Gerald Wiggins began classical piano lessons at the age of four. Like most children, he was not wildly enthusiastic about Chopin or Beethoven, but he did display an aptitude for music. What finally got his undivided attention was an Art Tatum recording played for him by his cousin. “When I first heard that record, I thought it was two or three people playing at the same time.” When it was time for high school, Wig was able to attend New York’s High School of Music & Art in Harlem where, because of the abundance of piano students, he studied bass. Wig’s professional career began while he was still in high school. His very first gig was playing piano with Dr. Sausage & His Pork Chops, a tramp band complete with washboard and single string bass made from a washtub and pole. His next job was at Monroe’s Uptown House. He studied by day, maybe had time for a quick nap, and then played from midnight until dawn, only to head straight back to school. Later he got a gig at a club in Greenwich Village that earned him $3 a night, which was good money in those days. After finishing his last show at four o’clock in the morning, more often than not, he might stop off at Reuben’s, an after-hours hangout favored especially by the pianists. It was there, in the basement of a brownstone in Harlem, that Wig got to know his first idol, Art Tatum.
It was not unusual to see Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, or Willie “the Lion” Smith each taking a turn at the old upright piano. Whenever Art Tatum came in, Reuben would line up a few quarts of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Art would drink some, and then set to playing, usually solo. Wig listened intently, soaking up the lessons he’d never get in the classroom. “Art was the kind of guy that if you asked him to show you how he did something, he would, but nine times out of ten you couldn’t do it anyhow!”
After hearing Wig play at Reuben’s, Tatum was impressed enough to recommend Wig for a job with movie comedian Stepin Fetchit. “I did some playing with Stepin Fetchit,” recalls Wig, “but I had to do other bits too. He used me as something of a straight man. We worked a lot, touring all over in lots of one-horse towns, but I was making $50 a week and that was really a lot of money back then.”
It was while working with Stepin Fetchit at the Brooklyn Strand in New York that Wig met Les Hite, whose band was also on the bill. At the end of the engagement, Les’ pianist was drafted into the Army and Wig was invited to join the band. The band was based in Los Angeles, and Wig rode out to the coast with them on the tour bus. Leaving the cold winter snows behind them, they arrived in California on Christmas Day, greeted by sunny 100-degree weather. “I called my mother and said ‘I’m in God’s country.’” No matter how many times work took Wig out of town, no matter for how long, he always returned to Los Angeles. Wig also recorded with Les Hite’s band and was playing on the historic 1942 recording of “Jersey Bounce,” the one with a pioneering bebop solo by Dizzy Gillespie.
In 1943, Louis Armstrong was in Los Angeles and asked Wig to make a cross-country tour with his band. They toured by bus, playing each night in a different town. Everything was going great until they got to the South. Having been raised in New York, Wig was not accustomed to the racial discrimination that was still prevalent in the southern states. “I put in my notice with Louis as soon as we got to New York,” remembers Wig. “Then Benny Carter called me a few days later and asked me to join his band. I asked him if he was going to go south and he said ‘Oh, no, of course not, don’t worry about it.’ Naturally, the first stop the band made was in Macon, Georgia! I got so mad at Benny that I put in my notice. J. J. Johnson and Max Roach had to talk me out of quitting.” Like Les Hite, Benny Carter was also based in Los Angeles and Wig was very happy when the tour ended and they could go back home.
In 1944, while playing an engagement with Benny Carter at Billy Berg’s in Hollywood, the war interrupted Wig’s professional career. Luckily, Uncle Sam turned out to be a jazz supporter and Wig’s two-year stint in the military (1944-46) landed him in Seattle where he played with the 29th Special Service Band at Fort Lewis. The band’s responsibilities included Saturday night performances at the USO, and Wig easily found time to play in the local jazz clubs as well, quickly becoming a fixture in the Seattle jazz scene. Paul de Barros, author of “Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle,” writes about Wig “playing sizzling-fast solos at concerts while reading a book…sheer bravado.”
After his release from the military, Wig stopped off in San Francisco and stayed for two years. The jazz grapevine is notoriously fast, and Wig’s reputation had preceded him. He and bassist Charlie Oden, who had also been in the Army band with Wig in Seattle, played some gigs together, and Wig also joined a group with bassist Vernon Alley, reedman Jerome Richardson, and guitarist Eric Miller.
Finally, Wig made his permanent home in Los Angeles. He played a long stint in the Turban Room, the club adjoining the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, Los Angeles’ street of jazz. He also rejoined Benny Carter for a while, but soon signed on with Lena Horne to tour the United States and Europe. While they were in Paris, Wig also recorded two albums for a foreign record label, one with Zoot Sims and the other with Roy Eldridge.
By 1952, Wig was back home once again and busier than ever. He enjoyed the variety of playing engagements with many different artists and ensembles, but he loved playing with his own trio. He spent a lot of time in recording studios, and the name Gerald Wiggins can be found on at least two-dozen records released in the 1950s alone. One of the more historic recording highlights was the session for “Welcome to the Club”—Nat King Cole backed by the Count Basie Orchestra with Gerald Wiggins at the piano, honored to have been asked to sit in Basie’s chair.
