Perennially popular West Coast reedman
by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2003 Todd S. Jenkins
Bill Perkins was one of the quiet lions of West Coast jazz, soft-spoken, humble and gentle in conversation, but capable of raising the roof onstage. On tenor sax, like many of his contemporaries, he channeled the spirit of Lester Young. On soprano sax his tone was more angular, hard-bitten, leaning almost towards the avant-garde. He was an electrical whiz who held patents on two synthesized wind instruments, and a kindly mentor who wouldn't hesitate to take time after a gig to talk shop with younger players. "Perk" was one of the most unique and beloved icons of West Coast jazz, yet one who always wore the "icon" label with unease.
William Reese Perkins was born in San Francisco on July 22, 1924. His first instrument was the clarinet, which he abandoned at fifteen in favor of the tenor sax. His father, a mining engineer, died while Bill was still in his teens. His mother continued to raise him in Santa Barbara, where Perkins' interests were torn between engineering and music. He split the difference, studying electrical engineering at Cal Tech and music at Westlake College and U.C. Santa Barbara, all thanks to the G.I. Bill.
Perkins' first regular professional gig was with Jerry Wald's band in Los Angeles. In May 1951 he joined the Woody Herman band, which gave him his first major exposure. In fact, his initiation into the Herman Herd was like being thrown into the fire: Herman's manager called in the middle of a performance at the Palladium and practically begged Perkins to come down and replace a tenorman who had just been fired. His interest in the "Prez tone" helped him fit in with Herman's other Lester Young acolytes, and he made several impressive records with the Third Herd including "Ill Wind".
In 1953 Perkins and his fellow tenorman Richie Kamuca moved from Herman's band to the Stan Kenton aggregation. Both men made the adjustment from upbeat bop to Kenton's more cerebral sounds with ease. "Yesterdays" became Perkins' signature tune with the band, demanded perhaps more than any other piece in the catalog. He also began doing sideline gigs with fellow Kentonians, including Shorty Rogers' popular Giants. Perkins also worked with pianist John Lewis, altoman Art Pepper, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs' Dream Band, and other projects. His first sessions as a leader came in 1956 ("The Bill Perkins Octet on Stage", on Pacific Jazz).
The 1960s saw two radical changes in Perkins' career. First, he began working regularly as a recording engineer when jazz gigs began to get more scarce. More significant in his playing career was his embracing of the new sounds being explored by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Few of Perkins' associates on the West Coast shared his enthusiasm, but he began assimilating new elements into his own style, particularly on soprano sax. He landed occasional film work, including a job with Duke Ellington's band on the soundtrack of Frank Sinatra's now-overlooked "Assault on a Queen".
In 1969 Perkins gave up the road in favor of full-time studio work, joining Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Band where he remained for almost a quarter-century. For most of the 1970s he worked with the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band and Bill Holman's group, and occasionally returned to Woody Herman's side for special projects. Shorty Rogers remained a close cohort until the trumpeter's death; the two friends continued to work together in the Lighthouse All-Stars in the 1980s and 90s. Perkins moved from the baritone sax chair to cover the All-Stars tenor parts following Bob Cooper's sudden death in 1993.
Always content to operate under the direction of others, Perkins did not record that frequently as a leader. The 1966 date "Quietly There", with Victor Feldman on piano, organ and vibes, retains much of its charm in hindsight. His patented sax-synthesizer can be heard on 1984's "Journey to the East". In 1990 he recorded "I Wished on the Moon" with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra, a disc which was soundly applauded by his ardent fans, and followed up with his own band on "Our Man Woody" the following year. The forward-looking "Frame of Mind" (1993, Interplay) was one of the finest recordings of his career, and in '95 he paid homage to a lifelong influence on "Perk Plays Prez" (Fresh Sound).
In the early 90s Perkins began his first battle with cancer, a disease which would plague him for the rest of his life. He fought lung, hip and throat ailments for over a decade, enduring nine operations on his throat alone. All the while he continued to perform as often as possible, doing workshops and club gigs around the world. He kept up his regular appearances at Kenton and Rogers tributes until he was simply too ill to continue.
Bill Perkins finally succumbed to the effects of cancer on August 9, 2003 at his home in Sherman Oaks, California. He is survived by his second wife, one son and one daughter.
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