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Bill Potts: 555 Feet High

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The Graceland mansion in Memphis, TN, where Elvis Presley used to live and where his body now lies, has been turned into a shrine to the King, drawing thousands upon thousands of reverential visitors each year. I have no problem with that; if people choose to worship at the altar of Elvis, that's their business, none of mine.

Ray, an Academy Award-nominated film about the life of blues / R&B singer Ray Charles, was released last year, almost before his body was cold. That's fine too; like Elvis, Ray was an American icon, and no tribute to him can be derided as misconceived.

There'll be no monuments to William Orie Potts, better known to family, friends and a handful of Jazz musicians and fans familiar with his work, as Bill. Nor are we likely to see any Hollywood film devoted to his life and times. Perhaps that would be asking too much.

On the other hand, when one accomplished as much in his lifetime as Bill Potts, the hope is that Life would usher him on his way with a friendly pat on the back and a few words of approval for a job well done. But Bill Potts devoted much of his life to Jazz, which doesn't seem to carry much weight these days when it comes to recognizing excellence. After scanning the Web for a week after his passing, this is the most extensive notice I could find, from the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Sun-Sentinel:

"Potts, William O, 76, of Fort Lauderdale, FL died on February 15, 2005. Levitt-Weinstein Memorial Chapel."?

That was rather disheartening, to understate the case. Finally, on February 23, a week after his passing, the Washington Post, which covers the area where Potts spent much of his remarkable career as a composer, arranger, pianist, bandleader and educator, published a more inclusive notice, focusing essentially on his best-known work, the 1959 album The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess, touching on his involvement with the superb D.C. big band named simply THE Orchestra, and noting his recording sessions in December 1956 with the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester "Prez"? Young. Predictably, the Post got the date of his death wrong (unless, that is, the Sun-Sentinel did).

In the over-all scheme of things, is it really important that the world pay its respects to Bill Potts? Perhaps not, but even so, it would have been nice to see a few more words written about a man who was, to some, a giant in his field. Happily, the music he created will live on, at least in part, giving pleasure to generations yet to come, even though the name of the composer may be shrouded in mystery.

From my vantage point, if Bill Potts had written nothing more than "Big Swing Face"? for the Buddy Rich Band in the late '60s he would be numbered among my heroes. That's one of the greatest Jazz charts I've ever heard. But he wrote much more than that, starting as a young man in the D.C. area and with the U.S. Army band from 1949-55. He was chief arranger for THE Orchestra, a spectacular fifteen-piece ensemble led by drummer Joe Timer (a.k.a. Theimer) and fronted by disc jockey Willis Conover, who would later earn lasting fame as the long-time "Jazz voice"? of the Voice of America. Potts wrote a number of memorable charts for the ensemble as well as brilliant original compositions, four of which — "Pill Box,"? "Light Green,"? "Playground"? and of course, "Willis"? — are included on THE Orchestra's only album, Willis Conover's House of Sounds Presents THE Orchestra, recorded in 1953 on the Brunswick label. (As an aside, I played that LP until the grooves were literally worn to mush, and was lucky enough to acquire a CD copy from a friend and fellow Washingtonian [who now lives in CA], Walt Kraemer. Thanks again, Walt.)

Alto saxophonist Jim Riley, one of the few surviving members of THE Orchestra (baritone Jack Nimitz, a West Coast stalwart for many years, is another), recalls those days fondly: ". . . when I played with the Theimer band,"? he says, "Bill was never absent during a rehearsal or performance. He brought all that equipment down from Fort Myer (where he was a performance engineer with the Army band), set it up, recorded everything, tore it down, and returned it in perfect shape. I was always so pleased to hear charts in toto after I had been concentrating so hard and so intensely on my own minor role.

"Those were very helpful sessions, and the Theimer band would not have been the same without them. And I remember Bill bringing in 'Light Green,' and later, 'Playground,' those delightful arrangements we so loved playing. There were so many charts, there seemed always to be something new.

"When Bill moved to New York, he had his MG sports car with him for a while, and I got a ride through Central Park at least twice. Those were sunny days. Bill lived with a certain flash and an outspoken love that I've seldom seen in others. . . .And who could ever forget his voice, that deep and booming call that was at once as distinctive as his writing. He was an individual who made a difference in my life, and I'll remember him always in my heart and in my prayers. May God bless the Jazz Soul of my friend Bill Potts."?

