Gerald Wilson 1918-2014
The news of Gerald Wilson’s death this week at the age of 96 reminds us of the sheer scale of his career: he wrote his first arrangement in 1939 (for Jimmie Lunceford) and was still making fine records with his own large ensemble well after the turn of the millennium. In between times he produced an enormous amount of worthwhile music, as is recounted in a good Los Angeles Times obituary by Don Heckman here. But three albums that he made with his own big band for Pacific Jazz in the early ’60s — You Better Believe It!, Moment of Truth and Portraits — have always been particularly precious to me, for the way they blend the influences of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans with a receptiveness to then-current developments in modal jazz and the avant-garde, and for the presence of a bunch of smoking soloists.
Wilson wrote music that swung hard, but he never disengaged his brain or his imagination — Portraits includes tracks dedicated to Aram Khachaturian, Ravi Shankar and Eric Dolphy — and he provided a stimulating framework for such hand-picked improvisers as the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonist Lou Blackburn, the altoist Jimmy Woods and the tenorists Teddy Edwards and Harold Land.
Here’s a clip from the episode of Frankly Jazz, a Hollywood TV show sponsored by Pacific Jazz, that featured Wilson’s band. It shows them performing a snatch of “Blues for Yna Yna”, the hit tune from You Better Believe It! (on which it featured the organist Richard “Groove” Holmes), before going into Wilson’s storming arrangement of Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, from Moment of Truth. The leader picks up his trumpet to kick off a solo sequence that also features Buddy Collette on alto, Blackburn on trombone, Edwards on tenor and Jack Wilson on piano. The drummer is Mel Lewis, the bassist is Jimmy Bond and other recognisable faces include the altoist Joe Maini and the baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz.
If you want more, here’s Wilson’s original version of “Viva Tirado“, also from Moment of Truth, with Joe Pass on guitar and Carmell Jones on trumpet. It’s how one part of LA sounded in 1963. Still pretty hip, if you ask me.
* The photograph of Gerald Wilson is from the cover of Portrait and was taken by Woody Woodward.