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Veteran jazz violinist and guitaristby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Legendary jazz violinist Claude "Fiddler" Williams died on Sunday, April 25, 2004, in Kansas City after a prolonged bout with pneumonia. He was 96 years old, and the last surviving jazz musician to have recorded prior to 1930.
Williams studied mandolin, banjo and guitar in his youth, and by the age of ten he was playing for change at local barber shops and other spots. As a teenager he was inspired to buy a fiddle after seeing (through a gap in the fence) the great Joe Venuti perform in Muskogee. From then on the violin and guitar were his principal instruments, and he gained particular renown as a unique fiddler who utilized authentic black blues elements in his playing.
In 1927 Williams moved to Kansas City, jumping into the city's hot swing community. He began working that year with Terrence Holder's band, which was taken over by pianist Andy Kirk and renamed the Twelve Clouds of Joy. Williams played and recorded with the popular group until 1936, when he joined William "Count" Basie's first band on violin and guitar. He also recorded with tenorman Lester Young in the mid-1930s.
Williams went to New York with the Basie band in 1937, but promoter John Hammond disliked the violin and didn't think Williams' guitar playing was up to snuff. He left the band and was replaced by Freddie Green. Williams moved around the country as a freelance artist but did not gain further renown until 1950, when he joined a hot Los Angeles R&B band, Roy Milton's Solid Senders. Williams stuck with the band for two years before returning to Kansas City.
For the next twenty years he mostly labored as a guitarist in obscure R&B groups around the city. It was pianist Jay McShann who brought Williams back into the spotlight in 1972. The two teamed up on The Man from Muskogee (1972, Sackville) which brought the fiddler a new audience. They continued their partnership throughout the 70s, touring Europe and America to wide acclaim. Williams' own 1976 album, Call for the Fiddler (Steeplechase), further cemented his reputation as a beloved jazz veteran.
Williams continued to find work wherever he went. In 1981 he worked in the Parisian stage production "Black and Blue", and in 1989 he participated in a touring show entitled "Masters of the Folk Violin". In the 90s Williams led a trio and worked with the Statesmen of Jazz, a sort of all-star collective, as well as recording with Karrin Allyson, Pee Wee Crayton and pianist Red Richards. When Robert Altman filmed Kansas City he called on Williams as an advisor. The fiddler cut his last album, Swingin' the Blues (Bullseye Blues), in 2002 and stayed active until his retirement in December 2003.
Claude "Fiddler" Williams is survived by his wife, Blanche, one son, and four stepsons.^ Top
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.