By Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn
Like the Buckner brothers (Ted and Milton), Jimmy Wilkins (b.1921) and Ernie (b.1919) hailed from St. Louis, Missouri, but relocated to Detroit. Jimmy settled in Detroit in 1955, and for the next forty years he was an important part of our music scene. Wilkins and his lovely wife Cynthia decamped to Las Vegas in 1994. His farewell concert was at the Detroit Jazz Festival, so too was his Welcome Home Concert.
[A shorter version of this feature first appeared in the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival program booklet]
James Lawrence Wilkins was born on May 26, 1921, the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, a time when Victrolas and radios were sprouting in households across the country. There were no discs by King Oliver or Bessie Smith in 1921, but the Original Dixieland Jass Band recordings from 1917 signaled a musical revolution which became the anthem of the young generation and upset parents everywhere. Jazz captured America’s cultural zeitgeist, and became the soundtrack of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
St. Louis was on the itinerary of national bands, including Wilkins’ future boss Count Basie, whom Jimmy first heard while in High School. “I’d heard his early things, “Every Tub,” “Jumpin’ At The Woodside,” they really turned me on,” Wilkins remembered.
Wilkins’ parents (Ernest and Ara Ann) separated early on and both boys stayed with their mom, who took them to hear big bands from the time they could walk. Aran Ann played piano in church every Sunday. Fittingly, the “St. Louis Blues” was the sole jazz tune she performed.
Jimmy heard Cab Calloway in all his glory one day at the Tune Town Ballroom, and from that moment he was hooked on big bands – he had visions of running around onstage like Cab, or conducting, all hip and smiling, like Jimmie Lunceford, another hero. By age ten, Jimmy was trying to master the violin, which “cut me down, cut me to shreds,” he recalled with a chuckle. He next tried drums, which he played in the Boy Scout drum and bugle corps. By the time he started at Sumner High School, Wilkins had eyes for the trumpet. “We had a small band, didn’t have but twenty-five pieces,” he said, “and five of them were drummers with another four or five trumpeters!” Wilkins was encouraged to take the trombone for a test drive, and he liked it.
“I always liked trombone,” he said. “I liked the circus stuff, that intrigued me so I volunteered to take up trombone and that was it! Been stuck ever since,” he laughed. There were two ‘bones in the band, so Jimmy sat next to the other guy and watched closely. “I put notes by the slide positions, and tried to follow the other trombone player, follow his arm movements to see what positions he played,” he laughs. “I didn’t learn how to read until later.”
St. Louis’ location guaranteed a steady flow of New Orleans jazz via the many Steamship Lines that moved up and down the mighty Mississippi. Those boats were an important source of summer jobs, and Jimmy worked the boats, but he found that one-nighters on the water had little appeal and he quit after a summer. Both Ernie and Jimmy had been awarded scholarships to attend Wilberforce University in 1940. They played with their dance band (the Wilberforce Collegians), following in the footsteps of such giants as cornetist Rex Stewart, reedman Benny Carter, and pianist/arranger Horace Henderson.
Once World War II was declared, Jimmy soon got his draft notice and headed home to St. Louis to wait for his induction letter. He and Ernie worked around town, sometimes in their friend Clark Terry’s band. They were playing one evening in 1942 when a U.S. Navy recruiter dropped by to hear the band, which gave Wilkins an idea. “I figured I could keep playing in the Navy,” says Jimmy, “so I enlisted. I was assigned to Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. Clark and my brother were sent there too. I really got myself together in the Navy, learned to read music really good.”
Wilkins was honorably discharged in 1945. He worked with a series of “starvation bands” before returning to Wilberforce to finish his undergraduate degree. “I call ‘em “starvation bands” ‘cause you might work three or four days, then you were off three or four days. Or, work a week and layoff a week.”
Jimmy recalled how impressed he’d been with the Wilberforce Collegians. Reedman Frank Foster now handled most of the writing. Jimmy was asked to take over conducting the band, which was in the hands of a music teacher. “He conducted like a, you know, typical music teacher,” Jimmy laughed. “A lot of music teachers today are hip, but back then, uh, no. He begrudgingly let me take over the band.” After Wilkins started working with the band, “We really skyrocketed,” he stated. “We were voted ‘best college band’ by the Pittsburgh Courier. We were able to take part in the All-Star show at Carnegie Hall, then play the Savoy!”
The Collegians tried for a distinctive sound and style, and Jimmy’s dramatic conducting added zest to their presentation. “I used to try and do like Dizzy Gillespie,” he laughed. “I was younger then, younger and foolish to try and go through the antics Dizzy did – running across the stage, conducting with my butt, those types of things.”
Wilkins had by this time developed a sound of his own, inspired by his favorite trombonist, James “Trummy” Young, long a mainstay of Lunceford’s orchestra. “…I used to try to sing like him, play like him, even tried to make my eyebrows grow like his, but it wouldn’t work,” Wilkins said with a chuckle. “I was nicknamed “Trummy” on campus. He was my biggest influence. Trummy was so exciting, (he had) more of a trumpet style of playing, played up high. Trombone players in that era played a lot of glissandos. Trummy at that time had a Louis Armstrong style of playing. He was an exciting player. He had it all: Clarity, sound, and range.”
