Bill Saxton boasts one of the most fitting names in jazz. He was born in Harlem in 1946, and after attending NYC public schools began playing sax professionally in 1965, since then jamming with jazz greats around the world and being honored at the White House, the Harlem Jazz Museum, and the Library of Music at Lincoln Center.
With his wife, author Theda Palmer Saxton, he now runs Bill’s Place, on 133rd Street between Lenox and 7th Avenues in Harlem, eschewing advertising and thriving solely on word of mouth. Saxton plays two sets to a packed house every Friday and Saturday night, with lines down the block; according to him, during the Prohibition era, 133rd Street boasted more speakeasies than any neighborhood in Manhattan. Known as “Swing Street,” Black and white intermingled there to party and hear live jazz, while bootleggers ran booze between buildings via interconnected backyards where police dared not enter.
Though the Saxtons didn’t know it when they bought Bill’s Place (originally, Tillie’s Chicken Shack), it was an after-hours hang-out spot for Harlem Renaissance luminaries Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Moms Mabley, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and others. “It was originally run by a woman named Tillie Fripp, who came from Philly in the 1920s with $3,” Saxton tells me. “She cooked chicken and waffles in the club and made so much money that she bought the building. The next owner was Monet More, who used to sing in the Harlem Opera House and on Broadway. She called it Monet’s Supper Club, and it was popular. The block was filled with speakeasies. The only place that’s left today is The Log Cabin and my place.
“A young singer named Eleanora Fagan used to sing in the speakeasies on Swing Street and throughout Harlem,” he continues. “Producer John Hammond, who was a Vanderbilt and had money to spare, saw her perform at Monet’s Supper Club, was impressed, and became her manager. He renamed her Billie Holiday.”
The Saxtons heard these historical nuggets from neighbors and colleagues after buying the venue. Today, Bill’s Place is an intimate, family-run spot with a business model that works, in large part because of Bill Saxton’s superlative playing but also through his warmth as a host and entertainer. A plaque commemorating Billie Holiday adorns the entrance. It’s a snug place, with a railroad layout and a small performance space. The walls surrounding the stage are adorned with photos of Louis Armstrong, Holiday, and Saxton himself.
At a recent show, Saxton gave a quick welcome, then his band launched into an energetic, uptempo original, “Falling Up.” Inspired by mid-’60s hard-bop masters like John Coltrane and the recently deceased Pharoah Sanders, Saxton unleashed cascading sheets of melodic notes over a tight, swinging rhythm section of upright bass, drums, and piano. With the crowd only an arm’s length away, the music was up-close and personal. Beads of sweat broke on Saxton’s brow as the music poured out of his horn and soul, the sonic vibrations evoking the spirits of jazz giants past and present.
It was a neighbor who sparked Saxton’s interest in jazz; he was raised on classic soul and R&B. “She’d play jazz loud while cleaning up, and I started singing with the songs,” Saxton recalls. He spent summers taking in free concerts at the bandshell in Jackie Robinson Park, absorbing how horn sections interacted with each other. He started playing the clarinet when a teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High School paired him with a stronger student. “All schools supplied instruments back then,” Saxton explains. “They had a band room with locked closets and numbered instruments. They’d let us take them home on weekends. I always wanted to play the saxophone, but clarinet was close enough, so that was cool.”
In 1964, riots in Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant exploded in response to the police shooting of a 15-year-old African American boy named James Powell, and this marked the moment Saxton got his first instrument. “During the riots, people were breaking the windows and looting. I ended up with a movie camera. It was on the ground, so I picked it up and ran. Then I met a guy who had the sax. He said, ‘You want this?’ So we traded and it was a done deal.”
But Saxton had only gotten the body of the instrument. “It only had the neck. I didn’t know it needed more pieces. I put it in a pillowcase to keep it safe.” An Ecuadorian friend, the musician Nelson Samaniego, helped him get a mouthpiece, a reed, and a case. “He was a dedicated musician and played right along with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane records. That opened my eyes,” Saxton remembers.
Shortly after that, a fire destroyed his family’s apartment in Harlem and Saxton moved to the Lower East Side. Unfortunately, he was soon separated from his newly acquired instrument. “There were gangs down there who didn’t recognize me because I was new. A guy started a fight, and someone stole my horn. I was furious and heartbroken. My mom took her last money and bought me a horn for $150.”
In the late 1960s, Saxton was tried for grand larceny. “I was at the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time,” he says. Sentenced to five years at Auburn State Penitentiary, in upstate New York, he discovered another musical community. “There were incarcerated musicians who had a band and showed me how to practice. I learned scales and discovered that whatever I could sing, I could play. By the time I came home, I was pretty good.”
