Jimmy Wilkins 1921–2018

Former Detroiter James “Jimmy” Wilkins passed away in Las Vegas August 24. Jimmy lived in Detroit for about forty years starting in 1955. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1921 into a musical family and his career was closely connected with that of his brother Ernie, born 1922. Jimmy picked up the trombone while Ernie settled on the saxophone. The Wilkins brothers were good friends with trumpeter Clark Terry growing up and played in his band in their teens. All three joined the Navy during the war and spent three years in the band at Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago. After his discharge Jimmy worked with a number of big bands including Erskine Hawkins’ and Ernie Fields, but eventually returned to Wilberforce College, in Ohio, where he had started in the early 1940s. At Wilberforce he was impressed with the many talents of tenorist/arranger Frank Foster. Jimmy took over directing the Wilberforce Collegians and got the opportunity to play both Carnegie Hall and the Savoy Ballroom with the band.

He graduated from Wilberforce in 1949. Clark Terry was also an important influence when the Wilkins brothers got their big break with the Count Basie band in 1951. This version of the path-breaking band has been called the New Testament band and Ernie became one of its most important arrangers/composers. Another player-writer for the band was Frank Foster. Jimmy learned a lot playing with Basie and soon was the lead trombonist. However he was less happy with the pay so was lured to Detroit by his uncle in 1953 to help open and manage a restaurant. He soon gave up restaurant management for a job at the U.S. Postal Service, which became a major source of financial stability for his family until 1981. 

Wilkins had heard about the state of jazz in Detroit and the sheer number of good musicians, and soon started to assemble a “rehearsal band.” By 1956, he had some jobs lined up and soon put his stake in the ground. There were several bands of similar size and intention around town, but none of those groups had that “corner pocket” kind of feel which Basie mastered and which drew people to the dance floor like a magnet. Armed with charts by his brother, and Frank Foster, Wilkins’ band had a sound and style like a cool breeze on a hot day. Once the band started to gel, Wilkins started to solicit work. His band played a mix of public and private gigs over several decades. His weekly gig at the Club El Sino in 1957 was reviewed in the Michigan Chronicle:

“Jimmy Wilkins and band…every Wednesday evening… produces the finest in dance-band tempos to meet the diversified demands of his dancing public, including cha-chas and mambos, but his forte is the up-tempo swing of the Count Basie band.”

The Wilkins band over the years included many of Detroit’s top musicians like trumpeters Louis Smith, Don Slaughter, Donald Byrd, Billy Horner; saxophonists Ted Buckner, Joe Henderson, Ernie Rodgers, George Benson; and pianist Terry Pollard. Like many Detroit jazzmen, Jimmy did his share of work in the Motown studios in the 1960s. Wilkins’ gigs slowly dried up over the years, as young folks gravitated to a mix of Soul, Rock ‘n Roll, and Funk, among other styles. By the 1990’s, Jimmy was forced into down-sizing to a Kansas City 7 sounding band, much as his former employer had done in 1950.

Tired of the Michigan winters, Wilkins and his wife Cynthia moved to Las Vegas in 1994. He was soon leading another rehearsal big band and landed some work for a few years before big bands went out of style in Vegas. Jimmy Wilkins was celebrated at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival when his reconstituted big band performed arrangements by Ernie. His performance was a highlight that year, especially when pianist Barry D. Harris sat in for a blues.

Jimmy Wilkins always hit the “sweet spot” regardless of the size of his band. He is sorely missed by many in the Detroit jazz community.