Tuesday, September 9, 2014

REST IN TEMPO: Gerald Wilson, 1918-2014

[The following is taken from an Oral History Interview between bandleader/composer Gerald Wilson and writer Steven Isoardi, conducted of March 21, 1991 for the UCLA Central Avenue Sounds Project. It has been edited for length.]

ISOARDI: Let's begin at the beginning and talk about your roots: where you were born, what the environment was like, family, friends, when you first encountered music.
WILSON: I was born in Shelby, Mississippi in 1918, September 4 being the birth date, 1918. Shelby, Mississippi. A very small town about eighty-five miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. At that time, it was called "the heart of the Delta. " I just remember this from being a very small child—that it was a place where, in this delta, in this section, they raised more cotton than in any place in the world. I remember they used to say that all the time. I know there were three or four gins in my hometown, Shelby. But that's just a part of Shelby. Shelby was, as I said, a very small town, a very small black community. My mother [Lillian Wilson] was a schoolteacher at the Shelby grammar school, where she taught from the twenties through the time that she retired, which would be in, I'd say, the late sixties.

Really? That long?
My mother taught school there for many, many years...In Shelby we had a grammar school—that was all we had there—for black kids. In those days it was segregation, of course. It was right at the end of World War II, 1918. The armistice had been signed. I can remember some of the soldiers coming home. It was a time of war and peace. However, as I said, my mother teaching at the school, I attended that school until I finally graduated from grammar school there.

From left: Gerald Wilson (trumpet), Irving Ashby (guitar), George "Red" Callender (hands over ears), Lee Young, Sr. (drums), and Phil Moore (piano)
[courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection]

Can I ask you where your mother got her education?
My mother was educated and she graduated from Jackson College, which is now called Jackson State [University]. That's in Jackson, Mississippi, the capital of Mississippi. That is where she received her education. She was also a musician. She played piano. She 2 taught some of the early classes in music in Shelby. And then she also played in the church, even up until the time that she could not play any longer due to health reasons. So I got my beginning in music, actually, with my mother, who started all of us. The Wilson kids, my brother [Shelby James Wilson] and sister [Mildred Wilson]—we all got a start in music.

You must have been very young.
Yes, very young. So being around music all my life, it was easy for me to pick up on it and begin to like it. As I said, my sister was a fine classical pianist. I had already heard her play compositions by Mendelssohn, [Ignace] Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Beethoven. In my early days I knew of these composers and heard my sister play their music, besides being interested in the music of the day, which was jazz coming out of New Orleans, which was...very close by—about, I'd say, maybe no more than three hundred miles from my hometown, directly south. Direct. Because the Illinois Central [Rail Line], New Orleans to Chicago is direct north to south, straight—no turnoffs or anything. So I was listening to all of the music. And even in the early days when I was a child around five or six, I was already hearing Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and Papa Celestin. I heard about all the great black musicians playing jazz during that period, even. So it was easy for me to be headed on my way to music. And of course, as I say, getting my earlier days of music in Shelby, even—before I left Shelby I already knew of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines and Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford...They were already famous organizations. Carroll Dickerson, Erskine Tate, Tiny Parham— And not only these people. There were people even out of New York, out of Baltimore. I was already into jazz, already listening to jazz before I left Mississippi.

I left Mississippi at the end of the eighth grade because there was no other place to go there. I had to go someplace. So I went to Memphis. I attended Manassas High School, where Jimmie Lunceford had once been a teacher. I started trumpet lessons there with Mr. Love, who was one of the pioneer music teachers of Memphis, who was recognized in that capacity in the city of Memphis—one of the early pioneers in Memphis. He was my trumpet teacher. He was the leader of the Postman's Band. I heard the fine bands of Dub Jenkins and all the Mandarin bands from the Mandarin Club and many musicians from Memphis, Tennessee.

Had you been playing trumpet?
I had started playing trumpet before I left Shelby.

