The Jazz Odyssey of Bill Ware
by John Pietaro
Harkening back to a violinist whose freedom from slavery was bought in performance, Bill Ware’s place within American music is best described as a proud lineage. Vibraphonist, bassist, composer, pianist, educator and creative adventurer, Ware’s genre-bending career, well into its fourth decade, has been nothing short of riveting. A founding member of the Jazz Passengers and Groove Collective, he’s also collaborated with Steely Dan, John Zorn, JD Parran, Marc Ribot, Bobby Sanabria, Deborah Harry, the BBC Concert Orchestra, Chico Mendoza, Bobby Previte, Joe Henderson, Jerome Harris, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Minnesota Symphony, Elvis Costello, Arturo O’Farrill, Andy Summers, Marshall Crenshaw, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore and many more.
Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1958, young Billy didn’t have to look back as far as his violin playing distant uncle for musical inspiration. His father, who’d experienced childhood poverty, became a musician as a youth and encouraged his children to study music as a means towards discipline and success. By age five, Billy already showed rhythmic promise as he listened to music in the home and banged on anything he could get his hands on. When he was six years-old the family moved to a house in the suburban community of Maplewood. As a bit of unexpected fortune, the house’s prior owner left boxes of records for the taking, an odd mix of pop-rock, lounge singers, big band and light classical. And amidst this, Leap Frog by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with Thelonious Monk, Tommy Potter and Buddy Rich, a recording which proved a lasting influence. Soon, the family also bought a piano and Ware’s musical pursuit became active and visceral.
For the budding musician, formal drum lessons as well as studies of the bass, created for him a unique double which soon bore fruit in acquiring jobs. “My first gig at the age of 9 was a local production of the Pajama Game where I played drums. My father sat to my side and helped me follow the chart”, he explained. Bill also found inspiration in two uncles. James Dowdy was a pianist and Ron Warwell, an artist and drummer, was also Art Director at Columbia whose record collection was extensive, offering the aspiring musician yet another palette from which to draw. By age 13, after discovering Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, Bill decided to form a hard rock band. “We only did one gig and were paid a pizza. The band didn’t even have a name!”, he recalled. Later, playing drums in funk horn bands, he explored soul covers with a band named Soularized Experience. Thelonious Monk wasn’t far off.
Everything else grows from this. As a senior in Columbia High School, Ware was focused on classical marimba, as he prepared for his studies at Montclair State University. “I practiced all of the scales for a year, up and down and in different patterns and then intervals. I was very technically agile on the instrument” but he moved to vibraphone to play in the jazz ensemble he’d founded. “I directed from behind the vibes a la Hampton”. Once at Montclair State, “I was being groomed for orchestral work, but they didn’t know what to do with me. There was so much racism and I was so tired of it”. Soon, he’d switched his major to theory/composition and began a stint teaching at JazzMobile, while practicing six hours per day, performing in a lounge band and playing a wealth of street gigs throughout New York City.
His studies at the Harlem Jazzmobile Workshop were instrumental. “I went from life as a very unhip suburban kid to being around top-notch pros,” he recalled. “In a three-hour Barry Harris seminar, I learned everything. Harmony is simple, only two chords: V and I. All the others are color.” After graduation in 1982 came a period of serious illness, hospitalization and bed rest for months. “I drew a set of vibe bars on a cloth which I spread across my bed to practice different rhythmic patterns and develop my 4-mallet technique”. After recuperation, Bill began working in and writing for Latin jazz bands as a bassist or pianist including that of Bobby Sanabria. In this period, he also become a faculty member at William Patterson College and in 1986, formed the recording and touring band AM Sleep with master Cuban drummer Roberto Borrell. It was just when his career path seemed headed for a rich future in Latin music when, in 1987 he got the call inviting him to join the newly formed septet, the Jazz Passengers, a New York City avant-garde jazz group founded by Saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.
“I was hanging out in Jazzmobile as that scene developed downtown. A lot of those musicians loved jazz but really didn’t play it, so when Roy Nathanson left John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, he made certain it leaned more to jazz”. Joining the ensemble, initially called ‘Attention Shoppers!’, thrust Ware into the heart of the thriving avant garde/experimental scene on the still raw Lower East Side. “I was just a straight-ahead player”, he recalled. “They were into Ornette and Coltrane’s Om. There was a serious scene downtown so our first gig–at the Kitchen—was packed. I’d had little experience in New York clubs, and I thought we were going to be playing in the kitchen of some restaurant. I didn’t know it was a club!”.
After their triumphant debut, the Jazz Passengers performed often at the original Knitting Factory, a location that fortified the Passengers’ legendary status and hosted several of its record dates. The band, which also featured guitarist Marc Ribot, rapidly developed an international following, attracting vocalists Mavis Staples, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Scott, Cuba Gooding, Bob Dorough and others. But among those greats, it was Deborah Harry who officially joined the band, performing with them on “the Conan O’Brien Show”, “Late Night with David Letterman” and touring widely with them for seven years . Between 1987 and 2000 the Jazz Passengers recorded eight albums, but even with this success, during downtime its members sought outside projects. For Ware, this began with his trio, Vibes, a house band of the Knitting Factory’s ‘Late-Night Hang’. In various iterations Vibes has been an ongoing project and released several albums over the years including 2010’s Played Right, lauded by All About Jazz as brandishing “…the touch of a resilient, serpentine stylist, a master of quiet spectacle.”
