By Derrik J. Lang
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LOS ANGELES _ Gerald Wilson, the dynamic jazz big band leader, composer and arranger whose career spanned more than 75 years, has died. He was 96.
Wilson’s son, jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson, said his father died Monday at his Los Angeles home from pneumonia.
The big band leader began his career in the late 1930s as a trumpeter for Jimmy Lunceford’s band before forming his own big band in 1944 featuring female trombonist Melba Liston. He played and worked as a composer-arranger with the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie, and he arranged music for Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Bobby Darin.
Wilson, who was born in Shelby, Mississippi, and later moved with his family to Detroit, started out on piano and bought his first trumpet at age 11. During his tenure as a trumpeter with Lunceford, he arranged the hit tunes “Hi Spook” and “Yard Dog Mazurka.”
After four years with Lunceford and a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Wilson settled in Los Angeles, where he worked in the bands of Benny Carter, Les Hite and Phil Moore before forming his own band. He worked with Billie Holiday on the singer’s tour of the South in 1949.
Wilson led his own bands in the ’50s and ’60s, but took frequent hiatuses as he became one of the most in demand arrangers and orchestrators in jazz and pop music. He wrote more than 60 charts for Charles, scored motion pictures such as Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” and served as the conductor and music director of TV’s “The Red Foxx Show.”
But despite his commercial success, he never gave up his dedication to jazz. “I decided to do what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was jazz. Because first and foremost, I’m a jazz musician,” Wilson told Jazz Times magazine in a 2011 interview.
In the early 1960s, he again led his own big bands featuring such musicians as trumpeters Snooky Young and Carmell Jones, saxophonist Bud Shank and Teddy Edwards, guitarist Joe Pass, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. His big band compositions displayed an adventurous approach with complex voicings and harmonies were spotlighted on a series of critically acclaimed recordings for the Pacific Jazz label, including such albums as “You Better Believe It!,” ”Moment of Truth,“ and ”Portrait.“
His marriage to a Mexican-American, Josefina Villasenor Wilson, led him to incorporate Latin music into his jazz compositions. His tune, “Viva Tirado,” dedicated to bullfighter Jose Ramon Tirado, became a Top 40 pop hit for the rock group El Chicano in 1970. He also composed his first piece for symphony orchestra, “Debut: 5/21/72,” on a commission from Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
With his long white hair in later years, Wilson became famous for his dance-like style of conducting, which he said helped listeners know what they were hearing.
“I choreograph the music when I conduct,” he told Jazz Times in 2011. “Accent everything _ all the high points.”
Wilson’s popularity increased with his appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which commissioned him to write extended compositions for the festival’s 40th and 50th anniversaries. His six Grammy nominations, included two nods for “Theme For Monterey” in 1999.
In 1990, Wilson was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest jazz honour.
In his later years, Wilson continued to compose new music and conduct his big band, recording a series of albums for the Mack label beginning with the Grammy-nominated “New York, New Sound” in 2003. His last album, 2011’s “Legacy” featured a piece by his son Anthony as well as his own compositions based on themes by classical composers Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy and Giacomo Puccini.
Wilson also worked as a radio broadcaster at KBCA-FM and taught jazz at California State University, Northridge, California State University, Los Angeles, and UCLA.
He is survived by his wife, son, two daughters and four grandchildren.
Associated Press writer Charles J. Gans in New York contributed to this report.