“Anyone who plays a Gene Ammons—Sonny Stitt tune is a friend of mine,” record producer Bob Weinstock told Billy Ross after hearing the multi-woodwind player and his group perform at a North Miami shopping mall in 1994. Weinstock, the founder of Prestige Records, had once produced Ammons and Stitt, as well as Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and countless others. Ross, not knowing that Weinstock hadn’t supervised a session in over three decades, told him of his dream of recording a tribute to his late friend Getz.
That fortuitous meeting led to Weinstock’s long-overdue return to producing (for Fantasy, Inc., the Berkeley, California company to which Weinstock had sold Prestige in 1972) and to The Sound, Ross’s recording debut as the sole leader of his own group. The Sound, a loving tribute to Getz, was issued on Fantasy’s Milestone label later in 1994. Now comes Ross’s tribute to the late Woody Herman’s legendary First Herd (the first major swing band to have embraced elements of bop), Woody, on Fantasy’s Contemporary label. Whereas The Sound was Ross’s idea, Woody was Weinstock’s, yet Weinstock this time took the role of executive producer and let Ross and his longtime cohort, pianist-arranger Mike Levine, produce the sessions themselves.
Although Ross was born on April 12, 1948—over a year after Herman disbanded the First Herd—the Hollywood, Florida-based musician was an ideal choice for Weinstock’s project. Ross had been a member of three subsequent Herman Herds—in 1967-68, 1978-79, and 1980-82—sitting in a sax section that had previously held such tenor giants as Getz, Ammons, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Flip Phillips.
Woody, which features new treatments of such First Herd favorites as “Apple Honey,” “Bijou,” “Northwest Passage,” “Laura,” “Keen and Peachy,” and “Woodchoppers’ Ball,” is a dazzling display of Ross’s virtuosity on soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, clarinet, and flutes. (He plays bass, alto, and C flutes on the Latin-tinged “Everywhere,” composed by First Herd trombonist Bill Harris.) Ross does not hog all the solo space for himself, however, and leaves plenty of room for other leading South Florida musicians, including trumpeter Ira Sullivan, flugelhornist-trumpeter Pete Minger, tenor saxophonist Turk Mauro (another Weinstock discovery and Milestone recording artist), and such ex--Hermanites as tenor saxophonist Frank Tiberi and baritone saxophonist Mike Brignola. And for a Ross-Levine blues original titled “For the First Herd,” they recruited 83-year-old saxophonist Flip Phillips, the First Herd’s star tenor soloist. Arrangers Levine, Gary Lindsay, Larry Warrilow, and Willie Sanchez give fresh readings to the Herman classics throughout, in both intimate small-group and expansive little-big-band settings.
Billy Ross was born into a show business family in Brooklyn. His parents, Larry Ross and the late Sonia Zomina, performed as a song-and-dance team in New York’s Catskill Mountains before becoming Broadway, motion picture, and television actors. Billy himself began acting at age 8, at first appearing in commercials, later playing small roles in such films as Love with the Proper Stranger and The Way We Were.
He took up the clarinet at age 9 and later studied under Joe Allard at the Juilliard School of Music. When Ross was 12, his parents brought him to Brooklyn’s Fox Theater to hear the Miles Davis Sextet. John Coltrane, then a member of the Davis band, left an especially lasting impression. Two years later, Ross heard and met Stan Getz at Basin Street East.
“He always inspired me, and he always took time to talk to me,” Ross says of Getz. “He said to me, ‘Don’t think about playing a style. Play what you feel.’ I don’t try to copy his playing. After all those years of hearing him play, I just sort of absorbed it and the kind of spirit that he had. I want to instill that in people—that kind of peace that he had. There was something really remarkable—he had this relaxing peace that he gave others. With so much frantic music out there, I think sometimes I like to portray music that’s nice and relaxing. I’m kind of hyper sometimes, and the only time I get to relax is when I play.”
Ross turned professional at 14, spending summers playing at hotels in the Catskills, where he eventually backed such headliners as Lena Horne, Vic Damone, and Hines, Hines, and Dad. Back home in New York City, he joined a lab band that played arrangements from the Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Gerry Mulligan big bands. “I got to read all those arrangements,” he recalls, “so by the time I was 17 years old, I could read anything.”
After a stint with Machito’s Afro-Cuban orchestra, Ross joined the Herman band at age 18. He had replaced Sal Nistico, but six months later, Nistico returned to reclaim his chair. Ross then rejoined Machito and later played with the Latin orchestras of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. In 1970, he went to Australia to visit his aunt and, within three days, was hired as first flutist in the Australian Broadcasting Recording Orchestra.
Homesick for the U.S., Ross moved to Miami Beach, where his parents had settled, and was accepted with a full scholarship to the University of Miami School of Music, from which he graduated in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in studio music and jazz. While there, he played and toured with the award-winning University of Miami Jazz Band, which included, among other notables, guitarist Pat Metheny. In 1981, Metheny contributed to an album on the Head First label by the Ross-Levine Band, a group Ross co-led with pianist Mike Levine.
Ross returned to the Herman band in 1978 and again in 1980. He was featured primarily on flute and piccolo, but in 1981 recorded an album with the orchestra titled Live at the Concord Jazz Festival that found him playing a blistering tenor solo on Bill Holman’s “Midnight Run.” Ross recalls that Stan Getz, who appeared as a special guest on the album, was impressed.
Since leaving Herman for the final time in 1982, Ross has been among the most in-demand studio musicians in South Florida. Among his many credits are record dates with James Brown, Millie Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Julio Iglesias, Duffy Jackson, and Melton Mustafa; tours with Marvin Gaye, Michel Legrand, Frank Sinatra, and Mel Tormé; and club engagements with Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lou Rawls, and Nancy Wilson. For the past nine years, Ross has been a member of the house band of Sabado Gigante, a Spanish-language variety show filmed at Univision in Miami and viewed by 140 million people worldwide.
Although steady, the Sabado Gigante gig affords Ross the time to pursue his first love—playing jazz—on weekends. With the release of The Sound, and now Woody, Billy Ross is bringing his relaxed yet intensely swinging style to jazz audiences around the world, carrying on the legacies of Stan Getz and Woody Herman, while making musical statements that are deeply personal and highly refreshing.