Walking proud to the bandstand, grinning like a man going home, Gerald Wilson started a recent set at Moonlight in Sherman Oaks with a little offhand patter. “We got a lot of great guys here tonight,” he said, scanning the assembled 17 members of the orchestra. Setting his eyes on an old pal in the trumpet section, he said, “There's my man Snooky Young. Hey, I haven't had a chance to tell you about my eye surgery, Snooky.”
He made the time, right there and then. Wilson's reached an age (he's 79) and a stature where he knows that if he speaks, others will listen. Another thing about Mr. Wilson – he knows his worth. A few minutes later, he set up a piece from his dapper new Theme for Monterey album by saying he was about to play a swinging waltz. Though jazz has offered a few waltzes before, chief among them Fats Waller's “Jitterbug Waltz,” only he'd found the way, the secret formula, for making a waltz swing, he said. Back at the bar, a friend of Wilson's chuckled appreciatively. “Leave it to Gerald,” he said, “to say Fats Waller didn't swing.”
Even his press kit calls him “the perennially humble Wilson” with a big poke in the ribs. There's an Ali-esque playfulness to Wilson's boasts – he is the greatest, the waltz did swing, and you laugh at what he's saying until you see things his way. Playfulness is present, sure, you can hear it in his cartoon-lion voice. But attendant as well is the familiar story of a Central Avenue veteran who never fully got his props. That's changed some lately – Wilson's entire body of work was archived in the Library of Congress a few years ago, and his voice roars across the pages of the fine new local jazz oral history, Central Avenue Sounds. Wilson's composed for Basie and Ellington, after playing with Jimmie Lunceford – heck with that, he's kept alive the idea of the big band for some 50 years. Besides which, he and Snooky may well have been the first African-Americans to integrate the Palladium, in 1943. He's been Redd Foxx's musical director and lived long enough to see his Latin-tinged “Viva Tirado” achieve popularity first with his group, then become a Brown-beret anthem for rockers El Chicano in 1970, and then hit as a lowrider groove for Kid Frost in the early '90s. Stick around for enough years, and things don't come back around to the beginning so much as they spiral out of orbit in ever more fascinating ways.
The new album provides a cross section of Wilson's career. There's bebop arranged for maximum big-band damage, there's a Latin groove, there's whisper-to-scream dynamics. “It features a lot of very important stuff that is synonymous with the band,” he says a few days later. He's practicing Wilsonian diplomacy while sitting in a Crenshaw district IHOP, smearing a globe of butter across his waffle. He's talking about the six-, seven- and eight-part harmonies that he writes, and the horns that punch holes through the wall of chord- age. He's beaming.
“You come up against a band like mine, right away the people can tell you're not really roaring. It's like, boom” – he mimes his band's impact – “What is this? It isn't gonna get any bigger. It can't get any bigger. It's impossible.
“I'm a jazz musician. I've written for singers, rhythm & blues, rock movies, television shows, live, I've done it all. Did it all. I'm in jazz now. I'm not looking for any job . . . I only write my music for my band.” He bangs the table so hard the little cart of flavored syrups jiggles around. But this is important.
“There's more to this than lots of notes. Lots of exercises, nobody knows where you're going.
“Can't swing” – he's taunting an invisible opponent now – “Can't swing! There's too many notes. You're forcing the notes to fit.
“I went out to construct something that was completely different. And modern – I'm a modern man, came up in the swing era, I was there even when Dixieland was popular. But I'm a modern person. Even when I was in school.”
Born in Shelby, Mississippi, educated in Detroit, Wilson came to Los Angeles on a sleeper train in 1940. The year before, he'd joined the Jimmie Lunceford band as a trumpeter, composer and arranger, taking the seat the great Sy Oliver had once occupied. He left Lunceford and joined the big band of Les Hite, one more word-of-mouth great of midcentury Los Angeles jazz who recorded so little (opportunities were few on Central) that assessments of his legend are no easy thing.
