Gerald Wilson has been an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA for 18 years. He’s the oldest person on the music faculty, yet by his own estimation, “I have the largest jazz class in the world.
“I have 480 students, and my class is always full,” he says. “I teach the history of jazz and, well, it’s easy for me.” That’s because the 89-year-old Wilson, a revered arranger, composer, bandleader, and musician with deep Detroit roots, is a living history of jazz music in America.
Famed big band leader Jimmie Lunceford hired Wilson as a trumpeter in 1939, right after the young music major graduated from his beloved Cass Technical High School. He composed half of the 16 pieces Count Basie performed in his inaugural Carnegie Hall concert. Duke Ellington trusted him enough to assign him complex arrangements to be completed overnight. Over a seven-decade career, Wilson has worked with virtually every bandleader and jazz artist of note and conducts the world’s longest-established jazz big band, formed in 1944. Yet the six-time Grammy nominee shows absolutely no signs of building to his coda.
Wilson was in metro Detroit recently to help promote his new CD Monterey Moods, his third release on the Detroit-based Mack Avenue label. Moods, an original suite commissioned by organizers of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of the longest-running outdoor jazz celebration, represents the third time Wilson has been enlisted to create a work for Monterey. “I wrote “Happy Birthday Monterey” for their 20th anniversary and composed another (“Theme for Monterey”) for their 40th,” says Wilson, whose bright mane of shoulder-length white hair makes him look every bit the accomplished maestro. “It seems I’ve written something for every anniversary they’ve had. Out of their 50 years, I’ve been on the big stage, what they call the arena, 10 times. They’ve been very nice to me.”
Wilson now maintains two big bands: his longstanding ensemble near Los Angeles, where he’s lived since 1942, and a separate group in New York. While the L.A. unit premiered the work at Monterey, the New York orchestra, including guest Hubert Laws on flute and Wilson’s son Anthony on guitar, recorded Moods earlier for Mack Avenue. “He’s as relevant now as he ever was, and for this label, that’s important,” says Al Pryor, executive vice president of A&R for Mack Avenue and producer of Monterey Moods. “He represents the best of what we seek to do here.
“The principal connection between Gerald and this label was his history with Detroit. Anytime he gets the opportunity, Gerald points out that Detroit was one of the most progressive cities in America, and as an African-American, you could experience a kind of freedom here that only existed in spots prior to the civil-rights movement.”
Pryor adds: “This is the place where he finished his education and launched his career as an artist, and it continues to be one of the places that, as a jazz artist, you must play because of its extraordinary music history. Gerald feels very connected to all that, so when the opportunity came for him to reconnect with a musical organization that has its roots in Detroit, I think it was a very attractive thing for him to do.”
Born in tiny Shelby, Miss., 85 miles south of Memphis, Wilson says his mother, Lillian, a school-teacher and pianist, started him on piano at age 4. By 10, he knew he wanted to be a bandleader. After attending Manassas High School in Memphis, “In 1934, I went to the World’s Fair in Chicago, which was quite different from my hometown,” Wilson says. “There was so much more liberty there that I asked my mother if she could send me there to finish school. She said, ‘I can’t send you there, but I can send you to Detroit.’ We had friends who lived a few doors from us in Mississippi and had moved to Detroit. I said, ‘As long as it’s in the North, that’s where I want to go.’”
Wilson considers his years in Detroit, where he played with men who would form the McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, the pivotal time of his life and career. “It was really a blessing in disguise coming to Detroit,” he says. “When I got there, the schools were already integrated. I was very lucky to have gone to Cass Tech, which was one of the greatest schools in the world, without a doubt.” In those days, Juilliard was considered to be No. 1 for music, and Cass Tech was next. And Juilliard didn’t even have any jazz.
“It was only about three weeks after I got out of school that I got a wire to join Jimmie Lunceford’s band. They were the No. 2 band behind Duke Ellington. Jimmie was a wonderful guy. I stayed with him three years.”
For all his life experience, the octogenarian teacher remains a student as well. “I’ve been studying music all my life, and I still study,” Wilson says. “See, you never know everything in music, so you’ve got to keep listening to what’s going on. Jazz is an art form and it’s moving all the time, constant revolution and evolution. I’ve got to thank Cass Tech, because they prepared me for everything.”