Musician Bill King muses over jazz’s evolution
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Beaches International Jazz Festival Photo
When Bill King made his first foray into Toronto’s music scene, he plunged himself right into the thick of it. It was the crackling ’60s, the Indiana native was only 16 and he’d just won a scholarship to Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music, where he was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ray Brown, Ed Thigpen and Peterson himself.
And across the road from the school, King remembers, was the First Floor Club, where he and his friends would perch on the fire escape, bewitched by the jazz virtuosos playing inside.
“I saw Lennie Tristano perform through the window, I was right next to the piano,” he remembers. “(The school) got me out to see the world. That was my first taste of Toronto.”
Today, 61-year-old King is a regular renaissance man (in addition to being a musician, he is also a producer, publisher, photographer and radio broadcaster) and has worked alongside a sprawling cast of the musical elite, including Linda Ronstadt, Janis Joplin, Ronnie Hawkins, Peter Matz, and many, many more. After living on both coasts in the United States, King now calls Toronto his home and remains an active member of its musical community.
King is especially busy around this time each year, when the Beaches International Jazz Festival rolls around. He has been its artistic director for 19 years now and this Sunday, King will be sharing the festival‘s main stage with his rhythm and blues band, Bill King’s Saturday Nite Fish Fry.
To King, the jazz and blues scene has undergone some changes since the ’60s. “It used to be that everything in jazz went by a list of standards,” he says. “Now, it’s about original pieces, original writing, sounds and melding the past with the present … people are playing their own things, what they hear in their heads.”
And Saturday Nite Fish Fry is doing just that. With three albums under their belts, the talented nine-person ensemble can coax out infectious sounds combining rhythm and soul, as well as rural and urban blues.
“The band just keeps on evolving,” says King. “You walk away from Fish Fry and it’s just basically a lot of fun.”
Since playing his first gig with the band in 2001, King knew instantly he had something special on his hands.
“It’s the sound and the energy,” he says.
“From that night on, I knew this was exactly the kind of band I wanted.”