Who Is Willie Wilson?

So I come across a cool-looking album in the bargain bin: Duke Pearson Dedication!

I vaguely remember Duke Pearson (piano) from some Donald Byrd albums (I think). And, of course, I know Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) and Pepper Adams (baritone sax), who also play on this 1961 Prestige record. But I’ve never heard of the drummer, bassist, or trombonist. I buy Dedication! ($5), head home, and put it on. It’s good. What most touches me are the trombone solos on “Blues for Alvina” and “Time after Time.” The playing isn’t as masterful as, say, Curtis Fuller; the solos sometimes lapse into sentimental phrasings and rarely do anything truly surprising. But somehow, as in all true jazz, the player’s inner personality, that inner wraith our friends feel as our most distinctive quality, shines warmly through, especially on “Time after Time.”

Who is this guy? His name is Willie Wilson. I read the liner notes to find out more, hoping to discover what else he’s done, if he’s made any more mature records, and so on. It turns out that Willie Wilson died young: “These sides were Wilson’s only recordings and they show what a promising player he was. Says Duke [Pearson], ‘Willie and I grew up together from kindergarten in Atlanta. We also took piano lessons from the same teacher. We were as brothers and his death came as quite a shock to me’ [. . .] Although Wilson played in one of Dizzy Gillespie’s big bands in the 1950s, he was virtually unknown outside of his native Atlanta. His work on this set confirms the high reputation he enjoyed in that city.”

I go to the computer and start mousing around to find out more about the tragic trombonist. Who was he? How did he die? All I find are other requests for more information about a bewitching trombonist. I’m extremely disappointed for some reason. It’s funny how we’ve come to expect of Google nothing less than God.

All in all, I’m deeply moved and can’t get Willie Wilson off my mind. Where else but in jazz can someone make such an indelible mark, not someone who’s an absolute genius, or someone who’s incredibly lucky, but someone who’s devoted himself to his instrument, who’s put himself on the line, who’s given himself over to finding who he is and contributing it to the world? Somehow it gives me hope, gives us all hope perhaps. I feel like Willie Wilson’s “Time after Time” will keep on sounding even after every ear has been destroyed. . .

I think of W.J. Cory’s translation of Callimachus’s old epigram.

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake,
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

Interestingly, Cory is also remembered only for this poem. And Callimachus just survives in a few fragments. And Heraclitus (not the famous philosopher) is a poet that we know of only as the man who wrote some poems called Nightingales.

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2 Responses to Who Is Willie Wilson?

  1. bonefreak says:

    ww need more info about this cat!!! At least a picture! which is the recording than he made with dizzy’s big band?

    thanks!

  2. Louis P. Cecchini says:

    Willie Wilson is the featured soloist on a Black Lion album titled Minor Mishap (Black Lion BLCD
    760122). The liner notes state that this record date was originally made for the Jazzline label for release under Willie Wilson’s name. The label went out of busines and this session went unreleased until the late sixties when it was issued junder Freddie Hubbard’s name on Fontana. The notes further state that remarkably little is known about Wilson other than he played in one of Dizzy’s big bands, but it happened to be a band which seems never to have recorded.

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