It's a hot, August afternoon in near downtown Kansas City. A small audience gathers around a large stage at the 15th annual 18th and Vine Jazz Heritage Festival to hear one of Kansas City's favorite sons, Claude "Fiddler" Williams. Compact and wiry, the 90-year-old jazz violinist takes the stage dressed in tan slacks and one of those hip collar-less shirts. Like a cat conserving its energy, he moves slowly, checking sound equipment, chatting with musicians and surveying the scenery facing North up Vine Street. Looking decades younger -- he turned 90 on February 22 -- his appearance belies the fact that he's practically as old as jazz itself.
Before performing, the violinist receives a city-initiated award for his life- long contribution to jazz. As the official reads the award, Williams listens intently, his head bowed and hands folded in front of his short, trim frame. He unassumingly and politely accepts the award. One gets the feeling that this shy man, within whom others see greatness, is either uncomfortable with public attention or just doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
Any quizzicality his lack of response generates is quickly dispelled with the first measure he plays. He pounces, playing with the vigor matching his youthful looks. Hunching over, Williams squeezes from his fiddle plangent melodies and rollicking riffs, stamping his foot and flashing an occasional smile of satisfaction. When he sings, his voice possesses a tinge of nasality wrapped around a relaxed, almost droll Southern, delivery.
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1908, he was exposed to the many territory bands that criss-crossed Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Joe Venuti was not only the first significant jazz violinist, but also the first violinist Williams heard. "Before him, I had been playing guitar, banjo and mandolin. My brother-in-law taught me how to play all those instruments. I heard Joe and told my mother that I wanted to play one of those things. What he was playing was so pretty. The next day I was playing it because I knew how to play a mandolin and all I had to do was learn how to use the bow. I got myself a good violin teacher because I didn't know anything about music. All my other playing was by ear."
Part of Williams's musical longevity is his style of playing, which he attributes to his training. "It's a little different because I knew a little more about chords and changes than the other violin players. They just knew how to read the melody and swing it. But by me knowing guitar, I played a lot of augmented and diminished changes, flat fifths and all that stuff," he explains casually.
After his sparkling performance, Fiddler strolls up Vine street, KC's former haven of lavish nightlife and now newly restored. Walking slowly amid renovated buildings -- some built for Robert Altman's recent film Kansas City -- the smell of barbeque fills the air. Donning a straw hat to protect him from the intense afternoon sun, Fiddler begins to chat about the current activity in the area. Most Kansas Citians are surprised when they actually see the progress made, but for Fiddler, who made this nine-block time capsule his stomping grounds from 1928-1933, it's a different feeling. He's seen both sides.
"I thought it was gone," he recalls in his soft-spoken, rural-tinged Oklahoma dialect. "I never did have (any) idea that they would try to bring it back. 'Course it never will be like it was, like the bar on the corner which never closes." He stops, points to what is now a parking lot and says, "There was a hotel there and" motioning behind him, "two clubs on the corner over there. We did a lot of jamming. There were two or three clubs on every block on 18th street and the same thing on 12th street."
In those days of battling bands, cutting contests and all night jam sessions, Fiddler had to keep up with monster saxophonists like Lester Young, Buddy Tate, Hershel Evans and Ben Webster. Despite the soft-sounding violin's inferior role in jazz history, he was the only violinist who could compete as an equal against the overpowering horns. "When Lester got with the Blue Devils, they'd find me and we'd have to have a good jam session," Fiddler recalls. Before amplification, the violinist was forced into making a statement the moment his bow hit a string. It's in this incubator of KC jamming that Fiddler developed his trademark style of first repeatedly attacking the strings, then gliding his way through a phrase.
Despite his fondness for recollections, Fiddler is not one to live life through the prism of nostalgia. At an age when most octogenarians prefer to live off their memories, Fiddler not only shows no signs of slowing down, he looks forward. "Claude has two things that a person his age usually doesn't: Curiosity and competitiveness," says Russ Dantzler, Williams's manager. "The most important statement I can pull out of him about what it is that allows him to be such a happy and healthy person at his age is 'Don't worry about nothing.' He releases stress like 95 percent of the world only wishes it could."
