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Interview: Gerald Wilson

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In today's Wall Street Journal (go here), I write about the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and a fabulous new box set from Mosaic Records: The Complete Jimmie Lunceford Decca Sessions, featuring material recorded between 1934 and 1945. What makes this box special is that you get to hear swing's  ascension before Benny Goodman gave it a mass-market spin in 1935 with the help of arranger Fletcher Henderson.

With this new box, you also get to hear the maturation of an astonishing list of arrangers, including alto saxophonist Willie Smith, pianist Eddie Wilcox, trombonist Eddie Durham, trumpeter Sy Oliver and trumpeter Gerald Wilson.

Gerald is believed to be the last remaining member of the pre-World War II Lunceford band, the one that gave Duke Ellington a run for its money and all but invented modern swing syncopation. Lunceford's band and strutting arrangements put the finger-waving and foot-tapping in orchestral jazz, not to mention the visual excitement.

Here are the outtakes from my conversation with Gerald Wilson, 92, who just released Legacy, a new CD, will appear with his orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York from September 28 through October 2:

Marc Myers: Did you always want to play with Jimmie Lunceford's band while growing up in Mississippi?

Gerald Wilson: Oh yes, I dreamed about joining Jimmie Lunceford's band ever since I was a little kid. Before we moved to Detroit, I had attended Manassas High School in Memphis, the same school where Lunceford had been a teacher. So I knew all about him from a young age. He was a legend.

MM: When did you first hear Lunceford's band live?

GW: Lunceford would come through Detroit three or four times a year to play the Arcadia and Graystone ballrooms. The first time he came through, I introduced myself to all the guys in the band. Each time the band would come, I'd push my way backstage. It got so that Sy Oliver [pictured] put a chair next to him and asked me to come up and sit and watch what was going on. I'd just sit there beside him. I could already read and play trumpet solos, so it was exciting and a real confidence-builder. But I never dreamed I'd get a call from him later on in life.

MM: Lunceford's trumpet sections were always strong.

GW: Jimmie's band started the stuff where the trumpet would be up above a high C. Tommy Stevenson could play the high A above the high C. There weren't too many guys who could do that. Louis Armstrong only went to an F-sharp.

MM: Did you attend music school?

GW: Yes, I went to Cass Tech, a music high school in Detroit. At the time, the music school at Cass Tech [pictured] was second only to Juilliard in New York and had two jazz bands. You couldn't get in unless you knew how play. I had learned to play in Memphis growing up. My mother started me out on the piano at age 4.

MM: When did you get the call to join Lunceford?

GW: In 1939, I was in Dayton, Ohio, playing in Chick Carter's band. I got a telegram at the black YMCA, where I was staying. It said, “If you would like to join my band, call this number." It was signed Jimmie Lunceford.

MM: Did you call?

GW: Not right away [laughs]. That night we were battling Erskine Hawkins' band [pictured]. I knew all of the guys in Hawkins' band. I was excited about Lunceford's offer but decided to wait.

MM: Why?

GW: Chick Carter's band could really play. We were coming on. There were really great players in there and we were battling Erskine Hawkins. But at the dance, Sammy Lowe, Hawkins' lead trumpeter and arranger, said “Hey Gerald, I heard you got a telegram from Lunceford today." I told him, “Yeah, but I'm going to stay with this band." Sammy looked at me as though I were crazy.

MM: What did he say?

GW: He said, “Gerald, the band you're in is breaking up tonight." I was stunned. I said, “That's impossible." He said, “If you don't believe me, ask Ray Perry, who played saxophone." When I asked Ray, he said, “Yeah, we're breaking up. I'm already packed." [Pictured: Chick Carter]

MM: What did you do?

GW: I ran to the telephone as fast as I could in the hall [laughs]. It was after midnight, but I got Lunceford on the phone. I said, “Yes, I'd like to join your band." He told me to go to the Dayton train station after the dance, that there would be money there and a ticket to New York. He said trumpeter Eddie Tompkins would meet me at the station in New York. 

MM: What happened when you arrived in New York?

GW: I went from the station straight to Lunceford's tailor to get measured for seven uniforms. Each one had a different meaning. One was a morning suit with striped tie and crepe vest for early performances. We had to play seven shows on the weekend, each one lasting an hour and a half before a short film would come on and give us a break. There was no audition. I went straight onto the band that night.

MM: What did you think of the band?

GW: Oh, I was amazed. When I joined, they were on top. The band was doing the Coca-Cola broadcasts from New York. Eddie Wilcox was a brilliant pianist and arranger-composer who could play classical and jazz. He wrote so well he composed with an ink pen. Drummer Jimmy Crawford was from Memphis. Moses Allen was on bass and Al Norris was on guitar. Each of these guys knew exactly what he was doing. Enormous confidence and musicianship.

MM: What was Jimmie Lunceford like?

GW: He was such a nice person. We couldn't curse very hard around him at all. We might say “damn" or “hell." But that was about it around this guy. He didn't smoke or drink, and he was a college graduate. He had studied with Paul Whiteman's father. So everyone had respect for him.

MM: Were those stage routines difficult?

GW: We never just stood or sat still. We'd be playing one of Sy's arrangements, like For Dancers Only. We'd be playing that. It was a great number in the first place. It's moving, and the trumpets are playing like mad. All three of us are twirling trumpets with our right hand and snatching it with our left. Trumpeter Paul Webster showed me how to do it. I had tried it a couple of times. I threw it up, twirled and snatched it. But I had to work on it a little bit.

MM: Was it easy to learn?

