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.

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William Michael Smith