Honoring Jazz Giant Gerald Wilson: Happy 96th!

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Gerald Wilson  1980
With Gerald Wilson in 1980 at the old KCRW Studios (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Gerald Wilson is one of my musical heroes. I loved all his Pacific Jazz albums from the 1960s, and songs like “Patterns” and “Lighthouse Blues”. Gerald was everything: born in Mississippi in 1918, moving to New York City at a young age to play lead trumpet and arrange for the legendary Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, where he, just out of his teens, replaced veteran Sy Oliver.

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The historic Dunbar Hotel (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Gerald arrived in LA in 1940 and promptly became a fixture on Central Avenue which was a 2 block strip of jazz clubs. It was LA’s answer to 52nd Street in New York City, though it’s sadly less recognized for the jazz mecca it once was. Some greats on the scene included Art Tatum, Nat Cole, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Teddy Edwards, and Buddy Collette. The epicenter of this vibrant jazz scene was the Dunbar Hotel with its popular Club Alabam. The Dunbar Hotel has a rich history which you can read more about here.

A few years ago, I interviewed Steve Isoardi, author of Central Avenue Sounds which is a book about the jazz scene on Central Avenue. Also at the interview was Cy Touff, Buddy Collette, and Gerald Wilson, plus some other veteran jazz artists. While some of the guests were wracking their brains, trying to answer my questions, Gerald stepped up to the plate and remembered everything: he has a photographic memory. He recalled the band members, the songs and charts, everyone who came to Club Alabam, those who stayed at the Dunbar. It was incredible!

Gerald Wilson also did a daily radio show for KBCA, 105.1 FM, co-hosted by Dennis Smith. It aired at Noon on weekdays and I caught it whenever I could. Later, he taught at Cal State University Northridge and then UCLA. At both universities, he became the most popular teacher with hundreds of students trying to get into his classes.

Gerald Wilson with his big band, his teaching, and his recordings was a mentor to thousands of people. He nurtured the careers of players like Harold Land, Buddy Collette, Oscar Brashear, Joe Pass, Anthony Ortega, and countless others. His orchestra was like a university. Additionally, Gerald also has always been an accomplished arranger and wrote for Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Julie London, Ray Charles, even Duke Ellington.

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Wilson’s spoken-word autobiography: Suite Memories (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I am currently listening to his audio autobiography, Suite Memories, and I am floored. It’s 2 CDs with Gerald talking about his long and amazing life. I listened while driving today and there was a big smile on my face wherever I went. His mind and memory are encyclopedic and the history he presents is absolutely fascinating.

A few months ago, I wrote a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in hopes of getting some more official recognition for Gerald. The certificate you see in this photo below is what came back. It was a great honor to present this award to Gerald at the end of July. It was at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, and his big band was on fire once again with that big swing orchestra sound that Gerald is famous for, harkening back to the big bands of Basie, Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford.

Gerald Wilson is slated to be honored on his 96th birthday, which is today, September 4th. Thank you Gerald Wilson for all you have given to us lucky Angelinos and jazz fans everywhere! As Gerald always like to say, “You’re a fine young man!!!”

Here is an early 60s clip of the band on an LA TV show hosted by jazz radio DJ Frank Evans:

Here is a video of Gerald Wilson’s Jazz Orchestra recording a recent album.

Just added on 9/8/14: I just found out that Gerald Wilson died today from complications of pneumonia. I am devastated and sad.