William Watson Pierce, Jr.



Saxophonist/Educator William Watson Pierce, Jr. was born in Hampton, Virginia on September 25, 1948. Raised in Jacksonville and Miami Florida, he is the son of Frances and William Pierce, Sr., both educators. Pierce attended Tennessee State University before transferring to The Berklee School of Music, from which he graduated in 1972.

Currently Chair of the Woodwind Department at Berklee, Bill Pierce is an exemplar of what has become possible, over the last twenty years, for jazz musicians beyond the confines of night clubs, touring and recording. He has fashioned a musical life that has combined performance and recording at the highest level with a career in the expanding discipline of Jazz Studies in higher and professional education.

During his student years and throughout the ‘70s, Pierce was active in Boston music circles, both Rhythm and Blues and Jazz. He first garnered national notice upon assuming the tenor saxophone chair with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Blakey is recognized for having conducted one of the great on-the-job graduate schools in jazz. Pierce rose to the head of the class, serving as Music Director for an edition of the Messengers that included Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, the late James Williams and Charles Fambrough.

During three years of non-stop touring with Blakey, Pierce recorded ten albums with the great master. This aural record amply documents his formidable capacities as a soloist, on both tenor and soprano saxophones. Pierce stands out in some of the strongest company of his peer group. During his time with Blakey, Pierce established a bond with pianist James Williams, resulting in eleven more recordings and further showcasing the conceptual and technical resources at his command.

Among Pierce’s many other musical associations, one is especially notable. According to Pierce, “Playing with Tony (Williams) was the highlight of my music career…He was an idol when I was younger so playing with him was special. I don’t think I have played with anyone as intense as him.” Together they recorded five albums, including Tokyo Live, the last Williams quintet recording.

As a leader, Pierce has toured nationally and internationally, appearing at many major American, Japanese and European Jazz Festivals. There are eleven excellent Pierce recordings extant, including William the Conqueror, Give and Take and Equilateral, all on Sunny Side Communications, as well as Epistrophy on Evidence and Burnin’ (with Javon Jackson) on Criss Cross Jazz. One hears in his work, a singular intelligence and clarity, a wonderful balance of technical execution and concentrated passion.

In the ‘80s Pierce divided his time between academia and the more traditional pursuits of a professional jazz musician. After a stint as Associate Professor in the Woodwind Department, Pierce was appointed chairman in 1997. At Berklee, Pierce concentrates on shaping an emerging generation of saxophonists and imparting to them the kind of understanding that was formerly only attainable in such academies as led by an Art “Buhaina” Blakey, a Jean Baptiste Illinois Jacquet or a Betty “Bebop” Carter.

Pierce’s students are guided and grounded by a steady hand. “Art music will evolve-that is the nature of music that starts out being something other than a commodity,” Pierce once noted. “Innovation,” he continued,” is an organic process and is not something that you can decide to do. It happens when someone shows up with something that is fresh and worthwhile. Musicians have to be a part of their own generation and culture, but the history of the music should be strong enough that it will always be a part of the new developments.”

- W. A. Brower