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Billy Kilson: Nasty Pitch

Trish Richardson By

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"And then there's Alan Dawson. Bar none, he's the guy who instilled my inner inspiration. I love the phrase this guy used once: 'If it sounds good, it's all my teacher.' So I would have to say, if there are any mistakes, that's all me—but if it sounds good, I have to say it's all Alan."

Kilson went to Berklee to specifically study with Dawson. Kilson recalls, "I had gone to this music camp my senior year in high school, and I wasn't sure where I wanted to go to college; this drummer was telling me I should go to Boston. He said there is this great teacher at Berklee College of Music, and he taught Tony Williams. He told me I should go see Alan, that Alan could help me. The one and only reason I went to Berklee was to study with Alan. But, when I got to Berklee, he had stopped teaching there. His last semester was in the spring prior to my fall semester. I freaked out! I didn't know what I was going to do. He was teaching at his home, which was ten, maybe fifteen, miles from Berklee. But he had a waiting list."

It still took two more years and some additional courage before Kilson felt he was ready to be under Dawson's tutelage. Kilson explains, "It wasn't until I was twenty, maybe, that I got to study with him. This is not because of the waiting list, though. I went with some friends of mine to go see him play, during my first semester. Once I saw him, I thought, 'No way could I study with that guy!'


"I grew up playing pop and funk music, and Alan Dawson was playing primarily jazz. It's like hearing English, English, English your whole life, and then walking into a place where everyone is speaking Russian or Arabic, and there's this kind of calligraphy on the wall. You're like, 'Whoa! Wait!' So I thought, 'No way am I going to study with him. I have to practice some more before I even ask this guy.'"

Kilson continues, "So, fast-forwarding a couple of years, I played at the Jazz Society Picnic. I was really into Philly Joe Jones at the time, so I had memorized everything that Philly Joe Jones played. Alan Dawson was playing at this picnic. I was playing with this band, and he was going to play later. He was off to the back and talking to someone while I was playing. I could see him slowly approaching the stage. As I finished the solo, I walked off the stage, and he grabbed my left hand and asked me, 'How are you able to play that without any formal training? It's obvious you haven't had any formal training. How are you able to play that, though?'

I said, 'Well, Mr. Dawson, I practice with tapes, and I try to learn it.'

He replied, 'Come see me, and I can help you get to your destination much faster and much easier.' That was his way of saying, 'We'll skip everyone down the waiting list, and you can move to the front of the pack and come to my lessons.' I was so moved, but I was freaked! Talk about a kid on Christmas Day! All my dreams came true!"

Kilson's relationship with pianist Ahmad Jamal began in 1989. Recalls Kilson, "Even when I worked with him, I would call Alan from the road and say, "I don't know how to do this. What's happening with this? What do I need to do, to practice this?"

Kilson knew he was nearing the end of his time studying with Dawson when the elder drummer put him through what Kilson calls a " Kung Fu" moment. Explains Kilson, "Toward the end of my apprenticeship, Alan stopped teaching me physically; I would just sit there for an hour, and we would exchange philosophical ideas. My lessons had graduated to that. Then, I still say, he kicked me out. My last lesson was almost like Kung Fu where the blind guy tells David Carradine, 'If you can snatch the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave." Alan gave me what they call the "ritual," which is the ultimate goal to achieve. That was the physical "snatch the pebble from the hand" moment, even though I still had a couple of years to go.

"But since I was playing with Ahmad Jamal, Alan said, 'There's nothing else I could really teach you, more than what you could learn from Ahmad Jamal.' I felt like I was just getting started! Are you kidding? I was there for seven-and-a-half years, and I was learning so much from him. Of course there was the physical teaching, but I also was learning so much from him philosophically that was fruitful to my being a drummer and a musician.

"Alan was right in a sense because Ahmad Jamal is the third person I would say influenced me. Before I studied with him, I was just a drummer. After touring with him for over a year, I became a musician. So it's that trinity which influenced me the most: my mom, Alan Dawson, and Ahmad Jamal."

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