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Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood located on the West Side of Manhattan in New York City, has been home to legendary jazz drummer Billy Kaye for many years. But Kaye’s journey in life began in Wilson in 1932. On Church Street, to be exact.
“I was born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson, and I remember going to elementary school there,” Kaye said. “My family moved to Philly, but I came back to Wilson every summer to see my aunt.”
Kaye will be back in Wilson for the first time in many years on June 6 and 7 for both a jazz concert and a public listening session. The North Carolina Arts Council, the Arts Council of Wilson and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park will present The Jazz Revival Project concert on Thursday, June 7, at the park from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The concert takes place at Whirligig Park and is free and open to the public.
The Jazz Revival Project is a new program that celebrates Wilson’s jazz heritage and inclusion in the North Carolina Arts Council’s program The African American Musical Trail of Eastern North Carolina. The project boasts a website and a guide book, leading visitors through the music traditions, musicians, venues, landmarks and even culinary delights found in an eight-county region in eastern North Carolina.
Joining Kaye for the June 7 concert will be jazz organist Clarence Palmer and North Carolina musicians Eric Dawson and Brian Miller, both on saxophone.
Dawson worked with the Arts Council of Wayne County for several years on the Wayne County Jazz Showcase, bringing Kaye back to North Carolina to perform there in 2016. He was approached by the North Carolina Arts Council about working on programming for the African American Music Trail and organized both the Wilson events and a June 1 event in Kinston.
“We wanted to do two shows in two of the counties represented in the African American Music Trail,” Dawson said. “There are so many talented musicians from North Carolina, especially from the jazz world, who left and traveled all over the world.”
“We also wanted to showcase older generations of musicians playing with younger generations,” Dawson added.
Wednesday, June 6, will find Kaye at 217 Brew Works for “Coming Home: A Conversation with Billy Kaye.” Kaye will discuss his journey through the world of music and answer questions from the audience. The event will run from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Kaye learned to play drums while in the U.S. Air Force and went on to perform with music legends such as Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Lou Donaldson and George Benson.
Kaye joined the Lou Donaldson organ group in 1967 and played with them for more than 20 years, recording and touring Europe. He also played and recorded with Hank Crawford and Stanley Turrentine, and spent nearly two years with the Thelonius Monk Quartet.
In the 1980s, Kaye began composing and formed his own group. He was the featured drummer for jazz workshops at the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival in 1989.
At 85, Kaye has no plans to slow down.
“I don’t have time to miss anything, and I have too much to do,” Kaye said last month. “In fact, I played two gigs last night and got home at 4 a.m.”
Kaye enjoys sharing his knowledge and talents through performances, as a music educator in the New York City public school systems and even at nursing homes.
Kaye has passed through eastern North Carolina to see relatives and play jazz festivals in the area but has never actually played in Wilson.
“I am definitely looking forward to playing in Wilson and have alerted the relatives that I’ll be on my way,” Kay said.