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Bill Mays: Inventions, Conventions and Dimensions

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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This title is more than a rhyme: it's an attempt to capture some of the legendary versatility of pianist Bill Mays. "Inventions" refers to his unprecedented, working jazz trio of piano, trumpet, and cello. "Conventions" is a nod to his invaluable contribution to the annual meeting of the International Society of Bassists (in 2013, he played 21 rehearsals and 24 concerts during the week). Finally, "dimensions" reflects his multifaceted musical accomplishments, which include soundtracks for TV and movies—for example, his tune "Gemma's Eyes" will appear in The Fifth Estate, the 2013 Dreamworks thriller about Wikileaks. Mays is probably best-known for his studio work and touring with Sarah Vaughan, as well as composing, arranging, and playing and recording in every configuration from solo to orchestra.

Mays is also famous for his flawless and fluid technique, great imagination, and wit. But despite his four-page, single-spaced discography, he is relatively unknown outside the velvet walls of jazz. This interview, conducted on a jazz cruise, explores some reasons for that, especially in light of his five-decade career.

All About Jazz: We were lucky enough to have breakfast with Phil Woods this morning.

Bill Mays: Just now?

AAJ: Yes, just now. We had a lovely time, and I asked him if he had any message for you. He said that you should get a real job.

BM: [Laughs] Yes, Phil's sense of humor is legendary.

AAJ: I've always thought that you're under-famous. You've had an unusually long and successful career, but many people have little idea about the variety of things you've done.

BM: Well, there's the fact that I stayed in Los Angeles until I was 40. While I played jazz whenever I could—and made some records during that fifteen years- -the bulk of my time was spent in the studios.

AAJ: Doing what? Sweeping?

BM: Windows, mostly.

Back in those days, there were TV shows like Sonny and Cher and the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell, and they had 20-25 piece orchestras, and dancers, and rehearsal pianists that worked with the choreographers. There was a whole TV industry with shows like Knots Landing, Dallas, and Knight Rider, all of which I played on.

The shows were scored every week, with maybe a three to six-hour scoring session for an hour-long segment. There were films being made and soundtracks being recorded in Hollywood all the time, so I worked on movie soundtracks a lot. Now a lot of that work has gone to other countries, or it's being done on synthesizers, so orchestras are small.

Anyway, I did jingles and commercials and rock n' roll records. I played with the Mike Curb Congregation, and Donnie and Marie Osmond. I played with Michael Jackson before he was Michael Jackson. I played on five of Barry Manilow's hit records. I worked with Phil Spector on a Leonard Cohen record—with that "wall of sound," he was like Noah, wanting two of everything.

So people don't know a lot of my history; they might just know that I was a studio musician. I also got typecast as an accompanist because I played for so many singers.

AAJ: You mentioned Sarah Vaughan. How about a good memory of your time together?

BM: Sarah sometimes took requests from the audience. One night someone asked for one of her hits, something she hadn't sung in years. Reluctantly she said OK, looked insecurely at the band, and bassist Gus Mancuso said, "Don't worry, Sass, I know all your material, I got you covered." Half into the tune she forgot the lyrics, and turned and looked hopefully at Gus. He smiled, while slapping his bass on 1 and 3, and shouted, "A7...D7...Bb7." Sarah fell down laughing and couldn't finish the tune.

AAJ: I can imagine! What other singers did you work with?

BM: Peggy Lee, Frank D'Rone, who's on the ship somewhere, I gotta find him. Frank Sinatra. Anita O'Day.

AAJ: I'd like to rewind a bit. Please explain how the music was done for a television show.

BM: In fact, that was my entrée to studio recoding work. I started out as a rehearsal pianist working on the Oral Roberts Show—yeah, he had a choreographer team, husband and wife, heterosexuals. They were the only non-gay choreographers in Hollywood at the time, so Oral Roberts had them.

A side note about Tommy Wolfe, who wrote "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most." He and Russ Freeman were also rehearsal pianists. When Russ stopped using heroin he wanted to distance himself from the jazz world, so he stopped playing jazz, pretty much completely, and worked eight hours a day, five or six days a week, as a rehearsal pianist. I probably got recommended for the job by Tommy Wolfe.

This meant going to the studio where Roberts filmed the show and working with the choreographer, who would say, "We're going to do this song, so play it in this key, in this style, and I'm gonna teach the dancers their steps." So it was drudgery. It was well- paid drudgery, over and over again.

You'd also be asked to compose. He'd say, "At this point we're going to go across the room, in this kind of feel—write some music that works for us to do that for 30 seconds." You'd have to be a quick study and come up with something.

I probably worked six, seven, eight hours a day, four or five days a week. My sketches would go to an orchestrator who would then translate them for orchestra—like a 25-piece orchestra. A guy named Mike Lang, a friend of mine in LA, was the pianist on those sessions. He couldn't make it one day, and recommended me. They said "Well sure, Bill's been doing the rehearsal stuff," so I went in and did the session, and that was the beginning of it.

Gradually, I started to get calls from other composers. And contractors were the middle people between the composer of the film and TV show and the musicians' pool. There was a contractor for each show and each studio had their own: Paramount Studios had Carl Fortina, Sandy DeCrescent was at Universal. Harry Lojewski was at MGM, and he would have a list. He'd know that Bill Mays could play piano, harpsichord, and pipe organ—this was pre-synthesizer, when I started doing studio work—and Bill's a great reader, and he's great with the conductor. And Pete Jolly is great at this, and he also plays the accordion, and there's Clare Fischer, who has the big Yamaha electric organ. They had your specifications and your strong and weak points.

They wouldn't call you directly. There were two answering services that would put out a call like, "John Williams has a movie date at Fox next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 9:00 to 12:00 and 1:00 to 4:00—here's the orchestra list—and Bill Mays is number one, or Clare Fischer is number one, and if you can't get them, then go to the second one.

That's the way it worked. It was a business. You knew the composer's name, the studio, and the time. You didn't know the name of the film, you didn't know the size of the orchestra—you didn't have any music in advance. You just walked into the studio.

The music contractor was the one who filled out the payroll info, called the ten-minute break every hour and shooed you out if you showed up late, saying "You do not keep a 60- (or 20-piece) orchestra waiting!"


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