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Bill Potts: 1928-2005
Bill Potts

Born: April 3, 1928 in Arlington, VA
Died: February 15, 2005 in Plantation, FL

Pianist, arranger, educator and producer

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins

Pianist, composer and arranger Bill Potts died of cardiac arrest in Plantation, Florida, on February 15, 2005. He was 75 years old.

He was born William Orie Potts on April 3, 1928, in Arlington, Virginia. Potts was largely self-taught as a musician, beginning on Hawaiian guitar as a child. At fifteen he won a talent contest for his accordion skills. But it was hearing Count Basie on the radio that perked his interest in jazz. After graduation Potts became a professional jazz pianist, touring with Woody Herman, and while in the Army band he learned the art of arranging through trial and error.

After his service, Potts joined THE Orchestra, a group of veteran musicians which was often touted by Willis Conover on "Voice of America". Fascinated with recording technology, Potts taped performances by THE Orchestra and as many other musicians as he could. He documented several of Charlie Parker's final performances, which became sort of cult favorites, as well as taping some of Lester Young's club gigs in 1956 (issued as Lester Young in Washington, D.C., five volumes, Pablo/Original Jazz Classics). The Young tapes, which Pablo began to issued in 1980, proved that Prez wasn't merely a washed-up drunk in his final few years, and they brought Potts further notoriety as a pianist and producer.

Potts' career had many other colorful moments, from jazz projects with Buddy Rich, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Herman and Quincy Jones, to work with pop stars like Paul Anka and Bobby Vinton. His works were performed by Parker, Basie, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie and other top names. But his 1959 album (United Artists) may have been his finest hour. The album had an unusual genesis, conceived when the 30-year-old Potts was laid up for months after a car accident.

On a Gershwin kick, Potts decided to familiarize himself with "Porgy and Bess", of which he possessed little prior knowledge. He analyzed the score meticulously and listened to as many recorded versions of the opera as he could. Well over a month later, Potts began writing his own arrangements of tunes from the opera. In contrast to the usual pensive renditions of songs like "Summertime", Potts' charts took the music in bold, energetic directions. Among the musicians he called in for the record were trumpeters Harry "Sweets" Edison and Charlie Shavers, young pianist Bill Evans, and tenorman Zoot Sims. The album received high praise, including a five-star review from Down Beat. Unfortunately, this was the era of Miles Davis, and the trumpeter's own "Porgy and Bess" venture with Gil Evans quickly obscured Potts' equally creative, more potent take.

In 1963 Potts recorded the rather successful Bye Bye Birdie for Colpix, with altomen Phil Woods and Gene Quill and trumpeter Clark Terry in the band, but did little recording afterwards. For a number of years, Potts taught at Montgomery College in Maryland, where he liked to admonish his students with one instruction: "Swing, or I'll kill you!" He led his own big band as well. Twice divorced, Potts moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1995.

Bill Potts is survived by his daughter, Christi Desky of Davie, FL; a brother, Robert Potts of Reston, VA; two sisters, Virginia Stafford of Alexandria, VA and Janet Potter of Daytona Beach, FL.; and two granddaughters, Meghan and Andrea Desky of Davie, FL.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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