Jimmy Wilkins, the trombone-playing brother of arranger-saxophonist Ernie Wilkins and the last surviving member of Count Basie's original New Testament Band launched in 1951, died August 24. He was 97.
In recent years, Jimmy led a big band in Las Vegas using arrangements by his brother Ernie and Frank Foster. Jimmy and I spoke every six months or so. Our last conversation was in July. I'll miss him and his Count Basie stories. Here's my entire JazzWax interview with Jimmy:
JazzWax: Where were you born?
Jimmy Wilkins: I was born in 1921 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.
JWx: Did you know Clark Terry?
JW: 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.
JWx: What did your parents do?
JW: 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. [Pictured: Stix, Baer & Fuller Co. Department Store in St. Louis]
JWx: Did the split upset your mother?
JW: 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.
JWx: Did you and Ernie both play in the high school band?
JW: 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.
JWx: Did you enjoy the trombone?
JW: I loved it. The first tune I learned was The Music Goes Round and Round. The good news for Ernie was that wehad 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.
JWx: What did you do after high school?
JW: 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.
JWx: Was your mother happy?
JW: 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.
JWx: How did you wind up in the Navy?
JW: 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.
JWx: 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—Marshall 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]
JWx: Did you, your brother and Clark Terry stay together at Great Lakes? JW: Eventually my brother and I were shipped out to theHampton 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.
JWx: How long were you there?
JW: 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.
JWx: Was the band good?
JW: We were fair. We lacked bass players. We had a tuba player who had to learn to play the fiddle. He had an oldway 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]
JWx: Who ran the band?
JW: 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 brother 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.
JWx: Then what happened?
JW: In 1945, after two years and six months in Naval school, my brother and I were set to beshipped 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 brother and I had enough points for a discharge, so we left the Navy in November 1945.
JWx: When you were discharged from the Navy, what did you do?
JW: I went home to St. Louis and looked for a gig. I thought I would be a welcome addition 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.
JWx: What did you do?
JW: 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.
JWx: Was this your first time in New York?
JW: 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.
JWx: What did Fields do?
JW: We picked up another one—J.J. Johnson [laughs]. I had heard a lot about J.J. [pictured], 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.”
JWx: Did Johnson have a solo?
JW: Yes. It was nice and short. And he played more notes in his short solo than all of mine [laughs].
JWx: How did your brother Ernie make out with Mallory?
JW: 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.
JWx: Could you feel yourself improving?
JW: Yes, but I regretted not spending more time learning more in the bands at the Hampton Institute while I was inthe Navy. I was too busy chasing the co-eds [laughs]. Mallory’s band did well. He was tight with Joe Louis, the fighter. Joe [pictured] sponsored the band. After six weeks at the Savoy, we did a week at the Apollo. After that the band folded.
JW: 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 Louis and never showed up to hear him.
JWx: What did you do?
JW: 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.
JWx: How did that band work out?
JW: 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.
JWx: After school, you returned again to St. Louis?
JW: 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.
JWx: What was the struggle?
JW: 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.
JWx: What was the turning point?
JW: One day we got a phone call at home from Clark Terry.
JWx: Who answered the phone?
JW: 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 big band before but I was still in school at the time.
JWx: Were you sorry you didn’t join Basie when he had first asked?
JW: No, not at all. The group wound up disbanding. This time Basie was putting together a big band. I was overjoyed.
JWx: What about your brother Ernie?
JW: 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.”
JWx: What about your civil service job?
JW: 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.
JWx: Did you?
JW: I quit and headed straight to New York with my brother to join Basie [laughs].
JWx: Pretty thrilling?
JW: 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.
JWx: When you joined Count Basie’s band in New York in 1951, who was more excited, you or your brother Ernie?
JW: Me. Ernie didn’t like playing altosaxophone at the time but that was the only chair available. Basie already had Wardell Gray and Paul Quinichette on tenors, with Charlie Fowlkes on baritone. In the other two trombone chairs were two dear friends of mine—Matthew Gee and Mitchell “Booty” Wood. They were my heroes. It was a completely new band, except for the rhythm section, which had been with Basie.
JWx: Who wrote the arrangements?
JW: Neil Hefti wrote a half-dozen or so. I was delighted. Nothing was difficult and I was sight-reading. In ‘52, I endedup playing lead trombone. Booty’s wife wouldn’t let him go out on the road. So Basie added Benny Powell to take Booty’s place. Less than a year later, Henry Coker joined on trombone, and Joe Newman and Reunald Jones came in on trumpets. It was a brand new section.
JWx: The other alto sax was Marshall Royal, yes?
JW: That’s right. Ernie was still fussing about playing alto. But as the band started to take off, Ernie began contributing charts along with Hefti. Nat Pierce also wrote charts, like New Basie Blues.
JWx: How were the Hefti charts?
JW: They were great—Songs like Why Not?, Fancy Meetin’ You and others. Hefti used to send them to us while we were on the road—but without instructions on how to play them. One time we played one of his charts without instructions at Birdland. It was called How's It? or something like that. Clark [Terry] came up with the idea to phrase it slow, so we played the song laid back.
JWx: Did Hefti hear it?
