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Artist Profiles

Bishop Norman Williams: Swinging from Kansas City to San Francisco

By Published: April 12, 2008

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.



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