Ernie Wilkins was an accomplished saxophonist, composer, and arranger. Born on July 20, 1922, in St. Louis, Missouri, Wilkins’ exceptional musical journey and versatile talent have cemented his place as a significant figure in the jazz and saxophone community.
Wilkins discovered his passion for music at an early age, beginning with piano lessons before transitioning to the alto saxophone and later the tenor saxophone. He honed his craft at Wilberforce University and shortly after graduation, he joined the U.S. Army, where he continued to perform in military bands during World War II.
Upon his return from military service, Wilkins’ professional career took flight when he joined Earl Hines’ orchestra. His time with Hines not only showcased his prowess as a saxophonist but also brought to light his exceptional talent as an arranger.
In 1951, Wilkins joined the Count Basie Orchestra, where he significantly contributed to the band’s “New Testament” era. His noteworthy compositions and arrangements such as “The Magic Touch” and “Every Day I Have the Blues” added new dimensions to the band’s sound, displaying a distinctive blend of sophisticated harmonies and swinging rhythms.
After an illustrious tenure with Basie, Wilkins moved to freelance work in the late 1960s. His skills were in high demand, leading him to work with a plethora of renowned artists such as Benny Goodman, Dinah Washington, and Tommy Dorsey, among others.
Wilkins made a significant career move in 1978, relocating to Copenhagen, Denmark. There, he led several ensembles, including the Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band, and became a prominent figure in the European jazz scene. His influence extended beyond his performances as he also actively participated in jazz workshops and seminars, sharing his extensive knowledge with the younger generation.
Ernie Wilkins’ vast contributions to jazz were recognized with his induction into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, a testament to his enduring impact on the genre. Despite his passing in 1999, Wilkins’ legacy continues to inspire saxophonists and jazz enthusiasts worldwide.
Today, Ernie Wilkins stands as an icon in the realm of saxophone music, with his extensive body of work serving as a standard of excellence. His life and music offer a comprehensive narrative on the evolution of jazz, making him a major influence for any aspiring saxophonist or lover of jazz music.
Page last updated 7/15/2023.