© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Nobody could have been luckier" than to play with Herman and Kenton, Perkins told the Los Angeles Times."Though they were both very different, they were both forward-looking and never told you how to play. Stan especially gave me a “feeling of worth" -- a sense that "being a jazz musician was something of great value."
- Bill Perkins to Leonard Feather
Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend in allowing JazzProfiles to re-publish of his insightful and discerning writings on these pages.
Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.
The following article was first published in Jazz Journal August 2001.
For more information and subscriptions please visit www.jazzjournal.co.uk
© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.
This interview with Bill Perkins took place at the 1999 "Stan Kenton Rendezvous" in Egham, England. He reminisced about Kenton and Woody Herman as well as colleagues like Dave Madden and Steve White, who are almost forgotten today. He was also quite happy to discuss the dramatic stylistic change that occurred in his playing during the early eighties.
“I was born on July 22,1924, in San Francisco, and my first big-time job was around 1951, when I worked with Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. He was a fiery Latin type who would punch first and ask questions later, so it was quite an experience, because I was pretty green. Lucille, of course, was a great comedienne, but Desi had a lot more to do with their success than he has been credited with. He was a brilliant man and the brains behind I Love Lucy. Later that year, thanks to Shorty Rogers, I joined Woody Herman. Shorty was often my benefactor, because he also recommended me to Stan Kenton, although I didn't know it at the time —I had to find out from someone else.
I took Phil Urso's place with Woody and showed up at the L.A. Palladium still wet behind the ears and scared to death. He put up with me for a long time, so he must have figured I would amount to something, and God bless him for that. Jack Dulong, who has since passed away, was the lead tenor, and he was a lovely player, although he didn't get much solo space with the band. He also played baritone and later on became a copyist in the studios for many years. Don Fagerquist. Doug Mettome, and Dick Collins were in the trumpet section, and they were just remarkable. Don was also an outstanding lead player, and Carl Saunders, who plays with me in Bill Holman's band, idolizes him.
Woody disbanded around Christmas 1953 and Dave Madden, for whom I had a great regard and respect, eventually took my place.1 He and his partner. Gail, were a couple at the time, and they were really avant-garde in every way. Dave and I had been to the Westlake School of Music together with Bob
Graettinger, and I was very impressed with the sound he got from his old Conn. I recommended him to Woody, which turned out to be a mistake, because he'd changed his approach and become pretty far out. Today his playing would be fascinating, but everyone was in that "Stan Getz" groove at the time, and I don't think Woody was too pleased with him.1
I was very lucky to be part of the Stan Kenton band, which I joined after I left Herman. Dave Schildkraut, who was a personal favorite, was on alto along with Charlie Mariano. One of our concert tours featured both Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz as guests, which was a great experience for me. still a pretty dumb kid. Anyway the player Bird liked the best was Davey. who was a complete original, and he played tenor well, too. although in a totally different way. We got along beautifully, but he was a worrier, always bugged with himself. I felt privileged to be playing Bob Graettinger's music with Stan, and I try to dispel the myth created by those who only know "City of Glass." He was not like a monkey with a brush tied to its tail, producing something that is subsequently sold as modern art. I really appreciate that piece now, although at the time I didn't know what to make of it. When we were at Westlake. he wrote every type of music and wrote it well, and whether you like "City of Glass" or not, he knew exactly what he was doing. I like it because I enjoy twentieth-century composers, and boy, was he a twentieth-century composer!
While I was with Kenton, Mel Lewis was my roommate, and he was one of my dearest friends. Times have changed, but he was one of the great big band drummers, and everyone got a little from Mel, just as he did from people like Tiny Kahn. He was the most unselfish drummer I've ever heard, though his personality was about as abrasive as sixty-grit sandpaper. He didn't bother me because I used to pull the pillow over my head and just go to sleep! Inside, though, he was very kind hearted and he played for you. He worked out much better in New York than in the L.A. studios, where you have to keep your mouth shut and do what you're told; individualists don't really make it in L.A. I wish I could have played in the band he had with Thad Jones, because the writing gave it a small band feel, which I like.
