Friday, March 25, 2016

Trummy Young - and More Gerald Wilson

From a review in the Los Angeles Times by Chris Barton, June 14, 2015:

"...maybe the festival's most indelible nod to history came with the appearance of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Wilson, a brilliant composer and educator who essentially embodied Los Angeles jazz history until his death last year at age 96, was brought to life in a set conducted by his son, guitarist Anthony Wilson.

Gerald Wilson: b. September 4, 1918, Shelby, MS
d. September 8, 2014, Los Angeles, CA

I wrote about Gerald previously, but perhaps I glossed over one facet of his personality: he was always good for a story, and of course, after some eight decades in the music business, was a walking, talking history lesson. There was one particular area of that experience that affected me directly--my friendship with the great trombonist, Trummy Young in Hawaii. Some background is called for here.

I was introduced to Trummy by my dear friend, Ira Nepus. I had first heard Ira when he was with the NORAD Band, the multi-service military jazz band based in Colorado Springs. We both ended up in Hawaii after our  time in the military and became friends and colleagues. I remember the two of us getting together with Trummy at  his apartment to practice together, and Trummy would tell us stories about his career, notably his time with Louis Armstrong. I have a vague memory of Trummy telling us that when he was asked to join Satchmo, he thought playing "Traditional" jazz would be a step backward for him, stylistically speaking, so he tried to decline the offer by naming what he thought was an outrageous price. Trummy had made already made quite a name for himself, and the salary was agreed on immediately.

Our friendship with Trummy led to his asking us to play with him on his first abum as a leader, on which he used a section of four trombones (the fourth was my graduate school trombone instructor at the University of Hawaii, Richard Roblee, who was Principal Trombonist with the Honolulu Symphony). The last time I saw Trummy was after I had moved my family to Nashville and was back in Honolulu for a job. Trummy was headlining at the Sheraton Waikiki, in the Hanohano Room. I was dressed in my beach togs, and thought to go up to see Trummy, but because of my casual dress, took the back elevator and just stuck my head around the corner of the stage to say hello. "Psst! Trummy!" I whispered loudly. Trummy turned and saw me, and said, "Les, come up here!" I tried to demur, but he insisted. As I approached him, he thrust his trombone into my hands and said, "Play!" And he left the stage, leaving me to play with his band, underdressed and surprised as I was. Trummy passed away not too long afterward, after attending and performing at Dick Gibson's Jazz Party in Colorado, "dying with his boots on," as it were.

Where does Gerald Wilson fit into this story?  Pre-Louis Armstrong, Trummy was a member of the noted Jimmie Lunceford band, when young Gerald joined the band. He met the band on tour in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Lunceford told Gerald to just spend his first night out front listening. Gerald told me that the band was so good that he feared he wasn't good enough to play with them. In fact, he was so distraught that he became ill. After the band finished their last set,  Trummy approached him to help him get to the hotel and get settled, and Gerald told him, Trummy, I can't play with this band, they're too good." Trummy assured him everything would be fine, but when they got to the hotel, Gerald said he was so sick he couldn't climb the stairs to his room, and Trummy had to carry him up on his back and put him to bed. Ironically, Gerald adopted the same role when his friend, Snooky Young, joined the band a year later.

One of the most remarkable and memorable stories Gerald related to me also concerned Trummy. "Trummy wrote songs, you know," intoned Gerald. "But he didn't know how to write music, so he would sing it to me and I would transcribe what he sang. One night he approached me on the Lunceford bus and said, 'Gerald, you have to write this out for me right now; I'll forget it by tomorrow.' So I got out my pad and pencil and wrote it down. It was Travelin' Light!" Travelin' Light became a huge hit for Billie Holiday and others.

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