Gerald Wilson


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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.


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.
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