Bill Easley’s mastery of the woodwind family of instruments and his adaptability to a wide range of jazz and popular music styles have made him a first-call musician for the past two decades. Besides having played in the reed sections of the Isaac Hayes, Duke Ellington, Illinois Jacquet, and American jazz orchestras and for such hit Broadway musicals as Sophisticated Ladies and Black and Blue. Easley has been the first choice of such artists as Mercer Ellington, Jimmy McGriff, James Williams, and Ruth Brown for touring and/or recording.
Yet first-call status among musicians doesn’t necessarily translate to name recognition with the general public. That situation should change with the release of First Call, Easley’s debut album for the Milestone label. His second album as a leader, it is the first to highlight his considerable gifts as an alto and tenor saxophonist.
Produced by Bob Porter, with whom he had worked on four McGriff albums for Milestone, First Call presents Easley in a variety of stylistic contexts, yet is remarkably unified. The leader alternates between a sumptuous alto and a meaty tenor, supported by a stellar cast that includes pianists Sir Roland Hanna and James Williams, bassists J.J. Wiggins and Dave Jackson, drummer Grady Tate, and trumpeter Bill Mobley.
First Call includes two pop hits of the Fifties—a swinging rendition of Tommy Edwards’s “It’s All in the Game” and a lush reading of Nat King Cole’s “Somewhere Along the Way”—as well as such standards as the Gershwin brothers’ “How Long Has This Been Going On,” Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” and the Chuck Willis-penned Ruth Brown rhythm and blues classic, “Oh, What a Dream.” The appropriately titled “Soulful Bill,” a James Williams composition that was previously recorded by Gary Burton, is the pianist’s salute to Easley while “Blues for Stitt” is the saxophonist’s tribute to one of his heroes—the late Sonny Stitt. And Charlie Parker’s “Little Benny” is given an unusual treatment, beginning with a hip-hop groove before moving into straight-ahead bebop time.
Easley credits his ability to command such a breadth of material to his parents. Born in Olean, New York (near Buffalo) on January 13, 1946, he took up clarinet at age 10 after seeing The Benny Goodman Story and began playing with their band when he was 13. His father, Robert Easley, played drums and his mother, Lois Easley, was a pianist.
“It was like ten million dollars’ worth of experience,’ he explains. “They played primarily dances, country clubs, and proms. That’s really where I learned everything that’s taken me through some 30 years. By the time I was 17 or 18 years old, I knew literally thousands of standard tunes.”
It was also while playing with his parents that Easley developed a deep feeling for the blues. “I think it’s a lost element with many of the guys coming up today,” he says. “I miss that blues element, which I think is one of the primary ingredients in any kind of jazz. I think it’s very important to keep that element in anything that is supposed to be jazz.”
Easley moved to New York City in 1964 to study at Juilliard. but was drafted the following year. Upon his return, he joined the George Benson Quartet, touring the country with the guitarist between 1968 and 1970. “It was actually one of the few periods of my life where I was sort of in the mainstream of the jazz scene,” he says of his time with Benson.
After spending a year in Pittsburgh, Easley moved to Memphis in 1971. During his nine years there, he was a member of the Isaac Hayes Movement, played on recording sessions for such other rhythm and blues stars as Al Green and Albert King, and resumed his studies at Memphis State University. Also during that period he met James Williams and made his first of two tours with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington.
“That’s really when I became aware of the fact that the clarinet was a rarity,” he explains. “Since that time, it’s really opened some doors for me. I don’t mind being considered a clarinet player, but I really like to do all the things that I do and don’t want to be pigeonholed to where people think of me as just a clarinet player.”
Returning to New York in 1980, Easley initially turned down offers from Art Blakey and Horace Silver. “It wasn’t really in my best interest to go out on the road for three months and then come back and start all over again,” he explains. “I was thinking more in terms of working in the theater and in the more secure money-making ventures.
“My thrust has always been toward shows,” adds Easley, who lives in Baldwin, Long Island, New York, with his wife Betty. “I do theater because it offers steady benefits for my family.”
For the past two decades, Bill Easley has enjoyed the prestige and security of being a first-call theater and studio musician, playing almost every woodwind instrument except the baritone saxophone, which, he says. “I refused after experiencing carrying it around airports.” Now, with the release of First Call, he steps out on his own as a formidable jazz saxophonist—one steeped in tradition, yet thoroughly modern.
“At this point, I’m looking more to function as a leader, but maybe not exclusively.” he says. “I’ve gotten to a point where I’m making a very fun, interesting living and enjoying a variety of things, but I wouldn’t be opposed to expanding that.”