Born Willis Leonard Holman on May 21, 1927 in Olive, CA, near Santa Ana, Bill Holman took up clarinet in junior high school and tenor saxophone in high school by which time he was leading his own band. After serving in the Navy and studying engineering, he decided in the late '40s that he wanted to write big band music and studied for a while at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles with Dave Robertson and Dr. Alfred Sendrey. He also studied composition privately with Russ Garcia and saxaphone with Lloyd Reese.
In 1949 he played with the Ike Carpenter Band, in 1951, he was writing for Charlie Barnet, and in 1952 he began his association with Stan Kenton, for whom he wrote and played for many years. During the '50s, he was also active in the West Coast jazz movement, playing in small bands led by Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne, and co-leading a quintet with Mel Lewis in 1958.