Gerald Wilson shines at 89.

Roots And Shoots: Jazz maestro Gerald Wilson brings decades of jazz history to the Fairgrounds.

[ MJF50 ]

No jazz festival has tended its legacy with as much care and intelligence as Monterey. By cultivating relationships with revered veterans while holding open the door to new developments in the art form, MJF has managed the difficult balancing act of keeping a foot firmly planted in tradition while confidently striding forward. No artist exemplifies the festival’s commitment to jazz’s history more than Gerald Wilson.

As a bandleader, composer, arranger and educator, Wilson has compiled a résumé so thick with achievements it’s hard to know where to start. As a young trumpeter coming up in Detroit in the 1930s, he toured with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, one of the Swing Era’s most popular organizations. Settling in Los Angeles in the midst of World War II, Wilson soon formed his own big band, a group he’s led intermittently since. Wilson made his first MJF appearance in 1963, when he presented his talent-laden orchestra featuring brilliant improvisers such as tenor saxophonists Harold Land and Teddy Edwards, guitarist Joe Pass, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

Wilson spent much of the next decade writing for film and television. When he appeared again at Monterey in 1976, he directed a tribute to Lunceford, and then returned the following year to present The Happy Birthday Monterey Suite, a piece commissioned for the festival’s 20th anniversary. Five years later, his Orchestra of the ’80s was a highlight of the silver anniversary season, and he contributed another brilliant orchestral commission for the 40th.

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Still going strong at 89, Wilson returns for the golden anniversary with a new commissioned work, Monterey Moods, a compelling, seven-piece suite slated for release on Mack Avenue on Sept. 25. Even when he wasn’t on the bill, Wilson has made a point of attending Monterey every year, adding to the celebratory vibe with his ebullient spirit. But it’s on the bandstand, with his long white hair flying and his arms churning, that Wilson becomes a force of nature. His band features rising young players and world class veterans such as baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz, who anchored the orchestra back in ’63, and most amazingly, the 88-year-old trumpeter Snooky Young, who’s still playing pungent, plunging mute solos more than 60 years after he first shared a bandstand with Wilson in the Lunceford Orchestra. 

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