Saxophonist Tommy Wills, who has been toting his tenor sax around Indianapolis nightclubs for over 50 years, will celebrate his 85th birthday with shows this weekend at the Jazz Kitchen. Nicknamed the "Man With A Horn," Wills is still active and enterprising; his weekend-long birthday party, which will feature performances by his own big band, also functions as a CD release for his new album.
Wills has been leading a big band since he was 18 years old, when he formed a 15-piece version in his hometown of Middletown, Ohio. "I recall I was the oldest member in the band and we could only play on weekends because half of my band was still in high school," Wills says. "We played a summer resort in Ohio with two ballrooms. My band was in one and the Stan Kenton Orchestra the other."
In the '40s, Wills often played with his big band in Indy. "After the gigs I would pack my horn and head to Indiana Avenue to sit in. Pookie Johnson was playing; I met Jimmy Coe there."
Wills' big band played with some regularity at the Rathskeller in the '70s, with Frank Glover in the first alto sax chair.
Over the years, Wills has most often performed in a jazz or R&B trio format. "I used to play off and on at the Hub Bub on West 30th Street with the trio," Wills says. "Wes Montgomery was there on a Saturday afternoon with me in a jam session."
Wills, who has recorded seven vinyl albums and five CDs, had his biggest success with the tune that gave him his name, the 1963 single "Man With A Horn." "It sold a half a million 45s worldwide," he says.
Aside from his activities as bandleader, Wills has published the bi-weekly Indiana Weekender
newspaper for over two decades. In 2003, he produced a television show, Swinging Bandstand,
which featured his big band and audience dancers and was carried on three local low-powered television stations.
Wills' big band will perform Friday, Aug. 7 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.; tickets are $12. Saturday, Aug. 8, Wills will host a jam session at the Kitchen from 1-5 p.m. that will feature musicians who have performed in his groups through the years.