Newspaper article International New York Times

Gerald Wilson, Dynamic and Eclectic Jazz Arranger, Dies at 96

Newspaper article International New York Times

Gerald Wilson, Dynamic and Eclectic Jazz Arranger, Dies at 96

Article excerpt

His career started in the 1930s and included work with jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.


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. …

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