"I feel better now than I did fifty years ago" is Fiddler's common statement. Jazz writer Scott Yanow believes Fiddler is one of seven jazz musicians alive today who recorded in the 1920s and is still recording. He's just released his second recording in two years, "King of Kansas City," (Progressive Records), featuring all KC musicians: Guitarist Rod Fleeman, saxophonist Kim Park, bassist Bob Bowman, drummer Todd Strait and vocalists Karrin Allyson and Lisa Henry. His 1995 recording for the same label, "Swing Time In New York," included all New York musicians. Add to the collection the 1993 release of an important 1989 live concert, "Live at J's" (Arhoolie Records) and you have the full array of the Claude Williams catalog as a leader. In addition to his own recordings, his 1972 recording with Jay McShann, The Man from Muskogee, was reissued in 1994.
For the past few years, Williams has toured with the Statesmen of Jazz, a group of noted musicians 65 years and older launched in 1995 by the American Federation of Jazz Societies. Icons like Harry "Sweets" Edison, Louis Bellson and Al Grey are among the elite group.
"With the Statesmen, all of them are what'cha call seasoned musicians. They can call a song that we haven't played for 20 years," Fiddler says. Last year, the group recorded a tasty disc (1995, Arbors Records) and in September the ensemble traveled to Japan to make its international debut.
"Music is an incredible tonic of life," according to Matt Glaser, chair of the Strings Department at Boston's Berklee College of Music. "There is something about swinging that keeps people young. Fiddler Williams' playing keeps growing. He's always interested in new ideas and learning new tunes and trying out new ideas harmonically. That's an amazing thing because its very easy to just rest on your laurels and stay still. But his playing is constantly energized and growing."
Williams drinks in the tonic known as "swing," not with a desperate thirst, but with the matter-of-fact understanding of this is what his body and soul need. "Music changes a little every year. It's a different style, the longer you hold the note, that kind of stuff. It makes me feel good, so if that lengthens my life, that's wonderful," he reflects.
"Claude comes out of the real Kansas City tradition, having played with Count Basie, Lester Young and all those guys. You can hear that in his playing...that's really the life blood of jazz...and no other violin player has had the depth of jazz feeling that Claude does," explains Glaser. Wynton Marsalis, discussing the meaning of swing, once said that Fiddler "was someone who doesn't even try, he picks up his fiddle and the man can't help but swing."
>From his perspective, Williams believes he's developed a style that could be considered more focused and fluent than other jazz violinists. "I play the melody then play some of the changes along with the melody. [Younger musicians] play a whole lot of jazz stuff, which I say is over a whole lot of peoples ears, they don't know what they're listening to. Anytime I play a song, you'll hear some to the melody all the way through. That's my style."
Having grown up in northeast Oklahoma, Fiddler moved to Kansas City in 1927. His first recorded performance -- on violin and banjo -- came as a member of Andy Kirk's famed Twelve Clouds of Joy band. While with Kirk, Williams often embellished the horn arrangements written by Kirk's pianist Mary Lou Williams. It's not surprising then, that many jazz critics often describe Fiddler's approach as "horn-like."
Though well-received everywhere he goes today and considered influential in jazz violin, Claude Williams is far from a house-hold name -- even in his home town. Though not apparently resentful, a series of "circumstances" that happened more than fifty years ago may have set his fate in motion.
In the height of Kirk's success, Fiddler was forced to leave the band due to illness. He returned to Kansas City, recovered and then began touring with Alphonso Trent's group and George E. Lee's Orchestra -- a band that Williams says included a young Charlie Parker. Of "Bird," Fiddler says "I hate to tell people that I used to show Charlie how to play because they look at me kinda funny. But when he used to jam with us, he could read anything but he didn't have it together where he could go from a major to a minor. He would play some wrong changes and I'd have to take him off and show him the right chords. He appreciated that then."
A second misfortune occurred in 1936. Fiddler was tapped to play guitar for Count Basie's first big band, but politics and economics prevailed as he and others received their pink slips. "In those days it was Hammond's band because he gave Basie [the money] to get the band together; Hammond was calling all the shots. But Hammond had promised his New York musicians first chance with the band. I wasn't bitter because I knew it wasn't Basie that was doing that, it was John Hammond. They wanted somebody like [guitarist] Freddie Green to sit up there and play just rhythm...ching-ching-ching," something Williams says he ultimately didn't want to do.
