"Bill would play himself to sleep in his high chair at the Baldwin Acrosonic!"
- Martha Mays
"I was born in Sacramento, CA" (William Allen Mays) Feb. 5, 1944. "There was always music in our home. My dad, Bill Sr., was a minister, and played the piano, organ, trombone, guitar and harmonica, so gospel music was the first music I heard. My mom, Martha, a homemaker, had a beautiful, very natural, voice and I have vivid memories of him playing the accordion while she sang. Dad's trombone was an old, silver valved one. I loved that sound—it’s probably the reason I took up the baritone horn and trumpet in junior high school. We had a spinet piano, a Baldwin Acrosonic, and I was at it from a very early age.
I had some great teachers down through the years but the one who really set the stage, at around age eight, was Ethel Bush. She was a loving, supportive person who really ignited my passion for the instrument, including a love of practice, an awareness of tone production and the sheer joy of just being at the piano. That was a great gift. My first exposure to jazz came at age 16, when a friend took me to a jazz brunch at which the legendary Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines was playing solo piano. It was so new to my ears, and it was burning! His rhythmic drive, unusual melodic twists, two-handed independence and use of the whole keyboard thrilled and inspired me. Shortly thereafter I heard Miles Davis’ band at San Francisco’s Black Hawk, and that was further inspiration. Later I discovered Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Rowles, Horace Silver and Art Tatum—I was hooked!
My professional life began a year later, in 1961, when I joined the US Navy as a bandsman. I spent a year at the Naval School of Music in Washington DC, studying and jamming in the band room, and hanging out at the Bohemian Caverns listening to the JFK Quintet. After four years in the Navy, stationed in San Diego, I joined AFM Local 325 and started working with the Bill Green ensemble. Green played sax, clarinet and vibes. We did club dates, county fairs, industrial shows, commercials, and a daily TV variety show. It was great experience—playing different styles, sight-reading, accompanying singers, and learning loads of new tunes. During that period I listened a lot to pianist Mike Wofford, a marvelous San Diego-based pianist whom I count as a big influence. I also co-led a quartet called Road Work Ahead, with Peter Sprague, Jim Plank and Bob Magnusson. We combined electronic and acoustic instruments and worked quite a bit around L.A. and San Diego. Everyone wrote for the band so It really furthered my development as a composer.
In 1969 I moved to Los Angeles. I continued my piano studies with Victor Aller and began working jazz gigs with Buddy Collette, Harold Land, Shelly Manne, Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Sonny Stitt, and the Stan Kenton Junior Neophonic Orchestra. Also, I was a long-time member of the Bobby Shew Quintet, led a piano-guitar-bass trio featuring Danny Embrey and Putter Smith, did some two-piano recordings with Alan Broadbent and had a working band that featured Ernie Watts and Abe Laboriel. We explored all kinds of music with that band—funk and fusion things, odd time signatures, burning bebop. The book was so far-ranging that Ernie played English horn, oboe and flute in addition to the saxophones. Fusion was in its heyday then and that led to some noteworthy gigs in that genre: Tom Scott’s L.A. Express, Indian electric-violinist Dr. L Subramanian, and Frank Zappa (a large ensemble in which I played clavinet). I even played straight out rock-and-roll at the Whiskey A-Go-Go with one of the first drag-queen groups, the Cycle Sluts!
Such varied experiences eventually led to my becoming a fixture in the Hollywood recording studios. I had worked hard on my sight-reading and on gaining familiarity with other keyboard instruments like harpsichord, organ, celeste and synthesizers. I began as a rehearsal pianist for TV shows. Then Mike Lang, one of the major studio keyboard players in town, recommended me as a sub and that’s how I met the music contractors and got into that end of the business. I worked with some great film composers and with some fantastic musicians. In fact, I first met J.J. Johnson and Benny Golson that way, not in a jazz setting, but playing for them in a Hollywood studio. (Click here for a full list of film and TV credits.)
Singers began to call and I vividly remember Jimmy Rowles recommending me for the piano chair with Sarah Vaughan. That was heaven, hearing that voice every night—and with Jimmy Cobb in the drum chair! Sarah was a ball and it was like family. Other gigs with singers followed, from Barry Manilow and Anita O’Day to Al Jarreau and Frank Sinatra. (Click here for accompanist credits.)
In 1984 New York called. I wanted to broaden my scope, work with some of the people I’d always admired, and continue to grow as a writer and player. Rewardingly, this led to collaborative associations with artists as diverse as Ron Carter, Al Cohn, Eddie Daniels, Ray Drummond, Benny Golson, Mel Lewis, Charles McPherson, Bob Mintzer, Red Mitchell, Gerry Mulligan, Rufus Reid, Maria Schneider Orchestra, Marvin Stamm, Clark Terry, Toots Thielemans, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Paul Winter and Phil Woods. I've had the opportunity to play such notable New York venues as Birdland, Blue Note, Bradley’s, Carnegie Hall, Dizzy’s, Guggenheim Museum, Iridium, Jazz Standard, Kitano, Lincoln Center, Mezzrow, MOMA, Rubin Museum, Smoke, Steinway Pianos, Village Gate, and the Village Vanguard.