JW: Yes, but he didn’t recognize it at first because it was so slow. Hefti wound up recording the song, but renamed it. I can’t remember the name. It had a more swinging tempo.
JWx: Did Basie like Ernie’s charts?
JW: Very much so. But Ernie wasn’t happy. Basie would announce Hefti's songs on the radio by saying they were by Hefti. But when we played Ernie’s songs, Basie never said his name. After we left the band in ’53, Basie apparently had said that he didn’t realize what he had had in Ernie.
JWx: Who replaced you?
JW: Johnny Mandel. He had come in to hear the band atBirdland a few times and brought a chart or two. Johnny said he thought I was great leading the section. Johnny's charts were great. They had a certain feel—laid back but with a good beat.
JWx: The sax section changed as well.
JW: Yes, Basie went through a period of personnel problems. If you weren’t proficient or didn’t have thepersonality Basie was looking for, you were gone. Basie got Joe Newman and Henry Coker out of Illinois Jacquet’s band. He also brought in Frank Wess, Frank Foster and Snooky Young.
JW: Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis was in there, too.
JWs: Oh yes. Lockjaw was a rompin’ player. He put all the groove he could into a tune. He loved his showmanship. I would holler “Lockjaw!” He loved it. Lockjaw and I were very good friends.
JWx: Did he play with you when you started a band in Detroit?
JW: Yes. After I left Basie, Lockjaw came to Detroit withthe Harry “Sweets” Edison Quintet. I invited him over to our house for a barbecue. I made my own sauce, and he really snacked on those ribs. Lockjaw was a comical guy and loved to talk a lot of bull. He wasn’t as tough as he made out. He was just a nice guy who loved to be the center of things.
JWx: Why did you leave the Basie band?
JW: Because the money was too short. I had an offer from my uncle to manage his restaurant in Detroit— Webster’s BBQ. It was more pay, and I could save money by being stable.
JWx: Why did he want you to manage it?
JW: He wanted a relative handling the money rather than someone else. He wanted to get away on vacations, and he knew he could trust me. I managed the restaurant for a year and a half. Eventually a fire put him out of business for a couple of months. That's when I put a big band together.
JWx: What did Ernie do?
JW: Ernie stayed on with the band but left to stay in New York and write for Tommy Dorsey. Then he started getting commissions to write for different performers and bands. He was so busy so fast. He was always up all night writing charts. Everyone overworked him.
JWx: What did you do after the fire?
JW: I had had enough. I took an exam for the Post Office. I had gotten married in 1952, and the lack of a stable check wasn’t going to help me. I passed the test and worked for the Post Office in Detroit until 1981.
JWx: What did you do then?
JW: I had been leading a band on the weekends. It was adamn good band, too. We backed up Nancy Wilson [pictured], Billy Eckstine, Lou Rawls—all hot acts. Ernie sent me charts every now and then. They sounded good. That’s what took the band over. People would say, “There’s a band in Detroit that sounds just like Basie” [laughs]. Ernie also sent me some of the charts from Here Comes the Swingin' Mr. Wilkins as well as arrangements for Sarah Vaughan in the Land of Hi-Fi. He even wrote some special charts just for me.
JWx: Did Ernie play with the band?
JW: Ernie made a couple of gigs with the band. The band was excited when he came to play. They were pleased to see him. One time he had to borrow a baritone saxophone because the baritone player didn’t show up.
JWx: You also played with the Funk Brothers, the house-band that backed singers on Motown recordings.
JW: Yes, but I don’t remember specifically which ones. There were so many. They’d just put arrangements in front of us, and we'd record them. I know we did records with Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and everyone else.
JWx: When did you move to Las Vegas?
JW: In 1994. My wife and I moved there to get away from the winters in Detroit. They were too cold and hard. Besides, we had visited Vegas many times to see friends. After we moved out, a couple of musicians suggested I start a band with my large library of arrangements.
JWx: Did you?
JW: Yes, I knew all the musicians in Vegas. I called them up and started rehearsing. I got all the baddest cats. And I had Ernie’s charts and charts that Frank Foster had sent me, including Shiny Stockings, from before Basie even recorded it.
JWx: Did you ever run into Johnny Mandel?
JW: Yes, on a Jazz Cruise. I approached him and said, “Hi Johnny. Remember me?” He looked at me sort of quizzical at first. Then, as he began to realize who I was, his face warmed and he hugged me. He said, “Wow, it’s been a long time.”
JazzWax clips: Here's Jimmy Wilkins on his first recording session in May 1951 with Count Basie just after Basie formed his new big band. The band is playing Basie's Every Tub, featuring Wardell Gray on tenor saxophone...
Here's Jimmy Wilkins with Count Basie playing Neal Hefti's Why Not? in January 1952, when Hefti began arranging for the band. Hefti was critical to the New Testament band's stretched out swinging pop sound...
And here'sCount Basie's band in July 1952 recording Ernie Wilkins's classy arrangement of There's a Small Hotel with Ernie Wilkins in the sax section and Jimmy Wilkins among the trombones. Be sure to dig the outro!...
What did the Jimmy Wilkins Big Band sound like in recent years? Here they are in Henderson, Nev., at the E-String...
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