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Five Decades of Jazz Supernovas: an Intimate Look Backstage

By       Message Vicki Leon     Permalink

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An award-winning yet mysteriously modest musical whirlwind, Bill King is one lucky dude. He has photographed, jammed and jazzed it up with a galaxy of superstars, from Aretha Franklin to Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall to Dave Brubeck, from the Rolling Stones to Willie Nelson. These stars and a constellation more are the subjects of his new book, called In Concert! Essays, Images, and Interviews. ( Blurb Pub., 2014)


Kris' Lens: Bill King
(Image by c. Kris King, used with permission)
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As a talented youngster, he had the good fortune to study piano with Eva Smith, keyboardist for the legendary W.C. Handy. At 16, this lanky teen from Indiana won a scholarship to Oscar Peterson's prestigious School of Contemporary Music in Canada. After his jazz baptism that summer, he began to compose songs, arrange music, and transcribe hits for his first band, one he put together -- all while still a minor.


Bill's Lens: Oscar Peterson
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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As he grew up, Bill also became the mentor and creative instigator for a dizzying number of bands and vocalists in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, all while adding photographer, broadcaster, and music producer to his own resume. In fact, King seems to have spent much of the last 50 years making other musicians look and sound good.


Bill's Lens: Diana Krall at Oscar Peterson's 80th Birthday Celebration
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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With the release of In Concert! his visceral prose lets us feel the gritty reality of the music world he knows so well -- and its addictive hold on performers. Here's his take on Willie Nelson:


Bill's Lens: Willie Nelson
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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Beyond the rough stuff of aging, Nelson is purity. The voice of Texas. The sunbelt. There are chunks of crushed gravel in his throat from years of inhaling the dust and broken rocks from the side roads of forgotten America. There is plenty of sorrow in there. Drinks that stink and boil in the stomach. One-nighters, most of them forgettable.

If you've ever hitchhiked the southwest, you too remember the close association with the ground beneath your feet, the air that stings and cools, the once-living things that rot in the road, and those that run alongside the endless highways, dodging death. Occasionally, you spot the pumping arm of a distant oil rig, a black tool working to its own regulated beat.

This is Willie's world. And it's transparent. My lens brings him closer, the snap of the shutter freezing June 20, 2013, for me. From the first grinding chords and splintered blue strains, Nelson is pure Nelson: "You Were Always on My Mind." Then a succession of short takes, hits housed in medley form: three songs and seven mini-reminders of the tunes that brought him fame and lasting employment.

Much like B.B. King, the tour bus will be home for him until time puts an end to the long drive. You may wonder why players of this acclaim still sequester themselves into a minimal space of square feet. Why they still sleep to the soundtrack of wheels a-spinning. Then you realize that the Willie Nelsons were born in a time of six-nighters, of back-slapping music lovers at every small stopover, of real people who love you for just singing about them. For just being. It's a human narcotic, more addictive than the jam-packed stadiums. It's a sensation that never lies or lingers past reality.

In his image-studded collection of essays and interviews, King's frank and powerful writing gives us a wealth of poignant insights like these.


Bill's Lens: Aretha Franklin
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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Bill's Lens: jazz guitarist Buddy Guy
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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King's behind-the-scenes stories of glory, despair, and canny willfulness also paint a vivid picture of America's racism during that era and how it affected musicians like Little Richard. On these pages, jazz icons come alive in fresh ways, providing an intimate look at how Pat Metheny, Betty Carter, Tony Bennett, and names less well-known follow the muse in a business filled with prodigious talent, precarious job security, and a multitude of pitfalls.


Bill's Lens: the jazz trumpet of Chris Botti
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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Bill's Lens: Jane Monheit
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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One such talent is Stevie Winwood, the precocious Brit whose musical chops at age 13 were backing up the likes of blues icons Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley on their UK tours. A songwriter as well, Winwood wrote a number of hits after joining the Spencer Davis Group.

In his book, Bill has this to say about Steve after watching him perform at a Fillmore East concert in 1968:

Winwood was everything I wished I could be as a vocalist. This was a guy musically rooted in the soil that birthed Ray Charles, and with a voice so exquisite that Rolling Stone ranked him #33 on their Top 100 list of Great Singers of all time.

Almost as an aside, Bill adds historical perspective by telling us that Winwood and company were opening a new front called blue-eyed soul, carving musical space for future acts like Hall & Oates.


Bill's Lens: Rolling Stones in Toronto
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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Bill's Lens: Canadian vocalist and pianist Fefe Dobson
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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New author Bill King is also one ballsy dude. In that same tumultuous year of 1968, he went from riding high (a plum job as keyboardist and music director for yet another Janis Joplin band) to hitting bottom. After openly protesting the immorality of the Vietnam War and being charged as a draft resister, Bill was forced to serve in the army for ten months. When he received orders for Southeast Asia, at the 11th hour he and new wife Kris fled to Canada. (It happened to be October 16, the day when the biggest moratorium against the war was held.) With $85 to their name, the newlyweds hitched a ride north with a trucker hauling sauerkraut. Behind them, they left home, family, friends, connections, and careers.

As Bill puts it, "It was a monumental decision that cost dearly. Yet the rewards -- for both of us -- were even greater." Once in Canada, the Kings struggled to find their place in this new milieu: Kris as a photographer and record promoter who eventually formed her own company; and Bill, doing musical gigs as teacher, performer, record producer, composer, and radio show host, where in time he found a growing audience for his program, The Jazz Report.

