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Billy Kilson


Billy Kilson is definitely a man that travels to the beat of a different drummer. As one of the most sought after up and coming drummers, Billy always had an interest in playing the drums. He has set the beat for some of the top artists in the jazz field, working with great talents such as Dave Holland, Bob James, Larry Carlton, George Duke, Christian McBride, Dianne Reeves and many others. With his drums in front of him, his talent and perseverance led him down a road filled with many bumps, pot holes and lots of hills to climb.

"I guess I've always been intrigued with the drums. My Mom used to tell a story about me as an infant. I would bang on my walker and a friend of hers would say 'We know what he is going to be when he grows up!'" Billy's love for the drums began to grow as he grew. Raised in a small house, Billy's home was too small a drum set. Billy's mother supported her son's interest in music by introducing him to the trumpet in the fourth grade. When his trumpeting talents did not materialize, he switched to trombone. His yearning for the drums distracted Billy's interest in the trombone as well. Pots and pans, twigs and sticks were used to create a beat.
The family later moved to a larger house with a basement. On his 16th birthday, Billy received the gift that would determine his future...a set of drums. The drums came with "strings attached" though. Billy's mother told him he could have the set on the condition that he would do better in school. Billy kept his end of the bargain and graduated with honors.

After receiving the drums, Billy went immediately to work to hone the skills he had developed on the pots and pans. Joining a band and working closely with the bass player he found himself not only behind a real set of drums but actually performing. "He said, when I play the low bass parts, you play the bass drum. When I pluck the strings, you match by playing accents on the high hat and snare." The simple lessons worked and Billy was on his way. So without any formal drum lessons, Billy was offered his first real gig. His mother, who was so supportive of his music, instantly vetoed the offer. Late night gigs had no place in a young student's life. Finally, she talked to the band's manager, whose son was also in the group. Sharing her parental concerns, they made a deal. Billy could be in the band if they would only play on Friday and Saturday nights and it did not interfere with his studies.

Billy also realized he was working against the clock. Most professional musicians would begin 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. I was really into funk then. My ultimate goal was to play with James Brown. If I could do that, I knew I had made it!"

Summer camps brought new enlightenment to Billy's life. At sixteen, he went 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. Here he found information that would change his life. At the camp, Billy 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. He 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!" One of the counselors told Billy 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.

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." Billy's classmates at Berklee was comparable to the Who's Who in Music. Branford Marsalis, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Kevin Eubanks, Jeff Watts, Tommy Campbell were all classmates that were a sort of inspiration to him. "These guys were a major influence in my life, because they were everyday people to me -- my classmates -- that were making it. A year after graduation, Jeff Watts and Branford Marsalis were winning Grammys. My roommate was in Kool & The Gang and Kool was calling our dorm room! My goals seem to be attainable as I watched the dreams of my peers become a reality."

Again, Billy's road to success was not paved. Billy graduated college with responsibilities -- a wife and baby girl. "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." So Billy took a day job down at the phone company and spent lunch hours and breaks practicing rudiments on the steps in the stairwells.

The reality of using his skills was so far away, but his dream was still in front of him. One day upon receiving a call from his college drum teacher, Alan Dawson, he learned Walter Davis Jr. was planning a European tour and looking for a drummer. Upon Davis' 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 who 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, Montreaux, all of the major festivals." From this exposure, Billy caught the attention of George Duke, Najee, Freddie Jackson, and the calls kept coming.

Today Billy finds himself touring with a musically interesting set of road gigs: Bob James, Dave Holland and Larry Carlton. "It is great to get to play with such a diverse set of artists. They all challenge me in different ways. It is definitely helping me to continue to develop my skills create my own sound for my solo project. As I am writing more and more, I think I am creating a sound that is a mixture of all of the artists I am working with and am funneling that into something that is uniquely me."

And the world is beginning to take notice. Billy's skills have been noted in many reviews of Dave Holland's recordings featuring Billy. Jazz Times said, "But the secret weapon here is Billy Kilson who elevates the proceedings with an uncanny combination of precision, power and grace." Down Beat's review said, "Driven by Kilson, who comes off as an unholy blend of Jimmy Cobb and Billy Cobham..." And the Hearld-Sun said "Kilson's composition 'Wonders Never Cease' is the most athletic workout of these sessions, with numerous shifts in tempos and dynamics that interweave among the different soloists." To top it all, Down Beat magazine recently listed Billy as one of the top drummers deserving wider recognition in the 2000 Critics Poll.

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