Gerald Wilson, Versatile Jazz Arranger, Is Dead at 96
Gerald Wilson, whose eight-decade career as a jazz composer, arranger, big-band leader and trumpeter spanned generations, styles and geography, died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 96.
His son, Anthony, a jazz guitarist, confirmed the death.
Mr. Wilson was not yet 21 when he joined the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939 as a trumpeter, replacing Sy Oliver, and he was believed to have been the last surviving member of its prewar incarnation. He went on to write and arrange rich and imaginative music for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and many other major names in jazz. He brought robust harmonies and a wide spectrum of colors to his orchestrations, but he may have been best known for his versatility and his enduring freshness.
“Even if you were chronologically decades or maybe generations younger than Gerald, you always felt like he was the youngest person in the room,” Loren Schoenberg, a saxophonist and composer who is the artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, said in an interview on Tuesday. “He had none of that feeling that you were hanging out with a guy from the 1930s or 1940s.”
Mr. Wilson was often a behind-the-scenes influence; even if you had never heard of him, you were often hearing him. Usually he was given credit. Sometimes his work was brazenly borrowed.
The memorable melody from “Yard Dog Mazurka,” the stomping hit he wrote for Lunceford (and among Mr. Wilson’s favorites of his own compositions), resurfaced as “Intermission Riff,” a hit for the Stan Kenton band for which Ray Wetzel was credited as the composer. Mr. Wilson considered suing but decided against it. Years later, he wrote for Mr. Kenton — and received credit.
Settled in California by the 1950s, Mr. Wilson showed little regard for stylistic boundaries, working with pop musicians, film composers and his own eclectic and admired big band, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, whose members over the years included the guitarist Joe Pass and the trumpeter Snooky Young. Clean-cut early on, he dropped the neckties, opened his collar and let his hair grow into a mane that became silver with age. He recorded a string of well-received albums on the Pacific Jazz label in the 1960s that included variations on Mexican music and pop and often felt little like the jazz that had come before.
The title song of his 1968 album, “California Soul,” was written by the rhythm-and-blues duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The album also included a version of the Doors’ hit “Light My Fire.”
When Mr. Wilson came to New York in 1988 to take part in an American Jazz Orchestra retrospective of his music, it was his first appearance in the city in 25 years. In an interview with The New York Times that year, he gave a glimpse of his varied career and why he pursued it.
“When I worked for Mercury and Capitol records in the ’50s and ’60s, I did a lot of pop dates, from Bobby Darin to Nancy Wilson,” he told The Times. “I knew how to do it, and using it all made sense as well as money. I worked in commercial music in Hollywood, writing for the Platters, working with Maxwell Davis backing B. B. King. I did Nancy Wilson’s rock-styled stuff. I worked on the country-western albums for Ray Charles. Then I recorded ‘Light My Fire.’ None of it was hard to do, because all of these trends came from jazz people to begin with.”
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Gerald Stanley Wilson was born on Sept. 4, 1918, in Shelby, Miss. He began playing piano at 4, learning from his mother, who taught music and other subjects in Shelby’s segregated black schools.
His family later moved to Memphis, where he first saw the Lunceford band perform. By 16 he was living in Detroit, attending Cass Technical High School.
In addition to his son, Mr. Wilson’s survivors include his wife, Josefina Villaseñor; two daughters, Geraldine LeDuff and Nancy Jo Wilson; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Mr. Wilson left the Lunceford band to serve in the Navy during World War II. After his military service, he formed a big band that performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and in 1949 he toured the South with Billie Holiday.
Six decades later, he was still at it. Among his most recent albums was “Monterey Moods” (2007), a suite he composed in honor of the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he first played in 1963.
He was nominated for six Grammy Awards during his career and in 1990 was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Dealing with four- or five-part harmony, the sound can only get that big,” Mr. Wilson, gesturing with his fingers, told The Times in 1988. Then he opened his arms wide. “But with 10 voices, it’s like that.
“With a few voices, the sound of the band can’t ever get any bigger. No matter how loud you play it, it won’t get larger. But I love to orchestrate, because if you know what you are doing, there are no boundaries.”
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