Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Going for 100

Conductor has no plans to retire at premature age of 88

Jimmy Wilkins

Sam Morris

Jazz legend Jimmy Wilkins in his Las Vegas home Friday, June 19, 2009.

Jimmy Wilkins

Jazz legend Jimmy Wilkins in his Las Vegas home Friday, June 19, 2009. Launch slideshow »

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Name: Jimmy Wilkins

Age: 88

Education: Wilberforce University, bachelor’s degree in secondary education

Gigs: Leads the Jimmy Wilkins New Life Orchestra

Family: He and wife Cynthia have been married 46 years.

Conducting at 88: “I’m stimulated. That’s what music does for you. I used to joke and say, ‘I’m going to be 100 years old and conducting an orchestra.’ ”

Still planning on that? “Yeah. Lionel Hampton did it until his 90s.”

Starting out: Wilkins dabbled in violin and drums before taking up trombone in high school. He was in college on a music scholarship when the segregated Navy recruited black musicians — including Wilkins and his brother, Ernie — to perform at black Naval bases. “I really got my act together in the Navy. That’s when I developed my playing ability. I learned how to read music. We played in concert, marching and dance bands.”

Music career: When the war ended, Wilkins finished school and moved back to St. Louis, where he played in local bands. Eventually he got a call from a high school friend, trumpeter Clark Terry, who asked him to join the Count Basie Band. By then, Wilkins and his brother had played the Savoy Ballroom, Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater in various bands, including the Erskine Hawkins band.

Playing in Basie: Wilkins was on the road with Basie and his band in the 1950s, performing to enthusiastic crowds and enjoying the camaraderie. “It was one of the greatest experiences in my music career. It was such a pleasure playing in that. I felt like I finally hit the big time.”

Leaving Basie: After three years Wilkins took a job managing his uncle’s barbecue restaurant in Detroit, which promised more money than Basie’s band. “When the bus pulled off without me, I cried and thought, ‘What have I done?’ That was the strangest feeling. Suddenly I felt lonely because I was so used to being with all the guys.”

New era: Wilkins thought that leaving Basie’s band would be the end of his musical career. Instead, he formed his own group that drew crowds to hear his coveted Basie repertoire.

But when rock ’n’ roll took over, audiences wanted the Top 40 hits.

“You couldn’t please anybody,” he says. He kept the band together for private affairs and special events and became a staff musician for Motown Records, playing with the Supremes, Spinners, Four Tops, Temptations and Aretha Franklin while working his day gig as a letter carrier.

Getting to Vegas: “All of the sudden, musicians were out here and things were happening.”

Wilkins had visited Vegas on business before moving here in 1995. He was 73 and not ready to retire so he formed a group that played his Basie library, including arrangements by his brother, Ernie. That group played the Four Queens and the Riviera for a few years and Wilkins threw himself into the community with the Las Vegas Jazz Society, a few guest speaking engagements and guest conducting some of Ernie’s arrangements for a band at Las Vegas High. His group now plays the Black Label (next concert is July 11).

On jazz: “I’m concerned that it won’t be (celebrated) anymore. It’s a great part of American music, American history.”

Other interests: Working out at the YMCA and transcribing music. “Every once in a while I pick up my horn.”

Staying in Vegas? “I’m stuck here now,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t move.”

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