Billy Kilson: Billy's Groove

Katrina-Kasey Wheeler By

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But looking back and having someone yell at me saying, 'What are you doing, I'm trying to dance,' or 'That's cool!' That helped me in a way to hone the skills that I am using now.
The Berklee educated, innovative drummer Billy Kilson may have started out playing the trumpet and trombone, but playing the drums was certainly his calling. The virtuoso performer, who has toured with such famed musicians as George Duke, Diane Reeves and has been a part of Chris Botti's band for the past four years, is known as a drummer of the highest caliber; known as such for his revelational improvisation and timing, and an undeniable stage presence reminiscent of the great jazz drummers before him.

Katrina-Kasey Wheeler of All About Jazz caught up with Kilson between sets at world famous jazz club, Yoshi's in Oakland, California to discuss his current tour and the new projects on the horizon.

All About Jazz: Your mother was responsible for enrolling you in trumpet lessons and you later switched to the trombone. Why did you stay with those instruments at the time, since you were interested in playing the drums?

Billy Kilson: When I was growing up, the really big jazz artist at the time was Louis Armstrong. So, it was kind of like peer pressure—but not really. If I had said that I wanted to play the drums, it would have been like a sacrilegious thing. I always knew that I wanted to be a drummer. My mom would say that I was playing the drums in the womb—always kicking.

AAJ: So it has been in you literally since birth.

BK: When I was a child I would play on the pots and pans. I did play the trumpet and the trombone and I was not good at it at all. I struggled with those instruments, and so for a while I said, "The heck with this music stuff." Later on though the drums were calling me... and I ended up playing the drums. There was a stage band when I was in the eighth grade and I went up to the drummer and said, "Hey let me sit down, I think I can do that." I sat down and played and the drummer was like, "whoa." So I told my mom that I wanted a drum set, and I was sixteen at that time.

AAJ: At that age, that served as a great motivating force, since you were given the drums under the condition that you keep your grades up.

BK: Absolutely. My mother is my hero, without her, I wouldn't be able to stand.

AAJ: I think it is worth mentioning that your mother really instilled the need to have faith to achieve the great heights that you have reached in your career.

BK: Absolutely.

AAJ: Especially in this business it is so important to have a support system. Who would you say has been your biggest professional influence?

BK: Alan Dawson without a doubt and then Tony Williams.

AAJ: Right, you studied under Dawson. You are teaching a clinic at the Seattle Drum School.

BK: Yes, I do things like that. I love to share whatever knowledge that I have to be able to pass that around.

AAJ: If you could give one general piece of advice to someone who wants to become a drummer, what would it be?

BK: Persevere, and practice, practice, practice!

AAJ: Practice is such a major part of learning your craft.

BK: I used to practice fourteen hours a day. It was insane!

AAJ: You have been touring with Chris Botti for the past four years. You all play upwards of two-hundred gigs a year.

BK: The tour schedule is great in that it is great practice for me. It is a laborious process, it really is. I respect Chris [Botti] so much, because an eighteen year-old can have a career in what seems to be overnight. Someone like Chris—he works hard, he works hard. He represents those of us who have to work hard in order to persevere and not give up. The light is at the end of the tunnel.

AAJ: Since we are on the subject, how would you classify Chris Botti as a bandleader?

BK: I have been in music for twenty-one years and Chris is definitely the most generous bandleader that I have ever had.

AAJ: You all are constantly on tour. You tour so much.

BK: Too much!

AAJ: It is great, though, for jazz artists such as yourselves to be able to be touring that much. There is definitely a demand from fans for it, as you well know.

BK: It's definitely feast or famine. When you are out there doing it, you're saying, "Oh! This is crazy!" But then when you're not doing it, you're wondering why the phone isn't ringing.

AAJ: It is definitely special to see you all on stage improvising. I think it is important to see that element of improvisation. Rather than merely listening to an artist's record, there are added artistic elements and effects to seeing and hearing artists perform live. Going back to the fact that you're constantly touring and with most touring bands there is a specific set list, improvisation must keep it interesting.

BK: It definitely keeps things fresh. It goes back to Chris' generosity. A lot of artists would say, "Adhere to what you did last night and that would be great." Chris is more open and allows us to do whatever we are feeling. That makes it very interesting and fresh for us all.

