September 12, 2014

Jazz Master Gerald Wilson, 1919-2014

A sobering confluence of three Jazz Masters occurred last Monday at St. Peter’s Church in New York City. I was attending the memorial service for the late Joe Wilder, who passed away on May 9th of this year at the age of 92. Joe was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master award in 2008. Saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who received his NEA jazz award in 2003, performed a tribute to Joe and then came to the mic and announced in a stunned voice that he had just learned that (1990 NEA Jazz Master) Gerald Wilson had passed. This was a first for me. I have attended a number of memorial services for our Archive interviewees, but had never learned of the passing of one at the memorial service of another.
Gerald Wilson was born in 1919; Joe Wilder in 1922; and Jimmy Heath in 1926. These musicians could accurately be called the second generation of jazz veterans. The first pioneers were born around the turn of the century. Gerald Wilson was born two years after the first jazz recording by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and six years before Louis Armstrong started his series of seminal recordings with the Hot Five. Gerald and his peers learned their craft mostly by listening to records, hearing their idols in live performances, and absorbing the music on the bandstand.
Gerald played trumpet with almost all of the prominent orchestras, including groups led by Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, and Benny Carter. But from the start of his career his real love was composing and arranging. He was proud of his work and would tell you that he composed for nearly everyone you could think of, from the great jazz bands to pop artists to symphony orchestras. It’s hard to see these musicians passing just as we note the vanishing of the World War II generation. I interviewed Gerald in Los Angeles in 1995:
MR:    Your writing has taken you a lot of different places.
GW:    Many different places. I’ve been lucky. I’ve written for practically every band that there was that you can imagine. And my dreams have all come true. I wanted to write for people like Duke Ellington. I wrote for Duke and I wrote for him even up until the time he died I was still contributing numbers. I did two concerts at Carnegie Hall with Al Hirt, and Snooky [Young] was on the band then, and J.J. Johnson, we had all those great guys there. And I wanted to write for the movies, and I’ve written for the movies. I wrote for MGM, “Where the Boys Are,” “Love Has Many Faces”; over at Columbia, Ken Murray’s “Hollywood My Home Town.” I’ve done TV work. Everything I’ve wanted to do. I also wanted to write for the symphony orchestra. And one day I got an invitation to write for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I composed a number that they performed, and then I later orchestrated six other things for them and Zubin Mehta conducted all of my numbers. So all of my dreams, more or less, have been answered, although I’m still writing today. In fact I was writing yesterday, as my wife can attest to, and I intend to write until I die. I love to write and I love to write things that nobody else has heard before. I believe that I can create, I can write music, I can do it any way I want to now, and so my dreams have been answered.
Gerald’s own words remind us that while we mourn his passing, we rejoice in his life well lived.

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