Wilkins, Saxophonist/Arranger, Dies At 79
Ernie Wilkins, who
played and composed
for such bandleaders as
Count Basie, Dizzy
Gillespie, and Harry
James, died in
on Saturday (June 5)
of complications from a
stroke. He was 79.
Originally a tenor saxophonist, Wilkins came of
age during the bebop years, but would make
his name with the big swing bands, bringing
them compositions and arrangements to
modernize their sounds and revise their
somewhat outmoded images.
Ernest Brooks Wilkins, Jr., born July 20, 1919
in St. Louis, first studied piano and violin
before picking up the saxophone in high
school. After attending Ohio's Wilberforce
University and serving in the Navy during
World War II, Wilkins began to work as a
saxophonist, playing with such jazzmen as
Clark Terry, Willie Smith, and Gerald Wilson. He
joined pianist Earl Hines' last big band in 1948,
and -- on Terry's recommendation -- made a
historic move over to the Count Basie
Orchestra in 1952. For Basie, Wilkins wrote
"Every Day (I Have the Blues)," which was
sung by Joe Williams and would score the band
a much-needed hit in 1955.
Wilkins' compositions are said to have
characterized the evolved 1950s Basie sound,
and contemporaneous work with the James
band was likewise considered key to its
evolution from swing outfit to post-bop
ensemble. By the mid-'50s, Wilkins
concentrated on writing and arranging over
performing, but toured internationally with
Gillespie in 1956.
Wilkins recorded several albums as a leader for
the Savoy and Everest labels in the '50s and
'60s, including a highly respected 1955 septet
with drummer Kenny Clarke. In 1956, Wilkins
teamed with arranger Manny Albam for The
Drum Suite, which flouted tradition by using
four drummers simultaneously.
Wilkins also assumed musical director roles for
Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, Dinah
Washington, Buddy Rich, Nat Adderley, and, in
1968, Clark Terry's Big B-A-D Band. In the
early 1970s, Wilkins worked as head of A&R for
Mainstream Records, but would continue to
write for Basie throughout the decade.
Touring Europe in the late 1970s with Terry,
Wilkins decided not to return to the U.S.,
settling in Copenhagen in 1979. There, he
formed his Almost Big Band, which released
albums on Storyville and Steeple Chase in the
1980s and featured veterans Kenny Drew and
Ed Thigpen, as well as newcomers like Tim
Hagans. In 1991, Wilkins' career was curtailed
by a stroke.
Wilkins is survived by his wife, Jenny, her two
adult children, and his brother, James.
-- Drew Wheeler
Ernie Wilkins Dies at 79
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP)
- American-born composer and saxophonist
Ernie Wilkins, who was credited with helping
revive the popularity of the Count
Basie Orchestra in the 1950s, died Saturday.
He was 79.
Wilkins - who also composed music for Dizzy
Gillespie, Clark Terry and
Tommy Dorsey - suffered a stroke, his
Born Ernest Brooks Wilkins Jr. on July
20, 1919 in St. Louis, Wilkins started
playing saxophone in high school and later
played in U.S. military bands.
He got his big break in 1951 when trumpeter
Clark Terry recommended him
to Count Basie.
``The thing that he enjoyed most was being
the person responsible for the
resurgence in popularity of the Count
Basie band,'' Terry said in a telephone
interview from his home in New York.
``The band was at its lowest ebb ... losing
lots of players. Along came
Ernie and wrote them a hit.''
The tune was ``Every Day (I have the blues),''
and Basie recorded it with
singer Joe Williams in 1955.
``That put Basie back on top. No doubt
about it,'' Terry said.
In the late 1950s, Wilkins joined Dizzy
Gillespie's band, and later went on
to write for Tommy Dorsey and Lionel Hampton.
Within music circles, he was known as ``Pudd,''
short for pudding, the
nickname his mother gave him as a child.
Though Wilkins won wide acclaim for arranging
and composing, he never
lost his love for playing sax.
In the 1960s, he and Terry recorded ``One
Foot in the Gutter,'' which features
a four-minute solo by Wilkins.
``He loved to play. He'd sit there, blowin'
his horn and tapping his feet,''
Wilkins moved to Copenhagen in 1980 and
started his own orchestra,
``Ernie Wilkins and his Almost Big Band.''
He also was guest conductor with several
other bands. The list of musicians
he worked with included Earl Hines, Sonny
Rollins, Milt Jackson, Sarah Vaughn,
Lena Horne and Quincy Jones.
Wilkins retired in 1991 after suffering
He is survived by his wife, Jenny, her
two adult children and his
Wilkins, Jazz Saxophonist and Composer, Is Dead at 79
By BEN RATLIFF, New York Times
Ernie Wilkins, a jazz saxophonist and one of the important arrangers
and composers for the Count Basie band of the 1950's, died on
Saturday at a nursing home in Copenhagan. He was 79 and lived in
The cause was complications from a stroke, said his wife, Jenny.
Born in St. Louis, Wilkins studied music at Wilberforce University in
Ohio. During a stint in the military, he played in a band led by Willie
Smith and was soon playing in Earl Hines' last big band, for which he was
Wilkins composed a great deal of music, but he could also tailor the
pieces of others to the talents of whatever band he was working with.
This was especially obvious in the New Testament Basie band
(representing the second great stretch of its leader's creativity), which
Wilkins was invited to join in 1951, on the recommendation of the
trumpeter Clark Terry.
As a member of the band until the late 50s, Wilkins reworked versions of
"One O'Clock Jump," "Every Day I Have the Blues" and "Corner
Pocket," making them some of the most famous tunes in the group's
repertory. His arrangements were precise and exuberant, made of
interlocking riffs and strong ensemble passages. Wilkins "had a lot to
with how the band began to sound," Basie wrote in his memoir, "Good
In 1956 Wilkins performed in and wrote arrangements for a Dizzy
Gillespie band that toured the Middle East and South America. In the
1960s he wrote for bands led by Harry James, Terry and his brother, the
trombonist Jimmy Wilkins. In the early 1970s he entered the record
business, heading the artists and repertory division of the Mainstream
label. He also wrote a choral suite in 1975 called "Four Black
Immortals," which was performed at Town Hall and Avery Fisher Hall in
He moved to Cophenhagen in 1980 and promptly started the 13-piece
Almost Big Band, which drew on the talent of other American expatriates
in Denmark, including the pianist Kenny Drew, the saxophonist Sahib
Shihab and the drummer Ed Thigpen. Wilkins conducted and played
saxophone for the Almost Big Band and wrote entirely new music for it.
The band recorded four albums on the Steeplechase label, and stayed
together until Wilkins suffered a stroke in 1991 that forced him to retire.
His last record, with the Danish Radio Big Band, was "Suite for Jazz
Band," on the Hep label.
Besides his wife and his brother, of Las Vegas, Nev., Wilkins is survived
by his stepchildren, Charlotte and Thomas, both of Copenhagen.