Day 401 - Bill Kemp, King Of Swing: 1941 – 2021
The great Perth-born drummer Bill Kemp sadly passed away last week. We pay tribute to a much-loved musician, mentor, teacher, friend and family man below and with this fabulous version of I Hear A Rhapsody, which provides a perfect snapshot of Bill's laid-back brilliance. It was recorded in Aberdeen's Blue Lamp in 2006 for Jazz Aberdeen with Peter King (sax), Pete Lowit (bass) and Eric Davis (piano).
Bill was born in 1941 and grew up on Jeanfield Road in Perth. He initially picked up sticks with the Boys’ Brigade Pipe Band before securing his first proper gig as part of Ronnie Spiers’ highly popular New Cavendish Orchestra.
Bill's love of jazz led him to become a lynchpin of the Blue Workshop in the County Hotel alongside his lifelong friend and near neighbour Alan Gorrie and his band, The Vikings. A unique musical melting pot for soul, jazz and R&B, it ran fortnightly on Sundays throughout the mid 60’s and was a major catalyst for the embryonic Scottish music scene, providing fertile soil for the seeds of the Average White Band amongst others. Other regular jazz players at the Workshop were Laurie Hamilton (guitar), Ian Mathieson (piano) and Jim Mullen (bass) alongside Bobby Wishart (sax), Molly Duncan (sax), Roger Ball (sax) and Davy Huxtable (trumpet) with occasional visits from Alex Sutherland from Aberdeen, and Andy Park from Glasgow.
Around the same time, Bill’s quartet Free Four with Hamilton, Kenny Fraser (piano) and Ron Elder (bass) were at the forefront of the UK's nascent modern jazz scene. They twice won the amateurs' slot at the Richmond Jazz Festival, a massive achievement as this was a hugely important event at the time, which later evolved into the Reading Festival. Bill also spent time playing on cruise ships in the 60's, giving him the opportunity to catch some of his heroes live in New York's legendary jazz clubs, much to the envy of his peers back home.
In the late 60’s the key Perth players began to drift off to pastures new and Bill moved to Aberdeen to join Alex Sutherland’s band at The Dee Motel and later the Skean Dhu in Dyce. Alex was also Musical Director at Grampian TV and Bill regularly appeared onscreen playing for a wide range of artists and programmes. This association also led him to play on many records including early albums by Barbara Dickson, Archie Fisher and Rab Noakes.
Bill quickly established himself as a much-loved mainstay of the north-east jazz scene as a hugely in-demand player, a teacher in Aberdeen schools and as a mentor to generations of musicians. The outpouring of affection and appreciation for Bill on social media over the past week or so bears ample testimony to that, embracing everyone from contemporary jazz heavyweights such as Alyn Cosker and Graeme Stephen to pupils who’d been touched by his care and kindness as a tutor. As well as paying tribute to his huge skill as a musician, and his mastery of swing and brushwork in particular, most also mention his keen - and often caustic - sense of humour.
As a drummer, Bill was influenced primarily by Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Cobb, Max Roach and Buddy Rich. He was also a devotee of the big band sound and loved the great jazz divas, particularly Sarah Vaughan, and played with and encouraged many female vocalists over the years. Throughout his career, Bill appeared onstage with a veritable who’s who of the jazz world including Teddy Edwards, Tal Farlow, Art Farmer, Brian Kellock, Peter King, James Moody, Johnny Griffin, Martin Taylor, Jim Mullen, Jimmy Deuchar, Joe Temperley and Bobby Wishart.
On a personal note, I was lucky enough to get to know Bill when I booked The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen during the 1990’s and early 2000’s where we ran a weekly jazz session for local bands on Sunday lunchtimes. As he was such a great drummer and also could never pass up an offer to play, I reckon he must have been part of at least half of those gigs over the years. It was always a pleasure to see – and hear - him and enjoy a crack about music and our shared Perthshire roots. The last time I saw him was at the opening of Perth Concert Hall in 2005 for a show directed by another great drummer, Trilok Gurtu, and overseen by Horsecross Arts’ first CEO, Jane Spiers - daughter of Ronnie, the bandleader who gave him his first break.
He maintained his Perth contacts throughout his time in Aberdeen, regularly keeping up on the local gossip with his many childhood and musical pals and never missed a chance to sit in on gigs when he was in town or passing through.
It may seem like a cliché to say we’ll never see his like again, but in this case it rings completely true. A man of great wit, warmth, humanity and immense musical skill has left us and we’re all the poorer for it. Rest in peace, Bill.
With grateful thanks to Alan Gorrie, Pete Lowit, Richard Michael, Rab Noakes, Kevin Smith, Bill Colburn, Will Kemp and Neil Gibbons for their contributions.