Monday, April 8, 2019

Billy Root Interview with Gordon Jack [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It is always a privilege to have Gordon Jack as a guest writer on JazzProfiles.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2004] and a frequent contributor to the JazzJournal. This article was published in the November 2008 edition of that magazine.

Billy Root, a saxophonist who was born in Philadelphia in 1934, has been hailed as a “forceful modern stylist.”  Billy made his first appearance in the Jazz world in 1944 working with the legendary trumpet player, Hot Lips Page.

© -Gordon Jack, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Billy Root might be a somewhat forgotten figure today but there was a time during the nineteen-fifties when he was very active on the scene, touring all over the USA with Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Bennie Green, Stan Kenton and many others.

Things changed dramatically in the sixties for Billy and for jazz in general with the emergence of the Beatles, the Stones and any number of Motown groups, because for a whole new generation jazz was no longer a popular art form. Regular bookings became increasingly rare as clubs closed, prompting Billy to move to Las Vegas in 1968 where he worked in the big hotel orchestras accompanying acts like Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Juliet Prowse and Dean Martin.

In 2008 my wife and I were staying at the Bellagio hotel and he agreed to meet me there to discuss his career. The Bellagio was built in 1998 on the site of the famous Dunes hotel, venue for some of the Rat-Pack appearances in the sixties and seventies.

Just as an aside, Ocean’s Eleven with George Clooney, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts was filmed at the Bellagio and is generally considered to be a vastly superior movie to the original which featured Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior.

“I was born in Philadelphia on the 6th. March 1934. My father was a professional drummer and when I was very young, no more than five or six, he started taking me to the Earle theatre to see all the wonderful bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lucky Millinder and Jimmie Lunceford. I don’t really know why I liked them so much but there was something about black bands that the white bands just didn’t seem to have. It would be true to say that I learned everything I know from black players.

“I started playing the saxophone around 1944 and when I was sixteen I sat in for a week with Hot Lips Page. I then went on the road with the Hal McIntyre Orchestra which is where I got my education from sitting next to guys who were better than I was.” (Hal McIntyre played alto and clarinet with Glenn Miller from 1937 to 1941, appearing with the band in the film Sun Valley Serenade. His own band, formed in 1942 later included such well known jazz musicians as Eddie Safranski, Allen Eager, Barry Galbraith and Carl Fontana. In 1952 the band accompanied the Mills Brothers on their recording of Glow Worm for the Decca label which became a huge hit).

“In 1952 along with John Coltrane and Buddy Savitt, I became one of the ‘House Tenors’ at the Blue Note in Philly. The owner Jackie Fields booked visiting stars like JJ Johnson, Roy Eldridge, Miles Davis or Kenny Dorham and instead of bringing them into the club with their own group from New York, he would use John, Buddy or me along with a local rhythm section – it was cheaper that way. The pay was about $150.00 a week but I didn’t care how much it was as long as I could play with those guys – of course a few years later whenever Buddy Rich and then Stan Kenton called, I certainly asked them how much they were paying!

We usually had Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones and that was the first time I think that Miles had heard either of them. I remember being a little apprehensive about working with him because he had a reputation of not liking white players and he could be pretty nasty, but he was very nice to me.

We had a two-hour rehearsal and that was it for the entire booking. On the date, Miles used two tenors – Coltrane and me – and John used to practice every intermission. I never saw anyone practice as much as he did. He was a real neat guy and I liked him a lot, unlike Sonny Stitt who could be a pain-in-the-ass. He was OK when he was sober but when he had a couple of drinks he became very strange. He was all over the horn playing a million notes, always trying to carve you on the stand and he could do it, but I remember one night when he had maybe one drink too many. He wasn’t drunk but he wasn’t quite ‘Sonny’. I was so Goddamned mad at him that I played better than I usually did and when we were leaving the club he said, ‘Just wait for tomorrow night!’

“About two weeks later I had a call for another gig so I sent in a friend of mine, Mel ‘Ziggy’ Vines to play with Sonny. Now Ziggy is almost unknown today but he was magnificent and he and Coltrane were the two best tenors in Philly at the time. (Around 1952 Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, John Bonnie and Larry McKenna were all active in Philadelphia, prompting Billy to say in a 1990 Cadence interview, ‘We had more good saxophone players in Philadelphia than they had on the whole West Coast of California.’)

