Billy Tisch: Sax Appeal
Although originally from the East Coast, there can be no doubt that multi-instrumentalist William “Billy” Tisch has become an indelible part of San Diego’s music community. Anyone who has seen him on stage knows the man likes to play music. Actually, that’s an understatement. His enthusiasm truly adds to any performance and has made him one of the most sought-after players in town.
Tisch plays ten different instruments that including clarinet, sax, flute, trumpet, bagpipes, harmonica, tambourine, recorder, synthesizer, and Irish whistle. “Certainly, my favorite is tenor sax,” he noted.
A machinist by trade, working in aviation, Tisch is originally from Long Island. He played music for many years there, as a child and young adult. Now a seasoned performer, his first performance in elementary school was enough to convince him a life in music was a good idea. “I was eight years old at and I performed generic Etude on the recorder,” he said. “When I finished, the class was in astonishment and went silent. I thought I did something wrong, so I asked the teacher what I had done wrong, and he said ‘nothing,’ I did everything right. Wow! That was the start of my first transcendental experience soloing.” Tisch credits teacher Bill Wagner with introducing him to the clarinet. “He played with the big bands in New York. I was able to play everything he asked me to repeat perfectly. Really a great gift from our Lord. Early on I was scared and nervous, causing me to play my best and I did.”
Tisch arrived locally as a young man with his wife, Eileen, through family influence. “I came to San Diego in 1982 as a result of my Dad who was trained here by the Navy during WWII,” he recalled. “My sister Robin was also living here. Dad and Robin suggested moving my young family here from Long Island. A very smart move!” He truly is happy where he landed. “I love the musical style here in San Diego that encompasses several great main cultures and several minor cultures. Each blended together result in a uniquely San Diego sound. Very enjoyable and superb to be a part of.”
His own musical influences run the gamut. “There are so many great musicians that have touched my life,” Tisch said. “I mostly love all types of music: Harry James, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Elvis, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Oasis, and many, many more. I think about Clarence Clemons every day.” He considers rock ballads to be a favorite listen, “but I also like hard rock, arena rock, country rock, and machine rock since I work and listen to machines and loud hydraulics all day at work.” Tisch hears music everywhere. “Those machines at work are certainly different than the typical sounds of music. It’s interesting, though, because when I tune up, I always think of B17 radial engines syncing up to the same tachometer settings. I can hear pitch very clearly. Maybe because I’m around machines all the time.”
Having played so many types of music, if he could perform with anyone, who would it be? “I would love to go back in time to the swing era,” he said. “I would wish to be in the big bands to play with folks like Benny Goodman, Harry James, the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller.” His first choice, however, would be from a little later and a little bluesier. “My favorite band to play with would be with B.B. King’s,” Tisch said. “I love the blues. He has the depth and contrast from slow blues to powerful soulful swing rock that echoes through his voice and guitar. In my opinion and taste, I feel it transcends music into the greatest spirit for many listeners.”
The list of bands Tisch has been in is long and varied, including (my own) True Stories, but also pretty much anyone who asks. If he has the opportunity to make music, he’s going to take it. Tisch is a master improviser, with a no-holds-barred performing style that has resulted in him becoming a favorite at venues throughout the Southland. It’s not unusual to find Tisch blaring sax on a bar table, serenading a couple in the crowd, or joining the audience in dancing and mayhem, all in the quest to give his listeners a good time. “I like interacting with the audience, hopefully it energizes them and brings them further enjoyment,” Tisch said. Amongst the groups he has been a part of are D.A. and the Hitmen, the Kearney Mesa Adult Community Concert Band, the Adelphi University Chamber Orchestra, the Rockaholics Band, the Footloose Band, the Tobasco Brothers, and the Distractions. He has also backed Normandie Wilson and jammed with jazz legends such as Mundell Lowe, Betty Bennett, and Jack Costanzo.
His favorite time in a combo is likely his stint with the Carol Williams Band, who performed at the Spreckel’s Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park for several shows that included tributes to the Doors and David Bowie. The band included Williams, then Civic Organist for the city of San Diego, as well as Tisch, Ariel Levine (vocal), Heather Nation (vocal), Ben Zinn (guitar), Tim McLean (bass), and Kerry Bell (drums).
“Playing with Carol was an amazing experience,” Tisch said. “It was extremely elevating to be able to blend my instruments with that superb organ and its incredible tone, absolute pitch, and warm resonance. Combined with the natural and augmented onstage acoustics of the pavilion, you could hear every note to its utmost quality and fidelity. And, of course, there was also Carol’s immense talents and all the other wonderful performers. It was very pleasing from a musician’s perspective as a soloist and band member. It’s every musician’s dream to be able to perform in a setting like that.” He notes the view from the stage, looking out over the core of Balboa Park was inspiring. “There was a sea of people at those concerts,” Tisch recalled. “With the audience at full capacity every show, the view from stage was most pleasing with respect to being able to bring enjoyment to people of all ages, and it elevated my and our band’s playing with favorable appreciative responses. Carol was most gracious in allowing me to inject and express my own artistic creative styles to these everlasting masterpiece songs.”
The Carol Williams Band Tribute to Bowie in Balboa Park, May 29 2016.
Ironically, after nearly four decades as a performer Tisch hasn’t released any music of his own. He hopes to take care of that sooner than later. “I really wish I had released my own music by now,” he said. “Hopefully once I retire from my regular job, I will be able to do so. I have so many ideas, it would be great to have something out there.” Would Tisch prefer the role of frontman or band member? “I enjoy working with great musicians and helping them achieve strong performances,” he said. “I have always been a band member, except when soloing.”
With music slowly returning, Tisch is looking forward to getting back on stage as soon as possible. He’s succinct on his favorite thing about being a musician, using a California analogy to explain. “My favorite thing is that I have and use complicated musical machines to generate fabulous tones and notes that I can use to interact with other musicians, creating new feelings and sensations much like a surfer who is looking for the next great wave to ride in song, or jam,” he said. “Being able to couple the machine with a finite dexterity in sound using my breath and reeds and wind driven articulation enables me to propel myself and the band to higher enjoyment. It is very special to share this with my musical brothers, sisters, and fathers and mothers.” There is one other thing. “It’s fun,” he said good naturedly. “The crowd-pleasing aspect with positive responses is icing on the cake. I hope I get to play with you and for you all in the future.”