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 Fuller Up The Dead Musician Directory 
 
Ernie Wilkins
Ernie Wilkins 
June 5, 1999
Age 79
Stroke 
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OBITUARY 
        
       
 Drew Wheeler
   
Ernie Wilkins, Saxophonist/Arranger, Dies At 79

                                        Veteran saxophonist 
                                        Ernie Wilkins, who 
                                        played and composed 
                                        for such bandleaders as 
                                        Count Basie, Dizzy 
                                        Gillespie, and Harry 
                                        James, died in 
                                        Copenhagen, Denmark 
                                        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

 
 Composer 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 wife said. 

    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,'' 
    Terry recalled. 

    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 a stroke. 

    He is survived by his wife, Jenny, her two adult children and his  
    brother, Jimmy. 

 
Ernie 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
          Copenhagen. 

          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
          also writing. 

          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 do
          with how the band began to sound," Basie wrote in his memoir, "Good
          Morning Blues." 

          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
          New York. 

          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.

 
 
 
       
 

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BIOGRAPHY
 
 
AKA real name: Ernest Brooks Wilkins 
Born: July 20, 1922 in St. Louis, MO 
Died: June 5, 1999 in Copenhagen, Denmark 

A fine, slippery bop tenor sax player, and a creator of sharp-edged arrangements for bop and swing big bands who helped define the Count Basie Mk. II style of the 1950s, Ernie Wilkins had been a regular fixture on the American jazz scene until 1979, when he pulled up stakes and moved to Europe. He first learned piano and violin, then studied music at Wilberforce University before going into the Navy during the war. He caught on with the Earl Hines band in 1948 and worked around the St. Louis area before joining the Basie band in 1952. He remained in the Basie fold until 1955, but continued to freelance arrangements to the Count, as well as arrange for and perform with the Dizzy Gillespie band that toured the Middle East and South America in 1956. Also in 1956, he wrote three of the six movements of the exciting Wilkins/Manny Albam The Drum Suite (RCA Victor) -- reputedly the first time anyone had tried to integrate four drummers into one band -- and led big band albums under his own name for Savoy and Everest in the 1950s. He was the staff composer for the Harry James orchestra from 1958 to 1960 and served as musical director for albums by Nat Adderley, Sarah Vaughan, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, and Dinah Washington, among others. In 1968, he joined Clark Terry's Big B-A-D Band, serving as a composer and music director, after which he assembled his own band and became head of A&R for the Mainstream label (1971-73). He would continue to provide Basie with arrangements and toured Europe with Terry in the late '70s, ultimately settling in Copenhagen in 1979, where he formed the Almost Big Band. Most of the recorded examples of Wilkins' work on sax are as a sideman with Basie and Terry. -- 
 Richard S. Ginell, All-Music Guide

 
 
  
 
 

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