Remembering Perk

Remembering Perk

by Todd S. Jenkins

copyright © 2003 Todd S. Jenkins

I still remember the night the lights went out in Redlands. About eight years ago saxophonist Bill Perkins, pianist Frank Strazzeri and guitarist Al Viola got together for a trio set at the tiny Gay 90s Pizza Parlor, in the picturesque California college town where Kenton used to hold his annual workshops. The joint was deep and narrow, with the bandstand crushed up against the front window so passersby got a tail-end view of jazz in the making.

Al was his usual reliable self, swinging like mad with that magic right hand. Straz made reasonable do with local bandleader/arranger Sandy Megas' electric piano, brought down at the last minute after it was determined that the Roland synth on hand sucked rotten eggs.

Then there was Perk, the kind of guy who made you wonder where he mustered all that wind. Thin as a rail, quieter than a church mouse when the horn was out of his yap, Bill Perkins could peel paint off the wall when he got going. And that night he was going hot and heavy, ripping through a baritone sax solo on some standard or another when it happened. With Perk the song didn't matter after a while. He could wrap up an audience so tightly in his wonderful interpretations, it was easy to forget which tune he was navigating. The sound was the thing.

At about nine PM, as the titanic trio were winding down a tune, some yutz on the street lost control of his car and hit a light pole. Redlands' two-block, Victorian-era business district was plunged into darkness. Thank God for those ubiquitous mesh-wrapped candles in the pizza joint or we would have been groping around like Schwarzenegger at a fashion show.

In the midst of chaos Perk and Al didn't miss a beat. After a few seconds of whispering Al pulled the cord from his archtop, stood up and began to play the tenderest version of "Autumn Leaves" that little crowd had ever heard. Perk strapped on the tenor and blew warm wafts of sensual wind across the tables. They delivered a magical acoustic set which lasted about 20 minutes, well beyond the time it took for the crew to restore power to the block. Strazzeri, afloat without a paddle, just sat back and absorbed it with us regular folk. For the old guys on stage it was no sweat, business as usual. For we who sat and listened, it was a testimony to great musicianship and decades of experience.

It's taken me a few months to really address the passing of Bill Perkins, one of the West Coast's quietest giants. Perk was more than a studio workhorse, more than a reliable chair-warmer, more than a Kentonian icon. He was a natural mentor to people, some of whom might have only met him once but went away the richer for it.

Perk was a self-deprecating genius, onstage and off. He held patents on two wind synthesizers, the fruit of his mothballed engineering degree. He was usually cool as a cucumber on tenor, could be as angular as Steve Lacy on soprano when his dudgeon was up, and cut a row down the middle with his bari playing. His knowledge of the jazz canon was encyclopedic, yet he wasn't afraid to admit when he didn't know a melody or set of changes.

The first time I met Bill was July 1994 in Lake Arrowhead, when the Lighthouse All-Stars were booked for a lakeside concert. Bob Cooper had died three weeks before the date, leaving the group tenorless and woe-struck. Perk left the bari chair to Jack Nimitz and ran down the tenor parts with barely one rehearsal under his belt. As many fond memories as I logged that weekend -- cruising the mountains in Lou Levy's vintage Mustang, talking bass for an hour with Eric von Essen, talking "Wagon Wheels" and God with Shorty, who had three months to live -- the musician in me best remembers Perk's almost spontaneous mastery of the tenor book.

Once at the University of Redlands, following a sound check, I off-handedly asked Bill if he had any advice for improving my embouchure. He asked if I had my horn, and I ran to the car to get it. Then he sat me down in a corner, and that simple question led to a half-hour tutorial on muscle control and breathing. It was some of the most invaluable instruction I ever received musically, delivered off-the-cuff out of the kindness of his heart and a love for developing talent. I hardly ever dust off the alto anymore, but when I do the memory of Perk rushes back into my mind.

Cancer had a thing for Bill Perkins. In the last decade of his life he endured several painful operations for throat tumors, which would go the hell away for a while but always returned. His back and hips ached like nobody's business much of the time. Yet he kept on playing whenever his failing body would let him. I saw him at a 1998 Kentonian gathering in Redondo Beach, so stooped in pain that he had to be helped on and off the stage. In between those awkward moments he poured forth the jazz as fluidly as ever, astonishing everyone who had wondered if he could even bring horn to mouth.

He improved and regressed in an ugly cycle. I think after a while Bill just got so tired of the medication he called it quits. He was a man of seemingly infinite patience, but every man has his limits. Perk had a rich, full, long life with few regrets, a life for which many other musicians would have sold their souls. I wish it had been extended just long enough for me to express how much his time and talents meant to me.

Todd S. Jenkins maintains the "Last Post" at Jazzhouse.

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