A jazz virtuoso who gave up the glamor (and money) of the rock scene.

Saxophonist and flautist Bill Tillman did a four-year stint with Blood, Sweat and Tears, but his current jazz efforts better display his musical versatility. One of the city’s best jazz im-provisers, he can intensify a solo to a degree well beyond the reach of many better-known players. Currently, he’s at the Adolphus Hotel’s King’s Club on week nights from 5 to 7:30, and on Fridays and Saturdays with the band Moment’s Notice.

The 30-year-old Tillman’s first instrument was the guitar, but he received his first saxophone from his mother when he was about 13. (It was a baritone sax – he later mastered tenor and alto.) The first sax player Tillman paid serious attention to was a King-Federal recording artist named Earl Bostic. Bostic was influential but not especially innovative, and Tillman honed his musical perception in a time-honored manner: He hung around in black jazz clubs, in this case the ones on Houston’s north side. It was around this time that he learned about John Col-trane.

“Everyone who plays saxophone,” Tillman says, “spends a time when they want to be John Coltrane. A lot of people want to be him exactly, but what I’m talking about is what Coltrane had to offer in terms of commitment and how he went about making his contribution. Those two words really sum it up about ’Trane – commitment and contribution. I’d like to be as committed as him and I’d like to make the contribution he made. See, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, people like that… they’re very good players but John Coltrane was a great player.”

Others who influenced Tillman’s musical development included a particularly adept Houston high school band director, who had schooled many of his band’s well-to-do members since their elementary years. The band was a tailor-made aggregation, uncommonly tight for a student unit. Tillman dropped out of school for two years but when he returned (with something of an age advantage over the other student players), he fit well into the band, which became an award-winner. At a 1967 stage band festival at Houston Baptist College, judges Andre Previn and Doc Severinsen selected an all-star band and one outstanding student player – Tillman. When the band assembled with Severinsen to play excerpts from his arrangement book for the “Tonight Show,” Tillman played first tenor.

Severinsen encouraged Tillman to learn the flute to increase his versatility. Shortly after. Tillman had a birthday and a flute was among his gifts.

“Learning the flute was the most frustrating thing I’d ever experienced in my life,” Tillman says. “I got a teacher, Byron Hester, who plays with the Houston Symphony. He is a virtuoso, man. He gave me about ten lessons, and I practiced what he taught me for ten years. I was practicing constantly, and taking the flute to the gigs and driving everybody crazy with it. But I kept practicing. I listened to Eric Dolphy because he didn”t play conventionally, he was into his own thing. And I listened to Jeremy Steig’s LP, Flute Fever, and I copped some things from Rahsaan [Roland Kirk]. But I started practicing nothing but Bach. I just got down to his accompanied and unaccompanied sonatas.

“I like being a multi-instrumentalist. 1 couldn’t go to a gig with just my alto, or just my tenor, or just my flute, because sooner or later I’m gonna get the itch to play one or the other and it better be there.”

Tillman moved to Denton when he was 20 and took saxophone lessons from John Giordano, now conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony. The music scene here was more profitable than Houston’s had been. Soon he was playing in clubs like the Villager and Mother Blues.

At Mother Blues, he was seen by members of the rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears. They needed a lead sax player and were directed to Tillman by a fliigelhorn player, Tony Klatka, then a member of Woody Herman’s big band. They liked Tillman’s style and hired him after a brief audition.

BS&T had been the brainchild of keyboardist Al Kooper, a rock veteran possibly more durable than talented. He had formed the group – one of the first large horn bands in rock – with Steve Katz, a guitarist. Both had attained some fame during their old Blues Project days, and Tillman agrees with the criticism that they were mediocre players who relied upon the superior talent of lesser-known sidemen.

Jazz-oriented Tillman found little musical latitude in BS&T’s rock format. But he had the uncommon experience of being in an internationally known and very marketable rock band, so he knows all about “making it.” Tillman is ambivalent about the experience.

“It was a lot of money,” he says, “but a lot of dues. It was a lot of experience, and it was finding out what it’s all about in the music business. It can be unbelievable; I never worked so hard in my life! It was a lot of work for very little real playing. Ultimately, it wasn’t jazz playing because the band wasn’t jazz, the band was money. They had some of the best musicians in the world in that band but it wasn’t jazz. It was rock, a vocal-oriented thing – if they’d been smart what they’d have done when [singer] David Clayton-Thomas quit was to go all instrumental.”

Tillman played on six BS&T albums (including one instrumental LP still un-released) but he tired of the gig for various reasons, including homesickness and a desire for the musical freedom of the small-combo jazz he plays at the King’s Club.

His playing has both individuality and intensity. His use of flute, alto and tenor sax adds variety, and he collaborates with skilled accompanists like Tony Klatka and Fathead Newman’s pianist Claude Johnson. (Newman played at the King’s Club recently, as did essential jazz man Sonny Stitt. Those who attended Stitt’s April 16 show saw the veteran saxophonist play several extended numbers with Tillman and Recovery Room tenor man Marchel Ivery – a jam of some significance in contemporary Dallas jazz history.)

Tillman finds his current repertoire challenging and fun. But he dreams of a band in which he would play piccolo, C-flute, E-flat alto flute and bass flute, as well as the gamut of saxophones from baritone to soprano, and more esoteric instruments like the new electric lyr-icon. (“Tasty electronics” would be an element of the project.)

“The fun of it,” Tillman says, “would be to work the music up to performance readiness, experience all the limitations of what you can and can’t do live, and then go into the studio and record a class-A product. Then go out, knowing you could go onstage and reproduce it live. A lot of people can’t do that – like Weather Report. I know all of those cats. [Weather Report bassist] Jaco Pastorius and I traveled together at one time. He was with BS&T for about five months. Went with Weather Report right after. Anyway, he played that Heavy Weather album for me about six weeks before it was released, but the impact of how heavy that album was didn’t hit me until some weeks later. But I went to hear them live and they just couldn’t get there! The keyboard player had done things he couldn’t reproduce live, so they didn’t have the presence or the intensity of the record. It’s good to be able to use the studio to give your public a really good product, but if you can’t capture that sound live, you’ve missed the whole point of making music.”

Tillman regards jazz as a commitment as well as an idiom, and the commitment must be carried out with quality playing. He resents the commercialism of the music industry and the public’s naive susceptibility to promotional blitzes, but an innate musician’s optimism prevails. Tillman is, for example, quick to respond to the cynic’s view that the growth of this city’s jazz scene is illusory.

“’There is definitely increased jazz awareness here,” he has said. “When I go to local clubs, I see a whole new cross section of people there to hear jazz. I’ll tell you what was happening five years ago: There was a place here called the Woodmen Hall, they had jazz there, and that was it! And there was a place in Fort Worth called the Flamingo. Let me tell you, man, the black people have spawned this Texas jazz-child over in the south side of Dallas and in the west side of Fort Worth, just as the black people in Houston spawned it on the north side at the place called Corrette’s Smoke House. They nurtured this Texas jazz thing along with their own approach . . . almost like a New York mainstream approach, and that’s the thing about New York mainstream jazz, it’s intense, it’s the essence of that city. I mean they’re coming at you like Hey, dig this! In Texas jazz, it became a little funkier, more laid-back, but the same kinds of harmonic and rhythmic structure remain . . . and the intensity remains.”

Bill Tillman listens to Wagner at home, and has done studio work on commercial jingles. But the essential Tillman is revealed in a downtown gig. Checking him out is fundamental to understanding where Dallas is in the jazz scene.


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