In 1944, Wilson formed his own orchestra. They'd play the big theaters as well as intimate small-group showcases like the Down Beat. It was from playing such jewel boxes that Wilson refined his highly theatrical sense of dynamic contrast. From then right up to Theme for Monterey, Wilson has wielded an awesome skill for making you lean in to hear the band's murmurings, only to snap back before a 20-piece garrote lands on your neck.
“About playing in the Down Beat . . .” is how I begin the question.
“How did we get in there?” he hoots. “I knew it could be done, because I had seen it done when I was with the Jimmie Lunceford band. We played a very small cafe in Boston, with a dance floor. In fact, that's how the ensemble sound they became so famous for started. Because what we would do was, we would drop the trumpet parts down an octave, all those high parts we'd have them play. Trombones could play softly up to a certain part. So that when people were eating dinner, we'd play it way down there,” he gestures on the down-low. “And then, when you'd hear us count it out, we'd shout it out!
“People were . . . just . . . swinging, and then – wham! – and then . . . they're screaming! SCREAMING!”
Did people at the Down Beat scream? “Oh yeah. What you've got to remember is, the ear appreciates this.” To illustrate this thought, Wilson assumes the voice of the ear: “Give me some food here. Let's hear something here.”
Now his ear is really talking. “Let me hear something! You gotta feed your ear,” he declares, tucking another forkful of waffle into his mouth.
While he was stoking all hungers at the Down Beat and along Central Avenue, elsewhere it was a lamentable time for the jazz orchestra – whole horn sections were drafted away, and the groups that stayed together faced audiences craving not seven-part harmonies but bebop and, soon enough, rhythm & blues. The big band was waning, but it's not like Wilson was among the casualties. His band was still peaking commercially – they'd had successful tours and were offered a prestigious slot on a show with superstar Louis Jordan – when Wilson took the ensemble off the road to begin a period of intense personal music study.
He'd always been ready for a new challenge, and on Central had enjoyed an ongoing, informal seminar with Billy Strayhorn. But it was during this break that Wilson refined the prismatic voicings that gave his orchestra its signature hugeness. Today, live and on the elegant Theme for Monterey, it's like he's trying to superimpose not just his harmonies and rhythms, but his impatience upon a place renowned for its placidity. Commissioned for last summer's Monterey Jazz Festival, Theme for Monterey starts out with soprano saxophonist Scott Mayo soothing all before him on “Romance.” It's the first expression of a theme that gets vamped and revamped over the next 45 minutes or so. But if Monterey is the start, Wilson sets out for faster, brighter places; the record is utterly metropolitan, resolutely big-city in its reach. This isn't contemplative, reflective, rustic or ready for the golf course. And if Wilson was kicking it surfside upstate, I bet he'd be on the cellular to Snooky, getting a report on the doings in town. The soloists – among them Oscar Brashear on trumpet, trombonist George Bohanon and tenor saxophonist Randall Willis – also burn with the heat of hotter locales.
After “Romance” comes “Lyon's Roar,” picking up the tempo. The orchestra leader's son, guitarist Anthony (who leads his own sharp group), delivers a measured, lightly swinging statement; by tune's end it has given way to a tenor battle, then ensemble wails. There's something in here about gracefully abandoning yourself to the group, about letting the massed blasts wash over you without ever losing your balance, your place in the world. It's there on “Lyon's Roar,” and it's there when Wilson conducts his orchestra. He looks so damned excited to be up there, like however good it is for everybody else, where he stands it's the best of all.
At the end of the Moonlight set – after an arrangement of “Summertime” that's like a journey to a very langorous planet – the band kicked into the song that has become their theme, “Jammin' in C.” And when they counted off and shouted it out, the bandleader smiled, turned to the crowd, and placed his hands over his ears. I'm sure he could hear the music just fine. Can you feel that? he was asking, an amazed look on his face. For one night, at least, the ear had got its fill.