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Jazz titan Gerald Wilson dead at 96

Gerald Wilson at Monterey Jazz Festival in 2007. (91672)
Gerald Wilson at Monterey Jazz Festival in 2007. Credit: Photo courtesy of Maxie Floyd

Gerald Wilson, the prolific Jazz arranger, bandleader, composer, educator, and trumpeter, died at his family home in Los Angeles on Sept. 8. Perhaps the ultimate testament to his musical versatility was his ability to transition from the swing era of the 1930s to the eclectic trends of the 21st century. His passing was announced by his son, noted guitarist Anthony Wilson, who listed the cause of death as pneumonia. He was 96.

Born in Shelby, Miss., in 1918, Wilson moved north to complete his education in Memphis and Chicago before attending Detroit’s legendary Cass Technical High School, the launching point of such musical luminaries as Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Della Reese, and Diana Ross. His career was spawned when alto saxophonist Jimmy Lunceford hired him as an arranger and trumpet player for his swing orchestra in the 1930s, where he contributed to the tunes “Hi Spook,” and “Yard Dog Mazurka.”

After a stretch in the Navy, Wilson moved to Los Angeles near the end of World War II. Ignoring the possibility of greater financial and professional success elsewhere, he remained here for the remainder of his life, and made significant contributions to the cultural heritage of the city.

Over the next eight decades, Wilson continued to stay relevant with the shifting whims of the musical industry, both under his own banner and as a contributor to the repertoire of such notables as Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Duke Ellington, and Nancy Wilson, just to name a few.

Within his own orchestra, Wilson was noted for slanting his arrangements to suit the particular traits of his individual players. Open minded to influences from all sources, he cultivated a Latin element into his music, possibly inspired by his union with his Mexican-born wife Josephina Villaseñor Wilson.

Riding the crest of popular Spanish rhythms in the early 1960s, the album “Moment of Truth” (1962) dedicated to bullfight Jose Ramon Tirado produced a pop hit in the track “Viva Tirado.” In 1970, the “brown-eyed soul” Rock-Soul band El Chicano revived it to garner their first hit single. Further proof of his reincarnation within the pop music idiom was manifested in 1990 when DJ “Kid Frost” sampled the tune.

With his tailored look accentuating his elegantly trim frame, mane of silver gray hair, and dramatic gestures, Wilson made for a compelling appearance just as spell binding as the sounds he coaxed from his orchestra during their live performances.

Starting in 1970, he embarked upon a vocation as a Jazz educator with stints at California State University Northridge, California State University Los Angeles, and at UCLA.

Never content to rest on his laurels, Wilson’s adventurous leanings prompted him to venture into the classical realm during this time, and “stretched his wings” with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. These experimental forays were acknowledged with a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982.

Personal and professional life merged within the Wilson clan, as his son Anthony became a successful musician in his own right, while a daughter, Lillian, married singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis, the son of musician and impresario Johnny Otis, the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” They in turn had a son, Eric (also a guitarist who served as a musical transcriber for his grandfather, and continues his family legacy locally). He was named after the groundbreaking avant-garde reedman Eric Dolphy, a staple of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, before branching out to gain his own international acclaim.

In addition to his son Anthony, Gerald Stanley Wilson is survived by his wife Josafina Villaseñor, daughters Geraldine LeDuff and Nancy Jo Wilson, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.