with Steve Voce
Bill Perkins is one of the outstanding members of the legion of technically gifted and musically inspired tenor players who emerged at the beginning of the fifties. He made a hit here on Kenton's first tour and many people still remember his playing of Yesterdays on that tour, for it was the first time since Coleman Hawkins' stay in the thirties that England had seen and heard a player of such high calibre. It is perhaps no coincidence that all of Kenton's recordings that feature Bill are good ones and they remain as fresh today as when they were recorded. This is unusual, for saxophone playing tends to date more than, for instance, brass playing.
Similarly his work on some of Woody Herman's recordings from that time has classic status, notably Ill Wind where his solo is a masterpiece of delicacy and form.
Surprisingly he has recorded little under his own name, with two exceptions—in On Stage—The Bill Perkins Octet (Vogue LAE 12078) which has him leading Bud Shank, Jack Nimitz, Carl Fontana, Stu Williamson, Russ Freeman, Red Mitchell and Mel Lewis, and Journey To The East, recorded 28 years later in 1984 (Contemporary C-1401 1) where the Lester Young influence, which has always affected his playing so strongly, is diverted by a palpable injection of Sonny Rollins.
He has however recorded prolifically for other leaders, but is extremely modest about his success. A couple of years ago I sent him a tape with a couple of hours of his commercial recordings on it. 'I was amazed,' he wrote, 'because I never knew that most of them existed.'
When I persuaded my mother to buy me a second hand Buescher tenor, that was the end of the clarinet for me, and I didn't touch it again for many years. But it came back to haunt me and later, when I had to play clarinet and all the other instruments required of a studio player, I wished I'd kept up with it as a kid. Clarinet technique is much more difficult than saxophone.
I was an electrical engineer before I became a professional musician. Before that I was taken down to South America as a small child and we lived in Chile until my dad died in the early thirties. He was a mining engineer and he encouraged my fascination with electricity. So I have a degree in electrical engineering as well as in music.
I was always fascinated by jazz, too. I first consciously remember hearing it when my brother told me about a programme called The Camel Caravan back in 1935. He was back East at school (by this time my mother had brought us back from Chile and we'd settled in Santa Barbara) and he told me to listen. Of course it was the Goodman band and Benny was the first musician I was hooked on. The first saxophone player I remember liking was Charlie Barnet. Then in the late thirties I discovered Count Basie and became a Prez fan. He's remained my biggest influence, although like everyone else I was also influenced by Charlie Parker.
I've always been a fan of Ben Webster's because I think he was one of the greatest ballad players I've ever heard. His hot playing was good, too, but his ballad playing was like a cello. I had the privilege of working with him many years later.
You associate me with the generation that came after Zoot and Stan Getz. I'm actually older than Zoot, but I came to music later because I was studying for my degree in electrical engineering before I realised that my future was in music.
Everything that I'd heard Lester play stuck in my mind, but Zoot, Al Cohn and Stan were totally separate influences on me when I was learning to play in the late forties. Al was a special favorite of mine because at that time I related to his sound more. At the time of the Four Brothers band I was at university studying music and wasn't aware of all that till it was history. The first time I heard that band on record was I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out. It was a radical innovation and absolutely fascinating to hear those guys play and the record made a big impact on me.
I found out only the other day who really recommended me and gave me my break with Woody. I'd been working in Los Angeles with the clarinet player Jerry Wald, who played like Artie Shaw. Woody got in a beef with one of his tenor players and fired him. His manager called me one Sunday night about 10 o'clock and told me to come down to work. I really didn't believe it, I thought somebody was kidding me, but I pulled my pants on and went down there, and that was my first break. Shorty [Rogers] told me the other day that it was Jerry who had recommended me.
This was in the spring of 1951 when Doug Mettome and Donny Fagerquist were in the band. The band was under contract to MGM at the time, and there was a conscious attempt to be popular, which is why the records for that label don't sound quite as profound as some of those from other eras, but they were my first with the band. Kenny Pinson and I had the jazz tenor roles and the lead tenor was Jack Dulong. The baritone player was Sam Staff, a marvellous man who died in his twenties. He became a good friend of mine and also a great help, because of course I was new to the business.
