Bill Berry: Interview 1
Bill Berry: Interview 2

Bill Berry (1930–2002)

Trumpeter, cornetist and bandleader Berry was born into a musical family in Benton Harbor, Michigan. He took up trumpet as a teenager, worked in territory bands in the mid-west US, studied music formally in the 1950s and then worked with the orchestras of Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson.

From 1961 to 1964 he was a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and appeared in the film ‘Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’ in 1962. Berry gained special note for his inventive obbligato playing behind tap dancer Bunny Briggs on Ellington’s ‘My People’ album in 1963.

In 1970, after moving to Los Angeles, he founded the Ellington-inspired LA Big Band which performed and recorded extensively and featured numerous internationally known soloists. In 1980 he toured England with drummer Louie Bellson’s big band and, in subsequent years into the 1990s, performed with saxophonist Benny Carter.

Biography by Roger Cotterrell


My pleasurable jazz life

In this 1984 interview, Bill Berry tells Les Tomkins about his work with the LA Big Band which he founded after moving from New York, and his latest playing visit to Britain.


Bill Berry: Interview 3

Bill Berry: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1984
Interview source Jazz Professional
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Image source URL
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Forename Bill
Surname Berry
Quantity 2

Interview Transcription

This is my third trip over the first having been with Louie Bellson’s band. The second one, a year ago, was partly a holiday; this one is all playing travelling around Britain as a single. So far I’ve played with five different groups, and every one of them has been first–class. Which is kind of amazing not because it’s England, but because it’s hard to get five first–class groups in Los Angeles if you didn’t hand–pick them, and even then I’m not too sure. So I’m very, very impressed. I would say the level here is equal to, if not higher than, any place I’ve been. I mean that including New York and Los Angeles.

The other day I worked with the Trinity College Big Band also, and that went fine. They have an excellent trumpet player; the drummer was very good—everybody was very good. They played several of the arrangements from my book, and I know they’re not easy—they played the heck out of ‘em! It was a Tribute To Ellington; so I brought the original “Cotton Tail” with me. In fact, the saxophone parts are right out of Duke’s book, and they’re very illegible, but these guys read them perfectly. Well, not just guys; there were girls in the band too, of course. And Bobby Lamb, the director, and I were with Woody Herman together many years ago we’re old friends.

That “Cotton Tail” chart was got for me by my son’s godfather, the late Jimmy Jones, at the time he was Ella Fitzgerald’s musical director. He got it from Ella; she used to sing that with Duke’s band, when they appeared together.

The reason my big band is called the L.A. Band is that when I started it I was in New York. and I would call it the New York Band; then, when I unexpectedly moved to California, it just seemed logical to call it the L.A. Band. We played the Monterey Jazz Festival last year, and this September we’re playing at the Hollywood Bowl with George Shearing, Mel Torme and Carmen McRae. Yes, they’ll be working with the band; well, I’m not sure that George will be I think he probably just does a duo.

The show is called “Jazz Goes To The Movies”; so obviously they will be doing songs that were introduced in the movies.

And the band is going to do a medley of the score of Anatomy Of A Murder, that Ellington wrote. I came across the music recently; we haven’t started rehearsing it yet, but when I get back we will. That’ll be right after this year’s Monterey Festival. I’m on that every year, directing the High School All–Star Jazz Band. We rehearse for a week in Monterey; then we open the festival on the Friday, and we play all Sunday afternoon.

And I’m also playing Sunday night; we’re closing the festival with—talk about an all–star band! Let’s see—the rhythm section is Mundell Lowe, Shelly Manne, Hank Jones and, I believe, George Duvivier; the horns are Benny Carter, Richie Cole, Zoot Sims, Lockjaw Davis and James Moody; the trombones are Slide Hampton and Carl Fontana; the trumpets are Sweets Edison, Clark Terry and myself. So that should be some band, and Jimmy Lyons, who runs the festival, has asked me to sort of organise it, so that it’s not just a big jam session.

With ten horns, it’s like a big band, but we don’t have any arrangements—so my idea is to do a tribute to Basie. since there are several Basieites in there, and it’s something we can do without having to write it down, with a band that size. So many of the Basie things were heads to start with, anyway exactly. That’s just the way I figured it, and Mundell agreed with me—he’s the musical director of the festival now; so I think that’s what we’ll do.

Will it be recorded? Well, the Voice Of America records every year, for play behind the Iron Curtain, but we never get to hear any of it. I don’t know if anybody else will record it or not, but when you get that many people of that calibre a lot of them have contracts with various companies. But I’m sure looking forward to it.

The accent, with my own band, is on Ellington a great deal. Not entirely, because you can’t imitate anybody, and I wouldn’t want to, either. We play a lot of Duke’s arrangements, but we don’t try to recreate or anything; and we do them, of course, with our own solos. Marshal Royal is still there—he’s been with us for twelve years now; I have both Candoli brothers, Pete and Conte, and Buster Cooper from Duke’s band; Dave Frishberg, Frankie Capp and Monty Budwig are with us. There haven’t been too many changes in the band, except a few people have unfortunately left us for the big band in the sky. Other than that, it’s a pretty stable personnel which I take as a compliment to the music, to me, I suppose, and to each other. We don’t make much money doing it, but it’s first–class musically.