In 1957, Potts wrote and arranged every number and played piano on the VIK LP, Jazz Under the Dome, by drummer Freddy Merkle's eleven-piece group, supplying such gems as "555 Feet High,"? "Proto Cool,"? "White House,"? "D.C. Current,"? "Shhhhh!"? and "Aide de 'Comp'."? Like "Playground,"? "555 Feet High"? (the height of the Washington Monument) uses one of Potts' favorite devices, the fugue or rondo, in which one section of the band (usually the reeds) states the melody, then is joined by another and another in variations of the main theme, with trumpets, trombones and saxophones playing breathtaking counterpoint until brought together by a dramatic and dynamic coda.

A year before recording with the Merkle group, Potts had persuaded Lester Young, whose best days were a distant memory, to let him tape some off-the-cuff jam sessions with bassist Norman Williams' quintet at Olivia Davis' Patio Lounge. The tapes were released by Norman Granz in the early '80s as Lester Young in Washington, D.C. and later reissued on compact disc.

Potts journeyed to New York City in the late '50s and enlisted a number of heavyweights for the Porgy & Bess album on United Artists. Among those taking part were trumpeters Art Farmer, Harry "Sweets"? Edison, Bernie Glow, Charlie Shavers and Irv Markowitz; trombonists Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland and Earl Swope; saxophonists Phil Woods, Gene Quill, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Sol Schlinger; pianist Bill Evans, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Charlie Persip (Markowitz and Swope had played in THE Orchestra). Not a bad lineup. The album made a large splash, garnered rave reviews, but was unluckily released at roughly the same time as Miles Davis' classic Porgy with arranger Gil Evans, else it would be even more fondly remembered. Potts flew to Los Angeles several years ago to conduct a re-creation of the album using top-drawer West Coast musicians.

After residing in New York for several years, Potts returned "home"? to the Washington area (he'd been born in nearby Arlington, VA, on April 3, 1928) where he continued writing, arranging and playing piano, meanwhile logging road time with Woody Herman, Ralph Marterie, Clark Terry, Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Al and Zoot, Jeri Southern, Eddie Fisher, Ella Fitzgerald and others. He had to leave the Herman band after severely cutting his hand on a broken window, and was replaced at the piano by young Pete Jolly. In 1974 Bill started teaching classes in arranging at suburban Montgomery College and continued doing so for more than twenty years before retiring and moving to Florida ten years ago.

In 1988, Jazz Mark Records released 555 Feet High, the first-ever CD by the Bill Potts Big Band, which, besides the title selection and "Shhhhhh!,"? includes five more of Bill's splendid compositions — "Momsville,"? "Brazilville,"? "Dead Man's Blues,"? "Boo Boo"? and "Dad,"? the last a feature for trombonist Dave Steinmeyer. Trumpeters Joe Bovello and Hal Posey had played on the Freddy Merkle album back in '57, while the drummer was a rising star (and former Potts student), Chuck Redd. On the jacket cover, Potts' image is superimposed next to the Washington Monument, his left hand resting on its crown, a pose that seems entirely natural for someone whose enormous talent often appeared to be even taller than that.

"Bill Potts changed my life,"? says Redd. "I was a fairly timid seventeen-year-old drummer / percussion major at Montgomery College when I became aware of him. My first encounter was when the drummer in his small ensemble (improv class) didn't show up. Bill had heard me with one of the other groups and politely asked me if I could sub for his regular drummer. I was more than a little intimidated by him. He was an imposing figure with a mountain of white hair and a white beard, and he didn't smile much, so I was surprised by how courteous and respectful he was to me. He even helped me move the drums into the rehearsal hall. Bill made no distinction between the professional and academic worlds of music, so when I played the rehearsal and he liked my time, he 'fired' his regular drummer and 'hired' me. He also had all his students call him Bill. The rest of the faculty didn't quite know what to make of him, but most of them knew they were lucky to have him there.

"Possibly the greatest gift Bill gave me was that he was the first adult to treat me as an adult. He took a few of us [students] under his wing, but was always pushing us out of the nest. Within two years of meeting Bill, he had given me the opportunity to perform with Al Cohn, Phil Woods, Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd (which turned into a nineteen-year-long gig) and Bill's own roaring big band. And in my first semester at MC, he told my father, Kay, to get me a set of vibes rather than the marimba that my 'legit' percussion teacher preferred. 'I see guys playing gigs on vibes,' Bill told my father, 'but I've never seen anyone make a gig on a marimba.'

"In those years Bill also became a close family friend. He had a special soft spot for my mother, Daphne, who would often make oyster stew and bread for him. Bill also put my brother Robert in touch with the best Jazz trumpet teacher in town, Bill's old friend Hal Posey. I have great memories of hanging out in Bill's apartment listening to Al and Zoot, the Terry Gibbs Big Band, reel-to-reel tapes of Lester Young with Bill's trio, and Bill's incredible Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess. Bill's joyously swinging charts were the soundtrack of my formative years as a professional. I'll also never forget my first trip to New York in January '77 when Bill and I got snowed in for five days on Central Park West with his good friend, arranger Hale Rood. And the trips to the Poconos to hang out with Al Cohn and Phil Woods.