I was very lucky because I went straight into the band as a soloist. That first night when I was depping was a broadcast. I remember walking out on stage and Woody, who was wearing that expression of his that looked like a scowl, pointed at me and we went on the air playing Perdido. It was probably just as well, because I was too scared to get nervous, I just went ahead and played. That was a very big break for me and the start of it all. Dave McKenna was on piano until later on when they called him up into the army and sent him to Korea as a cook!
While we played the MGM things on public appearances we also played the Four Brothers book and things like Leo The Lion, Sonny Speaks, By George and the more committed jazz things. You might say the band was at a low ebb at that time. Woody had lost a lot of players and hadn't regenerated.
I remember seeing the Second Herd as a very naive listener in Hollywood and it was crammed with giants—apart from the Brothers, Bill Harris was there. A number of them, not Bill of course, were strung out on the drug thing.
Kenny Pinson was a marvellous player whose driving force was Bird. He was really more of an alto player than a tenor player in a lot of respects, and he was also a nice guy with a great sense of humour. He was in the band for the first six months that I was there and then he was replaced by Arno Marsh. Arno is still a fine player and lives in Vegas. He was rhythm and blues oriented with Hawk's sound rather than Lester's, and he was a big hit with the audiences. Urbie Green was on trombone and then Carl Fontana and Urbie's brother Jack came on the band.
I left the band for a period and when I came back Woody had built it up into one of his best. That was the band that came to Europe in 1954 and it included my very dear friend Richie Kamuca. They called it the Third Herd and it included another great friend of mine, Dick Hafer, and the marvellous Jerry Coker. Jerry chose to be a music educator and he's one of the best. I have his book on chords and I've used it a great deal to help expand my playing.
The reason I left the first time was because Woody broke the group up for a while, but also because I wanted to do some woodshedding and thirdly because Arno had become the featured soloist. In retrospect this made me question my own playing and style and I was thinking I wasn't doing as well as I should have been. I left the band for about a year and did a lot of playing locally. I think I upgraded my playing and when I rejoined Arno had quit and I was a different person musically.
Before that, at the very end of 1955, I went with Stan Kenton. They had a bus accident in the Chicago area and some of the people got hurt and shook up pretty bad. I think Zoot left and I went on the band and Bill Holman and I completed the tour they were doing which, in retrospect, was one of the most marvellous educations I've ever had. I think you've heard of this tour. It had Dizzy and Bird, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz and Slim Gaillard. Lee Konitz had just quit the band, but he came back to be featured on the tour. For me it was going to school every night hearing these men play. Stan broke the band up at the beginning of the year.
Dick Bock, who had a great responsibility in getting me launched as a musician then gave me an enormous break. He did the album Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West with John Lewis and Jim Hall, and they had me there as the only horn. Then I was part of an album with Bud Shank, his first, I think. One half was Shorty and Bud, the other half Bud and me. The records sold heavily over the world and I've no way of measuring how much they did to get my name known. I rejoined Woody, made some records with him and we went to Europe, where I made the session in Paris with Henri Renaud, Dick Collins, Dick Hafer, Cy Touff and Red Kelly. When we got back Richie Kamuca joined and we had Al Porcino and John Howell in the trumpets.
Richie and I were very close. We hung out together and roomed together and he was a big influence in my life. I suppose I got the ballad role. Richie always wished he could do that. We all wish for something we can't do. He could just pop out those eighth notes, and I always wished that I could swing and play with the facility that he could. We both liked the other's sound and influenced each other. But I wish I could have made my fingers work as fast as his could. He could really move and had a very hard approach. He was a bebop, but he wanted to have that gentler Stan Getz sound, so in a way he was arguing with himself. If he'd had a harsher sound he might have had more impact on bebop, although that's speculation on my part. Sound was the main thing for me, and I'm not known for my technique, which has caused me a great deal of pain through the years.
Richie had been in the 1951 Kenton band before I ever joined. I went back with Stan in 1955. That was what we call the Bill Holman band, because Stan gave Bill a free range and about 80% of the arrangements were Bill's. Great wisdom on Stan's part, because you never hear a weak Holman chart. I'd left Woody because he broke up the band and also because I wanted some time off the road. I was married and we had a baby coming, and life on the road is rough on a marriage. There's conflict all the time. Neither Woody nor Stan liked to be at home because their whole lives were dedicated to travelling.
