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A Great Contributor to the Big Band SoundCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Wilkins, ErnieIn the course of a long career on two continents, Ernie Wilkins earned a distinguished pedigree in the art of writing and arranging for large jazz ensembles. He made his reputation as one of the principal arrangers in the great Count Basie Band of the early-50s, and enjoyed a creative swansong with the Danish Radio Big Band after settling in Copenhagen.
He was was born Ernest Brooks Wilkins in St Louis, where he learned to play both piano and violin as a child, and began to play saxophone in local jazz bands as a teenager. He studied music at Wilberforce University in Ohio, then played in a band led by saxophonist Willie Smith while in military service.
His first major professional engagement came in the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, closely followed by a role in pianist Earl Hines's big band in 1948, where he wrote as well playing saxophone. He spent three years as a freelance musician and arranger before joining the Count Basie Band in 1951 (he was recommended for the job by a fellow St Louis native, trumpeter Clark Terry).
He played both alto and tenor saxophones in the course of a three year spell with the band, but attracted even more attention as a composer and arranger, a role which would become his dominant musical interest. As well as contributing original tunes to the book, his revised versions of tunes like One O'Clock Jump and Every Day I Have The Blues brought a new freshness and longevity to these staples of the Basie repertoire, and the bandleader acknowledged in his autobiograhy that Wilkins was "a fantastic writer", and had "a lot do with how the band began to sound from then on."
He left the band in 1955 to pursue a freelance career again, and found himself in demand. He both played in and wrote for Dizzy Gillespie's big band which made a ground-breaking tour of the Middle East and South America at the behest of the US State Department in 1956. He wrote arrangements for Tommy Dorsey and his brother, trombonist Jimmy Wilkins, and spent then two years as staff arranger for the Harry James Band from 1958-60.
His swinging, exhuberant, but highly organised charts suited these bands perfectly, but his career slowed down in the 60s, largely as a result of his own problems with drug addiction. He succeeded in overcoming that problem, and returned to the scene in the late-60s, notably as music director of Clark Terry's Big B-A-D Band.
His ambition to play his own music was also rekindled, and he formed his own band in the early-70s, before moving sideways into a position as head of A & R for Mainstream Records for a time. His compositional activites took a new turn in 1975 with a choral suite entitled Four Black Immortals, which was performed in New York.
He worked with Terry again in the late -70s, including touring Europe. He had married a Danish woman in the mid-70s, and after four years in America, they opted -- like many black American jazz musicians before him -- to settle in Copenhagen in 1980. The move was partly inspired by his feeling that "although I was making a reasonable living in New York, I was getting a little disillusioned about the opportunities that were available to develop my own music, especially in terms of arranging and composing."
In Copenhagen, he formed his 13-piece Almost Big Band, drawing on the pool of expatriate talent there, including pianist Kenny Drew, saxophonist Sahib Shihab, and drummer Ed Thigpen, as well as his own saxophone work. He described the band, which played only his music, as "a labour of love", and he recorded four albums for the SteepleChase label with it.
Wilkins also formed an occasional relationship with the Danish Radio Big Band, including a tour of the UK with the band in January, 1991, which resulted in Alastair Robertson recording Wilkins's Suite for Jazz Band, which he issued on his Edinburgh-based HEP Records label in 1992.
The music revealed the refinement with which he had honed his craft, but it was to be his final major project. By the time of that tour, he had already more or less given up playing, and was concentrating on arranging and conducting. Later in the year, he suffered a serious stroke, and was forced to retire from music entirely.