Billy Kerr
Telephone interview by Debra Jean McKim
29 September 1999
Montreal, Quebec

From: McKim, Debra Jean. Joseph Allard: His Contributions to Saxophone Pedagogy and Performance.
Published Doctor of Arts Dissertation, University of Colorado, 2000.

Used with permission of both Debra Jean McKim and Billy Kerr
Copyright 2000, Debra Jean McKim

McKim: When and where did you study with Joe?

Kerr: I first met Joe at Juilliard. I went to Juilliard from September 1964 to February 1967. 1 was studying clarinet with Augustin Duques at the time. I met Joe because I was also a saxophone player and knew all the saxophone players there. Joe was always really friendly to me. He used to go down to the cafeteria and eat with the kids - that's what he used to call us all. The other faculty members would go eat with other faculty. Joe would be down in the school cafeteria at lunchtime and we all got to know him. He made it his business to get to know everyone. It wasn't just "hi, how are you." He knew my name.

About the time I was in my second year in school, Duques was sick and was out for about two months. They had to decide who was going to take his load. The other clarinet teachers were Arthur Chrisman, Bernard Portnoy and Joe. They asked Joe and Portnoy if they would be willing to split Gus' load, and they asked us who we wanted to study with. I think there were eight of us, and all of the saxophone players wanted to study with Joe. By the second lesson with him, I really knew that I wanted to study with him for good.

Duques was a wonderful player and he was a nice man, but he was not a particularly good teacher; they used to call him a coach. Duques was great for repertoire; he knew all of the clarinet literature and could tell you how to play it, but he couldn't tell you a thing about mechanics. He never told you about reeds. Joe was just the opposite. Joe could tell you how to do everything.

By the time Gus got back to school, a friend of mine and I really wanted to stay with Joe. So we approached him to ask if we could switch. And Joe said. "Look, Gus is a really good friend of mine. I can't do that to Gus. If you really want to study with me, I'll find time to meet with you every week. I'll even give you a break on the rate." At that time, 1967, Joe was charging twelve dollars an hour for lessons. He charged us only six dollars. I studied with him that way for a year. Gus never knew about that. I would go to Gus every week and I would go to Joe every week. That lasted until my last year of school. Then I went into the Air Force at Stewart Air Force Base, which wasn't far from West Point. My whole first year in the Air Force I went down to Tenafly and studied with Joe.

DM: Did you study both saxophone and clarinet with him?

BK: I studied mostly clarinet, but occasionally I would bring the saxophone in I never took any legit saxophone lessons. I studied legit clarinet and then later studied flute, but we just talked about playing saxophone; putting the air through the horn, embouchure, things like that. Mostly I studied clarinet, but it was all related - it was all music. He taught you how to sing, how to hear.

Here's an interesting story. I used to play the clarinet kind of out of the side of my mouth; I still do it a little bit to this day. Before I started studying with Joe, a couple of guys that studied with him told me that Joe would be on me about my embouchure, that he would be relentless. So I took my first three or four lessons with Joe and he never said a word about my embouchure. So I told him. "These guys told me you would be all over me about the embouchure and you haven't said a word. "He said, "Well, you sound good, you can tongue and you're not having any trouble. Why should I start messing with your embouchure?" That was his attitude; if it isn't broke, don't fix it.

Joe was legendary for his off-the-wall approach to things. Juilliard in those days was a really conservative place and no one was having radical ideas about doing anything. Joe never said, "Do this." What he would say was, "I think this is going to help; this is a lot different than what you're doing." He would look at things creatively, get us to do things creatively. For instance, those little exercises in the Klose book, the little one and two measure finger busters, he would say, "take that interval and turn it upside down." He was the first one to get me to take something and make a pattern out of it, to play it in all twelve keys. I don't think that ever would have occurred to somebody like Duques. I'm an incessant practicer, always have been, but I was lazy. So I wouldn't always do those things. He would always say, "Try this," but he never forced it; he never threw it in your face. Some teachers can be pretty merciless about things like that.

One of his unusual things was the second thumb rest he created. He did it mostly with the clarinet, but I saw some saxophone guys using it also. As you probably know, Joe had false teeth. He couldn't play with any pressure. So he developed another thumb rest that was put about an inch and a half below the one on the horn and then put surgical rubber tubing, but his was black, on both thumb rests so it formed a loop. Then he could manipulate the clarinet up and down. Now he could actually pull the clarinet out a little bit. There were a lot of guys who did that for a while, Dave Tofani, Eddie Daniels. He would have them do overtone exercises and other stuff with it. But it all started by Joe's need to minimize pressure and yet have more control.

DM: Did you take the concepts that Joe taught you on clarinet and apply them to the saxophone yourself?

BK: They're so related. They had to do with air, the idea of not pinching. There's one clarinet sound in the world that has that ring and that ping. In order to get that, you have to find that place with your embouchure that's not too flabby, so the sound is spread, and not so tight that nothing comes out. The same thing applies to saxophone. I teach overtones now, but I really didn't work on them that much with Joe. I think it was because I wasn't having those kinds of problems. It was more about putting the air through the instrument and just finding a way to not let it get blocked.

