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.
So when I am working with a singer, it is an attitude. You have to know out front that you are backing somebody. It is not your gig. Jimmy Rowles was a good accompanist and he used to say that the essence of being a good accompanist is when you think of idea, play half of it. Stay out of the way. Voice your chords appropriately to the situation.
FJ: Why did you leave our fair city for the Big Apple?
BM: Well, it was a variety of factors. I really became tired of... because I was working in the studios five or six days a week, all day, and I just got tired of doing that constantly and not playing enough improvised music. I also went through a divorce and wanted a change of scenery emotionally.
A lot of factors came together and a lot of the people who I loved, the musicians, were in New York. I knew I was never going to get a chance to play with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra if I lived in LA. When I came back East, I got on the sub list and I worked a lot with that band. I knew I was probably never going to play with Al Cohn or Bob Brookmeyer unless I moved back here.
It was interesting. Gerry Mulligan and I met in April of ’84. I had been a sideman on a lot of Barry Manilow’s LPs. Barry was with Arista Records and he had a chance to do a record called Paradise Café and in his words, it was his jazz album. He loved jazz. He loved jazz musicians and he always wanted to do this record. He got a hold of a lot of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics that had no music written to them and with the permission of Mercer’s wife and estate, he wrote music to several of Mercer’s lyrics and that became the material to Paradise Café.
And he hired his favorite musicians. He hired Shelly Manne, George Duvivier, Mundell Lowe, Mulligan, and myself. Interestingly, Mel Torme and Sarah Vaughan also were guests. I met Mulligan and then two months later, I was living in New York and his drummer at the time said Gerry was looking for a new keyboard player and if I wanted to audition. I did and I got the job. I stayed with him for several years. I never would have had that chance if I remained in Los Angeles. That was the primary reason for the move.
FJ: And your collaborations with Bud Shank?
BM: Well, I could say a lot about Bud, but one thing I want to say is I miss his flute playing tremendously. He is just a dynamite flautist. I would encourage everybody who loves Bud Shank’s music, regardless of the instrument, to try to get a hold of an album that he and I did with flute and piano in 1979. We recorded it for Concord and it is out of print now. It was just the two of us. Bud did another great album called Crystal Comments where he played nothing but flute and he had two great keyboard players on it, myself and Alan Broadbent. Somewhere down the line, he wanted to give it up and just concentrate on alto.
When I first met Bud, we were both doing studio dates. We worked together a lot down through the years and I did his last two records. I am doing some gigs. We will be at Spazio’s in July. He has such energy in his playing. Bud is seventy-something now and he is playing with the energy of a seventeen-year-old kid. He is a lot of fun on the bandstand and he is a lot of fun to hang out with. I love him dearly. He has always put together great bands too and his current one is a sextet with Conte Candoli was playing until his death and Jay Thomas and Bob Magnusson is in the band.
FJ: Subtlety is an art you are well versed in.
BM: Well, thank you. A general philosophy of mine is don’t try to play everything you know in your next solo. I believe in really playing with and off of my sidemen and my playing really varies a lot depending who is in the rhythm section. You can still tell it is me, but the way I solo on a given tune, if I am playing with Matt Wilson and Martin Wind, it is going to be different than Shelly Manne and Chuck Domanico. They are two completely different rhythm sections.
I don’t like to lead a trio with the concept that I am a piano soloist with bass and drum accompaniment. That’s another school of thought and that is fine. It works for some people, but I don’t subscribe to that. I really want a lot of interaction. I feel that economy serves me best and I want to make a strong statement, but I have all night to do it and I don’t have to play a lot of notes in every solo and I don’t have to play a lot of choruses. It varies from night to night. It just so happens that Summer Sketches was one of the more subtle CDs that I’ve made. It had a certain muted tone to it. I loved it. The piano sound is magnificent.
FJ: Martin Wind and Matt Wilson reprise their roles on your latest, Going Home.
BM: Yeah, the thing about them too, Fred, is that they are both composers and arrangers like me, so they bring something a little different to the table than your average rhythm section. They really understand my thinking. They are real masters of orchestration and the masters of color and texture and their sense of drama. It’s a wonderful trio.
FJ: And the future?
BM: This one just came out, but I just worked on something for Sony. It is a project for surround sound using four or five speakers. Another one I am very proud of that came out not too long ago was an album of Catherine Dupuis. I got to write for a rhythm section and three horns, which I love doing. I had some great players, Marvin Stamm and Ted Nash and Jim Pugh playing trombone. It was called Moments.
And we just launched a website. It is www.billmays.net . That has a brand new book of twelve of my songs. I have made it very playable for good amateur to professionals. We are selling copies from the website. We have to be out there doing it and that is why I am traveling six or seven months out of the year. You have to be out playing. I will be in California in October with the trio.