Sunday, March 18

Professor’s music and career refuse defined boundaries

UCLA's Gerald Wilson, legendary jazz musician and composer, has a varied style all his own


Like jazz, the free-flowing music form, Professor Gerald Wilson doesn’t like to limit himself.

The longtime jazz composer and trumpet player who wrote songs for Ray Charles for about 10 years, has also taken a stab at country music.

“I wrote (Charles’) first country and western song,” Wilson said. “I have experience in rhythm and blues and country, as well as jazz.”

With a musical history stemming from piano studies at age 5, a track record of hits dating back to the beginnings of big band jazz, two orchestras (one in Los Angeles and one in New York), and more than 30 years of teaching under his belt, Wilson’s music career has refused boundaries.

Over the course of his more than 60-year career, he has earned a handful of Grammy nominations, a spot in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, three Monterey Jazz commissions, and a plethora of old-time chart-toppers with famous names such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sam Cooke, and Ella Fitzgerald.

“I was trained well in the business,” Wilson said.

And with his latest jazz album “Monterey Moods,” released on September 25, Wilson continues to make the innovative sounds that have become his signature.

It’s no wonder that Wilson has a style of his own. At 89 years old, the composer has a career spans almost the complete history of jazz.

The new album is an exhibit of a piece Wilson was commissioned to create last year for the 50th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. With six or so variations of the piece on the album, listeners will experience the multifaceted dynamic of the festival and of Wilson’s talents at creating and transforming sounds.

Wilson captures the romance of the Monterey festival with blues, ballad, Latin, and jazz rhythms that are all based on a simple few lines: “Can you hear that horn? / Monterey love is here / Here in Monterey / Monterey Monterey, Monterey is the place to be / Here in Monterey.”

The album is tied together musically, as well as by its inspiration. Wilson wrote a three-note theme to capture the spirit of the festival, and that theme recurs in each of the album’s movements. Each time it returns, however, it is set against a different musical backdrop, varying from blues to Latin to a jazz waltz.

Despite their varied musical styles, the songs focus on the same thing, and according to Wilson, the Monterey festival is all about romance and love. And it’s with such an atmosphere that the jazz piece was born.

But while Monterey has inspired his most recent album, Wilson’s work within jazz is not so geographically constrained.

In the most recent times, Wilson has travelled the nation to perform his newest compositions. And when his music strays from the romance of Monterey, or embraces it in a new context, his audience broadens as well as his themes.

“All sorts of people come to the shows. People want to hear jazz,” Wilson said.

Wilson himself is one of those people ““ he doesn’t just enjoy jazz when he is on stage. He and his wife are an active part of the local jazz scene and still enjoy the ambiance of jazz clubs in Los Angeles.

“I go to all the jazz stuff they have around town,” Wilson said.

This quarter, Wilson will be teaming up with fellow jazz musician and professor, Kenny Burrell, to teach the “Development of Jazz” class offered through the ethnomusicology department. It is still important to Wilson to teach jazz, to make sure the art he loves doesn’t become a historical art. And though some consider the genre to be past its heyday, jazz is, at least for Wilson, here to stay.

“Some people say jazz is dead, but I say jazz is far from dead. Jazz is here and alive today,” he said.

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