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Q&A with Bill Crow

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen
Black and White photo credit: Dennis Stock

Bill Crow is a jazz bassist who played with Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan’s sextet and quartet during the mid to late 1950s and early 1960s. He wrote two books: Jazz Anecdotes and From Birdland to Broadway which is his autobiography. He is 95 years old, has been in the music business for 75 years and still plays twice a week with people a third his age. Neal Miner did a documentary about him which you need to check out on YouTube: Bill Crow – Jazz Journeyman.

KB: Did you always want to be a musician growing up?

I always was a musician, since my mother was one. But it wasn’t until I came home to Seattle from the Army that I felt it was possible to make a living as a musician.

KB: I read you played several instruments as a kid.

I started on piano at the age of 5 but wasn’t any good at it. I was a singer from the age of 3. In the 4th grade I took up the trumpet, and in the 6th grade I switched to the baritone horn, which I continued to play through high school and the Army. In my junior year of high school, I took up the alto sax in order to get into the school’s swing band. In my senior year we needed a drummer, so I taught myself to play drums, and played them also in a Service Club band in the Army.

KB: You joined the Army in 1946 and played in the band.

When I joined the Army, it took me a while to get into a band, but I finally got into one playing baritone horn. All the drummers in that band were either street drummers or percussionists, and none of them wanted to play trap drums in the Service Club band, so I sent for the drum set I had at home and took those jobs. To sound more like a jazz musician, I bought a valve trombone while I was in the Army. I kept it on a stand beside my drums on Service Club jobs, and when it came time for me to play a chorus on it, I would keep my feet playing the bass drum and hi-hat cymbal while I played the horn. The trumpet player would play the ride cymbal while I was taking my chorus on trombone.

KB: You taught yourself bass.

I came to New York in 1950 with my valve trombone and during the first summer here, I got a job with a quartet in Tupper Lake NY. The quartet was drums, piano, tenor sax and trumpet. The boss wouldn’t let the drummer/leader hire a bass player, so he found a kid who owned a bass but only used it during the school year, so the drummer rented it for the summer and told me I had to try to play it when I wasn’t playing the trombone. By the end of the summer, I had found out where the notes were on it, and so when I got back to NY City, I could take jobs on bass by renting a bass. I took a job as a singing drummer with Mike Riley’s trio and saved my money until I could pay for a plywood bass that a guy sold me for $75.

KB: You worked with Stan Getz.

I worked with Stan for about six months. I was still learning the bass, but I played well enough. Stan’s guitar player, Jimmy Raney, got me on the band. I got to play with some great musicians with Stan, and got to record with him, so that got my name around for more work.

KB: You worked with Gerry Mulligan for a long time.

I was working with the Marian McPartland trio, with Joe Morello on drums, for a couple of years at the Hickory House on 52nd street. Gerry called and offered me a job with his sextet, with Dave Bailey on drums, Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Jon Eardley on trumpet and Bob Brookmeyer on trombone. I was happy at the Hickory House but couldn’t resist the chance to play with those guys, so I left Marian and went with Gerry. I stayed for a year, and then went back to Marian’s trio for a while. When Gerry started a new quartet with Art Farmer, I re-joined him, and later joined his Concert Jazz Band. That was a great band, but it only lasted a little while, and then we went back to doing quartet work with Gerry, Brookmeyer and Bailey. I learned a lot while I was with Gerry’s groups and began studying with a symphonic teacher to learn the proper fingering system, rather than the one I had made up for myself.

KB: Tell me about the two books you wrote.

I got elected to the executive board of Local 802, the NYC musicians’ union, and the president offered me a column in their monthly paper. I began publishing amusing stories about musicians, and attracted the attention of Sheldon Meyer, who was the chief editor of the NYC branch of Oxford University Press, and who was a jazz fan. He knew that Oxford had published anecdote collections from various fields, and wondered if someone might do a collection from the jazz world. His jazz authors all pointed him in my direction because of my column, and he got in touch with me with a book deal. I got an advance from him and upgraded my computer and started collecting stories. When my manuscript was finished, I realized that my own personal stories had a different colour than the rest of the material I had gathered, so I kept them aside, and when Jazz Anecdotes was successful, I told Sheldon that I had another book, and sent him some samples. He agreed, gave me another advance and a new contract, and From Birdland to Broadway was born.

KB: Who are great bass players if you look at nowadays musicians?

Many of my favorite bassists have passed on: Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, Major Holley, Red Mitchell, Art Davis, George Mraz, NHOP, etc. The ones still living that I listen to now are Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Rufus Reid,

KB: You are 95. Are you still playing bass?

Yes, I play once or twice a week, usually with musicians a third my age. I play with several Japanese immigrant musicians who are very good, and with a 21-year-old young lady who has been playing well since she was ten years old.

Check out Bill’s website: HERE
Check out Bill’s column for Local 802 Allegro: HERE

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