A wide range of recording projects with me as leader have also evolved, ranging from trio work with drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind to the Inventions Trio, featuring cellist Alisa Horn and trumpeter Marvin Stamm. Recent recordings include Phil & Bill (with saxophonist Phil Woods), Side By Side: Sondheim Duos (with bassist Tommy Cecil), Life’s A Movie (with the Inventions Trio), Live At The Deer Head Inn (with the Phil Woods Quintet). My extensive discography continues with the recent release of Front Row Seat (solo piano).
I have always gotten great satisfaction from composing and arranging and have been doing it for as long as I can remember. Half the time it's just for pleasure; the other half is for specific, commissioned projects (deadlines are great inspirations!) I studied briefly in the 60s with David Ward-Steinman in San Diego, and in New York at the BMI writers workshop with Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam--and lots of great orchestration books by Henry Mancini, Kent Kennan and Ray Wright. I would say some of my major inspirations have been Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, Maurice Ravel, Thad Jones, Horace Silver. My music has been performed by a wide array of artists: Air Force Airmen Of Note, Ann Hampton Callaway, Aureole, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Percy Faith Orchestra, Woody Herman Orchestra, Morgana King, Shelly Manne, Mark Murphy, Bud Shank, Bobby Shew, Marvin Stamm, Lew Tabackin, Turtle Creek Chorale, WDR Big Band, and Phil Woods. Published works include pieces for solo piano, suites for contrabass and piano and for flute and piano, saxophone quartets, charts for big band and symphony orchestra, a jazz woodwind version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, music for Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca, and incidental music for the films Anamorph, Burn After Reading, Hamlet, Looker, and The Fifth Estate. It’s most rewarding to hear something in your head, or voice it on the piano, and then hear it take shape and come to life with a band or orchestra. (Click here for composing and arranging samples.)
In 2015 it occurred to me that my collection of old date books, scrawled notes, concert programs, half-forgotten jokes, recalled debacles and mishaps, and stories that come back in the middle of the night might make a fun book. The result was Stories Of The Road, The Studios, Sidemen & Singers: 55 Years In The Music Biz. It’s not a memoir, entries from a blog, or an autobiography in the traditional sense, but more a collection of humorous and entertaining anecdotes. (More details on the book here.)
Looking back makes me also want to look ahead and I eagerly anticipate the next musical adventure. Stay tuned, and thanks for listening!"
Jazz Festival/Jazz Society appearances: Brecon JF, Calgary JF, C.O.T.A., Delaware Valley Arts Alliance, Detroit JF, Duke Ellington Society, Frei JF, Gold Coast JS, Halifax JF, Honolulu JF, Jazz Baltica, JVC JF, Luzerne Music Festival, Mainly Mozart, Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, Marciac JF, Montreal JF, Mt. Hood JF, Napa Valley JS, New Jersey JS, Oregon Coast Jazz Party, Oslo JF, Ottawa JF, Otter Crest, Paradise Valley JS, Pittsburgh JS, Playboy JF, Portland JF, Ravinia Festival, Salishan, San Francisco JF, Saskatoon JF, Sedona Chamber Music, Seven Springs JF, Steinway Society, Taipei JF, Tucson JS, Toronto JF, Vancouver JF, West Coast Jazz Party, Wooster JS, Yellowstone JF, Ystad, Sweden JF, and 92nd St. “Y” Jazz in July.
University/clinic appearances: Berklee School, Binghamton U, Brubeck Institute, Centrum Jazz Camp, Cornish Institute, Duke U., Humber College, IAJE, Ithaca College, JEN, Manhattan School of Music, U of Nevada, U of New Hampshire, New York U, U of North Texas, U of Oregon (Eugene), Pace U, Rockefeller U, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Stanford U, U of Southern Calif., William Paterson, Yale U.
Awards and Honors:
• Arranger, pianist and producer on Grammy-nominated Bop For Kerouac (Mark Murphy/Muse)
• Pianist on Gold Album Paradise Cafe (Barry Manilow/Arista Records)
• “Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition” in the piano category, Downbeat Magazine
• Nominated for “Most Valuable Player” Award, Los Angeles
• International Society of Bassists: “Friend Of The Bass”
• Performance grants from Meet The Composer, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, N.E.A., PennPAT
Charitable work: Aids Names Project, Big Brothers, Hospital Audiences, Jupiter Performing Arts Fund, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, WJFF Radio