Stan reformed in the spring of 1955 and started rehearsals in Los Angeles with Bill's new book for the band. That book still sounds wonderful today. After all these years people come up to me and say they listened recently to a record that I made with Stan and it'll be one of those, and the listener must have been about 10 years old when we made the record! But Bill Holman as you know is the definitive giant of big band writing.
Stan's personal taste in music bordered on the bombastic. Maybe that's an unfair word. He just loved the sound of brass. He loved the heroic, Wagnerian sound, but was open enough to allow each person to express himself in his own way. He allowed Bill Holman his due although Bill's writing might have been the antithesis of Stan's personal taste.
Many arrangers, Bill Russo, Gerry Mulligan, Gene Roland, had complete freedom with the band. Gene was another erratic but brilliant genius. You could never tell what he would come up with—it might be a total flop or it might be brilliant. I knew Gene from our stays in Los Angeles together when we used to go to jam sessions and he was quite an influence on me. Especially when he could pick up my tenor and play it better than I could. It was kind of discouraging to me at that time when I was just beginning, because he was a trumpet player!
Stan didn't edit arrangements like Woody did. You wouldn't call Woody an arranger, but he could take an arrangement and edit it with great instinct. Woody has a much bigger part in the music than people realise. You can have the greatest bunch of players in the world, but unless you've got that mature continuity they might not mean a thing. That's what Woody contributes. It's as true of his young band of 25-year-olds, that I had the pleasure of leading for a week last year, as it was in our time. Woody's the last of a breed I'm afraid, and I have a great affection for him.
When Stan commissioned a piece it was complete as he received it and, unless he altered it before we got to see it, he didn't touch it. He had great respect for the writers.
Most of us found that life on the road precluded any development in our own styles because travelling was so exigent. When I was with Stan in Europe I was a lot younger and had a lot more endurance, but I lost 15 pounds. I existed on cognac and watercress sandwiches!
Jerry Coker was the exception. He's an extremely scholarly person and he was continually improving and experimenting. He wrote some things for Stan and he wrote Blame Boehm for Woody. That was for the band that did Bill Holman's Prez Conference, which was issued as Mulligantawny. It had Dick Hafer, Jerry and me all soloing and showing the Prez influence.
The irony of it was that Jerry has always been deaf. He had to wear a hearing aid. Yet when it came to hearing a wrong note in an arrangement he couldn't miss it.
I'm a really big Kenton fan. I couldn't say anything derogatory about him, because to me he was an ideal leader. Recently we've had some biographies of him that expressed a different opinion, and over the years he's had quite a bit of negative press because he tended to speak first and think later. That isn't necessarily a bad trait. He spoke very emotionally and was an extremely kind, generous and democratic individual.
He had a racially mixed band in the fifties and was harmed by it. Not just in the south, although the south was terrible, but other ballrooms and halls across America would cancel the band when they found out. Of course he refused to compromise and if he liked a man's playing he would stand by him at whatever cost. This is why I bridle when I read some of these accounts that it was not so. It may be that in his last years he changed from this, because that does happen to us sometimes. He should have been a politician.
Literally he would remember your name if he met you once and then didn't see you again for 20 years. He had a genuine interest in people, he wasn't phoney.
One of the reasons I left him was because you don't get enough solo space in a big band to develop your improvising. There was the security of having a job with someone like Stan or Woody that made you a bit fearful to branch off on your own. For my own musical development I should have been doing then what I'm attempting to do now, which is to play as much jazz as I can as a matter of priority.
Stan made an ill-fated return to the Balboa Ballroom in the fifties and that's where I met my wife. We got married and I decided to come off the road. I took a job working for Dick Bock at Pacific Jazz Records as an editor and a librarian, so he really made it possible for me to live at home.
When I look back on it now I was making $60 a week in 1958 and getting by quite well. Dick did a tremendous amount of tape editing and I say lovingly that he was a terrible editor! He turned it over to me and I was a good editor because I was a musician.
