Gerry wiggins: West Coast jazz pianist

Steve Voce
Monday 01 September 2008 00:00

A flexible and expressive soloist, Gerry Wiggins probably had more work than any other jazz pianist. He seemed never to stop and no doubt developed the habit when he was a boy, when he went to school during the day and then played at New York's Monroe's Uptown House from midnight until dawn.

Not keen, as a child, on his piano studies, he suddenly saw the light when he heard a solo record by the piano phenomenon Art Tatum.

"When I first heard that record," he said, "I thought it was two or three people playing at the same time." Wiggins took Tatum as a model, a choice in itself that gives testimony to his skills. He began meeting his idol at Reuben's, an after-hours hang-out for pianists.

"Art was the kind of guy that if you asked him to show you something he would, but nine times out of 10 you couldn't do it anyhow," he said. In 1941 Tatum recommended Wiggins to the comedian Stepin Fetchit.

"I did some playing with Stepin Fetchit, but he used me as a straight man, too," Wiggins recalled. "We worked a lot, touring all over one horse towns, but I was making $50 a week and that was a lot of money back then."

When the two played at the Brooklyn Strand in New York Wiggins met Les Hite, whose band was also on the bill. Hite, about to leave for his base in Los Angeles, needed a piano player and asked Wiggins to join. He did, and it was a fateful move, for on the one hand it took Wiggins away from New York, where he could have found fame as a jazz musician, but on the other it introduced him to Hollywood, where he found endless and profitable work.

In 1942 Wiggins played on Hite's recording of "Jersey Bounce", a record that featured one of the earliest bebop solos by Dizzy Gillespie. The following year another trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, invited Wiggins into his band ifor a cross-country tour. Wiggins was horrified by the treatment that the musicians received in the Deep South. "I put in my notice with Louis as soon as we got to New York," he said."Then Benny Carter called me a few days later and asked me to join his band. I asked him if he was going to go South and he said, 'Oh no, of course not. Don't worry about it.' Naturally the first stop the band made was in Macon, Georgia. I got so mad at Benny that I put in my notice. J J Johnson and Max Roach had to talk me out of quitting."

Wiggins was relieved when the band left the road and returned to Los Angeles, but he had to leave when he went into the US Army for two years, which he spent in a military band in Seattle.

After his discharge he spent two years in San Francisco, where he formed a trio and built up his name locally. He rejoined Carter's band for a time, until in 1950 Lena Horne asked him to go to Europe with her. While they were in Paris he made some of the most significant records of his early career, with Roy Eldridge and Zoot Sims, who were also visiting the city.

In the years that followed he appeared on many records, often leading his own trio, but most of his work came from backing singers. He took this role with Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Eartha Kitt, Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, Kay Starr, Esther Williams and Helen Humes, among others. He became famous on the West Coast as the accompanist to have if you were a singer.

"Stay out of their way! Don't get on their notes," was his philosophy. "Be in the background at all times. With singers I play differently behind each one, because each one sings different. I adapt my style to their way of singing."

He worked in jazz clubs at night and in the film studios by day, coaching Marilyn Monroe when she was called on to sing in her film roles. A framed photograph at his home was signed "For Gerry. I can't make a sound without you. Love you, Marilyn." He performed the same task for Lucille Ball, and recorded his piano on the soundtrack of the film Lady Sings The Blues (1972).

From then onwards he continued to lead his trio, usually completed by the notable musicians Andy Simpkins and Paul Humphrey, and worked in the big band led by Gerald Wilson. Among his innumerable jobs he also played for Scott Hamilton and Bill Berry and travelled to Europe and Japan to play at jazz festivals. He began a long and fruitful association with the Concord label in 1990 and went on to make some notable albums with the company.

He was given many accolades, not the least of them when the Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, proclaimed "Gerald Wiggins Day" in the city.

Gerald Foster Wiggins, pianist: born New York 12 May 1922, married 1987 (one son, three daughters); died Los Angeles 13 July 2008.

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