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Bill Mays: Mays’ Days

Bill Mays (photo: Alan Nahigian)
Bill Mays, Martin Wind and Matt Wilson (photo: Judy Kirtley)

In 1959, 15-year-old Bill Mays, the son of a fundamentalist preacher in California, had jazz revealed to him by a god of the piano.

Earl “Fatha” Hines, resident pianist at the Hangover Club across the bay in San Francisco, was making an appearance near the Mays home in Lafayette. Mays had been playing the piano since he was five and had solid classical training, but Bill Lotter, the choir director in Bill Mays Sr.’s church, wanted to expand the teenager’s horizons.

Mays’ parents, both musicians, agreed. The rekindling of Hines’ career was half a decade away. His powers were undiminished.

“We walked in, and there was Hines playing on an old upright, a white piano,” Mays says. “He had a piece of Masonite under the pedals, and he was stompin’. I immediately recognized the emotional content of what I was hearing. I had played gospel music and heard a lot of black gospel music when dad and I would visit some of the Baptist churches in East Los Angeles; they had Fender bass, drums, organ and piano, and it got smokin’. So when I heard jazz, I knew there was a connection, and I loved what I heard.”

Choir director Lotter offered his next lesson a year later in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where he took Mays to the Black Hawk. They sat behind chicken wire and drank Cokes in the area provided for children. That public-service exception to the liquor laws, set up by an agreement between Black Hawk owner Guidio Caccienti and Mayor George Chrisopher, made it possible for hundreds of Bay Area youngsters to experience world-class jazz. The band Mays heard there was the Miles Davis sextet.

“That’s when I got the bug,” Mays says, “when I heard Fatha Hines and Miles, and then on the radio I heard a record by the Lighthouse All-Stars. It was Bud Shank on alto, Stu Williamson on trumpet, Claude Williamson playing piano, Bob Enevoldsen on trombone, Stan Levey playing drums, Howard Rumsey on bass-a little big band. Dick Shreve wrote a lot of the charts. The arrangements were what really got me. They were wonderful. I think they made a big impression on me as an arranger.”

Tall, smiling, full of enthusiasm and wry humor, the now 59-year-old Mays relaxes in the lobby of Portland’s Benson hotel, where he is about to play a solo recital and duets with Bud Shank for the Jazz Society of Oregon. With a glass of Oregon pinot noir in hand, Mays reminiscences about his musical progression.

Wherever the Reverend Mays’ peripatetic preaching career took the family, his parents saw that young Bill’s lessons continued. “My first teacher was up in West Point in that red clay Sierra Nevada country. Her name was Mrs. Hollingshead. Just exercises and hand position. I enjoyed practicing a lot. She gave me the greatest little candies at the end of the lesson, and a nice gold star in the book. That got me started right. When we moved to Los Angeles, they got me with another wonderful teacher, Ethel Bush. It was all technique; Czerny exercises, little songs and, eventually, Bach two-part inventions, easy Brahms, easy Lizst. I didn’t get harmony and theory until I was in the service, as a Navy musician.”

Mays joined the Navy in 1961, when he was 17, right out of high school. “I went to the Navy music school in Washington, D.C., and I probably got the equivalent of college harmony and theory in nine months. It was very intense.”

The time in Washington exposed Mays to music that reinforced his resolve to have a career in jazz. One of the inspirations was the JFK Quintet, which included alto saxophonist Andrew White, trumpeter Ray Codrington, bassist Walter Booker and drummer Carl Newman. Mays heard the band often at the Bohemian Caverns.

Tenor saxophonist Leroy Locke and other Navy music school colleagues further influenced Mays with their record collections. “They knew the music and had me listening to Horace Silver, early McCoy Tyner, eventually Bill Evans. It wasn’t until later that I went back and heard the earlier guys: Nat Cole, Jess Stacy, Dodo Marmarosa. When you graduated you got either the Navy Band in Washington or one of a host of land-based or ship-based bands. I got Coronado. It turned out to be great.”

On the base at Coronado Island, just off San Diego, Mays’ musical duties were light, and his free time was abundant. He made the most of the situation. “It was about four hours a day doing the Navy band thing, playing ship decommissionings, admirals’ parties, playing the flag up in the morning. I’d hit the bass drum; they’d raise the flag. I had an upright piano in my little apartment off the base. I’d go home and practice the rest of the day and get my government check. It was terrific. I went out and heard music in San Diego. I heard Wynton Kelly there. I listened to Mike Wofford a lot. He had a trio with a bassist named Ted Blake, and Jim Plank on drums. Mike was a big influence on me at that time. I love his playing.”

