Bill Elgart’s Life in Music: from Massachusetts to Germany
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, jazz drummer Bill Elgart grew up in a household that was no stranger to music. Both of his parents sang and his father, the oldest of three brothers, studied music at Boston University with the intention of being a classical singer before giving it up to take over the family retail meat business. In fact, his parents attended a musical club for couples and their duets were well known in the neighborhood. As Bill explains:
“Every family get-together ended up around the piano.”
Much of the music they played was Tin Pan Alley standards, mixed in with a handful of traditional jazz numbers. At age 13, Bill Elgart got his first drum set. He practiced constantly. It was only when his parents opened the basement door and yelled “Billy” that he would take an occasional break. This passion for drumming meant, in Elgart’s words,
“I was completely gone from high school.”
Yet, he not only managed to graduate from high school but also to gain admission to one of the area’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, Northeastern University.
Michael Kaye, who first met Elgart, his younger sister, and brother at a family camp one summer in New Hampshire recalls visiting Bill Elgart’s basement when he was just starting to play the drums:
“There was a hi-fi set up next to the drum set and Bill would play along with big band and jazz records. He was impressive even then.”
The Berklee School of Music in Boston
Elgart enrolled at Northeastern University and began to dutifully attend classes, starting out as a biology major as a possible precursor to a field in veterinary medicine. He also discovered a jazz club at the school–this may have been more important than any classroom experience, especially since one of the members was his old childhood friend and future Whirlwind band mate, Michael Kaye.
After approximately ten weeks, Elgart had an epiphany of sorts, an event he recalls clearly:
“One day I paused in front of a full-length mirror and peered closely. I asked myself, ‘What are you doing?'”
Shortly thereafter, he left Northeastern and decided to study music full-time at what was then called the Berklee School of Music in Boston, a school generally regarded as the world’s top educational institution dedicated to the study of jazz and modern American music.
Coincidentally, Berklee had only just recently joined the Boston Conservatory, enabling the school to offer degrees for the first time. That change meant Elgart’s parents were less resistant to his change of academic plans. He ended up studying with one of New England’s most respected jazz players, fellow drummer Alan Dawson. After two semesters, however, Elgart opted to focus more on playing rather than continuing to pursue formal academic and theory-oriented coursework.
“Had to Play Rock and Roll to Get Gigs”
When Elgart left Berklee, he was already starting to play various venues around the Boston area. During this time period in the early to mid 60s, a drummer, in Elgart’s words:
“had to play rock and roll to get gigs.”
In fact, he didn’t come up through rock like some of his contemporaries, nevertheless, when asked by family friend Michael Kaye to join him in Hap Snow’s Whirlwinds, he agreed.
Elgart recalls some of the “wild, wild frat parties” the band played at. He soon learned, for example:
“Never to set up the drum set near a stairway.”
This to avoid having beer spilled on the kit. Michael Kaye remembers the first time this happened at an M.I.T. fraternity house at 28th of Fenway:
“The drums were set up in an area at the base of a circular staircase and a drunk student knocked a beer from the railing above that landed on the snare drum, dousing the skin in beer. Bill was not happy. It was a lesson we all learned.”
Summer of ’62: The Coffee House on the Cape
Around 1962, Bill Elgart played a full summer with Hap Snow’s Whirlwinds on Cape Cod at the The Coffee House. Elgart often played with the Michael Kaye-led second unit of the band that was formed to be able to play more venues on the weekends. Kaye recalls:
“Bill would often recruit a saxophone player from Berklee to be the fourth member of the band.”
In this time period, band members Elgart, Kaye, and Steve Fradkin sometimes shared a room with employees above The Coffee House. Kaye remembers Elgart also brought his record collection and first introduced the band to comedian Lenny Bruce, who they proceeded to quote often that summer.