"In the world of Jazz there have been some famous mentoring groups, among them Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the Woody Herman band. We had the great Bill Potts. There seem to be a few musicians who are born with an individual voice and a sense of purpose. Bill was one of them. The rest of us learn from them and hopefully find our own voice. I will always love Bill Potts and be grateful for how he enriched my life."?

Even though I had grown up in D.C. and was aware of Bill Potts and THE Orchestra, I met him only once, when my brother Tom, five years older than I, took me to see the Potts band perform at Frankie Condon's nightclub in suburban Maryland. Between sets, Bill, who knew Tom, stopped at our table for a brief chat. Tom introduced me, Bill said hello, and that was it. My brother, who has played trumpet, piano, vibes and drums at one time or another, had taken one of those arranging courses given by Potts at Montgomery College, and shared with me Bill's terse directive to his students: "Swing, or I'll kill you."?

Those five years between us made a big difference, as did the fact that Tom was a musician and I was not. He knew many of the players in the D.C. area, whereas I knew only one, saxophonist Ted Efantis, and that only because he was dating one of my sisters and would often stop by our apartment to see her. Tom's memories of Potts stretch back fifty years. But I'll let him tell you:

"My first vivid memory of Bill Potts was at Club Kavakos, in the northeast section of Washington, in the early '50s. The club had been a place for servicemen and locals to go, dance and socialize to various little-known acts, singers, and musicians of varying styles. On this afternoon, Kavakos had agreed to host the debut of THE Orchestra, a contemporary Jazz band put together by Joe Theimer (drums) and Ben Lary (tenor sax), both also composers and arrangers, and fronted by the well-known broadcaster Willis Conover.

"What a day that was! Exciting, groundbreaking, attracting anyone and everyone who was someone of note(s) in the Washington / Baltimore area and who could squeeze into the club. And at the center of it all was a young, curly-haired man, smiling unobtrusively and scurrying around the bandstand to make sure the lighting and sound equipment were in their proper place. Although technical considerations were important to the success of that historic day, what emerged as central was the music that young man in a gray suit had created for the band. He was, of course, Bill Potts, an obscure (at the time) but immensely talented composer and arranger and the major contributor to THE Orchestra's fledgling book.

"That afternoon, with Conover hosting from the microphone, listeners heard a marvelous new band playing arrangements by some of the best musicians on it. But the prize clearly belonged to Bill Potts, whose sparkling originals, 'Light Green,' 'Pillbox' and 'Playground,' equaled anything composed until then and established him as that big voice that would be heard in all corners of the Jazz world for the next half-century.

"He grew to be one of the most generous people with his talent and ability I ever knew,"? Tom adds. "He put together student big bands and organized concerts at Montgomery College just so the kids would have a place to get playing experience. One night I ran into him at Blues Alley [in Washington]. His band had been booked there for a couple of nights. It was made up of some of the best service players and MC students. In the trumpet section were six trumpets. Of course, his charts were written for only four, so while one sat out a chart the fifth would double the lead. Potts just wanted to make sure the students got a chance to play. One of them was drummer Chuck Redd's younger brother, Robert, also an MC student. Robert later dropped trumpet and became a first-class pianist [and is now a member of the Keter Betts Trio].

"Bill was kind, attentive, and always made time for everyone who asked him anything about music, especially Jazz. Although he knew a lot, he was never a know-it-all. He was always open to new ideas. In the arranging course I took with him, filled with kids seeking a quick three credit hours, he would hand out a lead sheet. The students were taught chords, and he indicated where they should go. I asked if I could forgo my lead sheet and write my own chart. He readily agreed. The student charts were the final 'exam' played by the student band.

"My arrangement of Gershwin's 'S'wonderful,' although instrumental, was patterned after the [vocal] chart Ray Coniff wrote for Artie Shaw. The students didn't rehearse so they had a difficult time with it, but brought most of it off. Bill, who played piano at the session, pleased me with an A-plus."?

A-plus. When the good Lord hands out grades for a life well-lived, my hunch is that Bill Potts will receive his own A-plus. Probably already has. In this world, the best any of us can hope for is to leave something worthwhile behind. Bill Potts certainly has done that. I wish I'd been a friend as well as an admirer, but perhaps we'll meet again someday. I'd like to think so anyway. Rest in peace, Bill. You've earned it.

That's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'!


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