Saxton earned his high school diploma while in prison, and was released after two years. “I’m actually thankful, because had I not gone there, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Having read the bios of his musical heroes on the backs of albums, Saxton realized that education was a way forward. With his friend Sinclair Acey, Saxton formed the Jazz Prophets and pursued an audition at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston, which was free. “I asked Acey to go with me,” Saxton relates. “He said yes. We got into the school without an application. They had not quite started a jazz program yet. I went to play classical sax. This was when they were first starting [jazz programs] and were recruiting.”
Saxton would also ask master musicians for lessons, such as Pharoah Sanders, who he’d first met on the Lower East Side at the jazz club Slugs’ Saloon. Sanders introduced him to Scales, Chords and Melodic Patterns, by Nicolas Slonimsky, a book John Coltrane had also studied. But Saxton left the New England Conservatory after three years to play with Mongo Santamaría and Tito Puente, then he met Bennie Maupin, who introduced him to classical saxophone and atonal playing. When Maupin went on the road with Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, in the early ’70s, Saxton took over his apartment on the Lower East Side, which was equipped with the late Coltrane’s piano. But, Saxton adds, “I got a lot out of being in Boston. There was a club called The Black Avant Garde in the basement of a church. We had a whole cadre.”
As the ’70s progressed, fusion and avant-garde music were developing — “like Miles Davis’s album Jack Johnson,” explains Saxton. “I was with the purists.” But none of it fit Saxton’s classical inclinations. “A lot of the guys were crossing over into fusion. They asked me to join them. I said, ‘If I was guaranteed I’d get over like Grover [Washington], I’d come, but ain’t nobody guaranteeing me shit. So I said I’ll stick with what I know.
“They invited me to see George Clinton and the Mothership. There was a guy walking around in a diaper. Boosty’s Rubber Band was happening,” he recalls. “I thought, I’ve done all this studying for this? And then there was the avant-garde loft scene. Mechanically, I could do it, but my heart wasn’t in it. There was a divide in the jazz community about which direction to follow.”
Feeling ignored and creatively stuck, Saxton headed back to Harlem and began playing with trios, including famously funky Hammond organist Bobby Forrester; he also began mentoring younger musicians. Saxton played extensively with legendary drummer Roy Haynes, whose name is now prominently displayed on the kick drum of the house kit at Bill’s Place. “Roy became my teacher. We played together in his group, Roy Haynes’s Hip Ensemble. I’d go anywhere with him.”
Working with giants like Haynes furthered Saxton’s education. “Roy showed me how to make your set a journey. Set a mood, airy and abstract, and then later come out swinging with different textures and time signatures. He made me pay attention to drums and dynamics. Everything don’t have to be loud.”
Searching for a musical home, Saxton started a residency at St. Nick’s Pub, in Harlem’s Sugar Hill, near 149th Street. He played every Friday for 11 years, until the landlord increased the rent, shutting the venue down. Graced by legends like Miles Davis, St. Nick’s was always a hotspot for jazz, but burned down in 2018 during a film production of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.
Luckily, Saxton’s wife, Theda, discovered a new spot, which they named Bill’s Place. The neighborhood was rough but open to opportunity. Says Paxton, “133rd Street was one of the worst blocks. Anything could happen. If you ordered some Chinese food, people in the block would take the bike, the food, the money, and beat the guy’s ass. Being from Harlem, people knew me to some degree. We transformed the space into a club. I’ve been there every week for the last 17 years, man.”
Saxton has toured the world, including a State Department tour to 20 different countries in Africa, from 1988 to 1990. “A drummer named Alvin Queen set it all up. He had a record label called Nilva Records. I recorded my first record with him. He was the first Black jazz musician who started his own label.” But Bill’s Place is his home base, and helps him move jazz forward. “As a Black man playing this music, we have a responsibility to take care of this music and be true to ourselves,” he states.
Looking back on a long career, the 76-year-old Saxton is grateful for what he’s learned, and to still be playing, especially as so many of his heroes and contemporaries have passed on, such as Sanders and Wayne Shorter. “The Jazz Museum in Harlem interviewed me and many others. I’ve been lucky to be associated with jazz royalty. They’re all gone now. Makes me want to cry,” he says. Thinking of the future, Saxton adds, “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, so my shoulders are there to be stood upon too. I’m concerned with who knows the music and who will step up to take over Bill’s Place.”
At a recent show, Saxton wound down his set by singing the blues in the call-and-response style of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, the powerful jump blues and jazz alto saxophonist (who lost his hair because of a lye-based hair-straightener). Saxton introduced the band as they left the stage, and closed by giving the audience a brief history of the venue and how Billie Holiday was discovered there. He told me, “People like to learn something in a show. Music should be creative, informative, and entertaining, which is all happening here.” ❖
Michael Cobb is a writer, musician, and podcaster based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the New York City Jazz Record, Shindig!, Elmore, The Indypendent, Ruta 66, and Mondo Sonoro, among others, and on the website Please Kill Me.