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Gerald Wilson

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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]
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