FB: You want to talk a little bit about your teaching experiences during those first years?
BP: Oh, I went on the road when I finished college. When I finished college by then I was married, I finished Berklee finally. I went and did some vaudeville tours playing alto, which I was never much of an alto player. And after about two or three of those, I could possibly get a job teaching at Berklee. And then after a few of those tours I was thinking to myself, “Man, teaching's got to be easier than this,” 'Cause the music sucked. The accommodations sucked. You went out for 31 days and you worked 31 days. Every night: you never had a night off. 200 dollars a week, you had to bunk with 3 or 4 other guys in one room.
FB: Yeah, and then your wife's bitchin’ at you to come on home.
BP: Yeah, well, I had to get some money. But after that I decided to come to Berklee as a teacher. And it was only financial, it was primary financial why I came here. Little did I know that it would be a whole second education for me. You teach yourself so much and your students teach you as much as you teach them, almost as much. When you tell somebody something you have to really mean it or at least investigate it, or at least that's what I found experience from me. I really got to investigate this a little bit more just so I can speak from authority and if need be I can break it down. Which was always a problem for me. I never want to get too analytical about music, I'm still a little bit like that. All the people say if you want to teach music you got to analyze it and you got to work on all the components, so you can make it accessible for the student. But I always thought if you broke things down, it loses the mystery, it loses the soul, maybe. Anyway, that's all the stuff you go through. I went through all that stuff in my first 5 years of trying to teach. And when I started to work at Berklee, I worked 5 dollars an hour. You worked as many hours as you could. You could be working 50 hours a week and you could still be considered part time. I mean I worked 25 hours a week. I think now the maximum you can work is 18 hours a week for a full time. But then I was working 25 hours 26 hours a week for part time 5 dollars an hour. Every year you got a .50 cent raise. So the second year you'd be making 5.50 the third year I was making 6 dollars. Man, I was rollin’ then, but I was a part time teacher, I don't even know if I even investigated being a full-time teacher. Because it was just ? I didn't want to be a teacher. I liked what was going on at Berklee. James was teaching here. I met Greg Hopkins, I joined his big band. So I really became a much better musician being a teacher and re-evaluating or re-investigating stuff that I took for granted, that I didn't pay much attention to when I was a student here.
FB: So you learned how to take apart some of the pedagogical aspects of the saxophone but you didn't go too far with it because you wanted to keep it fresh and soulful.
BP: Well, I just didn't think you had to strip things down to the level where all the mystery and the elements that's a part of it's culture is gone. I'm still like that in a way. In those days I wasn’t just teaching saxophone. I had an ensemble; I was teaching arranging and probably did it wrong. I think I was teaching harmony, arranging, ensembles and saxophone. I was in four different departments. That's how everybody did it in those days. You taught across the board. Later on they put the sort of silo on the curriculum in Berklee where you teach in one maybe two areas here. Like it is now. In those days it was different.
FB: And there was still some giggin’ on the side.
BP: Oh yeah quite a bit. I started playing with a lot of people who were my teachers when I was a student. I remember playing, Tony Teixeira he had a nine-piece band. I played some stuff with John LaPorta. I was playin’ baritone.
FB: I remember that.
BP: I kept up the baritone as a double because I was trying to get into any kind of gigs I could get.
FB: And in Greg's band sometimes?
BP: No, I played in the Bicentennial Big Band. That was my first gig as a Berklee teacher. Kinda moving into the Boston scene. It was a kind of concert. Berklee had received a grant from some agency to put on these concerts. It was during the year of the Bicentennial, 1776-1976.
FB: Down on the Boston Common?
BP: No it was here. The baritone player was Tom ??? And he passed away. [FB: Yeah. that's right.] And after he passed away they needed a baritone player. And after that, I started playing baritone because I was able to buy a good horn cheap. I was doing everything I could.
FB: From Emilio [Lyons], no doubt.
BP: No, I bought it from an officemate, a guy named Bill Parish. [FB: OK.] A Selmer for 900 bucks which is now, I sold it for $2000. It's probably worth $5000 or 6 or 7. But that's before saxophones went crazy as collector's deals. Anyways, I started doing that and I got more and more experience I started playing with the bigger guys around Boston. I was getting a few gigs. I did play baritone with Tony Teixeira's nine-piece band. So I did a lot of playing. And in those days when they first opened the BPC at Berklee they were begging people -- and you can imagine this because Berklee's so different now -- please, we need to put something on we got this big hall and nothing's going on. It's closed most of the time. So Berklee wasn't doing that many pro shows. So the faculty, it was like every night there was a faculty concert. The students were, I don't even know if students were allowed to put on concerts or if it was it was only for certain special situations for students. And so I got a lot of playing experience a lot. And I did that up until the point where I left Boston and joined Art Blakey's band.
FB: And that's another story. That's a good story.
BP: Yeah but during that time I went from the baritone up I started playing around backing up ? and Art Farmer and joining a series of drummers that I played with. Alan Dawson: there's another gentleman. Not many Alan Dawsons left in the world. Unbelievable man and musician. You know just a great, great, great individual. You can't say enough about Alan Dawson. Anybody that knows Alan, you couldn't find anybody who could say a bad word about Alan.
FB: Never could.
BP: You never could. He was just that kind of man. He was a man beyond most men as far as I'm concerned. Just constant professional, a person who is really straight straightforward and could find... another man like James he wasn't a bullshit artist but he could always find a way encourage you to go forward. He was just a great man. Great man.
FB: Yeah, meticulous and cheerful, always had a bright side. Uplifting.
BP: Yeah, just a great person to be around. You would feel better if you got around Alan's presence. He wouldn't let you be that way, and if you just wanted to be that way he'd say, “Okay, well you enjoy that, and I'll see ya.” But he was just a wonderful guy. Him and Flo man well Flo's gone now, they're my favorite people. Some of my favorite people in this town. Them and Andy McGee. I started doing a few gigs with him and Alan in different situations. We backed up Dizzy, I remember, in a big band. A lot of stuff was going on. So, Alan was my first name drummer or older or master level player that I started playing with on a regular basis. Then from playing with him, I joined Art Blakey.
FB: Yeah what kind of a transition was that?
