Gerald Wilson’s death at 96 is not exactly the end of an era. Jazz as a centerpiece of our popular culture may be said to have predeceased him, alas. But his life certainly sums up an era.
Wilson was born in 1918 in Memphis and presumably began to imbibe jazz, country, gospel, blues in the cradle. By his early teens his family had participated in the great northern migration and settled in Detroit. Long before Motown it was a heady music town. Some of Wilson’s Detroit contemporaries were the Jones brothers — Hank, Elvin and Thad, as well as Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt and Benny Carter.
Wilson got his start with the Jimmie Lunceford big band, famous for the clever arrangements of trumpeter Sy Oliver. When Oliver left, Wilson took a trumpet chair and was soon contributing his own arrangements. It was as a leader, arranger and conductor more than an instrumentalist that he made his fame.
By the late forties and early fifties he was contributing arrangements to the Ellington and Basie bands and had relocated to Southern California where he would spend most of the rest of his life. For an arranger, it was either a brilliant or a lucky move. The big band era was giving away to bebop. California spawned its cool jazz version, but also offered a haven for out of work big band sidemen.
The movie studios and the LP recording era provided steady work for session musicians, including many illustrious names. That’s Harry “Sweets” Edison providing tasty trumpet fills on decades of Sinatra albums, for instance. Arrangers were also in demand and soon so was Wilson. Among the films he scored, the most famous may be the Ellington composed “Anatomy of a Murder” of 1959.
On record he created a long string of instrumental albums that he arranged and conducted, with famous flamboyance. In recorded interviews and the reminiscences of fellow musicians it is clear he was an elegant, sophisticated man well-versed in American popular genres but also capable of waxing lyrical about the intricate multipart harmonies he discovered and later emulated in a jazz mode in the works of Ravel, Bartok, Scriabin, Stravinsky and Ives.
That may sound a bit esoteric, but most of his work was anything but. He contributed the arrangements on album after album that beautifully supported the vocals of singers as diverse as Billie Holiday, Harry Belafonte, Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson, Bobby Darin and Nat King Cole.
When I heard of Wilson’s death and read the appreciative obituaries and was reminded of his passionate musicianship and commitment to civil rights — the great issue of his time, my immediate impulse was to put on to play his brass arrangements for 1962‘s two volume Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, a high water mark in the work of Ray Charles.
There is the sweep of all of American music — songs by the likes of Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold but colored by everything from gospel and blues to swing, soul and jazz. Listen to what he and Ray have made of “Someday You’ll Want Me to Want You” or “You Are My Sunshine” and you will realize how rich the gumbo or our popular culture can be. And you will be grateful for the long, fruitful, beautiful life and work of Gerald Wilson.