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Celebrating a local living legend, saxophonist Bill Ramsay

Saxophonist Bill Ramsay with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, 2016
Jim Levitt
Jim Levitt
Saxophonist Bill Ramsay with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, 2016

Saxophonist and educator Tracy Knoop is awed by Bill Ramsay's reputation among jazz musicians world-wide.

"Everywhere I go, when I say 'I'm from Tacoma, Washington, little old Tacoma,' they say, 'Oh, you know Bill? Do you know Bill Ramsay?"

Ramsay, or "Rams," is indeed well-known as a fine multi-instrumentalist. The longtime big band musician and arranger has worked with Benny Goodman, Quincy Jones, The Count Basie Orchestra, The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones, Cab Calloway, Mel Lewis, and countless others.

To a number of local artists, Ramsay is also a dear friend and mentor.

In an interview with KNKX, Knoop talked about reaching out to Ramsay, to connect with a veteran traveling musician.

"He opened up his arms and, you know, helped. Helped me meet people I needed to meet. And he created opportunities that I would have never, ever have had," Knoop said.

Knoop said Ramsay and his wife Frankie were always available to lend a hand, professionally and personally, to Knoop and his family.

"Bill really helped me get a professional footing," Jay Thomas, a Seattle trumpeter and saxophonist told KNKX. "With Bill it was always about the music."

Even when Thomas was going through rough personal times and had trouble getting gigs, he said "Bill did not care. We had a musical relationship and that’s what counted most."

Thomas described Ramsay as a mature player who played lyrical ideas and never "showed off." He could swing, get funky, play the blues, and maintain a personal style and resonant sound.

Musicians of Ramsay's era know a lot about teamwork and supporting each other. A good saxophone section becomes a great saxophone section when everybody plays together. A good song becomes a great song with the right arrangement. Long days, weeks and months of traveling in a band bus become tolerable when everyone is telling stories and jokes.

At age 94, Ramsay has slowed down a bit. He was the baritone saxophonist with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra since its inception in 1995, but recently gave up that chair.

"Guys like Bill are somewhat a product of their time," Thomas said. "Bill's time was when the music we love, called jazz, was still America's popular music."

It was also a time when musicians learned by doing, and learned from each other. Some, like Ramsay, have carried on that tradition of mentoring.

On April 2, Kareem Kandi's World Orchestra, along with Greg Williamson and Tracy Knoop, will present a Bill Ramsay tribute at the Spanish Ballroom in Tacoma from noon to 3 p.m.

The event will feature music by the Pony Boy All Star Big Band and special guests. The proceedings will be hosted by KNKX Jazzoid Emeritus, Dick Stein.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.