BP: Oh that was pretty, it was pretty eye-opening and it was pretty, you know, it was the big times; it was the big leagues. You know Art wasn't that popular anymore when I joined him. He had a good band he had a band with a guy named David Schnitter playing tenor, Valery Ponomarev of trumpet, Dennis Irwin was playing bass, and Bobby Watson [alto], and James was playing piano. James kinda took over for kind of a combination of George Cables and Walter Bishop, Jr. kind of platooning the gig; a little bit, not a lot; but James got the gig so James was puttin’ my name out there and I got to meet all the guys -- Bobby, and all the other guys in the band. So when David left, I mean he basically talked me into gettin’ the gig, at least doing the audition. So I went down there and played. Art didn't care. Art would say cool, sounds good.
FB: That simple.
BP: It was that simple. And I was the only guy auditioning for the band at that time. Usually it would be two guys at the most. But usually just word of mouth if somebody had a friend who could come in and play. “Well, let's hear him. Tell him to come in and sit in with the band.” But Art would tell that to people all the time. That was just Art, so people came from New York and come from all over the country thinking they had the gig. We had a gig in San Diego, he'd be like, “Oh man, you got to come to New York you ain't gettin’ over here.” Guys would come in and they'd assume. “Hey Art, remember me?” “Uh, yeah.” He wouldn’t know who the hell they are. “You told me to come to New York.” “Oh? that's nice.” And then they get up and play, and he said, “You sounds good, I'll give you a call.” Of course, he wouldn't call ‘em. Sometimes he would, but usually not. Man, from that point on, I think, the two weeks I was going to Europe or five weeks, and just livin’ out of a suitcase for about ten months out of the year.
BP: For the next three years.
FB: Was there a real creative high working with those guys night to night?
BP: Sure was, yup. You had to kinda step up. The new guy and everything else. You had to step up every time because they ... it was tough. And then there's other guys that feel like they should have the gig. I mean it was pretty interesting.
FB: That's some good company man. Bobby. Great player.
BP: Yup, yup. And then after Valery, it was Wynton [Marsalis]. The level up even a step higher. Turn occasionally in and out. But when the band sells, it was Bobby, Wynton, myself, James, Dennis, and ?
FB: That was a solid sextet for what -- three years?
BP: It was for a couple years. Then Branford [Marsalis] joined for six months only six months, then after Branford… (When Branford and Wynton left they went to start their own band.) … and Donald Harrison, who was my student here for one semester before I joined the band. And ??? so ??? was in and out of the band some of the time. ??? who had been a former Messenger, did some gigs outside of California. Sometimes we'd have to get subs -- they were always tricky. But being with Art, man, Art was a character. There's so much you could say about... he was different than other men, in a lot of ways. He was unbelievable man, he must have been in his 60s -- late 60s, middle 60s -- and even then he was not a minor trifle. He'd challenge you physically. He'd challenge you musically. He'd challenge you emotionally. Always a challenge with Art. Art would curse you out. He used to say things. Him and I had a pretty good... He never bothered me much. He never did things to me that he did to some of the other guys. Maybe because I was older, I doubt that. There was something about me that Art kinda liked.
FB: It wasn't a question of size was it?
BP: Nope. I would never thinking about messing with Art. Art's thing was if he got in a fight with a guy, he'd grab your genitals. He'd grab your balls and then he'd hit you in the head 'cause he had a steel plate in his head. I think that was just his fightin’ Frenchman maneuver. But there's a name for the French hittin’ you in the head.
FB: Like that soccer incident.
BP: Yeah, but it's a traditional French fighting thing. But I don't think Art knew anything about that that's just what he did. And at least somebody told me, actually ??? told me that's kind of a part of he was in the French Army. I don't know how true that is. But Art was not a guy to trifle with. A lot of the times we had to stop Art from almost beatin’ the shit out of somebody.
FB: He would just lose it.
BP: Well, he didn't believe in anybody, certainly not insulting him, or I mean kids’ talk about dis and disrespect that word didn't dis, even ... He didn't allow you to mess with anybody in the band or himself or his women. You know, if you bothered somebody in the band you probably are gonna have to answer to Art Blakey. He'll probably come in and kick your ass. You know if you really did something wrong to one of his guys not always, but if it wasn't right, if you were taken advantage of and Art found out about it, he would try to find out: “Well, let's get to this, let's find out what's going on here.” A couple times waiters in Europe would say something to Art and we'd have to hold him back.
FB: He was protecting his guys.
BP: His guys and he would protect his own men. The big thing about you got to be a man. And he talked about manhood constantly. I mean that was just the issue with him. When he was a young man he was set upon by the cops and they beat the shit out of him because he was [with Baroness Nica von Koenigswater] You know, “Nica’s Dream”? In the car with her, you know, little short black guy with this white woman who actually was very wealthy. She was from the family of the Rothschilds. And it was him and [Thelonious] Monk. She was just a patron of the arts, but Art got beat up pretty good. Art had a very interesting life. He was a Muslim but he was a jazz Muslim. He didn't follow the Koran too tough. But he could quote from the Bible. He could quote from the Koran. He didn't live by either one, he didn't live his life through the dictates of the Koran or the Bible, but he could really quote it; he had read both of them thoroughly. And we called him by his Muslim name.
BP: Buhaina, yeah or Bu.
FB: I remember a couple of interviews with him. Art Taylor sat down with a lot of drummers. Yeah, very hard hitting very direct, short crisp answers.
BP: Oh you mean the Tones, Notes and Tones, that book; I got that.
FB: Yeah, Notes and Tones. But that's...
BP: But that's funny man. A lot of the things Art said in that book....He said some pretty heavy stuff, but he didn't really believe a lot of that stuff. I mean Art was one of the great liars, too. [FB: Oh.] And not necessarily, a lot of the times things he said, he meant very, he was very passionate and he meant them for that moment. And then moment later it could be a whole different story. Complete reversal. Art was really [FB: Multiple truths.] He .. yes definitely, he was one of the world's greater liars. That's for sure. As a matter of fact Billy Eckstine said every time Art Blakey said ‘good morning’ he was lying. Oh man, but he only beat me about two or three times for my money. And he was noted for that. [FB: Oh, is that right?] Rippin’ his guys off. He loved you, but if he loved you he'd take advantage of you.
FB: Not in a poker game.
