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Bishop Norman Williams: Swinging from Kansas City to San Francisco

By Published: April 12, 2008

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.

AAJ: Nice. Is he a good player?

BNW: He can play. He plays bass. He might play guitar, but mostly he plays bass. Man, I thought we were working today! [He's shaking his head and laughing.]

AAJ: He'll figure it out and let you know!

BNW: So, what have you got going today? I don't want to mess with my saxophone. I've got to put a new reed on, but I'll play my flute.

AAJ: Cool. I've got my guitar. We can play.

BNW: These are my sisters right here. [He points top a photo on the wall with five women. They're still in Kansas City.

AAJ: When was the last time you were out there?

BNW: I was out there about three months ago. My mother's still around. She's Eighty-five, and, I went down there. You know, they took me all around to play, you know.

AAJ: Oh, you were playing there? What kind of places were you playing at?

BNW: They've got a few places, not like out here though.

AAJ: But they've got some clubs.

BNW: Yeah, but Kansas City is not the same now. It takes you hours to go from one place to another, man. And they just don't have that many clubs anymore like they used to. That's why I got the hell out of there after I visited my Mama! She said, "Where you going?" They were jazz clubs, but watered down clubs, and I was used to the clubs out here. She said, "But you just got here!" My mother lives out there on 107th, and that's about as far as you can go, south, and I don't think you can ride no bus.

AAJ: And you grew up with the drummer, Achytan, there, right?

BNW: Yeah, he was in the tenth grade, and he was in the eighth grade.

AAJ: And you went to the same high school as Charlie Parker, right? How much older was Charlie Parker than you, about ten years?

BNW: No, man! He was born in 1921, and I was born in '38!

AAJ: I see, sorry. So there was like a twenty-year difference or something like that. [Bishop is laughing again]

BNW: We had Leo Davis there. He was Charlie Parker's teacher.

AAJ: Was he an alto player, or did he just teach music?

BNW: No, he just taught music. He could play all the instruments. He played, saxophone, trumpet. Trumpet was his main instrument. We had three hours of music a day. I mean, it was a vocational high school. You know, if you want to pick up a trade, like auto-mechanics, music. R.T. Cole. That was the name of it. I bought my first saxophone there, from Mr. P.M. Jones. [He's laughing.] I got it for ten dollars! It was in the key of C. It was between a tenor and an alto. All the kids would be laughing at me because of that! It was like a baby tenor.

AAJ: I was reading somewhere that one of your first gigs was with Rudy Darling.

BNW: Rudy Darling! That was my first real gig. I was fifteen years old. We played at a club called the Professional Club, down on Twelfth and Central in Kansas City. We were making so much money! My brother, Floyd, who teaches Physics, he's the one that showed Rudy how to play the blues, and once Rudy knew how to do that, shoot, we were working! He could sing. I mean he couldn't sing that good! But we were playing blues, shuffles, and stuff. If you knew how to entertain your people, man, you know, they tipped.

AAJ: What kind of music did you listen to a kid?

BNW: Shoot, I listen to all sorts of stuff, you know. I liked Lester Young, Ben Webster. I heard Charlie Parker when I was fifteen. My mother, you know, she introduced me to his music. First thing I heard was "Parker's Mood," and then "Barbados." And I heard him and I was like, phew, and off! And everybody used to call me "Little Bird." And when I got older I used to say, "Just call me Norman," you know!

AAJ: SM: Did you ever meet him?

BNW: No. I met Miles, out here, and Leo Parker. He was working at the Boulevard Room, I think, some place in Kansas City. It was a hip place. I was around fifteen then. They had the Musician's Union, which is called the Musician's Foundation now, and, man, we used to have some hell of gatherings then! In the late 50's, I was on the road with Phineas Newborn Sr. That's a pianist from Memphis. Real bad cat. He'd play with George Coleman. I met them in Chicago. We were on the road. And then I quit the band and moved to Chicago and that's where I met George Coleman and played with Max Roach. Those cats were bad man! And then, ever since then, every time George Coleman comes out here, he calls me up.

