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Billy Pierce

by Mel Martin

Reprinted from The Saxophone Journal January/February 1991

Volume 15, Number 4

One of the great pleasures of doing interviews is getting to know other saxophonists on a one-to-one basis. Billy Pierce is someone who has caught my ear for quite some time. My first exposure to him was on the James Williams' Concord jazz dates, and then later on with Art Blakey's incredible Jazz Messenger group, with both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. I had assumed Billy to be of their generation, or slightly older, but always felt he had a well rounded maturity. To my surprise, I discovered he just entered his fourth decade, and not only had a varied background as a professional, but is an excellent and dedicated teacher. In fact, as the interview progressed I discovered we had much in common, such as being out on the road in the early seventies, as well as similar teaching experiences. Self described as a late bloomer, Billy has really come into his own with a very distinctive style and a "steady as she goes" attitude about life and music. So, for those who don't really know him I would like to introduce to readers of Saxophone Journal my new found friend - the great Billy Pierce.

I'd like to start by asking how you started playing tenor and perhaps give us a little background.

I started on tenor, then I played alto, then I went to clarinet, then bass clarinet. I did it backwards. I grew up in rural Florida. My mother was a school teacher and we owned a nice home in Jacksonville. I actually finished high school in Miami where I got my early training in my high school jazz band with reading, and I was hearing jazz music as it should almost sound. Originally we all played the written solos off those early stage band charts like Cherry Point, Neil Hefty's stuff, and Marshall Brown, who had the Newport Youth Band. Solid Blue was one, and the other one was Copley Square. At the time I had no idea that Copley Square was in Boston, which is where I actually ended up. We would play those really dopey solos, but we had no idea. We didn't sound like the high school stage bands do now. That was like 1965, or '66 when stage bands were still in their embryonic stage.

Then I went to college and I never considered that I would be able to be a working musician. I just loved music! I really wanted to play!

After high school I went to Tennessee State on a work-study scholarship, and by then I started playing around with the oboe. I was there, so I said to myself, 'I'm planning on learning something, I want to get some information.' It didn't happen at all. They started a stage band when I was there, but we weren't allowed to play jazz in the black school. If you played jazz, like on the pianos in the practice rooms, the monitor would come and kick you out. It was amazing! That was when the black cultural and political awareness was just happening. So, I started to gradually change a little bit, but they were really steeped in this thing about only European classical, or traditional black music, or whatever - anything but jazz! Still, there were some good players who came out of that school like Cleveland Eaton, Phineas Newborn, and Charles Lloyd. There were some good players there, but they themselves weren't getting any good information either, and I couldn't get it from the guys at the school or from the teachers.

I was working in funk bands at Tennessee State and that's where I found out what the IV chord was. I played in a club called The Sugar Shack, and the band was like a Motown R&B kind of showcase band. I learned a lot about professional playing in that group. I got a gig several years later working with Stevie Wonder, in 1970, by working at the Sugar Shack.

By that time my family told me to go to Berklee College in Boston, which I always knew about and always wanted to go to. When I got to Berklee the reality of what good playing involved, what it took to be a good jazz player, and what it encompassed, really hit me. I was young and I thought people like Charlie Parker just came out of the air, like all of a sudden something just hit them and they just played. But I found out there's a whole lot more to it. You've got to know your instrument and the music, and all aspects of jazz. I was overwhelmed at first.

Who was teaching at Berklee at that time?

My first teacher at Berklee was Charlie Mariano. I don't remember exactly what I learned from Charlie, but I did learn some things from being around him. Like a lot of really good teachers I've had, a lot of the things I learned from them wasn't anything direct, like "This is A, then you do B, then you do C." Many times it was just the daily conversations I would have with them and things would eventually sink in, or eventually I would realize, "Oh, that's what those guys meant." To some degree I now teach like that. I try to be specific, because that's what students want. But it's amazing that some of the stuff those guys would say in passing, and I would think, "Now what was that?", would be the most profound things that one could tell you. I had the same experience with Joe Viola, Joe Allard, and Andy McGhee. Those were the four guys I studied with in my college experience.

