February 19, 2020

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Gerald Wilson- African-American Jazz in California

February 19, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Gerald Wilson

Gerald Wilson first came to prominence as a member of Jimmie Lunceford’s trumpet section and as a composer and arranger for the band. He wrote several important arrangements including "Hi Spook" and "Yard Dog Mazurka." After Lunceford he did a stint in the Navy’s Great Lakes Band which included Clark Terry and Willie Smith among others.

After the Navy he ended up in Los Angeles.

In 1944 he was asked to put together his own big band for an engagement at Shepp’s Playhouse in the Bronzeville district of Los Angeles. The band was supposed to be for Herb Jeffries but Jeffries had to cancel which thrust Gerald into the spotlight as the leader.

Bronzeville had been Little Tokyo prior to World War 2 but was transformed into an African-American business district after the Japanese-American business owners and families were evicted from the area and sent to internment camps. In October of 1943 African-American businessmen formed the Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce and declared that the area was no longer “Little Tokyo.”

Along with “Central Ave,” Bronzeville became an area with an active nightlife scene highlighted by a number of breakfast clubs that stayed open all night to serve the war workers and general public. Shepp’s Playhouse was the biggest and best known.

Once tasked with forming his own band, Gerald scouted out the musicians he wanted which included Vic Dickenson, Melba Liston, Hobart Dotson and his old friend from the Lunceford days, Snooky Young. With Gerald’s cutting edge arrangements the band became an instant hit with the local audience. Within a few months they recorded for both the
Excelsior and Black and White record labels.

From that point forward Gerald more or less always had a big band but there was a big gap in recording between the 1940s sessions and theband’s resurgence for Pacific Jazz in the 1960s.

In addition to his own band Gerald was in tremendous demand as an arranger and wrote for many artists including Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He also wrote for film and television, hosted his own radio show and was a pioneer jazz educator.