William Marcel Collette was born in Los Angeles on August 6, 1921. He was raised in Watts, surrounded by people of all different ethnicities. He lived in a house built by his father in an area with cheap, plentiful land.
In 1949, he was the only black member of the band for You Bet Your Life, a TV and radio show hosted by Groucho Marx. In the 1950s, he worked as a studio musician with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and Nelson Riddle.
In 1955 he was a founding member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, playing chamber jazz flute with guitarist Jim Hall, cellist Fred Katz, and bassist Carson Smith. He also taught, and his students included Mingus, James Newton, Eric Dolphy, Charles Lloyd, and Frank Morgan. He helped merge an all-black musicians’ union with an all-white musicians’ union.