One of the concepts that we did talk about a lot was staccato tonguing. I remember Joe saying that in order for staccato to be effective, you have to have tone. He believed that one of the big mistakes that people make is that they try to play staccato as short as they can, but there's no tone there_ He was the first one to teach me that staccato means separate. He would have me play a line, and he would say, "Don't clip those notes, let me hear the tone of each note." We used to work on things like that.

Here's another thing about Joe. More than any other teacher that I had at the time, he really understood what kind of pain you went through and were going through as a kid. You have to understand that I went to Juilliard with Itzak Perlman, Pincus Zukerman, Gerry Schwarz, and Eddie Daniels, some phenomenal people. And here I am as a 19-year-old kid thinking, "What am I doing here?" Joe really understood that. He would always be encouraging. "Just keep working, don't worry about it." That's not to say that Duques didn't care. Duques wanted us to do well, but Joe was really in touch with what we were going through As I mentioned earlier, he would sit with us in the cafeteria - he really got to know the kids. He knew what it took to be a great teacher and he loved it. At the time, I'm not sure I really understood this. I knew there was something special about him, but I didn't get real emotional about it. Now thirty years later, looking back on it, I realize just how very special he was. He got so much pleasure out of teaching, and he did it endlessly. Certainly when he was well into his sixties, he was putting in sixty and seventy hour weeks, just teaching.

DM: Have you applied what Joe taught you to your own teaching?

BK: Joe was a person of culture, and he loved to share it with other people. If you asked him a question about anything, he would sit down with you and tell you what he knew about it. That's what a teacher is - a person who leads another person through a journey. I think because of my study with him. I learned to appreciate teaching and discover what fun it is. The best gig I have ever played was not a better experience than some of the students I've had. When I teach. I really work hard to give students what they need and what they want - I got that from Joe.

DM: So Joe was open to you asking questions and engaging in discussion?

BK: Absolutely, but he wasn't stiff or stodgy. It wasn't "this is how it is, do it." He was never like that. It was always "what do you think about this?" If you brought up something and were going in the wrong direction, he would not let you ramble on about it. Joe spoke a number of languages, he had an appreciation of art and literature and certainly music. But he didn't flaunt it. If you brought up some subject that he didn't know much about, he would make an effort to find out about it. Or if you said, "Hey Joe, I just heard so-and-so playing at this club, you ought to go hear him," Joe would probably check it out.

At that time, Juilliard was teaching all classical music; there was no thought of teaching jazz. So for a teacher to give credence to the idea that jazz even existed was unusual. But Joe would go and listen to these guys, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, an endless list of players. He wanted to know what was going on in the world. He learned as much from us as we learned from him. Now that things have evolved, I find that more teachers are of that style. Thirty years ago, that was unusual.

DM: Did Joe play much in lessons for you?

BK: He always had his clarinet or his alto there, but he didn't play a lot. He would demonstrate concepts that you were working on, like tonguing or shaping a phrase. He would show you what you should be doing. But he wouldn't play a whole exercise with you and I can't remember ever playing duets with him. When I studied with Duques, he would never have a clarinet out. If he needed to demonstrate something, he would take my clarinet and of course would always complain about my reed But Joe always had his instruments out in the studio. so if he needed to demonstrate something he could. It's so important to play for students. We can talk all we want as teachers, but they have to bear it. That's something I've always done as a teacher, and I still do it today. That's something that Joe did to a small degree.

DM: Did you study much literature with Joe

BK: We did a little. I remember studying the Weber Concertino and orchestral excerpts. Here's an interesting comparison about lessons. When I studied with Duques, he would assign scales, three or four etudes and a solo and we would get through all of it in a lesson. Basically, I just played through it and then he gave his comments. I don't think I ever got through an entire etude with Joe. We would get two or three lines into it, and then stop and talk about it. But I learned more from that than if I played five etudes for him. If you get the concepts, then you can go home and practice and apply it to everything.

The biggest difference between Joe and Duques was that Joe would talk about the line. He always said, "Can't you hear where that line is going?" That's the most important concept I learned. Make the phrase, make the musical sentence. He didn't teach me how to play an exercise, he taught me how to make music and how to hear music. Everything was serving as a means to get us to think about what the music was about. He used to stress to us to listen to other players; listen to violinists, listen to singers. Joe was one of the first people that I knew that used vibrato on the clarinet; the only other person at that time was Reginald Kell. Joe would say, "All of the strings play with vibrato; oboe and flute and bassoon play with vibrato. We're the only ones that aren't allowed to play with vibrato - it's silly." Vibrato was a way that he could make the music more meaningful.

At that time, as it still is in schools today, you had juries. And many of the teachers had that goal in mind; get ready to play the jury. Of course. Joe wanted you to do well on the jury, but his idea was that you were doing this to learn to make music, not to take a test.

DM: What would you consider Joe's greatest trait? Why is all this important?

BK: I'm sure you've picked up on how much I admire Joe. He was a great guy and he was a really wonderful human being. He cared about people. He always had nice things to say. His disposition was always glowing. Every time I left being with him, I always felt good. He always made you feel optimistic about what you were doing. He was one of those kinds of people that you never forget. If you're lucky enough, you'll run across one person in your life like Joe. You know immediately that they are something special. I always wish I could have that effect on somebody someday. I don't think you can do anything better than that. I'm really glad I was one of the people that got to know him. He was terrific.