The distinctly American music that we call jazz is uncontainable as a genre. By accepted definition, if you approach it with anything significant to add, you are obligated to change it, to take it further. Jazz, then, may be less a category than a challenge. From that perspective, few living legends have stepped up as often or with as wonderfully varied and lasting results as the trumpeter, composer, arranger, and now conductor Gerald Wilson.
Wilson cut his chops on the road with the Jimmie Lunceford big band during the late 1930s and '40s. That simple fact may account for some aspect of Wilson's musical longevity. Lunceford's music is complex with regard to orchestration, but remains notoriously danceable, easy on the ears, and full of sparkling wit. Wilson went on to play and arrange for bands led by Ellington, Gillespie, Basie, and of course himself.
Seventy years into his career, Wilson is finally getting around to his Knoxville debut. Next week he'll be conducting the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra as they play selections from Wilson's 2003 album New York, New Sound, the arranger's love letter to his own favorite music-makers and collaborators. It contains lush, large ensemble variations of cuts like "Milestones" by Miles Davis, Coltrane's "Equinox," and his own much-covered "Viva Tirado."
From his home in Los Angeles, Wilson explains that the concept of New York, New Sound actually came from one of his many admirers.
"That was a record produced by Stix Hooper," says Wilson. "He's a drummer who played with the Jazz Crusaders. At this time he was producing records with Mack Avenue Records in Detroit. Those are all songs that he particularly liked. He had played them when he was in my band. We became friends, and those numbers he wanted in that album."
Wilson goes on to talk about the NYNS sessions, which like many of his recording events turned into a reunion. He brought in long-lost friends like trumpeter Clark Terry, with whom he had served in the navy during World War II, and pianist Kenny Barron. So you have to wonder, for a composer/arranger who is accustomed to playing with friends and relatives (guitar genius Shuggie Otis is Wilson's son-in-law), is it some kind of thrill ride to book a gig conducting your music to be played by distant strangers, no matter how kind and accomplished they may be?
"I've been doing this for quite a while now," says Wilson. "I was just with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra not too long ago, and with the Seattle Jazz Orchestra. I've been going around doing things like that. I even did a thing with the BBC Jazz Orchestra over in London. I like doing that because it's good to work with other musicians. They're all good.
"I know about Tennessee. They have some fine musicians in Tennessee. I was born in a little town in Mississippi that's about 90 miles south of Memphis. But I went to high school in Memphis, at Manassas High School. That was the school where Jimmie Lunceford had been a teacher. Later on my family moved to Memphis, so that makes Memphis my home. I feel very good coming back to Tennessee because that's where I studied the trumpet. I had a very good teacher there. I needed that kind of training and without it I don't think I could hardly be here today."
Wilson's sound is unusual even within the confines of big-band. He leans toward pieces two or three times longer than the typical radio track slot, giving him room for many moods and opportunities for many instrumental voices. NYNS contains his extended "Theme for Monterey," a commission to commemorate the Monterey Jazz Festival's 50th anniversary. "Theme" blossoms from a light, reedy opening to many layered, larger thoughts that are probably more closely related to Copland or Satie than anything ever performed at the Cotton Club.
Wilson no longer plays trumpet, and devotes his time to composing, arranging, and conducting. Wilson's style of conducting is also one of a kind, and a joyous spectacle to behold. Apparently, he trusts his charts to tell the players what to do and when. Almost like an interpretive dancer, Wilson serves as liaison between band and audience, making sure that listeners don't miss any of the music he's written for them.
"The people enjoy watching me conduct," Wilson says. "I choreograph my arrangements. They see everything that's happening, the audience. When they hear something, I'm right there on it, pointing to it. That, in turn, makes it interesting to watch me conduct. I'm all over the stage, I don't stand in one place. I'm not just giving them the time, I'm moving all the time. So they hear what's happening and they see what's happening."