Ernest Brooks Wilkins, Jr., born 1919 in St. Louis, Missouri, died July 5th 1999 in Copenhagen, Denmark after having suffered a stroke.
Ernie’s love of music started at a young age. His first instruments were the piano and the violin and he began composing when still in high school. As a teenager he played jazz with local groups in St. Louis, and later when on to study music at Wilberforce University. He served in the US Navy for three years, playing in a service orchestra led by sax player Willie Smith and containing both Clark Terry and Gerald Wilson. After his release from the navy he returned home and worked with the big band of trumpeter George Hudson before joining Earl Hines’ last big band in 1948.
Ernie joined the Count Basie Band in 1951 on the recommendation of his friend, Clark Terry, on alto sax, although Ernie played tenor sax at the time. His brother Jimmy, a trombonist, joined at the same time.
Ernie’s compositions and arrangements soon enriched the Basie library, including Peace Pipe, Go Away, Sixteen Men Swinging and Basie Talks. When Joe Williams joined the band Ernie came up with the scores for such popular hits as Teach Me Tonight and Every Day. There is no doubt that Ernie was a huge boost to the lagging fortunes of the Basie band.
“The band was at its lowest ebb losing lots of players. Along came Ernie and wrote them a hit,” says Clark Terry, referring to Every Day which was recorded with singer Joe Williams. “That put Basie back on top. No doubt about it.” In 1955 Ernie left the Basie band to pursue his career in freelance arranging and composing. There was a great demand for his writing.
Ernie became very active on the New York scene and wrote for several record companies (see Works). In late ‘55 he interrupted his freelance composing and arranging career to join Dizzy Gillespie’s World Statesman orchestra to which he also contributed several arrangements. Dizzy has later said: “If anyone deserves an award, Ernesto does.” When Dizzy’s world tour ended Ernie continued to write for the Tommy Dorsey band and joined the staff of the Harry James orchestra, giving the band a fresh, new sound.
Ernie also assumed the role of musical director for jazz greats such as Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, Buddy Rich and Nat Adderley. He was very much a singer’s arranger, knew exactly how to show-case a particular talent and challenge each singer to do his or her very best. His diverse talents coupled with the fact that he worked fast gave him a workload which ended up taking its toll.
After a short fling with Motown in 1963-64, Ernie started writing for a big band formed by his brother Jimmy and in 1968 joined the Big B-A-D Band of his long-time friend Clark Terry. He and Terry recorded One Foot in the Gutter which features a four-minute solo by Ernie. “He loved to play. He’d sit there, blowin’ his horn and tapping his feet,” Terry recalled. Ernie formed a band of his own, contributed scores to the Basie book and was appointed head of the A&R department of Mainstream Records.
During his tour of Europe with Clark Terry, Ernie met his Danish wife Jenny who was booking the Big B-A-D Band tour. They got married in 1975 and Jenny and her two children joined Ernie in the States.
Ernie pursued his career; teaching at Jazzmobile in Harlem, constantly writing, encompassing such works as Four Black Immortals, a fantastic jazz suite which paid tribute to his four heroes: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson, one of his major works later to be performed at Town Hall in N.Y.C., in Detroit and in Carnegie Hall with orchestra, strings and choir. This has never been recorded.
In 1977 Ernie took up a teaching post as chairman of the jazz department at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He loved teaching, but found the administrative chores a burden and left after one year.
Ernie and his family decided to move to Copenhagen in 1979. He and his wife Jenny played very active parts on the Danish jazz scene and it was here that he formed his own, longed-for big band, the Almost Big Band, a 13-man unit which made a number of albums for the Danish Storyville and Steeplechase labels. (See Almost Big Band.)
In 1989 Ernie received a commission from Paris to write and arrange a tribute to Charlie Parker featuring the great Kansas City sound and pianist Jay McShann. Ernie put together an all-star American band for the concert which was recorded by Music Masters. Among the musicians were Benny Carter, Clark Terry, James Moody, Phil Woods, Al Grey, Mel Lewis and Jimmy Heath.
The following year Ernie put together a tribute to Duke Ellington, honouring his 90th birthday with a concert and recording in Paris. This masterly tribute to Duke Ellington for the Birdology label under the album title K.A.L.E.I.D.E.O.D.U.K.E had a truly all-star line-up including Art Farmer, Benny Bailey, Snooky Young, Curtis Fuller, Marshall Royal, Frank Wess, Joe Henderson, Ronnie Cuber and Jimmy Woode.
In 1991 Ernie toured England and Scotland as the conductor of the Danish Radio Big Band. They played and recorded Ernie’s “Suite for Jazz Band” in three movements. That same year his career was curtailed by a debilitating stroke which left him paralysed. Ernie passed away in 1999.
He is survived by his brother Jimmy Wilkins, now residing in Las Vegas and conducting his own big band. They play Ernie’s compositions and arrangements to great acclaim, his halfbrother and sister Billy and Wauneen. Ernie is also survived by his wife Jenny and two stepchildren Charlotte and Thomas.