Bill Perkins, 79; Saxophonist Who Played With Kenton, Herman Bands Was Key Figure in Jazz

Times Staff Writer

Bill Perkins, a versatile saxophonist best known as a popular soloist in the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman big bands in the 1950s, has died. He was 79.

A leading figure on the West Coast jazz scene for more than four decades, Perkins died Saturday of cancer at his home in Sherman Oaks, according to his family.

Born in San Francisco, Perkins spent the first several years of his life in Chile, where his father was working as a mining engineer.

But, as Perkins told The Times some years ago, his father had a Victrola and the camp in the remote region where they lived had a school. It was there that he began learning piano, and then clarinet, which he later dropped in favor of the saxophone.


Drawn to electrical engineering, an interest his father had encouraged when he was a boy, Perkins earned a degree from Caltech before going into the Navy at the end of World War II.

After the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill and earned a music degree from UC Santa Barbara.

His professional music career started in 1950 at the relatively late age of 26.

He worked for Jerry Wald’s band and then made a big jump to Herman’s band.


Through much of the 1950s, he was working for either Herman or Kenton.

He played tenor saxophone in his early days and favored the lyrical style of Lester Young.

“Nobody could have been luckier” than to play with Herman and Kenton, Perkins told The Times.

“Though they were both very different, they were both forward-looking and never told you how to play. Stan especially gave me a feeling of worth” -- a sense that “being a jazz musician was something of great value.”

Through the 1960s, Perkins did studio work, both as a performer and as a recording engineer, for the World Pacific label and at United Recording. He also played with the “Tonight Show” band and earned a reputation for versatility by playing flute and alto flute, clarinet and bass clarinet in addition to saxophones.

In the 1970s, he worked with the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band, playing baritone saxophone, and in the late 1980s he played soprano saxophone with the Lighthouse All-Stars, led by Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, he played and recorded with pianist Frank Strazzeri. Most recently, he played with Bill Holman’s band until being taken ill in June.

Perkins also brought his engineering knowledge to music and held patents on a number of electronic instrument components, including a synthesized trumpet and a synthesized saxophone.


Perkins is survived by his wife, Charlene; daughters Kimberly and Penny; sons Ernest and Thomas; and six grandchildren.

The family suggests that, instead of flowers, donations be made to the Cousteau Society or to KKJZ, the jazz radio station at Cal State Long Beach.

A memorial for Perkins will be held Monday from 7 to 11 p.m. at Musicians Union Local 47, 817 N. Vine St., Los Angeles.