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.”
After Wilson had soaked up the subtleties of Beethoven, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos and the whole longhair gang, he went back on the circuit armed for anything.
“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.
Sage tips from Edwin Wilcox, an arranger from Jimmie Lunceford’s band, reinforced early clues from Wilson’s pianist older sister, who had tuned his ears to classical methodology.
“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.
Wilson’s big band itself is a slice of history. Many of the players on board at the Bowl have been Wilson friends as well as musical cohorts for decades; Snooky Young first blew trumpet with him some 60 years ago. Vocalist Barbara Morrison has long ranked as one of our region’s snazziest club attractions on her own, and Wilson is stretching the generations by inviting back Renee Olstead, the 14-year-old singer who tore the Bowl down last year (which would account for why it recently underwent substantial renovations). Far from conceding that jazz is on the fade, Wilson insists that Olstead and another local phenom, teenage pianist Austin Peralta, as well as the young orchestras he’s recently led in Norway and Switzerland — not to mention his own continued popularity — are living proof of the opposite.
“At first I tried to kill myself.” Wilson slides out a little grin, as if he’s going to serve up one of those gruesome Behind the Music stories. But it turns out he’s just talking about coffee — “I was drinking a whole pot of coffee in an hour, did that for years” — and cigarettes, both of which he quit cold turkey. Quit drinking, too.
Wilson is a small man, but a determined one. He has put aside everything that hindered his creativity, and kept whatever helped it. In the latter category are his faith, nurtured from his youth in the church with his pianist mother, and his wife, Josefina, source of support and inspiration — her Spanish heritage connected him not only with the Latin music he’s known for exploring, but with the bullfight, which became a special passion.
“The first bullfight I saw frightened me,” he says, relating how he shrank back in the stands. “I thought the bull was gonna come up and get me.” But eventually he came to know many top matadors, composing themes for a number of them.
It’s hard to say which Wilson identifies with more — the bullfighter or the bull. He talks about the origins of the sport, how a feudal lord’s servants would forage the countryside for food, and the only animal they had trouble bringing back was the wild bull. So they devised all the feints and passes that are now used in the ring.
Wilson’s favorite moment isn’t the kill, it’s the indulto. “The man has now won, and he just makes the bull do anything he wants him to do. All of a sudden he’ll just throw everything down — he’s on his knees, looking right at the bull. The bull is frozen.
“Of course, sometimes you’ll get one that doesn’t know the routine.”
The Gerald Wilson Orchestra performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, June 20. See Jazz listings for an overview of the rest of the Playboy Jazz Festival program. And Wilson has been nominated for an L.A. Weekly Music Award in the Jazz Eminence category.