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Author Interview: National Jazz Appreciation Month with GRAMMY Award (R) Winner Billy Kilson

Cristen Iris

I’ve had the great pleasure of working with some highly intelligent, talented, and driven but humble clients since I started working in the publishing industry, and my favorite projects are the ones that speak to and guide me long after our work together is done. Billy Kilson is one of those authors, and his book, The Solid Beat Concept: A Modern Method for Musical Advancement, is one of those books.

It may surprise many of you to learn that I do not play the drums, nor do I play any musical instrument with any level of proficiency despite several years of piano lessons and another several playing clarinet in junior high and high school band classes. I did go on to marry a former full-time professional musician (keyboardist and singer) and was an enthusiastic if ignorant roadie for his weekend warrior band.

Over the next few years, he picked up bass guitar and then drums. I’d never before watched a truly talented musician apply their internal motivation to their innate talent to develop a different kind of mastery of their craft. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Billy many years later that I was able to get into the mind of craftsperson and one at a level most of us only dream of reaching. As a creative myself and someone with a love of and respect for the value of an interdisciplinary approach, working with him on his book project was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow.

What follows started out as an interview of Billy but crossed over into conversation. I hope that reading this, helps you, reader, see your work in a new way. I hope it helps you think more creatively. I hope it helps you connect your talent and your vision to move far beyond where you are today. Above all, I hope this helps you join the conversation, whatever conversion it is that you want to be part of.

 

CRISTEN: You’re a world-traveling, in-demand drummer and instructor at Berklee College of music. Why write a book?

BILLY: About 15 years ago, I did a clinic in Denmark. While on tour, a student said, “Billy, you have a unique approach to playing drums, why not document your ideas?” I thought, Thats not a bad idea. Thanks to your help, Cristen, I was able to see those thoughts come to fruition.

 

CRISTEN: How is your approach to instructing up-and-coming musicians different from other approaches?

BILLY: I try to not enforce or limit my creative ideas. Providing students with the academic/rudimental skills to drumming gives them the necessary tools to create their own ideas. This was my teacher Alan Dawson's approach, and it has worked wonders. Proof is in the success of his students.

 

CRISTEN: What are your thoughts regarding the innate talent versus hard work debate?

BILLY: This is easy. Having the hard work gene is an innate talent in itself. I believe that no artist can succeed, excel, or have longevity without an insatiable appetite to improve their skills. This is a philosophy that I share constantly with my students at Berklee College of Music.

 

CRISTEN: Who had the greatest impact on your career, and how did your experience with them shape you?

BILLY: Sort of the same answer applies as I gave to your second question. Alan Dawson was the one who shaped me to be a drumming chameleon. By taking form and humbly adjusting to any musical situation(s), he taught me to fit in and improve the music that’s being presented on the bandstand. Having skills that were second to none in teaching and drumming, Alan Dawson was a unique teacher who arguably was one of the greatest teachers, mentors, and musician the world has ever seen. Ahmad Jamal was another teacher of mine who had the same qualities and influence on my musicianship. Yet, Alan is by far the person who has had the greatest impact on my career.

 

CRISTEN: What do you think is the biggest barrier to success young jazz musicians face today?

BILLY: One of the biggest barriers to success for young jazz musicians is not having an open mind. An artist’s creative gene is a living thing. Prior to planting a flower, shrub, or tree, one measures the amount of space needed for its roots to grow. Likewise, a young musician should have and maintain a large circumference of space to allow creative process, or the roots of a great musician, to grow. Louis Armstrong said in an interview that one of his favorite songs is “Hard Day’s Night.” Now I’m no Beatles fan, but if Louis Armstrong can have an open mind, so should I. Continuing to expand my open-minded views of music is the plan, and it’s worked thus far.

 

CRISTEN: What can aspiring musicians do to overcome that challenge?

BILLY: The answer to this is the same as my answer above: Keep an open mind.

 

CRISTEN: The Solid Beat Concept is marketed as a musical method book, but it’s so much more. What universal themes can non-musicians take from your book?

BILLY: I’m going to toss this back at you for an answer because it would be interesting to hear your and other non-musician’s views on this topic.

CRISTEN: When I asked this question, I was thinking about how much I appreciated the idea of ignoring other people’s successes as they rise faster than me and just keep my head down and focus on what you call “the rudimentals” of my craft.

You also say in the Introduction under Creative Learning, “I can’t stress enough that the path to diversity requires us to never close doors or reject a way of thinking, because all information is useful in some way. Creative learning starts with a question: What should I learn?”

You go on to say, “Approach all music with an attitude of honest and appreciative inquiry. Learn the history. Take your time to learn about what you do not know.”

And in Chapter 3, you talk about contributing to the music saying on page 19, “What is available to you is dependent upon your personal and professional development—your Rolodex—and the tools available to you, namely the drum set. You can think of the component of your drum set as style drivers.”

