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Jazzman Bill Potts, 76; Arranger and Composer

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page B06

Bill Potts, 76, who died of cardiac arrest Feb. 16 at a hospital in Plantation, Fla., was a jazz pianist, composer and arranger who scored "The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess" (1959), a vibrant version of the Gershwin folk opera that brought him early acclaim.

Mr. Potts was a tall, imposing man with a white goatee. Describing him, composer Andre Previn once wrote he was a "man of Dickensian proportions with added touches of Peter Ustinov and Captain Ahab."

Bill Potts wrote, performed, recorded and taught jazz.

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Largely self-taught as a musician, he developed an arranging style that was bold, brassy and swinging. In many ways, his "Jazz Soul" album, written when he was 30, was a precocious interpretation of Gershwin standards. Tunes such as "Summertime" had typically been recorded as slow ballads with a vocal interlude.

In contrast, "Jazz Soul" became a large-scale and boisterous project featuring such jazz heavyweights as Harry Edison, Zoot Sims, Charlie Shavers and Bill Evans.

Mr. Potts wrote his arrangements while recuperating from a car accident that left him in a body cast for months. Under the leadership of producer Jack Lewis, Mr. Potts studied the original score and listened to a stack of "Porgy and Bess" versions.

"I wasn't familiar with [the opera] at all," Mr. Potts told an interviewer. "So I really studied that score. I wore out the records. I listened and studied for six weeks before I wrote the first note."

Down Beat magazine gave the record five stars, its highest praise, and called it a "beautiful, beautiful album." But the release was largely overshadowed by the quieter, reflective Miles Davis-Gil Evans "Porgy and Bess" album that was issued at the same time.

Mr. Potts continued with a productive but far more anonymous career. He collaborated with Paul Anka, Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Herman, Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich and Bobby Vinton and resettled in the Washington area for many years to teach at Montgomery College.

He was known to give his students spare but effective direction: "Swing, or I'll kill you."

William Orie Potts was born April 3, 1928, in Arlington. Given a Hawaiian guitar by his father, Mr. Potts soon switched to accordion and won a talent contest at 15 for playing "Twilight Time."

He said his musical awakening came while he was a student at Washington-Lee High School, the moment he heard pianist Count Basie on his house radio. By the early 1950s, he had been on the road as a professional musician, and he began serious study of composition while transcribing musical charts for the Army Band in Washington.

He also became part of THE Orchestra, a boastfully named big band comprising veteran musicians and heavily promoted by Willis Conover of the Voice of America. It was noted for its surprise guest artists, including the bebop stars Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Mr. Potts had some experience as a recording engineer and liked to tape THE Orchestra whenever it performed some of his charts. Many of the tapes, including those of Parker, became well regarded by collectors and were released on record labels.

Perhaps most famously, he lured saxophone legend Lester Young into one of his last and most exquisite recording sessions. At the time, in December 1956, Mr. Potts was spending his nights leading the small house band at Olivia Davis's Patio Lounge. The club was a windowless walk-up on 13th Street NW and had, Mr. Potts once said, "the worst piano in the world."

It attracted such fading greats as Young. The 1930s swing innovator was in physical decline and drinking heavily, and Mr. Potts was overjoyed when he heard that Young would be appearing that winter.

Intrigued by the recording possibilities, Mr. Potts filled the club with equipment. When Young saw it, he grew nervous. He explained that his producer, the influential Norman Granz, would disapprove of such a recording outside his contract. "Oh, no, Billy, Norman Granz will kill me," Mr. Potts recalled Young telling him.

He told the Washington City Paper in 2003: "We had about a half-hour before show time, so we put our heads together. There was a liquor store across the street. We got him the biggest bottle of Hennessy we could find and got it gift-wrapped and put a card on it and gave it to him."

The card read: "We thank you for the pleasure of working with the greatest saxophone player in the world."

A few drinks later, Young relented: "I don't think Norman will really kill me."

During two nights, they recorded "A Foggy Day," "I Can't Get Started" and other standards that helped resuscitate Young's late-stage reputation when the tapes were released in several volumes in the early 1980s as "Lester Young in Washington, D.C."

Mr. Potts moved to Florida from Germantown in 1995 and lived in Fort Lauderdale.

His marriages to Marjorie Johnson Potts and Barbara Kleinkopf Potts ended in divorce.

Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Christi Desky of Davie, Fla.; a brother, Robert Potts of Reston; two sisters, Virginia Stafford of Alexandria and Janet Potter of Daytona Beach, Fla.; and two granddaughters.

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