Jazz pianist played with his trio, plus many greats

Share via
Special to The Times

Gerald Wiggins, a jazz pianist whose long career embraced numerous recordings with his trio, performances with Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, accompaniment for Lena Horne and Nat “King” Cole, and vocal coaching for Marilyn Monroe, has died. He was 86.

Wiggins died Sunday morning at Encino-Tarzana Medical Center, where he had spent the last six weeks. According to his wife, Lynn, Wiggins had been in poor health for months.

Versatility was Wiggins’ stock in trade, but the foundation of his playing was his work with a variety of trios -- especially with a unit that included bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Paul Humphrey.


A performance by the trio in 1998 was described in a Times review as “a set that defined the manner in which jazz can be simultaneously imaginative, elegant and swinging.”

Wiggins was also an extraordinary accompanist, highly praised for his ability to respond to the needs of a stylistically diverse range of singers.

Monroe once gave him a photo autographed with, “For Gerry. I can’t make a sound without you. Love you, Marilyn.”

He was equally adept at adjusting to the ever-changing aspects of big band rhythm section playing, and the varied demands of television, film and recording studio work.

Despite his reputation as a musician’s musician and a singer’s best friend, Wiggins’ playing as a soloist never quite achieved the widespread visibility that his talent warranted.

One probable reason was that his diversity of skills made him such an in-demand player that there was little time in his busy schedule for profile-enhancing tours. Another may have been his decision to leave New York in the 1940s -- the jazz center of the world at that time -- to settle in Los Angeles. But he never regretted that choice.


“We were out here during Christmas,” he told the Times, “and it was about 100 degrees and I fell in love with the place. It was beautiful.”

Wiggins was born May 12, 1922, in New York City. Although he studied classical piano from the age of 4, he did so reluctantly.

Hearing recordings by Art Tatum changed all that, and by the time he was in high school, Wiggins was accomplished enough to be playing gigs at places like Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, and backing comedian Stepin Fetchit. After signing on with Les Hite’s Los Angeles-based band in 1942, he made his first visit to the Southland.

Gigs with Armstrong and Benny Carter were followed by induction into the Army in 1944 for a two-year stint with the 29th Special Service Band in Seattle.

He settled in Los Angeles for good in the late ‘40s -- still in his 20s and one of the busiest musicians on the West Coast scene. His presence on more than two dozen recordings in the ‘50s, his active studio work and the constant calls to accompany the likes of Eartha Kitt, Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls, Pearl Bailey, Ernie Andrews and others occasionally reduced the opportunities to perform with his trio. But a pattern of musical eclecticism was set that would continue for nearly six decades, highlighted by the periods in which his estimable jazz qualities had the opportunity to surface through his many other activities.

Wiggins is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1987; his bassist son, Hassan Ash-Shakur; and children Karen, Jodi and Paul.


Funeral services are pending.