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Northwest multi-instrumentalist, big band musician and arranger Bill Ramsay has died

Bill Ramsay (saxophone) encouraging Travis Raney (saxophone), Jay Thomas (trumpet), Dan Marcus (trombone)
Daniel Sheehan
Jim Wilke
Bill Ramsay (saxophone) encouraging Travis Raney (saxophone), Jay Thomas (trumpet), Dan Marcus (trombone)

Bill Ramsay, best known as a saxophonist, passed away at 95 years old on Sunday, March 3.

Also known as “Rams” to his friends and fellow musicians, Ramsay's career was large and varied taking him around the world. He played with jazz greats including Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Quincy Jones, both The Count Basie and Duke Ellington Orchestras, along with dozens of other jazz legends.

Seattle’s Earshot Jazz inducted Ramsay into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997. Until last year, he was a baritone saxophonist with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO), of which he was a founding member.

In April 2023, saxophonist and Jazz Northwest host Kareem Kandi with his World Orchestra, Greg Williamson and Tracy Knoop, presented a Bill Ramsay tribute. Many area musicians and fans were in attendance at McMenamin's Spanish Ballroom in Tacoma to celebrate his impact on the Northwest jazz scene and beyond.

Kandi spoke with KNKX about Ramsay’s impact on the jazz community as well as his influence personally:

“As a saxophonist, composer, bandleader and friend, Bill Ramsay’s positive impact and musical contributions have been tremendous in the Pacific Northwest and worldwide. Over the span of his vast career he toured, performed, and recorded with some of the greatest artists in the history of music and his passing leaves a large hole in our music community. Thankfully he left behind a great body of music for us to enjoy for years to come.

Bill was a huge influence on me as a musician, bandleader, and human being. I had the distinct pleasure of carpooling with him to gigs and sitting next to him on countless big band performances in my formative years as a musician. He was always kind and encouraging to me, and his playing was always soulful and made you feel good. I am well aware of what a unique education this was for me and am indebted to Bill for his experience, the example he set, and the stories he shared.”

Ten years before the tribute in Tacoma, there was another celebration of Ramsay in which he also performed on baritone saxophone as a part of a septet. This live performance was captured in an audio recording by Jim Wilke at the old Tula’s Jazz Club. Wilke, founding host of KNKX’s Jazz Northwest, aired highlights from the recording in October 2013 on KNKX.

Seattle trumpeter and fellow member of SRJO, Jay Thomas, hired Ramsay to play alto sax, tenor sax, and as arranger on his 360 Degrees album. Thomas described Ramsay in a 2023 interview with KNKX as a mature player who played lyrical ideas and never "showed off." He said Ramsay could swing, get funky, play the blues, while maintaining a personal style and resonant sound.

At this writing there is no information on a public remembrance.