He even asked Wofford for a lesson once. Wofford listened to him play and said, “Just keep going in that direction.” Later, Mays drove up to L.A. for a lesson with Jimmy Rowles, who listened and growled, “Just keep doin’ what you’re doin’.”

Mays made it a point to show up at clubs where Rowles was playing. “Those were the real lessons,” he says. “I watched how he pedaled. I always pay attention to peoples’ pedalings, especially Hank Jones and Jimmy. That clarity of sound that Hank has-and that muddling of sound that Jimmy had. Jimmy could do magical things, both through his pedaling and the voicing of his chords, and he could make an out-of-tune piano sound better than it was. He just knew how to do it. He once told me, ‘Here’s the key to being a great accompanist: If you think of an idea, play half of it.’

When Mays came to the end of his Navy hitch in 1965, the unit’s recruiting officer tried to get him to reenlist. The appeal was financial security. “He said, ‘You know, another 16 years, you’ll be out of here when you’re in your late 30s and begin drawing down your retirement pay.’ I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ I had already purchased my red-spangled coat that I would be wearing in the Bill Green Orchestra. He was the club-date king of San Diego. It was an entertainment-hotel dance. Green played vibes, clarinet and tenor sax; we all sang, too. Bill had been a member of the Modernaires. We did that kind of harmony and sang ‘Nancy With the Laughing Face’ and ‘A Cottage for Sale,’ all those great tunes.”

Mays worked steadily in San Diego until 1969, when he moved to Los Angeles. “I wanted to branch out and do everything that I could, including studio work, and I did everything. I worked at the Playboy Club, I worked the Gil Mellé jobs, the Carol Wax jobs-” Mays laughs-“Carol Wax looked like he was carved in wax, an old guy with a tuxedo and a baton and a lot of one-night party gigs, cocktail events, weddings. He would kick off the band by rolling his hand in a circular motion, stirring spaghetti. You could guess where ‘one’ was. He’d cut off the band at the end by waving his arms like one of those flight guys at the airport. You’d have to know a hundred of the most-often-played standards: ‘Here’s That Rainy Day’ and ‘Misty’ and ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon.’ But the checks were good.”

During his early days in Los Angeles, Mays worked with Mike Barone’s big band at Donte’s and with saxophonist Tom Scott’s band. He has also accompanied a number of singers-182, so far. Rowles recommended him for gigs with Bill Henderson, then with Sarah Vaughan. Mays laughs his way through a Vaughan story.

“I went over to her house. She pulled out a huge book of arrangements. I was a good reader, but I’d never seen any of this, and I thought the audition was going to last three hours. She started a tune, we got halfway through it and she said, ‘You’ve got the job. Let’s eat,’ and she cooked me a big meal. She was a great cook, and that was a great gig: Jimmy Cobb on drums, Bob Magnusson on bass. It was like a family, in ’72 and ’73, being with Sarah. One of the best things about working with her was learning to play really slow tempos and not be afraid of them. I was paralyzed. Jimmy Cobb said, ‘Hey, here’s how you do it. Just think triplets. Subdivide the beat. Don’t try to live from “one” to “two” to “three” to’ “four.”‘ When he said that, I started to relax with the concept, and within a few nights I had it.”

Soon after Mays landed in L.A., pianist Terry Trotter introduced him to the respected teacher Victor Aller. Aller took Mays to a higher level in terms of technique, sound production, tone and-of essential benefit to Mays’ ambitions-sight-reading.

“I told him I wanted to get into studio work, and he said, ‘You’ve gotta be a dynamite reader.’ I was a fairly good reader, and he took me all the way, by getting a wide variety of music to read and having me play it at a slow enough tempo so that I would keep going and not stop. By learning how to read half a bar, a whole bar, as you’re still playing the preceding bar; how to look at a piece of music and psych it out. How to be a quick study and find the part that’s going give you trouble. How to work out the fingering and not leave it to chance, mark it in. The kind of things that you need whether you’re at the Vanguard reading a Bob Brookmeyer chart or on a studio date doing something by Johnny Williams. When you did a movie score, you didn’t have the luxury of taking music home and practicing. It had to be right then. They put it in front of you and you rehearse it one or two times and, bam, it’s a take.”

The hard work paid off. From 1973 to 1984, Mays did studio work six days a week, four to 12 hours a day. He was on hundreds of film and television soundtracks. He played jazz as often as he could.

