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Jessica Williams: Musical Truths

Jessica Williams: Musical Truths
Dan McClenaghan By

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Pianist Jessica Williams begins a free-wheeling and fascinating conversation with a fan by thanking him for the kind words he has spoken about her music. Then she adds: "But you don't always have to say kind words, you know, as long as you always say the truth."



It's advice that is very much in character with the artist who has, in the past few years, been on a quest for musical truths, as well as for peace and love, the words she may write on one of her CDs if requested to sign.

Williams is intelligent and funny. She laughs often, and well. And for an artist of such magical musical eloquence, such breath-taking clarity and depth, she is surprisingly down-to-earth and plainspoken. A chat with the pianist is a relaxed affair, with a woman who sounds supremely comfortable in her own skin. It's sort of like talking to the nice—but very opinionated and maybe a bit crazy—neighbor lady over the back yard fence.

Williams has had a long and successful career in jazz. She played in the bands of Philly Joe Jones, the drummer in Miles Davis' first great quintet with Stan Getz, Leroy Vinegar, Tony Williams (of Davis' second great quintet fame) and many more. She has also led her own trios, and has released more than 70 albums under her name. She is a dedicated though underappreciated musician who has been able to wrestle a living out of a competitive and male-dominated profession. Now, in her sixth decade, she has tossed the hype and set up her own record label. She records only what—and when—she wants to record. She books her own concerts. Her self-reliance and her refusal to "play the game" has resulted in an evolutionary leap in her artistry, one that has lifted her from the ranks of very talented jazz pianists up to the highest level of the particular art.

Chapter Index
  1. The Old Music
  2. Breakout CDs
  3. Jessica Williams' Favorites, Pt. 1
  4. Little Troubles
  5. Jessica Williams' Favorites, Pt. 2
  6. Touch
  7. The Next Step


The Old Music

Into the early years of the new millennium, Williams' music could be accurately described as mainstream, in the tradition of Red Garland, Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson. The tail end of her mainstream/old music days included a series of four fine CDs on the MAXJAZZ label, released early- to mid-2000s. In that same time frame, she released a handful of recordings, solo and trio, on her own Red and Blue Records, with stunningly beautiful dedications to Art Tatum, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk to go along with more general jazz releases. She was, at this time, in the process of moving away from the jazz world and what she calls her old music. Indeed, she seems to have little interest in talking about her older sound. She seems intent on moving ahead, away from the traditional jazz milieu.

Of that move from the way of jazz, Williams says, "I had lost too much in the jazz world, because it was too competitive. It was male dominated and sexist and racist and too fraught with dangers to continue to do that. I just had to get out of that whole situation. And first, I had to get out of nightclubs. They'll kill you. They'll kill anybody."

Williams describes the night club world as toxic, with the smoking, drinking, the "doing the hang" to pick up new gigs.

"The nightclub scene and the old music is music from a younger kid having fun. Hey, you know, girls just wanna have fun. I just wanted to play fast, and I was a little crazy, and I was still drinking and smoking," she says, although she does neither now. "I was doing the hang with the guys, and we'd go there lit, and we made some wild music, we really did. I think it's music that has validity and it has its purpose. But I don't think it's music that I'll ever listen to again."

She pauses, then adds with a laugh, "Well, I may, I don't know, when I get to be 80 ... The music I love the most is the three albums we're talking about."

Those three records: Songs for a New Century (2008), The Art of the Piano (2009), and Touch (2010), all on Origin Records.

When asked how she makes a living without the night club shows or her move away from major labels and the hype of the music world, Williams replies, "I get by, but I don't make a whole lot of money."

"The only reason I make a living where other musicians can't, is I do paper work," she adds. "I consider myself a clerical worker. I spend eight to ten hours on the Internet daily, filling out forms, making sure I police different corporations. It's all lawyers. Having lawyers to go against lawyers to make sure that I get my money from the DRMs—download rights management and from sale of records—I don't get a penny from Amazon, and that doesn't seem right to me."

Williams has augmented her income from CD sales from her website and her shows by applying for grants.

"One thing I did was I said, 'Well there's grants here'; and you know what? I got every one I applied for. I applied for the Guggenheim and I got that."

Williams' "clerical work," her grants, her CD sales from her Red and Blue Records, and the small shows that she books herself in private homes, beats "doing the hang." And, Williams finds, she is at peace.

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