The recording studio
Bill Putnam was the head of Universal Studios in Chicago. He went out to Los Angeles in 1957 and opened up a studio there called United which revolutionised recording techniques. He was the father of modern recording.
I got a job with him purely on the strength of his having recorded the Bill Holman band in Chicago (I can find no trace of this event. The discographies suggest Holman's recordings to have been confined to Los Angeles-SV) and when I wrote him a letter and said I'd been an engineer he hired me.
It was like starting at square one, because his was a whole new recording technique. He trusted me and I ended up being a master engineer because I found my personality wasn't too well suited to working with the producers of the dawning rock and roll era. So I cut discs. I must have mastered 5,000 different LPs for him. Meantime I continued with my music until the two careers built up and I was working 17 hours a day.
So in 1969 I gave up the engineering aspect and became a full time studio player. I studied flute legitimately as I was going along and I was fortunate that people like Alan Ferguson, the great arranger, allowed me to have on-the-job training, which is something that you don't come by any more.
I haven't studied saxophone since 1949, mainly because a jazz saxophone player has a rough time trying to accommodate his concepts to a legit saxophone teacher. They want you to play with a very fast vibrato and a very light set up so you can move fast but the jazz sound is a more powerful sound, so I gave up on that when I first went on the road. In the sixties there was a lot more big band studio work, backing Sinatra for example. I was on some of those albums and of course I was in on many Sinatra sessions because he recorded at United a lot.
Warner Brothers at that time had their offices in the United Studios and I worked for Reprise. I was involved with the Ellington sessions for that label and even played on one, the soundtrack for Assault On A Queen. Watching Duke score a picture, which he did practically ad lib, was an experience! I was supposed to be up cutting masters and I'd drift away down to where he was because it was so fascinating. They were always searching for me to come back to work!
Duke had come out with a nucleus of players. I think he had Hodges and Carney with him, four or five of his men, and the rest were studio players. By the time he got through with us it was the Ellington band. I can still remember the influence because the studio players were all used to doing everything by numbers, exactly as we were told. Ellington was so free.
We asked him how he wanted things played and he said 'Oh don't worry. It'll come together.' And of course it did. I'll never forget it.
I also played baritone for him once on a show called Happy Times, a television show where they had different big bands every week. I thought 'oh boy, I'm going to get to play those marvelous Harry Carney parts.' Well, the fact is, there were no Harry Carney parts—they were all kept in Harry's head. We were all terribly disappointed at first because we had It Don't Mean A Thing and there was no chart for it. We thought how can we possibly play that with a 17 piece band live on the air without charts?
But by the time he was through with it, it swung as hard as you could want, and I'll never forget it. He had an instinct for what mattered and a certain amount of sloppiness. if you want to call it that, was beneficial. Many a time I've been to hear the band and it wasn't running on all 16 cylinders until after half an hour or so, but it didn't matter because that spirit was there.
The first album under my own name was the octet for World Pacific (Vogue LAE 12078). It wasn't a regular band but the guys were people I had been very closely associated with. Stu Williamson, a marvelous player and a great jazz voice, was on trumpet. Sadly, he doesn't play today. Bill Holman wrote about five of the charts and in one of my few attempts at arranging I transcribed some Prez solos which took me six months to do. That was one of the things that discouraged me from writing.
Later I wrote some more arrangements for my own groups and I even did some big band ones, but it was very painful. You need to persevere. It's also a problem of allocation of time. One of my favourite writers, Bobby Brookmeyer, told me that even for him it was more painful to write, and he'd much rather play. He's one of the great writers.
He did some things for Stan which were just gorgeous. I don't think we ever recorded them, but they were so good I wish I'd been able to steal them. At that moment they might not have fitted what Stan wanted because they were more intimate in the way of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band. Stan wasn't attuned to that kind of freedom. He would have called it big band Dixieland, perhaps.
I like a lot of freedom. Especially as I get older I realise that there are perhaps too many Stan Kenton clones today. He did it years ago and did it definitively for the big organised band, but I like to hear bands where you never know what's happening next—maybe not as much as Sun Ra, but Thad is one of the greats.
I just hate that terminology West Coast! The only thing I can say is that the guys on the East Coast were playing a harder form of music, a form of bebop, whereas there was a sort of palm tree gentleness about the music we played out there.
