The Jazz Institute of Chicago website has the transcription of a valuable 1981 interview with Bill Perkins by the indefatigable British print and broadcast journalist Steve Voce. Perkins was one of the great tenor saxophonists who grew out of Lester Young. In the fifties, Stan Getz said of him, â€œPerk is playing more than any of us.â€ I have always assumed that by â€œany of us,â€ Getz meant not just himself, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Paul Quinichette, Brew Moore and dozens of others who worshipped Lester, but tenor saxophonists in general. Perkins adored Young, but he was on a constant search beyond Young, beyond himself, so that he could get deeper inside himself and his music. He worked incessantly and intensely to become a more expressive player. And he seemed never to be satisfied with his own playing. More than once I have seen his fellow musiciansâ€™ mouths fall open in astonishment at some daring passage he played, only to have him come off the stand shaking his head in disgust at what he considered a failed attempt. His self-deprecation was no act. Hereâ€™s some of what he told Voce.
As you know the attraction to Los Angeles for the musicians was the chance to make money in the studios. It was a very enticing thing. But in recent years because of the sheer number of musicians there they’ve made their own thing musically. And still you can’t possibly make a living as a jazz musician in Los Angeles. I think I took the studio work too seriously. I’d go to each job with the attitude that it was supposed to be a work of art and I’d wind up going home almost on the point of tears because I thought I’d played badly. But, as my dear friend Ernie Watts pointed out, it’s not art it’s craft at best, and if you look at it that way it won’t be so painful to you. Here’s a man half my age educating me!
The important thing about Perkâ€”all musicians who played with him in later years remarked on itâ€”was his unceasing self-renewal as an artist. A coterie of fans constantly barraged him with requests that he play as he did in 1956; specifically, as he did on the marvelous Grand Encounter with John Lewis, Jim Hall, Percy Heath and Chico Hamilton. But, like Hall, he kept growing, exploring, taking harmonic and rhythmic chances, never entertaining the thought of remaining static. That made it difficult for admirers whose antennae were pointed backward, but he treated more open-minded listeners to some of the most adventurous playing in all of jazz. His exploratory, occasionally boggling, conception comes through in his last recordings with the Bill Holman Band, and there is a lot of it in CDs with the Danny Pucillo Quartet on Pucillo’s Dann label and in Silver Storm with Bud Shank’s sextet on Raw Records. Still, Perkins never lost his love for Lester Young and was persuaded late in his life to recreate some of Young’s most famous solos on Perk Plays Prez on the Fresh Sound label.
In part because he was on the west coast, in part because it is demanding to follow a moving target, Perk’s daring late work eluded taste-making critics. Anyone who examines his ouvre of the late nineties and early 21st century will witness astonishing music-making. I rarely tell musicians what I think they should do. Generally, they donâ€™t need or want to hear it. But in 2002, when we are all in the same place, I suggested to Perkins and the guitarist Jim Hall, another giant incapable of not looking ahead, that they collaborate on new music. They liked the idea. That would have been something to hear. If only it had happened before Perk died in August of 2003.