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magazine home > archives > winter 2003 > features

Unleashing the unexpected has always been the game of this University of Memphis alumnus. As one of the top pianists in the world, James Williams has taken jazz to the edge and back — all in the name of a good time.

All Jazzed Up
by Greg Russell

 
James Williams
Photo by Jimmy Katz
 

Aside from playing and composing music, Williams started a production company in 1993 to lift up and build upon the work of Phineas Newborn Jr., another great Memphis pianist.

Three people had already mentioned to me that this would be a night to remember, and that was before I had even entered the club at 116 East 27th Street in New York City.

"You are in for some cool, cool fun tonight," club manager Selby Ham had told me earlier in the day, by phone.

"This will be a real treat for you tonight," a burly bouncer said at the door.

"I think you'll be impressed," one of my co-workers remarked.

What I was about to partake in was an evening of some of the finest jazz in the world, offered up by an internationally known pianist with University of Memphis roots.

James Williams (BSEd '74), an artist who has headlined from Tokyo to London, a producer who has crafted the work of Phineas Newborn Jr., a performer who has showcased his own recordings at the Lincoln Center, was on the bill this night at the Jazz Standard in the heart of Manhattan. He would not disappoint.

Injecting a blend of bebop and gospel that has become his trademark, Williams delivered an eloquent evening of swing, courtesy of composer Hank Mobley. With tenor sax Eric Alexander, Don Sickler on trumpet, Peter Washington on bass and Billy Drummond on drums, Williams showed why he is indeed one of the world's foremost jazz pianists.

"All winners, no dogs"

Williams is trying to gather himself. It is 7:45 a.m. on a cool, early-fall day in New York City. He stumbles a bit until he clears the early-morning cobwebs from his head.

"What I play is feel-good music," Williams says. "Some of it is simple; some of it is complex, but it is all about having a good time. I don't want you to feel like you are at a funeral."

Williams' career has been all about versatility — his dozens of recordings reach from classical to contemporary. One night, gospel might be on the menu, while the next might find Williams working in a Bach-inspired session.

"He is very inventive — he picks up all these ideas from other people and puts them together," says Marian McPartland, who has hosted National Public Radio's "Piano Jazz" for 24 years. "I have known James since he was 17 years of age, and he has made the most of his talent. He has become very much a leader of jazz."

Adds U of M music professor Jack Cooper, "He is right out of the gospel church and bebop tradition he grew up with. Due to his study of classical piano, he has overwhelming range on the piano — he can do about anything you can think of."

Williams has done about every style imaginable on the keyboard. Recordings such as Arioso, Black Scholars and others offer memorable melodies and snappy rhythmic construction. His 2000 release, Classic Encounters!, features the loping, gospel-flavored "Come Rain or Come Shine."

Williams' range is evidenced in his recordings. A listener might find traditional piano-bass-drum trios, soul-influenced solos, a unique four-piano format with rhythm section or a jazz trio with the Boys Choir of Harlem.

Though wide in range, his recordings all have one thing in common: quality. "Most jazz leaders cough up a dog album every now and then, but the smooth, steady Williams continues to deliver nothing but winners," says music critic Bob McCullough.

Williams says his wide repertoire is a result of what he terms his "early training."

"I grew up listening to all this great music on the radio," he says. "I never discerned the different styles of music I was hearing — I didn't put it into categories. Ray Charles, Sly and the Family Stone, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye — those were some of the musicians I was hearing on the radio. I would try to emulate what they were playing."

Williams
Photo by Jimmy Katz
Williams still actively listens to and studies other musicians — among his favorites are Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk.

Williams' start in music came at Eastern Star Baptist Church in Memphis where, as a teenager, he was organist. He played in the concert band at Central High School before traversing an early "rocky road" at The U of M.

"When I first came to The U of M, I didn't make the band," Williams recalls. "It was like a wake-up call. I realized I had some work to do. I used that as an incentive."

Williams applied his talent and quickly established himself as one of the regions top pianists. Before leaving the University, he would play in three jazz ensembles, a jazz combo, the marching band and the pep band.

"James is known to the outside world as one of three great pianists that have come out of here in the past 30 years — the other two being Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown," says Cooper. "He is still an inspiration to many of the young players here."

Williams says the music faculty and his classes at The U of M had an important influence on his life.

"There were so many wonderful teachers," he says. "Daniel Fletcher, James Gholson, Jim Richens, Russell Pugh, James Simmons — there are too many to name. And the education I received at the school was very broad."

McPartland, considered a jazz legend in her own right, says Williams' talent surfaced when he was still
a teenager.

"I first met James at a jazz camp in Normal, Ill.," McPartland says. "I was there as a faculty member, and I was supposed to give him some lessons. But he was already so talented, we just played together."

Williams' biggest break in the music industry may have come in 1974 at age 22, when he moved to Boston to work as a music teacher at the Berklee College of Music. "That put me in the position to hear so many great people, and it got me closer to New York," Williams says.

In Boston, Williams would record his own first album and most importantly, would meet Art Blakey. Joining Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1977, Williams embarked on a four-year, 10-album stint with the group that then featured Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, Billy Pierce and Charles Fambrough. During this period, Williams became established as one of the world's great jazz pianists.

"On stage, I take no prisoners," Williams says. "I try to rise to the occasion — you learn to be in the moment.

"A good jazz pianist is someone who can listen and react," he continues. "When I am playing with a group, I see my role similar to that of a point guard on a basketball team. The pianist has to make the group sound like a unit."

While music is Williams' passion, education is not far behind. He has served as artist-in-residence at Eastern Illinois University, Cornish College, the New England Conservatory, Dartmouth College and Harvard University.

As the director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., Williams enlightens young musicians with a thorough knowledge of jazz, as well as with his own experiences.

"I tell my students, 'Never give up on yourself,'" Williams says, recalling his first year at The U of M.
"I could have believed I didn't have the talent and just dropped off the scene."

It is important, Williams says, for young musicians to understand the roots of jazz. "We all stand on the shoulders of a lot of people," he says.

The U of M has honored Williams twice. In 1981, he received the Music Alumni Achievement Award. Two years ago, he received the Distinguished Achievement Award in the Creative and Performing Arts. This honor, the highest the University presents in the area of creative and performing arts, has been bestowed upon B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Isaac Hays, Rufus Thomas and Carroll Cloar, among others.

Despite his many honors and accolades, "the music is the real star," Williams says. "We try to bring together all the ingredients of the musical diet without the junk food. What we play is real and nourishing.

"My music is a composite of my personality," he says. "And I am just trying to have a good time."

For more on James Williams, visit his Web site at www.jazzcorner.com/jameswilliams

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