The last king of swing

There's a Detroit in Gerald Wilson's head, and it's so vivid to him, that he can make you feel it as he talks, even though his Detroit is frozen in the 1930s, when he arrived here as a teenager busting out of the South. 

He makes you feel it in another way, in the six-part suite that makes up his next record, Detroit, the one he'll return from California to present with a 20-piece Motor City band for this weekend's jazz festival. The music surges with a sweep much like Wilson's words in conversation. You can go with his flow or get left behind. 

Wilson, who turns 91 on Friday, is one of a handful of musicians — and the only major bandleader-composer-arranger — still swinging after having first swung when the usage was new. Mention "swing" today and he'll digress to tell a caller that we're talking about "swing" as in "Moten Swing," as in Benny Moten, as in the Kansas City bandleader who hired Count Basie (New Jersey piano player, stranded in KC when a vaudeville group went bust). That would be the Basie who, after Moten's untimely demise, wound up leading Moten's band. And, yes, that's also swing as in Duke Ellington's subsequent "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," the mention of which brings Wilson to laugh as if this is his first time hearing the grammatically misaligned, but spot-on aphorism. Did you know that Wilson lived with the Count for nine weeks? And, get this, Count didn't have a piano in his house, nope, just an organ. But that's another story that maybe we'll get back to, or maybe not, because when Wilson tells them, there are stories inside stories, stories that beget stories, stories falling off stories, and Wilson is usually zero to one degree of separation, rarely more than a couple, from the action. When he teaches jazz history at college, he doesn't need a textbook, by the way.

Now about Detroit. Wilson arrived here for what should have been his senior year in high school. His family of strivers was still behind the cotton curtain in a backwater burg in segregated Mississippi, but wanting better for Wilson, they sent him to live with family friends in Detroit. Wilson would've preferred Chicago, which he'd seen at the World's Fair in 1934. But Detroit and the music department at Cass Tech were the best things that ever happened to him. And what many would have considered a setback, Wilson considered a lucky break: His math skills were considered so deficient that he was put back to the ninth grade, meaning that he could spend more time soaking up all that the music department had to offer: vocal training, instrumental training, theory.

The memories come in a rush: "Not only was the school integrated, you could go downtown: the Michigan Theatre, the Fox Theatre, and on Monday night, every Monday night at the Graystone was black night, and they would have all the black bands, all the best bands in the world that came to Detroit, they would be there on Monday night, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, Erskine Hawkins, all the best bands would be coming to Detroit there. So I said, Detroit, it just knocked me over as far as music. And I ended up meeting all those people. ... When I got old enough to start working on my own I started working at the Plantation Club at Adams and St. Antoine, I was working with guys who had been ex-McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and in other great bands like the Chocolate Dandies, they were all managed by Jean Goldkette, do you know that name?"

And there's even a section in his "Detroit" suite — on the new album of the same name — in honor of Cass Tech. But the album's work isn't just driven by memories, which Wilson has in abundance. It began with research. He sent a grandson to research Detroit on the Internet: Detroit, founded 1701 by Antoine de Cadillac, French settlers. That helped him get a bigger picture of the place.

"So, he didn't get the name from General Motors," Wilson says with a laugh. "So the next thing I have to do is perceive this as this is Detroit, this is a beautiful city, and I know that because when I got there it was the one of the prettiest cities that I had ever seen. OK? Detroit to me is a beautiful city. I'll have to do a little narration as we go, I'll probably have to explain to the audience just before we move into it. I'll actually say the words: Detroit ... Detroit ... Detroit ... It's beautiful. It is beautiful. It's magnificent. It's a magnificent place. Love is here. Freedom is here in Detroit. And then as we progress in the music, we might take a trip on Grand River, north on Grand River to McGraw, I know where McGraw is because that's where the Red Wings played. I used to listen to the games all the time when I lived there. I start talking about all those places: Gratiot, down in Paradise Valley, I will kind of be giving you an outline of what the music is talking about. However, we must remember this is a jazz concert. Everything is gonna be swinging, even the ballads are gonna be swinging. That's how I get into the mood writing pieces."