"I said [to myself] there was a lot of good guitar players and the jazz violin players were kinda scarce so I'm just gonna play fiddle."
Fiddler moved back to Kansas City, started and played in bands all around the country -- but didn't record for more than 30 years. Although Fiddler wasn't part of the late 1960s violin wave that resurrected the late Stephane Grappelli's career and launched the likes of Jean-Luc Ponty and Michael Urbaniak, the 1972 recording with McShann brought him new found interest. According to manager Dantzler, that recording "helped put both (Claude and Jay) back on the map, where, outside of Kansas City, the world was beginning to forget them."
Furthermore, William's work in the 1980s Paris and Broadway musical "Black and Blue" also helped his stock rise. The long-running black revue created steady work until he came home to KC to care for his ailing wife, who eventually passed away. In part, Williams's new-found exposure is due to Dantzler. "He's the one keeping me jumping and working now," Fiddler says.
When not playing music, this quiet, laid-back man likes to play pool or attend shows with Blanche, his vibrant wife of six years and over 20 years his junior. "I feel I'm fulfilling my own dreams through Claude," she says. "He plays what I'm feeling and unable to express musically."
True beauty comes from taking complexity and forging something smooth and lyrical, something where the sweat of creativity is undetectable to the eyes and ears. It's Williams's combination of clarity, melodiousness and swing that brings to mind Art Blakey's famous line "that the average man doesn't want to have to use his brain when he listens to music. Music should wash away the dust of everyday life."
As Claude "Fiddler" Williams enters his ninetieth year, it seems his life has come full circle. With the new recordings and an active touring schedule, his popularity is again on the upswing.
"Ever seen the Mutual Musicians Foundation?" Williams asks, pointing to the site where many an all-night jam session saw the break of dawn. He enters the old building where he serves on the board of directors. A tight-sounding quartet of high schoolers jams hard. Just a few people are in there, happy to take respite from the heat. The walls are laden with old photographs with hand-printed titles protected by plastic wrap. Like Williams himself, jazz history is displayed unadorned, readily available for anyone caring to take the time to soak in the richness.
He listens attentively, takes a sip from his worn plastic travel coffee mug, and says matter-of-factly "Sound pretty good, don't they?" It's obvious that this man -- a person who has played with the greatest musicians in jazz history -- is still thrilled by the purest sound of all: Young kids learning to play jazz.
Michael J. Renner covers jazz for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Columbia Daily Tribune and Jazziz.
Claude "Fiddler" Williams Selected Discography
- As Leader:
- King Of Kansas City (Progressive Records, 1997)
- Swing Time In New York (Progressive Records, 1995)
- Live at J's, Volumes 1 & 2 (Arhoolie, 1993)
- Jive at Five: Claude Williams with the Frankfurt Swing All Stars (Bellaphon, 1989)
- Call For The Fiddler (SteepleChase, 1976. CD released 1994)
- Fiddler's Dream (Classic Jazz 135, 1980)
- Claude Williams' Kansas City Giants (Big Bear Records, Bear 25, 1980)
- With Others:
- The Lighting Bugs, Stretchin' Out (Buzz Music, 1996)
- Karrin Allyson, Azure-Te (Concord, 1995)
- Karrin Allyson, Collage (Concord, 1996)
- Statesmen of Jazz (American Federation of Jazz Societies, 1995)
- James Chirillo, You Have to Know How to Do That(Global Village, 1991)
- The Count at the Chatterbox (LP, Archives Recordings, 1974)
- Man From Muskogee with Jay McShann (Sackville, 1972, re-release 1994)
- Count Basie, The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP, 1992)
- Andy Kirk and his 12 Clouds of Joy (Brunswick, 1930 and Classics 655)
- On Compilations:
- Masters of the Folk Violin (Arhoolie, 1995)
- Eastwood After Hours (Malpaso/Warner Bros., 1997)
- Kansas City Joys (LP, Sonet, 1976)
- Black and Blue Soundtrack (DRG, 1989)
- The Blues. . A Real Summit Meeting (Buddah Records, 1973)