BP: Oh, no no. He's just not paying you your money. “I'll get you that money I owe you. I'll pay you next Wednesday.” You might not see that Wednesday, you might see him Wednesday. [FB: He might have learned that from Charlie Parker.] not this Wednesday the next Wednesday, and it just kept on going. He probably did learn that from Charlie Parker. They were all like that. Those guys from that period they were special. They lived life to the fullest and as one guy said, “they did everything.” I said, everything. We did everything. So there was nothing that they weren't capable of doing. And I mean everything.
FB: Well it was a scuffle, it was hard times back then. Mingus had his pimpin’, this and that.
BP: Yup. I remember callin’ me, there were a few guys who had a few ladies working. That was a part of the thing. Split in life. So anyway, I did three years with Art. I learned to be a much better musician yet again, the home was calling, my wife was calling really frequently. I had a son and I hadn't really spent much time with him. So I was thinking about I had a duty, a duty to my family. So I gave it up came back to Boston. But as soon as I came back I started getting other gigs, so it was good. I mean I joined Freddie Hubbard's band about 3 or 4 months after I left Art. Came back to Berklee, Cedar Walton’s, that gave me the chance. And that's one of the things I always wanted to do I always wanted to have done, I always wanted to play with Cedar.
FB: Cedar's a gas.
BP: I mean I played with him in concerts and stuff like that. [FB: Sure.] But I mean he's a fabulous musician[00:07:51.07]
FB: Were you on the road with Freddie much?
BP: Pretty much. Freddie had two bands. He had a west coast band and an east coast band to save money. And we'd travel up and down to gigs on the east coast we used to do were mostly Boston, New York, DC, Virginia, whatever happened... in Erie, Pennsylvania. Like Freddie would say, “It's eerie in Eerie.” It really was. What's the other thing he said, “We played the El Morocco in Worcester. Freddie was out. “It's worse in Worcester.” He had these little jokes and in the audience there would be like, silence. Nobody would find it funny but him. I've played with him off and on for about 2 to 3 years. Then I joined Tony Williams’ band.
FB: That was another high mark. High water mark.
BP: Yes, very much so. Because Freddie's band was a great band. Freddie played the trumpet every gig -- it was just, man, I wouldn't know. What do you do after this guy's played like twenty choruses?
BP: Well, I couldn't figure out what am I gonna play after this guy just played everything you could possibly imagine on a tune.
FB: Just start low and slow.
BP: Unbelievable. This guy could play piano almost as good as he played trumpet but nobody -- I don't mean any disrespect to anybody -- but nobody could play the trumpet like Freddie Hubbard at that time in the mid -- what was that? -- ‘80s, ‘83 and ‘86 and even on, until he had a problem with his heart, that cat could play. Jesus man, boy, could he play.
FB: Yeah I heard you guys once or twice.
BP: Unbelievable. Unbelievable. Then I joined Tony's band. The difference between Freddie's band and Tony's band that it was more emphasis on a band kind of nucleus. Sort of like Art what Art was about he was more about having a band, not that Freddie didn't but basically we were backing up Freddie. That was cool man. Nothing wrong with that. Listenin’ to Freddie. We'd get paid to listen to Freddie Hubbard, that's pretty damn good.
FB: Tony's charts were more integral.
BP: Oh gosh, and they were much more difficult and we had to really figure out what was really going on. But Tony was taking composition lessons from a guy at Berkeley, California. So a lot of the original tunes were really his homework assignments for his composition teacher. So these would be like figured bass kind of stuff and four-part harmony. And he would extract parts. But they were really like traditional harmony and counterpoint type things. So it was kinda hard. It was hard music. But it did give the band a unique sound 'cause no one else was writin’ stuff like that. And we were together for about 6-7 years. And so it was really developed the band sound. It was also a band in the sense that that was what Tony was going for; we’re still backing up Tony, because he was an unbelievable drummer -- a really loud one, too. But he was really a great guy, man. I was really close to Tony. I mean pretty close to Tony. Tony's not the kind of guy you get real close to.
FB: Did you know him back in Boston when he was growing up? No. He had left town earlier.
BP: Not at all. I met his father a couple times, but I never got to know Tony. I would always see him. I always admire Tony as someone who had so much mastery of his instrument. There were not many drummers who could play the instrument the way Tony did. I mean and there's a lot of ways to play the drums. There's a lot of ways to play different than what Tony does, but he had complete control of what he was doing.
FB: And that band was kinda edgy.
BP: Very much, yeah, a lot of… it didn't sound like be bop, a little ? here and there. It was a composer's workshop band. He basically had a band so he could have his music played.
FB: Like Ellington.
BP: and we played together enough. Like Art Blakey's band, you'd start with one; you start with the raw material, the original idea of the composition and then through playing it for years and years it starts to morph into something different than how it was originally conceived. And that's an experience that a lot people don't get. [FB: No, it's brilliant.] I feel blessed by God 'cause I've had at least two feature bands where I got a chance to play the music where the music was its own living breathing organism that changed as we played it. And that's an unbelievable experience.
FB: You don't see that much.
BP: You don't see that much. I'd go back and listen to the original recordings of something and the music was so different in the way we were playing it. We didn't decide it was gonna be that way.
FB: It wasn't change of personality it's something that evolved independently of the individual players.
BP: And that's the way it was with Art and with Tony, very much so.
FB: Meanwhile back in Boston, your stock has risen being with Bu for three years. And then as a teacher you were back in the saddle here at Berklee?
BP: I came back I was offered a full time job which they allowed me to come back, to have a semblance of middle class lifestyle. I guess that's what I was going for, I don't know.
FB: You were doing better than minimum wage now.
BP: Yeah, oh yeah. I was doing the $5 an hour again like when I started out. I had some perks: I was a teacher, so I got some better deals and then Berklee had their strike which changed the whole way things were formatted. Better conditions for the faculty, so Berklee stepped into the modern version of Berklee at that point.
FB: Did you have any pleasing exchanges with Larry Berk or Bob Share, or any of the administrative cats?
BP: Well, when I was a student here I knew both guys. I mean Bob Share was I forgot [FB: some kind of dean.] something like that, but he basically ran the school. Two people ran the school. Well three: Dick Bobbitt [?], Bob Share, and Larry Berk. Larry was always kinda funny because every year I would begin teaching even before I went out on the road. Larry would ask me, "Oh, Bill, you're about ready to graduate, aren’t you?" So every year I would wait for that chance meeting in the hallway as I'm about to go teach a class, "Oh, Bill, you're graduating soon aren't you?" “Mr. Berk, I've been working here for 3 years." Bob I knew, I knew him as the guy who did the recordings, used to have the recording band at Berklee and he was the engineer for all those things. I knew him as an administrator; I had to deal with him as a student and as a teacher too trying to figure out what the hell I would get paid here. Which wasn't very much.
