Bill Potts: 555 Feet High
"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.