Obituary: Gerry Wiggins

Versatile jazz pianist who was Marilyn Monroe's vocal coach

Glasses perched high on his forehead for safe-keeping, the jazz pianist Gerry Wiggins who has died aged 86, was a busy presence on the Los Angeles scene for more than half a century, yet escaped wider international acclaim. Equally at ease playing a classy restaurant with his trio, appearing with a big band at a festival, or backing a top club vocalist, his expertise also brought him movie assignments including a lengthy stint as vocal coach for Marilyn Monroe. Her signed photo had pride of place in the music room of his comfortable Woodland Hills home, its inscription reading: "Dear Gerry. I can't make a sound without you. Love, Marilyn."

Wiggins, usually known as "Wig", was a native New Yorker whose mother played piano for church services and arranged for her son, a reluctant student, to take piano lessons from the age of four. It was her insistence that he practise before and after school and during the lunch break that enabled him to flourish on the Greenwich Village club scene in his mid-teens.

One of his first jobs, while still attending Harlem's High School of Music and Art, was with Dr Sausage and his Pork Chops. He also appeared at the nightclub Monroe's Uptown House, a meeting place for modernists including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Trained classically, Wiggins said he listened to "all the good bands around" but it was a recording by the jazz virtuoso Art Tatum that really caught his imagination. "I thought it was four or five guys playing the piano," he told me in an interview in 1978. His chance to hear Tatum at close quarters came at Reuben's club, "where all the piano players hung out - I was amazed, I hadn't heard anything like him."

Tatum helped the youngster by steering him towards his first job as the $50-a-week accompanist and straight man to the African-American movie vaudevillian Stepin Fetchit, then an attraction on the US theatre circuit.

In 1942, Fetchit and Wiggins were sharing the bill at the Brooklyn Strand with the Les Hite Orchestra when Hite's pianist was drafted into the US army. After Fetchit was hauled off-stage by the police for a misdemeanour, Wiggins accepted Hite's offer to join the band, knowing that Hite was due to return to his west coast base. Wiggins went along, liked the 100F weather - "I'm in God's country," he told his mother - and stayed around Los Angeles and the west coast for the rest of his life.

He was soon back on the road with Louis Armstrong's big band, touring the deep south, but the bitter realities of segregation prompted him to put in his notice when Satchmo returned to New York. "He was a prince," Wiggins said. A job with the Benny Carter Orchestra seemed a better bet.

Wig's keyboard brilliance and advanced harmonic ideas chimed with the beboppers who thronged the clubs on Central Avenue, black LA's thriving main stem, where he jammed after-hours with drummer Lee Young and bassist Charles Mingus. Called up in 1944, he was posted to Fort Lewis, near Seattle, playing in the 29th Special Service Band at the United Services Organisation on Saturdays and moonlighting in the city's many clubs for the rest of the week. "I don't think I spent over two or three days in a row in camp," he said.

After his discharge, Wiggins made for San Francisco, staying for a couple of years, but by 1948, he was back in Los Angeles, married with a family, and making a mass of records for obscure labels. He also became known as the preferred accompanist for quality singers, working with Lena Horne, with whom he visited London in 1950, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Dinah Shore, Jimmy Witherspoon, Eartha Kitt, Kay Starr and the Supremes.

With movie work, his trio jobs and his support for vocalists, Wiggins largely disappeared off the jazz radar in the 1950s and 60s, although his profile was raised when Jerry Fielding hired him with saxophonist Buddy Collette and bassist Red Callender to appear live on his TV show, something of a breakthrough for black musicians. "I had all the work I wanted then," he told me.

Vocalist Helen Humes persuaded Wiggins to tour internationally again in 1974. When we spoke in 1978 at the Nice festival, where he appeared with Humes, he was living out of a suitcase, his overflow clothes kept in three separate "friendly" apartments across the US. When Humes died three years later, Wiggins came off the road for good and married his wife Lynn in LA in 1987, embarking on the most stable and productive period of his career, recording often, playing long-term trio residencies, jazz parties, occasional overseas festivals and every kind of prestigious concert engagement.

Described as "a gentle spirit" and much-lauded by his peers, Wiggins is survived by Lynn, his son, jazz bassist Hassan JJ Wiggins, a daughter and several grandchildren.

• Gerald Foster "Wig" Wiggins, jazz pianist and arranger, born May 12 1922; died July 13 2008

Contributor

Peter Vacher

The GuardianTramp

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