© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
BILL PERKINS has been the subject of three previous posts on these pages, including a lengthy interview that Steve Voce prepared for JazzJournal.
The following obituary written by Steve for The Independent contains additional information about Bill and his career which we wanted to represent on these pages for archival purposes and because “Perk,”as one of the great tenor saxophonists of the second half of the 20th century, is deserving of recognition by a broader audience than he received in his lifetime because he was resident in southern California and confined his playing to clubs, concerts and studiowork in the greater Los Angeles area.
And, of course, too, more writings by Steve Voce the esteemed author, critic and broadcaster, are always welcomed on these pages.
“ ‘I’m a born follower,’ said Bill Perkins, when I asked him why he didn’t lead a regular band of his own. By that time, in the mid-Eighties, he had rightly come to eminence as one of the great jazz tenor saxophone soloists.
He was also a master musician and the picture of him, with three pairs of glasses hanging round his neck, switching dexterously between his various instruments as he sight read complex parts and played creative solos, stays vividly in the memory.
He was always a shy man, never happy with his own playing and restlessly exploring the music of Sonny Rollins and the East Coast progressives. Born on the West Coast, he lived most of his life there, but turned his back on the local product.
“The guys on the East Coast played a harder kind of Bebop. There was a sort of palm tree gentleness about the music we played out here. I think there’s something about Los Angeles that’s not conducive to intense high level playing. There’s an intensity about New York, perhaps the proximity of human bodies. Everyone’s struggling. In Los Angeles there are more neuroses.”
The style that so rightly made him famous was, like that of Stan Getz, Bob Cooper, Zoot Sims and others, based on the playing of Lester Young in the Thirties. During the Sixties ‘Perk’ moved abruptly from his Young base and presented the world with an angular, jagged style drawn from his listenings to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. But his audience clung on to his earlier style, and he took few of them with him as he moved forward. Nonetheless, he was still in continuous demand for jazz festivals and tours. He was so universally popular as a person that his audience ruefully accepted what they regarded as his aberrations.
Although chronically unsuited to the limelight, Perkins was articulate, a great speaker on conference panels, and firm in his beliefs and recollections.
Unusually for a musician his background was in technical engineering. He was a brilliant sound engineer who qualified at CalTech – almost certainly the only professional jazz musician who came from that source.
A handsome, well-built boy with blue eyes and blonde hair, Perkins had started playing the clarinet, switching to the tenor saxophone when he was 15.
“Benny Goodman was the first musician I was hooked on,” he told me. “When I persuaded my mother to buy me an old Buescher tenor, that was the end of the clarinet for me. 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 it up as a kid. Clarinet technique is much more difficult than saxophone.” Later he became adept on the clarinet, flute and soprano and baritone saxophones as well as the tenor.
His father was a mining engineer who traveled where his work took him. As a boy he was raised first in Chile, then, after his father died in the early Thirties, in Santa Barbara. Perkins looked, wrote Alun Morgan, “the archetype of a Southern California boy destined for the beach. He was determined to become an electrical engineer, and engineering would be a parallel career even as he gained fame as a jazz artist.”
After his service in the US Navy during World War II Perkins took advantage of the GI Bill to qualify in electrical engineering in 1945. He also studied at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, where he gained his degree in 1949. The following year he decided to become a professional jazz musician. His rise was rapid.
He worked first with Jerry Wald’s band. He was at home one Saturday night when the phone rang. The caller claimed to be Woody Herman’s manager. The Herman band, he said, was playing at the Hollywood Palladium and, in the middle of the performance, which was being broadcast live, Herman had fired his main tenor sax soloist. Could Perkins get down there at once and complete the gig? Perkins thought the call was a hoax, but went anyway and hastily joined the band on stage with his tenor. Almost immediately a scowling Herman pointed at him to take the solo on “Perdido” and his career as a jazz star was under way.
Perkins shared the tenor solos in the band with Richie Kamuca. “I wanted nothing more than to be able to swing like Richie did,” Perkins told me, “and he said he wanted nothing more than to play ballads like I did.” Whilst with Herman, whom he joined in May 1951, Perkins made several classic records including most notably “Ill Wind”. He followed Kamuca into the Stan Kenton orchestra in November 1953, returning to Herman the following spring and then a year later going back to Kenton.
Whilst with Kenton many beautiful settings were written for his tenor saxophone solos by Bill Holman and Bill Russo. “Yesterdays” probably became his best known recording and was demanded at all Kenton’s concerts. Kenton brought the band to Britain for the first time in 1956, and Perkins remained particularly popular here for the rest of his career.
It was at this point that Perkins began making innumerable albums of West Coast jazz that became classics. Whilst with Kenton and Herman he also recorded regularly as a member of Shorty Rogers’ Giants, with his solo making the trumpeter’s “Blues For Brando” a substantial hit for both of them. Some of Perkins finest playing of the period was on a 1956 quintet album with John Lewis, pianist in the Modern Jazz Quartet entitled Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West.
Perkins kept his career as an engineer going until 1969 when he gave up touring to become a studio musician, joining the band for the “Tonight” television show under Doc Severinsen. He stayed in this job until 1992, fitting his jazz jobs around it.
But studio work was not without problems.
“My studio work has diminished a great deal,” he told me in 1987.
“The inroads of the synthesizers and the computer music machines are such that anyone who is economics minded can do an entire television score with only the synthesizers. That’s even got into the movies.” Perkins went with the tide and invented and patented an interface between saxophone and synthesizer in which the Yamaha Company expressed interest.
Perkins worked in the film studios as well, where his most notable experience was working under Duke Ellington for the soundtrack of Assault on A Queen (1966). In the middle Seventies he played baritone sax with the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band and returned to Herman for occasional guest solo spots. During the middle Eighties he toured the world with a Shorty Rogers group and in 1986, on one of his visits to Britain, toured with a quintet he co-led with the British tenorist Tommy Whittle. In 1991 Perkins recorded under his own name with a big band designed to recall the spirit of rather than to copy the Woody Herman band.
By this time his health began to collapse, and he spent the rest of his life still playing, but battling four separate cancers. In 1992 he was operated on for lung cancer. One of his hips collapsed, but he was still regularly to be seen carrying his four or five instruments around in their cases. I asked to help take them into our hotel when he played at Egham in 1998 at one of the many Kenton reunion events in which he starred, but he cheerfully refused.
Last year Perkins led a recreation of the Shorty Rogers Giants at a Burbank festival and in May this year appeared at a similar festival.
Despite nine operations on his throat he was, as recently as two or three weeks ago still practicing, when he bought a new clarinet, determined to start playing again.
William Reese Perkins, saxophone and woodwind player: born San Francisco, 22 July 1924 ; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Sherman Oaks, California 9 August 2003.”