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Billy Kilson: Nasty Pitch

Trish Richardson By

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But a customer Kilson met one night in a bar changed his outlook completely. Kilson explains, "I was playing in a club called Wally's Café in Boston. That's where I learned to play jazz proper and even how to perform publicly. It was on one break and I was telling a guy how frustrated I was that I see guys, like my peers in school, and they are playing with this band, that band, and they are traveling here and they are traveling there. And the guy said simply, 'Don't worry about getting the gig—worry about being ready for the call.'

"And that's how I got through. Every day I kind of flipped it, if you will, and I said 'Okay, what I am going to do is this—I am going to prepare myself so that when the person calls, I'm ready.' As opposed to just being in this melancholy state and just sitting around sulking, sulking, sulking. What if the person does call and I say, 'Oh, I need about six months to practice?' I just flipped it. It's all psychological. It was that person. I guess it's the whole form of perseverance. That's what I did. That's what got me through."

But did he have a back up plan in case things didn't turn out as he hoped? He didn't but his mother did. Kilson explains, "I have to thank my mom for my backup plan. The first two years I was going to Berklee, I didn't have an apartment. I was still staying in the dorms. So my mother would make me go to the local community college during the summer. This was around 1980, '81 '82. At that time, the future was computers, computer programming or whatever. She made me take courses in everything with computers. Not programming, but everything about computers, data entry, word processing, that kind of stuff. She said, you never know, you might need this skill. And lo and behold I was one of the few musicians that graduated from Berklee without a gig! So I was a customer service rep for New England Telephone."

"Of course, it would be easy to say that I was paranoid and thought that everyone was making it but me, but it was true! They nicknamed the time I went to Berklee from 1978 to 1986, the 'Golden Years of Berklee.' Realistically, twenty to thirty percent of the students at Berklee make it like that and are very successful. In any kind of academia, whether it is high school, or you have a kid in Little League, or a kid that's an actor, it's only that one child from the school who becomes successful. So twenty percent is pretty big."

Yet Kilson never saw it as a competition. The musician explains, "I remember talking with my grandmother after my first semester at Berklee and I said, 'It's hard and I don't know if I made the right choice.' She told me that horses have blinders. They don't see left or right, they just see straight ahead. That's what you have to do.'

"So myself and the drums, we went by ourselves with the blinders on. I didn't see any competition. And I never do. I don't see, 'Oh, this guy is doing better than me or whatever.' I never see that. If you see me play, I'm a kid. It's just me and the drums. I have a great time. And that's how I got through. It would have slowed me down if I started comparing. I would have never progressed."

With the benefit of hindsight, Kilson is able to view the situation with a bit more clarity and wisdom. "A lot of those guys started playing musical instruments when they were pretty young. I think Chris said he started playing trumpet when he was seven or eight. So by me starting ten years later, when I look back, it makes sense, because I had a lot of catching up to do. You are not going to be able to retain all of that after you've only played a couple of years. But at eighteen, twenty, twenty-two, I didn't want to hear that. I would have thought, 'That's stupid!' But I am fifty now, maybe a little wiser, and it kind of makes sense. When I was twenty I had only been playing drums for four years. There were guys at school that had already been playing their instruments for ten years, plus. So it makes sense that they could grasp whatever skills they need to use or utilize or even understand in order to work professionally."

Does he harbor any resentment? "I would be bitter about it maybe, if I was still working at the phone company! But I can't begrudge that I started out so late. No way. Those guys were way ahead of the game. Because it's math, basically. They had a ten year start on me. There's no way you are going to catch that guy. It is impossible."

Kilson gives credit for his musical success to his three heroes: his mother, drummer Alan Dawson and pianist Ahmad Jahmal. "From the start, it was my mom. What success I have, I owe to her. She supported me from day one. She taught me to stay focused, to have faith in myself and my abilities, and that anything is attainable.


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