9 minute read

Gerald Wilson Biography

Band Members Encouraged Arranging Efforts, Disbanded Group, Work Showed Orchestral Influences, Selected discography


Jazz bandleader, composer, trumpeter

Jazz is often thought to be a young person's art, with soloists and bandleaders becoming best known for innovations they have developed early in their careers. In the hands of bandleader, composer, and trumpeter Gerald Wilson, however, jazz has inspired a process of lifelong musical growth over a seven-decade career. As a jazz musician, Wilson explained to the New York Times, "Your first ten years are thrown away. If you did pretty good for ten years, you're just starting." Sometimes, in other interviews, he lengthened the interval to 20 years.

Gerald Stanley Wilson was born in Shelby, Mississippi, on September 4, 1918. His mother started giving him piano lessons when he was six. The pair moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Wilson heard the then-new music of the big bands on the radio. By the time he was ten, Wilson had decided that he wanted to become a bandleader. "To tell you the truth, I don't know if I had the talent for it or not," he told the Washington Post. "Maybe I just had the will and that got me in."

That willpower led Wilson to purchase a trumpet from the Sears mail-order catalog, paying $9.95 including postage. In 1934, Wilson and his mother went north to see the World's Fair in Chicago. Wilson wanted to stay on and study music in Chicago, but his mother couldn't afford the city's top-dollar music lessons. They moved on to Detroit, where Wilson studied theory and orchestration at Cass Technical High School.

Band Members Encouraged
Arranging Efforts

Wilson kept up his trumpet studies, and after finishing high school he soon signed on with a group called the Plantation Music Orchestra at one of Detroit's leading nightclubs. That propelled him to a slot with a nationally famous band, the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, which he joined in 1939. One day Wilson gave Lunceford an arrangement he had written of a tune called "Sometimes I'm Happy." The bandleader turned it down, but other band members encouraged Wilson to keep trying. He proved a quick study of what Lunceford wanted as his very next arrangement, "Hi Spook," became part of the band's regular repertoire. Wilson also contributed several original compositions to the Lunceford orchestra, one of which, the influential and modern-sounding "Yarddog Mazurka," became a jazz standard.

The atmosphere in the Lunceford band was intoxicating and did much to shape Wilson's musical imagination. "We threw the trumpets high in the air, we twirled them high up there," he told the Boston Globe. "We had all kinds of moves and put on a big show–but we played great music. Listen to it. We were the avant-garde then, and we would have two or three hits going on the jukebox at the same time."

But Wilson left Lunceford in 1942, hoping to squeeze in some touring with bandleaders Les Hite and Benny Carter before being inducted into the U.S. Navy. He then played in a band with a group of other Navy members that was led by former Lunceford sideman Willie Smith and also included future trumpet star Clark Terry. Wilson was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near his home in Detroit, but after his discharge he headed for Los Angeles and its growing jazz scene. In 1944 he formed his own big band.

Disbanded Group

This first incarnation of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra found immediate success, launching an eastward tour that stopped off for a 13-week run in Salt Lake City, Utah, and an additional two weeks in St. Louis. On another trip the group appeared at the Harlem neighborhood's famed Apollo Theater in New York. Wilson also waxed some 45 recordings with the band, as well as a number of others with smaller groups and other ensembles. Then, with his career seemingly on the rise, Wilson disbanded his orchestra. "We had over $100,000 worth of contracts," he told the Boston Globe. "But I realized I had just started and that this was not what I was looking for musically. I had to study some more."

Some of those studies occurred as Wilson joined one of the greatest of the big bands, the Count Basie Orchestra, in 1948. "They needed a trumpeter, and I wanted to sit in that band and play and learn," Wilson told the Globe. "This was the All-American rhythm section–Walter Page, Jo Jones, Freddie Green, and Count. What school could have been better than to sit right there and watch them and listen?" Wilson also played in and wrote music for the band of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, where he took the bandstand next to a radical young saxophonist named John Coltrane.

Still gathering his creative ideas as he entered middle age, Wilson took a break from music in the early 1950s. For a time he ran a small grocery store. But he kept in touch with music, soaking up new sounds as he encountered them. He immersed himself in classical music, studying the works of such modern composers as Aram Khachaturian and Manuel de Falla. On the other hand, even as many jazz musicians were rejecting popular music, Wilson contributed arrangements to recordings by Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, and even middle-of-the-road pop-rocker Bobby Darin. "I wanted to equip myself so that whatever kind of music my client wanted to hear, I was capable of making it," he explained to the Washington Post. Some of the arrangements heard on Charles's pioneering country albums of the early 1960s were done by Wilson. Employed for a time by the Mercury and Capitol labels, he wrote movie and television scores and also became the bandleader for African-American comedian Redd Foxx at one point.

