Bishop Norman Williams: Swinging from Kansas City to San Francisco

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Every time Bishop steps up to play he has a new angle atop his unmistakable sound, some fragment of a classical piece worked into a minor vamp, or new melody entirely, straight from Kansas City.
Meeting saxophonist extraordinaire "Bishop" Norman Williams in the early '90's, and sitting in on guitar at his jam session with local legend B.J. Papa on piano at North Beach's Gathering Café which closed in the late '90's, I was first taken by his extraordinarily swinging melodies—here's a seasoned Kansas City be-bop player with a boundless ability to improvise—and then by his humble and magically mystifying nature, the impish gleam in his eyes, and the understated depth of his passion that imbues his playing. Indeed, it seems as if everyone who has met Bishop has some sort of story to tell about him. Having gotten to know him, what now strikes me the most about Bishop is his unswerving dedication to music: he is here to play his horn. "Woodshedding," or locking himself away to practice, every day without fail, he lives in a world of sound, writing multiple compositions daily, the scribbled scored piled everywhere in his Nob Hill studio and filling entire file cabinets.

From his studio's walls hang posters of him playing with Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, clippings from the Church of John Coltrane, the North Beach Jazz Festival, and a postcard of Theloniuous Monk. There is a legend in the house that has played with the greats: Max Roach, Sonny Stitts, John Handy, Pharaoh Sanders, George Coleman, Freddie Hubbard! Bishop's bop contains a lifetime of movement and progression, an endless reassessment of the now, playing and building, upon Parker, upon Ornette Coleman, upon Schonberg, incorporating everything that he finds melodic or harmonic or rhythmic. Every time Bishop steps up to play he has a new angle atop his unmistakable sound, some fragment of a classical piece worked into a minor vamp, or a new melody entirely, straight from Kansas City.

Once he came to my apartment to shed, or practice some songs for a recording we did in 1997. He noticed one of my business cards on my table and I told them that I had ordered them through a free service and offered to order some for him. "How long will it take?" He asked. "Just a couple of minutes online," I assured him. His sax was already strung around his neck and he looked unsure of whether he could sit through the sentence before diving into a solo. I filled out the order form and asked him what picture he wanted, a lighthouse being the first choice among many.

"Give me the lighthouse," he demanded and started playing.

"Are you sure you want a lighthouse?" I asked, reminding him that they offered musical themes.

"Give me the damn lighthouse!" Bishop was already into a solo, his mind completely focused on producing new themes and melodic variations, and surely the business cards that I had ordered for him were long gone his thoughts. I laughed to myself about the fact that his cards would have a lighthouse of all things on them, and then I thought to myself while beholding this humble prodigy and teacher, selflessly a selfless servant to his music, "the lighthouse makes perfect sense." Bishop is indeed a lighthouse for young and old musicians alike and you never know who is going to come play with his quartet at his performances.

Another time, Bishop and I went to see Oliver Lake play with Reggie Workman at The Herbst Theater. We had front-row center tickets, and, while beholding the sheer force of Oliver Lake's free-formed saxophone improvisations at such close proximity is like paddling a canoe in front of the Niagara Falls, we sat entranced through the first set with our mouths agape. During the intermission, Bishop disappeared into the crowd, inevitably meeting friends and fans, and, to my surprise, he never returned for the second or third sets. When I asked him about it the next time I saw him, he said, "After the first set, I had to go home and shed!"

From Kansas City to San Francisco

Born in 1938, Norman Williams grew up in Kansas City, no doubt with blues infused sound of dueling tenor saxophones, like Ben Webster and Lester Young. Williams is described as "a very talented popular musician and composer who lives in San Francisco, Calif." on a family genealogy site. "He's the oldest of eight children of Lee Edna Margaret Anderson Rollins, a resident of Kansas City." He visits his family in Kansas City regularly, and is taken around by his mother and sisters to play music and reminisce.

Because the public high school he attended placed students into career-oriented curriculums, mostly centered on creating a predominantly black working class, the young Norman studied music extensively under Leo Davis, who had been Charlie Parker's teacher at the same institution. "I started [playing saxophone] when I was 11 years old. When I got to be 15, I left home and moved to Omaha, and then on to Chicago, then I would end up out here." He landed his first job at fifteen playing alto sax behind singer, Rudy Darling, who he coached on piano. Darling drew in a crowd with his Blues signing, and Norman has fond memories of his first performances. It was just around then that he met tenor saxophonist George Coleman.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1961 after two brief hiatuses in Los Angeles and Las Vegas the same year, Norman found himself surrounded by musicians in flourishing jazz Scene and landed himself a gig as bandleader at Bop City, the premier jazz club in the city opened by Jimbo Edwards, the first African American car dealer in the city, in 1950. Having started out as a tiny café called Jimbo's Waffle Shop, by 1961, the club had expanded to an around-the-clock jazz venue, and Norman's band played the two to six shift in the morning, the early morning slot which all the musicians would frequent, including Miles Davis and Paul Gonzales. Jimbo was known to man the door with ruthless conviction, often saying, "We don't allow no squares in Bop City. If you don't understand what we doin,' then leave and don't come back."