A Pair of Gigs at The Stables on Huntington Avenue
In the early 1960s, two of the Boston area’s main jazz venues were Storyville on Kenmore Square, a club owned by the man behind the Newport Jazz Festival, and The Stables on Huntington Avenue. One day around 1961 or 1962, Bill Elgart and Michael Kaye went to catch a show at The Stables, a club where Berklee faculty members would often perform. Kaye remembers that day:
“Trumpeter Herb Pomeroy’s band was on stage, Ray Santisi was on piano and Alan Dawson on drums. I was amazed when Dawson waved to Bill and invited him to come join them on stage, which he did for several numbers.”
The next time Kaye accepted an invitation to see Elgart perform a couple of years later, his ex-band mate was on stage for the whole show.
Asked about Elgart’s drumming, Whirlwind pianist and keyboard player Michael Kaye comments:
“Elgart doubled the beat with the bass drum. It really energized the band and we missed his intensity when he left.”
Bill Elgart recorded three songs with Michael Kaye, Steve Fradkin, and Hap Snow around 1963. All three unreleased demos are online.
Hap Snow’s Whirlwinds “He Can Have Her,” an original composition by Steve James (aka Steve Fradkin), with Bill Elgart on drums, James on rhythm guitar and vocals, Michael Kaye on piano and vocals, and Snow on lead guitar and background vocals is on SoundCloud:
New York and California
An early important gig in Elgart’s career was a concert at the Jazz Composer’s Guild in New York City in 1964. The co-operative set up by a number of prominent free jazz musicians organized weekly concerts that came to be known as New York’s October Revolution in Jazz. This particular show was set up by an old friend, bassist Kent Carter. Elgart played with Carla Bley’s band for the first time. A year or two later, Elgart and Paul Bley, Carla’s husband, would first play together. This meeting was set up through a mutual acquaintance, bassist Mark Levinson, an old friend of Elgart’s from the late 50s. The three of them jammed at Levinson’s parent’s house in New Haven, Connecticut.
In this period between 1963 and 1965, Elgart often divided his time between Massachusetts and New York. Among the notable groups he played with in the Big Apple was the New York Art Quartet with trombone player Roswell Rudd, a fellow New Englander from Connecticut, and Danish saxophone player John Tchicai. In 1965, Bill Elgart moved to California for the first of two short stints of several years each. Mainly based in the Los Angeles area, Elgart was able to not only survive the Summer of Love but also resisted entreaties to join one particular large hippy commune in Taos, New Mexico…
“A Very Vivid Player, a Man of Ideas”
One day near the end of his first West Coast sojourn, Paul Bley called out of the blue, inquiring if Elgart was interested in doing a concert in Seattle with him and bassist Gary Peacock. Bley, later commented on Bill Elgart:
“[He’s] a very vivid player, a man of ideas.”
Mr. Joy was recorded in 1968. This became Bill Elgart’s first appearance on vinyl.
The album, although neither reissued in CD nor digital format, was reissued by Trip Jazz in vinyl in 1975.
The title track from Paul Bley’s Mr. Joy (1968) is on YouTube, featuring Gary Peacock on bass and Bill Elgart on drums:
Elgart returned East the same year Mr. Joy came out. Among the musicians he worked with at this time was Mark Levinson, a trumpet player from Newton, Massachusetts, where Elgart and his family lived after moving from Chelsea and Malden earlier in his childhood. Bill Elgart’s recordings with Levinson include 1979’s compilation Mark Levinson presents… and Jazz At Long Wharf in 1977 with Mark and Doug Levinson.
In 1970 Paul Bley with Gary Peacock was released featuring three tracks with Bill Elgart, “Gary,” “Big Foot,” and “Albert’s Love Theme,” that were originally recorded in 1968.
Three tracks drawn from the two albums by Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, and Bill Elgart were included on the 1975 album Turning Point, which is currently available in CD and as a download from iTunes among other online music retailers.
As Mr. Joy has thus far only been released as an LP and 8-Track Tape, this is the only way to hear “Mr. Joy” and “Kid Dynamite” in digital format. Vinyl versions have been released in the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States. The 1975 reissue by Trip Jazz can be easily found at a reasonable price from sources like Discogs.com.
