"I was born in Sacramento, CA" (William Allen Mays) Feb. 5, 1944. "There was always music in our home. My dad, Bill Sr., was a minister, and played the piano, organ, trombone, guitar and harmonica, so gospel music was the first music I heard. My mom, Martha, a homemaker, had a beautiful, very natural, voice and I have vivid memories of him playing the accordion while she sang. Dad's trombone was an old, silver valved one. I loved that sound—it’s probably the reason I took up the baritone horn and trumpet in junior high school. We had a spinet piano, a Baldwin Acrosonic, and I was at it from a very early age.
I had some great teachers down through the years but the one who really set the stage, at around age eight, was Ethel Bush. She was a loving, supportive person who really ignited my passion for the instrument, including a love of practice, an awareness of tone production and the sheer joy of just being at the piano. That was a great gift. My first exposure to jazz came at age 16, when a friend took me to a jazz brunch at which the legendary Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines was playing solo piano. It was so new to my ears, and it was burning! His rhythmic drive, unusual melodic twists, two-handed independence and use of the whole keyboard thrilled and inspired me. Shortly thereafter I heard Miles Davis’ band at San Francisco’s Black Hawk, and that was further inspiration. Later I discovered Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Rowles, Horace Silver and Art Tatum—I was hooked!
My professional life began a year later, in 1961, when I joined the US Navy as a bandsman. I spent a year at the Naval School of Music in Washington DC, studying and jamming in the band room, and hanging out at the Bohemian Caverns listening to the JFK Quintet. After four years in the Navy, stationed in San Diego, I joined AFM Local 325 and started working with the Bill Green ensemble. Green played sax, clarinet and vibes. We did club dates, county fairs, industrial shows, commercials, and a daily TV variety show. It was great experience—playing different styles, sight-reading, accompanying singers, and learning loads of new tunes. During that period I listened a lot to pianist Mike Wofford, a marvelous San Diego-based pianist whom I count as a big influence. I also co-led a quartet called Road Work Ahead, with Peter Sprague, Jim Plank and Bob Magnusson. We combined electronic and acoustic instruments and worked quite a bit around L.A. and San Diego. Everyone wrote for the band so It really furthered my development as a composer.