“ We have 12 tones to use in music. If you ”
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?