Q&A with Will Boyd, saxophonist and woodwind doubler, specializing in jazz along with many other musical genres

"I know through my music, I would like to tear down walls and remove mental barriers that are based on the unfounded fear of truth. Create an open dialogue founded on empathy and respect. Only through acknowledgement and understanding can we move forward and grow together."

Will Boyd: Freedom, Soul, Jazz, & Sax

Multi-reed instrumentalist, composer, educator Will Boyd hails from soul sax tradition like artists Eddie Harris, David Newman, and Houston Person. Originally from Orangeburg SC by way of Queens NY, Will currently resides in Knoxville TN. He is a member of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and currently has 2 solo albums “Live at the Red Piano Lounge” (2018) and “Freedom Soul Jazz” (2019). Will also co-leads a group with Wife, jazz radio host, and founder of the Knoxville Women in Jazz Jam Festival Kelle Jolly. Will was playing with professional local R&B groups before he was 18. He then received more training at the music program at South Carolina State University where he received BA in Music Business and met future wife vocalist Kelle Jolly. There he played on the jazz ensemble that boasted distinguished alumni such as tenor man Houston Person, trombonist Ron Westray, and trumpeter Charlton Singleton. There he also played in the concert band and the Marching 101. Was inducted into the university’s jazz hall of fame in 1997. Will would later become a staple in the music scene in Columbia SC where he would play with mostly fusion, funk, and soul bands.

There he got opportunities to play with legends in this field including local guitarist, educator Robert Newton, drummer John Blackwell, trombonist Fred Wesley and soul singer William Bell. Through a chance encounter with saxophonist Patrick Langham would lead him to Knoxville TN. Will moved to Knoxville in early 2000s, and enrolled into the University of TN program where he would receive his Masters of Jazz Studies. During this period Will worked with many local soul, blues and jazz bands, while also studying and performing with prominent jazz educators saxophonist, author Jerry Coker, South African free jazz artist Zim Ngqawana, and pianist, composer, producer Donald Brown (Art Blakey Jazz Messengers). Since then, Will has had the opportunity to play with many artists across genres including Leslie Odom Jr, Wycliffe Gordon, Doc Severinsen, Crissy Collins, Chris Blue, Glen Jones, Jeff Coffin, Rick Simerly, Blanch McCallister- Dykes, Elise Testone, Amy Bormet, Laura Theadore, Dave Eggar, Regina Carter, Four Tops, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James big band. He is also on recordings which include artists such as Nicholas Payton, Michael Dease, Greg Tardy, Bobby Lyle, Jonathan Scales, Eric Reed, Carmon Bradford, Chris Potter, Jeremy Pelt, Tim Green and Darryl Hall.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz (and Afro-American music) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Jazz has directly influenced my views of the world and many journeys that I have taken. It was through performing this music that I was able to even visit different countries and experience they're various cultures firsthand. For instance, my first time on a plane ever was to play at a jazz festival in Hokkaido- Japan (Muroran Jazz Cruise). From growing up in a country town (Orangeburg South Carolina), to hanging out in Tokyo was an eye-opening experience to say the least! Going to jam sessions and being able to fit right in without even needing to know the language. I am always surprised by the level of appreciation other countries have for hip hop, the blues, gospel, funk and especially jazz music. I feel that through the arts (especially music) is such a great way of bringing us (the people of the world) together.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What touched (emotionally) you from the woodwinds?

Growing up I was obsessed with great vocalists like Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, or even Frank Sinatra. I take a more vocal approach to my playing. I like the use space and not big on playing a lot of notes. I also like very soulful playing. That's why I draw from artists like Ray Charles, Hank Crawford, Eddie Harris, Les McCann. Gato Barbieri and Donny Hathaway. The woodwind I am drawn to the most is the soprano sax. It is one of the most difficult, yet sweetest of the reeds in my opinion. Ever since I heard Grover Washington Jr and Branford Marsalis on it, I was hooked.

"Jazz has directly influenced my views of the world and many journeys that I have taken. It was through performing this music that I was able to even visit different countries and experience they're various cultures firsthand. For instance, my first time on a plane ever was to play at a jazz festival in Hokkaido- Japan (Muroran Jazz Cruise)." (Will Boyd / Photo by Bill Foster)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, tours and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Let's See. Once I was on this gig with Fred Wesley (trombonist for the JB'S) at place called Dave's in Columbia SC that was a real dive. It was an organ sextet. I was in my mid 20s and the next youngest band member was in his fifties. I was really nervous because the vibe of the place was like it had no changed in 30 years. Fred wasn't even phased. He said it reminded him of places where he first started. Classic juke joint. I overheard one lady say where is the DJ, I don't wanna hear no band! This show wasn't advertised at all I think.  At this point I am thinking this gig is going go really bad. When we are about to start the set room is quite and the crowd was sitting staring meanly at us. Fred (still un phased by the audience) asked what we want to play. Guitar player says It's Your thing by the Isley Bros. Fred says ok. He plays the first 2 notes of the melody to start it off and by the time the rest of the band came in the dance floor packed and it stayed that way for the rest of the gig! I was shocked. What I thought was going to be my worst gig ever, turned out to be one of the best.