AAJ: Have you seen Achytan around?

BNW: Yeah, we played together at the Charlie Parker Festival, over there in Oakland, at the Oakland Auditorium. That was a couple of years ago. Do you know Angela Wellman? She plays trombone. She's from Kansas City too, and it was the band we put together.

AAJ: Didn't you play at Small's in New York?

BNW: Yeah, I worked there a couple of years ago with Jimmy Lovelace, the drummer. He just died. I just found out. We went to high school together but I was older than him. I like Small's, it was a good time.

AAJ: I remember sitting in at Les Joulines when George Coleman came in.

BNW: Yeah. I met him when I was sixteen. He was from Memphis, Tennessee.

AAJ: What about Prince Lasha? I remember meeting him with you one time. Have you seen him lately?

BNW: No. He's lives in New York. He came down to a gig that me and Vince Wallace were doing. He came down there with Mike Marcus.

AAJ: Who else have you worked with lately in San Francisco?

BNW: I've worked with Howard Wiley with Marcus Shelby's big band. They needed an alto player. That music was so hard. I was trying to sight read without any rehearsals. But, Howard was in the band, we played a lot of Duke, and Samir. You remember that drummer, Samir? Yeah, but Howard's bad! Whooooooooooo! He reads his ass off too, that boy can read. So, anyway, Marcus called me for that particular gig. But I remember meeting Marcus down at the Gathering. And I played with Lavay Smith for a few years in her quartet. She's a hell of a singer. She called me up and asked me to play a gig. I can't even remember where it was, but it was a challenge to play for her, I mean, she's been around, and those big band arrangements. And do you know this alto player, Evan Francis? He's bad. He goes back and forth to New York, but he was born in LA. He plays with Marcus Shelby's band. He's a young cat.

AAJ: And you've known BJ Papa for a long time now.

BNW: Oh yeah. When I met BJ he was playing saxophone. Did you know he played saxophone? He played tenor at that time but he told me he got an alto. I met him, shoot, let's see, in '61. He was playing down at, in fact my first gig was at this place called Soulville, down at McAllister and Webster. As soon as I got down here they gave me the job. Parker, a cat named Parker. He said, "you want to be the leader of the band?" I had never led no band before but he gave me my first job out here! And this was in '61. I moved to LA and then to Vegas, and then here, all in the same year. After I worked at Soulville, I played at "they had this place" you ever hear of Bop City?

AAJ: SM: Yeah, sure. I was going to ask you about that.

BNW: That's a place where everybody that was anybody" they'd come down there. I met a lot of people there. Miles Davis used to come out there, Paul Gonzales was coming down there, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, all those people used to come down to play there, and I was the leader of the band. We started at two o'colck and went until six. I worked there for three years, from '61 to '64. And Jimbo. He'd run that club back and forth. He died maybe a couple of years ago. He was a smart cat. He was a gambler, and he ran that club, I mean, anybody he didn't like, I mean, smooth cat, man. It was at Buchanan and Post. That's where everyone went, because it went on all night, so, If you couldn't sleep, it was like, go down to Bop City! That was the time that they had clubs all the way around the clock. They also had the Blue Mirror down on Filmore.

AAJ: These are great posters. Who are these guys?

BNW: That's me and Woody Shaw. We did a CD together. That's me and Freddie Hubbard, and Dave Leibman. And that's me and Sonny Stitts, and me and John Handy. And this here is Thelonious Monk. I played at his birthday party at this club here in San Francisco. The Baroness was there, and the Baroness' daughter. I have a picture here of Pharaoh Sanders. I've played with him. He was working at a place called Tiki Jack's over there in Oakland. That's where he got famous over there. A lot of people from out of town would come there. I worked there with Sonny Stitts. And we made a CD.

AAJ: Well, great to talk to you today, Bishop! Let's do some playing!

BNW: Let's shed!



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