Wilkins got the chance to work with Erskine Hawkins’ orchestra during the 1948 summer break. They played one-nighters from Dayton to Manhattan, including a stop at the Graystone Gardens in Detroit. “After we left Detroit, we went through Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Wilkins recalled. “We opened at the Savoy ballroom (in New York City). That was a home base for the Erskine Hawkins band. Things were really jumping for that band.”
By the time he graduated Wilberforce University in 1949, Jimmy Wilkins was tired of school and ready for the big time. He returned to St. Louis and found that jobs were plentiful.
Wilkins briefly played with top-flight bands like the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, but his favorite job was with tenor sax ace Jimmy Forrest’s combo, which he’d joined in 1951. Forrest, fresh from Duke Ellington’s orchestra, was a longtime friend of Wilkins’. He had notoriety, a great attitude, and a soon-to-be-hit song. “He was such a beautiful cat, he always believed in grooving, like ‘don’t let up, keep the fire going’,” Wilkins remembered, smiling. “He’d just left Duke, and he brought back ‘Happy Go Lucky Local’ which he called ‘Night Train’ and which we played two or three times a night!
After two years as a free-lance, Wilkins hit pay dirt in May 1951. Clark Terry got him and Ernie jobs with the newly reconstituted Count Basie orchestra. Jimmy played lead trombone. Ernie occupied an alto chair and played tenor solos. After a few months He started contributing arrangements, which soon became his full-time activity with the Basie band. 
Jimmy was happy playing with Basie. He dug the music, the guys, and Basie, about whom he said, “he was one of the guys, travelled on the bus. When we made a stop, the first thing he’d do was go in and come back out with a load of comic books – Superwoman, Spiderman,” he laughed. “I was with Basie only two years, but I learned so much it felt like I was with him for a decade. If I could have made fifteen, twenty dollars more a week, I might still be with ‘em. Things were rough back then, you really couldn’t save any money (playing in a big band). Times were tough for Basie, too…”
Wilkins felt confident. He had a sound, a style, solid reading and technical skills, and an easy demeanor backed up by a no-nonsense approach – like Count Basie. He was a leader; he needed a band. He left Basie in 1953 and free lanced around Manhattan, working with tenor saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Willis Jackson, as well as Dizzy Gillespie. When his uncle in Detroit offered him a non-musical job which paid very good bread, Jimmy decided to give it a try, figuring he could save some loot.
“My uncle had a thriving restaurant business; he wanted me to manage it for him,” he remembered. “I had to work all night, ‘til four A.M. Only got Wednesday night off, and not much was happening on Wednesday,” Wilkins laughed. “Then he had a fire, lost everything. So, I went back to New York, but I came back (to Detroit). He got the restaurant going again, but he couldn’t recoup the money. He cut my hours way back, so I joined the Post Office. Steady work, good money.” Wilkins worked around town, with his own group and as a sideman. His casual, hip demeanor made him a favorite in Detroit’s strong jazz community, especially with a chic sophisticated lady named Cynthia Braithwaite. Cynthia was a regular at the Blue Bird Inn. She’d been advised by saxophonist Billy Mitchell to check out the Wilkins band. “So, I did,” she recalled. “And I checked Jimmy out, too!” She and Jimmy began dating and married in 1963. The Wilkins’ became a Detroit Jazz Power Couple. Cynthia booked gigs and publicized public engagements. They helped with fundraising for musicians who fell on hard times. This year (2014) is their 51st wedding anniversary.
Jimmy was familiar with Detroit, knew the jazz terrain, and believed he could succeed. Because he was married, he figured having a ‘day job’ that he didn’t mind too much was a good plan. He joined the Detroit Post Office in the mid-1950s and stayed until 1981. The Post Office gave him a cushion. Once he was settled, he sized up the competition around town. There were several bands of similar size and intention around town, like the Bob Hopkins outfit, Johnny Trudell’s orchestra, and Johnny Trafton’s band. But none of those groups had that “corner pocket” feel which Basie mastered and which drew people to the dance floor like a magnet. Wilkins knew the secret of Count’s rhythm, and he used it, always. “It was Basie’s foot,” he says, smiling. “He’d set tempos with that foot; it was always steady. It was the fifth part of the rhythm section.”
