Ernie Wilkins; Jazz Composer, Saxophonist

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

American-born composer and saxophonist Ernie Wilkins, who was credited with helping revive the popularity of the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1950s, has died. He was 79.

Wilkins, who also composed music for Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and Tommy Dorsey, died Saturday in Copenhagen after a stroke, his wife said. He had retired from performing after suffering a stroke in 1991.

Ernest Brooks Wilkins Jr. was born July 20, 1919, in St. Louis, started playing saxophone in high school and later played in U.S. military bands.

He learned piano and violin and studied music at Wilberforce University.

Wilkins got his big break in 1951 when trumpeter Terry recommended him to Count Basie. Wilkins played alto and tenor sax for Basie, but also gained recognition as a composer and arranger.


“The band was at its lowest ebb . . . losing lots of players,” Terry said Saturday. “Along came Ernie and wrote them a hit.”

The tune was “Every Day (I Have the Blues),” and Basie recorded the arrangement with singer Joe Williams in 1955.

“That put Basie back on top. No doubt about it,” Terry said.

Other standards that Wilkins created for the Basie group included “Basie Power,” “Way Out Basie” and “Right On, Right On.”

In the late 1950s, Wilkins performed with and arranged music for Gillespie’s band, and later wrote for Tommy Dorsey’s and Harry James’ orchestras.

In 1968, Wilkins joined Terry’s Big B-A-D Band as music director and principal composer. They recorded, among others, “One Foot in the Gutter,” which features a four-minute solo by Wilkins.

Between stints with Terry, Wilkins worked in the early 1970s as head of the artists and repertory department at Mainstream Records.

He moved to Copenhagen in 1980 and started his own orchestra, Ernie Wilkins and His Almost Big Band.

He also was guest conductor with several other bands. The musicians he worked with included Earl Hines, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne and Quincy Jones.

He is survived by his wife, Jenny, her two adult children and his brother, Jimmy.