Billy Pierce

(Born 25 Sep. '48, Hampton VA) Tenor and soprano saxophones.

Grew up in Florida, I started on tenor, then I played alto, then I went to clarinet, then bass clarinet. I did it backwards. I grew up in rural Florida. My mother was a school teacher and we owned a nice home in Jacksonville. I actually finished high school in Miami where I got my early training in my high school jazz band with reading, and I was hearing jazz music as it should almost sound. Originally we all played the written solos off those early stage band charts like Cherry Point, Neil Hefty's stuff, and Marshall Brown, who had the Newport Youth Band. Solid Blue was one, and the other one was Copley Square. At the time I had no idea that Copley Square was in Boston, which is where I actually ended up. We would play those really dopey solos, but we had no idea. We didn't sound like the high school stage bands do now. That was like 1965, or '66 when stage bands were still in their embryonic stage.

Then I went to college and I never considered that I would be able to be a working musician. I just loved music! I really wanted to play!

After high school I went to Tennessee State on a work-study scholarship, and by then I started playing around with the oboe. I was there, so I said to myself, 'I'm planning on learning something, I want to get some information.' It didn't happen at all. They started a stage band when I was there, but we weren't allowed to play jazz in the black school. If you played jazz, like on the pianos in the practice rooms, the monitor would come and kick you out. It was amazing! That was when the black cultural and political awareness was just happening. So, I started to gradually change a little bit, but they were really steeped in this thing about only European classical, or traditional black music, or whatever - anything but jazz! Still, there were some good players who came out of that school like Cleveland Eaton, Phineas Newborn, and Charles Lloyd. There were some good players there, but they themselves weren't getting any good information either, and I couldn't get it from the guys at the school or from the teachers.

I was working in funk bands at Tennessee State and that's where I found out what the IV chord was. I played in a club called The Sugar Shack, and the band was like a Motown R&B kind of showcase band. I learned a lot about professional playing in that group. I got a gig several years later working with Stevie Wonder, in 1970, by working at the Sugar Shack.

By that time my family told me to go to Berklee College in Boston, which I always knew about and always wanted to go to. When I got to Berklee the reality of what good playing involved, what it took to be a good jazz player, and what it encompassed, really hit me. I was young and I thought people like Charlie Parker just came out of the air, like all of a sudden something just hit them and they just played. But I found out there's a whole lot more to it. You've got to know your instrument and the music, and all aspects of jazz. I was overwhelmed at first.

Who was teaching at Berklee at that time?

My first teacher at Berklee was Charlie Mariano. I don't remember exactly what I learned from Charlie, but I did learn some things from being around him. Like a lot of really good teachers I've had, a lot of the things I learned from them wasn't anything direct, like "This is A, then you do B, then you do C." Many times it was just the daily conversations I would have with them and things would eventually sink in, or eventually I would realize, "Oh, that's what those guys meant." To some degree I now teach like that. I try to be specific, because that's what students want. But it's amazing that some of the stuff those guys would say in passing, and I would think, "Now what was that?", would be the most profound things that one could tell you. I had the same experience with Joe Viola, Joe Allard, and Andy McGhee. Those were the four guys I studied with in my college experience.

Joe Allard was at Berklee?
No, I studied with Joe Allard after I finished Berklee. I went to have a few lessons with him and found him to be very interesting. He's quite a character. I got a lot out of my time with him. Again, I couldn't tell you specifically what, but I do remember some things about tone production. And again, he'd say some things and I would go, "Now, what is this guy talking about?", and later on I'd say, "Oh yea!" One has to figure out a few things for oneself. I think a lot of master teachers allow students to do that. They might give an analogy, but basically it's self discovery and one has to get into it and experience it.

You mentioned playing with Stevie Wonder early on, and you later landed a major gig with him. Was this the period before he really started getting the big breaks.?
That's right. In 1970 Stevie Wonder had just turned twenty-one. At the time there were a lot of negotiations between him and Motown over a new contract.

It was a good band, and I stayed for about six or seven months. Signed, Sealed, and Delivered was one of the things we were playing. I actually dropped out of Berklee to go on the road with Stevie Wonder. I wasn't sure what I was going to do anyway. Stevie was great, but I wasn't that knocked out playing the music. I enjoyed being on the road, but it wasn't jazz, and that's what I really wanted to play. But, it was the first time I ever made that kind of money and a chance to travel. We went to Hawaii, LA, South America, and then the group disbanded. My friend Bobby Eldridge and I were supposed to come back with a new band. Bobby was the baritone player. Now he plays in the pits in New York City and is a good player. Word got out Stevie was looking for a new band and by that time Steve Madeo, Trevor Lawrence, and Dave Sanborn were in his band. For a period of time I was listening to a lot of rock, and blues. I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, and things like that.