Why the trumpet?
Only because it was a shiny instrument, I guess. I really should have taken the piano. I started on the piano; my mother started us on the piano. I should have stayed on it. It's really the master instrument to my mind, because it has everything there...But anyway, I studied there in Memphis a couple of years. After that, my family, at my insistence, having the— I had gone to Chicago for the world's fair in 1934, and I was very much impressed with Chicago, because it had some liberalism for blacks—not an awful lot, but some...More than what I had experienced. You didn't have to go to the back of the streetcar. It was possible to go to integrated schools, which I did in Detroit, Michigan. I finally ended up in Detroit, though.

You didn't go to Chicago? 
I didn't go to Chicago. My mother arranged for me to study in Detroit—had friends there from Shelby. I'm glad. I would rather have been in Detroit, because it was much more liberal than Chicago.

Oh, really? 
Yeah. They had so many integrated schools. When I started attending school in Detroit in 1934, mostly all of the schools of Detroit were integrated. And besides, they had such a great music department where I attended, Cass Tech[nical High School], which is one of the greatest music schools in the world even to this day. They had it all. So I enrolled there, and I stayed in Detroit for five years, where I studied. 

Five years you were at Cass?
Yes. And not only that, I played in the area with different orchestras and different musicians, where I learned so much playing with members of McKinney's Cottonpickers, members of bands that had been led by Don Redman and Benny Carter. Yes, he at one time led a band out of Detroit. And many of the fine bands they had in Detroit: Stutz Sanderson's band, Gloster Current, Harold Green, Bob Perkins—these were all bands that were very musical. The leaders were fine musicians. [It was] a place to really learn about music. I stayed there and played around Detroit with the different orchestras and studied in school.

How did you get to play with people like McKinney's Cottonpickers and Don Redman and Benny Carter?
Well, now, what I said was "bands that had been led by Don Redman and Benny Carter. " Benny Carter had been one of the leaders of the band called the Chocolate Dandies out of Detroit. Don Redman had also been one of the music directors for McKinney's Cottonpickers...These were top-notch musicians in Detroit. These were the best there were in the world, not only in Detroit. They were the best in the world. And Detroit, of course— You remember Jean Goldkette there with the Graystone [Ballroom]. He actually was kind of like the manager of McKinney's Cottonpickers and the Chocolate Dandies, because he had this ballroom that they could play at. It was called the Graystone, which is one of the greatest ballrooms in the world and known all over the world. In fact, they have a museum in Detroit about the Graystone Ballroom. So I really enhanced my musical education there spending five years in Detroit, from 1934 till 1939, when I finally joined Jimmie Lunceford's band.

How did that happen?
I replaced Sy Oliver with the Jimmie Lunceford band. Jimmie Lunceford had been to our school, Cass Tech, to hear our jazz band there, and he had met me there. However, I had people in the band that knew me because I used to hang around the band every time they would come to Detroit, which would be two or three times a year. I knew them by name. I knew Sy. Sy would sit me up on the bandstand beside him at the Graystone, just let me sit there. I knew Eddie Tomkins and Paul Webster and Willie Smith and Joe Thomas, [Earl] Carruthers, [Dan] Grissom. I knew every man in the band personally because I would hang out with them when they'd come. They knew I was attempting to study music and wanted to be a musician. However, I met many musicians in Detroit. I not only met Jimmie Lunceford, I met Count Basie. I met his band with Harry Edison and Buck Clayton and Earl Warren and Lester Young, Herschel Evans. We met them all. We actually met them because we all lived together at that time. They had to see us. They had to live where we were. That was the only place they could live. They had to eat where we ate, because that was the only place for them to eat. And we would see them.

Same thing in New York, which was no different than Chicago. When I did go to New York with Jimmie Lunceford, it was the same deal. I'd see all these great people every day. I'd see Duke Ellington every day, or Chick Webb, Benny Carter. You'd see them there. They were right with you. They're in the restaurants you eat at, they're in the bars that you go to, they're in the theaters that you play, the ballrooms that you play. You're all together. So I had a very lucky thing happen to me during that period to meet all of these people and to learn, because they knew— You know, the schools can only take you so far. You can imagine—when I left Detroit from Cass Tech they were barely into four-part harmony...So I was very lucky to study with people who were innovators at that time and people that were really going places. As I say, orchestrating and composing and arranging is really my business. That's what I do.

