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For more than 50 years, GERALD WILSON has been recognized as one of the premiere composers, arrangers, and band leaders in modern jazz. Now in his 87th year, the elegant and gracious master continues not only to create brilliant, sophisticated music, but to reap ever greater honors for his timeless contributions to American culture.
The perennially humble Wilson has garnered his share of accolades, including six Grammy nominations, top Big Band and Composer/Arranger honors in the Downbeat International Critics Poll, the Paul Robeson Award, the NEA American Jazz Masters Fellowship, and two 1997 American Jazz Awards for Best Arranger and Best Big Band. In 1996, Wilson received the rare honor of having his life's work archived by the Library of Congress.
Wilson began his life in jazz in 1937, when he joined the musician's union and started playing professionally. Two years later, at the age of 21, he was invited to join the highly popular Jimmie Lunceford band in New York City. His impact was immediate, contributing such powerful material as Hi Spook and Yard Dog Mazurka to the Lunceford repertoire. After settling in Los Angeles, he organized the first Gerald Wilson Jazz Orchestra, featuring trombonist Melba Liston and trumpeter Snooky Young among its members. Twice touring the country, Wilson's big band made its mark in New York City, receiving rave reviews playing at the Apollo Theater between bookings of the Ellington and Lunceford bands, and in Chicago, landing a ten-week engagement at the Regal Theater and hiring a young Joe Williams as the band's vocalist there.
Just as his orchestra was reaching a peak of popularity and commercial success in 1947, Wilson dissolved the band. "All of a sudden I was in New York City with my band. I was very successful," he remembers. "They were booking me everywhere and I had contracts all over the place, and I realized that, 'Hey, this wasn't what I wanted; there's still so much I've got to learn.' The only way I could was to actually stop and really study. My booking agent was ready to kill me."
Back in Los Angeles, Wilson devoted himself to refining his knowledge of harmony and orchestration. "It wasn't that I dropped off the scene," he says, "I was still playing and recording, but I was into that mode of studying." Indeed, in 1948 he went on the road as a member of Count Basie's big band, a learning experience itself in what Wilson calls "the cradle of swing." In 1949, he joined his good friend and fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's group.
From the late 1940s through the '50s, Wilson was one of the most active arrangers and orchestrators in jazz and popular music. In addition to providing musical settings for Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Julie London, Bobby Darin, Carmen McRae, and many others, he developed a close working relationship with Duke Ellington. That "little association," as Wilson calls it, lasted until Ellington's death in 1974.
One of the most generous of artists, Wilson has continually sought ways to share his knowledge and passion, from hosting a daily jazz program on L.A.'s KBCA in the early 1970s to teaching jazz history for 13 years at California State University Northridge, six years at Cal State L.A., and for the past six years at UCLA. He is currently completing a book on jazz harmony. "It helps keep me alive," he explains, "because jazz is such a chain of evolution. I just try to be a person worthy of being a part of this great art form."
In recounting his associations with other jazz greats throughout the years, Wilson typically deflects credit and compliments to others as he quietly goes in search of yet another peak to scale. A tireless and creatively inexhaustible artist, Wilson rarely takes time to bask in the limelight that he shares with the other giants of jazz. Instead, with genuine humility, he says, "I've given to jazz the best that I have." And, coming from Gerald Wilson, that will always be some of the best there is in modern jazz.