I hope bands like those of Woody Herman and Buddy Rich are making money I mean that sincerely but, of course, those are full—time road bands. And you know who goes on the road—as was always the case—with the exception of Ellington and a few people in Basie’s band, it’s mostly young fellows. Because it’s when you’re young that you go on the road, isn’t it? It was that way with me absolutely. The Ellington band was a phenomenon in itself, having some of the same people for forty and fifty years—that’s unheard of anywhere else, with the one exception of Freddie Green with Basie.

I play with other bands out on the Coast with Nat Pierce, Frankie Capp’s Juggernaut and several others. Everywhere you go, people will say how much they like the big band sound; I, of course, do too. But as you know, economically it’s very difficult. As for my people nobody could afford them full–time. Nobody. They make plenty of money freelancing. That’s why I’m impressed and grateful that we have stayed together so long I know it’s strictly for the love of music.

I tell them the dates as far in advance as possible, and when somebody has something where they’re going to make a good deal of money, they certainly don’t have to be beholden to me. First things first, that’s right. Luckily, in Los Angeles there are plenty of good substitutes. In fact, one of the fellows I used quite often as a saxophone substitute is an English fellow named Bobby Efford; he’s a wonderful player—he plays all the reed instruments, and he plays the hell out of all of ‘em. He works with me, and he’s worked with Juggernaut, Bob Florence, Terry Gibbs, Bill Holman. There are a lot of good bands in Los Angeles I suppose because there are so many excellent players there. There and New York are the main places you can make a living in this business.

Studio work? I haven’t done that for a living for about six or seven years, I guess. No, I finally decided that if I was ever going to do what I wanted to do, I’d better do it. So I don’t make nearly as much money as I used to but I think I’m a lot happier. My wife certainly says I am. I’m having a good time, and I feel like I’m playing better than I ever have. It’s strictly jazz and that is what I started out to do many years ago. It’s taken a long time to get there, but I feel as though I’m accomplishing something other than making money. And I seem to have reached a point where I can do that too which I’m very thankful for. Financially, it’s close, but these days I think everything is. Yes, it seems to be working. It’s not exactly taking a stand against doing bread–and–butter work; it’s that I’ve found that it’s not really necessary any more. As a result, I don’t get too many offers for those kind of jobs; after seven years or so, I’ve sort of gotten off the lists they know I’m usually not available. I have nothing against it, but I feel like I’ve paid my dues in that direction.

I think the climate has changed enough that there are more places to play now; there are enough festivals and jobs of that sort that it’s possible to make a living out of jazz. I’m sure Shorty Rogers, for example, is back in it because he just missed it so bad; he didn’t start out to be writing for the movies he started out to be a jazz trumpet player. But you have to take care of your family. That, of course, is another factor my son is now almost twenty; so that takes a lot of pressure off me. Not that it was really pressure, but I wanted to do as much as I could for him. Now my wife Betty and I are free to travel. Because you must travel, if you’re not doing studio work.

I’ve been to Japan a couple of times with Benny Carter. And we did a lovely job a few weeks ago, that was dedicated to Duke; Leonard Feather showed rare Ellington films. I put a band together: Marshal Royal, Buster Cooper and myself—it was three horns, and Mundell Lowe, Nat Pierce; Richard Reid was the bass player and Vince Lateano was the drummer. And Betty, my wife, sang, which she hasn’t done in years. They flew us to Acapulco, Mexico, and we sailed back on a gorgeous Princess liner; there’s a television show in the States called The Love Boat, and this is the boat they use in it. So we cruised back to Los Angeles for a week, and in that time we played a total of two hours and forty–five minutes. It was really a wonderful vacation; anything you wanted they’d bring you they paid for everything, for us and our wives. It was great. I didn’t even know that kind of job existed.

I haven’t been on the Dick Gibson Party, but I’ve worked for him in Denver. Besides the annual Party, he also has a theatre up there, that they’ve restored, and they have jazz one weekend a month; they fly people in from all over. And I’m the musical director for a party that’s called the Otter Crest Jazz Weekend—it takes place in Otter Rock, Oregon. We just did the seventh year—my sixth as MD. It’s a wonderful party—this year we had Sweets, Benny Carter, Lanny Morgan, Pete Christlieb, Shelly Manne’s trio; we hire three rhythm sections and horns. Joe Williams sang. You spend three days in this fantastic resort out in the woods, right on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s not a town or anything, and there’s nobody there except the jazz people for the whole weekend. They pay you to eat and sleep and play jazz with the best musicians in the world—can’t be bad.

Those kind of things are happening more, thank goodness. The people who run this Otter Crest affair, Jim and Mary Brown... this sounds unbelievable, but they do it strictly for the love of it. They don’t want to make any money; it’s a totally non–profit set–up. They put everything they collect back into the music for the next year. It only involves two hundred–and–thirty guests—that’s the number that the resort can handle, and that’s all they have. It’s open to the public. but first come first served. And the people come for the entire weekend it’s a wonderful experience; a holiday for everybody. including the musicians.

One day, maybe, we’ll do it As for bringing my band over here that would be wonderful, but the cost is prohibitive. Just the air fare alone. It was far from easy for Louie to make it; it probably costs twice as much now—fares, lodging, food and so on. Of course, I’d love to bring the band, but I don’t see any chance of that in the immediate future.

  Copyright © 1984 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.