It's too bad. In a way, it seems like more and more jazz musicians are getting educations in institutes and schools, but they're not getting the education such as you have: learning at the feet of these marvelous musicians who are out in the clubs all the time and innovating all the time on the stand. It's something missing. Part of the soul is missing that you get from that experience.
That's quite true. You see, I had people like Sy Oliver, Edwin Wilcox, William Moore, Phil Moore, all of the great arrangers—Benny Carter, Don Redman. These people were giants in the twenties. They were already giants. And I was very lucky to pick up and be able to study their efforts coming up so that, with the rudiments and basics, then I could go on to what my bands have become.

Had you thought then of doing any writing yourself or arranging? 
I had already started arranging before I left Detroit. I wanted to be a writer. That is what I wanted to be. I am exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a bandleader and an orchestrator, arranger, and composer. I am that. I have arranged for practically everything. I want to bring you my resume, because you'll have to have that.

So you've done everything from jazz to theater to movies to the L. A. [Los Angeles] Philharmonic [Orchestra].
Symphonic. Right, right. And I do it with no problem. I can do it without thinking about it. The thing that I have going for me, of course, is that it is my heritage. Jazz is my heritage. I don't have to think about it. It's like the guy that plays the mariachi trumpet. He doesn't have to think about it because it's his heritage. He knows the music. He knows how it's to go. I am a jazz musician because jazz is my heritage. I feel it, I can hear it, I don't have to worry about it, I don't have to study it. It comes to me.

So in about the late thirties, 1939, you leave Cass and you go to Jimmie Lunceford?
Yes, I leave Cass. I left. I was playing with the band at the Plantation Club. Every great city had a Plantation or a Cotton Club. Or a Club Alabam. One or the other...Detroit had its Plantation, where Billy Eckstine worked, where Pearl Bailey worked, where all of the greats worked in show business. I was in that band. It was led by a fellow by the name of Cecil Lee, who had been a member of McKinney's Cottonpickers, along with Harold Wallace, the tenor player and arranger who had been with McKinney's band; George Morrison, the bass player; Todd Rhodes, who had been the pianist with McKinney's Cottonpickers...And these were fine musicians. They guaranteed they could play any kind of jazz music. And they could read. They knew all about how you had to fake a harmony part. They taught me a lot in that band. I stayed with them for a couple of years. I stayed with Gloster Current's band for about a couple of years in Detroit. Gloster Current was a great musician. He played sax, he could play most of the instruments in the band, he could arrange and orchestrate. He later became the executive secretary of the NAACP...Harold Green, of course. We had Milt Buckner, who was one of their arrangers. You know, he was one of the greats. He played the keyboards. His brother Teddy [Buckner] played with the Lunceford band. He was one of my benefactors. He knew of me, and he had a word for me with getting into the Lunceford band. So I left this band to join a young band from Ohio, Chick Carter's band. Snooky Young was a member of that band. Ray Perry, who later became one of the wheels with Lionel Hampton—played sax and violin—was one of the
members of that band. It was a fine, young band. They had already been to New York to the Apollo [Theatre]. And I wanted to get with a young band. They had young, modern arrangements. They were thinking along the lines of modernism. And I joined them. For about a month I stayed with them.

While I was in Dayton, Ohio, with the band—Snooky Young was there, in his hometown, actually, Dayton, Ohio—I received a wire to ask me if I would like to join the Jimmie Lunceford band. I called Jimmie, as the wire requested. He asked me if I'd like to join. I said yes. I just went down the next morning, picked up my ticket, some money, on the train, and I went to New York. Then, from that time on I was on top, because they were on top. They were not a struggling band. They were on the very top. This was June of 1939. They were at the height of their fame but to even go higher. Because the Lunceford band went higher after Snooky Young and I joined the band...He came six months after I did. And with us in the band, we stayed there almost three years. I lacked one month of being three years in the band. The band skyrocketed. We went to Columbia Records—we had many hit records on Columbia—and then back to Decca [Records]. We recorded on both of those labels, even when we were with them. We made Blues in the Night here [in Los Angeles] for Warner Brothers [Pictures] in 1941. We played the Casa Manana in 1940, the Paramount [Theatre] downtown, the Shrine Auditorium, where they had so many people they had to stop the dance. We were the biggest draw in the United States at that time.