It took Wilkins most of a year to assemble a “rehearsal band.” By May 1956, he had some jobs lined up. He worked part time while he had his day job, then made the move to full time when he left his Postal gig. Armed with charts by his brother, and Frank Foster, Wilkins’ band had a sound and style like a cool breeze on a hot summer day, and they got steady work. His weekly gig at Club El Sino in 1957 was reviewed in the Michigan Chronicle:
“Jimmy Wilkins and band…every Wednesday evening…Jimmy Wilkins produces the finest in dance-band tempos to meet the diversified demands of his dancing public, including cha-chas and mambos, but his forte is up-tempo swing on the Count Basie kick with special emphasis in his arrangements on phrasing and intonation…’Sweetie Cakes’ is Jimmy’s theme…”
Many of Wilkins’ musicians stayed with his band for decades; it was comfortable, operating deep in the swing era. When Jimmy flexed into Bebop territory, he kept that special feeling he’d absorbed from the Count.
The Wilkins band included many of Detroit’s top musicians over the years, like trumpeters Louis Smith, Don Slaughter, Donald Byrd, Billy Horner; saxophonists Ted Buckner, Joe Henderson, Ernie Rodgers, George Benson; and pianist Terry Pollard. Rich Kowalewski and Don Mayberry were regulars on bass. Jimmy offered a ‘band within a band.’ Like Count Basie, Jimmy Wilkins had the K.C. 7, suitable for smaller (or, more cost-conscious) watering holes.
Wilkins weathered the cultural storms, avoiding Beatles’ hits and, for the most part, electrification, even keeping the acoustic bass during the disco rage. As his audiences aged dance jobs tapered off, and the harsh Detroit winters took their toll on the couple. They looked around for gentler climes, and, in 1994, Jimmy and Cynthia pulled up stakes and headed west. Like vocalist Jimmy Rushing, they moved to the outskirts of town…Las Vegas town. Jimmy was seventy-three years young, but “retirement” isn’t in his vocabulary. He soon formed a “Rocky Mountain Version” of the Jimmy Wilkins Orchestra. He kept his many Detroit friends abreast of his activities through a monthly column for the South East Michigan Jazz Association (SEMJA) newsletter.
Jimmie moves about in a wheelchair now and has dental problems, which forced him to hang up his beloved trombone. Jimmy Wilkins’ heart is filled with music, so much music that he still keeps the rhythm going, leading his band in Las Vegas. This appearance at the Detroit Jazz Festival will be his first in Detroit since leaving, and he’s added special guests, including two of Detroit’s finest vocalists to add the icing to the cake. Ursula Walker and Joan Crawford bring special vibes to the band. Each appeared with Jimmy when he was Detroit-based, and this Festival gives us the chance to enjoy this fine musical blend once again. Pianist Barry Harris and violinist Regina Carter will make guest appearances as well.
This performance (featuring music composed and/or arranged by Ernie Wilkins) promises to be a highlight of your 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival. It’s great to have Jimmy back with us. We hope he’ll come home more often.
Addendum – 2020
Jimmy’s band that afternoon was composed of Detroit jazz veterans, many of whom had worked in Wilkins’ band back in the day. When Barry Harris sat in, the band immediately dropped into that ‘corner pocket’ that Jimmy lived in. It was inspiring to hear, and see, Jimmy, and his band. It was a wonderful homecoming, one that folks will remember.
Jimmy and Cynthia Wilkins went back to Las Vegas. He kept his big band alive for several more years. Cynthia, as always, was a pillar of strength, loving Jimmy, managing his music career.
Jimmy died on May 24, 2018 aged 97 years. He was a swinger to the end.
-  Wilberforce University, founded in 1856, is the first predominantly African American private university in the nation. The great Fletcher Henderson often recruited Wilberforce students for his orchestra or sent promising beginners to sharpen their reading skills in the Collegians – Henderson’s arrangements were very difficult. Wilberforce is located near Dayton, Ohio.
-  Gallert interview with Wilkins, Jazz Yesterday, October 20, 1984. Terry (b.1920) and the Wilkins brothers were fast friends. All Wilkins quotes are from interviews and conversations with Jim.
-  Great Lakes Naval Station is the Navy’s largest training facility.
-  Wilkins received his BA in Secondary Education in 1949.
-  As the name suggests, Graystone Gardens was located outdoors, adjacent to and just behind the Graystone Ballroom. It offered dancing during the summer.
-  He heard this band when legendary bassist Jimmy Blanton was a member. Blanton idolized the Lunceford orchestra, but Lunceford passed on the chance to hire him. Duke Ellington hired him soon after that.
-  Forrest left Ellington in late January, 1950. “Night Train” was excerpted from Ellington’s “Deep South Suite.”
-  Basie scrapped his octet (which included Terry) in 1951.
-  Basie hit his stride in late 1954 when he hired the amazing singer Joe Williams. Two of his first and biggest triumphs were Wilkins’ charts of Joe’s theme song, “Every Day I Have The Blues” and the equally powerful “All Right, Okay, You Win”.
-  Ernie left in 1955 and became a freelance arranger. Most of his arrangements for the next few years went to his old boss.
-  Webster’s Bar-be-Que, located in Paradise Valley. Thanks to our friend Larry Gabriel for that information.
-  Michigan Chronicle, August 3, 1957. Club El Sino was at 1730 St. Antoine in Paradise Valley.