Towards the end of the fifties, Kenton decided to drop one of the altos and add a tuba and two French horns. Being the first tenor with a four-man sax section, I became in essence the second alto. That was great for my chops, especially with Charlie Mariano on lead, because he plays like there is no tomorrow, but it was tough competing with all that brass. The conventional sax section has been around for a long time with good reason, but Stan wanted a different sound. Not wanting to stand still, he was always looking for a new approach, but it made things very difficult for us. We kept telling him that we wanted another saxophone, so he got a second baritone, which we needed like a hole in the head, because it made the band even more bottom heavy. While I was with him I also worked in local L.A. clubs with Bob Gordon in George Redman's little group, and we also tried to get Bob on the Kenton band. He was the "Zoot Sims" of the baritone but was tragically killed in a car crash in 1955. He was a marvelously ebullient player and a really neat guy to be around, but he could get pretty down on himself if he thought he wasn't playing well.2
Another legendary guy from those days was Steve White, who played clarinet, all the saxes, and he sang as well. On tenor, which was his primary instrument, he sounded like Lester Young, and I mean the real Lester from the late thirties recordings, when Prez was awesome. That's the way Steve played, just a complete natural. He was a real character, and there have been a lot of stories about him, which are all true! I remember staying on Hymie Gunkler's powerboat after a New Year's Eve gig. when I had been working with Murray McEachern's band on Catalina Island. We were woken up around 3 a.m. by the sound of a baritone coming from Avalon Harbor, which turned out to be Steve playing alone on the pier. Unfortunately, he stumbled and the baritone went over the side into the ocean, but he managed to fish it out the next day. He lives in San Fernando Valley and still plays, as far as I know. Stu Williamson, who died in 1991, is someone else who is forgotten today, which is a tragedy because he was a remarkable soloist. He was a gentle man and a real sweetheart, as is his brother Claude, who I'm glad to say is playing again quite beautifully.
Al Cohn and Zoot Sims have always been heroes of mine, and along with Richie Kamuca. I recorded with Al in 1955.3 I tended more towards Al, I suppose, because his mournful sound appealed to my personality, whereas Zoot was always so happy in his playing. Everybody knows Al had a great sense of humor, but Zoot could be pretty funny, too. Stan Getz once said to him,"Al prefers your playing to mine," and Zoot replied. "Don't you?"
I recorded with John Lewis in 1956, and that was a marvelous experience, because he had heard me play and knew exactly what my pluses and minuses were.4 I have always been grateful to John for arranging that date with Dick Bock and for making it so easy for me, just like falling off a log. Afterwards, when I went out into the real world. I found that record dates were not usually like that; they don't set them up just for you. Later that same year, I did an album with Richie Kamuca and Art Pepper, and one of the titles was my arrangement of "All of Me."5 I remember saying on the sleevenote that for all the effort I put into that chart, I could have had an original. Unfortunately you can't copyright an orchestration, which is something a lot of people regret, and that's why Bill Holman writes so many originals now. Jimmy Rowles played on that date, and he was another hero of mine, because he was a towering giant of individuality. A single bar on a record is enough for me to recognize him, which isn't easy on a piano. His daughter Stacy is a beautiful flugelhorn player, and I would love to do an album with her. She doesn't work much because she is dedicated to jazz music, and she is a girl on top of that, which is two strikes against her right there!
What a fine player Art Pepper was, and what a writer. People who remember his playing today have probably forgotten what beautiful lines he wrote. We were not close, so I didn't see him that often, but many years later we used to rehearse at my house, along with David Angel. That's when I really appreciated him, because when you are older, you stop focussing on yourself quite so much, and whatever chair Art played, alto or tenor, he always gave his part such life. Everybody around him responded to that, and Bob Cooper, whose tenor I have today, was the same sort of guy. Players like that can sit in the section and just lift you up. Towards the end of Art's life he could hear all the new stuff going on around him, and I think he felt left out. If he had lived, he would have assimilated the avant-garde things, and with his genius for playing, the results would have been priceless. I like guys that can add change to what they already have.
In the mid fifties I often worked with Lennie Niehaus at Jazz City and the Tiffany, and Hampton Hawes sometimes played with us. At the time I was usually bugged with myself too much and worried about my own playing, but in recent years I've begun to appreciate just how good some of these people were, which is the only advantage from growing old I suppose. Hampton was marvelous, and I only wish I could play with him now. He had his problems, like a lot of others, but he was a very nice and gentle man. It's funny, but when I listen to the album I made with him and Bud Shank in 1956, I wonder where I got all that energy.6
In the early sixties I played quite a lot with Marty Paich in his Dek-tette, and I really loved him. He did a lot for my career, and just like Bill Holman, he never wrote a note in haste or turned out a schlock bar. He was an old bebop piano player, but he was so dedicated and intense, he became a martinet on the podium. That could be misunderstood, but he thought it was the best way to get discipline. I was on a few albums with Marty and Mel Torme, and almost until he died, Mel's singing was right on the money. He was one of the best in-tune singers ever, just a paragon of excellence, although he sometimes forgot lyrics towards the end. but then, I forget a lot of stuff too! He was also a good arranger and drummer, but for my personal taste I prefer baritone singers like Joe Williams, because I don't care for high-pitched voices so much. You can't take anything away from Mel, though, because he started it all. influencing groups like the Hi-Lo's with his own Mel-Tones. He was a very exacting guy, but you can accept a lot from someone who can sing like that, with his intonation.
