Born: August 2, 1962 Primary Instrument: Drums
Like most young drummers, Billy Kilson began his career in his mother's kitchen with her pots and pans. Billy's love for the drums began to grow as he grew. Pots and pans, twigs and sticks were used to create a beat. Seeing her son's interest in music, Billy's mother enrolled him in trumpet lessons and later he switched to trombone. His yearning for the drums continued and finally, for his sixteenth birthday he received his first drum set. The gift was conditional upon his continuance of good grades. He kept his part of the bargain and graduated with honors while taking advantage of every free moment to pursue his passion for the drums.
Billy went immediately to work to hone the skills he had developed on the pots and pans. He realized he was working against the clock since most professional musicians began taking lessons on their chosen instrument in grade school. By the time they reached high school, they were semi-pro. Billy was just starting out at the old age of 16. I practiced as much as 14 hours a day. That was it; there were no short cuts. I had to work around studies and other responsibilities. But all through college and the early years after college, I tried to put in those 14 hours on the drums.
Billy learned all different styles of playing. Inspired by funk and R&B, he listened to groups such as Sly and Family Stone, Earth Wind and Fire, and Parliament & Funkadelic and played along with the records. I listened to everything. Since so much of my early playing was self-taught, I think this was the key to my diverse styles. I was exposed to so many different styles. My father loved music and on Saturdays, his favorite thing to do was to listen to music all day long. He had a massive record collection consisting of artists from Count Basie and Duke Ellington to Junior Walker and James Brown. Since I was exposed to much, I learn to play many styles.
At sixteen, Billy attended the Maryland Gifted and Talented Institute for High School Students. It was here he first heard about Berklee School of Music. At seventeen he went to the Shenandoah Music Camp and heard one of Stanley Clarke's recordings featuring Tony Williams. Then he listened to some of Miles Davis records that also featured Williams. I felt he was the most innovative drummer I had ever heard. I was mesmerized by his playing, recalls Billy. He was overwhelmed with the sound and kept trying to learn this technique, but felt he didn't have enough hands. I kept saying, 'How does he do that. It's impossible! Billy learned that Tony Williams' teacher was Alan Dawson who had taught at Berklee at one time and still taught privately in the area. My mom was already checking out the college scene. She was trying to find the school that offered the right balance of music and academics. Having learned some things about Berklee, she was in agreement with Billy's enthusiastic assessment of the school.
In the meantime, Billy kept practicing and listening. Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Cobham, they were all on the turntable. But the greatest musical influence in Billy's life was his mother. She taught me to have faith, be focused and anything is attainable. She is the one single person who believed in me and encouraged me. I owe any success I have to her.
At Berklee, Billy absorbed everything Alan Dawson taught. Alan became his teacher, mentor and even a father figure. Finally, Alan announced that he had taught him everything he could and it was time to go out in the world and perform. But Billy's performing aspirations were put on hold. I had a wife and a baby girl and I couldn't go out on the road and be that 'starving musician' even if I was willing to make the sacrifice for myself. I had more important obligations. Then one day Alan Dawson informed him that Walter Davis Jr. was planning a European tour and looking for a drummer. Upon Dawson's recommendation, Billy was invited to audition. He landed the job and he was on his way.
After the tour with Davis, word spread and the calls began to come. Donald Byrd, Ahmad Jamal and Dianne Reeves were some of the first artists who hired Billy for their tours. I was with Dianne for seven years and playing in her band helped introduce me to all of the major festivals both here and in Europe. We played venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, Apollo Theater, North Sea, and Montreux. From this exposure, Billy caught the attention of George Duke, Najee, Freddie Jackson, Bob James and the calls kept coming.
Eventually Dave Holland invited Billy to join his quintet. As the drummer for the Dave Holland Quintet, he brought an element of funk to the band, creating a new sound for them and catapulting them into a premiere group in jazz. Critics frequently lauded his performances, particularly his expertise with odd meters. He received a Grammy for his work with Dave Holland and has received several nominations. Billy then joined Chris Botti's band. Chris had just landed an opening spot for Sting's tour which enabled Billy to play to a more diverse audience. Chris always allowed Billy the opportunity to stretch musically and he brought his element of funk and odd meters to Chris' band.
Although he has achieved notable success as a sideman in concert and on recordings, Billy's first love is creating and performing his own music. Influenced by the funk and fusion music of his youth, Billy began to write his own music and plan his first recording, While Ur Sleepin'. Later he assembled some of his peers, Kenny Davis, Mike Sim and George Colligan to form BK Groove. They came together as seasoned musicians, reading each other like a favorite book, anticipating the next move perfectly, stepping out to solo at the perfect moment and keeping the groove going at all times. Their music is diverse, original and inspired.
They began performing and developing a new energy of their own which led them back to the studio to record. Like Billy, they all had diverse backgrounds and the project became a summation of their collective musical experiences. Their latest album, Pot's & Pans is a jazz/funk/fusion project with a special nod to drummers.
Billy continues to perform with Chris Botti as well as with his band, Billy Kilson's BK Groove.