The end of the 60s through the mid 70s were split between Massachusetts, New York City, and a second trip to California that led to the recording of “Billy’s Boogie” and “Synapse” in 1971, both included on the 1983 album Marty’s Garage released on American label DBX. During this second period in California, Bill Elgart played in a band with an old friend from the Boston area, Lenny Capizzi, one of the authors of 1962’s all-time classic,“Monster Mash.” Elgart also played in several other groups while in California, one outfit with several former members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention including bassist and guitar player Roy Estrada, trumpet and fugelhorn player Charles “Buzz” Guarnera, and his brother John Leon “Bunk” Gardner on woodwinds.
In 1975, ex-Whirlwinds Bill Elgart and Michael Kaye crossed paths at a Marriott Hotel in Massachusetts where they both were appearing separately. Kaye recalls:
“I heard that familiar drumming style coming from a function room, I knew it was Bill.”
Asked how he could recognize Elgart’s playing, Kaye continues:
“I remembered his unique, energetic style at once. He was so dedicated and completely alive for jazz. It always came through in his playing.”
Europe and Children At Play
In October 1976, Bill Elgart moved to Europe at the behest of an old classmate from the Berklee School of Music, Tom van der Geld. Van der Geld’s band Children At Play needed a drummer for their second album, Patience, which they cut in May 1977 and released the following year.
Recorded in Ludwigsburg, Germany, the LP featured vibraphonist van der Geld, saxophonist and flutist Roger Jannotta, old friend bassist Kent Carter, and Elgart on drums. The fact that all four players grew up in the States–Carter hails from New Hampshire and has resided in France since 1970, Jannotta’s from Chicago, based in Germany, and van der Geld, like Elgart, was born in Massachusetts, and has lived in Europe the last 40 years, meant it was that much easier culturally, linguistically, and musically (as all the players came from a similar jazz background) to quickly find a common vision and soon thereafter start performing concerts as well as recording together.
When Bill Elgart first decided to try living in Europe, he gave himself a year. However, once he had returned to Massachusetts for a short time in 1977, he realized his immediate future was in the music scene in Austria and, in fact, staying in Western Europe was quite agreeable in terms of quality of life. Thus, he returned to Europe for good and rejoined Children At Play, which would soon record a second album.
Darling, Elgart, O’Mara, and More
American bass player/composer Wayne Darling replaced Kent Carter on the fourth Children At Play album in 1980, Out Patients.
Patience and Out Patients, which have neither been issued as downloads nor CDs, are both out of print. However, Musica degradata.com, a website specializing in high quality broadcast recordings and out of print vinyl albums, currently has MP3 versions of each album.
“Things Have Changed,” the opening track on Out Patients, is on YouTube:
This was the beginning of a fruitful musical relationship as Elgart, Darling, and Peter O’Mara, a guitar player from Australia, formed Sun Dial, a trio which was active from 1982 to 1990.
They recorded three well-received albums, including their debut in 1985, Sun Dial.
The trio recorded Iliad in 1986, also on Austrian label Rst Records.
The final installment of their trilogy was O’Mara-Darling-Elgart in 1988.
In 1987 Bill Elgart joined Canadian trumpet player Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzmann, who switches between soprano, tenor, and flute, John Taylor on piano, and double bassist Dave Holland to make Fly By, Butterfly. This American-Canadian-English effort was recorded at Studio Barigozzi in Milano and released the following year.
Two years later, Elgart, pianist Chris Beier, and bassist Rainer Glas, both from Germany, appeared on Polish saxophonist-flutist Leszek Zadlo’s Breath album.
This was followed by Bill Egart’s first collaboration with South African bassist Carlo Mombelli, Happy Sad, which also features saxophonist Charlie Mariano (another Bostonian and a former Berklee School of Music faculty member) and Peter O’Mara, in 1990.
“Remember Lucia” from Happy Sad (1990) by Carlo Mombelli with Bill Elgart, Charlie Mariano, and Peter O’Mara, is on SoundCloud:
Elgart, Mombelli, and Mariano also cut the 1993 album Dancing In A Museum by Carlo Mombelli’s Abstractions, with American guitarist Mick Goodrick.
In 1989, Bill Elgart recorded an album with the Franco D’Andrea Trio, which features Italian D’Andrea on piano, Elgart on drums, and Switzerland’s Stephen Schertler on bass.