FB: What saxophone students are you proudest of?
BP: Oh, man. Let's see: Javon Jackson, ???, Mark Gross. There's a lot of guys whose names escape me now who even just as individuals -- Jaleel Shaw -- a lot of kids who I can't remember their names who I enjoyed as much, if not more so, than the guys that got names.
FB: That's why I asked you that question.
BP: Well, because I just saw them I was some guys who were less talented I was able to impart information so they really went from nothing to something. These other guys were so talented that I didn't have that much to do with it, I had a small amount to do with their development but sometimes more so. And in some cases they just became really nice people. They were nice people to begin with. I wish I could remember their names. But all the years I can’t begin to imagine how many students I've taught. Those guys...The famous guys I remembered because they're in front of me. [FB: Sure.] There were a lot of students that just as people just as individuals -- oh, man I -- some of 'em I really do know but when you ask me a question like that it's really hard for me to think because there's so many. [FB: That's cool.] It's really, even some of the students now and in the past who I didn't have direct contact with might have been their ensemble teacher. Like I got Christian Scott, who's a kid I really really love. He was a nice young man; he was just like James. A lot of the Southern guys, he was a Southern guy. Real ?? he was old school Southern, man. He spoke to people he called you Mr. Pierce. That used to be weird for me; I'd say, “No, man, just call me Bill.” "Yes Mr. Pierce." Real Southern guy, like the way I was raised: you spoke to elders or you spoke to grown ups in that manner. It's always kinda cute or funny when you still hear people talk like that. Just a lot of students. I've had a lot of students that I'm really fond of.
FB: A little respect does go a long way.
BP: Well just the acknowledgement of it. I've got a lot of wonderful kids here at Berklee. Some of ‘em I haven't had any relationship with other than just chatting with ‘em. They seem like such nice people. And sometimes I hear a concert in the hall, I see some kids I notice walkin’ around. Doin’ what they do, and I'm just like, “Wow. this kid's really talented.” Really got something there. Some kids I meet once, even woodwind students, I see them the first semester and then I don't really have a much real communication with them except occasional administrative stuff. You know they're all wonderful; there's really, I say this specifically about young black men but it relates to all kids all students here at this college. My point was when I did a record with Javon, I made the comment that working with people like Javon, it's really refreshing to be around young men and women that are doing something positive with their lives. I use it to refer to specifically black young men because of all the negative shit that goes around. All the stereotypes, but it's the same for all kids who are here at this school and all kids from all the countries, and people who I had predisposed ideas about culturally. I know this guy's gonna be a pain in the ass 'cause he's from this place or that place. And you just, you meet kids and just break... totally different from what you assumed. Even the kid you meet the first time. This kid is being a jerk; I don't like this kid. You know you think this and then you meet him and get to know him and realize he's a wonderful person. So the thing about education, I feel more like educator over the years than I did when I first started is that you meet these really wonderful people from different cultures, from different backgrounds from all over the world and more than likely more than not, they're really some of the nicest people you would ever wanted. Some of em are so talented and so gifted that it's really remarkable that this thing still continues the way it’s always done.
FB: Bill, let's face it: we're in music because it's so uplifting and beautiful. It makes you mellow more than hard-edged and mean.
BP: Yes it is. Well, what I think about when I go home and I see all of my friends, I was kinda younger, 'cause they were graduating from high school a couple of years younger or earlier. I see all of these people they're worn out and broke down look like old people. And when I look at the people and the teachers around here at Berklee, they're all so vibrant. They're all so young for the most part. I think it really has to do with being involved with the arts.
BP: It really makes you young. It's like Art Blakey this guy was 70 years old man he was still producing kids. He enjoyed life. I mean to the every fullest extent. I mean there's just something about music there's something about the arts.
FB: You check the median age of conductors, a lot of ‘em are working into their 80s.
FB: You know all that contact with music is invigorating. That's why we're always giving something back.
BP: And the young people that you sort of exchange ideas. You have these relationships with these situations. It really is meaningful. Sometimes I think it's better for us to do this than for them.
FB: It will give us another 10 or 15 years Bill. It'll add to our life.
BP: I think so.
FB: Bill, this has been great
BP: Thank you.
FB: I think we're coming pretty close to the end of the tape. And I've enjoyed this enormously. Thanks for participating in this series. People can go to the library take it out and see what we said.
BP: Thank you very much. Cool.
FB: Thanks, Bill.
FB: Today we're talking with Bill Pierce, who has been chair of the wind...
BP: Woodwind department.
FB: Woodwind department for quite some time.
BP: Yeah, I guess.
FB: And been one of the premier tenor saxophonists for quite a bit longer than that. We got our set list down and we're ready to hit. We're just gonna ask Bill to kinda like review his career and focusing on some of the hot spots like some of the great drummers that he's worked with over the years. Oh. They heard us.
BP: No, I was knocking the crumbs off my jacket. I was hittin’ the mike.
FB: That's okay. Anyways, welcome aboard Bill, nice to have you here.
BP: Pleasure to be here. I'm here pretty rarely, we have our COC meetings in this room, which is the committee of chairs. Yeah I guess that's what...
FB: Why don't you tell us how you got to Berklee in the first place?
BP: When I was a kid, I grew up, my mother and father were educators and we lived in Jacksonville. It's kind of a long story. But my mom worked in a smaller town 40, 50 minutes from Jacksonville, so we stayed in Jacksonville through the week. I went to school at this particular small town and when we got into the band, the band came much later, I mean it was a real rural school. When they brought the band into this educational situation at the school, I got just completely immersed in the music. One of the things I would do: I would go into the library and read all the periodicals that had anything to do with music and one of them was Metronome because this was the ‘50s or at least in the early ‘60s. And the other one was Downbeat and I just saw all these great ads and maybe even some of the catalogs for Berklee library. So I had all these dreams about, man all these guys have their saxophones and they're playing in jazz and it looked so great. It was always in my mind; it was just a fantasy. I didn't think I'd ever get the opportunity to go. I was pretty young when I finished high school. I was like 15. I didn't really wholeheartedly try to ask my parents to send me to Boston, because I knew it was economically not feasible. And it just wasn't something that would probably be possible. So I went to school after high school in Tennessee State. Tennessee, and, a historically black college. A lot of things happened: my mother and father got divorced, and yada yada yada. But, during my second year or at the end of the first year my father asked me about the college and I said, “Well, it's a good school, but it's not really what I want to do.” It was a great nurturing environment being a black institution especially in that time in the mid ‘60s ??? Rat Brown. I mean you know it was the education in a lot of ways for me.
