Gerald Wilson, a big band leader and trumpeter whose fountain of jazz compositions and arrangements became a pivotal force, influencing eight generations of musicians, died Sept. 8 in his home in Los Angeles. He was 96 years old.
The death was confirmed by his son, Anthony, a jazz guitarist.
Wilson was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990. During his prestigious career, he was nominated for six Grammy Awards. He is also the recipient of a NARAS President’s Merit Award and winner of multiple DownBeats’ Critics Polls and Jazz Journalists Association Awards.
After mentoring many young musicians during his 30-year career at UCLA in music education, Wilson was honored with a Teacher of the Year Award in 2008.
“Gerald was a mentor to me and great friend,” said bassist and educator Larry Ridley. “He was a fantastic talent as a trumpeter, composer and arranger.” As the executive director of the African-American Jazz Caucus, Ridley worked with Wilson, who was “very supportive of the organization.”
Wilson, during a mid-2000 International Association of Jazz Educator’s Convention in New York City, contributed some of his arrangements and conducted the AAJC/Historical Black Colleges and Universities All-Star Big Band. He later conducted the all-star band at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In February 2006, Wilson conducted Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as they performed his music. In June 2007, he returned to the studio with an all-star big band and Mack Avenue Records producer Al Pryor to record an album of compositions that were commissioned and later premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival for the festival’s 50th anniversary. The album “Monterey Moods” was released on the label in September 2007.
“Gerald Wilson is the embodiment of a legacy that stretches from Fletcher Henderson through the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaborations and beyond,” says Mack Avenue’s executive vice president of A&R, Al Pryor. “One can hardly imagine the heyday of Central Avenue or the vaunted West Coast sound in jazz without his musical influence. Our task now is to try to live up to the extraordinarily high standards he set.”
In September 2009, Wilson conducted his eight-movement suite “Detroit,” commissioned by the Detroit Jazz Festival in honor of its 30th anniversary. It includes the movements titled “Cass Tech,” in honor of his high school alma mater, “Before Motown” and “The Detroit River.” Wilson told NPR he had a simple rule in writing music: “make listeners happy.”
Gerald Stanley Wilson was born Sept. 4, 1918, in Shelby, Miss. He learned to play piano at age 4 from his mother, who taught music in Shelby’s segregated Black school system.
His family moved from the South early on, and by age 16 he lived in Detroit and attended Cass Technical High School.
Wilson joined Jimmie Lunceford’s big band in 1939 at age 21, replacing trumpeter and arranger Sy Oliver. During an NPR radio interview, Wilson stated, “I loved every minute of being with Jimmie’s orchestra, making records, playing theaters and making movies. We played the Apollo five or six times a year, nothing but the biggest jobs.”
While with Lunceford, he contributed a number of compositions, including “Yard-Dog Mazurka,” which became “Intermission Riff,” Stan Kenton’s signature tune after he did some rearranging. Wilson later worked with Kenton, as well as writing arrangements for artists such as Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson.
After the Lunceford band, Wilson joined the U.S. Navy, where he performed in its band with Clark Terry and Willie Smith. Returning from the Navy after World War II, he formed his own band, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, in Los Angeles, where he had relocated during the 1950s.
At various times, the band included trumpeter Snooky Young, vibraphonists Bobby Hutcherson and Roy Ayers, guitarist Joe Pass and organist Richard “Groove” Holmes. In the 1960s, the band had a succession of recordings under the Pacific Jazz label.
While Wilson’s career stretched from the swing era of the 1930s into the 21st century, his arrangements and compositions boasted an innovative freshness, flavored with years of hipness. He remained open-minded, working in commercial music in Hollywood and writing for the Platters, as he noted in a New York Times interview. “None of it was hard to do,” he said, “because all of these trends came from jazz people to begin with.”
Some of Wilson’s recent bands and recordings have included such musicians as trombonist Luis Bonilla, guitarists Shuggie Otis (his son-in-law) and son Anthony Wilson, and featured trumpeters Jimmy Owens, Oscar Brashear and Ron Barrows.
Wilson was a faculty member at California State University, Los Angeles and at California State University, Northridge in the 1970s teaching jazz history.
In addition to his son, Wilson’s survivors include his wife, Josefina Villasenor; two daughters, Geraldine LeDuff and Nancy Jo Wilson; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
A private service was held for family and friends earlier this week in California.