La La Wilson: Setting Examples & The Red Cat Jazz Festival

As anyone who's paid the slightest attention and scratched even barely below the surface knows, Houston and its environs contain a plethora of accomplished world-stage musicians. These men and women could walk right by you on the street and you wouldn't know they'd toured the world with B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, you name it.

Henry "La La" Wilson, a graduate of Wheatley High School, is one such hidden giant. These days Wilson lives on a tidy bit of acreage in Highlands, but for years he lived in Los Angeles, where he migrated in 1958 with some other musicians from Wheatley: Joe Sample, Nesbert "Stix" Hooper, Wilton Felder, Wayne Henderson, and Hubert Laws.

Sample, Hooper, Felder, and Henderson would become the Jazz Crusaders in 1960 and lead the first wave of jazz-funk. But as can be seen in the 1958 article from Houston's Informer, they were already making waves in Los Angeles as Modern Jazz Sextet.

The chronological history of the Crusaders is one of the most difficult to ascertain with any sense of certainly because so many different versions have emerged over the years, each version conflicting somehow with the other. What we do know is that by 1960, Laws had split to New York to enter Julliard and work with Mongo Santamaria, and La La went to Canada to work with Big Jim Randolph for a spell because, according to Wilson, "I didn't really have a place to stay in Los Angeles."

Wilson, who will be a featured artist at the upcoming Red Cat Jazz Festival October 7 in Pearland, spoke with us by phone from Highlands.

Art Attack: So all of you guys met at Wheatley?

Lala Wilson: Actually, some of us knew each other earlier than that. We all lived in Fifth Ward pretty close to each other. But we really came together at Wheatley and began to perform as the Swingsters. Then we became the Modern Jazz Sextet.

AA: What was your main instrument at Wheatley?

LW: I started on double bass, then I switched to the electric Fender.

AA: Who was your main influence as far as playing style?

LW: Ray Brown. He was the man as far as bass guitar players went.

AA: So you guys were already doing professional gigs when you were in high school?

LW: Oh, yeah. I played gigs with Bobby Bland and Junior Parker in high school. I remember playing with Big Joe Turner and my mother came and sat in the club to make sure I wasn't getting into trouble. I played at all the old hot spots like the Ebony on Dowling. I played with T-Bone Walker and Percy Mayfield at the Ebony before I got out of high school. Wilton Felder and I went on the road with Nappy Brown and Ivory Joe Hunter. We were trying to make enough money to go to California. Wilton and I always stuck together.

AA: Most of you guys were at TSU when you decided to go to L.A. What was behind that?

LW: Well, everybody knew you couldn't really make it out of Houston as a jazz player. There was New York and there was L.A.

AA: What did your parents think about you guys all heading to Los Angeles?

LW: They like to went haywire. We'd been very sheltered by our parents. We'd all been talking it over and we all said 'we're going to have a problem when we tell our parents, but we can't make it here.' I remember we all agreed we were going to go, but I waited four or five days before I broke the news.

AA: What did they say?

LW: [laughs] What are you going to do on West Coast; you all will starve to death.

AA: That newspaper piece makes it seem like you guys took the town by storm.

LW: [laughs] That's not exactly how it went. Man, you are nobody in L.A.

AA: So how did it go at the beginning?

LW: In Los Angeles, if you don't know someone, you might as well forget it. Ain't no one gonna babysit you or help you out. We stayed for a while with Stix' Uncle Fred and Aunt Harriet. We all slept in one room, two in the bed, two on the floor. I remember I had an Oldsmobile and six dollars in my pocket when we finally found their house. And I got out of the car and looked down and I had a flat. Man, it was tight at first. Very tight.

AA: The timeline for all you guys is rather confusing. You say you went to Canada to work in 1960, but you've got cuts with Eugene Church as the La La Wilson band in 1959.

LW: Oh, yeah, I was working and I'd put my own band together and we recorded with some vocalists, worked what sessions we could find. That's one thing, we had all been taught music. We didn't just play, we could read charts. So I became a bandleader almost anywhere I worked.

AA: Who did you work with as bandleader?

LW: All kinds of people. I was band leader for Sam Cooke, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Platters. I was the band leader for the whole Motown Revue that toured all over.

AA: What was the toughest job you ever had?

LW: I led Louis Jordan's band for a couple of years. The man would work you to death.

AA: You had a minor hit in 1964 as the La La Wilson Band with "Moon Walk In."

LW: Yeah, there was a period there where good, jumping instrumentals were popular on radio, so we gave that a try.

AA: You also worked some in television?

LW: Oh, yeah, I worked on Hawaii Five-O, I worked with Sidney Poitier on the movie Raisin in the Sun. It was Hollywood, you know? We'd be playing a gig and there would be Jack Lemmon or Kim Novak. You were always running into show business people.

AA: Career-wise, all of you guys have made a real mark. What do you think of as your legacy?

LW: You know, we left home young, but we were from a generation that didn't sass their parents, didn't disrespect others, didn't act out. Looking back on how it has gone with all of us, I think nobody can say we had a bad reputation. We set an example for all the groups that came up through Houston. I'm proud of that. The Red Cat Jazz Festival runs October 5-7 at Pearland Town Center, at the corner of Wighway 288 South and FM 518 in Pearland. The La La Wilson Band is scheduled to perform at 6 p.m. October 7. For ticket information go to the festival's website.

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