Bill King hangs out at Dooney’s. He’s a jazz musician—a pianist, mostly—a photographer, runs a web-based magazine called The Jazz Report, and he runs the Beaches Jazz Festival during the summer. I knew all this, including the story about how he once played piano for Janis Joplin. I figured 50 percent of what I’d heard about him might be 50 percent true, and since Bill is a cheerful, decent guy, that was fine with me.
Two nights ago he came into much sharper focus for me. About a month ago he called to ask if I’d “do something” at a benefit for a couple of American kids who’d deserted the U.S. military for Canada because they found the Iraq war morally unsupportable. The occasion was that the two are now in trouble with Canadian immigration, and Bill, a draft dodger who came to Canada in 1970 because he couldn’t live with the Vietnam war, had offered to organize a benefit for their legal defense. I assumed that he asked me because I’m a “serious” writer old enough to remember Vietnam—and thus to be quickly politicized over this issue.
He was right, too. I accepted instantly, and got right on it, familiarizing myself with the fine details of the issue. What he didn’t know, of course, is that I’m one of the five worst off-the-cuff speakers on the planet, and that I’d have to write something for the occasion, agonize over it, etc., etc.
Bill knew, in other words, about as much about me as I know about him—a fair amount at a casual level, but beyond that, next to nothing. I’ve seen him primarily as a photographer who comes into Dooney’s two or three times a week to have lunch with his wife Kris, (both of them generally arrive on bicycles, even during the winter), or just to hang around. He’ll sit near but not at the front counter where most of the action circles around Graziano Marchese, shooting the shit in his easygoing way about basketball, digital cameras, or whatever else comes up. If he has a camera with him—often— he’ll shoot photographs of whoever happens to be there, and he shows up regularly at restaurant events to take photographs. A couple of summers ago, he shot a half-dozen excellent photos of my daughter Hartlea, who likes him well enough to call him “Big Bad Bill”, and then immediately change it to the more accurate “Sweet William”.
As photographers go, he has an eye for “human action”, which is to say, his best photographs, and the ones I suspect he values most, are of people interacting in ways that reveal at once who they are, and what the dynamic between them is.
When the Beaches Festival is on, I’ll see him powerlunching with near-celebrity jazz musicians, which is all Jazz musicians get to be these days, the same as writers. Kris, who’s also a photographer, is as likeable as Bill, and right now is letting her hair come in gray after 30 years as a blonde.
It was their relationship that made me notice them five or six years ago. One morning on the patio, I saw a pleasant-looking middle-aged guy glance up from his coffee as a well-preserved middle-aged blonde was gliding her bike up to the bike lockup beside the Dooney’s patio. He had a look on his face that turned him into an eighteen year old who’d just seen the best-looking woman in the world. The woman with the bike, of course, was Kris. They’ve been together for 34 years, and it’s one of the best marriages I’ve ever run across.
What I heard last night at the benefit concert (my performance, about 3 minutes long, was completely incidental) told me something I probably ought to have understood a long time ago: that Bill King is one of those guys who underplays his hand, and that very little of what I’d been told about him was bullshit. What I heard was a world-class pianist with a range from honky-tonk to free-form, and what I saw was a man who is clearly trusted by a very wide community of musicians, and who spreads a cloud of calm and goodvibe backstage. I’ve never been backstage at music concert before, and this one made me wish (for the 400,000th time) that I was a musician. These people were mutually supportive, and they were having a good time. When writers get together for benefit performances they have to go onstage from the audience, because if anyone was stupid enough to put them together in a green-room, they’d be fighting with knives before the benefit was half over.
The most stunning moment in the evening, aside from the magnificent riffs Bill played with each of the singers he performed with (about a half-dozen in all) was a vocal performance by a 20-something Russian-Israeli-Canadian, who sang Piaff’s La Vie en Rose with a voice so unexpectedly big and rich I had chills running up and down my spine from the second bar. Her name is Sophie Milman, and you should remember her name. She’ll be a superstar one of these days, that is, if she doesn’t decide she’d rather be a multimillionaire, or manufacture nuclear weapons in her living room. Bill tells me she’s a commerce student at the University of Toronto, and she’s one of those creatures who exudes the sort of easy confidence that a large talent confers. Whatever she does with her life–and I got the impression from Bill that she might do any of the things I listed above, I got to hear the best live vocal performance I’ve ever heard in my life, from a distance of about 10 metres, side-stage. I’m still feeling like my feet might lift off the ground because of it.
That said, Bill King raises some questions in my mind that are of even greater interest. He’s a world-class talent who has chosen not to be that, and I’m pretty sure it’s a deliberate choice. He’s chosen to live in a local community—Toronto—with a nominally-commercial focus that is clearly tertiary to a very good, loving marriage and playing music with people he likes. One might accuse him of having inadequate ambition, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not sure a sane person would choose fame—and life-on-the-road-in-hotels for what he has.
And maybe there’s another factor no one pays much attention to in this kind of world: the interaction between curiosity and ambition. Bill is one of those men who is interested in everything—sports (he played one season for Dooney’s completely-rotten baseball team, and he could hit); photography, web-technology, food, children. You name it, he’s interested. And because he’s more interested in life than in his life, he’s made life decisions that feed into his curiosity instead of his career: he’s chosen the local over the global.
If I appear to be tugging my forelock here, that’s exactly what I’m doing: Letting Bill King fly under my radar transgresses my rules for human observation. Who else am I missing? Who are you missing?