On September 11th, 1988, Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed Gerald Wiggins’ Day, a day-long celebration that wound up at the 6th Annual Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Tribute and Awards event, at which “Wig” was the honoree. But to me, May 12th will forever be Gerald Wiggins’ Day.
While Wig was alive, his birthday was always a big event in Los Angeles. He was beloved by fans and his fellow players alike. For his 75th birthday, Wig’s Trio was scheduled to perform at Catalina’s, and practically every player in town showed up in the audience, and everyone managed to keep secret the fact that Wig’s son, bassist Hassan Shakur (known as “J.J. Wiggins” when he started out in the ‘60s with Craig Hundley’s Trio, at the age of 14) had come to town as a birthday surprise. My brother, Ken, was the emcee, and, after a few tunes with the scheduled trio, Ken drew Wig from the piano, put his arm around Wig’s shoulder so he couldn’t turn around, and led him to the center microphone, where they were joined by vocalist Bill Henderson, who was in on the surprise. Together, Bill and Ken kept Wig busy receiving birthday wishes and applause from the crowd, while the bass players were switched behind them. Then Wig returned to the piano, sat down, looked up at his players. . . and the look of total surprise and delight on his face brought everyone to tears of joy and a palpable sea of love! It was a pleasure to be present for such a genuine show of respect and affection for such a lovely, unassuming man.
Buddy Collette, William Green, Chuck Gentry, Gene Cipriano, reeds; John Anderson, trumpet; Dave Wells, trombone, bass trumpet; Gerald Wiggins, piano; Joe Comfort, bass; Curtis Counce, bass; Max Albright, drums
Although born in New York City, and starting his career there, Wig seemed to have L.A. in his soul. A part of the scene here since the Central Avenue days, playing regularly in the Turban Room in the Dunbar Hotel, he even worked for Hollywood, coaching vocalists such as Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe (who autographed a photo for Wig, saying, “For Gerry. I can't make a sound without you. Love you, Marilyn."), and playing on the soundtrack for Lady Sings the Blues.
He toured the world with many artists, particularly with vocalists, such as Lena Horne and Helen Humes, and in later years with various Concord Records All Star groups, often in the company of tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton.
He recorded and performed with a huge list of boppers, swingers, and vocalists, in big and small bands (even sat in for Count Basie when the band backed Nat King Cole on Capitol Records), but as his birthday approaches, it is in his beloved trio setting that I think of him the most, his glasses in their trademark place upon his upper forehead, nonchalantly swinging like mad.