Fishman Artist // John B. WilliamsJOHN B. WILLIAMS "BASSICALLY SPEAKING"
I was born on February 27th, 1941 in the Bronx, New York, and lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem as the only son of a middle-class family surrounded by beautiful, talented women and beautiful music. Music was a staple in our house, while also drifting in through the back windows of our apartment every afternoon: Sonny Rollins practicing, practicing, practicing. He taught me that to practice is a lifestyle – as important as breathing - if you were serious about the music.
It all began with my sisters, Jackie and Joyce, who inspired me to play drums and piano. My Mother favored the quieter piano, although, eventually she relented and together with my elder sister Joyce, bought me my first Slingerland drum set at age twelve. I also learned to play Latin percussion (Congas, Bongos, and Timbales) do to my living in racially mixed ‘Sugar Hill,” As a teen I played drums at community events and then the piano with a neighborhood jazz group called "The Jazz Disciples." We won the Amateur Night contest at the famed Apollo Theatre three weeks in a row.
Another sister, June, convinced our mother that I should study ballet (she majored in Ballet at the High School Of Performing Arts in New York) to keep me off the streets. So much for my tough image! However, ballet exposed me to modem dance and the music of Stravinski, Copeland, Bernstein as well as Broadway musical theatre.
Yet another sister, Jean, played bass in her Seward Park High School orchestra, and she introduced me to the instrument that would stay with me for the next fifty years.
When I joined the Marine Corps in 1960,1 returned to the drums which afforded me the opportunity to make extra money playing with local bands on the weekends. Soon there were too many drummers and not enough bass players and I switched back to the instrument that I loved.
A $100.00 bass was spotted in the window of a pawn shop in Jacksonville North Carolina was my first investment in an enriching history of U.S. and foreign concert tours, television and films.
My friend, Alex Lane gave me my first bass lessons while I was stationed at Camp LeJeunne U.S.Marine Base in North Carolina. Whenever we didn't have to pull guard duty on the weekend, a few of my New York buddies would pile in a car and drive up to New York City for the weekend and drive back to the base for Monday morning 9AM roll call. During this time I listened and tried to imitate the great bass players that I heard on recordings, on the radio, and in clubs: Paul Chambers, Jimmy Merrit, Wilbure Ware, Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Scott La Farro, Bob Cranshaw, George Duvivier, Richard Davis and Milt Hlnton. By 1962 my music was also influenced by Latin, Caribbean and Rhythm-&-Blues art forms. ,
In 1964, After my military discharge,1 began studying classical bass with Ron Carter and continued for three years. Thanks to his strict, no-nonsense training, I auditioned for, and got the chance to play with the legendary ."Horace Silver Quintet," playing alongside Bennie Maupin, Charles Tolliver and later Randy Brecker and Billy Cobham. That band stayed together for about two years. Horace taught me so much, especially about playing in tune, getting a groove, and not to Waste notes.
After my stint with Horace, I went on to play with Hugh Masakela, Dizzy Gellespie, Leon Thomas, Kenny Burrell, Jon Hendricks, Horace Parlam, Jimmy Smith, Grady Tate, Sir Roland Hanna, and recorded with Roy Ayres, Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land, Johnny Hammond Smith, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, and Benny Carter.
In 1969, adding classical and electric sounds to my bass rhythm, I was recommended to Doc Severinson, the musical director of "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson. To be a part of that great studio band. I grooved with Doc and that great band for seven years, four years in New York and three years in Los Angeles.
In 1972, shortly after relocating with some of Doc’s key players to the West Coast, Billy Cobham (who had been my soulmate over the years) called and asked me to fly back to New York and play on his landmark recording, "Crosswinds." Doc granted me a two week leave and I was joined by George Duke and Garnett Brown, both of whom were living in Los Angeles. In New York we joined up with Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Lee Pastora, John Abecrombie, and Billy. That album was a milestone for all of us. Shortly after its release, Billy wanted to take the band on tour, but I chose to stay in L.A. with "The Tonight Show". While at the same time I was attending the International College where I majored in Music History.