FB: High feelings and a lot of exposure to the news and...
BP: Well, yeah and a level of consciousness that I hadn't considered before, a black consciousness. So that was great, that part of being there. You know the college experience in a traditional college setting; it was a liberal arts college. Musically I didn't want to do marching band or concert -- that isn't what I really wanted to do. Although at first it looked like I was going to be a music teacher at my high school, or something like that. I never considered performing would be a possibility for me. Those were early days of jazz education in high school and public schools; we had those stage bands in high school. We played the charts and we actually read them.
FB: Who were you listening to?
BP: Well, I was good about my situation in the small town; my band director lived next door to me. So he had all the albums, man. He had Cannonball. 'Cause everybody in Florida was into Cannonball.
FB: Who was in Jacksonville later, right?
BP: Tampa, but he's a Florida guy: he went to Florida and Tallahassee. Everybody who knew anything about music knew about Cannonball. So, Cannonball Adderley. Actually, Dave Brubeck was like the first music I really listened to a lot because it was so accessible. I mean Dave was such a big guy so you could go to any town and if they had records they'd have Dave Brubeck which would be next to Ray Anthony and Billy May and, you know, the kinda easy listening stuff. There would probably be a jazz record there, it would more than likely be Dave Brubeck, but I did find a record store that had some Cannonball, and some Miles. So I listened to Dave first, but when I heard Cannonball and then ‘Trane, I was like, “Wow, this is it.” This is more like what I, I mean....
FB: Not that cool martini of Paul Desmond.
BP: It wasn't dry, that was fine. That was cool. Now I think about why I liked it, because it was really beautiful music, when he played it was very melodic. It was very tuneful. You know his improvisations were very tuneful. But it was something about the drive and edge of Coltrane and Cannonball and Miles that I really liked. So I mean it was a gradual thing that I kinda went through all the different players that I at least had access to. You know, when I used to visit my folks in New York I would go to the record stores and buy all this stuff. You know, I could get more stuff. I was just buying stuff I didn't know who the hell these people were but I read about them so I figured I'd try ‘em. I didn’t even like Bird. I didn't like Bird, I didn't like Sonny Rollins, when I was a kid because, you know, I was a kid. Just ‘cause I was a kid I didn't know any better. That changed later on, you know.
FB: Sometimes it takes a while.
BP: Once you know, it takes a while to hear what's really there.
FB: My uncle gave me a Lester Young record when I was about 14, I said, “This is boring.” [BP: Yeah, it's kinda.] I want to hear Ornette Coleman.
BP: Yeah right, exactly, a lot of people kinda go at it that way. But anyway, so I did my time in a little school. Then my last year in high school was in Miami because my mom got a job down there. So that opened me up a little bit more to different things. That's where the stage band really was, in this school in Miami not in the small town school. I used to put my own little bands together with marching band drums tied to stands and try to show the drummer what I thought he should be doing. I had no idea, but I even had a trombone player trying to play bass lines. Imagine: not even knowing how the hell to construct a bass line.
BP: But I knew there was something going on in the lower register that should be happening, so I was kinda intuitively I had a general idea, but no real idea. So I went to Miami and did my last year of high school there I got a little more exposed. Then I went to Tennessee. So anyway, getting back to -- I kinda diverged.
FB: That's cool. No, we like that.
BP: So my dad asked me about my experience in the first year of college. And I said, “Well dad, you know, it's good, but I don't know, it's not exactly what I wanted.” So I guess he asked, I don't remember the actual conversation, but then he asked me, “Well, where would you want to go to school?” And I said, “Berklee.” So I guess the deal was I’d finish off my second year of college in the school, and then by then I would be 18 (usually 18 going on 19) that's where I was when I got to Berklee after 2 years in this other school. So I got the call, well, I got the permission to come to Boston. I remember that first day I took the train from Miami, which was about 40 hours. I took the train from Miami to New York, had to change to catch another train to Boston. And I remember when I got to South Station in Boston, I got a cab driver who, you know -- I ended up in Revere and all over the North Shore before he took me to the dorm. Which used to be 1140 Boylston Street. So that was my first day in Boston, and it seems like I've been here ever since. That was ‘67 or ‘68, I kinda forget.
FB: What was the scene like at school?
BP: Oh, man. All old guys. ‘Bout 5-10 women, 5-10 people of color, maybe a little more than that, but not much. It was real different, diversity-wise it was really different. But most of the people who were here were either older guys who had been in the service or had been on the road with bands it was like a real -- people like to call it a trade school now. But I don't like that. I love the old Berklee. With all its flaws, I really did, ‘cause it was all about music, it was all about jazz, sorry. And it was about being a better musician, a better writer. It was real music-centric. And for me at that point, that's all I wanted. I wanted to be immersed in music. And once I got here I realized how much I didn't know. You know, I didn't know anything. I had done two years at being an oboe major at Tennessee, which I really didn't want to do. I just got a scholarship to the college. I got a work study job cleaning out the band room sweeping out the room. But as soon as I got here, as soon as I left Tennessee the oboe was done. I found out how much I really didn't know, but these -- I think the median age was probably in the early ‘20s ‘cause these are like crusty old guys. The teachers, too -- pretty crusty. I mean there was guys like, but I mean in a great way. There were great teachers here man. John Bavicchi is still here; he's a classical composer but was a great teacher and still is. Herb Pomeroy, John LaPorta, Joe Viola, oh God! some guys who just retired -- Ted Pease, [FB: Schmeling] Paul Schmeling, he was one of my teachers. I studied with all of these guys. Oh man, there was one guy at the tip who I really enjoyed. Jack Weaver. There were a lot of people here who were really influential teachers to a lot of us. They knew their craft. The coursework music-wise was more demanding, more rigorous I think, if I remember correctly, maybe it was just my own sense of history. But I remember the course material was a lot harder.
