Bill Ramsay (1929-2024)


Bill Ramsay photo courtesy of the Ramsay family


The Northwest jazz community lost a giant March 2, when multi-reed man Bill Ramsay passed. He was 95. A founding member of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO), alum of the Count Basie Orchestra, longtime mentor at Jazz Port Towsend, and 1997 inductee to the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame, Ramsay was known to friends as “Rams.” Over several decades, he led numerous groups in the Seattle area, including the Ramsay-Kleeb Band, Tenor Dynasty, and Los Altos.

Ramsay had not been seriously ill, said his wife of 73 years, Frankie Ramsay, but recent bouts of pneumonia and COVID suddenly ended his life.

“It was a shock,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “We were not expecting his passing at all.”

In 1995, Michael Brockman hand-picked Ramsay as the first baritone saxophonist in the SRJO. He played with the band until 2017.

“He was every bit as present in the sound of our sax section as Harry Carney was with Duke Ellington,” recalled Brockman. “He was always the person we turned to, to check on tempos and style, especially the stuff from the Basie band.”

Born in Centralia, in 1929, Ramsay started on clarinet and started gigging on tenor saxophone as a teenager at Woody’s Nook. In his early years, he counted Chehalis sax man Bill Fahey, Tacoma tenor prodigy Corky Corcoran, and South Sound compatriot Chuck Stentz as influences. All had the robust, swashbuckling, Ben Webster-like sound Ramsay himself projected.

From 1948-1952, Ramsay played in an Army band, mostly at nearby Fort Lewis, where he befriended fellow serviceman, reed player Eric Dolphy.

“Eric and I used to play out at Ping’s Gardens (in Tacoma),” recalled Ramsay in a 1989 interview. “He was the first horn player I think I ever played with that was playing ‘outside.’ He played excellent clarinet. Sometimes, we rehearsed a little legit woodwind group.”

After the Army, Ramsay played on the hopping jazz scene along Tacoma’s Pacific Avenue, working at clubs such as Pirate’s Cove, New Yorker, Congo Café, and 1306, supplementing his nocturnal income with a day job, driving truck for the Tacoma-based food company, Nalley’s. In 1958, Ramsay assembled a local all-star band featuring, among others, Corcoran and Bob Winn (tenor saxophone), Jerome Gray (piano), Chuck Metcalf (bass), Bill Richardson (drums), and Gerald Brashear (congas). In the early ‘60s, Ramsay also played alto saxophone with Buddy Morrow.

After seven years in Yakima as a sales manager for another food company, Ramsay embraced a full-time music career in the Puget Sound. Starting in 1971, he contracted bands for shows at the Washington Plaza Hotel (now the Westin) and The Edgewater Hotel, accompanying stars such as Billy Eckstine, Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Vic Damone and others. During this time, Ramsay also toured with Benny Goodman but his dream job came in 1984 when Count Basie called. Ramsay played baritone sax for the band for almost two years.

Ramsay later formed a distinctive, 10-piece group with fellow saxophonist and arranger Milt Kleeb, whose arrangements have been kept alive by trumpeter/saxophonist Jay Thomas.

“Bill Ramsay could swing like crazy,” recalled Thomas. “He won’t be replaced. He was a natural leader.”

Ramsay can be heard on recordings by Thomas, the Ramsay-Kleeb Band, Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, Frank Wess, Bud Shank, Gene Harris, Pete Christlieb and many others. 

Ramsay is survived by his wife, Frankie; daughter, Jane; and grandson, Max Marcus. At this time, no memorial has been planned.



Posted on

March 26, 2024