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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

He Has Played With the Best of Them

Jazz pianist Gerry Wiggins has backed up Billie Holiday, Nat 'King' Cole and even Marilyn Monroe. But it's his name on the marquee now.

December 05, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gerry Wiggins is no stranger to Thousand Oaks. The respected jazz pianist helped make the Civic Arts Plaza safe for jazz in 1994, when he played in its first jazz concert. And in 1988 he performed in the debut concert of a series sponsored by the American Assn. of University Women.

The critical difference between those shows and Wiggins' concert Sunday is that this time it's his name on the marquee. Before, he was in supporting roles for Linda Hopkins, Red Holloway, Ernie Andrews and Buddy Collette.

The Gerry Wiggins Trio also arrives on the heels of a strong new album on Concord, "Soulidarity." The title's pun is apropos, reflecting the close chemistry and warm dialogue within Wiggins' trio, which includes bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Paul Humphrey.

The trio can also be heard in holiday mode on the recently released "A Concord Jazz Christmas 2." Here Wiggins offers a fresh take on "Silent Night," starting out with a gentle, re-harmonized statement of the melody, then kicking into a swing version of the traditional song.

In a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Wiggins spoke glowingly about his trio of "madmen." "Man, you should be on that bandstand," he said. "Andy's always trying to trick me, and I'm trying to trick him. It gets crazy up there sometimes."

Count the 64-year-old Wiggins among the ranks of notable West Coast jazz musicians who stayed on the West Coast. Like the octogenarian sax great Benny Carter, in whose bands Wiggins has played and who remains a good friend, Wiggins has made a go of the jazz life outside of New York. In large part, he paid his bills by working behind singers, including briefly with Billie Holiday and later Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Joe Williams.

"I started off playing for singers for years, until finally I said, 'Hey, it's time for me to play for myself.' I was in several big bands, too. The last singer I was really associated with was Helen Humes, and she died in '81. I figured it was time for me to get into something else."

Born in New York City, Wiggins studied classically and, in the '40s, met piano legend Art Tatum and played in bands led by Louis Armstrong and Carter. Wiggins tells the story of his westward migration: "I was working at the Brooklyn Strand with an old-time comedian, Stepin Fetchit. A West Coast band led by Les Hite was backing the show. The Army took the piano player and Step got into some kind of a problem and they took him offstage. So Les said to me, 'You don't have a boss and we don't have a piano player. How would you like to go to California with me?' "

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He was young and crazy, so he said yes. Aside from tours, he's been an Angeleno ever since. His first impression of Los Angeles was a lasting one. "I got here on Christmas Day," he recalled. "It was 100 degrees. I loved it. I knew what was happening in New York. I called my mother and said: 'I'm in God's country.' "

Wiggins has worked in and out of show business situations, including a short gig with Marilyn Monroe, whose ample charms made history. But did she have a voice? "I don't know if you'd call it a good voice," Wiggins said. "But the choreographer, Jack Cole, had a way of teaching her how to talk-sing. It was really effective. It was like she knew what she was doing. She had a cute little voice."

In fact, the boisterous tune "Strip City," on the new trio album, was written for the 1960 Monroe vehicle "Let's Make Love," directed by George Cukor. What made Wiggins decide to include that on the new album? "Yeah, well, lookin' for some more royalties," he said with a laugh. "That was something we did on the set. They said, 'Play something that sounds like bump-and-grind music,' so I just made that up."

Any pianist who has worked with vocalists understands the delicate art of adapting. As Wiggins explained, you can't have an ego of your own. Your job is to make the singer sound good.

"I must have played for a million singers. At the time, I liked it, but I've been through that already. What's the phrase? Been there, done that."

The list of singers Wiggins has worked with even includes Nat "King" Cole, the renowned vocalist who began his career as a pianist and was noted for his economical grace behind the piano. The two met shortly after Wiggins moved to Los Angeles and he played piano for Cole's TV show.

"I did quite a few things with Nat," Wiggins said. "When I was working a club, he'd come down. They'd close the doors at 2 o'clock and we'd play all night long. We had a ball together."

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That kind of loose, after-hours energy pervades his current trio, and the band's focus on the pleasures of mainstream jazz coincides with a new appreciation for that sound. A young generation of players has been weaned on the inspiration of jazz tradition as represented by Wiggins.

"The kids are wonderful nowadays," he remarked. "I've made friends with [young pianists] Benny Green and Eric Reed, and they're exceptional. I can't get enough of them."

When Wiggins' trio hits Thousand Oaks, expect to hear the same felicitous blend of material that's on "Soulidarity." They'll do some standards, some Wiggins originals, some Ellington. But mostly, they'll have a great time.

"I enjoy working with these two guys and I think they enjoy working with me, so we really have a ball together," he said. "It's not like a job."

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DETAILS

* WHAT: Gerry Wiggins Trio.

* WHERE: Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd.

* WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $20-$25.

* CALL: 449-2787.

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