Norman adopted the nickname "Bishop" after playing at San Francisco's Church of John Coltrane which, at the time, was called the One Mind Temple. Although the "one mind" theme pops up in a lot of his compositions, he once responded, when asked about the connection in an interview, "You know I'm still half asleep, I can't hardly remember." Bassist Michael Formanek described Williams as a "mentor," saying, "He's an alto saxophonist [who] came from Kansas City, and he's been a real mainstay in the San Francisco scene since the '60s probably ... The thing about the Bishop—with him it was all about the spirit of music, just playing, and it was not about talking. In fact, we'd say,'the Bishop is a man of few words.' He would just call tunes, you couldn't understand what he was saying half the time; he'd just mumble out the name of some standard you never heard of and count it off and you just kind of had to go."

Although Bishop's recordings, such as the One Mind Experience albums and "Billie's Ballet," a funky composition featured on the Jazz Spectrum compilation, are hard to come by, I am anxiously awaiting the release of his new album on Life Force Records, a local jazz label owned and managed by Dawan Mohamed, a multi-reedist, composer and arranger. Life Force Jazz is really one of the best Bay Area jazz labels featuring local musicians and veterans like drummer Billy Higgins and guitarist Calvin Keys. On One Mind Experience, the track, "Dolphy," with its polytonal melody, stands out as having Bishop's sound. "It took a while to write," he says. "I think I spent a month fiddling with it—adding little melodies here and there, taking off others—before I was satisfied."

"You know, the first time I met Dolphy was in Kansas City, about '58. He was with Chico Hamilton then. We ran into each other at the musicians' union and started talking. Eric had his horn and said, 'Let's play.' We blew from noon to eight o'clock, got a rhythm section together, and, man, we had so much fun. Played in and out—both ways. Four years later, I saw Dolphy again, on a Sunday afternoon in San Francisco. He was with Coltrane's band " Elvin, McCoy, Jimmy Garrison—at the Jazz Workshop. Eric asked me to come up and play a little, and I said, 'Oh, no, you're too heavy for me!' I'll never forget that."

Dawan Mohamed recalls meeting Bishop in 1968: "I had heard him play and knew who he was, but I didn't actually meet "The Bishop" until 1968, when I returned to the Bay area from military service. I became more acquainted with him when he led famous jam sessions at the Off Plaza and Bajon's. An aspiring alto player myself, I would attend those sessions every week and just sit in the back and listen. The few times that I did attempt to play, Bishop was always encouraging. He teaches on the job and he knows a lot about music! In fact, I would go so far as to say that over the last 40 years, most of the "young lions" coming out of the Bay Area came through "Bishop's School." In recent years, I have performed with Bishop on special programs where he has an opportunity to showcase his composition and arranging skills. Those experiences led me to produce several live and in studio recording sessions featuring Bishop and some of those "young lions" I mentioned earlier, playing Bishop's original music. We are in the process of mastering a CD and we have an outstanding DVD from a jazz workshop held in San Jose. We are planning to release both products in the fall of this year!"

Keep your ears open for Bishop's new album in the fall on Life Force Jazz.

While there is no definitive biography on Bishop online or elsewhere, an internet search produces an interesting scrapbook of announcements and queries. One of them reads: "I am wondering if Bishop Norman Williams is still associated with the Church? I used to live in the Bay Area and heard him play in the mid 70s. Mostly in a bar on Valencia Street, I think, at least somewhere in the Mission area. He led a jam on Sunday afternoons. In addition to being a good player, he seemed like a very nice person and encouraged players to sit in, providing the format to do so. I will never forget one afternoon, he was standing on stage and the head came back around or it was time for him to take a solo. He was eating a piece of pizza, he calmly put the last of the crust in his pocket and began to blow his horn, just in the right place. It was pretty funny" (Ken Hale). And the stories keep flowing, stories about his unforgettable playing and his Bishopisms.

With over 40 years based in San Francisco, Norman Williams has played with just about everyone under the California sun: George Coleman, Sonny Stitts, Freddie Hubbard, Pharaoh Sanders, Eric Dolphy, Jack McDuff, and Woody Shaw, to name a few. Drummer Orion says, "I've worked with Bishop for fifteen years. I started working with him in BJ's band at the gathering Café in North Beach in the early '90's. Also, he played with me in my band, Orion's Joy of Jazz. We played at Cato's in Oakland on a regular basis for about four years and twice a month at the San Francisco Brewery for five years." Bassist and guitarist Jean Repetto states, "I met Bishop through Orion when I played at the SF Brewing Co. in1995. Bishop is a hero of mine in so many ways I don't know where to start. He's the most prolific jazz composer I've ever known. I think he is a logical extension of Parker/Coltrane."

Although he has done a lot of teaching and is known around the community as an all-around mentor, and everyone has an inspiring story to tell, he has always considered himself to be a saxophonist by profession, his selfless guidance shining through his music. When I asked him about his teaching, he replied, "I've done that, taught a lot, but I'm just a saxophonist."

Interview with "Bishop" Norman Williams

All About Jazz: Good to see you, Bishop. What have you been working on lately and where have you been playing?

Bishop Norman William: I've been playing with Bisa, over at the Cannery. Sometimes we play in Oakland. We've played at Bird and Beckett Books. And the Les Joulines gig.


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