I was once in this band called the Fusion of Life Project led by funk drummer the late John Blackwell. We play a show at an outdoor festival that had recorded by a professional video crew. Well was also in Prince's group the New Power Generation at that time as well and he was excited to show off his new group to Prince. Well Prince watched the video and had "many" observations about the group haha. What he said about me was "I don't like the tenor much. It's out of tune. I like the soprano though. Very nice!" I was so excited that "Prince" got to hear me play, that didn't care he completely hated my playing Hahaha.

One time I tagged along with some friends who were playing with Wycliffe Gordan somewhere in Georgia. I can't remember where, but another festival. I was given an opportunity to sit in on a tune. A common standard (not sure which one). Wycliffe starts it off and for some reason he does not like the flow of the tune, so he just stops the band and starts playing by himself at a ridiculously fast tempo. He brings the band back in and they are barely hanging on at that tempo. He plays about 20 amazing choruses on his solo. Stops. Then points at me to play. I may have gotten through 2 or 3 choruses before I was done. There was no way I could hang at that speed lol. I ended up playing the entire gig, but I swore to myself I would never be caught off guard like that again.

So, I was at this recording session in Queens NY for drummer Ken Brown's 2nd Chances album. He had a great line up of musicians for the session. Among them was Chris Potter and Nicolas Payton. The session was pretty relaxed and there a lot of cool conversations going with everyone. Everyone except Nicolas Payton. He didn't say much at all during the session except once to tell a photographer to get out of the studio while we were recording. Most of the time he was on his cell, and listening in on the occasional conversation. So, a group of us that included Chris and Nick walked to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. As usual with musicians we telling stories, jokes and what have you. Everyone but Nick who would be on his cell or walk off and come back.  After the fun lunch, it was time to head back to the studio, and went to pay for our meals and the server told us there was no bill. That gentleman paid everyone's bill. It was Nicolas. So not only did I get to be on a recording with Nicolas Payton, I can say he paid for my lunch once haha. Ok, I am done now.

"I would like to travel to New York in the late sixties/ early seventies. It was a huge transitional period for artistic creativity, social awareness and technological advancements. I would love to have been in the studio and seen the sessions where many of our classic funk jazz albums were created. Witnessing the transition from acoustic instruments to more electronic." (Photo: Will Boyd on stage)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

So many important encounters, that I don't even know where to start haha. I will share some advice given to me over the years by the masters. "Always keep learning. Rome wasn't built in a day. There are things I can play at 85 I couldn't at 25" James Moody. "If you could play with soul, why would you play any other way? " "Jazz musicians need the Blues. Blues musicians don't need jazz" both Jerry Coker. "No matter what you are playing, the music needs to dance!" Zim Ngqawana. "Kid, keep on doing what you doin'" Albert Tootie Heath. Of course getting to meet or perform with my idols Maceo Parker, Kenny Garrett, James Carter, Regina Carter etc.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

That is a great question! Jazz like many other music forms is primarily an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. I just don't want to see aspects of the tradition (like the blues) being lost in a quest for innovation or to be "original". You can do both. I am pleased to see it happening on the European music scene at least. A nod to the past, while still moving the music forward.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jazz and Soul with Civil Rights movement and Afro-American Culture?

Soul, Jazz, Civil Rights, and African-American Culture are interconnected all at once. It is a music of the now that can be used to vent, inform, uplift, warn, protest, express the artists demeanor at that moment in addition to entertain. When I was taking lesson with Free Jazz saxophonist the late Zim Ngqawana, He told me stories about traveling to the U.S. to study with artists like Max Roach and Archie Shepp. I wanted to learn more about playing this "American" jazz, and they told him that will come, but what are you doing for the struggle? You see Zim grew up during Apartheid, and many musicians from South Africa had to leave they're home to escape the oppression (Abdullah Ibrahim) or bring attention to it (Mariam Makeba). The Africans and African Americans would sometimes meet in Europe on their tours and exchange stories about political climate in They're countries, encourage each other, and offer ideas for a solution to the problem. This music could be used as a rallying cry to bring about unity in the face of adversity. You see and hear it when you watch concerts of artists like Nina Simone, early Aretha Franklin, Fela Kuti or Hugh Masekela.

"Jazz like many other music forms is primarily an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. I just don't want to see aspects of the tradition (like the blues) being lost in a quest for innovation or to be "original". You can do both. I am pleased to see it happening on the European music scene at least. A nod to the past, while still moving the music forward." (Photo: Will Boyd)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Wow. There were soo many lessons. I guess one would be to always be open to the possibilities. There were so many cool performances I have done that were cross genre and or cross medium. From doing live installation art pieces to playing solo lines in an opera commissioned for an African American Impressionist painter (Shadowlight). Keep up with technology. I feel like I am always falling behind the times with the production, promotion and selling of music. It is an ever-changing industry that is easy for an individual to be lost or overwhelmed by.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Many people today are mistrusting, guarded and have false stereotypes in they're minds about others that they do not even know. With the power of music, we can start to help correct these issues. I know through my music, I would like to tear down walls and remove mental barriers that are based on the unfounded fear of truth. Create an open dialogue founded on empathy and respect. Only through acknowledgement and understanding can we move forward and grow together.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would like to travel to New York in the late sixties/ early seventies. It was a huge transitional period for artistic creativity, social awareness and technological advancements. I would love to have been in the studio and seen the sessions where many of our classic funk jazz albums were created. Witnessing the transition from acoustic instruments to more electronic.

Will Boyd on Sax - Home

(Will Boyd / Photo by Bill Foster)

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