It wasn't conscious or anything. I think there's something about Los Angeles that's not conducive toward intense high level playing. There's an intensity about New York City, perhaps the proximity of human bodies, everyone's struggling, whereas in Los Angeles there may be neuroses but you're so spread out that it's hard to have a jazz community out there.
As you know the attraction to Los Angeles for the musicians was the chance to make money in the studios. It was a very enticing thing. But in recent years because of the sheer number of musicians there they've made their own thing musically. And still you can't possibly make a living as a jazz musician in Los Angeles.
I think I took the studio work too seriously. I'd go to each job with the attitude that it was supposed to be a work of art and I'd wind up going home almost on the point of tears because I thought I'd played badly. But, as my dear friend Ernie Watts pointed out, it's not art it's craft at best, and if you look at it that way it won't be so painful to you. Here's a man half my age educating me! Ernie's a marvelous tenor player and his career has really taken off. He's a major soloist in the fusion and modern field. He even worked with the Rolling Stones during their tour, and he's been a big influence on my playing. It's a different world.
My memories of Willie Smith? Playing in rehearsal bands with him in which his lead playing was absolutely formidable. There was no way you could play up to that sound he got. As early as 1939 I saw him with Lunceford. That was one of the greatest bands to see. First of all they were very advanced in their arrangements and they used minimal vibrato. They put on a show the likes of which I've never seen. Lunceford was much more of a showman than Duke. With Ellington you took what you got and you never knew whether it was going to be absolutely brilliant or not.
Lunceford's band—with their white suits and showmanship—was impeccable and swung so hard I remember the floor of the old Casa Manana literally shaking with it.
In the late sixties, Charlie Barnet, who had been in complete retirement, couldn't bear being off the scene, and he put together yet another hip band out on the Coast. Charlie had a reputation for being tough, but actually all he really cared about was whether the band was swinging or not.
We played mostly casual gigs and it was a marvellous experience for me. We had a great band with Al Porcino, Mel Lewis and the late Joe Maini. Joe, the son of a legendary great lead alto player, was himself phenomenal in that respect. He was the greatest I've ever played with and unless you sat next to him you couldn't understand how great he was. [Maini can be heard notably on the Terry Gibbs big band recordings and members of that band had a similarly high opinion of him. His deserved rise to prominence ended in 1964 when playing Russian roulette with a friend he shot himself through the head-SV].
Bill Holman had re-scored just about everything in Charlie's book, so you can imagine how good it was. I was his jazz tenor player at that time so I got to solo and he liked the way I played. I enjoyed literally every one-nighter we did with that band. Now Charlie has retired and he lives in Palm Springs
The baritone? In 1957 Pepper Adams was playing baritone on Stan's band and he made a tremendous impression on me. He just turned me around completely because his approach was diametrically opposite to what I had been doing. He was from Detroit and a real bebop player. He had this tremendous harmonic facility and ability, while my playing was still pretty simplistic.
I suppose it still is, although I think I've expanded my harmonic horizons a bit. He had a tremendous effect on me by osmosis and then a few years later when I had a chance to buy a baritone I did. I started playing it and most of my friends feel that it's the most natural instrument to me, which is quite interesting because I spent most of my Hollywood career playing alto!
I tried harder on alto than on anything, and it was very painful for me. By comparison the baritone was almost like falling off a log. I don't know why that should be. Maybe each person has a different range in mind. Now that I'm back with it I really prefer playing tenor. The baritone isn't much fun to carry around, either! As I told you earlier, I'm a slow learner and I'm really amazed at how long it's taken me intellectually to appreciate people like Sonny Rollins.
It took me 20 years to catch up with what John Coltrane did. Even if it's happening late, it's very fascinating for me. I'm also listening a lot to Thelonious Monk, who I couldn't make any sense of at all 20 years ago.
I played in a little band with vibraphonist Emil Richards in 1959 when I was just off the road and I couldn't understand some of the things he played, like Epistrophy. Now I love it. I realise I'm late but who cares?
As far as playing with a harder sound, well yes, I suppose I do. But today it's harder to find an opportunity for playing in a romantic way. First of all, the influence of rock—we heard Miles Davis' band the other night and it was overwhelming.
