Contemporary Jazz Pianist: An Interview with Bill Dobbins, Part II

August 2, 2017

By Dan Gross

Pianist-composer Bill Dobbins has been an esteemed member of Eastman’s jazz faculty twice: from 1973 to 1994, and again from 2002 to the present. (He spent the intervening years as music director of the West German Radio [WDR] Big Band.) He is now Professor of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media, as well as conductor of the Eastman Jazz Ensemble and Eastman Studio Orchestra. His Eastman career has spanned virtually the entire history of jazz at the school, and he worked alongside such revered figures as Rayburn Wright, Fred Sturm, Chuck Mangione, and others.
On May 3, 2017, Bill Dobbins celebrated his 70th birthday with a solo recital in Hatch Hall. Shortly afterwards, we caught up with Bill in a wide-ranging chat about his life, jazz at Eastman, and jazz in general. This is Part II of our interview.

You’ve been here a long time. If you could reflect on the biggest change here, what would it be?

Probably the fact that we have a jazz undergraduate degree program. That was something that Ray Ricker, Fred Sturm, and I had already designed and voted through the faculty by the time that I left to go to Germany to take over as the West German Radio Big Band (WDR Big Band). That was in 1994, they advertised the program in 1995, and the first year that they took in undergraduate students was 1996.

I think that’s a major change; it’s allowed us to have a larger pool of players, and as a result of having the undergraduate program, we’ve become more well-known.

Speaking of changes, perhaps one that the public is more aware of, is the addition of Hatch Hall, where you had your 70th birthday celebration concert. Listening to music there is amazing, but what is it like playing in there?

The thing that I like most about playing in Hatch Hall is that you’re much closer to the audience, you have a much more immediate feeling of where they’re at, and the feedback is quicker.

It has great acoustics, a great piano, and it’s been a great addition, along with the new recording studios there. It’s given us a lot more latitude in what we can do. This is especially important for the students, because Kilbourn Hall is so busy that it was often difficult to impossible for the students to get recitals there.

So Hatch was a great solution, and I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed that they have to give their recital there. It’s a great place to perform.

For this 70th birthday concert, you did all original compositions, and a lot of them are either dedicated to other great musicians or were written for someone. What was your process in constructing this program?

I thought for several months about what kind of program to do, and I had inclinations in several directions. The three were to revisit some published material of mine that’s become somewhat well-known or influential, like the four volumes of the 24 Preludes & Predilections (recorded for Advance Music).

I did a volume of the Contemporary Jazz Pianists, which was a set of 24 variations on the chord changes of “All of Me,” in the styles of 24 of my favorite pianists, from Scott Joplin to Cecil Taylor. That was a possibility, or doing selections from the four-CD set of the Preludes & Predilections. I could have done standards, I could have done new music, and when I started to think about it, I decided to do mostly pieces that were written for family members in the first half.

Family was the main thing that brought us back to Rochester [in 2001]. There was an interesting coincidence, if you believe in coincidences. There have been so many in my life that I don’t believe in them anymore! After I had the five-year contract with the [NDR] radio band, I wanted to get back to teaching, because I want to help shape the maturation of young creative musicians. I had already been offered a job running the jazz writing program at the jazz school in Graz, Austria, but I hadn’t signed the contract yet. We have just one son, Evan, who’s a great musician too, a trombone player. He had been living in New York for five years or so when we were in Germany, and ended up coming back to Rochester for his wedding, in the summer of 2001.

Fred Sturm, who took over for me as head of the jazz department, got a great offer to go back to Wisconsin to start a jazz program, which he had wanted to do before he came to Eastman, and he decided to go back. So right before I signed the contract to go to Austria, and just a couple of weeks after we found out we were going to be grandparents, I got a call asking if I wanted to come back to Eastman. We got back just a few months before the birth of our first grandchild.

Great timing! In addition to being an excellent composer and player, you seem to be Eastman’s resident expert on Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Where did your love of those two come from? Did you hear a record when you were young, and that was it?

It was much later than that, actually. I had been studying classical for a few years. When I first started playing, the people that influenced me a lot were the first people I heard. I was at a friend’s house after school – I was 14 or 15 –and this guy’s father was a jazz fan, and played me Erroll Garner’s Concert By the Sea, Ahmad Jamal’s trio, Time Out by Dave Brubeck, which had just come out, the Modern Jazz Quartet … As soon as I heard that music, I could that hear that they were using the same harmony I loved from Impressionistic music. I knew they were improvising, I had no idea how they did that, but I could hear that it had the same organization as written music. As soon as I heard that, I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life figuring that out.

When I was enrolled at Kent State University, they didn’t know anything about jazz, but I and a bunch of students that started the same year that I did, we wanted to have a big band together. We were all listening mostly to Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton’s band, especially Bill Holman’s stuff. Of course the Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra, which was the hot new band on the scene, and the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band. Some Count Basie, and some of the guys were into Ellington.

At the time, I listened to a couple of Ellington records like the Far East Suite, but I didn’t really get it at that time. I was more interested in contemporary things. As I got more exposure, I began to love it.