Reviving an on-and-off arranging relationship with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Wilson made his way back to jazz. Building up his sound with several smaller groups, he re-formed the Gerald Wilson Orchestra in 1961. The group recorded a series of albums on the Pacific Jazz label in the 1960s. These recordings benefited from a Latin tinge inspired in Wilson's music partly by his Mexican-born wife, Josephina. The strong vogue for Latin rhythms in the 1960s even brought Wilson a pop hit when his "Viva Tirado," from the Moment of Truth album (1962) was covered by the Latin rock group El Chicano in 1970. The album The Golden Sword (1966) contained a number dedicated to a famous Mexican bullfighter and another, the "Teotihuacan Suite," that evoked that pyramid-shaped landmark near Mexico City.

At a Glance …

Born on September 4, 1918, on Shelby, MS; raised in Memphis, TN, and Detroit, MI; married Josephina. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1942-44.

Career: Trumpeter and arranger, Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, 1939-42; formed Gerald Wilson Orchestra, 1944; trumpeter and arranger, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands, 1948-1951(?); arranger for pop singers including Ray Charles, 1950s-1960s; re-formed Gerald Wilson Orchestra, 1961; instructor in music, San Fernando Valley State College (later California State University, Northridge), 1970-91; instructor in music, University of California at Los Angeles, 1991–; recorded for MAMA Jazz label, 1990s.

Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1982; Grammy nomination, Best Large Jazz Ensemble, for New York, New Sound, 2003.

Addresses: Label—MAMA Jazz, 12400 Ventura Boulevard, Suite 662, Studio City, CA 91604.

Work Showed Orchestral Influences

Once again, Wilson sought out new challenges instead of resting on his musical laurels. Commissioned by conductor Zubin Mehta to write a piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972, Wilson began to stretch his wings as a composer. His original jazz pieces became substantial, complex creations that might incorporate influences ranging from classical music to rock and rhythm and blues, and his band gained a reputation as the top large ensemble on the West Coast. Talented young soloists, such as guitarist Joe Pass, vied for places in Wilson's group. "Gerald's pieces are all extended, with long solos and long backgrounds," American Jazz Orchestra saxophonist Loren Schoenberg told the New York Times in 1988. "They're almost hypnotic. Most are seven to ten minutes long. Only a master can keep the interest going that long, and he does." In 1982, Wilson was awarded a $20,000 fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The profits from his commercially successful enterprises of the 1950s and 1960s helped finance the creative experiments of Wilson's remarkable old age. "I made a good living," he told the Boston Globe. "I made a living so now I don't have to go hustling any jobs. I have written for the symphony. I have written for the movies, and I have written for television. I arrange anything. I wanted to do all these things. I've done that. Now I'm doing exactly what I want, musically, and I do it when I please."

Wilson's dense harmonies taxed musicians' abilities, but a new generation of well-schooled players learned to keep up with him. The aging Wilson had little patience for jazz nostalgia, always looking toward new sounds. "Kids play now things those guys [early jazz players] couldn't even imagine," he told the Globe. Wilson passed on a great deal of his own knowledge as a jazz educator in later years, teaching at San Fernando Valley State College (later California State University at Northridge) beginning in 1970 and later moving on to California State University at Los Angeles and finally joining the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1991. His jazz history classes there drew upwards of 500 students. He looked back on his life and career in a 1996 spoken-word release with music, Suite Memories: Reflections on a Jazz Journey.

Wilson and his orchestra recorded consistently in the 1980s and barely slowed down after that, releasing the successful State Street Sweet in 1994, following up a successful Monterey Jazz Festival appearance in 1997 with Theme for Monterey (1998), and scoring a Grammy nomination in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble category with New York, New Sound in 2003, by which time Wilson was 85 years old. "I'm constantly learning, stretching out where I've never been before," he had told the New York Times some years earlier. "I'm always figuring out new directions where to go."

Selected discography

Moment of Truth, Pacific Jazz, 1962.

Portraits, Pacific Jazz, 1963.

Gerald Wilson: On Stage, Pacific Jazz, 1965.

The Best of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Pacific Jazz, ca. 1968.

Eternal Equinox, Pacific Jazz, 1969.

Love You Madly, Discovery, 1981.

Orchestra of the '80s, Trend, 1983.

Jenna, Discovery, 1989.

State Street Sweet, MAMA Jazz, 1994.

Suite Memories, MAMA Jazz, 1996.

Theme for Monterey, MAMA Jazz, 1998.

New York, New Sound, Mack Avenue, 2003.



Contemporary Musicians, volume 19, Gale, 1997.


Boston Globe, November 10, 1988, p. 89.

Chicago Sun-Times, September 2, 1994, p. 55.

New York Times, October 20, 1988, p. C23; January 2, 1990, p. C17.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), February 4, 2000, p. Friday-16.

San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 1997, p. Datebook-51.

Seattle Times, July 21, 2000, p. H15.

Washington Post, June 5, 1996, p. C7.


"Gerald Wilson," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (November 24, 2004).


Suite Memories: Reflections on a Jazz Journey (spoken word recording), MAMA Jazz Foundation, 1996.

—James M. Manheim

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