A whole night or a week of playing in a band like that has to have its effect and although I found it fascinating, there's not too much space for playing a pretty ballad any more. On occasion I still do, as on my new album [Journey To The East recorded in November 1984 by the Bill Perkins Quartet. Contemporary C-14011]. The mood has to be right. I think it's as simple as that. You try and play in that manner against most of today's rhythm sections, and it's like being zapped by a hurricane!
Mention of Miles' band brings me to my other new career as an inventor. I've invented a device that interfaces saxophone with synthesiser so that the saxophone player can control the synthesiser through the horn. I've also created the same kind of thing for trumpet.
I'm lucky that Alan Gizzudi, a brilliant trumpet virtuoso who plays everything from symphonic music to jazz, liked my device and uses it. When I heard Miles the other night I realised that it was ideal for him, but I don't have salesmen like the big instrument companies do to push it to him, so it's just a matter of if it happens it happens. Yamaha has some interest in it, but I think they could just work around my patent if they wanted to.
My studio work has diminished a great deal. Part of that is due to the young musicians coming up—they have to support families, too. Also the work in Hollywood has decreased drastically. The inroads of the synthesisers and the computer music machines are such that anybody who is economics minded can do an entire television score with only the synthesisers.
That's even gotten into the movies primarily due to the success of Vangelis in "Chariots of Fire" who did the totally synthesised score. So it's been kind of devastating for musicians young and old.
In Los Angeles, without what they call a synthesiser wind driver, a young musician isn't going to have too much luck. A lot of the older musicians have taken up other careers or retired. I'm very fortunate as I told you because I've been working for the Tonight Show band with Doc Severinsen, which is probably the best steady job in that field in the world, and it is a jazz oriented job. That's made it possible for me not to be under a lot of pressure and I do work on the outside with different dates. I think Doc's band is the only full sized band working on television. They had one on the Merv Griffin Show, too, but that's been cut back drastically, and he uses a small group with Jack Sheldon, Plas Johnson, and Ray Brown.
Doc's band has guys like Ernie Watts and Pete Chrisilieb on tenors and Lennice Niehaus on alto. Don Ashworth came with the band when it moved from New York. He plays baritone but actually his primary work is as a studio oboe and flautist. He's been very successful.
The older people who do well in the studios these days are now primarily specialists like Don, really outstanding players. The era of the doubler has to some extent disappeared. For example if they want to hire a flute player, they'll book a Morales, or a really outstanding legitimate player. A young player can succeed if he plays the woodwind driver of the synthesiser, and you still have to do all the doubles, but the size of orchestras has dramatically diminished.
Snooky Young, one of my heroes, plays lead in our band. He won't admit to his age but he has to be a good bit older than me, for instance, and he still plays brilliantly.
As you know, trumpet is not an old man's instrument. He's played lead over the years for bands like Basie's and Lunceford's, but apart from that, in my opinion, he's one of the all time great trumpet players. He's a man who can make all of us, young or old, sit and listen to him playing and teach a great lesson.
That is that he can play things in the most simple manner and be just as effective as someone expressing them in a more complex way. Conte Candoli, another world class trumpet player is also with the band. I've heard him stand next to Freddie Hubbard, who's just about my favourite trumpet player, and match him note for note.
We'd like to bring the band [to Britain] each year but the exchange rate with the dollar makes it very difficult. For instance my wife's air fare sort of wipes out my salary, but I don't care. I'm glad she's here.
The combination of Shorty's great writing and the playing of all the soloists makes it a continuously stimulating band for us all, and we'd very much like to make this a regular visit. I'm very keen to get back to Britain, too, because I had such a great tour on my last visit. So, if we don't get there with the band, if you know of anyone who wants to bring me over, tell him I'm ready!
Rogers and out
With regard to Shorty's band, we've played together individually and collectively for 30 years now. We're a very close group so that even though the band has been brought together only for the Japanese tour, one record date, and this European tour, it's not like playing with strangers. We can sense each other's thoughts. This tour has been murderous in regard to the travelling, and it's inevitably affected our performances. [Ed. note: This interview took place in 1981.]
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