Gerald Wilson was a dynamic big band leader, composer and arranger whose career spanned more than 75 years. It began in the late 1930s as a trumpeter for Jimmy Lunceford’s band before forming his own big band in 1944 featuring the female trombonist Melba Liston. He played and worked as a composer-arranger with the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie, and wrote arrangements for Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Bobby Darin.
Wilson, who was born in Shelby, Mississippi, moved with his family to Detroit, started out on piano and bought his first trumpet at the age of 11. During his tenure as a trumpeter with Lunceford, he arranged the hit tunes “Hi Spook” and “Yard Dog Mazurka”. After four years with Lunceford and a stint in the US Navy in the Second World War, he settled in Los Angeles and worked in the bands of Benny Carter, Les Hite and Phil Moore before forming his own band. He worked with Billie Holiday on her tour of the southern states in 1949.
Wilson led his own bands in the 1950s and ‘60s, and became one of the most in-demand arrangers and orchestrators in jazz and pop. He wrote more than 60 charts for Ray Charles and scored films including Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. But he never gave up his dedication to jazz: “First and foremost, I’m a jazz musician.”
In the early 1960s he again led his own big bands, his compositions displaying an adventurous approach with complex voicings and harmonies. His marriage to a Mexican-American, Josefina Villasenor, led him to incorporate Latin music into his work, and his tune “Viva Tirado”, dedicated to a bullfighter, became a Top 40 hit for the rock band El Chicano in 1970. He also wrote his first piece for a symphony orchestra, Debut: 5/21/72, commissioned by Zubin Mehta and the LA Philharmonic.
Wilson became famous for his dance-like style of conducting, which he said helped listeners know what they were hearing. “I choreograph the music when I conduct,” he said. His popularity increased with his appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which commissioned Wilson compositions for its 40th and 50th anniversaries. He recorded a series of albums for the Mack label beginning with the Grammy-nominated New York, New Sound in 2003. His last album, 2011’s Legacy, featured a piece by his son Anthony as well as his own pieces based on themes by Stravinsky, Debussy and Puccini.
Gerald Wilson, musician: born 4 September 1918; died 8 September 2014.Reuse content