Gerald Wilson is recognized as one of the premiere composers, arrangers and band leaders in modern jazz for more than half a century.
Born in Shelby, Misissippi in 1918, Gerald launched his professional career as a trumpet player when he became a member of the musicians union in 1937. Two years later he joined the highly popular Jimmy Lunceford Band in New York and stayed four years. From the beginning, his compositions and arrangements such as “Hi Spook” and “Yard Dog Mazurka” had a powerful impact on the repertoire of the band.
After serving a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Wilson made Los Angeles, his permanent residence. He began writing and playing for Benny Carter and Les Hite, then organized the first Gerald Wilson Jazz Orchestra in 1944. For the next three years, the orchestra worked mainly in New York and Chicago, boasting among its members, trombonist Melba Liston, trumpeter Snooky Young and vocalist Joe Williams. In 1947, when the band was at its peak of popular and commercial success, Wilson dissolved the band opting to pursue his sturdy of harmony and orchestration in Los Angeles. His main focus was study, but he continued to play and record. Gerald toured with the Count Basie Band in 1948, then joined Dizzy Gillespie in 1949, enhancing the group’s repertoire with his compositions and arrangements. Dizzy and Gerald developed a lifelong friendship.
Gerald Wilson is one of the most active arrangers and orchestrators in jazz and popular music. Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn, Julie London, Bobby Darin, and Carmen McRae are but a few who have employed his talent. He has also produced music for motion pictures and television. Otto Preminger employed his talent to score the film, Anatomy Of A Murder, and he was conductor and music director for The Redd Foxx Show on ABCTV.
In 1969 Wilson began intensive study of classical composers. Stimulated by this research, Gerald composed an extended work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic titled, “5/21/72”, which was performed under the direction of Zubin Mehta. This success led to further commissions in the classical form, including four arrangements for the Philharmonic and the Joel Westmorland 200-voice interdenominational choir.
Creating innovative jazz has been, and remains Wilson’s primary motivation. “I’m always looking for something new and never really had a problem getting my work heard. Something always opened up for me”. He began his ongoing recording career in 1945 for Excelsior and Black & White labels and moved to Federal in the 1950’s. Gerald inaugurated a long and rewarding relationship with Pacific Jazz in 1961 producing such critically acclaimed albums as, You Better Believe it!, Moment of Truch, Portraits, On Stage and The Golden Sword. In the 1990’s Wilson began recording with MAMA Records where he produced his 1995 CD, State Street Sweet, which was nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Large Ensemble Jazz Performance. His 1995 MAMA album, Suite Memories-Reflections on a Jazz Journey, is an amazing chronicle of Wilson’s life in jazz. Gerald recalls his experiences from the ’30s to the present in this series of candid interviews.
Continually seeking ways to share his knowledge and passion, Gerald spent thirteen years teaching jazz history at California State University Northridge, six years at Cal State L.A., and six years at U.C.L.A. where he is currently teaching. In the early 1970’s Wilson hosted a daily jazz radio program for KBCA in L.A., and is now completing a book on jazz harmony. His deep commitment is boundless. “It helps keep me alive”, he explains, “because jazz is such a chain of evolution. I just try to be worthy of being a part of this great art form. I’ve given to jazz the best that I have”. Gerald Wilson’s best has produced some of the finest music modern jazz has to offer.
The prolific musical contributions of Gerald have earned him five Grammy nominations, Downbeat International Critics Poll Top Big Band and Composer/Arranger honors, 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, the Library of Congress bestowed a rare honor on Gerald and archived his life’s work.