FB: Was this the first time you picked up a saxophone?
BP: Oh no no no.
FB: You double and tripled?
BP: I played oboe that was my major at the time at Tennessee State, that was just so I could get the scholarship.
BP: Yeah, because you could get a scholarship anywhere as an oboe player. I was a saxophone player; I even knew that myself. No, I played saxophone in the marching band in high school and in the little stage band and all that stuff.
FB: You play any clarinet then?
BP: Actually I started off on tenor: I kinda did everything ass-backwards. I started off on tenor, then I got interested in the alto, borrowed from one of the kids who never practiced, I just wanted to borrow it. Then I started playing bass clarinet, and then I played clarinet. I just tried to pick up everything. I loved everything except the piano. My mother will attest to that. She tried to put me in piano class years ago.
FB: You like that single note thing.
BP: I don't know, it's just, my cousin played alto and I was kinda jealous. I was envious of him because he got all the attention at Christmas; he'd play some sort of stupid song. And everybody: “Oh, look at Johnny Joe!” you know, so I want that to be me. So that actually kinda got my interest in saxophone.
FB: So you had lessons with Viola and LaPorta?
BP: I didn't have private lessons with LaPorta on saxophone; I did with Joe later on. I had Charlie Mariano was my first teacher, then Andy McGee, and then Joe for the most part. There was another gentleman I studied with named Nick Kyasa ? He was a flute teacher. Really good teachers. I mean, I never had a real saxophone teacher when I was a kid. Because You know in the band system, the bandmaster teaches everything you know he was a music ed major so he learned to play trombone and trumpet. He might not be a great saxophone player maybe he was great on his own, he was a clarinet player. The one guy who had the most influence on me. and then the one guy in Miami was a bass player but he knew more about jazz.
FB: Let me ask you a pedagogical question [BP: Yeah, sure.] … what was Charlie Mariano like vis-a-vis Joe Viola?
BP: Good question. Some parts of that I can't really answer. I probably shouldn't. You know, it was the thing about being around Charlie that made the most. This guy with this wealth of experience and ability to play: everybody loved Charlie. He was the guy that everybody wanted to not necessarily to study with, but everybody wanted to play like Charlie. And Charlie… I couldn't tell you today what I learned from Charlie, but I know I learned a lot. Just being in his presence, just hearing him play with me in the class, and you know he was he that, was the old Berklee: if you play something bad, you say, “Man, you suck. Gee, you stink, kid. Go back and practice! What are you doing?” So I mean, you can't really do that.
FB: I need that [slaps own face], you know.
BP: Well, yeah, for some people. That's not fashionable anymore for a lot of reasons (and not necessarily the wrong reasons), but in those days if you weren't a capable musician or if you didn't practice, the teachers would really tell you. They still do that here too, but maybe in a nicer way.
FB: Well, it's kinda like getting booed off the bandstand back then. That doesn't happen anymore. ‘Cause there's no bandstand.
BP: Yeah, that's true. It's kinda, those old guys, the way they learned on the bandstand and even with their teachers. If you wanted to take care of business, they didn't have to, they just told you right out: “Man, you suck. Man, you suck: you're not gonna get any better unless you practice.”
FB: I went around with a microphone at IAJE and talked to some of the older cats. And they said the best thing that happened to me was getting in jamming situations and making it or fucking up.
BP: Or getting really embarrassed. [FB: Yeah.] I remember doing a session here at Berklee when I was a kid, and I was in tears. It dawned on me of how untogether I really was. It really hit me. Man. It set me on a bad course of action. Because from that point on I decided I was going to be so critical of myself to make myself better. This is what I thought. And I followed that course of action for many years. Then I realized this is negative, and you don't get anything out of negation or negativity. But man, I used to go on that premise: “You suck, you suck, you got to practice or else you're gonna suck and suck worse.” And then it dawned on me: you have to embrace. But that's, you know, a lot of people are like that. We're all sort of like that; it's kinda the vibe the way people went about getting better or giving up.
BP: You know, and there was a lot of people. It was tough here, because a lot of the guys who were here were just waitin’ for their chance to go with Woody Herman or with Buddy Rich 'cause some of my best friends or my friends at that time the year that I was here they got hooked up with these guys. They went on the road with these guys. Richie Cole and Bob Martin. A really brilliant trumpet player a guy by the name of Billy Agnew. God, that guy, he was really something. Don't even know what happened to him, but I mean these guys were all guys who had played. If they were black they probably played the R&B circuit, the chitlin’ circuit. And if they're white they probably had the same kind of thing, show band circuit. [FB: OK.] In those days, there were a lot of show bands. And show bands were basically kinda R&B blues, pop, a review kind of stuff. So there's a lot of show bands around Boston, you did the steps, and all that crap. You know, so.
FB: With the ruffled tux shirts and all that.
BP: With the puffy shirts and kinda lavender suits and some shit like that. I did some of that, too. And actually when I came to Boston, that was the only kind of gig a young guy could get. You couldn't get -- there was no way you were gonna get -- a jazz gig, unless you were so so great. That you had that opportunity. Usually you'd have to be a piano player to get the opportunity, but a horn player probably not.
FB: So, the chops honing went on at Wally's back then.
BP: Yeah, Wally's was a little different in those days. It was a little looser. They had gone through a real high level period when Alan Dawson and guys like that ran the band down there. This is back in the early ‘50s when the real heavy cats played at Wally's. Down in that period it kinda got in the little lax. But I used to go down and play a bit. This is Wally's on the other side of the street, the Oak Club. When it rained it used to have a little moat right in front of the bandstand. So when you get off the bandstand, you had to look out maybe an alligator would be waitin’ for you or something. And during that time, when I played at Wally's, most of my chops-honing was done in jam sessions with friends. And that was guys like Keith Copeland, Steve Wess, a lot of guys who went on to have careers and do great things. Art G ??? a drummer from Cincinnati, ??? a great piano player and organ player from the Pennsylvania area. And when we got out of those scenes, all the cats would come man and stop by, Larry Young would stop by. ??? Liedman, the guy from Stanley Clark. All those guys would stop by. I mean this was three years down the line.
FB: Are we in practice rooms now?