And if this beautiful Detroit seems at odds with the one Detroiters see every day, Wilson says to see beyond the everyday: "This city has been here a long time and it's got to rebuild, it's gonna be great again."

Now, about some
of those pieces in his suite ...

"Before Motown": You might think Wilson's talking about pre-Gordy Detroit and wonder what the Latin beats have to do with that. No, no. Wilson is thinking pre-Cadillac: "Before the French came, Antoine and them, there were some people there already. They were Indians. It's not a Latin-Hispanic beat. That's a beat the way the Indians would do it."

"Detroit River": A river that can handle little boats and big. The music stirs Wilson's memories of riverboats where he played with Detroiter Gloster Currant's band as a high school kid. Which brings to mind that on another Detroit riverboat reception just a few years back, he was finally given the high school diploma he missed out on by going on the road a few weeks shy of graduation. 

"Cass Tech": "... was a school that was moving ahead when I got there. I was studying music that I had never heard about." As in a number of the pieces, some admired composer is referenced; in this case it's saxophonist Benny Golson, who penned "Killer Joe" (not that there's any particular connection between Golson and Detroit). Wilson wants audiences to hear something of Golson's sound, but he doesn't want it to be too obvious. In fact, Golson "is gonna hear things that he isn't even going to recognize."

"Miss Gretchen": As in Gretchen Carhartt Valade, the festival benefactor and Wilson benefactor, who's had his last three discs and his new Detroit on her Mack Avenue label. "You'll hear Billy Strayhorn's sound, a little bit, just a fleeting moment from a number called 'Chelsea Bridge.' I don't have to feel bad about that because you know where he got 'Chelsea Bridge'? From Maurice Ravel. No, not Ravel. From Debussy. No, wait a minute," he says as he stops to hum. "No, it's Ravel. Now, Debussy, he's in a class by himself, so this takes nothing away from him."

The longer the
conversation goes, the more stories, the more characters:

Wardell Gray, the great tenor saxophonist who died young, leaving behind the tune "Twisted," and Al McKibben, the early bop bassist: classmates from Cass.

Sy Oliver, the Michigan-born trumpeter-arranger who worked with everyone from Lunceford to Tommy Dorsey to Frank Sinatra: During Oliver's Lunceford days, he took Wilson under his wing. "He'd put a chair up beside him on the bandstand when they played the Graystone. He knew I liked him. He was my idol really. At that time he'd just won first place in Downbeat — he was the top arranger in the world, jazz arranger." And just a few years later, almost straight from high school, Wilson would be in that trumpet chair after Oliver moved on.

Eleanor Roosevelt ... what's Eleanor Roosevelt doing in a jazz story? "Mrs. Roosevelt told President Roosevelt that the Marines have been integrated and the Army is integrated, you've got to integrate the Navy." And on the cusp of that change was the Navy Band Great Lakes. "They were all hand-picked musicians," Wilson says of himself and his bandmates, who included fellow big band heavies Willie Smith and Clark Terry.

Redd Foxx: After riding high with his own band after leaving the service, Wilson abruptly retired to go back to study music. He wanted to work in movies. He wanted to work in television. He wanted to hone his writing for every instrument in the orchestra. He wanted to study modern composers who "have a thing in there that looks like it leans toward jazz." And so he dissected the works of Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Khachaturian, before he re-emerged, reinvigorated, equipped now to dip into Khachaturian, for instance, to come up with his jazz-waltz hit "Blues for Yna Yna." And the TV work he hoped for eventually materialized, including a stint as musical director of Foxx's show on ABC.

Dizzy Gillespie: "I was in Dizzy's band in 1950 when Coltrane was an alto sax player; he wasn't even a tenor player yet. And Jimmy Heath was playing second alto. Paul Gonsalves was playing tenor."

Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson: Arranging for singers was another specialty. "So many, I can't remember them all."

And after an hour-plus caroming through the last seven or so decades, Wilson returns to recent years, which have been busy with commissions and other writing projects. There's a new record in the works with Wilsonian variations on themes of Puccini, Stravinsky and others. 

"I've been writing so much music. So much I can't believe it. I'm writing now," he says. And soon he decides he has to end this interrupting phone call and get back to composing. 

"I got to get out of here," he says.

W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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