“After my career was established, I used to turn down any and all studio work on Fridays and rehearse my band, which at that time was Ernie Watts, myself, Abe Laboriel on bass and Steve Schaeffer on drums. Or I would think nothing of going to Seattle with Howard Roberts, the guitarist, working a week, making a thousand bucks and turning down five thousand dollars of studio dates. I enjoyed the studios, I liked the money, and I always felt, ‘I’m not gonna do this forever.’ Shelly Manne was very encouraging. In fact, Shelly was one of those rare guys who would do studio work and play in his club at night, and I got to play and record with him, Bud Shank, Bobby Shew, Gary Foster. But there wasn’t enough variety of people to play with in clubs, compared with New York.”

Mays counts his recordings and club dates with Manne among the highlights of his career. “Shelly taught me what the joy of time was. I looked over at him on a gig one night and he was just doing, splang-lank-a-dank, dink-a-ting, dink-a-ting, dink-a-ting, dink-a-ting. That’s all he was doing, and it felt so good, and I could play anything on top of it, and he was smiling like a 13-year-old kid. He said, ‘I could do this all my life.'”

In 1984, Mays bowed out of the studios and made the transcontinental jump. In New York, he worked with Gerry Mulligan’s quartet and big band, Clark Terry, Al Cohn, Bob Brookmeyer, Benny Golson and the Mel Lewis Orchestra. His own groups have played at Birdland, the Blue Note, Bradleys, Visiones, the Knickerbocker and the Village Gate. Mays made duo albums with guitarist Ed Bickert and bassists Red Mitchell and Ray Drummond for Concord and DMP. His trio with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson has recorded several CDs, including 2001’s Summer Sketches (Palmetto), which received enthusiastic reviews, as did his duo album with trumpeter Marvin Stamm, By Ourselves (Marstam). The Soccerball (Nagel-Heyer) is another winner by Mays’ trio, but it’s under Wind’s name, with German tenor saxophonist Peter Weniger.

In his newsletter, Cadenzas, Stamm wrote, “Can you imagine what it is like to play with someone who always makes you ‘push the envelope,’ encouraging you to reach down and create from your deepest resources? Someone who weaves such tapestries for you to meld with and then to take flight from, that you always feel as if you could ascend to great heights from that place? Well, this is what I experience working with Bill Mays.”

Since his earliest days in Los Angeles Mays has collaborated with Bud Shank. He is the pianist on Shank’s latest sextet CD, On the Trail (Raw Records).

“He’s got so much energy and so much involvement in the music,” Shank says. “Not only his head, but his whole body, gets into it. He transmits that to whomever he’s playing with, as accompaniment, as a means of help and inspiration. Every once in a while I look over at him when we’re playing, and he’s sitting there smiling and laughing; laughing at himself, smiling at whatever’s going on around him. It’s not just humor; it’s happiness, exuberance. It comes out in his playing as a soloist and it comes out in his playing as an accompanist.”

Mays’ latest trio release on Palmetto, Going Home, came about in part because of a national disaster. He and his wife, the photographer Judy Kirtley, have an apartment in New York and a house on Walker Lake in Shohola, Penn. He proposed to her in a kayak on the lake. Not long after, she was stuck in New York for days following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

“Something happened after 9/11. I kept traveling, but I felt ill at ease. Home meant more than it ever had,” Mays says. “We got married in November, and all of a sudden the new CD just presented itself. I was playing the ‘Going Home’ theme from the New World Symphony by Dvorak with Marvin Stamm. I noted it on a piece of paper. I also put down ‘Home,’ from 1936, and I started doing a little chart on ‘You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,’ and all of a sudden, the album was taking shape. I have a Swiss friend named Jürg Sommer, a writer, pianist and composer. He wrote a beautiful piece called ‘Shohola Song,’ inspired by the picture on my Out in Pa. album. I wrote ‘Shoho Love Song’ for our wedding. I wrote, ‘In Her Arms,’ ‘On the Road’ and ‘Judy.’ I always thought Herbie Mann wrote ‘Comin’ Home Baby,’ but it’s by Bob Dorough and Ben Tucker. Jimmy Rowles wrote ‘Nosey Neighbors.’ ‘I’m a Homebody’ is by Red Mitchell.”

“I relied a lot on the fact that both Martin and Matt are composers and see the whole picture unfolding. They often dictate where the tunes are going as much as I do, and I like that. Red Mitchell and I had that kind of empathy. I also had it when playing duo with Ray Drummond.”

Mays is already thinking about his next CD project, another theme album. It is going to be made up of tunes with girls’ names. He is inclined to record it with an all-female band. “There are certainly enough great women players,” he says, though, with the slightest grin, he admits that he briefly considered, but rejected, cross-dressing for the session.

“Still, a nice taffeta….” He trails off and glances at his wife. Now she wears the grin. Originally Published