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Shadow Wilson
September 25, 1919 - July 11, 1959
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Shadow Wilson
A colorful, propulsive drummer, Shadow Wilson worked with many major bands during his career. He was both a sensitive and exciting stylist, and could provide rhythmically dynamic and softly sympathetic accompaniment using sticks or brushes.

He began playing with Lucky Millinder in 1939, then worked with Benny Carter, Tiny Bradshaw, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Count Basie, and Woody Herman. Wilson later worked in the combos of Illinois Jacquet, Erroll Garner, and Thelonious Monk, and played with Ella Fitzgerald. He worked frequently with Sonny Stitt in the '50s, and recorded with Basie, Joe Newman, Monk and Lee Konitz.

Wilson didn't record any albums as a leader, but can be heard on CD reissues by Basie, Phil Woods and Gene Quill, Tadd Dameron and Monk.


Though not a major influence in the same sense as Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, Shadow Wilson was nonetheless in considerable demand during the ’40s, and he fit in admirably with all the groups he played with during his relatively brief career.

Wilson was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919 and began his career with Frank Fairfax. By 1939, he was working in bands led by Lucky Millinder and Jimmy Mundy. In 1940, he performed with Benny Carter and Tiny Bradshaw, and then moved on to the Earl Hines band. However, Wilson is best remembered for his tasteful work with the Count Basie band, with whom he played in 1944. Wilson spent two years with tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, won the prestigious Esquire New Star Award in 1947, and then returned to the Basie band as a replacement for Papa Jo Jones.

According to jazz legend, upon Dave Tough’s departure from the Woody Herman band in ’48, the musicians took a vote to determine who would replace Tough. Shadow Wilson was elected; however, pleased with the Basie band, he refused the offer. Members of Herman’s band did eventually get their wish when Wilson joined up in ’49, once again proving his ability as a superb big band drummer as well as a highly competent small group player.

After leaving Herman, Wilson returned to Illinois Jacquet’s group in 1950 and again in ’54, with the years between spent with young piano sensation Erroll Garner.

Late in his career Wilson worked with Ella Fitzgerald, and was also acclaimed for his performances with Thelonious Monk in the ’50s.

Though Shadow Wilson died in 1959 at the age of forty, numerous examples of his recorded performances have been preserved.

Among those recordings are “Queer Street” with the Basie band, Jacquet Jumps, The Fabulous Fats Navarro with Tadd Dameron, and assorted recordings with Lester Young, Leo Parker, and Stan Getz.

Every Wilson performance clearly demonstrates the tasteful, unobtrusive playing of one of the jazz world’s true unsung heroes.

© Colored by Mike Creasy

Shadow Wilson - Thelonious Monk - Oscar Petitford

Thelonius Monk jr. about Shadow Wilson

You can go even a step further: I was sitting with Cecil Brooks III and Michael Carvin; we were listening to the recording, and it was, for all of us, our first chance to really hear Shadow Wilson playing out. Now dig this: Until I heard this recording, I, Ben Riley, and every other drummer after Frankie Dunlop, sort of played Monk with a Frankie Dunlop flavor. Because we all agreed that Frankie Dunlop was the perfect match with Monk. But I listened to this recording and I realized that Frankie Dunlop was on the scene, he was listening—Frankie Dunlop was playing Shadow Wilson, who Thelonious always said was his favorite drummer. So I find that the influence that I thought was coming from Frankie Dunlop was coming from Shadow Wilson.

Because all of a sudden, the way that Thelonious Monk's band swings with Shadow Wilson is different from Roy Haynes, it's different from Max Roach, it's different from Art Blakey. It's the patented swing that we're all familiar with, from Thelonious Monk.

If you look over at John Coltrane: He came out of a heavy, heavy dose of the Jimmy Cobbs of the world, the Philly Joe Joneses, but what does Shadow Wilson have that was different from Max Roach and Art Blakey and all the rest of those cats that had preceded him? It was that little kind of upbeat swing, that little sort of high-stepping, dancing kind of thing. It was a sound on the ride cymbal: Instead of doing “ding-da-ding, ding-da-ding”, it went “ding-da-ding, ding-da-ding”.

John Coltrane doesn't go get a Philly Joe Jones kind of a cat, he doesn't go get a Jimmy Cobb-sounding cat, he goes gets this young cat named Elvin Jones. Who plays with what? An upbeat swing!

Gottlieb Collection

John Coltrane - Shadow Wilson -Thelonious Monk - Ahmed Abdul-Malik
At The Five Spot Cafe, New York City, 1957

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