REMEMBERING BILLY ROSS

Remembering Billy Ross, Australian master drummer
 
A true legend of Australian music, larger than life drummer, Billy Ross, died last weekend in hospital in South Australia. Aside from my great sadness today, there will be many jazz musicians and music fans feeling the loss deeply, such was his influence over a long and wide ranging career in professional music.
Finding that a Google search reveals almost no trace of his work, is a shock to me, and though I can't address that void right now, I want to make a personal tribute here.
His career in music was not confined to jazz as he worked right across the gamut of studio, radio, TV bands playing with an astonishing array of talent, however he was primarily a jazz musician to the core. 
His career was always based in South Australia, though he moved to different places to work quite often, including a time in Melbourne at the Embers night club in the early 1960s, where he shared the stage with Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, and accompanied Helen Humes, Jackie and Roy, Buddy Rich (yes, Buddy featured as vocalist with Billy on drums!) and countless others. He regarded this as his greatest education as the seasons ran for weeks at a time and exposed him to the highest level of musicianship and raised his expectations of future collaborations.
Over later years he made numerous forays to other states and I remember a well known Sydney musician saying that wherever Billy arrived, all the other drummers had to move one step down the ladder! Right up to the 1990s he made frequent trips to base himself in Sydney for months at a time, but always returned to Adelaide where generations of musicians and fans loved his work. He was sought after by younger players such as George Grifsas, and often found himself on stage with players 40 or 50 years younger, eager to experience his boundless talents.
Personally, I remember seeing him play with all the best jazz musicians when I first got interested in jazz in the early 1970s, Shmoe, Dave Colton, Graham Conlon, Freddie Payne, Bob Jeffery, Ted Nettelbeck, Marlene Richards, and all the visiting international artists too, as he was always the first call.
When eventually, I first came to play my first gig with him, I was nervous as his reputation could be scary for a newbie. But he made me feel instantly at ease and his dynamic swing and groove was an instant inspiration to me, as if suddenly I could really play. An illusion, perhaps, but it always stayed with me, to this day, the feeling of always being there 100%, right on the money every time you play music.
Cutting to the relevance to the Janet Seidel Trio FB page, working with Billy became important for Janet as well when her new Trio included Billy and I, and several years of successful work ensued at the Gateway Hotel in Adelaide. His enthusiasm and experience made all the difference to us and his input to the music was a game changer.
A look through Janet's 18 CDs will show Billy Ross in the personnel of many of the titles - as many as we could possibly entice him to record! Right from the first tracks we recorded in Sydney in 1990, Billy was there along with Bob Gebert, who also had a strong history with Billy from their days in Adelaide. And he toured as well as recording, forging musical and personal ties with Chuck Morgan, Tom Baker, Ben Jones and Kevin Hunt in no short order.
Aside from his huge musical presence on the band stand, his keen and discerning ear for music was equally matched by his legendary facility for story telling. He had an acute eye for observation paired with descriptive language that melded into hilarious and acerbic tales that had his audience rolling on the floor, begging for more and saving them for future recall. Though his loving wife Sylvia would always say "Billy, you do exaggerate....." she revelled in the repartee as much as the rest of us. They made a great double act and their seaside home in SA contains a treasure trove of posters, photos and records of his illustrious past. 
There was a time a few years ago when the producers of ABC TV documentary Australian Story approached him about participating in a segment. He always shied from self publicity and didn't express great enthusiasm for the idea, but it would have made a worthy tribute to one of Australia's real characters.... We can only imagine that now.
Anyone who knew Billy Ross would surely never forget him.
David Seidel
May 9th 2016, Bristol, UK