Not only was Wig in demand as a sideman to play and record with jazz legends such as Milt Jackson, Art Pepper, Cal Tjader, Benny Carter and others, but during that same period he also recorded several albums as leader of his own trio. Wig’s first trio album, aptly titled “The Gerald Wiggins Trio,” was released in 1953. Wig, along with bassist Joe Comfort and drummer Bill Douglass recorded six standard tunes and two of Wig’s own original compositions. This same trio also recorded “The Loveliness of You” (Tampa, 1956). In 1957 both albums were re-released, the first by Dig Records under the title “Wiggin’ With the Wig” and the second by Motif Records under the title “Reminiscin’ with Wig.” Joe Comfort, who was working frequently with Nelson Riddle at the time, was not always available. On a date with Cal Tjader, Wig had met and worked with bassist Eugene Wright. Eugene may be best known for his later work with Dave Brubeck, but his musical contributions as a member of the Gerald Wiggins Trio were thankfully recorded on two albums: “Around the World in 80 Days” (Original Jazz) came out in 1956 and “The King and I” came out in 1958 on Challenge Records.
Throughout the 1950s, Wig kept up an exhausting schedule reminiscent of his round-the-clock days of high school. Most nights he was working in one club or another, and during the day he was likely to be at a recording session, in a studio working as rehearsal pianist for Lucille Ball, or on the lot of a movie studio coaching actress Marilyn Monroe for those movie roles that required her to sing. In appreciation, Marilyn gave him an autographed picture and the inscription read, “For Gerry, I can’t make a sound without you. Love you, Marilyn.” That photo still hangs on his wall today.
Wig had become well known for his musical sensitivity and his ability to accompany featured artists and singers. Accompaniment is an art form in itself, but Wig says there are some basic principles: “Stay out of their way! Don’t get on their notes; be in the background at all times. With singers I play differently behind each one, because each one sings different; I adapt my style to their way of singing.”
Wig’s reputation as a master accompanist was a mixed blessing; he was never without work, but he had less and less time to devote to leading his trio. Before Wig’s working schedule became completely dominated by tours with various singers, Wig managed to complete two more trio recordings. “Wiggin’ Out,” with Joe Comfort and Bill Douglass was released in 1960 on Hi-Fi, and “Relax and Enjoy It,” with drummer Jackie Mills replacing Bill Douglass, came out the following year on Contemporary Records. He would not have an opportunity to record with a trio of his own again until 1974.
Throughout the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, Wig worked some of the best singers of jazz and popular music, both male and female: Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Ernie Andrews, Joe Williams, Joe Turner, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, Kay Starr, Dinah Washington, Esther Phillips, and Helen Humes, to name a few. Even though the 1960s and 1970s were dominated by singers, that didn’t stop Wig from recording with a diversity of other artists including King Pleasure in 1960 and Teddy Edwards in 1962. And even while touring almost exclusively with Helen Humes in the 70s, Wig squeezed in more recordings including the movie soundtrack for Lady Sings the Blues in 1971, and albums with Joe Pass in 1973, and Harry “Sweets” Edison in 1975.
Wig was on the move so much that you might well have asked, where is Wig? He answered that question with a long awaited trio recording titled “Wig Is Here.” At the time of the recording in 1974, Wig was playing at the Nice Jazz Festival in France with Helen Humes. Wig asked bassist Major Holley and drummer Ed Thigpen, who were both playing at the same festival, to join him and they recorded six tunes for a French label called Black & Blue. One of those tunes, F.B.O.T., was a new version of a tune titled “Strip City” that Wig had written for a movie starring Marilyn Monroe. “It was a song I had recorded with Jackie Mills for the movie Let’s Make Love. They wanted some bump-and-grind burlesque music so we put together a wild thing off the top of our heads.” Wig continued on as accompanist to Helen Humes right up to her death in 1981. It was time for Wig to focus once again on his own career.
Wig was just as busy in the 1980s. From jazz parties to clubs to concert halls and outdoor amphitheaters, from California to New York to Europe and Japan, Wig was working everywhere at everything. And he did work occasionally with a few singers. Once again he was too busy to devote much time to his own group or to record on his own, but he did make several recordings with a lot of his musical friends: Linda Hopkins, Gerald Wilson, Maxine Sullivan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Scott Hamilton, Red Holloway, Clark Terry, and again with Joe Pass.
One of the most memorable recordings for Wig during this period was “Digital Duke,” the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington with J. J. Wiggins on bass. Wig’s son, now known as Hassan Shakur, followed in his father’s footsteps at an early age. By the time he was thirteen, “Jay Jay” was playing professionally and recording with the Craig Hundley Trio. He left to join the Ellington Orchestra and now plays frequently with Monty Alexander. Between then and now, some of Wig’s happiest gigs have been collaborations between father and son.