Sonny didn’t like it when I sent Ziggy in because he was so good. I got to the club for the last set when they were both on alto and although Sonny could really blow, Ziggy was chopping him up to the point where I almost felt sorry for him. Sonny told me afterwards, ‘Yeah baby, he’s about the baddest ofay alto player I’ve ever heard. He’s better than Phil Woods and all those guys.’

“A few years later when Ziggy went to California Coltrane said to me, ‘I hope he makes it this time because he really can play.’ Charlie Parker really loved him and if he saw him in the club he would always say, ‘There’s my friend Mel, come up and play the next set with me’, and Bird wouldn’t say that to just anyone. He only made one commercial recording with Herb Geller and Conte Candoli (Fresh Sound FSR CD 412) where he used a borrowed tenor and mouthpiece. (Vines was so obscure that Leonard Feather who did the sleeve note for the original LP thought he was a pseudonym for Georgie Auld.) He sounded good but he was not at his best. It wasn’t representative of what he could really do because he had just come out of a mental home where he had been committed by his parents. He came from an old-time, middle-class Jewish family who didn’t like the company he was keeping in the clubs. Talking about Charlie Parker his mother once said, ‘My Ziggy used to play with Charlie Barnet and now he is working down on Columbia Avenue with a shvartzeh!’

“The only other recording with Ziggy comes from a concert we did with Clifford Brown at Music City, Philadelphia (32DP-663 Japan). Someone taped us playing Night In Tunisia, Donna Lee and Walkin’ and when it was commercially released it was claimed to be Brownie’s last recording which was quite wrong. (Clifford Brown was killed on the 27th. June 1956 and it has often been assumed that the Music City booking took place two days earlier, on the 25th. Nick Catalano’s biography of Clifford Brown gives documentary evidence to prove that the correct date was May 31st. 1955.)  I often played with Clifford and I loved him. I never met a nicer person, he was just superb in every way and after Dizzy he was my favourite. He came in one night when Bird was at the Blue Note and Charlie got him up on the bandstand. Brownie was hiding behind the big upright piano and Bird said, ‘Come out front with me man, I don’t want you back there.’  

“One of the guest stars I played with at the Blue Note was Bennie Green who was another peach of a fellow. This was around 1953 and he invited me to go to New York with a big band to do a spot at the Apollo Theatre where Ella Fitzgerald was the head-liner. We had Gene Ammons who was a ‘soul’ player with a great big tone and he might have looked big and mean but he was very good to me. Others I remember from that band were Earle Warren, Sahib Shihab, Charlie Rouse, Ernie Royal, Thad Jones, John Lewis, Paul Chambers and Osie Johnson and as usual I was the only white guy. I played in a lot of all-black bands and maybe being white made it a little easier for me. I was a skinny little red-headed kid playing their music which probably seemed impressive and anyway, I didn’t play like most of the white guys.

“We played the Royal theatre in Baltimore and the Howard Theatre in Washington DC and then Bennie went back to working with a quintet which is when I joined taking over from Charlie Rouse. He had just recorded Blow Your Horn (Decca DL 8176) with Frank Wess and Cecil Payne which was somewhere between rhythm & blues and jazz and very popular at the time. He had a beautiful tone on the trombone and when I first went with him we had a nice relationship, he was very straight and we played real well together.

God was very good to me in those days because he let me play with some of the very best musicians. I mean we had Paul Chambers and either Osie or Gus Johnson with Cliff Smalls on piano. (The latter’s association with Bennie Green dated back to the Earl Hines band of 1942. They were both in the trombone section, with Cliff moving to the piano whenever Hines fronted the band. He later went on to work with Earl Bostic, Ella Fitzgerald, Sy Oliver and Buddy Tate. A good example of his fine piano work can be heard on Laura form Bennie Blows His Horn (Prestige OJCCD-1728-2).

“Bennie’s only problem was drugs. When we were in Buffalo the police came and checked everybody’s hotel room and of course they found what they were looking for in Bennie’s room – his wife who was a lovely woman, was also a terrible addict. The next day the headline in the local paper said, ‘Musician caught with dope’ and that night hundreds of people came to the club to see these drug-addicted musicians – you know, ‘Here comes one now’. Bennie got more and more strung out, missing rehearsals and getting nasty which was not like him at all. I couldn’t stand seeing this nice man get so messed up so I left. He had a booking in Cincinnati which was when I told him I wouldn’t go because he was destroying himself. (Bennie Green’s distinctive sound and relaxed delivery is well documented on Mosaic Select B2-82418. This triple-CD set also features several of the excellent tenor players he used in the fifties – Charlie Rouse, Gene Ammons, Eddy Williams, Ike Quebec, Stanley Turrentine and Billy Root).