That's pretty heavy stuff. You were twenty-one, twenty-two years old?
Twenty-one years old. But you must remember, we were coming up at a different time. I was coming up out of Cass Tech: I could already read music, I could already write music. I was already into the modern things of everything going around at that time in jazz because I was an aficionado besides. I was following everything. I had already met Dizzy Gillespie in 1938...We were already friends before I joined the Jimmie Lunceford band. I already knew Lester Young and Count Basie. We knew all of these people, even before that. So this gives you an idea of what we had to draw on as young musicians. You're right there with people that are doing it, and they're doing the very best. The Jimmie Lunceford band was the first black band to play the Paramount Theatre in New York City. Many people would think maybe otherwise. But no, [his] was the first black orchestra that played in the Paramount. And we played there...every day for six weeks. Then we went back for a return engagement another six weeks while I was still in the band...I don't know anyone at that time that could outdraw the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra.

You did some arranging, some writing for the Lunceford band.
I did. In fact, last Monday we played the first number that they recorded of mine at the big band reunion [Big Band Academy of America], which was recorded in 1941 on Decca Records. It's called "Yard Dog Mazurka. " I played it last week out at the Sportsmen's Lodge here.

You got on top, but you weren't satisfied. It seems like you've always had through your whole career this desire just to push the envelope a bit more, to always be creative, to continue to expand the horizons of music. That really seems to be a central drive in you.
That is my central drive. That is really what it's all about with me. I know that I have one of the greatest bands in the world. I don't know anybody in jazz today that lives today that would want to come up against me in writing. If he does, he's a strong man, and he's got a tough row to hoe. [laughter] And I don't know any you can find out there who will tell you that he wants to go up
against me. And if you do, tell him to come on. [laughter] But that's not for egotistical purpose. That
is not an egotistical purpose. This is what I have done. I have studied all my life. I'm still studying. Today I'm studying. This is what it means to me: my people. I wish there were some of my people that I could help now, because I can see they're on their way into— Where are they going? They
came from people like Duke Ellington and Don Redman and Jelly Roll Morton. But where are they going now? I want to help some of them to be— If Zubin Mehta calls me and says, "I want you to make an orchestration for me and the Philharmonic, " then I can do it. I don't have to think. If George Stoll calls me from MGM and says, "I want you to write the music for Where the Boys Are, " I say, "Yeah, " and do it. "But you don't even put my name on the screen because I'm black. " I'm saying I have gone through all this that you're talking about today. But I'm here today, and I would like to see a lot of my people into this today. I'm not seeing that. In fact, I'm seeing less and less as I go about the United States lecturing on orchestration and composing and arranging. And I look up in a class of a hundred, and I only see one black, or I see no blacks. Two weeks ago, at the Grove School of Music, I lectured to the arranging class, and there was not one black there. That disturbs me. Where are we going to be, then? What are we going to do? Will there be one day that there will be no more? It will be like when I went back to Detroit and I saw McKinney's Cottonpickers band and there was only one black in it.

Boy, what a historical irony.
I was there, because they sent for me. They had a big thing. But I'm talking about these things because I'm trying to explain to you what music, jazz, means to me and my people. Where are my people now? I'm a member of the board of governors of NARAS [National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences], the Grammy people, for the second time. I had two nominations. I have two first- place Down Beat awards. I have many awards. But where are my young people that are coming up to carry on the thing for these people? We are a people here. As much as we can be swallowed up, we are still a people. Where are we going? What are we doing? These are the things I'm thinking about now.

[To read the complete transcript -- it's 153 pages, btw -- go here.]