“You know who I am?” Wilson said incredulously. The other patient, a Japanese national, nodded emphatically, thanked him for his contributions to jazz music and told him he regularly attends his performances.
“That’s what’s wonderful about life,” Wilson reflects. “To know you’ve been able reach out to someone in the world and really move them through your work.”
This accomplished jazz composer, bandleader and soloist is on the verge of celebrating his 86th birthday. Yet he continues to tour with his group, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Wilson attributes his good health and longevity to his love of music, and the positive energy of the students he interacts with.
As an adjunct assistant professor, Wilson teaches Jazz 120 A and B in UCLA’s department of ethnomusicology. The classes cover the history of jazz from its early beginnings to the present. “It’s electrifying to work with the students,” Wilson says.
A six-time Grammy nominee, Wilson’s life’s work was archived by the Library of Congress. He has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Jazz Awards and Downbeat Magazine. This month he will be honored again at a special tribute concert and birthday celebration, part of the second annual UCLA Friends of Jazz gala and awards ceremony on September 12.
Wilson fell in love with music at the age of five. His first teacher was his mother, who taught music and other subjects at the local school in Shelby, Mississippi. At the age of 15, Wilson visited the 1934 Worlds Fair in Chicago, where he was mesmerized by the big city and its marvels. Back home in Mississippi, he asked his mother if she would allow him to move to Chicago. Nervous about how her youngest son would fare in a city that was not yet integrated, she compromised and agreed to let him go to Detroit.
Just five short years after his move to Detroit, Wilson joined the popular Jimmie Lunceford band and his musical career skyrocketed. Wilson remembers performing at Carnegie Hall with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, dining with Morgan Freeman at the actor’s Mississippi restaurant, touring with Ella Fitzgerald.
Music drew Wilson to Los Angeles in 1940 on a tour with Jimmie Lunceford. Once again, he fell for a big city; this time he made it his new home. “I loved Los Angeles from the minute I saw it,” he says.
Wilson’s life took a dramatic turn during a concert tour with Ella Fitzgerald in the late sixties. It was while performing onstage in Chicago that he had a revelation. “I’d reached the top, but there were still so many things I wanted to do in life.”
Upon his return to Los Angeles, Wilson went back to school. Shortly thereafter, he began writing scores for movies and television. “All of my dreams had come true,” he says. “I was writing music for MGM, Warner Bros., Universal and all the studios. I became the music director for Redd Foxx’s variety show.” The icing on the cake was a personal invitation from Zubin Mehta to compose for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Now in his 13th year of teaching at UCLA, Wilson’s advice to budding musicians is succinct. “Stay on it, be dedicated. Believe it’s going to happen for you, and it happens.”