Gerald Wiggins: Swingin’ With Wig – Classic Trio Sessions 1956-1957

The pianist adapted well to different singers and had a powerful swing and sense of humour but he wasn't so good at sustaining a trio set


Gerald Wiggins (1922-2008), fondly known as “Wig” to his friends, remains a respected but relatively unknown jazz pianist. His conversion to jazz came when he first heard an Art Tatum record: “I thought it was two or three people playing at the same time.” Tatum later recommended Wiggins for a job with movie comedian Stepin Fetchit.

In 1943 Wiggins toured with Louis Armstrong’s small group and then Benny Carter’s 16-piece orchestra. After serving in World War 2, he settled in Los Angeles where he joined Gerald Wilson’s orchestra. Critic Barry Ulanov, reviewing the band’s performance in Hollywood, reported that “Wiggins is a brilliant find for Benny. His harmonic imagination is unlimited; he rings wonderful changes on quotations from the light classics. His touch is lovely, he gets a fine beat.”

As an accompanist, he toured Europe with Lena Horne and also played for Eartha Kitt, Kay Starr, Ella Mae Morse and Joe Williams. His adaptability to different singing styles was his major accomplishment. Wig later performed with Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton and was a sideman on albums with Ben Webster, Tal Farlow, Buddy Rich and Art Pepper. He also acted as a vocal coach for Marilyn Monroe, who had to sing in the movies Some Like It Hot (1959) and Let’s Make Love (1960). She gave him an autographed picture with an inscription “For Gerry, I can’t make a sound without you. Love you, Marilyn.”

These trio sessions display his distinctive sound, one marked by a powerful swing and sense of humour, if somewhat limited originality. The 35 titles on this compilation reveal both his strengths and weaknesses as a composer, pianist and small group leader. CD1 opens with his sprightly compositions Criss Cross, Gray Skies, X-15, Gerald’s Train and Lights Out. On more familiar (and superior) materials – The Lady Is A Tramp, Just Squeeze Me & Satin Doll – he cherishes the melodies of the tunes, but adds little by way of improvisation.

CD2 opens with a rhythmic rendition of Love For Sale, with easy-listening versions of Surrey With The Fringe On Top, The Man That Got Away and They Didn’t Believe Me. On all titles bassists Gene Wright and Joe Comfort and drummers Bill Richmond, Bill Douglass and Jackie Mills provide sympathetic (and restrained) support.

But these selections could (and should) have been pruned. As Richard Cook suggested, Wiggins’ albums as leader are “charming but inconsequential. There isn’t enough in his playing, agreeable though it is, to really hold the attention over the course of a full set” while adding that “his good-natured approach is best heard in the broader context of a more substantial group record”. In the pocket.

CD1: (1) Criss Cross; Gray Skies; X-15; Gerald’s Train; Lights Out; (2) Narcissus; Frankie And Johnny; One For My Baby; The Lady Is A Tramp; Serenade In Blue; My Heart Stood Still; Just Squeeze Me & Satin Doll; Blue Wig; (3) A Fifth For Frank; How Long Has This Been Going On?; In My Merry Oldsmobile (69.45)
CD2: (4) Love For Sale; I Don’t Know What Kind Of Blues I Got; De Sylva Wig; Laura; Surrey With The Fringe On Top; Dinah; All That’s Good; The Man That Got Away; Three Little Words; (5) Three O’Clock In The Morning; Oh, You Beautiful Doll; Used To Love You; Dear Old Girl; Trail Of The Lonesome Pine; Ma! She’s Making Eyes At Me; That Old Gang Of Mine; They Didn’t Believe Me; In My Merry Oldsmobile – Part 1; In My Merry Oldsmobile – Part 2 (71.33)
Wiggins (p) on all tracks with:
(1) Gene Wright (b); Bill Richmond (d). Los Angeles, 24 February 1956.
(2) Joe Comfort (b); Jackie Mills (d). LA, 10 October 1956.
(3) Wright (b); Bill Douglass (d); Mills (bgo). LA, 6 May 1957.
(4) Comfort (b); Douglass (d). LA, 15 October 1956.
(5) Wright (b); Douglass (d). LA, 6 & 7 March 1957.
Fresh Sound Records FSRCD1141