The Gerald Wilson Orchestra: A Living 'Legacy' Now in his 90s, Wilson has played with and composed for many of the biggest names in jazz. For his latest album, he enlisted the help of his son and grandson, both composers and musicians themselves.

The Gerald Wilson Orchestra: A Living 'Legacy'

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Gerald Wilson is a giant of jazz. He's written for and played with the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Carter and many more. And on this CD, Gerald Wilson is joined by his son, Anthony Wilson, and grandson, Eric Otis, who are also composers and musicians. Gerald Wilson joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

GERALD WILSON: It's a pleasure to be here. It's my honor.

SIMON: And we'll say your grandson, Eric is with you there, isn't he? Aren't you?

WILSON: Yes. I brought him today.

SIMON: Well, good. We might throw a question his way too. You were born in Shelby, Mississippi.

WILSON: Shelby, Mississippi, yes.

SIMON: But much of the CD pays tribute to Chicago. Tell us about your first time in the city.

WILSON: My first time in Chicago was when I went to the World's Fair there in 1934. When I got to Chicago, I was thrilled by the fact that there were many things I could do in Chicago that I couldn't do at all in Shelby. And when I got back I insisted to my mother that I want you to send me to Chicago so I can go to school there. She says well, it's kind of impossible for me to send you to Chicago. But I can send you to Detroit, Michigan. So I just said well, as long as it's in the North I want to go. So anyway, she sent me to Detroit, Michigan and I stayed there in Detroit for five years and studied music there at one of the greatest schools in the United States.

SIMON: Yeah, Cass Tech.

WILSON: Yes, Cass Tech was second only to Juilliard in New York.

SIMON: I can't restrain myself. I want to talk about your suite called "Yes Chicago Is."

WILSON: "Yes Chicago Is."

SIMON: We've got seven short movements. Let's listen to a bit of the first one, "A Jazz Mecca."


SIMON: Okay, that's the sun rising over Lake Michigan.


SIMON: Okay, it's just touching Grant Park now.

WILSON: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: And it keeps going up. I think it's lining along the skyscrapers along Michigan Avenue. Now it's reaching to Clark and Dearborn and North. That's what this music makes me think of.

WILSON: You got it.


SIMON: By the way, we're talking to the composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson about his new CD "Legacy." Eric Otis is your grandson.


SIMON: Is with you there in the studio. He drove you to the studio there today.

WILSON: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: And Mr. Otis, are you near a microphone?


SIMON: Let's get you both to talk about your competition here "September Sky." Oh, here it is.


SIMON: So what was your creative partnership like to do this song together?

OTIS: I have been writing a lot of music for my grandfather since his eyesight started to go. And so, I saw all these scores getting put down over the past three years. And one day last year I was cleaning up and I found this piece of sheet music from a song I had started in 1999. And I walked up to him with this piece of sheet music one day and I said, you know, if I could get this into shape could we put this on an album? And he said, yeah. Sure. And I said, you know, he's just saying that. And so I think within two days I had a little home demo version I had recorded myself on the guitar and the bass guitar and just whatever little instrument patches I could make sound kind of like what I wanted it to be. And then I gave him the headphones and he was like kind of jamming and like, you know, I could tell he was into it and I said wow, he's really into it. Because when he doesn't like something he'll say it's great. And he didn't say that. It was just like you could just see enjoying it. So I said, wow. He said, you know, that's good. You know, when you're done with that let's put it on the album. I said oh, wow. So the next two months I just got it in shape.

SIMON: Boy, Mr. Wilson?


SIMON: How thrilling is it to work with your grandson?

WILSON: Well, all I do, all I have to do is sit at the piano and tell him, you know, first trumpet, A above the staff, sign over to a quarter note. I tell them every mark that he puts on that paper. By actually working with me, I think he can see that I used some things that everybody doesn't use and he's welcomed to use it. But, for instance, I'm the inventor of eight-part harmony.

SIMON: So what is, can you tell us, what's the secret to eight-part harmony?

WILSON: During the time when I was attending school in Detroit, Michigan, I got it from a guy there. I asked him one day, I says, Harold. His name was Harold Wallace. I said Harold, can't you give me a tip or so? Hey, I was studying harmony and orchestration in school. Anyway, he told me he said look, Gerald, he said study of diminished chords. Well, we have three diminished chords. Three times four would be 12. But then, many years later, one day I started just fooling with diminished chords and all of a sudden...


WILSON: I noticed that these two went together and sounded great. And I started writing for Duke Ellington in 1947. And I put one of them on the end of a number. They said hey, what is this Gerald's got over here? It's a double diminished. A double diminished.


SIMON: Yeah. It's just a half a percent - a half of one percent of our audience understood that. I think your life is richer. And mine is and I didn't understand a word of it so thank you for telling us.


SIMON: Do you, if I could ask, Mr. Wilson, because this CD is titled "Legacy," do you ever think of yourself having a legacy, what you'd like to leave?

WILSON: Well, when I'm gone, I want to leave something that someone likes and appreciates. You know, I just hope that the people like, you know, in music you got to hope that the people will like it. Now if you write something that you're the only one that like it, that's not too good.

SIMON: Mr. Otis?

OTIS: Yes.

SIMON: What you do you think? Yeah.

OTIS: Being part of a legacy is what I can talk about.

SIMON: Yeah.

OTIS: Just feeling an obligation to uphold something that really has nothing to do with me individually but everything to do with who I am and where I'm from and that's what I got out of this experience is that when there isn't a Gerald Wilson there will have to be something remembered. And so for me my job is to keep it fresh in the minds of people what we're doing and what my grandfather's doing.

SIMON: Thank you so much, both of you, for being with us.

WILSON: Well, thank you, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Composer and bandleader, Gerald Wilson, who was at NPR West. Joined by his grandson Eric Otis. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra's new CD, "Legacy," out on the Mack Avenue Label.


SIMON: And you can hear tracks from "Legacy" at NPR/ This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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