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'Fresh Air' Remembers Jazz Composer Gerald Wilson


This is FRESH AIR. Gerald Wilson, as a jazz composer, big-band leader and trumpet player, had a career that spanned eight decades. Wilson died Monday after being diagnosed with pneumonia. He was 96 years old. Gerald Wilson joined the popular swing band led by Jimmie Lunceford at the end of the 1930s. Wilson was a trumpeter but was best known for his work as an arranger, composer and bandleader. He wrote arrangements for - just to name a few - Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles. He led his own band since the mid-1940s and kept recording. In 2006, his CD, "In My Time," was described by music critic Francis Davis as his finest hour. Here's a track from it called "Jeri," composed and arranged by Gerald Wilson.


BIANCULLI: When that CD was released in 2006, Gerald Wilson spoke with Terry Gross. She asked him about the start of his career when he joined the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939.


GERALD WILSON: I arrived here in New York, and the first thing I had to do - one of the other trumpet players in the band met me, and then he took me to the tailor here in New York to measure me for my uniforms - not one uniform but for seven.


Were they all the same?

WILSON: No. There was one was - the way they ran it was the first uniform in the morning when we played morning shows. Before - that is, before noon, we would wear the English walking suits.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILSON: Yes, these are black jackets that have braid around them, and then you wear them with gamble-striped trousers. And we had all seven different. Then the next show, which would be - we'd wear might have a sporty uniform on. After that, it would be another kind of a suit, up until the last show which we -sometimes we would do seven shows like at the Paramount Theater here in New York. We'd do seven shows on the weekend. And at the very end, we would have on our formal dress.

GROSS: And did you like that aspect of performance?

WILSON: Oh, I loved every moment of it that I spend with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra - making records, playing theaters, making movies. You know, we were in "Blues In The Night" - one of the biggest Warner Bros. movies of all time. And we played the Apollo five or six times a year. We played nothing but the biggest jobs and always booked two, by the way.

GROSS: Now, you've also done arranging for singers. Some of those singers include Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Nancy Wilson. Who else?

WILSON: Well, (inaudible) we would go Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles, as you said, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington.

GROSS: How was arranging for a singer different than arranging just a, you know, an instrumental for a band?

WILSON: Well, the thing about the way I approach it myself, I stay out of the way of the singer. I try to, you know, when I have to bring in the band, I bring it in. I have to - and of course I try to use great harmony for them and to make their voice sound better. I use my - a pause if I feel like it. And I tried to - many composers write numbers. And they don't know the inside of deep harmony. So you have to go on and figure that out so - and change it to what it should be. I do that. And as I said, working with these great artists, I just enjoy doing that. And of course, as you said, Ray Charles - "Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music" - which I did all of the music for that. And again, I think that's a time when - if they would give us a little attention and just say, hey, when he finished singing "You Are My Sunshine" and "Bye Bye, Love" and all of those country tunes, I should been happy if they said my name that I'm the one who orchestrated it. And I'd appreciate that.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a track from Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds In Country And Western." And the music on this album was arranged by my guest, Gerald Wilson.


THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Bye-bye, love. Bye-bye happiness. Hello, loneliness. I think I'm going to cry. Bye-bye, love. Bye-bye, sweet caress. Hello, emptiness. I think I'm going to die.

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) There goes my baby with someone new. She sure looks happy, and I'm so blue. She was my baby 'till he stepped in. Goodbye to romance that might've been.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Bye-bye, love. Bye-bye, happiness.

CHARLES: (Singing) What you say?

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Hello, loneliness. I think I'm going to cry.

GROSS: That's Ray Charles from an album that was arranged by my guest, Gerald Wilson. For those of us who haven't had the pleasure of actually seeing you conduct...


GROSS: ...What's your style of conducting?

WILSON: Different from any style you've ever seen before. I move. I choreographed the music as I'd conduct. You see, I pointed out everything you'd listened to. People can't keep their eyes off of me.

GROSS: So you're making it sound like you point things out not for the benefit of the musicians - like, it's your turn reed section - but for the benefit of the listener?

WILSON: No. For the benefit of the listener. He sees what everything is happening 'cause every time I move, something happens there where I move. My hands - my two hands here showing you where to look. If I want them to concentrate on my soloist, I concentrate on him. And they - and pinpoint where they are to look now and listen as they look. I think that's what I am. That's the way I can explain it. Now, I choreograph my music.

GROSS: Well, Gerald Wilson, a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

WILSON: It's my pleasure and my honor, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Gerald Wilson speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. The jazz composer, arranger and bandleader died Monday at age 96. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "The Drop," the final movie featuring the late James Gandolfini. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.