Even though the Kings had left the U.S., Bill's musical reputation remained intact. In January 1977, after President Carter gave him and other anti-war resisters unconditional pardons, Bill went on tour as music director for Martha Reeves, the Pointer Sisters, and other musicians, followed by a fruitful period of recording with a wide variety of U.S. and world artists.


Bill's Lens: Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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Another creative opportunity emerged from the friendship he developed with Greg Sutherland, a piano student of his. Drawn by common interests, in the late 1980s they created a jazz newsletter. Their bright idea coincided with Apple's creation of Pagemaker for publishing, allowing them to bypass traditional typesetting. By year three, they had a full-blown magazine on their hands, with Bill doing most of the artist interviews.

Quantities of high-quality images were needed for the magazine; luckily, serendipity knocked on the door. As Bill recalls, "Paul Hoeffler offered us his services. The man was a genius. A graduate of Eastman School of Photography, he also knew classical and jazz music like no other."


Bill's Lens: jazz bassist John Clayton.
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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Not only did The Jazz Report get a photographer, Bill King got a masterful teacher. "Paul inspired me so much. I'd spend hours going over the detail, the sharpness of his portraits. I studied darkroom techniques, composition, and graphic design, all by asking him questions. Where Paul went, I went. In the dead of winter, we'd stand in the woods, spending hours photographing a leaf. He pushed and pushed me until I could see what he saw with my own eyes."

King got further inspiration at home. After studying photography at Ryerson College, Kris King began to specialize in travel photography and concert imagery. As Bill says, "I clung to my wife's side as much as I did Paul's."

The Jazz Report grew in popularity, enabling the partners to cut distribution deals and sell the magazine worldwide for a 19-year run. Bill continued to mature as a photographer, at the same time doing in-depth interviews with over a hundred jazz artists.


Bill's Lens: Dave Brubeck
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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One of his all-time favorites was Dave Brubeck, whom he eulogizes in an exhilarating essay that begins:

The jazz guys always questioned his jazz credentials. The man wasn't Bill Evans or Bud Powell. He was not as hip as McCoy, or as quick as Oscar -- but man, did he have fans. And still does.

King goes on to recount his own Brubeck anecdotes:

My dad brought the Red, Hot and Cool album into our living room and it played more often than Elvis on radio. Folks were screaming in the streets, gyrating like sinners at a forbidden after-hours hotspot in Tupelo, while we were wrapped in West Coast cool. Sweet smoldering grooves. Then one day pops buys me this Brubeck book for piano. That was more than enough to make a 15-year-old boy shiver with delight.Years flow by, then Brubeck's album Time Out blows wide open. "Take Five," a lumbering time signature that feels like you're riding the beat of a five-legged elephant, becomes the rage.

Bill continues the story:

My brother Wayne and I memorize "Take Five," and then we're invited on the WHAS Crusade for Children TV telethon in Louisville, Kentucky. We are to play with the house band, no less. As soon as the curtain goes up, I count the song in and the drummer begins a steady four/four pattern. Now this would have destroyed somebody with experience. For us, it was television debut time. And we were strapped in like high-flying novices, intent on getting to that final bar. Oh, what a relief, that final E-flat note! Afterwards, the apologetic drummer confessed that he'd never encountered anything more challenging and frightening.


Bill's Lens: Shakura S'Aida
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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An irrepressible kick-starter, ("I can't seem to help myself") Bill also became artistic director and the driving force behind the Beaches International Jazz Festival. Ever since its debut in 1987, King's abilities at low-key persuasion and his network of music contacts have reliably landed top headliners for the festival.


Bill's Lens: Canadian vocalist Avril Lavigne
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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Bill's Lens: jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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As one might expect, Bill King has garnered various awards and honors over the decades for his musicianship, photography, and writing, including Juno nominations and National Jazz Awards for Jazz Photographer and twice for Producer of the Year. He and wife Kris may be proudest, however, of their joint effort: son Jesse, a sought-after dub and reggae musician and creator of the Dubmatix sound. When not touring internationally, Jesse partners with his father to help create ejazznews.com, a sleek, highly readable jazz and blues news service.

Rather than talk about his own work, King also prefers to praise Canadian radio pioneers Allan and Gary Slaight, a father-son powerhouse who enthusiastically support the musical arts in Toronto. Long ago, they hired him for a radio show, and have continued to support his deeper involvement in radio and the recording legacy of musical artists in Canada.

As The Big Lebowski movie fans throughout the universe will testify, Jeff Bridges, aka The Dude, rocks his world with philosophical, peaceful consistency. Just like the humorous, harmonious character that Bridges plays on film, Bill King, aka the dude, does the same.

And still joyfully abides in the musical world he helped create.


In Concert! cover features jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater
(Image by c. Bill King, used with permission)
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Kris' Lens: Bill King and his book, 'In Concert!'
(Image by c. Kris King, used with permission)
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All photos copyright Bill King, and used with the kind permission of Bill King. Author photo of Bill King is copyright Kris King and used with her kind permission.

Additional information:

Bill King's book, In Concert! Images, Essays and Interviews

is available as an ebook here: http://store.blurb.ca/ebooks/458141-in-concert-essays-images-and-interviews

" and available as an oversized print edition at http://www.blurb.ca/b/5083875-in-concert-essays-images-and-interviews, where you can also get a free sample.

Bill King's facebook pages:

https://www.facebook.com/billking.inconcert?ref=hl

https://www.facebook.com/billkingphography

Bill's blog: www.billkingmusic.blogspot.com

 

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Vicki Leon, author of over 35 nonfiction books on women's history, ancient history, and travel, along with pictorial books for younger readers on wildlife and earth's fragile habitats, lives on the California coast but often returns to her favorite (more...)
 

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