Obituary: Ernie Wilkins

THE TRUMPETER Clark Terry was responsible for Ernie Wilkins's success as a musician and for lifting him up when he fell upon bad times. Terry has spent a large part of his career helping jazz lame ducks. Humphrey Lyttelton said:

I always remember Clark at the Montreux Festival some years ago when trumpeter Buck Clayton was in the doldrums with lip and medical problems and I had to stand by to deputise. As the big Casino concert approached, Buck could barely get a note out, and Clark spent at least two hours with him in his dressing room trying to psych him up and stop him downing whisky to "compensate". To no avail, as it turned out, and I had to play the set. But it was very moving to hear from the next door dressing room the patience with which Clark kept on talking, to encourage Buck and, eventually, to comfort him.

Terry and Wilkins were both born in St Louis and grew up together there during the Twenties and Thirties. Wilkins then played the tenor saxophone. Terry, a trumpet virtuoso, swiftly left for better things, whilst Wilkins remained in the jazz second division.

Later, Wilkins was to transform the big-band scene with his composing and arranging for the Count Basie band, which he joined in 1951. At that time Clark Terry was already in the band. "I was talking to Basie one day while he was in the steam room," he told me.

"Hey," Basie said, "I need an alto player and a trombone player." "OK," I said, "I'll get 'em for you," because up to that point I'd brought many people into the band and he'd never questioned my choice of any of them. Right away I'm thinking, "alto player? I wonder if Ernie can play alto?" He was strictly a tenor player then. So I called Ernie in St Louis while Basie was there. "Hey, Ernie! You wanna come and join Count Basie's band?" Ernie couldn't believe me, but I managed to convince him. As Basie was there I said, "And bring your alto", emphasising "alto" so that he'd get the message. He did. His mother borrowed an old zinc-plated alto from somebody in the church choir. It was held together by rubber bands. When he brought it into the band we called it "the grey ghost".

"The band was at its lowest ebb when Ernie joined," Terry continued.

Basie said to me, "You say this cat can write? We'll let him do something for this new singer we got." A kid named Joe Williams! So he let Ernie loose and the first thing Ernie wrote was "Every Day I Have the Blues" and that particular tune with Joe Williams is what catapulted the band back into prominence. You know I shudder sometimes when I think about how all of this happened as a result of that big lie that I told Basie when I called up Ernie Wilkins, who was working in a little place over in East St Louis, Missouri, for 75 cents a night!

Although Wilkins was a fine reader, he was never more than an adequate jazz soloist. It was his ability to orchestrate the blues into electrifying and original arrangements for the band that fired off Count Basie's "New Testament" band of the Fifties. As Terry said, "Every Day" revitalised the flagging band in the Fifties and the double-sided record of it became the best-selling jazz record for years. British audiences were left speechless by the power and swing that the combination of Basie, Joe Williams and Wilkins's writing.

Wilkins was responsible for the arrangements of many of Williams's hits, including "Teach Me Tonight" and "Roll 'Em, Pete", all showing a raw fire that contrasted vividly with the more ponderous writing typically used by other big bands of the time. He wrote many fine originals such as "Sixteen Men Swinging" and "The Moon's Not Green" and arranged standards like "Perdido".

During his service Wilkins had played in a military band led by the altoist Willie Smith and then in 1948 had been a member of the last big band led by the pianist Earl Hines. When that broke up he had returned to St Louis until he joined Basie three years later. He stayed with Basie until 1955. By then he was so well known and in such demand that he was able to leave the band to become a freelance writer.

He continued to write for Basie and also wrote arrangements for the big band that Dizzy Gillespie led on tours of the Middle East and South America in 1956. He wrote also for Harry James, being staff composer for James's band. The James band eventually played Wilkins's arrangements to even better effect than Basie had.

Although he seemed one of the most unlikely people to fall victim to it, the pressures of his work led Wilkins into heroin addiction during the Sixties. Once again Clark Terry was on hand to help. Terry formed a small band with a by then almost unemployable Wilkins on saxophones. Terry, after a long period as a featured soloist in the Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and Gerry Mulligan bands, was now at the top of the tree. In 1968 he formed another group, the Clark Terry Big B-A-D Band, into which he took Wilkins both as saxophonist and writer of most of the band's library. Terry worked to rehabilitate Wilkins and as a result Wilkins was able to break his addiction and resume a normal life.

The two men worked together throughout the Seventies. From 1971 to 1973 Wilkins was the head of the artists and repertory division of Mainstream Records. He and Terry toured Europe together during the late Seventies before Wilkins finally settled in Copenhagen in 1979. He worked with the local Danish musicians and with visiting Americans and in 1980 formed his own group, the Almost Big Band. This was very successful, benefiting from Wilkins's instinct for swinging scores, and it recorded albums in Denmark in 1980 and 1981 and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1983.

The move to Denmark had been a good one, and Wilkins's career flourished, despite his becoming ill in 1989. He went to Paris that year to record some of his compositions with an all-star band that included some of his earlier colleagues from the Basie band. He visited England in January 1991 to conduct the Danish Radio Big Band in some of his works including the then newly discovered "Suite For Jazz Band" that he had written 30 years earlier. The band's concert in Croydon was recorded and issued on the Hep label.

Although his talent never diminished, his health did, and through his last years he relied on a computer to help him write. "My job is to write the best arrangements in my way, to transcribe what I thought and felt as faithfully as possible for and through the music. If it takes me a week to write four bars but in the end I get what I imagined, then that's a good result."

Ernest Brooks Wilkins, composer, orchestrator and saxophonist: born St Louis, Missouri 20 July 1922; married; died Copenhagen 5 June 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project