“Whether you’re white or black, once you hit the bandstand, then you’re on your own… If you can play, you can play. If you can’t, you can’t.”
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Transcript for An Equalizer
Music’s always been a major part of my life. Actually, my parents – there was a theatre in Chicago called the Regal Theatre. And when I was growing up, as early as two years old, I can remember going over to the Regal and seeing people like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. All the top jazz people – Sarah Vaughan – all the top jazz people as I grew up.
I went to Pulaski School and had lots of neighbors and we played up and down the street and it was a nice neighborhood. I was telling my wife how we rode our bicycles and we rode miles away from the neighborhood and didn’t have to worry about anything. We’d go over the back of the school and play in the dunes and come back with our socks full of sand, and actually it was a nice atmosphere there.
We lived upstairs on the second floor of my godmother’s house, actually. The piano, actually, was given to me by another godmother that I had. So we got the piano and my mother said, “Well, you’ll be taking piano lessons.” “Okay,” you know. But the piano was on the front porch, where I could look out and see everybody running up and down the street playing. [Laughter] So after the newness of it wore off, you know. And people would come to the front, “Can Billy come out?” you know.
When I first started lessons, my mother would sit there and watch me practice. She had these toothpicks – and so the music teacher would say, “You have to practice this 10 times” – so she had these toothpicks, and she’d move, every time I’d play the passage, she’d move a toothpick over, you know. So the deal was that I was going to practice every day for an hour, no matter what. And this friend would come over and he’d be sitting there, because he’d want to go out and play. [Laughter] And I can remember him saying, “Can you hurry up?” There’s no way to hurry up an hour! It is what it is. [Laughter] But, I tell people now, you know, I’ve never seen anybody make a dime playing hide-and-seek. Eventually I grew to love it. I’d be at the piano for four hours and not one.
I really didn’t actually learn to play jazz until I actually I got out of college and started to rubbing elbows with other people who actually played the music. I learned from them – kind of on the job training, really. I had a trio, and then I had a quartet, and then I formed a band that had 5 pieces. At that time, there were about 30 different clubs in Gary, where you could go from one spot and play the next weekend you could play someplace else and the next weekend somewhere else. And we would actually, on our breaks, run from one club to the other to listen to the other guy play and then come back and play some more. That’s really how all this got started.
The thing is about jazz that we have access to it. There are some things that some minorities don’t even have access to. The symphony is something that we didn’t have equal access to. So you couldn’t prove your mettle there. But jazz you always could. It’s one of the, I guess, racial forerunners, because there have been a mix of bands, since, since when. Whether you’re white or black, once you hit the bandstand, then you’re on your own. And that’s another thing I like about it. If you can play you can play. If you can’t, you know, you can’t, and it’s obvious to everybody. I guess it’s the same way in sports. It’s an equalizer.
Once here at the university, we played with a guy named Red Rodney. He was a white guy that played with Charlie Parker. He was telling us this story of… When they went down south, he had to be billed as – he had red hair, and kind of a light complexion – so they billed him as Albino Red. You know, ‘cause they didn’t – mixed bands couldn’t travel the south. When Duke Ellington went south, he rented a set of Pullman cars. And the guys would just travel the south. They wouldn’t do hotels. Blacks couldn’t stay in regular hotels, so, he just, they worked off of Pullman cars.
There’s a jazz musician named Clark Terry who we also had at the festival. And he had played in this band that used to go down to Carroll, IL, and my mother used to see that band. And he played in Duke Ellington’s band for about nine years. So I was riding in a car with him and I was saying, “I know you used to play in Eddie Randall’s band and you guys used to go down to Carroll and play.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s that city where the guy came up on the bandstand and cut Duke Ellington’s tie in half.” Those are the kinds of things that used to… You know, can you imagine a man of Duke Ellington’s stature having something like that happen?
My take on the whole things is that all of the races on the planet were put here on by God. All of us have different takes on things. If everybody would work together, you know, my strength might help you and your strength… it’s like a puzzle. All the pieces of the puzzle can’t be the same. They have to be different. I think the differences are really a strength. If we would look at it that way. I mean, I don’t see why you would want to be by everybody that was just like you. You know, If everybody were like me it might be kinda sad. I need somebody that plays the saxophone. I don’t need a bunch of piano players.