There was no slow down in the 1990s, but Wig did find time to record two albums of his own. These two recordings are perhaps the most personal and self-revealing to date. “Gerald Wiggins Live at Maybeck Recital Hall” (Concord Records 1990) is a solo album for which Wig’s close friend and fellow pianist wrote the liner notes. “He doesn’t just play a concert,” wrote Jimmy Rowles. “He uses the approach of telling his story…” The second album, “Soulidarity” (Concord 1995) is the only recording featuring Wig’s 1990s trio with Andy Simpkins on bass and Paul Humphrey on drums. “We share one musical soul which inspired the title,” explains Wig. This trio was special.
Describing the trio’s performance at Lionel Hampton 90th Birthday Party and Benefit Concert, Los Angeles Times writer Don Heckman wrote “The trio of Gerald Wiggins on piano, Andy Simpkins on bass and Paul Humphrey on drums was superb, playing a set that defined the manner in which jazz can be simultaneously imaginative, elegant and swinging.” It is not often that a jazz club performance gets a lengthy review (25+ column inches) in The Hollywood Reporter, but this trio did. Sadly, Andy died in 1999 leaving his two cohorts, along with the trio’s friends and fans with this one recording and many wonderful memories of live performances.
Many honors and accolades have been, and continue to be, bestowed on the Wig. He has been honored by the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers. By proclamation of Mayor Tom Bradley, the citizens of Los Angeles have celebrated Gerald Wiggins’ Day, a day topped off by the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s annual awards event with Wig as the main honoree. While somewhat reticent about his own accomplishments and honors received, Wig has always been a willing participant when it comes to honoring others. Such appearances include UCLA’s Duke Ellington Centennial Celebration, the University of Redlands’ Tribute to Jimmy Rowles, the Joe Pass Memorial Tribute sponsored by the Musicians’ Union, an all-star tribute to Benny Carter at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Los Angeles Music Center’s extravaganza Salute to the Songs of Johnny Mercer featuring Michel Feinstein, Charlayne Woodard of Ain’t Misbehavin’ fame, and others. Wig was also among the few players selected to play at tributes to Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, and at the Dorothy Chandler Performing Arts Award ceremony honoring George C. Wolfe, director of Jelly’s Last Jam.
Wig was always extremely generous in sharing his time and his talents with fellow musicians, especially the younger ones. Washington Preparatory High School honored Wig at one of their annual Jazzin’ at the Prep festivals to make public their thanks for his steady support and gift of time. Wig was also a mentor for jazz students at Santa Monica College. He loved to share his knowledge with aspiring and seasoned performers alike. Young pros such as pianists Benny Green, Eric Reed, and bassist John Clayton have felt free to call on Wig for advice. Clayton even recommended his bass students to study with Wig, proclaiming him to be “a one-man jazz history lesson.”
Wig has spent a lot of time with historians, both amateur and professional, who want to document the histories of jazz and in so doing perpetuate the art form. The book “Central Avenue Sounds” contains a chapter by Wig, and UCLA conducted extensive interviews with Wig as part of their Oral History Program focusing on Central Avenue, a section of Los Angeles that was as important to jazz as New York’s 52nd Street. The Hamilton College Jazz Archives also includes footage of interviews with Wig along with other jazz greats. Wig was always a willing and invaluable resource for students, researchers, and authors who wanted to learn the facts from someone who was there.
Despite his appreciation of history, Wig was never one to live in the past. Until these last few years his schedule was jam packed with lessons and live appearances. Wig and his wife Lynn especially enjoyed the jazz cruises and parties where they could catch up with musical buddies and mingle with Wig’s fans. They even saved memorabilia like the Triangle Jazz Party program book where the musicians—John Bunch, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Butch Miles—all signed each other’s copies as if it were their high school yearbook.
In addition to the nightclub and concert appearances, the jazz parties and cruises, Wig was likely to pop up in delightfully unexpected locations. Several years ago one of Wig’s high school teachers happened upon him at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center where UCLA had invited the trio to play as part of the Westwood Jazz at the Hammer series. Wig’s teacher wrote him a note telling him to “keep spreading joy by spreading the music around.” She commented on “what a diverse group the music had pulled in…a wonderful, elderly Filipino gentleman taping a foot in open-toed sandals, nearby attractive couples of all ages and colors, and beautiful kids running around and stopping to listen and move to the rhythms…”
Jazz reviewer Kirk Silsbee wrote of “the kind of heads up creativity that has become a hallmark of Wiggins’ playing as an accompanist to singers, as a band pianist, as a leader of his own trio…The kind of synchronicity among musicians – in time, dynamics, and musical lane changes – only comes from years of interaction.” Wig has been a mainstay in jazz for more than sixty years, and his influence remains strong in the hands of younger players including Benny Green and Eric Reed.
“The Wig” died this morning in the hospital.