Joe Allard was at Berklee?

No, I studied with Joe Allard after I finished Berklee. I went to have a few lessons with him and found him to be very interesting. He's quite a character. I got a lot out of my time with him. Again, I couldn't tell you specifically what, but I do remember some things about tone production. And again, he'd say some things and I would go, "Now, what is this guy talking about?", and later on I'd say, "Oh yea!" One has to figure out a few things for oneself. I think a lot of master teachers allow students to do that. They might give an analogy, but basically it's self discovery and one has to get into it and experience it.

You mentioned playing with Stevie Wonder early on, and you later landed a major gig with him. Was this the period before he really started getting the big breaks.?

That's right. In 1970 Stevie Wonder had just turned twenty-one. At the time there were a lot of negotiations between him and Motown over a new contract.

It was a good band, and I stayed for about six or seven months. Signed, Sealed, and Delivered was one of the things we were playing. I actually dropped out of Berklee to go on the road with Stevie Wonder. I wasn't sure what I was going to do anyway. Stevie was great, but I wasn't that knocked out playing the music. I enjoyed being on the road, but it wasn't jazz, and that's what I really wanted to play. But, it was the first time I ever made that kind of money and a chance to travel. We went to Hawaii, LA, South America, and then the group disbanded. My friend Bobby Eldridge and I were supposed to come back with a new band. Bobby was the baritone player. Now he plays in the pits in New York City and is a good player. Word got out Stevie was looking for a new band and by that time Steve Madeo, Trevor Lawrence, and Dave Sanborn were in his band. For a period of time I was listening to a lot of rock, and blues. I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, and things like that.

Right, we were all out there with that stuff. I was touring with Boz Scaggs about the same time. I toured a lot around your area (Boston) in the early 1970s.

But all that was the learning experience. After the Stevie Wonder thing ended I went back to Boston, and then that was the period where I grew the most. The baritone player and I were roommates and we lived in an apartment building that had another group of musicians on the second floor (we were on the 4th floor), and they had a B-3 in there, an electric piano, and a set of drums.

I wish I had known your address. I was sitting in a hotel in Cambridge the whole time!

A lot of guys who came through town would stop by. The guy whose house it was (his name was Steve West) went to the Performing Arts School in New York, so he knew a lot of players like George Cables, Lenny White, Stanley Clarke (who played with Joe Henderson at that time), Larry Young, Steve Grossman, and Dave Liebman. I got to hear a lot of great players, and a chance to play everyday. We would play until three or four in the morning. The cops would circle the place to find out what was going on. It was a really great experience. Cedric Lawson was the piano player (he used to play with Miles Davis and Art Blakey), and Art Gore was the drummer.

The Boston Underground!

Yeah, it was a pretty happening scene. That was a really good period of time with a lot of playing and a lot of self discovery musically. It wasn't like I was practicing so much, but I was playing a lot and things started to come together.

After that period of time I decided to go back to school. My parents had already given me all this money and I figured I should repay them by finishing up. By the time I did eventually finish school I had gotten married, and I found myself (at age twenty-three) figuring out how I was going to support myself and my family.

Then I went on the road with a traveling Vaudeville type of thing. As a matter of fact, the guy's name showed up in a newspaper in Bakersfield, California about three or four years ago because he got bumped off (a guy named Roy Raden). The group was called Roy Raden's All-American Vaudeville Review. I did about three of these things and they were like one month tours of one-nighters; thirty in a row, two bills a week, and you tripled. We were backing up people like Frank Gorshin, Joanne Worley, dog acts, drunken jugglers - I mean it was bizarre! We only played for policemen and firemen's benevolent associations. We'd be in really small towns, and sometimes the place would be full of cops and I'd be the only black guy there. I was playing alto, which I never thought I could and after about three weeks of playing alto I couldn't play tenor. I also had to play clarinet, which was never one of my favorite things to deal with. After about three of those tours I said, 'I can't hack this anymore!" I decided teaching can't be worse than this, it's got to be better. They had already asked me to teach at Berklee, and I had really wanted to do that. So, I started teaching there and I learned a lot more than I had ever learned before, by teaching someone else. I had to really focus my ideas!

