Despite his lack of recorded output, for those who knew him, Cowboy Bill is one of the unsung heroes of modern jazz. 

The story goes that Bill was the seventh son of a barrelhouse piano player who supported his clan by playing for dances and gatherings at VFW halls across the land. As he came of age in the post depression era, Bill often traveled with his father’s swinging sextet and was soon sucked into the mystique and passion of improvised music. During his Down Time he learned to play each of the instruments in the ensemble, copping all of the stylistic intricacies he heard night after night on the bandstand. After a while, playing alto saxophone, he joined the older musicians and even contributed several strikingly original tunes to the band’s book. 

Right from the start his technical skills were prodigious and it is said that his tone was so compelling that women would swoon after his first Delicately played notes. But, even with his inherent natural abilities, Bill was always trying to perfect his craft. When everyone was asleep on the bus he would climb on top of the moving vehicle and play for hours into the night using the stars and planets as guides to shape his melodic ideas. 

It was during one of these extended practice sessions that he was given the name “Cowboy” by an old Sioux Medicine Man. As the band pulled into a dusty roadside gas station somewhere in North Dakota the Dark Sage caught sight of Bill and slowly intoned, “You sound just like a cow, boy!” The rest of the band thought this was hilarious and the nickname stuck. 

As the band traveled through the Midwest territories Bill would often seek out local saxophone celebrities for ideas and advice. Lester Young admired Bill’s tone but told him he should lose the heavy vibrato and develop his lyrical nature. Ben Webster thought Bill should add a few more bends and slurs to his arsenal of inflections. A very young Charles Christopher Parker came many times to check out the groove that the Cowboy was laying down and was later inspired to pick up the alto himself. 

With the quickening pace of the band’s road engagements, it wasn’t long before Bill’s talents caught the attention of record producer, Hamlet Martin. Listening to the radio in Cincinnati, Martin heard the band on a midnight broadcast from Saint Paul and was greatly impressed with the young saxophone sensation. As Ham himself said, “On the radio, there was Nowhere To Hide and I knew I had to try to document these fantastic new sounds.” The intrepid entrepreneur quickly met with Bill and before long had hammered out a substantial (and amazingly equitable) recording contract. 

No one could have anticipated what happened next as the first session at a Nashville studio got under way. With quiet anticipation, Bill was directed to a small padded sound booth so that his golden tone might be better isolated. When the door closed and he played his first notes into the dead sounding room a wave of claustrophobia swept over him. It was Too Close For Comfort in that unforgiving environment and he knew that real music could never happen there. Silently, without any Second Thoughts he packed up his horn and left the studio. He caught the first train west and was never seen or heard from again. 

Some folks say that Bill lost his nerve that day. Some say he just didn’t want to try to record the music that he loved in such a sterile environment. The real truth is he left looking for more Open Space and a lifestyle of freedom. 

Today, even though he never recorded a note, his fame has spread far and wide. In the slow hot days of summer, as dusk falls over the lonesome prairie, many people claim that, off in the distance, they can still hear the Cowboy practicing soft and low.