I see this advice as broadly applicable because regardless of our industry and instrument (writers and editors being in the publishing industry, books and essays our instruments, words our notes, punctuation the rhythm, etc.), we have the opportunity to take information and techniques from a variety of sources and use it to push our craft in potentially exciting and audience- and client-pleasing ways. Having said that, your emphasis on rudamentals is the foundation. Each industry and craft has its own set of rudamentals, non-negotiable skills that every artist or entrepreneur must master if excellence and longevity are their goals.

The more I see and work on my own craft, the more I see how many writers—myself included at times—try to force style to stand out. But we can only brute force that for so long because style is a product of authenticity, which I see as a process of finding one’s true self and expressing it within a specific set of boundaries (tools, form, venue, etc.).

As I see it, your perspective and the value of the book for every person who strives to do something hard is in Chapter 1 under Your Playing Environment. All we need to do is replace music industry references with words and phrases that fit our situation: “As musicians, we must adjust our gear selection and personal technique for the environment we’re playing in. Some stages and bandstands make it very easy to hear and see while some stages and theaters are extremely difficult to get the sound quality needed to feel comfortable and secure enough to display craft. Your technique must be up to a high level. Only diligent practice and preparation will allow you to overcome these challenges and play with confidence. The best musicians power through these difficult situations with grace and humility.”

With the flexible and curious mindset you recommend, even the drummer-specific images provide food for thought for businesspeople and creatives of all kinds.

 

CRISTEN: Last but not least, tell us about your most recent project and where we can find it.

BILLY: Sanborn Sessions on YouTube. Sanborn sessions is a video podcast of who’s who among the most stellar, respected musicians in the industry. The David Sanborn Quartet, which includes me, are the core supporting musicians of the project.

CRISTEN: These sessions are as advertised: “With no script or studio audience, Sanborn Sessions allows viewers to become voyeurs—flies on the wall—as renowned artists show up to Dave's home studio to hang out and play music.” The only thing I’ll add is props to the camera person and/or video editor (for the pre-pandemic sessions). Great stuff for music lovers and fans of performative art.

One of the things I love about jazz (and acting) is how the true artists are hyper aware of everything that's goming on around them and use their skill to fill gaps and enhance the audience's experience. I find jazz musicians especially interesting because you all seem equally interested in the audience's enjoyment and enhancing the enjoyment of the other people on the stage. There's so much love there. That's the type of environment I was to be in and the atmosphere that I want to contribute to. As I said in the opening, it's all about the conversation. Thank you Billy for opening my mind this and to readers of this post for sharing time with us.

Last, I hadn’t planned on doing this, but I want to show the readers of this post The Solid Beat Concept’s table of contents, so you can see what other value you might glean from Billy's book regardless of your industry. I've included it below Billy's bio because I want to provide a bit more context related to his experience and the perspective from which he wrote the book.

 

About Billy

Billy Kilson sitting on a bench near drum kit while holding drum sticksIn the span of almost four decades, renowned GRAMMY Award(R)-winning drummer Billy Kilson has set a standard all his own. Contantly evolving in his craft, philosphy, and approach, Kilson hits the mark every time. As a side man with Chris Botti over the last decade, Billy has shared the stage with some of the most prolific icons of our generation: Sting, Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Tyler, and John Mayer just to name a few. With Botti, Kilson has toured the world and entertained millions ...

As the leader of his own group, BK Groove, Billy released three highly acclaimed albums and elevated what it means to be a drummer in the postmodern music industry. When not touring, Billy teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he's passing down the timeless wisdom and knowledge handed to him by his friend and mentor, Alan Dawson.

For more, visit his website billykilson.com.

You can read more about or purchase The Solid Beat Concept here.

Table of Contents

Foreword

Preface

Introduction

Alan Dawson’s Rudimental Ritual

Diversity and Adaptability

Creative Learning

Competition

Chapter 1: The Solid Beat Checklist

Your Playing Environment

The Solid Beat Concept Checklist

Developing the Three Senses

Musical Style and Authenticity

Chapter 2: Identify the Time Signature

4/4 Time

3/4 Time

5/4 Time

Identify the Time Signature in Complex Situations

Chapter 3: Predict the Feel

Creating Your Mental Rolodex

Rhythmic Pacing

Contributing to the Music

Style Drivers

Practice

Chapter 4: Groove Pulse Rhythms

Groove Pulse 1

Groove Pulse 2

Groove Pulse 3

Groove Pulse 4, 5, and More

Making Musical Choices

Chapter 5: Execute the Beat

Chapter 6: Real World Application of the Solid Beat Concept

Appendix A: A Student’s Perspective

Appendix B: Billy’s Favorite Drummers and Bass Player Duos

Appendix C: The Rudimental Ritual

Glossary

Recommended Resources for Future Reading and Studies

Bibliography

 

Cristen Iris

CI Communication Strategies

2021

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