By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The year was 1946, and Gerald Wilson was on top. His big band was about to hit the road with 13 dates of fat paychecks. He was co-billed with Louis Jordan, “the biggest man in show business at that time.” He’d been making music with Ella Fitzgerald. He’d already scribbled reams of charts for the hottest outfits — Ellington’s, Basie’s, Lunceford’s, Calloway’s. His singer was the great Joe Williams.
And what happened then, Mr. Wilson? You overdosed on smack, right? Your manager split to Singapore with your bankroll? You crossed cudgels with your drummer and ended up in traction? Your wife turned lesbo? You got sick and had to cut out your own pancreas with a rusty sardine tin?
Dammit, this isn’t some bonehead rock star, it’s Gerald Wilson, one of the world’s most respected bandleaders since the day when jazz was considered popular music. (And that’s a long time.) So what really happened at that moment?
“I had it all then,” says Wilson, sounding amazed, flanges of white hair jutting from under his Legends of Jazz baseball cap. “And I said to hell with it, I don’t know anything yet, I gotta go study some more. So I came home — Los Angeles was my home — and I started studying all the classical music I could get into.”
“Everything happened for me,” he says. Wilson aspired to play professional trumpet, to write and arrange, to record with the best, to play Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl (annual site of the Playboy Jazz Festival, where he performs this weekend). He did it all, and he’s not finished.
The rest of us slobs, struggling with the challenges of parallel parking, can look at the Wilson story as some kind of miracle, or we can suck some inspiration from it. The latter, sad to say, becomes rather more difficult when you learn that (surprise!) Wilson is not like everybody else.
“When I was 10 years of age,” he says, “I already knew what I was going to do. I would be playing the trumpet, and I would be writing music.” So he buckled down, and grabbed his opportunities. (Sounds simple, doesn’t it?) He made his own reputation by creating his own sound.
“We’ve got 12 notes to work with,” says Wilson. “Wilcox always used to say, ‘Gerald, try to get it full. Build it up so you’ll have the harmony going.’”
You know how so many big bands blare loud and thin, sounding like 30 kazoos in a giant washtub? Wilson explains the reason: simplistic horn charts, which negate the whole point of having a roomful of instruments at your disposal. Bend an ear, though, to the Wilson school — “Blues for the Count,” for example, from last year’s New York, New Sound, where pianist Kenny Barron’s introduction fools you into thinking you’re hearing a straight 12-bar, then Wilson eases the whole orchestra in with a range of dizzy colorations that’ll make you sit down before you fall over. And in contrast to standard procedure, Wilson’s horde consistently swings from the bottom, his mass of trombones supporting the bass to lay down a deck that could carry an aircraft squadron.
At times in Wilson’s music, you hear touches common not only to Ellington, but to the large ensembles of Charles Mingus, not surprising since both the Arizona native Mingus and the Mississippi-born Wilson came up in Los Angeles — Wilson pronounces it with a hard G — and the two were friends, as well as members, along with Buddy Collette, of Les Hite’s influential band. Another local touchstone was Eric Dolphy; in 1960, when the green avantist cut Outward Bound, his first album as a leader, the very first tune was a swinging, harmonically boggling extravaganza. Title: “G.W.”
It’s time to recount some of Wilson’s credits, so settle back. Six Grammy nominations. Forty years as a California college educator, currently at UCLA teaching a class of 480. “Gerald Wilson Day” tributes in Mississippi and Chicago. Awards from numerous foundations, publications and municipalities, national and international — he especially prizes one from the city of Los Angeles.
The awards do, however, come with certain difficulties: “I’ve got no place to put ’em anymore.”
Musical and political progress have counterpointed each other for Wilson. He was a member of the first bands to integrate Las Vegas stages and hotels; more to the point, he numbered among the musicians who spearheaded the amalgamation of the black and white Los Angeles Musicians Unions that took place in 1953. In fact, he was the lucky dude picked to make the motion that brought the matter to the table: “It was quiet. Nobody could believe what I was saying.”
As we talk, we’re sitting in his choice of location, the Musicians Union building on Vine Street, built a few years before the amalgamation. Photographs in the hall freeze time at points three or four decades ago, with Elmer Bernstein, Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta sporting Hollywood-hepcat hairdos, and integration represented by the likes of Eddie Harris, Joe Williams and Art Davis. It’s important to Wilson that classical and jazz (“the two technical musics”), white and black, be seen side by side, as equals. At this point, only an idiot would argue for distinctions. But there are those still alive who remember when it was different.