Billy Root was born on March 6, 1934 in Philadelphia and came from a musical family. His earliest remembrance of jazz was in 1939 when his father, a drummer, took Billy to the Earle Theater in Philly to see all of the famous big bands, such as Ellington, Basie, Lunceford, and others.
Billy started playing the saxophone at age ten, and at age sixteen sat in for one week with “Hot Lips” Page. He went on the road with the Hal MacIntyre Orchestra, then returned to Philly one year later to work some smaller jazz clubs. Then he appeared at the Blue Note in Philly as a house tenor player and had his first gig with Clifford Brown and all of the big jazz stars including Roy Eldridge, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham. He arrived in New York with Bennie Green in 1953 to play a featured show at the Apollo Theater. The orchestra leader was Earl Warren, lead alto player for the Count Basie Orchestra for many years. John Lewis, Paul Chambers, Osie Johnson, Ernie Royal, Howard McGhee, Thad Jones and Charlie Rouse were in the orchestra.
Billy played for Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine, and went on to tour with the Ella Fitzgerald Show to the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland and the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. He stayed with Bennie Green for approximately two years, then began work with the Red Rodney Quintet for two years.
Billy did a six month tour with Buddy Rich, and afterwards he brought a two tenor band into Birdland with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis opposite Sarah Vaughan. Billy stayed in New York taking his own quintet into Birdland for one month.
Again returning to Philly, Billy worked the local jazz clubs until going on the road with Stan Kenton for one year. Following this stint, Billy played a small band job with Dizzy Gillespie. Two weeks later, he received a call from Dizzy asking him to join his big band. He stayed with Diz for one year, then returned to Philly again until joining the Stan Kenton Orchestra for another year.
In 1959, Billy premiered John Lewis’s large orchestra work, “European Windows,” as a soloist with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Billy then replaced Billy Mitchell with the Al Grey Quintet, playing major jazz clubs for about six months before playing both the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Jazz Festivals. He then did a three month stint with the Harry James Orchestra.
Returning to Philly to his growing family, Billy decided not to travel anymore. He worked local club dates and studied flute, alto flute, clarinet and bass clarinet for seven years in preparation for a move to Las Vegas. During this time in Philly, Billy did two concerts in 1968 with the Philadelphia Orchestra: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue and An American In Paris, playing saxophone.
Arriving in Las Vegas in the spring of 1968, Billy began performing with the large showroom orchestras for production shows, and was accompanist for many stars including Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Juliet Prouse, to name a few.
Billy still makes his home in Las Vegas and recently has received offers to play jazz clubs and concerts out of state. He is currently planning a trip to Holland for March 1995 to play for the fortieth anniversary of the death of Charlie Parker. He will be performing with the Rein De Graaff Trio with Herb Geller and Rolf Erickson.
Billy is a jazz lecturer and is planning a series of lectures on the history of the saxophone as well as experiences on the road with name jazz artists, traveling through the South as a white musician with a black orchestra, and living in New York City’s Harlem as a white jazz musician. Billy is one of the few living white jazz musicians who can share these experiences with other musicians as well as laymen who will find these lectures enlightening, and in some cases hard to believe.