Though a bustling, glossy downtown L.A. coffee shop is hardly a purely academic environment, there’s something about sitting down with 93-year-old bandleader, composer and 2012 Grammy nominee Gerald Wilson that feels like crashing a history class.
Maybe it’s a byproduct of Wilson having spent much of his career as an educator, leading a popular jazz history class at three local universities since the 1970s, including UCLA, where Wilson remembers the fire department forcing him to clear the aisles for a class that had ballooned to more than 500 students. Or maybe it’s simply because sitting with Gerald Wilson is a little like having coffee with jazz history itself.
But for all the rich stories at Wilson’s fingertips that stem from touring around the country with swinging big bands, hosting a popular local jazz radio show and his experience writing for such music legends as Ray Charles, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, there’s just as much reason to celebrate the present. At Sunday’s Grammy Awards, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra is nominated in jazz’s large ensemble category for “Legacy,” the bandleader’s eighth nomination over a sprawling career.
Wilson’s album will be competing against recordings led by Christian McBride, Miguel Zenón, Randy Brecker and Arturo O’Farrill, but “Legacy” is unique not only for its rich continuation and expansion of the jazz orchestra but also for a sense of familial collaboration that spans three generations.
“This is my legacy, this is my son and my grandson and me,” Wilson said. His 43-year-old son Anthony Wilson, a guitarist and composer, appears on the album along with 33-year-old grandson Eric Otis, whose father was R&B singer-songwriter Shuggie Otis. “They wrote one piece and conducted it, I wrote all of the rest and conducted it.... Both of the guys do a great job, I’m just happy they’re related to me,” he added with a smile.
Though Anthony has appeared on his father’s recordings since he was a senior in high school, this was the first where he contributed a song and an arrangement with “Virgo,” a slow-building, lushly orchestrated track he composed for his father’s birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008. Anthony also assembled the band for the album, which features an orchestra built from a variety of high-profile artists including trumpeters Sean Jones and Jeremy Pelt, drummer Lewis Nash and trombonist Alan Ferber.
“Some of my favorite musicians in the world are in that band, and everybody plays perfectly,” Anthony said. “As a composer, it made it very easy. What I intended the music to sound like, it was realized that way. So it was really gratifying.”
In addition to featuring two songs from Wilson’s family, “Legacy” is neatly split between showcasing the bandleader’s longtime classical leanings with deeply swung nods to Stravinsky and Puccini paired with a brisk, seven-song suite commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival called “Yes, Chicago Is.…"
Though Wilson has been a fixture on the L.A. scene since arriving with the Jimmie Lunceford Band in 1940 to sunny skies that stood in stark contrast with the winters of his days in Chicago, Detroit and New York, the Windy City remained dear to his heart since he lived there as a teen during the 1933 World’s Fair. “Each part of the music tells you what’s going on there,” Wilson said of his suite, which features a compact series of songs that seldom crack the three-minute mark. “Like the very beginning it tells you Michigan Avenue is so beautiful that husbands and wives walk down the street just looking at this beautiful street.”
Though in conversation the elder Wilson excitedly dips into the nitty-gritty aspects of composing and arranging that can sail directly over the heads of those who can’t tell a flat nine from a 9 iron, Anthony explained that his writing was most influenced by a straightforwardness in his father’s music.
"[My dad] will love to talk to you about how complex the harmony is, but the complexity is to me not the important thing,” he said. “It’s the way the music speaks in a direct way. The melodies are direct, they’re not oblique. I just find they have a way of speaking, and that’s something I tried to get in my music.”
In looking back on his career, Gerald Wilson takes a deserved satisfaction in what he’s accomplished, and in hearing the pride in his voice about “Legacy,” you get the feeling this collaboration fulfilled another ambition that leaves few corners still unexplored. Except, of course, a Grammy victory.
“This one, I said, ‘You know, we might get a Grammy with this one.’ I’m picking some heavy music here,” he added with a grin. Then, standing to leave with his son into another flawless L.A. afternoon, Wilson clasped his hands together and beamed. “If we could win, that’d be something.”