BORN 1912, DIED 1986
MUSICAL SELECTION: "Blues in C Sharp Minor", "My First Impression of You"
One of the most urbane and accomplished pianist/leaders to come to prominence in the 1930's, Wilson was born in Austin, Texas, but grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, where his father was English master and his mother librarian at Tuskegee University. Young Theodore learned violin and piano as a youth, discovering jazz from 78rpm records while he was studying for a music major at Talladega College. After a move to Detroit in 1929 Wilson began playing with local bands, including Speed Webb, for whom he made many arrangements, staying until 1931, when he moved via Toledo to Chicago, initially working with Erskine Tate before also playing with Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone.
Wilson's arrival in New York in 1933 to play with Benn Carter presaged the beginning of his larger reputation. Recording with the Chocolate Dandies for John Hammond (who had arranged his transfer from Chicago), Wilson was quickly appreciated among New York musicians for his rock-steady left hand, his harmonic sophistication, and his immaculate righ-hand technique. He was also an inspired arranger, whether for small or large groups, and he was the perfect musical coordinator for the decade-long series of recordings undertaken by Brunswick and featuring assorted personnel, often with singer Billie Holiday as the focal point. These recordings, especially those featuring Holiday in tandem with Lester Youn, have justly become regarded as some of the crown jewels of jazz recording.
By 1935 Wilson had been inducted into the Benny Goodman setup, initially as part of his Trio (one of the first racially mixed groups of the swing era), recording and touring with the leader as a separate musical unit to his big hand. Wilson's superb left hand, providing accurate rhythmic and harmonic support, knitted the group's efforts together while his righ-hand counterpoint added the dimension of musical converstion which led Goodman's group to be termed the first exponents of "chamber jazz." In 1936 Lionel Hampton's arrival made it a quartet and one of the most popular small groups in jazz history.
Wilson left in 1939 to form his own short-lived big band. After its demise in 1940 he formed a sextet, which appeared regularly at Cafe' Society in New York and recorded for a number of labels, especially Musicraft, where he led his own sessions and arranged dates featuring Maxine Sullivan and, from 1946 onward, Sarah Vaughan. By the mid-1940s Wilson was reappearing with Goodman's small groups for short stints, but the rest of the decade was largely taken up with teaching and broadcasting work. Wilson spent most of the latter part of his career involved in teaching and in various music capacities for the broadcaster CBS, interspering this with appearances at major festivals with hand-picked groups (he was with one such band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival) or brief reunions with Benny Goodman. The original quartet made a last record together in 1963 and played occasional concerts. Wilson continued to make records up to the time of his death.