Saturday, March 24

Jazz great brings energy, talent to classroom


Conductor Gerald Wilson flung his arms in the air on Sept. 12 as
his big band belted out the last refrain of his famous composition
“Viva Tirado.” He held them there for bar after bar,
while his curly white hair danced under the lights of Schoenberg
Hall. The audience was hooting like kids at a rock concert. Then
his arms flew down and the band ended on one clear note. The
distinguished conductor-composer turned around, grinning, enjoying
the zenith of an exciting day.

Minutes before, Wilson had been presented with four awards by
UCLA Friends of Jazz, the Department of Ethnomusicology, the
dean’s office of the School of Arts and Architecture, and the
California State Assembly. All afternoon, he had been socializing
with old friends, many of whom are jazz greats like Gerald Wiggins,
Snooky Young, Nancy Wilson, James Moody, Hubert Laws and Horace
Silver. All of these people had come out to support Friends of Jazz
and celebrate Wilson’s 86th birthday.

“That is one of the greatest times of my life, when your
peers appreciate what you’ve done. It was a great day for
me,” Wilson said.

An extraordinary musician and charismatic bandleader, Wilson
certainly deserved such recognition. He has been nominated for five
Grammy awards, and even had his life’s work archived by the
Library of Congress. As a UCLA professor, fellow jazz professor and
producer of the Friends of Jazz Gala Kenny Burrell said that Wilson
has inspired thousands of students, some of whom will be jazz
musicians, and others who will be all-important fans.

“Gerald Wilson is a great role model of someone who has
succeeded and loves what he is doing,” Burrell said.
“He’s a good example of some steps to follow in terms
of following your passion.”

Wilson’s birthday drew hundreds of patrons, raising funds
for Friends of Jazz. The hearty profits will go to much-needed
equipment for the jazz department, guest lectures and the newly
established Gerald Wilson scholarship for new students.

“I’m being rewarded for what I’ve been trying
to do,” Wilson said. “This is a great feeling. It means
you’re successful at what you’re doing. And by success
we mean that the music is good, because if I had a billion dollars
and my music was bad, it wouldn’t mean anything to me because
the music is what’s important.”

The conductor-composer is not showing signs of slowing down. He
continues to conduct, teach and record, despite occasional corporal
malfunctions which can be expected of his age. Three years ago, at
the Chicago Jazz Festival, his retina snapped, rendering him

“We were walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago and all
of a sudden I couldn’t see any faces!” Wilson

But with or without the use of his eyes, the determined
conductor pushed on through a dynamic performance of his original
compositions. Later, UCLA doctors helped him regain most of his
vision, but he had to give up conducting the UCLA orchestra because
he couldn’t read the scores.

He still teaches a widely popular class for the UCLA
ethnomusicology department, which packs Schoenberg Hall with 480
students each quarter. Even after teaching for over 40 years
““ 13 at UCLA ““ Wilson delivers what most students
consider enthusiastic lectures. In class, he channels the same type
of energy as he does during performances, dancing around stage,
clapping his hands together and punching the air to emphasize the
listening selections.

“(Wilson) is a very animated person,” said
fifth-year ethnomusicology student and guest pianist for
Wilson’s tribute Jeff Goodkind. “The coolest thing
about being in his class is just to be in his presence. He has seen
most of the development of jazz and played with and befriended all
of the major jazz musicians. He’s got a wealth of stories to
tell. To be in his class and to listen to those stories from a
first hand perspective, to me, is so valuable. It makes the music
so alive.”

In his classes, Wilson teaches his students how to listen to
jazz by pointing out the complexities in the orchestration.

“I don’t just let the music play and stand there. I
tell (my students) what this guy is doing now, listen to what is
happening here with the drummer, what’s going on with the
bass,” said Wilson. “You’ve got to listen to

After teaching the same thing year after year, Wilson
hasn’t grown bored. He plans to keep going as long as he

“I enjoy every minute of it,” he said. “What
more could I ask for?”

He continues to compose ““ now with computer software such
as MIDI because of his sight problems ““ drawing on
inspiration from people, places and things that he loves. He said
that it’s due time that he write a song about his friends at

“I tell you, after last night, I should write something
for them,” said Wilson. “I’ll put that on my
list. I’ll have to start a list. After all they gave me. I
couldn’t believe that. It was so nice, the chancellor was
there, the dean. What the heck, I’ll do something to show my
appreciation musically.”

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