My high school band director Don Keller was in the Army band with coronetist/bandleader Bill Berry. Bill was played the Jazz trumpet chair and was librarian for Duke Ellington. Because of this our high school Jazz band had copies of the Ellington book. All of my parts were labeled Johnny rather than Alto 1 and Duke's own beautiful signature was at the bottom of every chart. When we went to Jazz festival competitions the other bands didn't stand a chance. They were playing charts like Sammy Nestico's 'Basie Straight Ahead' while we did things like 'Rockin' in Rhythm' and 'Blood Count'. We competed at the Monterey high school Jazz competition every year, which was the most prestigious because the winning big band and combo got to play at the Monterey Jazz festival that year. There was also a Monterey high school all-star (all-state) big band that Bill directed. My combo won one year, our high school big band won twice and I was in the all-star band twice. If you made it into the all-star band you got to miss a full week of school and rehearse in Monterey with Bill. We were put up in a motel by the fairgrounds and given per diem for food. This was a dream come true for a young musician as you might imagine. Bill made us feel like we had already arrived, like we were real Jazz cats. He was an incredible band leader and made us really hard for him. He had a major impact on my musical development, especially my time feel.
Bill was the quintessential hep Jazz cat. I'd never met anyone so cool in all my life. One of the first nights after rehearsing all day Bill dropped by our room and tossed us all beers. We were in shock that he was hanging with us. We were nervous and quiet. I remember Bill eventually saying sarcastically," Well you guys are are a real barrel of laughs." One year our high school band got to tour Japan with Bill. At every concert we played the Japanese announcer would say,"and now introducing BEER BELLY!". Bill had a concept more like Roy Eldridge and Bix than Dizzy and Miles. Some major bands he played with were Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Louis Bellson, Herb Pomeroy, Benny Carter, the NBC orchestra, Thad Jones, Terry Gibbs. He led what was essentially an Ellington ghost band for years called 'Bill Berry and the L.A. big band'. Bill swung his ASS off and was always highly lyrical and creative. He was one of the last true musical giants (despite his size), and a real Jazz gentleman. Bill made a huge impact on every young musician that played in his bands.
His own private Ellington
Here is Bill in his own words talking to Les Tomkins about his incredible career:
The utilising of uniqueness
My pleasurable jazz life
The pro’s and cons of a part–time band