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A Fireside Chat With Gerald Wilson

By Published: October 10, 2003

GW: Yes, of course, I love being in the schools. My mother was a schoolteacher. I love being in the schools. I went to replace a fellow at Cal State Northridge for six weeks and I stayed there for thirteen years. When I went there, they had about forty people in the class and when I left, they had just what the auditorium could hold, around two hundred. Then I went to Cal State L.A. and was there six years. The same thing happened there. Then I went to Cal Arts for a couple of years and then I went to UCLA and have been there for twelve years. So you can see, I have about forty years at the college level of teaching my class. My class starting in September will have four hundred and eighty students. That is the largest jazz class in the world.

FJ: What do you try and impart to your students?

GW: The first thing I want to teach is how to try to be a better person. I do that in music. I try to do the best I can. I try to be a good person. I hope I’m a good person. I love people. I love being with them. I want to emphasize the difference between right and wrong. When you leave my class, you’re going to know where jazz came from and when it came and who did it. You will know that and you’ll be able to talk with anybody that wants to speak with you about jazz.

FJ: Where did jazz come from?

GW: Jazz is the music of the black people. It started with the slaves even before they were freed, they were playing jazz. They have carried it on. They have developed it. In the beginning, it was only played by blacks. Whites didn’t even let their own people play it, forbid them to play it. But now, everyone plays it, no matter what you are. Now, the new styles have come in to where it is so technical and so refined. The young guys like Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, and Terence Blanchard, these giants of the trumpet. The point is, it is their folk music. So they don’t have to struggle to play jazz. Jazz is their life. It is my life.

FJ: And it’s been life worthy of mention.

GW: Yes, I’ve met many people in the jazz world. You will find that people in the jazz world are good people. You’ve got to be a good person to play jazz. If you have a bad feeling and everything is negative, you can’t make jazz. You have got to be free so you can play and your goodness can come out. When you are bad, you’re not for jazz. I think jazz is a good thing for a person.

FJ: We need more jazz.

GW: Yes, of course. Jazz integrated in 1920. Black and white musicians started working together then, in 1920. They continued on and all of the sudden, jazz was already integrated. Benny Goodman came in and integrated it more, and Artie Shaw. It integrated long before segregation was banned in the United States.

FJ: Mack Avenue has just released your latest, New York, New Sound, featuring Clark Terry, Kenny Barron, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess, among others.

GW: Yes, first of all, Fred, the reason I did it in New York was I was at the IAJE last year in Toronto. I was there to conduct the University of Michigan’s jazz orchestra on a couple of numbers. While I was there, I ran into all of my friends that I had worked and played with, Jimmy Heath. We had played with Dizzy Gillespie together. Also, I ran into Frank Wess. I saw Kenny Barron and I’ve known him for a long time. The idea came to me that I should make an album in New York. I owed New York a lot. I lived there all total of five years. I went back and forth with Ray Charles. I was in New York all the time. I learned so much in New York. I thought I should go back and work with my friends again and make an album with them. I can give something back to New York and repay what they gave me. I love the place. It is a wonderful place and you have to live there to know how wonderful New York is.

FJ: You have received countless awards and accolades, but when Mosaic put out the box set a few years ago of all your Pacific Jazz recordings, I knew your work was finally being recognized beyond the Southern California borders.

GW: Yes, I have done the best I could. Los Angeles is my home. I have lived here for about sixty-two years. It is my home. I love it and this is it. It is a great city.

FJ: As much as this city has given you, you have given more than enough back.

GW: I hope I can give some more (laughing).

FJ: That’s a hope for all of us.

GW: Thank you.

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