“Soon after I left Bennie, I took a two tenor group into Birdland with Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis opposite Sarah Vaughan and this would have been in 1955. Eddie was a lot older than me and he had a giant ego so he just took over but I didn’t mind because he was a terrific player and a nice guy. After that gig I joined Buddy Rich’s quartet for about five months. He ‘phoned and said, ‘Do you want to go on the road kid?’ He offered me $350.00 a week which was a lot for the time and he wanted me to find a pianist and a bass player that I liked. I didn’t really want to hire guys for him but he said he trusted me, so I got Sam Dockery who was later with the Messengers and Jimmy Mobley (no relation to Hank) on bass - fine players and first class human beings.

Buddy played great drum solos and he loved the band but he’s famous for being what he is – an ass-hole. On the third night he hollered at one of the guys and I just had to straighten him out. After the set he was sitting outside in his big white Cadillac convertible with the top down. I got within four inches of his face and told him if he ever did that again, I would pack my bags and go back home to Philadelphia. After that he never bothered any of us again but he was real hard on everyone else – club owners, men’s room attendants even the customers. I remember a young girl came to hear us with her date saying, ‘Oh Mr. Rich you played so wonderfully tonight.’ He said, ‘How do you know how I played? What do you know about the drums? I may have been rotten!’ Buddy was a great athlete, moving his hands and feet faster than anybody else in the world and watching him was amazing. He was certainly the greatest for what he did but I had played with Philly Joe and Art Blakey and guys like that, so I wasn’t enthralled with his playing or his time.

“The following year I joined Stan Kenton which was a band I swore I would never play with. Stan called after my friend Mel Lewis recommended me and asked if I played the baritone. I was twenty-two, arrogant and cocky so I said, ‘Sure I play the baritone’ although I’d never played one in my life. He needed me that night so I had to borrow an instrument and meet the band at the gig, 300 miles or so from Philadelphia up towards the coal-mining regions. It was one of those nameless, faceless ballrooms of which I saw thousands in those days. When I got there they had already started so I opened up the saxophone case and put the baritone together, but there was just one reed. Now any other time I would have had about ten boxes to try and all sorts of mouthpieces but I had to work with what I had. They gave me a band-jacket that must have belonged to Carson Smith, it was so big I looked like a circus-clown. Stan asked if I knew My Funny Valentine so I went out front and blew the solo and afterwards the guys were saying ‘Great job’ and things like that. Later I heard Stan talking to Johnny Richards – and what a great guy he was. He was such a well-schooled musician and when he said something, Stan listened. Johnny said,’ I like that kid. He gets the sound I want on baritone and I want you to hire him.’

“Two days later I was on the Cuban Fire album (Capitol CDP 7 96260 2) which I sight-read even though it was fairly hard music. Lucky Thompson was on that date and he played two of the best tenor solos (Fuego Cubano and Quien Sabe) that I think anyone ever played for Stan, and that includes Zoot who I love. I knew I could never play that good - they were just beautiful because he was one of the best tenor players I ever heard.

He’d joined Stan on a European tour when Jack Nimitz and Spencer Sinatra had to leave. (With the enforced absence of Nimitz and Sinatra the leader had used a number of replacements during the tour including Harry Klein, Tommy Whittle, Don Rendell and I believe Hans Koller. Kenton expert Michael Sparke told me that Lucky had been hired when the band reached Paris in April 1956, where the tenor-man had been working and recording extensively. The vacancy was on baritone which Thompson played on the final concert dates in Europe.)  Kenton probably paid him a nice taste but Lucky would never have stayed with that band.

“Julius Watkins was with us on french horn and he sounded like JJ Johnson on that thing. Stan though used other guys sometimes who came out of conservatories and they were good horn players but they weren’t good jazz players. One of them wrote himself a whole jazz chorus out and he kept asking Stan if he could play it. When he put his music stand up and started playing it was terrible, just awful but Julius was something else.

