Interview by Sandra Davidson | Video by N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources | Editing Support by Scott Stegall
Earlier this summer Wilson, N.C. welcomed home a native son: legendary jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Billy has performed with jazz titans like Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Lou Donaldson, and George Benson. His performance career began in 1950 when he played with Percy Mayfield. A performer, composer, and educator, Kaye was the featured drummer for jazz workshops at the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival and is currently a music educator in the New York City public school systems through the Jazz Foundation of America’s Jazz in Schools program. Billy learned to play drums during his tenure in the U.S. Air Force, and has traveled the world as a musician. His concert on June 7that the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park marked the first time he ever played in his hometown.
Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.
I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff.
Tell me how you came to be a jazz drummer.
That’s a hard one. It wasn’t a thing that I decided as a boy. During World War II, my folks moved to Brooklyn. Back in the ‘30s and early ‘40s, many people bounced back and forth wherever the work was. The music started in grammar school in Brooklyn. We had a class called Music Appreciation. My teacher played music and we had to identify, “What do you think this person who wrote this music was thinking about? What do you hear in this music?” [Once] the teacher [played] the William Tell Overture. We didn’t know that. All we could think about was, “Oh, that’s the Lone Ranger.” No, that’s not the Lone Ranger. We learned that was the finale from William Tell by Rossini. So, we start to learn about these writers. That’s where the life came into the music. They were musically photographing, so to speak, their imagination or what they were thinking about.
Then I had to start taking piano lessons. I had this thing about “I think I want to play the drums,” [but] my father said, “You’ll learn how to play a piano so you’ll know what you’re beating on those things about.”
It didn’t make me want to be a drummer, but as things went on and I grew older, I started listening to jazz, and I started hearing different things. I started listening more closely and fooling around on my grandmother’s piano. That really started the music.
You’ve played with some amazing jazz musicians, and you’ve toured all over the world. Is there a recording you’ve done that stands out as your favorite?
That’s hard to say. Financially, [that’s] one thing, but spiritually speaking, is another thing. I think the greatest thing that really did something was the Sugaralbum with Stanley Turrentine because that was [a] pretty outstanding thing with Ron Carter and the group involved in that. Ron Carter had gotten a new electric bass, and he wanted to play his electric bass. He literally laid down and pouted because he couldn’t play his new electric bass on that particular recording. That particular recording is what really took off. Had it been electric, who knows?
I have to say this. There was never any music to read on these sessions. I [once] did a session where there was music, but it was not [with] any one of those guys. It was just a recording session, and I was trying to play and read at the same time. I was telling the producer, “Hey, what’s going on over there? I’m trying to check out what this music is about.” He says, “The melody tells you what it’s about. That’s just a reference. Just play the music.”
So, a lot of it’s about feeling the music?
What does it feel like to play?
Well, that’s what I learned from Papa Jo. He was the mentor of all of us—Art Blakey, Max Roach. Even though he was a drummer, he was always telling you that the melody tells you what’s supposed to happen…where you put your exclamation point, question mark, period, comma. The music tells you that. It don’t need to be on the paper. It’s in the melody, so just listen to the melody and you’ll get by. Alright. It worked.
Will you tell me about your relationship to the Jazz Foundation of America?
I was traveling with Leon Thomas, the scat singer, when I joined the foundation. I came off a road trip and somebody brought my attention to it, and I got interested in it. They were working on a program [to] get guys strung out on drugs out of their drug thing. It was just [a] small organization. What little money they could get—they got. So I got involved. I had a snakeskin jacket that Miles Davis gave me. I saw it in his closet when we were at his house. I liked it and [said,] “That’s a bad jacket, man.” He said, “Yeah, you can have it. I don’t bother with that.” So, he gave me that jacket. I wore it once and put it in the closet. [When] the foundation had a fundraiser, I gave them that jacket. Two people bid, and they were fighting together. They had a deal with each other, “I’ll keep it this time, and you keep it that time.” That was the first $25,000 that came in [to the foundation].
You did tour with one of North Carolina’s most famous jazz musicians—Thelonious Monk. Did you talk about how you were both from North Carolina?
No, we never even talked about it. We just knew. We were born 18 miles apart. We ended up playing together. I met him through The Baroness. I was crossing the street leaving my gig at Count Basie’s. She was a Rolls Royce fanatic. She drives up, and she stopped. With her accent, she leaned out and says, “Get in.” It’s like, “Alright!” She drove me downtown to meet Monk. That was my first meeting of The Baroness.
We only have time for one more question. What is it like for you to play your first hometown show?
It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home.