But all that was the learning experience. After the Stevie Wonder thing ended I went back to Boston, and then that was the period where I grew the most. The baritone player and I were roommates and we lived in an apartment building that had another group of musicians on the second floor (we were on the 4th floor), and they had a B-3 in there, an electric piano, and a set of drums.

I wish I had known your address. I was sitting in a hotel in Cambridge the whole time!
A lot of guys who came through town would stop by. The guy whose house it was (his name was Steve West) went to the Performing Arts School in New York, so he knew a lot of players like George Cables, Lenny White, Stanley Clarke (who played with Joe Henderson at that time), Larry Young, Steve Grossman, and Dave Liebman. I got to hear a lot of great players, and a chance to play everyday. We would play until three or four in the morning. The cops would circle the place to find out what was going on. It was a really great experience. Cedric Lawson was the piano player (he used to play with Miles Davis and Art Blakey), and Art Gore was the drummer.

The Boston Underground!
Yeah, it was a pretty happening scene. That was a really good period of time with a lot of playing and a lot of self discovery musically. It wasn't like I was practicing so much, but I was playing a lot and things started to come together.

After that period of time I decided to go back to school. My parents had already given me all this money and I figured I should repay them by finishing up. By the time I did eventually finish school I had gotten married, and I found myself (at age twenty-three) figuring out how I was going to support myself and my family.

Then I went on the road with a traveling Vaudeville type of thing. As a matter of fact, the guy's name showed up in a newspaper in Bakersfield, California about three or four years ago because he got bumped off (a guy named Roy Raden). The group was called Roy Raden's All-American Vaudeville Review. I did about three of these things and they were like one month tours of one-nighters; thirty in a row, two bills a week, and you tripled. We were backing up people like Frank Gorshin, Joanne Worley, dog acts, drunken jugglers - I mean it was bizarre! We only played for policemen and firemen's benevolent associations. We'd be in really small towns, and sometimes the place would be full of cops and I'd be the only black guy there.

I was playing alto, which I never thought I could and after about three weeks of playing alto I couldn't play tenor. I also had to play clarinet, which was never one of my favorite things to deal with. After about three of those tours I said, 'I can't hack this anymore!" I decided teaching can't be worse than this, it's got to be better. They had already asked me to teach at Berklee, and I had really wanted to do that. So, I started teaching there and I learned a lot more than I had ever learned before, by teaching someone else. I had to really focus my ideas!

I find that in teaching you have to keep going over so many fundamentals with people. Plus you've got to be able to live up to what you're teaching people and to be able to demonstrate things. And it's also give and take. A lot of times a student, who's a beginning player, will say something or ask a question that makes me think, and I'll say, "That's interesting, let's see if that works," and sometimes it does. And sometimes I get players who are already so accomplished I don't know exactly what I can show them.

Do you do much writing?
Usually when I get stuck for some tunes for a record date or a gig. I really want to write more. I like some of the tunes I've come up with. I have some ideas that sound pretty good. When I was studying arranging and composition in college it was still just a means to my learning how to play better. I didn't really look at it as composition, just learning more about music. I feel like you've got to understand music, you can't just be a saxophone player. But I've never thought of myself as a composer, although I have taken gigs doing arrangements for people. And now, I want to do that more, although I don't really have the time to pursue it the way I'd like to. I'd like to have a piano and be able to write more. I tend to lean towards other people's compositions, rather than my own, but I'd like to change that.

When did you actually start teaching at Berklee?
Seventy-five through seventy-nine, and then I started working with Art Blakey. After I left Art Blakey I came back in eighty-three, and I've been at Berklee since.
interview with Mel Martin.

His likeable small-group straight ahead jazz with superb backing can be heard on William The Conqueror '86 (with Williams on some tracks, John Lockwood on bass; old pals Keith Copeland on drums and Sid Simmons on piano from Berklee days); Equilateral '88 with Hank Jones and Roy Haynes; Give And Take '87 and One For Chuck '91, both with Mulgrew Miller on piano, all on Sunnyside; quartet Epistrophy '92 on Evidence has Christian McBride on bass. His best so far is the exciting CIMP CD Froggin' Around '96 with the Chris McCann--Billy Pierce Trio, McCann on drums and Steve Wallace on bass, all playing at a peak individually and collectively, described by Cadence as 'strong and direct music, made more so without the harmonic mediation of guitar or piano. What's left is all substance -- structural clarity and forceful expression.'