“After Cuban Fire Stan asked if I wanted to play tenor and I replied, ‘Only if Lucky’s leaving!’ - which he was. He told me to find a baritone and the previous day I had been in Jim and Andy’s in New York where I bumped into Pepper Adams. I knew him from a few years before in Detroit when I was with Bennie Green. This weird-looking guy came up and asked to sit-in and he was just great, man could he blow. I recommended him to Stan and that is how Pepper got the gig. He wasn’t the fastest sight-reader in town at that time which is how Stan would judge you - he just wanted to know how quickly you could play the book. After about two weeks he was going to let him go but Lennie Niehaus, another guy Stan listened to said, ‘You let him sit right where he is. He’s a great player and he’ll learn the book. You won’t get anyone like him and I want you to keep him.’ Later on when everyone kept telling Stan how great Pepper Adams was, he finally agreed. Stan wasn’t a very good musician and when he sat down at the piano it was a nightmare but he was a great bandleader, possibly one of the best. He was a very big guy and when he stretched those long arms out in front of the band they seemed to span the whole sax section. People thought the sound was coming out of Stan and not the band - we weren’t doing anything.  He had the sort of presence in front of an audience that made them think we just happened to be going along for the ride. He was a wonderful front-man though and he was a nice guy.   

“I stayed with Kenton for about a year and then went back home to Philly. I was playing in a big band at Music City there when Dizzy Gillespie was booked to play with us. I was on baritone because nobody else wanted to play it. There were so many damned-good tenor players with big egos walking around - ‘I must play first and I must play every jazz chorus.’ I didn’t really care what I played, just put me in the section. This was around the time Dizzy called asking me to join his band and I didn’t ask how much he was paying, I was so happy to play with him. I never fitted in with the Kenton band like I did with Dizzy because Dizzy had a JAZZ band. I really felt I belonged because I loved that band.

When I joined, Rod Levitt was already there and he was the only white guy. Al Grey who was very funny said, ‘When Rod saw Billy Root’s white ass he figured he had a friend. He sure found out fast enough that Billy was just as much a nigger as the rest of us niggers!’ Al was a really good trombone player as was dear, sweet Melba Liston who was a lovely lady and everybody loved her. The saxes were great with Ernie Henry who was always kind of quiet but played real well. My room-mate Benny Golson was another lovely guy and Billie Mitchell who could be pretty tough was a fine player too. I particularly liked Jimmy Powell who played lead alto. I can still hear him after all these years and I’ve played with all kinds of lead players believe me but he had something that was very special. Wynton Kelly’s playing was wonderful - I loved those guys because they all played so beautifully and they were all good people.

“Dizzy’s band-bus was a beaten up old heap and every time we reached a hill we had to get out and push it. This wasn’t like travelling first-class with Stan Kenton because it had no air-conditioning and no lights inside, so at night we were in darkness. Down South there were signs over water-fountains and restrooms saying, ‘Coloured’ and ‘White’. I remember taking a ‘Coloured’ sign down and putting it up in the back of the bus and the joke was that was where they made me ride - in the back of the bus. If we were somewhere like Georgia and we wanted to eat, I would go into the restaurant first. I’d ask the manageress if she could accommodate 15 people and if she could, I’d bring the rest of the band in – 13 black guys with me and Rod. I got into serious trouble once though when I wanted the men’s room and was directed to an outhouse in the woods. While I was there, three of the biggest men I’ve ever seen came in – 6’ 5” or so and about 20 stones each.  They didn’t have the hoods on but they were Klan. ‘We saw you with all those niggers boy, now we’re gonna kill your ass!’ It was pretty serious so I started singing old negro spirituals – I knew a lot of them because we used to live behind a black church. ‘Here comes the devil through the floor, stamp him down, stamp him down, Hallelujah Sweet Jesus’. They said, ‘This son-of-a-bitch is crazy’ and I said, ‘Crazy because I’ve heard the word of the Lord? Forgive them Father for they know not what they say.’ They let me out of there because they really thought I was mad and the band laughed for weeks after that.   

“Dizzy was a lot of fun and he always put on a show for the people. I used to make a little speech to the audience before we played Horace Silver’s Doodlin’, ‘Because this is such a difficult solo, Dizzy sent me to a teacher at the Paris Conservatory who worked with me for weeks to get this thing down. I would like everyone to stop talking because I can’t play it unless there is absolute quiet.’ Dizzy then pretended to chase me off the stage and I threatened to call the National Association For The Advancement Of White People which always got a laugh. (A variation of that comic routine occurs on the band’s recording of Doodlin’ at the 1957 Newport Jazz festival with Pee Wee Moore on baritone – Verve 511393-2 CD.)