I find that in teaching you have to keep going over so many fundamentals with people. Plus you've got to be able to live up to what you're teaching people and to be able to demonstrate things. And it's also give and take. A lot of times a student, who's a beginning player, will say something or ask a question that makes me think, and I'll say, "That's interesting, let's see if that works," and sometimes it does. And sometimes I get players who are already so accomplished I don't know exactly what I can show them.

Do you do much writing?

Usually when I get stuck for some tunes for a record date or a gig. I really want to write more. I like some of the tunes I've come up with. I have some ideas that sound pretty good. When I was studying arranging and composition in college it was still just a means to my learning how to play better. I didn't really look at it as composition, just learning more about music. I feel like you've got to understand music, you can't just be a saxophone player. But I've never thought of myself as a composer, although I have taken gigs doing arrangements for people. And now, I want to do that more, although I don't really have the time to pursue it the way I'd like to. I'd like to have a piano and be able to write more. I tend to lean towards other people's compositions, rather than my own, but I'd like to change that.

Do you ever pass some of your tunes onto your students?

Not too much. Sometimes if guys have a band and they really want to play my tunes then I do. If I hear other people play the tunes that I write, I can find some things out about them. There's a guy out here (California) who studied with me. His name is Reggie Oliver. I'm always sending him stuff because he always asks. It's nice when people want to play stuff that I've done. My favorite composers are the three piano players I've played with the most: Mulgrew Miller, James Williams, and Donald Brown. Donald Brown is really something as a composer. He's very intuitive, but profound. He comes right from the heart. It's complex as hell, but it always sounds musical.

When did you actually start teaching at Berklee?

Seventy-five through seventy-nine, and then I started working with Art Blakey. After I left Art Blakey I came back in eighty-three, and I've been at Berklee since.

When you were with Blakey was that when Branford and Wynton were there? I always felt that Wynton stepped out on his own perhaps a little too soon because I really enjoyed his playing with Art, and the things he did with Herbie and Tony were phenomenal.

Yes, but I was actually thinking of Bobby Watson. Branford was in the band about six months. Wynton was in the band about two years. When I left the band about four or five of the guys all had a family. We all had kids around the same time (me, Art, John Ramsey the road manager, Bobby Watson , and Charles Fambrough). With Art Blakey we travelled at least ten months a year. That's kind of hard on family life. I have a boy named Kai (who was born while I was on the road with Art), and a girl name Aria.

That must have been quite an experience playing with a master drummer like Art Blakey.

I know what it takes to make me play, and that's to have somebody back there really driving the vehicle and kicking me in the butt! I've been fortunate enough to play with some great drummers like Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Alan Dawson, and Max Roach. These guys are the acknowledged masters. I've played with countless younger masters too. It was incredible playing with Art. I could see how he changed my concept of playing, and especially my concept of hearing drumming. When I would to back to Boston on breaks to do gigs it would be really hard to play with anybody else.

When did you find it was really beginning to happen for you in Boston?

Since I've been back from Art Blakey's gig, like eighty-three, maybe even before that. There was always one club in Boston that had basically the thing you needed. There was a place called Michaels, back in the late 1970s, and then since eighty-three there have been four or five clubs like The Willow, The Thirteen Sixty Nine, Nights, The Regatta Bar (for travelling acts mostly), and the Starlight Room on top of Howard Johnsons. There was a pretty fertile period in Boston for playing. It's diminished a little, but it's still pretty good. It used to be especially good for young guys with no name, but there's so many cats in Boston now that it's not quite as easy as it was a few years ago. I'm sure that will change. It comes and goes. Oh yes, one I almost forgot: There was also a club in Cambridge called the Sunflower Cafe.

I've gone through a similar kind of thing here in the Bay Area. Do you find that there is a point of diminishing returns when you play in one area? The guys in New York say the same thing.