In 1975, suffering from talk-show burnout, I formed my own band called "Expectations." The five-piece band featured saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Bill Mays, and later, Bobby Lyle, then Milcho Leviev, guitarist Mitch Foreman, percussionist Steve Forman, drummer Ted Hawk, and sound & special effects engineer Fred Stites. The band was very innovative and earned rave reviews in all the top music magazines and newspapers, which resulted in the inevitable individual career advancements for most of the players and the group eventually dispersed. Afterwards, I continued on doing freelance work and recording with such artists as Benny Carter, Louie Bellson, Pearl Bailey, Laine Kazan, and Freddie Hubbard.
With Nancy WilsonIn the fall of 1976, I was asked to join the "Nancy Wilson Trio," playing alongside musical director and pianist Michael Wolff, and drummer Ralph Penland. That began a twenty-five year musical relationship with Nancy Wilson.
In 1989, I accepted an invitation from Michael Wolff to be part of that great late night television band, "The Posse" on "The Arsenio Hall Show," where I could explore Funk, Acid Jazz and Hip-Hop. Because my 'imposing presence1 seemed the least likely to recite poetry, I began the popular, tongue-in-cheek, "John B. Williams Poetry Moment." What began as a lark became an ever-increasing interest of mine as I began to add spoken word to my music.
Performing at L.A. clubs such as Birdland West, Le Cafe, The Cinegrille, At My Place, and Maria Gibb's Jazz and Supper Club, I added dramatic (socially conscious) poetry and monologues to my music, a fusion which came about in part from my collaboration with Internationally acclaimed, Obie Award-winning playwright, Bradley Rand Smith. That collaboration gave birth to "Jazz Theatre," which combines the two art forms: theatre (spoken word) and jazz.
My love for the acoustic bass, reciting poetry and monologues has also provided me with acting opportunities. In the 1980s I played myself on the syndicated television series, "The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd," starring Blair Brown, and more recently I performed in the feature film, "The Tic Code," starring Gregory Hines and Polly Draper. I can also be seen in the feature film written and directed by Polly Draper on Nickelodeon titled:, "The Naked Brothers Band."
After “The Arsenio Hall Show” ended, I recorded, toured, and promoted a live CD co-led bv myself and friend Bennie Maupin, titled "The Maupin/Williams Project: Live At Club Rhapsody," I also recorded (over the next three years,) several cds with, and began touring and performing with Michael Wolffs band, "Impure Thoughts, " Bobby Mato's "Afro-Latin All Stars," The Manhattan Transfer, and most recently, Natalie Cole.
Following the recent release of my first solo CD "Gratitude," which features pianist Llew Matthews, drummer Roy McCurdy and very special guest. Nancy Wilson. I'll be performing with my Jazz trio featuring extraordinary singer/Song Stylist "Jessica Williams.”
I'm also continuing to develop "Jazz Theater" with two new productions:
"Blue Notes," a play with music about male/female relationships and Love and Lost, featuring four actors and a jazz quartet performing together on stage. We video taped our first performance at the University of La Verne in Southern California.
"Jazz Lives," featuring Jessica Williams (vocals) and Myself (acoustic bass) paying tribute (with music and spoken word) to some of the great performers of the past and present, and how they affected the lives of a jazz singer and bass player.
Jessica and I recently recorded a CD of music and spoken word titled; “Dialogues.” Which we will be releasing by the end of 2009. Followed by a cd release performance.
This Past April I recorded my second solo project in Hagenberg, Austria with a great International band on the Allessa label scheduled for release in January 2010. I am very proud of this project and the band members assembled for me by my producer; Peter Guschelbaur.
Next year I look forward to recording a trio cd with Mordy Ferber Guitar and percussionist to be named later.
Information, sales and news of all my projects will be available on my web page:
What does music and theatre share in common? They're both ways we tell stories to each other. From the dawn of Man human beings have engaged in the primal need to gather together and tell stories, to share fears, to allow for healing, strengthening their bonds as sisters and brothers, and as members of a larger family beyond. As lofty as it may sound, i believe one key to the celebration and healing of the human soul - and thereby the world community - is the joining together and sharing once again of our common humanity through live music and spoken word, just as our ancestors have done since the first spark rose from the first tribal fire - and touched the stars.