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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Jazz Composer and Bandleader Keeps Stepping Ahead of Fame : The accolades are finally falling a little closer for Gerald Wilson, 77, who has been at it since the '30s. .

February 08, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Fate does not want to be too kind to me too soon."

That was Duke Ellington's way of saying that despite his status as a major star in the jazz business, great commercial success had not been his.

Gerald Wilson--the spry 77-year-old arranger-composer-bandleader who the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music says "deserves more fame"--knows just what the maestro meant.

"You gotta hang in there, just keep trying," says Wilson, who is hardly a household name.

Yet he's made a gigantic contribution to music. He began as a trumpeter and writer with Jimmie Lunceford's band in 1939, then went on to lead his own bands, which have been active since 1944 and with which he's recorded about a dozen albums. He has composed and arranged for Ellington, Count Basie, Ray Charles and many others; composed a symphonic work, "Debut: 5/21/72," played that year by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta; and taught jazz history to thousands of students, starting at Cal State Northridge in 1970, then Cal State Los Angeles and now UCLA.

Right now he's getting a little taste of acknowledgment for his efforts: His album "State Street Sweet" on Encino-based Mama Foundation Records has been nominated for a best large jazz ensemble Grammy. It is Wilson's third nomination, and the first since 1964.

"Yeah, it's been a long time coming," says Wilson, "but it's a great honor to be nominated."

Wilson will appear Saturday with his Orchestra of the '90s at CSUN as part of the "Jazz at Northridge" series, which also includes Joshua Redman (Feb. 29), Poncho Sanchez (March 28), Bob Florence (April 20), Steve Allen's big band (May 4) and Abdullah Ibrahim (May 18).

"State Street Sweet" offers a spirited program of Wilson originals and tunes arranged by him, including the classic "Come Back to Sorrento," which he orchestrated in 1959. "It never got recorded," Wilson said. "I figured I had worked too hard on it to just let it sit there and die."

Wilson taught at CSUN for 13 years.

"What I like about teaching is that the more people you expose to jazz, the more fans we'll have," he said.

He was given an American Jazz Masters Fellowship in 1990 by the National Endowment for the Arts. He will be honored by friends and musical associates at the Ventura Club in Sherman Oaks on Feb. 26. Admission is $25; call (213) 654-4265.

Wilson's orchestra has a fresh, vibrant sound unlike any other in jazz and includes many top L.A. players.

"Our band is a band," he emphasized. "We don't have to rehearse tomorrow. We're ready to play now."

* Gerald Wilson's Orchestra of the '90s appears Saturday, 8 p.m., in the Performing Arts Center, University Student Union, Cal State Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Enter parking lot C off Zelzah Avenue. Tickets, $22. Information: (818) 885-2488, 885-3943.

Elliott Leads: Trumpeter-synthesist Jeff Elliott began his life in music 30 years ago, ardently absorbing the styles of Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown by copying their solos off recordings.

Later came tenures with the likes of pianist-singer Les McCann--"He taught me how to play a long solo with soulfulness"--Latin aces Flora Purim and Airto, and rocker Jim Messina.

When Elliott gets to lead, as he will Wednesday at Chadney's, he draws on these varied experiences to present his take on jazz.

"Some of the tunes, like Freddie Hubbard's jazz waltz, 'Up Jumped Spring,' are kept in the vein in which they were first heard," said Elliott, who lives with his wife and son in Santa Barbara and also has a home in Woodland Hills. "Others, like my originals, are different, blending bebop with the modern hip-hop thing that is happening today. So it's like pure jazz with a little bit of fusion, like using synthesizers but having them blend in, not stick out like loud guitars."

Gifted with perfect pitch, Elliott relies on his ears, and his mind's eyes when he solos.

"When I hear something, I know the notes right away," he said. "And when I hear a beautiful melody, I see scenes in my mind, and those scenes lead me to feelings, emotions.

"I can get very emotional. Sometimes, when I'm playing a ballad, I'll have to stop for a moment to keep from crying. I really get involved, deep down inside."

* Jeff Elliott plays Wednesday, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., at Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank. No cover, one drink minimum per set. (818) 843-5333.

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