Right now I don't play in Boston that much because I'm busy enough going on the road, and teaching. If you play in one small market all the time you wear out your welcome, and then you can't get paid correctly. It's the same thing in New York or Topeka, Kansas. There are name cats who people in New York consider "locals". I guess I have mixed feelings about that. I would like, and have never had the chance, to just play in one spot (like Boston) every week. Maybe if I got around to doing it I'd change my mind. I don't know.

It seems like if you work at a certain financial level, say if you always play fifty dollar gigs, you never break out of that. You could work steady, but if you add that up, it's not a lot of money.

That's the trick. Occasionally you get grant money, or something that's funded by someone, other than working in a club. With club owners it seems like once you set a particular wage, that's all you're ever going to get.

There used to be a definable ladder you could work up, but it's just not there now. There's so many people who want to go out, learn to play, and build their profession. They should be doing that, but they work for low bread, and then everybody else gets low pay. We're part of the problem too because we're teaching them and encouraging them to go out and play.

Right! So it's a vicious cycle. There's always been musicians who will undercut another musician. Club owners know they've got all that. In Boston I had a good situation because I had a so-called name. I'd been out on the road, and there's a lot of guys who haven't been out playing with anybody since the fifties. I can't demand a lot but I can sometimes get more than other people. The thing that people don't realize is that you can get to a certain financial level, and then bounce back so fast that it's difficult to keep track of. That's what keeps guys on the road. Even Dizzy Gillespie says that you've got to stay ahead of this problem because if it catches you you're dead. For me travelling was a hardship. I'm a family man too. I play better when I stay in one place. I'd like to play more but I'm trying to balance my teaching with my road work, and I just don't want to go backwards and work twenty-five dollar gigs. When I went on the road when I was younger I enjoyed it, but now I can only take it in small doses. I wouldn't want to be on the road like I was with Art Blakey, that's too much! A couple summer's ago we went on the road with Tony Williams and played pretty much every night for six weeks. Telepathy was happening and my playing started coming back. Once again I could feel how I changed from playing that much and with the same guys. It was a nice feeling. But it all begins to trail off, so I get a bit tired of the road. It's that road-rat feeling, with four or five A.M. wake up calls to catch a train or a bus. You get a certain mind set, a physical feeling that's like a zombie. Pretty soon you don't know what day it is, and you don't care. But, I'm glad I got a chance to do it. There's so many cats who don't get that opportunity.

Who were the major influences that really got you into playing the saxophone?

One of the first things I remember was a Dave Brubeck record with Paul Desmond, because it could always be found in any music store. Cannonball and 'Trane also really got me going. Initially Trane was the only person I wanted to hear and to play like, although I don't think I sound anything like that now. When I went to college I had a roommate (Mike Dubkin) who was always trying to play Sonny Rollins for me and it just didn't click. I couldn't even hear Bird then. There were moments I'd hear someone like Stanley Turrentine, where I would hear some things I liked, especially if it was bluesy. I always liked the blues. Then I started hearing Sonny and Bird, and I began opening up and listening to a lot of people. I always liked Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, who were "the younger guys" at the time. But, I never wanted to sound like anyone in particular.

Did you study cat's solos or transcriptions?

Yes, later on, when I was more of an accomplished player. I didn't want to fall into the trap that some people fall into. I never wanted to be a clone. I have students who want to play just like their idols. I tell them that I can understand studying a single style, but as a final result, you can't be the same because they already have that. So what's the point? Like Coltrane; you can never sound just like him! Learn to see what's in you, even if it seems like a small thing. Try to let whoever you are come out. It's weird to me to hear a guy playing other people's stuff verbatim.

I did an interview with Joe Henderson, whom I consider to be one of the last real innovators on tenor. He feels outraged at the robotics and the cloning that's going on now.