“I went back with Kenton for a while but he seemed to be losing control some of the time, because Al Porcino often called the shots. Stan would announce a chart and Al would say in his very distinctive voice, ‘We’re not going to play that one Stanley. We’re going to play…’ The band would put away what Stan had called and get out what Al wanted. It was almost the ‘Al Porcino Orchestra featuring Stan Kenton’ and he put up with it because Al was a great first trumpet and he wanted to keep him in the band.

“Stan had started using two baritones and on the 1959 Tropicana booking, Sture Swenson was the other one (Cap T-1460). I’d been playing all the low stuff and the solos so I gave my book to Sture to take some of the heat off me. He only lasted about three weeks or so because he wasn’t a very good player and Jack Nimitz took his place. (In an interview for JJI, Lennie Niehaus explained to me the mystery of the Kenton sax section voicing of one alto, two tenors and two baritones. The alto still played lead but the first tenor had a second alto part. The second tenor played what would have been the first tenor’s music. One baritone played the second tenor and the other baritone had a conventional baritone line. Inevitably this gave the saxes a somewhat bottom-heavy sound.)

“Curtis Counce was with us for a while and he was an OK bass player but he was a ladies man and it didn’t matter whose lady. Apparently Carl Fontana found out that he was becoming a little too friendly with Mrs. Fontana and one night in Chicago he said, ‘I’m going to kill him Billy!’ He was very calm but you could see he meant it and Carl was a bull of a man. I got hold of Stan and told him that he had better get rid of Curtis real quick because Carl was not going to beat him up, he was going to kill him. Stan told Curtis not to wait for his bass or any of his stuff but to get the hell out of town which he did - fast.

“It was around this time that Stan fired me. We had been having trouble with a young drummer he’d hired who was just not up to the job. He was so bad that we lost two good bass players in a row – Carson Smith and Scott LaFaro – who just couldn’t take it anymore. The guy was only interested in signing autographs, giving drum-sticks away and getting girls. He didn’t worry about playing the book properly, he was too busy trying to be a star and we were all going crazy with this kid. You have to understand that when you’re travelling on that bus, the band is everything because that’s all you’ve got.

With all the one-nighters there is little time for anything else and if something’s not going right with the band, you get unhappy real fast. Guys were talking about leaving and having meetings so Stan felt he had to fire someone, and that was me. Also, I had been hanging out with Lenny Bruce which he didn’t like at all. We had been friends for years but Stan was a very straight kind of guy and as far as he was concerned, Lenny was ‘trouble’. He very quickly changed his mind and wanted to hire me back but by that time I had called Philadelphia and booked some gigs there. I was ready to go back to Philly because it had always been a good town for me.

“When I got back to Philadelphia Red Rodney and I started working together a lot. We’d do a Bar Mitzvah on Saturday, a wedding on Sunday and open up at a real funky, black club for the rest of the week on Monday. Of course, with his reputation there would always be a couple of detectives sitting there waiting for him to show up asking, ‘What’s new Red?’ I also started working around town with society orchestras like Meyer Davis and Howard Lanin. I remember one of those bookings lasted for twelve hours with continuous music which I could handle because I knew a lot of tunes.  I even did a couple

of concerts with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under their conductor, Seiji Ozawa. There’s a little baritone sax solo in American In Paris which is not hard but the pressure is playing it with that orchestra. When I walked into the first rehearsal with all those superb flutists and oboe players, I felt like asking each of them if they gave lessons. I didn’t want to warm the instrument up in front of all those guys because let’s face it, they probably thought the baritone was the ugliest of all saxophones anyway. So I went way down to the basement and after a few minutes I noticed a figure standing in the doorway. It was Murray Panitz the first flutist. I decided to level with him because I was a jazz player and I felt out of place with all these symphony people. He said, ‘Well first of all, after listening to you for five minutes it sounds fine. You’ll do a great job. Second of all, if any of those guys up there could play what you’ve been brought in to play, you wouldn’t be here. Third of all, screw ‘em!’  

“I was in ‘The Connection’ for a while at the Hedgerow Theatre in Philly. Nelson Boyd was with us and he used to get juiced out of his mind. He would drink a bottle on his way to the theatre and then start ad-libbing lines with the actors. The director once came up to me and said, ‘Your bass player is such a wonderful actor. He’s just like a junkie.’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am, that’s just what he’s like.’ He was on a job I once did with Paul Gonsalves and he got so drunk, he fell right off the bandstand. Paul incidentally is my all-time favourite tenor player.

