Of all the jazzmen named Bill Graham who are not related to either the Fillmore East promoter or the minister of the same name, the reed player from Kansas City is the one with the lengthiest career and most humongous pile of sides to his credit. He is also an unwanted man to bebop snobs who detest the commercial novelty side of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's career following his split with sidekick Charlie Parker. Along with bizarre singer Joe Carroll, Bill Graham was a recognizable feature in many of these Gillespie bands. His sermons came burbling from a baritone sax; he also wrote "Oh-Sho-Be-Do-Be," a tune printed on many a Gillespie set list and something like the peak of Mount Insipid to people who don't like this sort of thing.
Graham's career should hardly be scaled down to this one ditty, however. He played with both the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands and furthermore had an incredible career in R&B, playing short but brilliant improvisations on records by Little Willie John, Joe Williams, and the endlessly entertaining Wynonie Harris. Kansas City can claim many players of this caliber or better, but Graham actually grew up in Denver, where he led a combo of his own whose members included fellow reed player Paul Quinichette. Graham studied formally at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, joined the army in the mid-'40s and then briefly rejoined the student life at Missouri's Lincoln University.
Soon began a series of big and small reed section jobs leading up to the Gillespie relationship, Graham choosing between alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. Among his early employers were Basie, Lucky Millinder, and Erskine Hawkins. Graham stayed with Gillespie for seven years beginning in 1946, then formed a group of his own that occupied a New York club stage for two years straight. In the late '50s Graham rejoined Basie as well as working with both Duke Ellington and Mercer Ellington. Graham's name is not one that usually drops out immediately when reed players associated with Ellington are under discussion; suffice to say his job was to play all of Johnny Hodges' parts during a period when that star soloist had gone off on his own. Likewise, Graham's relationship with the Duke's son Mercer Ellington took place during a flight from the nest, the father allowing the son access to certain sidemen only. Following retirement from life on the road Graham became a public school teacher in New York City.