BP: No, we're in my apartment, we had a Hammond B3 on the second floor, a piano and set of drums in my apartment on the top floor. [FB: Nice.] We were just crazy man! We played this, we drove everybody, we were in an apartment complex. The cops were always patrolling trying to find where the noise was coming from. Sometimes we play ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning; we were doing all kinds of crazy stuff. It's a wonder we didn’t all end up in jail. [FB: Wow.] But that's, everybody there was little groups of people who had their own little scenes, the jam session scenes. But Wally's was something where you might go down and play there. It was more of a gathering of divergent little pods of people might come there. But it's definitely different than it was. It got to be better after my time. My tenure of sort of being there, but uh, I learned at the jam sessions and doing gigs at the Sugar Shack which was the R&B club downtown. I mean, I learned how to be a professional musician.
FB: And who was some of the people you played with down at the Shack?
BP: ???, Little Stevie Wonder, back in those days Little Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Stylistics, Gladys Knight. Go down the list of people -- we backed everybody.
FB: Little Michael Jackson?
BP: No no. They were always sort of on a different level. I got a gig with Stevie Wonder that being the house band.
FB: Stevie was always one of the most musical cats in the business.
BP: Very creative guy, you know. Just to show you, the professionalisms you had to get together. One night we were backing up Gladys Knight. Now we were young; sometimes we sounded pretty good, sometimes we sounded terrible. And one night in the middle of the show, she turns around to the trombone player: "You're sharp!" I mean and this guy, we both know this guy so I won't call out any names in the story. “You're sharp!” So he tried to pull this side out. David Stanton was in that band, Bobby Eldridge, Eddie Alex, Pete Panoloc. Pete Panoloc was a lead trumpet player. Charlie Lewis did it sometimes. Mini ?? brother ???? A lot of different people passed through that band. The trumpet player who actually got me the gig with Stevie was a guy by the name of Milt ??? died really really young. It was from ??? or something like that.
FB: Well, the singles would come in with their own charts.
BP: The groups, the Motown stars, and features would travel with their own rhythm section and their own charts and pick the horn players in every city.
FB: And they'd use 4 or 5 horns.
BP: Sometimes more.
BP: Sometimes at least four or five, of course, whatever the book was written for. Generally about six horns, three reeds, three brass.
FB: Mm, nice.
BP: A lot of Motown. If you listen to a lot of the background music in early Motown, it's really like a big band cut down, even the voicings. I remember when I went on the road with Stevie, you know, I was playing the sixth, because it was written in that kind of concerted way that writers wrote. Especially if they were writing for ??? it was a new voicing form was what they taught at Berklee. Most of those guys didn't go to Berklee but they were professional musicians in and around Detroit or LA, who just became music directors who traveled with the acts. They weren't the guys who were in the studio most of the time. Who else? Gladys Knight, Martha...
BP: … and the Vandellas, backin’ ‘em up, and that was a lot of fun. And The Delves, the Delves were great: “Stay in my Corner”, the little midget guy, the Chinese who used to sing that falsetto; that was great shit. That was really, so I did that for about 2 to 3 years. And those days are gone. You could go see those acts for a couple of bucks. You could go see the Supremes for -- I backed up the Supremes at Harvard Stadium. I don't know if they played at the Sugar Shack. But Parliament Funkadelic was in there. The white James Brown, what was his name? Oh, shoot -- this guy had this big bouffant, big blond bouffant like James Brown and Jack ?? was in his band. He's based out of Florida. He's a preacher now: that's an unusual progression. What was that guy's name? [fb note: Buster Poindexter.] Because Jim Agnew who also teaches at the school was in that band. It was like James Brown on steroids, because he would have like twelve horn players doing four mission steps. And this guy was a white guy with this big ridiculous hair. Doing splits and stuff like he was James Brown. But he was good. I mean it was a hell of a show to see. But that was show bands -- on steroids.
FB: So was there much of a transition from this to, this would go on as you would get into the jazz bands?
BP: That's how you would make a living. There were no jazz gigs for a young guy.
FB: No. And this beats GB twenty to one.
BP: Oh, hell yeah. But I was doing GB too. I was doing my GB. I never did the real GB like most of my GB was black GB. We used to work at Grove Hall, the food market, it was also the Masonic Temple, it was a supermarket that the Masonic Lodge bought. They had functions there.
BP: Weddings and just parties and calypso. So I would play a lot of blues. I didn't know any of the songs initially. We played a little of the Top 40, of the black stuff. We didn't do a “tired ribbon around the oak tree”, that kind of shit. We didn't do that; we didn't do “Alley Cat.”
FB: That's good.
BP: Yeah I did a few of those gigs, but I prefer playing with those bands because the music was more comfortable with me. [FB: Well, it's better.] We just play a blues and a shuffle beat. [00:02:37.14] And people want to be able to hear the Top 40 music, but we had a couple bandleaders... Ehh... okay. Shuffle in Eb. They didn't want to hear something that was really new. Shuffle in C. And there were all these guys a little ??? or a little James Brown. Those guys are always called “little.” They had no relation with these guys, but it was a: “featuring tonight the Little James Brown at the Park Street Lounge.” So we'd go in and we kinda knew a little of James Brown vocabulary a bit, and then we just make up riffs and stuff. [FB: Great.] It was great, man. It really was, that doesn't exist anymore. I don't know if it could exist but I mean all over Roxbury all over Dorchester... hell, I used to play South Boston, I mean in the white clubs.
FB: What do you mean, like Blinstrub’s?
BP: No, it was more like bars. [FB: Oh, bars, okay.] On the weekends they would have bands all over Boston all working class neighborhoods anywhere. I mean I used to play in a blues band when I was the only black guy in the band. And we used to play in Southie, we used to play in Dorchester. You know just playing “Mustang Sally.” That was the repertoire: “Mustang Sally”, “Knock On Wood”, the R&B catalog of tunes. We all knew that. We all knew those tunes because we backed some of the people at the Sugar Shack, but that's kind of like what we listened to. It was great, man. It was so loose and it was so fun. It just doesn't exist like that anymore. That's too bad. It's really too bad. But that's how I got any kind of an ability to be a musician together. And then little by little I started getting jazz gigs.
FB: When did you meet James Williams?
BP: I went to a jam session. They used to have jam sessions on Sunday down at the Jazz...
FB: Jazz Coalition?
BP: No no, right around the street here.
FB: Oh, the Emmanuel Church.
BP: No the club. It used to be the Inner Circle
FB: Sorry: Jazz Workshop.
