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Interview: Jimmy Wilkins (Part 1)

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Jimmy Wilkins is the younger brother of Ernie Wilkins, the prolific composer and big band arranger who died in 1999. Today, Jimmy lives outside of Las Vegas and leads a big band in Henderson, Nev., carrying on his brother's legacy. The band's book features wow-pow charts by his brother and Frank Wess.

Jimmy's recording career as a trombonist stopped in 1955 before resuming in 1975. But in the 1950s, Jimmy had quite a run. He was in Count Basie's band from 1951 to 1952—replacing Johnny Mandel—and recorded with other name bands of the period led by Willis Jackson and Dizzy Gillespie.

In Part 1 of my three-part conversation with Jimmy, the 90-year-old bandleader talks about growing up during the Depression and life in the Navy during World War II:

JazzWax: Where were you born?

Jimmy Wilkins: I was born and raised in St. Louis. Growing up there was cool as far as I was concerned. There was a lot of jazz, and I was exposed to the music starting at age five. I started on the violin, but that didn't work out. After a couple of years, I signed up for the beginner's band in school. I wanted to play trumpet, but the band director couldn't find anyone to play trombone so that fell to me.

JW: Did you know Clark Terry?

JWs: Clark [pictured] and I attended rival high schools. But that didn't stop my brother Ernie and I from scouting Clark for our school's band. Soon we talked him into playing with the Sumner High School Swingsters. My brother was the leader and wrote and arranged for the band. Clark obliged. He was shy, but we could tell he had potential. Later, Clark and I enlisted in the Navy together.

JW: What did your parents do?

JWs: My father worked as a railroad waiter. My mom took odd jobs, like running the elevator in a department store.But I didn't grow up with my father. My parents separated when I was young. My father didn't know how to live in a house after all that railroad riding. But when I did see him, he was very affectionate toward my brother and me. He took us to cultural events, like museum exhibits.

JW: Did the split upset your mother?

JWs: My mother didn't begrudge him. She just wanted him to contribute to the financial situation at home, and he did the best he could. My brother and I got along. Ernie was older than me by a year and 10 months and used to beat me up all the time until I retaliated [laughs]. Then we were tight ever since.

JW: Did you and Ernie both play in the high school band?

JWs: We both started on violin at the same time. Ernie made progress but I didn't. After I dropped the violin, Ernie kept going. In high school, he joined the classical orchestra. For the parade band, all of the violinists had to learn percussion or wind instruments to fill out the band. Ernie picked the saxophone. The bug got him right away, and he started neglecting the violin.

JW: Did you enjoy the trombone?

JWs: I loved it. The first tune I learned was The Music Goes Round and Round. The good news for Ernie was that we had a neighbor friend named Jimmy Forrest [laughs]. He helped Ernie on the sax. Jimmy had started playing when he was 10 or 11 years old and was playing already professional gigs in high school.

JW: How did you become interested in jazz?

JWs: We had a high school swing band. The teacher wasn't great. He used to keep me after school to learn the tunes. He'd play them on the piano and write the notes. Then he had me study them. Ernie helped me learn to read. I didn't know anything about key signatures then.

JW: What did you do after high school?

JWs: In 1940 there was a guy who was recruiting musicians for the band at Wilberforce College in Ohio. He recruited my brother but didn't know about me. My brother told him, and the guy said, “Oh, good, we need a trombonist." In September 1940 Ernie and I went to Wilberforce on music scholarships.

JW: Was your mother happy?

JWs: Oh, she was very pleased. No way in the world we would have been able to go to college if she had to pay, especially during the Depression.

JW: How did you wind up in the Navy?

JWs: In 1942, on a summer break, a Navy recruiter came by the rehearsal where I was playing along with Clark and asked us if we were interested in signing up. We said we'd think about it. But when I got home from rehearsal, a big,long envelope was waiting for me from the Armed Services. The next day I went down to the recruiting office and told them I wanted to join the Navy, which everyone knew had a strong music program. About a month later we all went up to Chicago where we caught a bus to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station a short ways north of the city on Lake Michigan.

JW: There were musicians from all over stationed there, yes?

JWs: Oh yes. I was on guard duty when all of the West Coast musicians arrived—Marshal Royal, Andy Anderson, Buddy Collette and others. I took them to the barracks and helped them get settled. [Pictured: Singer Marva Louis, wife of boxer Joe Louis, visiting the Great Lakes Naval Training Station during World War II]

JW: Did you, your brother and Clark Terry stay together at Great Lakes?

JWs: Eventually my brother and I were shipped out to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, which was a training center for black Naval personnel. Clark stayed at Great Lakes. My brother and I learned advanced techniques for reading music, and I learned specifics about playing my horn. I had never had formal training before.

JW: How long were you there?

JWs: For two years. We performed concerts and played different dances. Our commander also booked us into some country clubs to play for different organizations in the area.

JW: Was the band good?

JWs: We were fair. We lacked bass players. We had a tuba player who had to learn to play the fiddle. He had an old way of playing. We rehearsed every day. One day we rehearsed classical, the next day dance band music. [Pictured: Black Naval personnel at the Hampton Institute during World War II studying electrical circuitry]

JW: Who ran the band?

JWs: We had a petty officer—an old Navy man. He was in charge of the band but didn't really know much about jazz.He'd just get out front and wave the baton around. My bother was experienced and knowledgeable about music, so when they shipped out the petty officer, they put Ernie in charge of the band. He was given the rank of Musician First Class.

JW: Then what happened?

JWs: In 1945, after two years and six months in Naval school, my brother and I were set to be shipped out to Kodiak, Alaska, to play on a base there. We were shipped to the port of embarkation in the States. Then they dropped the bombs on Japan, and all transport orders froze. My bother and I had enough points for a discharge, so we left the Navy in November 1945.

JazzWax note: The Jimmy Wilkins Big Band will be performing at the E-String in Henderson, Nev., this Saturday. Henderson is about a half-hour's drive outside of Las Vegas. The band features top Las Vegas musicians.

Also, a JazzWax thanks to tenor saxophonists Arno Marsh and Gary Anderson.

JazzWax clip: So what does the Jimmy Wilkins Big Band sound like? Here they are in Henderson, Nev., at the E-String...

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

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