The (Not so) Young Jazz Lions

Paul Tillotson Trio hits town for the holidays


High school English teacher Rod Wray leans back in his chair, his desk an amalgamation of student papers, a grade book, some handouts and an empty coffee mug, and begins talking about his other life--that of the jazz musician. It is a life considerably removed from teaching. And for Wray, the holiday season means getting together, once again, with Paul Tillotson and Jim Kassis to perform a Christmas concert that has become a Boise tradition over the years. Amid the detritus of his teaching life, Wray begins weaving a historical tapestry of the trio.

In a time of permed and feathered hair, Duran Duran and Reaganomics, Tillotson and Kassis worked their early jazz chops together at Borah High School (They both graduated in 1983). It was there that they helped found The Squids, the jazz combo that featured the best the school's music program had to offer--a tradition that continues today at Borah.

And Tillotson continues to help his alma mater. In the last few years, the trio has performed several times Borah, with all proceeds going toward the Paul Tillotson Music Scholarship, which recognizes and awards scholarship money to one Borah music student--picked from a group of applicants by Tillotson.

The history of the Paul Tillotson Trio unfolds in a series of strange, karmic wheel spins. After graduation, Kassis went off to school in Colorado. Tillotson headed for Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington. There, he took music classes and met Wray. They both played in the rhythm section of a vocal jazz group. After a few months, Wray and Tillotson got an apartment together. "For me, it was like a really long music camp," Wray recalls. "I ended up with about 60 music credits ... and nothing else."

In the summer of 1985, Wray came to Boise with Tillotson. Kassis, too, was back from school. Young, talented, impetuous, the three decided to take a year off to give their music a try. "We called it 'WKT (Wray, Kassis, Tillotson) University,'" Wray says. "We had sweatshirts made up and everything." During the day, they'd jam down in the basement of Tillotson's parent's house; at night, they'd hit the clubs. "We played just about anywhere we could: down at 8th Street Market Place, weddings, the DJ Club (in the basement under Tom Grainey's). We were becoming formally self-taught."

In those days, Gene Harris was playing regularly at the Idanha Hotel and Tuesday night was "Jam Night."

"Gene called it 'War Night' because people would line up all the way down the stairs to 10th Street Station to be able to sit in and play with him," Wray recalls, "just to be invited to play with Gene." The three teenagers--often along with Curtis Stigers (a Capital High school alum)--were there, too. Harris liked them, definitely saw their eager, raw talent. He began calling them the Young Jazz Lions--and let them sit in whenever they showed up. "Think about that," Wray says. "I mean, you're in high school, or fresh from it, and you get to sit in with Gene Harris. God, we had fun."

After that year, the musicians headed off with individual pursuits. But the three of them almost always got back together in Boise for a few weeks each summer and during the Christmas holiday. "Someone would be here and put together a gig," Wray explains. "He'd call the others to see who could make it to town. We'd always try and fit it into our schedule."

Of course, the "early years" wouldn't be called that if the later years never came. Tillotson's fame took off. So did Curtis Stigers. Kassis teaches music and plays in the San Jose area. And, in another ironic twist of fate, Wray teaches English at Borah High School--where it all began. And he still has that second life--playing bass at night at various gigs around town.

The Young Jazz Lions aren't so young anymore; and Gene Harris' piano bench grows cold. But a few times a year, the Paul Tillotson Trio pulls together to play. It's something Wray looks forward to each time. "You know, the thing is, you never know what you're going to get with Paul," Wray says of the often quirky Tillotson. "It will be completely spontaneous, no set tunes, nothing like that. For me, that's what I love about improvisational music--it's 'let's just go and see where we end up tonight. See where it goes.'" Wray credits those early years playing together as the catalyst that keeps their current music so fresh. "Those hours and hours spent in Paul's basement, practicing together. We know what we're going to be doing, because we've put in that time, we've done the roadwork."

On Thursday, that roadwork pays off once again, as the Paul Tillotson Trio brings its sounds of the Christmas season to the Egyptian Theatre. Wray says to expect some standards but to be ready for anything. This year's theme is "Mele Kalikimaka"--Hawaiian for "Merry Christmas." Wray smiles. "The only song we know for sure we'll be doing is whatever song Paul starts with. After that, who knows?"

Paul Tillotson Trio plays Thursday, Dec. 16, 8 p.m., $15, at the Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St. For more info call 387-1273.