Gerald Wilson

gwilson2Gerald Wilson is an unusually skillful, imaginative, and charismatic bandleader. His arrangements have distinctive, often complex voicings and harmonies, rooted in swing and bop, yet always forward-looking and energetic in tone. He likes to play around with structures, which contributes to the restless quality in much of his music, and he was one of the first arrangers to make use of Spanish influences.

He has been consistently able to attract top-rank musicians to his bands, who play with immaculate precision.

Wilson moved from Memphis to Detroit with his family in 1932, and studied music in high school and played with the Plantation Music Orchestra before undergoing the formative experience of his life, working with the Jimmie Lunceford band from 1939 to 1942.

Wilson learned his craft in the Lunceford band, after which he took off for Los Angeles to play with the bands of Les Hite, Benny Carter, and Willie Smith. Wilson organized his first big band in 1944, which sported an intriguing blend of swing and bop and featured musicians like Melba Liston and Snooky Young. But it only lasted three years, and after playing for Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie in 1947 and 1948, Wilson quit the music business for a while to try his hand in the grocery trade.

gwilson3In 1961, Wilson formed a new orchestra which made a string of successful albums for the Pacific Jazz label throughout the ’60s, featuring soloists like Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, Bud Shank, Jack Wilson, and Joe Pass. One tune that he wrote for the Moment of Truth album, “Viva Tirado” (later reprised on Live and Swinging) became a surprise hit single for the Latin rock group El Chicano in 1970.

Wilson continued to lead big bands off and on through the ’80s and ’90s, as well as running the orchestra for Redd Foxx’s NBC shows and serving as one of the Los Angeles jazz scene’s more revered elder statesmen. In 1995, he commemorated more than half-a-century as a leader by releasing State Street Sweet, a vigorous tribute to the durability of his work, and scoring a solid hit at the Playboy Jazz Festival.

In 1996, Wilson’s life’s work was archived by the Library of Congress, and in 1997 he completed Theme for Monterey, a piece commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival. In 2003 he recorded New York, New Sound, his debut for Mack Avenue Records, which went on receive a Grammy nomination in the “Best Large Jazz Ensemble” category. Several albums for Mack Avenue followed with In My Time in 2005, Monterey Moods in 2007, and Detroit in 2009. In 2011, Wilson released his fifth Mack Avenue album, the classical-themed Legacy.

NPR page:

12 Essential Wilson recordings:

Complete Pacific Jazz recordings:

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