This same album was reissued in 1996, with a new track order, under the title Chromatic Phrygian.
The 90s: Elgart’s Most Prolific Decade
As an active member of a number of groups as well as a sideman in numerous projects, Bill Elgart has released at least one original album, on average, every year since 1978.
The 1990s were a particularly fertile period as Elgart appeared on at least seventeen albums including Kenny Wheeler, Peter O’Mara, Wayne Darling, Bill Elgart in 1990 recorded in Munich and released on Germany’s Koala Records.
Elgart cut Aisha with another quartet in 1991.
The band included bassist Manfred Bründl, tenor sax player Matthias Schubert, and pianist Achim Kaufmann, three established players from Germany.
The same year, he recorded Heavy Mental with the Roland Heinz Quartet with Leszek Zadlo, American bassist Barre Phillips, and German guitarist Heinz.
The title cut from Heavy Mental (1991) is here:
In 1992, Elgart and fellow Americans pianist Eric Watson and double-bassist John Lindberg formed the Eric Watson Trio and recorded The Fool School in France, released the same year. Elgart also appeared on One More Life with German vibraphonist Wolfgang Lackerschmid, Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev, and German bassist Henning Sieverts, a musician Elgart would work with again, the same year.
Besides doing concerts and making albums, Elgart also did some theater work around this time in Munich, working with his old bandmate from Children At Play, Roger Jannotta. Among the productions he worked on were Faust and King Lear. Elgart’s first teaching job, filling-in for a German friend and fellow drummer who tragically lost his life in an auto accident, also began in 1992.
Four Albums in 1993
Caoma was released by Germany’s Konnex Records in 1993.
The LP features Polish trumpeter/composer Tomasz Stańko, German saxman Sigi Finkel, American bassist Ed Schuller, and Elgart.
Two albums recorded in Milano, Cities and Tales, each showcasing Italian bassist Paolino Dalla Porta and musical collaborators from previous works were also released in 1993.
Claudio Fasoli, Mick Goodrick, Paolino Dalla Porta, and Bill Elgart’s full Cities (1993) album is online:
Italian saxophonist and composer Claudio Fasoli made four albums with Bill Elgart. Cities features guitarist Mick Goodrick with Dalla Porta and Elgart, while trumpet player Kenny Wheeler and Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia join them on Tales.
A third effort involved Fasoli with Elgart, Goodrick, Wheeler, and French double bassist Henri Texier, Ten Tributes, which was recorded in 1994 in Parma and released in 1995.
Claudio Fasoli and Bill Elgart also released Trois Trios in 1999, which was recorded in Parma in 1994. This album features three different trios and includes Battaglia, Elgart, Goodrick, Texier, as well as American vocalist Jay Clayton and fellow drummer Italian Aldo Romano.
Trios and Quartets in the 1990s
In 1996, Bill Elgart joined Paolino Della Porta on bass and Riccardo Fassi on piano on Walkabout.
Three years earlier, Elgart and Della Porta recorded Tales with trumpet player Kenny Wheeler and Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia.
German pianist- organist Bernd Köppen formed a trio with bassist Kent Carter and Bill Elgart in the early 1990s and released The Suffering Of The Working Class in 1996.
Two live performances from the 90s earned recognition for Elgart: the first, Vlatko Kučan Quartet plus Tomasz Stańko’s Live At Palo-Palo, was recorded in 1991 and released by Germany’s True Muze records in 1998.
This recording includes Elgart, Michael Danner on trombone and tuba, Kučan on tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet, Jay Oliver on double bass, and Stańko on trumpet and was made in Hannover.
A second live recording, Live At Neue Kirche Wuppertal 12.06.1999, was made by Elgart, old friends’ bassist Kent Carter and pianist-organist Bernd Köppen, as well as German trombonist Günther Heinz and Swiss clarinetist Claudio Puntin.
As the decade closed, Elgart recorded Wooden You with Italians Furio di Castri on bass, percussionist Andrea Dulbecco, and clarinet player Mauro Negri in Italy in 1999. Besides alluding to the wooden instruments used (marimba, clarinet, bass, and drums), the album’s title is a nod to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Wood ‘n You.”
