Bill Berry, 72; Band Leader, Duke Ellington’s Trumpeter

Times Staff Writer

Bill Berry, a renowned jazz cornetist and trumpet player who played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1960s and later formed Bill Berry and the L.A. Band, one of the West Coast’s leading big band ensembles, has died. He was 72.

Berry, who played in “The Merv Griffin Show” band for 15 years, died of lung cancer Nov. 13 at UCLA Medical Center.

Berry played trumpet with the Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson bands before joining Ellington in 1961 as one of the orchestra’s first white members. He toured and recorded with Ellington until 1964, then began a long association with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in New York City.


In 1965, he began his 15-year association with the “Merv Griffin Show” band. He formed his own big band, the New York Band, in 1970. After the Griffin show moved to the West Coast a year later, Berry re-formed his ensemble as Bill Berry and the L.A. Band, which he continued to lead on a part-time basis for the next 30 years.

“I loved Bill Berry,” said trumpet player Jack Sheldon, who worked with Berry on the Griffin show and played in Berry’s L.A. Band. “He was always a great trumpet player; he had really good time. And he was the best band leader. He handled the band really well.”

“He knew how to get what he wanted out of the band in a very relaxed way -- nice and easy, no shouting,” said Jack Nimitz, a baritone saxophonist who was a charter member of Berry’s L.A. Band and also played with Berry on “The Merv Griffin Show.”

“ ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’ -- that was Bill Berry all the way,” Nimitz said.

Berry was born into the business. The son of a bass player in a touring dance band, Berry was born in 1930. His birthplace was Benton Harbor, Mich., but only because that’s where the band was playing at the time.

“He was on the road when he was only a few months old,” Berry’s wife, Betty, said Monday. “He slept in the bass case under the bandstand.”

At age 5, Berry began taking piano lessons in South Bend, Ind., his parents’ home base. He started playing trumpet in high school in Cincinnati, where his parents had moved.

After graduating in 1947, he went out on the road for three years, playing one-nighters throughout the Midwest in a band led by Don Strickland.

“All the bands had sleeper buses because they didn’t pay enough to afford hotels,” Berry recalled. “We used to check in once a week on Mondays, just to take a bath.”

After playing in Air Force bands for four years while stationed in Texas and Iceland in the early ‘50s, Berry studied at the Cincinnati College of Music, then attended Berklee College of Music in Boston before landing a job playing with Woody Herman.

In 1960, he joined Maynard Ferguson’s band. While playing with Ferguson’s band at Birdland in New York City in 1961, Berry recalled in a 1997 interview with The Times, “this guy came into the club almost every night where we were playing and kept asking me, ‘Don’t you think you should meet Ellington?’ And I’d say, ‘Everybody should meet Ellington.’ ”

Berry finally accompanied the man to the Apollo Theater, where he met Ellington.

As Berry climbed down a narrow, winding wrought-iron stairway from the dressing room, he recalled, “This guy stops me and asks me if I can go out with the band later that week. It turned out to be the band manager, and the guy I was with turned out to be Duke’s press agent.”

As Berry recalled, “I went through all the civil-rights era with Ellington. None of the bands were integrated except Maynard’s. Not Basie’s. Not Ellington’s, really....

“I stayed with them in the black hotels in the South and it was fine. They took everything in stride. Ellington saw it as somebody else’s problem.”

Berry, whose L.A. big band featured other former Ellington sidemen over the years, has been described as one of “the definitive interpreters of Duke Ellington’s music.”

Berry once described his old boss as “the only guy I ever met that I knew right off the bat was a genius.”

“Duke Ellington changed my whole life,” Berry told The Times last year. “He changed my outlook about everything, and not just music.”

Heart bypass surgery in 1995 did not slow Berry down. He continued to travel as a soloist several times a year to Britain, Europe and Japan, as well as playing locally and doing studio work.

From 1991 to 2000, he served as musical director and his wife produced the annual International Jazz Party, which brought Japanese and American musicians together for a one-night performance in Monterey and three in Los Angeles.

In 1981, Berry began a seven-year stint as musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival. At the same time, he began directing the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All Star Band.

His yearlong battle with cancer didn’t prevent him from taking the latest student all-stars on a tour of Japan in August or from conducting them in September at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

“He loved to teach,” said Betty Berry, his wife of 42 years. The former teacher recalled that her husband “used to say to me when I was teaching, ‘I don’t see how you stand those kids.’

“Then I saw him working with them,” she said. “He turned around and I could see there were tears rolling down his face. I thought, ‘You’ve got the bug.’ He loved to teach.”

In addition to his wife, Berry is survived by his son, William Berry of Englewood, Colo., and daughter, Lisa McLaughlin, of Tallmadge, Ohio; one grandchild; and a brother, Jim, of Chicago.

Memorial services are being planned.