A Fireside Chat With Bill Mays
“ A general philosophy of mine is don ”
Bud Shank loves Bill Mays. That is enough of a reference for me. But Mays is no stranger to heavies, having played with Sarah Vaughan and Gerry Mulligan. What isn’t shown on his impressive resume is how his last two albums, Summer Sketches and Going Home, are better than his first two. I guess Mays, like many in jazz and fine wine, improve with age. (Apologies are in order for using an overused, warhorse comparison.) Ladies and gents, Bill Mays, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let’s start from the beginning.
Bill Mays: I grew up in a musical family. My father was a minister and he was an amateur guitarist, accordion player, trombone player, played those instruments quite well for an amateur. My mother was a singer and so I heard music around me from the time I was born. They had a little piano in the house and I started pounding on that when I was a baby. I think I had my first lessons when I was five. I played the trumpet and the baritone horn in grade school and also kept up classical piano studies and started with jazz when I was fifteen years old.
Earl “Fatha” Hines was the first jazz musician I saw and heard live. He made a big impression on me. Shortly after that, I listened to Miles’ band at the Blackhawk in San Francisco. The thing about “Fatha” Hines that grabbed me right off the bat was that he used the whole keyboard. Because the bebop piano players, basically, their left hand was kind of static and Earl “Fatha” Hines was coming more out of the swing tradition and his left hand was very active.
The thing that got me was the orchestral way in which he played. He really treated the piano as an orchestra. This was a solo engagement. There was nobody else with him. I remember he had a little piece of masonite that he had underneath the sustain pedal that he used to stomp out the rhythm. It made a deep impression. It was when I was in the service. I was in the Navy right after high school, and it was there that I made a conscious decision that this was going to be my life’s work.
FJ: Like most stories of Los Angeles musicians, you did your share of studio work.
BM: Yeah, from 1969 through ’84. The biggest skill required to be a good studio musician is the ability to sight read, to be able to take a piece of music and with just one or maybe two rehearsals, you are ready to record. That means being able to follow a conductor. You have to have had some experience with conductors, the ability to play with other instruments in the orchestra and understand the nuances in their phrasing.
French horns are going to speak differently than violins are and trumpets are going to speak at a different rate than trombones. If you are playing a unison lines with the cellos or a unison line with a harp, you are going to have to phrase as a pianist differently because their instruments speak differently. They have quicker or more delayed attack depending on which instrument it is. You have got to understand when you are playing in an orchestra and phrase accordingly.
The other thing is, as a keyboard player, you have to be able to play harpsichord or synthesizers, when they came on the scene, we all had to become familiar with the different synths and use them because all the guys were writing for synths in the '70s. Occasionally, you will get asked to play in the style of. You might be asked to improvise as a jazz player would, but most of the time, it is reading. The notes have all been written.
FJ: And you also had a tenure accompanying both Sarah Vaughan and Al Jarreau.
BM: I did a lot of vocal accompanying. I don’t anymore, but I worked with Sarah for a year and a half in ’73 and ’74. It was a great trio. Jimmy Cobb was the drummer and Bob Magnusson was the bassist. I worked with Al Jarreau in the days before he went with Warner Bros. and became a big star. He was working around LA and he was a wonderful musician. He was doing stuff that Bobby McFerrin did later on. I heard Al doing that stuff first as far as the sounds that he made with his body hitting his chest and stuff like that, vocalise. But the singer thing was great. I got Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee. I got to work with the best.
FJ: And the misconception is that accompanying a vocalist is not as formidable as that of playing alongside a instrumentalist, but that is not the case when the vocalist is of Sarah Vaughan’s caliber.
BM: Yeah, and in fact, Fred, singers of that caliber are like horn players and Sarah could scat. A lot of singers that I worked with were jiving when they were scatting. They didn’t really know the chord changes and they really didn’t know what they were doing, but Sarah had a thorough knowledge of harmony. She was a pianist herself. She had perfect pitch. She had an operatic range, tremendous range.