It seems like cat's don't have the idea anymore that you try to get something of your own self. That's what jazz really is. People don't even think that way anymore. They say, "I've got to get my Trane thing, or my Sonny thing, or my Brecker thing." I don't think the older guys thought like that. There's a basic saxophone language in jazz, but the goal should be to go beyond that. I like to hear the jazz tradition in a player, but I also like to hear a personal interpretation of these things as well. Sometimes I tell students that they have to study scales and arpeggios because that's what technique is about - that's how you learn to master the instrument. There's a French saxophone book by Lacour that uses transposition of scales. It starts off with whole tones and diminished scales and tone rows. It's a very interesting book. I still like to play those things. I still find good ideas in there. There's nothing you practice that can't be useful. Some people say they only want to practice what they're going to perform. I say I don't know about that. You want to embrace all aspects of music. It's going to have an influence on you. Actually, the further you get away from jazz, in your listening, the more you can learn. It can have an effect on you as a person and a musician that will come out in your playing later on. You have to be open, yet maintain a direction.

We talked earlier about the early 1970s, which was a time when you could really merge various influences, as I personally did in a band called Azetca. But later attempts, at became known as "fusion' and really became formalized. I think the volume had a lot to do with it. I never could play well in a loud band. There was no flexibility with the rhythm section.

There was a time when a lot of different things were being attempted. Even now, with Tony, I'm still trying to find the balance between getting a nice sound, and having enough projection and power. Tony puts out so much energy that I have to go with it. It was the same thing with Art Blakey.

I feel that the music benefits from not exceeding a certain acoustic level. It may have affected my hearing.

Here I am at forty talking like an old geezer (laughter). I guess I'm something of a late bloomer, but it's worked out well for me. It seems there are some benefits, because you've been able to reap all that experience.

You may have made some mistakes, or gone down some dead ends only to come out into the light. I've seen some very gifted young musicians that seemed to go right through their development period and end up in a totally unrelated area.

Or they burn out early on. It seems like they get there too fast and their focus becomes scattered. I find it really gratifying to see a student who has little ability start to get some things together, even if they go on to another teacher.

You mentioned that you stress literature. Could you expand on that?

There's the material that all saxophonists must look at in the beginning stages. The classical literature: Klose, Mule, and various etudes that I learned through Joe Viola. It's funny though because I've had European students that didn't want to deal with that because they had it at home, and only wanted to know about jazz.They don't see the connection.

Beyond that literature I try to teach what we call GB, or "General Business" tunes; Tin Pan Alley, Show tunes, and standards. Then the jazz repertoire. So many players have to go on the bandstand and pull out their Real Books, when they should really know the common literature. I try to explain that the more music you know, the more musical you can become. And the more melodies you can play, the more melodic you can be. For finals at Berklee sometimes Joe Viola will ask a student to play a tune and they can't. He points out that the saxophone is primarily a melodic instrument.

With my more advanced students I'll say, let's play a tune, and I might play the first chord in a different key. That way they have to use their ears. Then I tell them to just play the sound of a given tune. I like to expose them to Thelonious Monk's music, which makes them think in an entirely different manner. Once again emphasizing the melody. There's so much there in his music. A student says they want to improvise on a Monk tune. Well, what are you going to play that's more hip than the melody? It's those simple melodic devices that are really meaningful.

Have you listened much to Lester Young? Did you ever hear Lester's version of Body And Soul with Nat Cole on piano? It's an unbelievable solo, maybe better than Hawk's, although it's apples and oranges at that point.

A lot of people have told me they hear Lester Young in me. John Hammond was very complimentary about that. I was honored that he felt that way. I like Chu Berry's solo on Body And Soul, which was about a year before Hawk's. I did a project with Hank Jones and Roy Haynes, which was sort of fashioned after those Lester Young sessions without a bass player. It was great playing with those cats.

When I started teaching a course on saxophone history I went back and checked out a lot of people like Lester, and Chu Berry. You have to go back and check out the masters. It's like sax players starting by listening to Trane, or Mike Brecker. Why don't they check out who those guys listened to. You can't ignore the history of the instrument.

I know you have to go to work soon. I've thoroughly enjoyed this interview with you. Later that night I heard Billy perform with the Tony Williams group at Yoshi's Nightspot in Oakland, and as always, he turned in a superb performance.

©Copyright 1991 Mel Martin

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