The 1990s were a busy and varied period, starting with an invitation for a three-month residency at Club Bird in Yokohama, Japan. The ensemble, Bill Ware’s Club Bird All-Stars, would later perform widely and record the album Long & Skinny which remains a classic of the genre. Bill also delved into the burgeoning acid jazz scene as an original member of Groove Collective, the seminal acid jazz band dominating the Giant Steps scene in New York City. While with Groove Collective, Ware explored the use of an electronic effects system for the vibraphone, an enhancement of the instrument following in the footsteps of legendary vibist, Mike Mainieri of Steps Ahead. Early on, Groove Collective was ‘discovered’ by renowned Steely Dan producer Gary Katz who signed the band to the major label, Warner Brothers Reprise, and produced their debut album, Groove Collective. Their international tours were extensive, and they later released three albums under the Shanakie label’s guise.
During this period, Bill also formed the band Groove Thing, with saxophonist Jay Rodriguez from Groove Collective and featuring Debby Harry in two albums including The Adventure and This is No Time. It was Gary Katz who introduced Bill to Steely Dan, and from 1993-95, Ware toured with the Dan for its first live dates in a generation, recording the album Alive in America along the way. By mid-decade, he was also teaching in New York’s LeAp Program—Learning Through Expanded Arts–which used the arts in elementary schools toward the learning of academics. This was Ware’s initial foray into the community teaching experience however, it was halted when, in 1997, he received the frightening diagnosis of a tumor on his spinal column. With financial help from the Jazz Foundation of America, he was able to successfully complete treatment and maintain his thriving career.
Never one to idle, the vibraphonist continued in a series of projects in the new millennium including his Y2K Quartet which recorded Keeping Up with the Jones, also recording the Duke Ellington tribute Sir Duke as a duo with Marc Ribot. He also worked as a sideman on albums by Roy Nathanson, Lee Feldman, Janis Siegel, Jerome Harris, JD Parran, Mario Pavone, CeCe Peniston, Andy Summers and Elvis Costello. Further, Ware has independently produced Deborah Harry and extensively taken the helm for his own studio projects including for his full electric band. He joined Bobby Previte’s New Bump Quartet from 2010 – 2013 and developed an important presence at Puppet’s Jazz Bar in Brooklyn, ultimately forming a quartet with Arturo O’Farrill, Alex Blake and club owner Jaime Affoumado, the Puppeteers, in 2014. In 2009, Ware joined the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, whose debut release Natural Selection earned four stars in Downbeat, among other accolades. After thrilling audiences at the 2010 Newport Jazz Festival, the Quartet embarked on international tours and later released their second album, Intents and Purposes in 2015.
Beyond performance, Bill has made important inroads as a composer in both contemporary classical music and film scoring. His orchestral adventures began with a request for orchestrations of the Deborah Harry – Jazz Passengers songbook for performances with the Buffalo Philharmonic, which were also later performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra. To date, he’s composed three symphonies, multiple concerti, numerous soundtracks and other works. Among the victories on this front was the 2004 performance of his “Das Juengste Kind, Symphonie der Familien” by the Minnesota Orchestra. Ware also has collaborated with cellist Sara Wollan on several hybrid classical/jazz projects of various iconic composer’s works by way of Ware’s jazz orchestrations.
Ware’s film compositions, alone and in collaboration with Roy Nathanson, include scores to Martin and Orloff, Raising Victor Vargas, Undefeated, Excess Baggage, Singularity, and Hal Wilner’s A Tribute to Harold Arlen. He also arranged the Jazz Passengers’ music for their live performances set to the Universal cult classic, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
In 2010, the Jazz Passengers found each other once again after a decade apart, with their acclaimed album Reunited and a series of tours, including a triumphant performance at Austria’s Saalfelden Jazz Festival. In 2012, the band continued their theatrical pursuits with a theatre workshop residency at Bric in Brooklyn of a new work by Roy Nathanson and Lloyd Miller entitled Trashed Out, a powerful statement on the financial crisis of 2008 based on Paul Reyes’ book, Exiles in Eden. The Jazz Passengers’ thirtieth anniversary recording Still Life with Trouble was released in 2017, featuring two Ware compositions and many of his arrangements containing references to Paris, Lennie Bruce, Louis Armstrong, R&B and pop culture. Described by Nathanson simply as “…nine musical stories about trouble and the passage of time…”, it received a 4.5 star review in Downbeat.
Bill’s newest project is his original new score for the animated German film by Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) to be performed with a quintet that includes Steve Bernstein (Sexmob) on slide trumpet, Sam Bardfeld (Jazz Passengers, Bruce Springstein) on violin, Philip Mayer (The Band’s Visit) on percussion and much sought after jimbre player, John Murchison who also plays bass. The World Premiere took place at MassMOCA on August 14, 2020. US and international touring will be planned for 2021 and beyond.
Bill also serves on the Artistic Advisory Board of the nonprofit organization, Jazz Passengers Music Projects, Inc. (jpmpinc.org) which is fiscal sponsor for the “social justice oriented artistic, theatrical and educational projects” that come from members of the Passengers.
Bill Ware endorses Malletech Instruments and Zoom electronic effects
For more information visit BillWarevibes.com and Facebook.com/billwarevibes