Billy Root, a tenor and baritone saxophonist in several major big bands and small jazz groups in the 1950s and 1960s before he relocated to Las Vegas in 1968, just as the city was becoming a pop and rock entertainment capital, died July 30. He was 79.
Billy was born in Philadelphia and his father was a drummer who took him to see Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and other bands in the '40s. Billy began playing tenor sax at age 10 and was a fast study, sitting in with "Hot Lips" Page at age 16 and going on the road with the band led by saxophonist Hal McIntyre.
In the early '50s Billy was the house tenor saxophonist at Philadelphia's Blue Note club, playing with every act that passed through, including Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and others. [Billy Root at New York's Birdland in the '50s]
Billy played with leading singers and toured with Ella Fitzgerald before teaming with trombonist Bennie Green and trumpeter Red Rodney. Eventually he switched to baritone sax, exhibiting a powerfully thick anchor sound in the lower register and a clever nimbleness when soloing. He played and recorded with Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry James, Lee Morgan, Bennie Green and others. After moving to Las Vegas with his family, Billy played regularly in the showroom orchestras that accompanied major acts. [Billy Root at far right, first row, in the Stan Kenton Orchestra]
- Cuban Fire—Stan Kenton (1956)
- Dizzy Atmosphere—Lee Morgan (1957). This is an extraordinary album with superb Billy Root solos and should be in every collection.
- Birk's Works—Dizzy Gillespie (1957)
- Jack's Groove—Jack Sheldon (1957)
- Soul Stirrin'—Bennie Green (1958)
- Stan Kenton at the Las Vegas Tropicana (1959)
- Red Rodney Returns (1959)
- From Dakota with Love—Dakota Staton (1963)
Billy's lone leadership date, Live at Cappozzoli's (Woofy) in Las Vegas in 1999 with trumpeter Vinnie Tanno was his last recording. You'll find it here.
All photos courtesy of Eric Root, Billy's son.