Obituary: Bill Kyle, club owner and drummer who was a lynchpin of the Scottish jazz scene

Bill Kyle: club owner, drummer and businessman, Born: Dunfermline, 9 April, 1946. Died: Edinburgh, 31 October 2016, aged 70.
Bill Kyle has died at the age of 70. Picture: Bill HenryBill Kyle has died at the age of 70. Picture: Bill Henry
Bill Kyle has died at the age of 70. Picture: Bill Henry

The depth of love felt for Bill Kyle across Scotland’s jazz community was matched only by the breadth of his contribution to it. To a younger generation of performers he was the proprietor of the Jazz Bar on Edinburgh’s Chambers Street and before it the Bridge Jazz Bar on the city’s South Bridge. Far from being a hands-off manager, he was a familiar presence in both; seated at the end of the bar from opening until the wee small hours, listening intently to the many local and international bands which crossed the stage, and often joining in on drums.

Both of the kits used at the Jazz Bar were Bill’s own, and he wasn’t precious, actively encouraging their use. Encouragement, in fact, seems to have been in his DNA, and one of the key points which anyone who knew him makes is how committed Bill was to discovering and encouraging new talent. He had links to the music course at Edinburgh Napier University, allowing students to perform and sit tests in the Jazz Bar, and he was an early champion of the work of Tommy Smith, the Scots saxophonist, Scottish National Jazz Orchestra founder, and now head of the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow.

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As a young musician himself in the 1970s, Bill was a founder member of the Scottish jazz fusion group Head, which toured the UK, won the 1971 Dunkirk Jazz Festival and appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz in Britain. In the same decade, he helped found the touring network Platform, creating opportunities for local and international jazz artists to play across Scotland. It was the first such promoter of its kind in the country, and the acknowledged root of the many jazz festivals active in Scotland at the moment.

Over the next two decades music took a relative back seat in Bill’s life as he forged a career in IT, first with IBM and then with his own successful technical training business, yet it never went far. He continued to play in many groups, most notably in the Kyle-Keddie Sextet alongside trombonist Brian Keddie, and during the 1990s in Edinburgh’s basement hangout Cellar No.1 – the future Jazz Bar.

William Kyle was born in Dunfermline on 9 April 1946, to parents Joseph and Jean. His brother Jim Kyle was one of Scotland’s finest tenor saxophone players until his sudden death in 1988; that year’s inaugural Dunfermline Jazz Festival (a precursor to the current Fife Jazz Festival) was held in his honour. Bill’s sister Dalene (who married Jim Radin and settled in Perth) was a nurse who sang and played the organ until she died in December 2014.

Friends from throughout Bill’s life say he had a dry sense of humour; but that he was a typical Fifer, says one, in that he didn’t give much away. Even fellow members of Head didn’t know much about his early years, but he shared tales with bassist Graham Robb on long drives home from shows; Bill was contemporaries of and friends with the future members of the Dunfermline rock band Nazareth, and he played on the same stage as them at Burntisland Palais and elsewhere. As a young man he played rock, but Bill’s greatest influences were Miles Davis’ drummer Tony Williams, as well as greats like Davis himself and John Coltrane.

As all tell it, Bill left school at 16 to work for Ferranti, and he did so well that the company sponsored his engineering studies at Strathclyde University in his mid-20s. In Glasgow Bill met the other founder members of Head, including Robb, John Davies, Charles Alexander and Howard Copland (Lachlan McColl and Gordon Cruickshank joined later), and McColl remembers that Bill had a van ‘named’ Agnes with a Musician’s Union ‘Keep Music Live’ sticker adapted to say ‘Keep Music Evil’. He was deeply enthusiastic about music, always one of the first to offer to play at parties.

After graduation Bill took a job at the new IBM plant in Greenock, moving there for a time and subsequently being taken by the company to New York for a year (where, incredibly, he engaged Tony Williams for drum tuition) and Guildford in Surrey for half a decade.

Yet friends say he was always planning a means of escape, a way to become his own boss, and he managed it when he returned to Edinburgh and started his own successful IT training company. The end of that business in the late 1990s was the catalyst for another, when Bill opened the Bridge Jazz Bar in 2002. It was a bustling, successful venture for seven months, until it was destroyed in the Cowgate fire of the same year; with sad irony, the same night Bill and his old Head colleagues were scheduled to play a tribute show for the late Cruickshank. Taking over the programming of the 80 Queen Street venue, Bill bounced back from the huge financial blow of losing the Bridge with the help of sympathetic donors, and the Jazz Bar opened in the space vacated by the old Cellar No.1 in 2005.

Friends and colleagues speak of Bill’s passion for drumming, which he did with huge enthusiasm, and his incredibly astute head for business and organisation. Although his touring jazz company Bridge Music (also formed in 2002) received public funds, the Jazz Bar never did, and a nightly roster of three or four gigs, including rock and funk shows, helped subsidise his beloved jazz bands and offered a stage to a huge number of young musicians from Edinburgh and elsewhere.

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Bill Kyle died unexpectedly of a heart attack in Edinburgh, where he lived with his family. He is survived by his second wife Mary Anne, the couple’s children Andrew, Lewis and Edith, and a generation of jazz players who owe their opportunities and entire careers to his vision.

Aspiring musicians weren’t expected to pay to get into the Jazz Bar, and Bill could be heard bemoaning the fact that not enough of them took advantage of that opportunity. For him music was a social enterprise, and the best way to learn was to enjoy the company and the playing of fellow musicians.