BP: The Jazz Workshop. Freddie Taylor's. So on Sunday they'd have a Sunday matinee and most of the time the band leaders would open up for jam sessions and half the time they would just walk off and they would let people just get up and play. You never played with the guys. I mean Elvin, Elvin would have jam sessions and sit with Elvin. I remember a guy sitting with Charles Mingus. It was pretty out there.
FB: That's nice, yeah.
BP: But I met James; he sat in with Grover Washington. Grover was still playing a little R&B and playing a little straight ahead jazz in those days. So, James and I had never seen a young guy play like that. My best friend was a guy named Sid Simmons, the piano player, and he was, I think he was auditioning or had just gotten a gig with Grover. And I mean James was a hell of a piano player so his thing was different because he was out of Philly. He played kind of a McCoy Tyner kinda style. And the guys he had heard around Philly. The jazz band from Memphis were all influenced by Phineas Newborn.
FB: That's right.
BP: And so, James started doing this two-hands stuff and I had never really seen a young guy do that. And like that, either. Most of the time it's just kinda locked hands or double hands kinda like Erroll Garner ? kinda did.
FB: Yup, three or four octaves apart.
BP: But in a jazz context 'cause I hadn't heard Phineas Newborn at that time. I was listenin’ to Oscar Peterson, the only other guy who could play that in a virtuosic sort of way.
FB: And the whole keyboard.
BP: The whole keyboard like be-bop lines two hands, like that. And James could do that. So I was like wow.
BP: I didn't realize it at the time, but the reason he had that left hand going is because he's left handed. Which is remarkable for a piano player to be left handed and still being able to solo like traditional players with his right hand. That's when I met him and we talked and decided we'd start to playin’ together and from that point on. He was probably the biggest... He was teaching at Berklee. I think I just started teaching at Berklee. We both kinda started around the same time.
FB: This is around ‘74?
BP: ‘74-75. And James was really my mentor. He really was. He was younger than me, but he wouldn't allow me... back in those days, excuse me, I was still very insecure about a lot of aspects about my playing and ...
FB: Because you'd been tough on yourself.
BP: Yeah. Well yeah, that's maybe before the transition of thinking differently on how to motivate myself on how to become a better musician. Man, I better have some water. But James really, James has this positive sort of approach to everything. He's full of positivity. There's just -- if there's no gigs in town we'll invent one. If there's no place that's hiring musicians to play we'll knock on every door til somebody does. He had that mentality. He made more stuff happen. And he's always like that. Even when he went to New York, he was doing the same thing.
FB: He exuded a quiet confidence and warmth.
BP: Oh, very much so. Very much so, he just believed, “Well, nobody's gonna try to give you anything, you might as well…” He was an entrepreneurial kind of guy even before I used the word or knew what the word meant. He was always trying to find a way for his experience in music and to pulled his circle of friends along with him.
FB: Which was a wide one.
BP: He pulled a whole bunch of us along.
FB: He sure did. Whenever I talk with James, it was a sense of confidentiality and he was really talking directly to you and it was meant for your ears only. He engaged people beautifully.
BP: Yeah, he was a real Southern guy in the most positive of ways. He could bring you into his thing and then he could send you out, and you could become one of his minions running around. He did that for a lot of people. I mean, I still have a lot of people who I would not know except through James. Who are just wonderful people I've met. I mean a board of trustee member, Roden Ordel. I met him through James. I met all kinds of people through James. He just had that way of bringing people in. And people just: “Oh, that Jimmy Williams, he's such a wonderful fellow!” Every time you met somebody they all loved James. He had that Southern thing, but he also seemed like a person that was really sincere, this kind of a positive energy. So people just kind of related to ... it was just good to be around a guy like James. He just died too soon.
FB: We miss that genuinely Southern touch. 'Cause we don't see a lot of that in New England.
BP: Yeah, you don't see it anywhere. It's not even in the South anymore, not like that. And that was another connection between, we were both Southern guys. And a lot of the guys we hung out with, all of ‘em, well not all of ‘em but the majority of ‘em. He brought his friend Bill Easley.
BP: Ended up here, Styx Baker, Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown I met. There was a bass player named Sylvester Sample. Man, I didn't know they had guys like this in the south that could play like this. Sylvester Sample was the second guy I heard of who played a fretless electric bass. The first guy being Jaco. This guy man, he wasn't as original as Jaco but he was a hell of a bass player. I mean unbelievable. So James... But you know, some cities -- Memphis, Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Orleans -- they all have a tradition of music, of black music, African American music, jazz, blues, R&B whatever. New Orleans is the birthplace of a lot of the styles of American music, man, you know. It's really it's evident if you ever really check out of the people that came out of New Orleans. I've always thought there's a connection with the Mississippi River. 'Cause the Mississippi River, you know, it ends in New Orleans but it begins way up beyond Chicago and Minnesota. Well that's the… Minneapolis, Minnesota was another place for black music, black musicians. Travel musicians. Lester Young's family was based there and they traveled. I'm not sure if it's a riverboat thing. I guess it's... Chicago isn't on the Mississippi, but anybody who lived on those towns on the Mississippi ended up in Chicago. The people in the Midwest. The people certainly from Memphis, from St. Louis, [FB: Kansas City.] Kansas City, they all end up in Chicago or New York. There's that connection, maybe there's something in the water I don't know. But anyway those towns had those traditions of music and a lot of the guys in those towns and even to this day still. Where some of the strongest players some of the strongest musicians, whether it be jazz or the more sort of popular form of American music. R&B gospel is so big now. I mean gospel music, the musicianship in that, man, is so high. Especially in Memphis.
FB: That's right. James always had a touch of the gospel.
BP: That's how pianists got their start playing. Eastern Star Baptist Church in Memphis which I went to [when] my brother James was, had his final final moment in that church, and he grew up in there. And then when he left Mulgrew [Miller] took his [organ loft] in the church. Some pretty funny stories about the church, but that's something else.
BP: Now we got to this point. I guess talkin’ about James and starting out. James was a big figure with me having any kind of success in music. He introduced me to Art Blakey. Alan Dawson, I mean James is the guy, man. He did that for everybody. He did it for people he knew on a certain level. His closest friends he always will, but even people he just knew, I mean John Lockwood. I mean he was one of the... We kept that relationship for years: me, James, Lockwood, ?, Donald Brown, different people. All the really close friends, but James is the guy that brought us all together.