Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Tolles, Billy

Tolles, Billy, saxophone; b. Waukegan, IL 11 May 1934.

In Seattle, Washington, 13 year-old Billy picked up a saxophone and began creating music. The music became good enough to support him though college and he further refined his craft though performing with such jazz notables as James Moody, Lou Donaldson, Tal Farlow and Irvin Stokes. His idol and mentor (on records) was the great sound of Lester Young.

As a pro sax player, he worked his way through college at A & T in Greensboro, North Carolina where he received his B.S. degree in bio-medical science in preparation for dental school. His first summer out of college found him in Boston, taking courses at the Schillinger School of Music (later to become the famous Berklee School of Music) where he became acquainted with drummer, Art Blakely. During that time, Billy Eckstine had formed a big band with Dizzy Gillespie as music director and players that included Miles Davis, Bud Johnson, Leo Parker and Gene Ammons. At Boston's Tic Toc Club, an illness left a vacancy in the band and Art Blakely encouraged Billy to fill in. After graduation from A & T, Billy entered New York City's Columbia University to begin his master's degree while also continuing his musical studies in that legendary university of jazz experience, generally known as 52nd Street.

He has travelled the world with the great players - Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Ekstein, Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan, Tiny Bradshaw, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Billy Holiday, Harry Connick Jr., Merl Saunders and the Rainforrest Band. His reputation began to grow rapidly, but like many others, it was cut short by a greetings letter from Uncle Sam. He served in the U.S. Army at Ft. Lewis, Washington as an ROTC 2nd Lieutenant and then on to a tour of duty in Korea before returning home to Seattle.

Back in Seattle, Billy hosted his own television show, "The Billy Tolles Rock and Roll Show," for two years, pre-dating Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," which emanated from Philadelphia. Soon after, Billy established his own band, performing in such well-known Las Vegas entertainment meccas such as the Castaways, Flamingo, Hacienda, Thunderbird, and the Desert Inn. It was during interspersed traveling with bands and looking to replace his own band that Billy happened to stop over in Denver to visit an army buddy he had worked with in Las Vegas and the West Coast. He was charmed by Denver, and stayed here to work at the Cleft Club, an establishment owned and managed by Horace Henderson. From that time on, Billy became a pillar of the Denver jazz scene.

The Billy Tolles Express played a broad range of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, pop, funk, standards and even some country. During the 60s and 70s, he was active in the public schools doing concerts and classes in jazz history. Along the way, he was a feature on the famous Playboy Circuit for five years. At the 1984 Jazz Fest, The Billy Tolles Jazz Express was the star attraction.

Billy continues his teaching to some of the advanced jazz students in the Denver area.


Billy and his tenor sax was prominently featured on the cover of an August 1993 Rocky Mountain News' Spotlight section.
More recently, he was a feature at the 4th Annual Vail (Colorado) Jazz Party in 1998.

Certificate of Recognition from Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (1993),
and a Denver WESTWORD award for Best Jazz Band of 1985.

Contact information:
Tel 303-750-7387 
Aurora, Colorado 80014 USA 
Email: BillyTolles@aol.com

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