Billy Buss: From Berkeley to New York via trumpet

Trumpeter Billy Buss, a product of the East Bay, including Berkeley High, plays Jupiter on Wednesday July 18

For talented and ambitious young musicians, the Bay Area offers an almost overwhelming array of resources. Layafette-raised trumpeter Billy Buss, who graduated from Berkeley High in 2006, took advantage of just about every program available, and he’s joined the long list of Bay Area musicians who have taken their rigorous training to New York City.

Now based in Brooklyn, Buss makes his debut at Jupiter on Wednesday July 18th with a quartet featuring Berkeley tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, keyboardist Mike Aaberg (known for his work with Goapele, The Coup, and Lalah Hathaway), and the exceptional 19-year-old Richmond drummer Malachi Whitson, who’s in his second year at the University of the Pacific’s Brubeck Institute.

“As soon as I started playing jazz, I got myself involved in as many extracurricular programs as I could,” Buss says. “I was very lucky to have parents who were extremely supportive, who gave up a lot to be able to afford lessons and summer camps.”

Growing up in Lafayette, Buss attended Stanley Middle School, which boasts a renowned music program run by Bob Athayde. He studied trumpet with Mic Gillette, a Tower of Power founder, who encouraged him to start exploring all his educational options. By the time Buss got to Acalanes High he felt the school’s music program was in the doldrums, without a strong sense of mission. Already a member of the prestigious SFJAZZ High School All-Stars, Buss ended up transferring to Berkeley High in the 11th grade, a move facilitated by his mother’s rental of an apartment downtown.

“I wanted to be around musicians with the same passion and fire,” Buss says. “Otherwise you’re in your own world out there in Lafayette. Howard Wiley was a big influence for me, just seeing what talent and hard work can get you. Once I saw there are hundreds of musicians out there who are passionate and talented, I realized I had to get really serious.”

Selected for numerous competitive ensembles, like with the Gibson-Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensemble, Buss was serious enough to win the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Jimmy Lyons Scholarship, which covers the full four-year tuition to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Thriving in Berklee’s highly charged environment, Buss soaked up information and forged tight bonds with his peers. After earning a degree in commercial music in 2009, he and four fellow Berklee grads won coveted spots in the Thelonious Monk Institute’s elite masters program, which was then based in New Orleans. In addition to studying with a steady stream of jazz stars who came through the institute for week-long residencies, Buss and his Monk classmates toured China as accompanists for piano legend Herbie Hancock and the great jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Taking a leap of faith last year, Buss and his Monk compatriots all made the move to New York (except for the South Korean bassist, who had to return home for military service), hoping to break into the scene as an ensemble. Like for most young musicians new to the city, the rosy plans didn’t pan out, and Buss scuffled for months before he landed a position with a company that sends private music tutors to the Upper East and Upper West Side.

He’s landed a regular weekend gig at Williamsburg Music Center with veteran guitarist Gerry Eastman, which has connected him to a community of mid-career jazz players, highly skilled and well-traveled musicians who are little known even to ardent jazz fans. He’s also working regularly with the gospel and pop singer Alice Tan Ridley, an “America’s Got Talent” contestant who also happens to be Gabourey Sidibe’s mother.

Back in the Bay Area to teach at the Jazzschool, he’s committed to music education, building on his experiences at the Monk Institute doing community outreach, clinics and private lessons.

“For me teaching really reaffirms what I want to do in my own playing and practicing,” Buss says. “It’s not just something that pays the rent. My dream is to teach at Berklee.”

As a player and bandleader, he’s developing a book of original tunes and arrangements of jazz standards, looking to make his mark on the contemporary scene. Citing storied trumpeters like Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, Buss wants to make the most of his rarified training, aspiring “to be somebody who embraces the collective understanding and keeps it moving forward.”

You can listen to Billy Buss’ Sir Charles or Sonic Wallpaper here on Berkeleyside, or hear some of his work on SoundCloud.

Buy tickets for Jupiter performance.

Recommended gigs

The first family of Cajun music plays Ashkenaz on Saturday when squeezebox expert Marc Savoy and guitarist Ann Savoy and their sons Joel and Wilson (and fiddle and keyboards, respectively) joins forces as the Savoy Family Band. Listening to old French tunes seems like a perfect way to celebrate Bastille Day.

On Sunday another prodigiously musical family takes over Freight & Salvage when the Northern California-raised siblings Tristan and Tashina Clarridge present a concert featuring the faculty from their Mt. Shasta Music Summit. With six Grand National Fiddle Champion victories between them, Tashina and Tristan (who’s also a masterly cellist) perform together in the acclaimed newgrass ensemble The Bee Eaters. The concert also showcases folk great Mollie O’Brien, Indian violin maestro Kala Ramnath, wildman cellist Rushad Eggleston, Appalachian music scholar John Herrmann, jazz violinist Billy Contreras, fiddle phenom Brittany Haas, bluegrass guitarist David Grier, Irish tenor banjo player Dave Cory, and tabla expert Ty Burhoe

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.