Zollsound’s first album, Das Gleichegewicht, featuring Elgart and German baritone sax, bass clarinet, and alto flute player Thomas Zoller was a soundtrack for a play that was also released in 1999.
Open Hearts, recorded in 1998, was released in 2000–and reissued in 2010–by Enja Records.
Their second album, this features Elgart, Zoller, American alto saxophonist and composer Lee Konitz, and bass guitarist and composer Carlo Mombelli.
The title track from Zollsound 4 feat. Lee Konitz’s Open Hearts (1998) with Bill Elgart, Carlo Mombelli, and Thomas Zoller is on SoundCloud:
Bill Elgart also found time to work with German vibraphonist, pianist, and composer Karl Berger and a host of other musicians on the 2000 album No Man Is an Island.
Trios and Quartets in the 2000s
In the early 2000s, Elgart appeared on Charlie Mariano’s Not Quite a Ballad, with Mariano on alto sax and German players pianist Bernhard Pichl and bassist Rudi Engel. Mariano was a fellow Bostonian who like Elgart moved from Massachusetts in the 1970s and set up a new home in Germany.
German pianist and composer Peter Fulda formed a trio with Bill Elgart and bassist Henning Sieverts and released their first album, The Nightmind, in 2002.
The same players followed up with Little Box Of Wonders in 2003, and later released 8 Rituals, a German-American production featuring Elgart, Fulda, Sieverts, guitarist Dirk Mündelein, and vibraphone, marimba, and percussion player Roland Neffe, in 2008.
In 2002 Elgart was in a quartet with Hubert Winter, New York pianist/composer Richie Beirach, and double bassist Dietmar Fuhr on the Hubert Winter Quartett’s Saga Lydis album. This was also a German-American joint effort, in fact three of the four musicians had previously studied at the Berklee School of Music–and the fourth, Fuhr, had studied jazz in New York City as well as his native country.
Bill Elgart joined former trio partner Wayne Darling on his 2002 album, The Art Of The Bass, Vol. 1. This Laika Records’ CD is also available as a Digital Download from retailers such as Amazon.com and iTunes.
Günter Lenz Springtime’s Strict Minimum album features Elgart on drums, pianist-trumpeter Dieter Glawischnig, Lenz on bass, saxophonist-clarinetist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, trumpeter Claus Stötter, and sax, flute, and bass clarinet player Gebhard Ullman was recorded in 2004 and released in 2007.
Petrowsky, one member of this all-German production save Austrian Glawischnig and American Elgart, commented in the liner notes:
“And what about Billy Elgart? Often times we just don’t know why we are feeling so pleasantly heady on stage. The reason is Bill, both our drummer and our pulse. He’s so energetic that we can feel him when he’s playing pianissimo [very soft] His reliable instinct enables him to cultivate any musical landscape on his drum set. Swingin’ and groovin’, he evokes the ‘jazz devil’ who lurks in all of us; sometimes we don’t hear him distinctly, but we’ll take off anyway on the wings of his sticks. Add Bill’s stylistically confident fill-in explosions and his brilliantly performed solo excursions, and you know who’s in charge of Springtime’s wellness department.”
In 2009 an album by former musical collaborators Elgart and bassist Furio di Castri, joined by sax and flute player Albert Landolt, another former student at the Berklee College of Music, The Outernational Three, was released. This 1996 recording was released on Swiss label Unit Records.
Another earlier recording finally saw the light of day in 2009, Beyond Our Thoughts. This album features Elgart and three German musicians, trumpeter Hans-Peter Salentin, bassist Stephan Schmolck, and pianist Michael Wollny, recorded in 2004.
Elgart also appeared on a compilation with the Bernd Köppen Trio with Köppen and Kent Carter, Sounds Like Whoopataal in 2006.
In 2008 Wufftata with Nufa, Bill Elgart, and Udo Eberl were captured live at the Sauschdall in Elgart’s current city of residence, Ulm, Germany:
The same players, plus saxophonist Andreas Bär recorded Einundsechzigvierzig in 2009, released the next year.