GW: One of the first times I tried it during a performance, I dropped my trumpet. I must have been the only one to ever do so. It was at the Loews State Theater in New York. I'm twirling, and all of a sudden my horn was on the stage. I went and got it. It was all dented up. Fortunately I had a backup. Lunceford never said a thing to me about that, but it didn't happen again.

MM: Was there a big rivalry between Lunceford and Duke Ellington's band?

GW: Not really. Everyone was friends. They made it sound like there was, to sell tickets and records. I actually played in Duke's band on two occasions: During a tour from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1954 and 1955 and on Anatomy of a Murder in 1959. Lunceford and Duke's bands were the tops back in the '30s, with Duke's band rated No. 1 and Lunceford's No. 2.

MM: What was special about Ellington?

GW: Duke had something new that no one else had. He had different harmonic things that he put together that was like jazz and classical combined. He played a great piano. He was in a class by himself. Like Art Tatum, Duke's style couldn't be imitated. When I joined Lunceford, we'd hang out with Ellington's band. This thing about a rivalry was overblown. We all loved each other.

MM: Willie Smith wound up with Ellington.

GW: That's right. Duke had always been trying to pull Willie away from the band and finally did in 1945. Johnny Hodges told Smith he was the lead alto man, which Willie was fine with. Willie could go up five notes above Hodges on the alto sax. Duke's band loved that he was there.

MM: There were bop influences in the Lunceford band while you were there in the early '40s. Did you know Dizzy Gillespie?

GW: I met Dizzy in 1937. Dizzy was with Edgar Hayes' band at the time. Dizzy came to Detroit and stayed there for about three months. We'd talk about harmony all the time. I knew Dizzy was working on stuff that was going to change things.

MM: Your composition and arrangement of Hi Spook is quite a barn-burner. What was the origin of the name?

GW: I composed and arranged it when we played in Seattle. There was a radio show there called The Spook Club that came on at midnight. Jimmie honored the show with this song, with hopes of getting it played a lot, like the theme. My goal was to get as much excitement across as possible in that song.

MM: How did Yard Dog Mazurka come about?

GW: There was a young white kid who wrote for the Lunceford band named Roger Segure. He wrote for a bunch of bands in New York at the time. One evening in 1941 I was over to his house in New York. I had started an arrangement for Stompin' at the Savoy. I told him I wanted him to hear my riff. He said, “Play it for me." I played it and he said, “Wow, that's some introduction. What are you going to do with it?" He said to complete the AABA form by repeating the eight bars and adding a bridge. He said by doing so, the song would belong to me.

MM: What did you do?

GW: I played what I had come up with on the piano, and he loved it. Roger had given me such great advice that the next day when I saw him I said, “You know, if you hadn't told me to do that, I wouldn't have written that number. I would have written Stompin' at the Savoy. I'm going to give you half the credit on the arrangement."

MM: Are you happy you did?

GW: Yes. I also let him name it. He was Jewish. I have no idea what a mazurka is [laughs].

MM: Ray Wetzel of Stan Kenton's band used your riff for Intermission Riff in 1945.

GW: Yes. When I first heard it, I felt really bad. My first thought was to sue him. But I had a lawyer friend who told me that the copyright laws allowed him to do it, since he only used a piece of it. [Photo of Ray Wetzel in 1947 or 1948 by William P. Gottlieb]

MM: Did Kenton ever say anything to you?

GW: No. The fact that Ray and Stan picking up my song didn't stay with me. I liked Stan and I enjoyed Intermission Riff. I first met Stan in 1941. I had first heard his band in L.A. in 1940. He had a nice little thing going. I think the essence of the sound was the rhythm, how you played the songs. There were a lot of dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. Add the syncopation and you have that sound. Later I wrote for Kenton's neophonic orchestra in L.A., in the '60s.

MM: A lot of people left the Lunceford band in August 1942, including you.

GW: I was drafted and put in my notice with Lunceford. I didn't say anything to [trumpeter] Snooky [Young] about it. When Lunceford announced that I'd be leaving the band, Snooky was surprised. Snooky asked me what happened. I told him about the draft. He said, “I'm going to leave, too." He also put in his notice. We left the band together.

MM: What's your favorite arrangement?

GW: You hit it earlier. Yard Dog Mazurka. It's really put together.

MM: Looking back, was Lunceford a good experience?

GW: Oh yes. Lunceford was so good to me. He liked to fly airplanes. I used to go up with him. We also had a baseball team. Jimmy Crawford was the catcher. Lunceford was a hell of a pitcher. I was Jimmie's catcher, to warm him up, but I played center field on the team during games. He was a great guy.

MM: Give me an example?

GW: When my father died, Jimmie immediately got me an airline ticket to fly home to Memphis. Then I flew back to Washington after the funeral to catch up with the band. Lunceford did that instantly. He got to it right then. But he'd do nice things all the time. I never saw him lose his tempter. He was always in a good mood.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Complete Jimmie Lunceford Decca Sessions (Mosaic Records), a 146-track, seven-CD set, here. The restoration and remastering is superb all the way through. The box comes with liner notes byEddy Determeyer, author of Rhythm Is Our Business, a terrific Lunceford biography.

Gerald Wilson's new CD is Legacy (Mack Avenue), featuring an astonishing band made up of leading orchestral jazz musicians. The album divides into two suites—a classical tribute and Yes Chicago. Both are remarkable for their breadth and depth. You'll find Legacy here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Gerald Wilson Yard Dog Mazurka for Jimmie Lunceford in 1941. Compare it to Stan Kenton's Intermission Riff (1945), one of the most brazen lifts in jazz history...



Here's a promo for the Mosaic box...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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