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John Williams Has Died


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It can be discouraging, but we are resigned to keeping you up to date on the deaths of prominent musicians. The latest bad news is about the pianist John Williams, who died On December 14 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Williams achieved substantial renown in the 1950s for his work with several prominent leaders and for leading his own trio. Inevitably, he was occasionally misidentified as another John Williams who was once a jazz pianist but became known primarily as a composer for movies and a conductor of pops orchestras. The jazz John Williams died following one of several bad falls at home. In a post 7 years ago we addressed the name confusion and provided a bit of Williams’s history.

From the Rifftides archive: January 22, 2011

The man above is John Thomas Williams, the pianist who worked with Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Cannonball Adderley in the ’50s. The man below is John Towner Williams, who had a brief career as a jazz pianist and went on to Star Wars and The Boston Pops, among other associations.

For a few decades, the jazz John Williams took side trips into successful careers in banking and government. He lives in Florida and, at 82, still plays gigs, mostly solo piano. When I spoke with him this morning, he sounded content, although he allowed that he wouldn’t mind having the “No” John Williams’s royalty income. To further dissipate confusion, here’s a rerun of a Rifftides piece about him that first appeared on April 18, 2006. It contains a link to a reissue CD of Williams’ widely praised trio records.

THAT John Williams

During long stretches of 1953 and ’54, John Williams was the pianist in Stan Getz’s quintet and quartet. Wiliams is often described in biographies as a disciple of Bud Powell who was also influenced by Horace Silver. That is true. It is also true that oxygen influences flame, a fact that tells us nothing about the differences among flames. In the population of pianists influenced by Powell and Silver, Williams was identifiable by a keyboard touch that produced a spikey, percussive, rollicking forward motion, an infectious swing. Almost in contradiction, at the same time he somehow achieved a smoothness of phrasing that invested his improvised lines with the logic of inevitability. He managed to make his listeners anticipate what was coming in a solo and yet surprise them when he got there.

Williams’ first album under his own name was John Williams, a ten-inch LP on the Emarcy label, recorded in 1954. His trio had Bill Anthony on bass and the unique Detroit drummer Frank Isola, fellow members of the Stan Getz group. Williams jokes today that he often wonders who got the third copy of the album after he and his mother each bought one. It may not have been a big seller, but it quickly became a favorite of musicians and, after Emarcy pulled it, of collectors. In the 1990s, a broker of rare LPs who sold to Japanese LP zealots told me that a mint copy of John Williams was going in Japan for upwards of $300. I blush to confess that I sold him my beat-up copy for considerably less than that, making him wait while I first copied it to tape. As we listened, I hummed along to Wiliams’ solos, so embedded in my brain had they become over four decades of nearly wearing out the album.

It was a puzzle, given the LP’s iconic status, why Emarcy did not reissue it on CD, and why Verve did not bring it out after the company acquired the Emarcy catalog. A good guess is that the decision was made by accountants. Time has cured that ill. Copyright laws in Spain declare that after fifty years, recorded material is fair game (I’m not sure that’s the exact wording of the law). So, the resourceful Fresh Sound label has put on one CD John Williams and the pianist’s second Emarcy album, a twelve-inch LP called John Williams Trio, recorded in 1955. This belated event probably doesn’t do much for the inflated price of the original LPs, but it is a boon to the substantial number of Williams fans who have been clamoring for a reissue. It may also gain him new fans.

The second album, done in three sessions with shifting personnel among bassists and drummers, doesn’t have quite the concentrated charm of the ten-inch 1954 session. That is in part, I suspect, because Frank Isola is on only one track. Nonetheless, it has wonderful moments. Taken together, the twenty tracks capture John Williams when his playing was full of freshness, vigor and peppery lyricism. By all accounts, including the evidence of an appearance with Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz, it still is. He has never stopped playing, but he took a few decades off to become a banker and, for twenty years, a city commissioner of Hollywood, Florida. In conversation, Williams tends to deprecate his playing in the 1950s as inadequate, an evaluation that flies in the face of the wisdom of his employers–StanGetz, Bob Brookmeyer, Cannonball Adderley, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims among them–and of listeners who have been stimulated by his work for half a century.

To remind you of John Williams’ work, or familiarize you with it when he was at his peak of recognition, let’s listen to him with his trio in the early ’50s. Ernie Farrow is the bassist, Frank Isola the drummer. They play Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.” To hear it, go here.

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