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Pianist, educator and producerby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Pianist James Williams, whose distinguished career began in Memphis in the early 1970s, died of liver cancer on July 20, 2004, at the age of fifty-three.
Williams was born in Memphis and grew up listening to the soul sounds of Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and King Curtis. He took up the piano at age thirteen and played organ at his local Baptist church for several years. Phineas Newborn, Jr., a hometown hero of sorts, was one of Williams' primary influences when it came to jazz piano.
In 1972 Williams graduated from Memphis State University, where his fellow piano students included Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown. He immersed himself in the city's jazz community, performing with Frank Strozier, Jamil Nasser, George Coleman, Harold Mabern, Jr., and other local greats. This experience helped to hone the deep blues and gospel content of his playing.
In 1973 Williams was hired as a professor at Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts. In the Boston area he often worked with drummer Alan Dawson's band, backing visiting artists like Arnett Cobb, Red Norvo, Art Farmer, Sonny Stitt and Milt Jackson. In '77 he made his first album as a leader (Flying Colors, Zim) and met Art Blakey, who talked him into resigning from Berklee and hitting the road. Williams spent the next four years as pianist of the Jazz Messengers, backing up the young front line of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and altoman Bobby Watson.
Williams left the Messengers in 1981 and stayed in Boston, working with Dawson, Chet Baker, Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, Benny Carter and Thad Jones. In 1984 he relocated to New York City and fell in with the greats: Farmer again, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Tom Harrell, Bobby Hutcherson, Ray Brown, Tony Williams, Kenny Burrell, George Duvivier, Elvin Jones. He recorded with Dianne Reeves and the Boys Choir of Harlem and led several groups including Progress Report, the Magical Trio, and the gospel-jazz band Intensive Care Unit. He was a guest of Branford Marsalis on The Tonight Show, played in the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and Contemporary Piano Ensemble, recorded at Maybeck Recital Hall, and appeared on "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz" on NPR three times.
His production credits included albums for Newborn, Mabern, Brown, Geoff Keezer, Billy Pierce, Tony Reedus, and his own recordings beginning with Alter Ego (Sunnyside, 1984). He taught under Jackie McLean at Hartt School of Music in 1985-'86, and in 1999 became Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. Williams conducted clinics and workshops all across the U.S. and London and held residencies at Eastern Illinois University, Cornish College, the New England Conservatory, Dartmouth and Harvard. Barely a month before his passing, Williams had given an inspiring performance at the newly reopened Twins Lounge in New York City.
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.