Gerald Wilson

From time to time, Gerald Wilson seems like one of Los Angeles' better-kept secrets, an unusually skillful, imaginative, and charismatic bandleader who hasn't received his due outside the West Coast. His arrangements have distinctive, often complex voicings and harmonies, rooted in swing and bop, yet always forward-looking and energetic in tone. He likes to play around with structures, which contributes to the restless quality in much of his music, and being a bullfight aficionado, he was one of the first arrangers to make use of Spanish influences. He has been consistently able to attract top-rank musicians to his bands, who play with immaculate precision and brio for the flamboyantly gesticulating maestro. Upon moving from Memphis to Detroit with his family in 1932, Wilson studied music in high school and played with the Plantation Music Orchestra before undergoing the formative experience of his life, working with the Jimmie Lunceford band from 1939 to 1942. Replacing Sy Oliver as arranger, conductor, and trumpet soloist, Wilson learned his craft in the Lunceford band, after which he took off for Los Angeles to play with the bands of Les Hite, Benny Carter, and Willie Smith. Wilson organized his first big band in 1944, which sported an intriguing blend of swing and bop and featured musicians like Melba Liston and Snooky Young. But it only lasted three years, and after playing for Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie in 1947 and 1948, Wilson quit the music business for a while to try his hand in the grocery trade. After a tentative return as a bandleader in 1952, it took awhile for him to gradually ease his way back into jazz full-time; he even made appearances as a TV actor.