‘In the early sixties I was with Harry James for a while. Harry was something else because he could drink two-fifths a day and still play. The first night I was there he was so drunk he could hardly stand but he played beautifully. It wasn’t ‘Dizzy’, but it was real good. He had some fine musicians in the band like Willie Smith who was a great lead alto and Buddy Rich but something was missing. Ernie Wilkins had done some of the writing and I’d be sitting there waiting for it to happen but it never did. Harry had a good white band – a dance band – and Dizzy’s was a jazz band. It’s as simple as that.

“Times change and people change but the new music in the sixties certainly wasn’t for me. I went to see Coltrane with Pharoah Sanders at a club and when I left 45 minutes later they were still playing the same thing. They sounded like two New Year’s Eve horns and I thought, is that my boy Coltrane? It was terrible but I don’t put it down if that’s what they want to do and they’re happy. In those days too, Miles was turning his back on the audience and people don’t like that. He didn’t show any respect to the paying customers unlike my man, Dizzy.

“I moved with my family to Las Vegas in 1968 because of the lack of work everywhere else - not just jazz but any kind of work. With the large showroom bands there you had to play clarinet and flute as well as all the saxes and I also played piccolo, alto flute and bass clarinet. Some nights when I went to work I looked like a pawn-shop with all of those horns but when you play them, you get paid extra. I did well here and made a lot of money. Jack Montrose was sometimes in a band with me as was his wife Zena who played violin. They were real nice people and Jack was a sweet man. I really liked him and he was my best friend out here in Vegas. He was a good player but not a great player. His arranging was his best thing because he knew a lot about music.

“Tony Bennett was lovely to work with, the music was well written and he was a sweetheart. He sang real good and we all loved him because he was just one of the guys, happy to play cards with us on the breaks. He was the musician’s favourite. Peggy Lee too was a real pro although she was often ill with lung problems. The music was good and she was cool and like Tony, one of the few performers the musicians really liked.

Dean Martin’s act was to appear drunk but it wasn’t an act. We were rehearsing once when someone brought him out a tray of eight cocktails and before we had finished he had drunk them all. He was another one who was always fine with the guys. I never worked with Sammy Davis though. He was a terrific entertainer and Al Grey who was with him for a while told me that whenever he came to the Dunes he would throw a party and invite all the chorus girls so he could have his pick while he was there. Al said that every time he managed to find himself a nice little waitress, Sammy would take her too.  

I only worked with Sinatra a few times so I really didn’t know him but I heard a story which gave me a pretty good idea of where he was coming from. His bass player was retiring after 20 years and he went over to Frank to tell him he had enjoyed playing with him and wanted to wish him all the best for the future. Frank apparently looked at him and said,’ I don’t talk to the help’ – isn’t that awful?

“Right now I’m doing nothing and I’m real good at doing nothing. My pensions come in every month from the union and social security so I’m comfortable. I don’t have to practice or play anymore and I don’t really miss it. My last engagement was a Kenton Retrospective in 2006 at the Holiday Inn, Monrovia which is in Los Angeles County. It was the 50th. anniversary of the Cuban Fire album so we performed the Johnny Richards music with numbers like Young Blood, 23 North – 82 West and of course, Artistry In
Rhythm. I had a baritone feature on Bill Russo’s arrangement of Lover Man and we had guys like Frank Capp, Kim Richmond, Pete Christlieb, Bill Trujillo, Carl Saunders and Mike Vax there, so it was a good concert.

“I don’t listen to very much of anything these days because all my music is in my head but I think of Dizzy a lot, and when he was alive we kept in touch by telephone three of or four times a year. He used to call me ‘Albino Red’. Red Rodney was the first one with that name and I was the second.””


  1. What an absolutely engrossing interview! I was a teenager in Philly in 1955 and used to stand outside of the local jazz clubs sometimes listening to Billy Root. I last saw him on the subway on his way home from a gig. I left Philly soon afterwards to join the USAF.

  2. I remember he worked, temporarily I guess, at a slot car racing store in Germantown in the early or mid 60s. I saw him there when I drove my younger brother to the spot to rent track time. I was in high school just starting to play tenor and knew about Billy Root and had heard him play on records. I was in awe that he was there, so much so that I was afraid to go talk to him.

  3. Hip interview, but what Philadelphian calls the Orchestra the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra?!? It's the Philadelphia Orchestra...period. And although I saw Seiji conduct the Orchestra in the early 70s, auditioning as the replacement for the retiring Gene Ormandy, he was never anything but a guest conductor. Eugene Ormandy would have been the Maestro when Billy did American in Paris.


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