m a part of the group, you know. It was wonderful. My wife exposed me to her culture, the Mexican culture. Because a lot of times, some of the numbers I write, you wouldn’t think that a black guy had written this. But that’s because of environment. She had exposed me to the environment and I could hear it. I heard the music. They have such great music there in Mexico also. We were just in Mexico last year and it’s a wonderful thing to be liked by other people too.

Walker: There’s a lot of people here in this area that also like you very much too.

Wilson: Well, I’m sure happy about that.

Walker: A couple of guys, the American Jazz Orchestra guys, are probably a lot of them are listening this morning. Mr. Giddins and the hard work that he did over there. And of course the late John Lewis as the musical direction. But what a concert that was.

Wilson: I want to thank Gary Giddins and John Lewis and the American Jazz Orchestra and Schoenberg. They’re such wonderful people and they brought me in. It was a real shot in the arm for me to be able to come back to New York and work with all the wonderful musicians. Jerry Dodgion was in that band. He had worked with my band in San Francisco. Jerome Richardson and Benny Powell. I can name them all. They were all just wonderful musicians that I love working with. That gave me a chance to be back in New York again with them.

Walker: With everything that you have done. It’s such a pity we only have an hour here, because Gerald and I could sit and talk for four and a half hours about various things. Such as your approach to the Afro-Cuban area of music is not so much what you do with it rhythmically, but what you do with it harmonically. And parts for the various sections, right?

Wilson: Yes, because I don’t know too much about... They have so many different kinds of rhythms and when they come in with their percussion section, they’ve got so much going on, to try and write all of that would be a mistake, I believe. But all you do is put that stuff around the harmonic tones and things like that and they’ll take care of the rhythm. So, I love the Cuban music and the Afro-Cuban approach, but as I say, trying to write out the rhythm parts — just forget it and let them take care of it because they know what to do.

Walker: Now you still write by hand. You don’t use a computer. You hate a computer as much as I do, don’t you?

Wilson: I can’t even turn it on. I have one at home that my daughter gave me a year ago. I haven’t even learned how to turn it on. But I’m going to, because as you know I’m having a little problem with my eyes right now. I just can’t see the small print and things like that. So I’m just going to have to get so that I just have my keyboard there. When I do it on the piano — boom — it’s right there. And if you want to hear it back, you can hear it back right now. I’m looking forward to working with the computer.

Walker: With everything that you have done and the cultural contributions that you have made, the educational contributions. You should have seen this guy at the IAJE in Toronto. He was working and pushing, as he does, pushing the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble. And when they got done. And when they got done — I can’t remember the tune, but it was: Bah bah! It just ended right on a dime. And they all looked at each other like “Who the hell just did..? Why it was us!” And that happens every time you take the stand. And I’m sure it’s going to happen tonight with seasoned musicians. Who are some of the cats going to be with you tonight?

Wilson: Tonight we’re going to have Rene Rosnes with the Carnegie Hall group will be there. We’re going to have, I don’t know if you know Charles Fambrough a great bassist, played with Art Blakey. A wonderful bassist. He’ll be there with us. Lewis Nash will be there with us. Anthony Wilson, my son, will be with us. We’re going to have Jay Branford, baritone. We’re going to have Jerry Dodgion, we’re going to have Jesse Davis. We’re going to have Frank Wess, the great Frank Wess. And I brought a young man from the school where I work. You know I teach at UCLA now, I’m in my 13th year there now. I brought a young 22-year-old saxophonist that is just going to electrify the crowd. He is just marvelous. Be looking for this guy and listening to him tonight. You’re going to enjoy him. All the other guys. We’ve got Jon Faddis, of course. I want to thank Jon. He contracts the band here. We’ve got Jimmy Owens who made my first “Carlos” back about 38 years ago. He’ll be back to play “Carlos” again a he did on my first album. Also Sean Jones will be there. He’s a monster on the trumpet. Frank Green. So we have really an outstanding bunch of guys. Benny Powell. Who are the other guys we’ve got? I’m trying to think of all of them. But anyway, they will all be there, the ones that are on this record. I’m looking forward to Birdland tonight. You know, I never got a chance to play in Birdland. I had been in Birdland a number of times. I was there every year I’d come to New York. I’d be over there. But this time, I can now say that I have played in Birdland. We know that that’s the great place that honors the great Charlie Parker and I want to thank the people for giving me the chance to be in a wonderful establishment tonight.

Walker: When I hear your music, whether it’s the inspiration from the Monterey Jazz Festival, the five-part wonderful suite you wrote “Theme for Monterey” to help celebrate one of their anniversaries, but when I hear your music, I see dance. Did you work with dance companies?

Wilson: Everything I do, if you are there to watch me, I choreograph it because I do the dancing up on the stage, although I’m not a dancer. I can’t even dance. But when the music comes, I choreograph it. That’s just one of those things. I want to feel it, you know.

Walker: This man is 85 years old.

Wilson: Wow!

Walker: He just celebrated his 85th birthday. Listen to him. After 50, they’re all a surprise, right? Just last month in September, celebrated his 85th birthday. And I’m telling you, when he talks about choreographing the performance. Some of you have seen, you couldn’t have missed over the last few years, you couldn’t have missed Michael Jackson performing and the way he moves on stage. He ain’t got nothin’ on Gerald Wilson the way he moves on stage. I’m serious about this. I don’t have a clue as to how you do it. I hope I’m still walking down the street.

Wilson: One time when I was a kid I was working with a band in Detroit and the pianist was 50 years old and I was 17 at that time. I said, “Gee, 50 is old. If I make it to 50, I hope I can make it that long.” So I’ve been lucky to be out here a little longer than that.

Walker: What would you like to do that you haven’t done?

Wilson: There’s a few more things I want to do. The sound of my band is the harmonic structure that I use and I have a theory that I call eight-part harmony theory. They don’t have it yet in the universities either. That is the use of eight different notes instead of four. Most bands are playing four-part harmony. A little five-part. A little six every now and then. But basically four parts. Now with my theory, you’ll be able to write and use eight different notes. In other words, when you hear my brass shout down on eight different notes, it’s going to wipe you out right quick, because there’s so much in jazz. We have 12 tones to use in music. If you’re just using four and five, what are you going to do with the other seven? There are other notes there. And everything is compatible on the piano. I do that to demonstrate to my classes. I just go and hit every note I can get my elbow and my hands and my arms on and hit them all at once. And then you hear the greatest chord you ever heard in your life. But you can’t write that, you know, so you try to get as near as you can.

My theory will be out in a new book that’s coming out in about a year from now. My theory will be there and they’ll have it, if there are young writers that would like to advance in harmony, they’ll get a chance to see right there how to do it. It’s there.

Walker: That theory will be practiced. And I tell you, if you’re a composer or arranger and you walk into Gerald’s room, you’re in big trouble, man. You’re in big trouble I can tell. Gerald, thank you.

Wilson: I want to thank you and thank this wonderful jazz station here, music station, in Newark. I’ve been here, this will be my third time, I believe. I enjoy coming here every time I get here. I want to thank you for inviting me to be here today.


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