AAJ: The elements of camaraderie and artistic freedom certainly translate to the audience, which is really what one is expecting to witness from a live jazz show.

BK: The fact that the audience still gets it is rewarding. Periodically we do see people that may have been to about ten shows or whatever. For me personally, I'm thinking to myself, "They have seen me do this, what am I going to do?" So in a way that is a challenge. To see that they are into that challenge and they receive that challenge very well, that keeps me fresh.

AAJ: Absolutely, the fans keep coming back for more. You are working on an instructional DVD. How is that coming along?

BK: We are in the editing stage.

AAJ: Has it been a daunting task?

BK: I had no idea that it would be as daunting as it has been. Once I started the process of analyzing myself—that can be tricky. I definitely enjoyed this project.

AAJ: Obviously the education to obtain the skills to play an instrument is crucial. One can go to the finest school and hone their craft; however, is it the hunger, and the ear, that creates greatness?

BK: In a way, I was lucky to start a little later; the whole ten year overnight success—so to speak. I paid a lot of dues. I played with many different types of bandleaders within various genres, and there are a lot of different types of personalities involved, as well as the clientèle. In the beginning it helps to get booed, it helps to build a certain character. I remember playing at hotels and thinking, "I'm never going to have a chance to travel because I'm playing at this hotel." But looking back and having someone yell at me saying, "What are you doing, I'm trying to dance," or "That's cool!" That helped me in a way to hone the skills that I am using now. So all those experiences including the things that I learned from Alan [Dawson], and from playing wedding gigs, and gigs in and outside of the Washington D.C. area, and doing other gigs here and there—lump that into a bowl, mix it up, throw it into a funnel and that's me.

AAJ: That is all part of the process. The music industry is not for the faint of heart. It absolutely takes persistence and a certain frame of mind that doesn't include any possibility of failure. Certainly it was wonderful to study under someone like Alan Dawson. I remember reading a quote of his and I think it is a great mantra for any musician: "I don't think there is such a thing as having too much knowledge. On the other hand, I don't think that the mere fact that you know how to play something is a reason to play it."

BK: Definitely.

AAJ: Pots & Pans (Aspirion, 2006) has been really well received. With your hectic schedule, do you plan to head into the studio anytime soon?

BK: Not immediately because I will be releasing the DVD first. I am very excited at how the CD has been received. It is so different from performing live because that is instantaneous gratification, but when you do a studio project, you have no idea how the audience is going to receive it. I'm flattered that most people like it and they get it. It means a lot to me.

Selected Discography:

Billy Kilson, Pots & Pans (Aspirion, 2006)

Chris Botti, To Love Again (Columbia, 2005)

Dave Holland, Overtime (Sunny Side, 2005)

Michael Franks,Watching the Snow (Rhino / Wea, 2004)

Chris Botti, When I Fall in Love (Columbia, 2004)

Spyro Gyra, Deep End (Heads Up, 2004)

Bob James, Take It from the Top (JVC Japan, 2003)

Larry Carlton, Sapphire Blue (JVC Victor, 2003)

Steve Wilson, Soulful Song (Max Jazz Records, 2003)

Donald Brown Trio, Autumn in New York (Columbia, 2002)

Carla Cook, Simply Natural (Max Jazz Records, 2002)

Dave Holland Big Band, What Goes Around (Universal/Polygram, 2002)

Joe Locke, State of Soul (Sirocco Jazz Limited, 2002)

Philip Bailey, Soul on Jazz (Heads Up, 2002)

Dave Holland Quintet, Not for Nothin' (Ecm Records, 2001)

Bob James, Restoration: The Best of Bob James (Warner Bros / Wea, 2001)

Mike Gibbs, Nonsequence (Provocateur Records, 2001)

BK Groove, While Ur Sleepin' (BK Groove Publishing BMI, 2001)

Dave Holland Quintet Prime Directive (Ecm Records, 2000)

Bob James, Joyride (Warner Bros / Wea, 1999)

Bill Evans, Escape (Escapade, 1996)

Diane Reeves, Art & Survival (Capitol, 1994)

Billy Childs, Portrait of a Player (Windham Hill Records, 1993)

Terence Blanchard, Simply Stated (Sony, 1992)

Diane Reeves, I Remember (Blue Note Records, 1991)


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