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Interview: Jimmy Wilkins (Part 2)

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Most of us think of jazz's evolution after World War II as one big surge forward as the years progressed. In truth there were economic ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks as well as opportunities and dead ends. Success often was the product of relentless hard work, talent and good fortune—such as being in the right place at the right time. It also didn't hurt to have lots of friends and a brother or two in the business to improve your chances.

After the war, Jimmy and Ernie Wilkins [pictured] had their share of elation and dejection. They played in a string of territory bands that never amounted to much, went on road trips that produced little in the way of recording opportunities, and faced a landscape peppered with ferocious competitors.

In Part 2 of my three-part conversation with Jimmy Wilkins, the trombonist and bandleader talks about the years between the war's end and the phone call in 1951 that landed Jimmy and Ernie in Count Basie's new band...

JazzWax: When you were discharged from the Navy, what did you do?

Jimmy Wilkins: I went home to St. Louis and looked for a gig. I thought I would be a welcome edition to the scene but it turned out that some of the more advanced musicians had been discharged already and had picked up those jobs. There wasn't much work in St. Louis.

JW: What did you do?

JWs: I Joined Ernie Fields, a territory band out of Tulsa, Okla. At the time, Fields was playing club dates in St. Louis and needed a trombone player. My brother Ernie was already in Chicago with Eddie Mallory's band. After I joined Fields, we headed to New York to play the Apollo Theater.

JW: Was this your first time in New York?

JWs: No. I had already visited New York a few times when I was in the Navy. But I was quite excited. On our way, we played the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Royale in Baltimore. But the band was short a trombonist.

JW: What did Fields do?

JWs: We picked up another one—J.J. Johnson [laughs]. I had heard a lot about J.J., and it was just the two of us in the section. Funny thing about it—I had a featured solo on the show. I had been trying to play like Trummy Young. I liked how he played when he was with Jimmie Lunceford. On my solo, I played riffs and blew as loud as I could. When I got back to the section, J.J. said to me, “You have a nice, clear tone."

JW: Did Johnson have a solo?

JWs: Yes. It was nice and short. And he played more notes in his short solo than all of mine [laughs].

JW: How did your brother Ernie make out with Mallory?

JWs: Three or four months later, Ernie wrote me to say his band needed a trombone player. Ernie recommended me to Mallory, and I left to join the band in Chicago. Soon we traveled to New York to play the Savoy Ballroom. It was hard work but fun. I didn't know any better. I was young and enthusiastic. They always had two bands there. When we played, we were up against Lucky Millinder. Jimmy Rushing also had a band. Tiny Bradshaw, too.

JW: Could you feel yourself improving?

JWs: Yes, but I regretted not spending more time learning more in the bands at the Hampton Institute while I was in the Navy. I was too busy chasing the co-eds [laughs]. Mallory's band did well. He was tight with Joe Lewis, the fighter. Joe sponsored the band. After six weeks at the Savoy, we did a week at the Apollo. After that the band folded.

JW: Why?

JWs: We didn't have enough talent in the band, mostly because Mallory wasn't engaged. Several guys had already left to join Billy Eckstine's band. Sonny Stitt came to audition for our band, but Mallory was on the golf course with Joe Lewis and never showed up to hear him.

JW: What did you do?

JWs: My brother and I went back to St. Louis and joined alocal band—the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra. The band was co-led by James Jeter and Hayes Pillars. Pillars was a saxophonist and conducted. Jeter played sax in the reed section. We had some gigs lined up in St. Louis, some theater gigs and a trip to the Apollo in New York.

JW: How did that band work out?

JWs: Fine, but we returned to St. Louis in 1946. That's when I decided to go back to Wilberforce College on the G.I. Bill. When I caught one of the college band's rehearsals, I saw Frank Foster playing alto sax. He was at Wilberforce on a scholarship. I remained at Wilberforce until 1949. It was a great education.

JW: After school, you returned again to St. Louis?

JWs: Yes. But the work was slow so I took a civil service job at the Army Finance Center, where they kept all the Army records. Music just wasn't happening for me. Gigs were slow. Everyone had money and I didn't. I needed a backup plan.

JW: What was the struggle?

JWs: I was trying to learn bebop but it was tough. Most of the jobs I landed involved playing lead trombone, with some soloing. I had a solid conception of the music, I read well and had a decent tone. But big bands were folding left and right. Ernie had been out with the Earl Hines band but he was back in St. Louis, too. I was gigging four nights a week with a small group, but Ernie's work was slowing up.

JW: What was the turning point?

JWs: One day we got a phone call at home from Clark Terry.

JW: Who answered the phone?

JWs: I did. Clark said, “Don't let me down—I need you to join the Count Basie Band." He had tried to get me in Basie's small group before but I was still in school at the time.

JW: Were you sorry you didn't join Basie when he had first asked?

JWs: No, not at all. The group wound up disbanding. This time Basie was putting together a big band. I was overjoyed.

JW: What about your brother Ernie?

JWs: Clark said Ernie had to join, too, but as an alto player. Ernie protested. “But I'm a tenor player." Clark said, “If you want the gig you have to play alto." But then Clark added, “Bring your tenor, too. You can write for Basie and stick three tenors in your charts."

JW: What about your civil service job?

JWs: They were breaking up the Army Finance Center. Half was moving to Denver and the other half was going to Indianapolis. I had planned to go to Indianapolis.

JW: Did you?

JWs: I quit and headed straight to New York with my brother to join Basie [laughs].

JW: Pretty thrilling?

JWs: Oh yes. It was exciting to be part of that band and to get measured up for band uniforms and everything. When we arrived, Basie recognized my brother. Ernie had played with the George Hudson Band in St. Louis. Basie and Hudson were tight from Kansas City. Basie had given Hudson his older charts.

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

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