Jazz Institute of Chicago

Ernie Wilkins

Ernie Wilkins
By Steve Voce

This article first appeared in The Independent of London.

The trumpeter Clark Terry was responsible for Ernie Wilkins’s success as a musician and then for lifting him up when he fell upon bad times.
Terry has spent a large part of his career helping jazz lame ducks. Humphrey Lyttelton said recently, "I always remember Clark at the Montreux Festival some years ago when trumpeter Buck Clayton was in the doldrums with lip and medical problems and I had to stand by to deputise. As the big Casino concert approached, Buck could barely get a note out, and Clark spent at least two hours with him in his dressing room trying to psych him up and stop him downing whisky to 'compensate.' To no avail, as it turned out, and I had to play the set. But it was very moving to hear from the next door dressing room the patience with which Clark kept on talking, to encourage Buck and, eventually, to comfort him."

Terry and Wilkins were both born in St. Louis and grew up together there during the Twenties and Thirties. Wilkins then played the tenor saxophone. Terry, a trumpet virtuoso swiftly left for better things, whilst Wilkins remained in the jazz second division.

Later, Wilkins was to transform the big band scene with his composing and arranging for the Count Basie band, which he joined in 1951. At that time Clark Terry was already in the band.

I was talking to Basie one day while he was in the steam room. "Hey," Basie said, "I need an alto player and a trombone player." "“OK," I said, "I’ll get ‘em for you," because up to that point I’d brought many people into the band and he’d never questioned my choice of any of them. Right away I’m thinking, "Alto player? I wonder if Ernie can play alto?" He was strictly a tenor player then. So I called Ernie in St. Louis while Basie was there. "Hey, Ernie! You wanna come and join Count Basie’s band?" Ernie couldn’t believe me, but I managed to convince him. As Basie was there I said, "and bring your alto," emphasising "alto" so that he’d get the message. He did. His mother borrowed an old zinc-plated alto from somebody in the church choir. It was held together by rubber bands. When he brought it into the band we called it "the grey ghost."

The band was at its lowest ebb when Ernie joined. Basie said to me, "You say this cat can write? We’ll let him do something for this new singer we got." A kid named Joe Williams! So he let Ernie loose and the first thing Ernie wrote was "Every Day I Have The Blues" and that particular tune with Joe Williams is what catapulted the band back into prominence. You know I shudder sometimes when I think about how all of this happened as a result of that big lie that I told Basie when I called up Ernie Wilkins, who was working in a little place over in East St. Louis, Missouri, for 75 cents a night!

Although Ernie Wilkins was a fine reader, he was never more than an adequate jazz soloist. It was his ability to orchestrate the blues into electrifying and original arrangements for the band that fired off Count Basie’s "New Testament" band of the Fifties (the "Old Testament" Basie band had been the one from the Thirties that harboured Buck Clayton, Lester Young and Little Jimmy Rushing). As Terry said, "Every Day..." revitalised the flagging band in the Fifties and the double-sided record of it became the best selling jazz record for years.

British audiences were left speechless by the power and swing that was the combination of Basie, Joe Williams and Wilkins’s writing. Williams, a tall, imposing figure, stood motionless with his hands clasped before him while the combination rocked theatres throughout the world. It was a particularly effective potion in Britain, where jazz fans had been deprived of American music for the best part of 30 years. Wilkins was responsible for the arrangements of many of Williams’s hits, including "Teach Me Tonight" and "Roll ‘Em, Pete," all showing a raw fire that contrasted vividly with the more ponderous writing typically used by other big bands of the time. He wrote many fine originals such as "Sixteen Men Swinging" and "The Moon’s Not Green" and also arranged standards like "Perdido" for the band.

During his service in the armed forces Wilkins had played in a military band led by the altoist Willie Smith and then in 1948 had been a member of the last big band led by pianist Earl Hines. When that broke up he had returned to St. Louis until he joined Basie three years later. He stayed with Basie until 1955. By then he was so well known and in such demand that he was able to leave the band to become a free lance writer. He continued to write for Basie and also wrote arrangements for the big band that Dizzy Gillespie led on tours of the Middle East and South America in 1956. He wrote also for Harry James, being staff composer for James’s band. The James band eventually played Wilkins’s arrangements to even better effect than Basie had.

Although he seemed one of the most unlikely people to fall victim to it, the pressures of his work led Wilkins into heroin addiction during the Sixties. Once again Clark Terry was on hand to help. Terry formed a small band with a by-then almost unemployable Wilkins on saxophones. Terry, after a long period as a featured soloist in the Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and Gerry Mulligan bands, was now at the top of the tree. In 1968 he formed another group, the Clark Terry Big B-A-D Band into which he took Wilkins both as saxophonist and writer of most of the band’s library. Terry worked to rehabilitate Wilkins and as a result Wilkins was able to break his addiction and resume a normal life.

The two men worked together throughout the Seventies. From 1971 to '73 Wilkins was the head of the artists and repertory division of Mainstream Records. He and Terry toured Europe together during the late Seventies before Wilkins finally settled in Copenhagen in 1979. He worked with the local Danish musicians and with visiting Americans and in 1980 formed his own group, the Almost Big Band. This was very successful, benefiting as it did from Wilkins’s instinct for swinging scores, and it recorded albums in Denmark in 1980 and 1981 and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1983.

The move to Denmark had been a good one, and Wilkins’s career flourished, despite his becoming ill in 1989. He went to Paris that year to record some of his compositions with an all star band that included some of his earlier colleagues from the Basie band. He visited England in January 1991 to conduct the Danish Radio Big Band in some of his works including the then newly discovered "Suite For Jazz and" that he had written 30 years earlier. The band’s concert in Croydon was recorded and issued on the Hep label.

Although his talent never diminished his health did, and through his last years he relied on a computer to help him write.

My job is to write the best arrangements in my way to transcribe what I thought and felt as faithfully as possible for and through the music. If it takes me a week to write four bars but in the end I get what I imagined, then that’s a good result.

Ernest Brooks Wilkins, composer, orchestrator, saxophonist, born St. Louis, 20 July 1922; died Copenhagen, 5 June 1999.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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