While I was working with Marty Paich, I was also playing in Terry Gibbs' Dream Band with one of my all-time favorite musicians. Joe Maini, on lead
alto. Sadly, through his own fault, very few people are aware of him today, but those who played with him will never forget him. Along with Lanny Morgan he was the greatest, most dynamic jazz-oriented lead alto I ever played with. He was also a wonderful soloist who didn't get much exposure, but every now and then some young player will say, "I heard a solo by this guy Joe Maini which was terrific." He was a larger than life character who would do anything without fear, living life on the edge, just a great person to be around and someone who could light the room up.
During the sixties I worked mostly in the studios, and I was on some Frank Sinatra singles like "Strangers in the Night," which is best forgotten. Chuck Berghofer was on that, and he also did Nancy's hit, "These Boots Are Made for Walking." and we are never going to let him forget that! Sinatra of course was a pro, none of this twenty-take business. By the time he had done three, that was it and you'd better be right, too. It was always an experience with him. because he would have a big entourage with lots of attractive girls in the studio. I remember once seeing a beautiful lady standing by herself, looking very quiet and lonely. She smiled at me. and it was Marilyn Monroe.
In the early days of Supersax, they rehearsed in my garage, and we were casting around, looking for a second tenor. Med Flory may deny this (and he's bigger than me!) but I recall him saying, "Warne Marsh is available but he doesn't play so good." Anyway. Warne joined the group, and one night Med turned him loose on "Cherokee" and the rest is history, because after about six choruses it was obvious just how good Warne really was. Supersax was hard to play with, and there wasn't much solo room for the saxes, but I had to leave anyway, because of my studio commitments. I don't do studio dates anymore, as I have retired, except for playing jazz.
In the early eighties I started changing my approach because I felt I had to do something else. I'm not ashamed of my previous style and sound, but I wanted to move on, even if it was sideways, and jazz is all about being able to adapt, otherwise you become stagnant. Of course you can't change overnight, and at first it was painful and I didn't play well. I remember in 1983 when Zoot Sims and I were touring Switzerland with Woody's band. I was already striking out in a new direction, and sometimes really striking out. Zoot. though, was very nice and supportive to me. Hopefully things have smoothed out a little, because you have to be true to yourself; you can't be another person. In recent years I have started to play the baritone, and I've been very influenced by Pepper Adams, although I don't have his technique, because he was a monster. He was a true original, and even when he was with Kenton, he was such a radical player that he really turned me around. He's still the daddy of guys like Gary Smulyan and Nick Brignola, who are wonderful players, incidentally. Pepper grew up in Detroit with Tommy Flanagan, and this may surprise you, but their playing is very similar. I know it's hard to equate the baritone and piano, but their lines are very close, and it was [pianist] Frank Strazzeri who pointed it out to me.
I currently play with a marvelous young trumpeter. John Daversa, whose father, Jay, played with Stan Kenton. Everyone in the band is about half my age, and I keep handing in my resignation but he won't accept it. John's writing is fascinating because he uses a lot of mixed meters, which makes things interesting. I have to admit, though, that I'm tired of playing in big bands, although I make an exception for Bill Holman, who is an absolute genius. I play second alto with him and it is tough music, but he has given me a chance to learn the book and kindly given me solo space. Some of today's bands are so regimented, almost Kentonian, whereas I prefer bands that are loose, like Duke Ellington's was. Part of the problem is the college system, where Stan performed an invaluable service in his desire to educate, but there is now a tendency to discipline music too much. I'm tired of playing regimented music, and that was the only aspect of Stan's band that became burdensome. A lot of the stuff we did with him sounded better than it played. I'll tell you that. With Bill's band, not only do the charts sound great but they play great as well.
What must be respected, however, is that Stan Kenton always looked forward, often at great financial hazard to himself. They were totally different personalities, but Woody Herman was just the same, and that's what makes them heroes.”
Four years after this interview took place. Bill Perkins died on August 9th, 2003. A memorial was held for him at the Local 47 Musicians' Union on Vine Street in Los Angeles, where a packed crowd heard, among other attractions, Bill Holman's big band.
1. Dave Madden's career with Woody Herman seems to have lasted for about three months in 1954. He left after the band played the Hollywood Palladium in September and was replaced by Richie Kamuca. He went on to play with Jerry Gray. Si Zentner, and Harry James.
2. Bob Gordon did a studio recording with the Kenton band in 1954 but, unfortunately, did not solo.
3. Al Cohn, The Brothers. RCA Victor LPM 1162.
4. John Lewis. Grand Encounter. Pacific Jazz CDP 7 456 592.
5. Bill Perkins, Just Friends. LAE 12088 (subsequently issued in Japan on Toshiba TOCJ 5427).
6. Bud Shank/Bill Perkins. Pacific Jazz CDP 7243 4 93159 2 1.