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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
The Need for reed: Bill St. Pierre has been swinging Santa Cruz lounges since the 1970s.

Santa Cruz Classic

Veteran clarinetist Bill St. Pierre takes home the Santa Cruz Jazz Society's Lifetime Achievement Award.

By Andrew Gilbert

Jazz's hall of fame is full of artists so well known that a single name is enough to evoke their legacy, from Satchmo, Duke and Count to Miles, Dizzy and Ella. But the music has been sustained over the decades by cats who work in relative obscurity, known mostly to fellow musicians in the towns where they reside. That's why the Jazz Society of Santa Cruz's Lifetime Achievement Award is such a necessary institution.

On Sunday, the Jazz Society presents its fifth annual honors to reed expert and arranger Bill St. Pierre at Bocci's Cellar, where the nonprofit organization holds its weekly jam sessions. St. Pierre, who plays tenor and clarinet, will be featured with the house band.

"I was kind of surprised when I heard about the honor," says St. Pierre, 78, from his home in Watsonville. "I didn't even know they knew me. We'll go down and play two tunes on clarinet and two on saxophone, things like 'Satin Doll' and 'Back Home in Indiana.'"

The award is known informally as the Brownie, because three of the four previous recipients happened to share the same surname, starting in 2003 with pianist Velzoe Brown, who's still active in her 90s. Trumpeter, arranger and esteemed educator Ray Brown received the honor in 2004, and the suave vocalist and drummer Ralston Brown was given the award posthumously in 2005. Last year, it went to flutist Tim Jackson, the long-time director of Kuumbwa Jazz Center and the Monterey Jazz Festival.

For St. Pierre, lifetime achievement refers not so much to particular recordings or an illustrious band as his consistent contributions to the music. Since moving to the Santa Cruz area in 1970 he's lived and played all over the county, including long-running gigs at the Dream Inn, the Colonial and Pasatiempo. He taught reed students, and he still plays every Tuesday night for area seniors.

Born in Rhode Island, St. Pierre served in the military from 1948-52, playing in the Westover Air Force Band while based in Chicopee Falls, Mass. As a clarinetist, he loved Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, while Stan Getz moved him as a tenor player. He loved the modern jazz innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but didn't adopt the style himself. "I had trouble with bebop," St. Pierre says. "Some of the changes were hard to hear and play."

While he was accepted to Juilliard, he decided to move west instead and ended up studying at UCLA on the GI Bill, earning a B.A. in music and a teaching credential. In L.A. he worked with a band led by Matty Melnick, who wrote standards like "Stairway to the Stars" and "Goody Goody."

A gig at the Cal Neva Lodge in Tahoe gave him the opportunity to accompany vocal greats such as Tony Bennett and Lena Horn, though his most vivid memory involves his clarinet hero.

"The big band was on stage with wheels, and Benny Goodman was playing with a small group," St. Pierre recalls. "When the big band started rolling back so Goodman's combo could come up, he jumps on the bandstand and starts playing my part with me. That was something."

Bill St. Pierre receives the Jazz Society of Santa Cruz's Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday, Nov. 4 at 3pm at Bocci's Cellar, 140 Encinal St., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 831.427.1795 or visit

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