Bill Potts: 555 Feet High
"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.