The 2010s: A Closer Look
Jazz + Haiku, An Experimental Work from Geoff Goodman in 2011
In 2011 Elgart and two old friends, bassist Henning Sieverts and Geoff Goodman, a New York guitarist and composer who studied at Boston University and the University of Massachusetts before moving to Europe for good in 1986, appeared on Goodman’s 2011 experimental Jazz + Haiku album, which also includes German saxophonist and composer Till Martin, Albanian vocalist Fjoralba Turku, and recitations by Japan’s Kiyomi.
Geoff Goodman’s “Bamboo Children” from Jazz + Haiku (2011) is on YouTube:
Klare – Kneer – Platz – Elgart’s Modern Primitive in 2011
2011 also marked the release of Modern Primitive, an Evil Rabbit Record featuring Jan Klare on alto saxophone, clarinet, and flute and Meinrad Kneer on double bass, both from Germany. Elgart plays drums and fellow American Jeff Platz the guitar.
Klare – Platz – Kneer – Elgart’s “Puppet Party” from Modern Primitive is on SoundCloud:
In addition, a pair of tracks from Klare – Platz – Kneer – Elgart’s Modern Primitive album are found on YouTube, including “Impish Episode.”
A video for Jan Klare, Jeff Platz, Meinrad Kneer, and Bill Elgart’s “Impish Episode” is also on YouTube:
In 2012, Bill Elgart and Friedrich Glorian created some original music for the Strado Compagnia dance performance at the Lange Nacht der Museen and Edwin Scharff Museum in Ulm, Germany:
Baars – Kneer – Elgart’s Give No Quarter in 2013
The Ab Baars, Meinrad Kneer, and Bill Elgart trio also appeared live at the Konftontationen Festival in Nickelsdorf, Austria in 2013:
In 2013, Bill Elgart appeared on Give No Quarter with Dutch tenor saxophonist, clarinet, and shakuhachi player Ab Baars and Kneer.
The title track of Baars – Kneer – Elgart’s Give No Quarter album is on YouTube:
Lenoci – Carter – Elgart’s Plaything in 2014
In 2014, Bill Elgart and old friend bassist Kent Carter joined pianist/composer Gianni Lenoci on Plaything, an album released in vinyl by Lithuania’s NoBusiness Records.
Plaything is also available as a digital download from Silta Records.
A video for Gianni Lenoci, Kent Carter, and Bill Elgart’s “Drift” is on YouTube:
In early 2016, a quartet comprised of reed player Hubert Winter, drummer Bill Elgart, bassist Rudi Engel, and guitarist Werner Küspert performed live at a screening of F.W. Murnau’s classic horror film Nosferatu.
The German Expressionist masterpiece was shown at a cinema in the country it debuted in 1922.
An excerpt from Hubert Winter, Bill Elgart, Rudi Engel, and Werner Küspert’s improvised soundtrack is online:
Krisch – Höfler – Elgart feat. Lauren Newton’s Lonely Woman
In the first half of 2016, Krisch – Höfler – Elgart featuring Lauren Newton released Lonely Woman on Germany’s JazzHausMusik imprint. The CD and digital download features trio Dizzy Krisch on vibraphone, Karoline Höfler on bass, and Bill Elgart on drums, with Lauren Newton on vocals.
Dizzy Krisch, Karoline Höfler, and Bill Elgart have joined Lauren Newton for several live concerts at venues across Germany in the latter half of 2016 and the beginning of 2017.
Dizzy Krisch’s “Setup,” the closing track from Lonely Woman, is on YouTube:
These days, when he’s not performing or recording, Elgart can be found in the classroom teaching part-time at a gig he first started 20 years ago. An honorary professor at the University of Music, Würzburg (Hochschule für Musik Würzburg), Elgart genuinely enjoys teaching, explaining:
“I have learned as much as the students have…. [the new crop of students] is impressive and the future of jazz is bright.”
Elgart continues to mentor talented students from Europe as well as a current pupil studying drumming from China.