Composer, bandleader, and multi-instrumentalist Gerald Wilson has died just four days after his 96th birthday.
The critically acclaimed artist’s health had been declining for some time before he finally passed away at his home in Los Angeles on Monday, September 8; two weeks after contracting pneumonia, his son Anthony Wilson confirmed to the LA Times.
Gerald Stanley Wilson was born on September 4, 1918 in Shelby, MS. At a young age, he took up the piano under the tutelage of his mother who worked as a schoolteacher. At the age of 11, he discovered the trumpet and dedicated himself to his craft. After moving to Detroit in his teenage years, he soon found his first regular gig with the Chic Carter Band in 1939. He later moved on to the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, where he would begin making a name for himself as a noted composer.
Wilson reached the peak of his career during the ’50s and ’60s, where he somehow managed to juggle scoring films in Hollywood with his work as both the bandleader of numerous bands, including the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, and as an educator for multiple LA-area colleges. He recorded prolifically throughout that period, playing host to the likes of Snooky Young, Bobby Hutcherson, and Joe Pass in his bands while also working with countless jazz legends.
Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie are just a few of the big names to call upon Wilson to produce or perform with them in a remarkable career that spans more than 75-years.
Known for his grandiose and often eccentric conducting style, which accompanied often complex but perfectly articulate compositions, Wilson remained a distinctive staple of the jazz scene well into his last years.
Explaining his conducting style, which was described as “hopping” at the 2009 Detroit Jazz Festival, Wilson told NPR: “I move. I choreograph the music as I conduct. You see, I point out everything you’re to listen to.”
That youthful spirit was part of his attraction, and served to open many doors for him in life and ultimately afforded him the opportunity to do exactly what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it, in his later life.
“I have written for symphony. I have written for movies, and I have written for television. I arrange anything. I wanted to do all these things. I’ve done that. Now I’m doing exactly what I want, musically, and I do it when I please. I’m a musician, but first and foremost, a jazz musician,” he told the Boston Globe.
Wilson is survived by his wife and his three children Anthony, Jeri, and Nancy Jo.