Thursday, April 26, 2018

Part 2 - The John Williams Interview with Steve Voce

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Here’s Part 2 of Steve Voce’s extended 1998 interview with pianist John Williams. As noted in Part 1, Steve is a British journalist and music critic who contributed regularly to The Independent and to Jazz Journal for over 40 years.


In this segment of Steve’s brilliant interview, John is extremely candid about why he left the Jazz scene in the early 1960s and I daresay that many Jazz fans from that era can relate to his reasons for doing so.  The music changed dramatically and not necessarily for the better.


Without going into a lot of technical detail, both Parts 1 and 2 of the original manuscript had to be modified to fit [work on] the blogging platform. It took a bit of doing and I think I corrected most of the errors caused by the transition, but should you find any mistakes the fault lies with me.


“'WHEN Stan disbanded in the fall of 1953, I went back to New York. I decided
to study at the Manhattan School of Music and worked there for six months. I
joined in the second semester but realised that I had gone in over my head.
Also they were still teaching heavy classical courses which didn't interest
me and I didn't really have the ears for it. After I got out of the school I
went back with Getz and I was with him for about a year.


' Stan was tough to work for because of his own problems. I usually felt
like I was the mediator on the band. God knows I had my own psychosis, but
not anything compared to what Stan had. I'd find myself saying to other
players on the band "When Stan said what he said to you he didn't really mean it. He said it because ...--Remember the old one-liner about the guy who says "Hey
man, how're you doing?" and the other guy says "What do you mean by that?"?
That was the Stan Getz group. It was then that I realised that you've got to
take people as they present themselves, and you mustn't keep looking for the real reasons as to why they are what they are. You can't keep looking for the excuses. Stan was tough to work for, but I was of course thrilled to be a part of the group. When we came back to New York and the band broke up a second time, I went through yet another personal fiasco.


' I have always had an intense interest in American history, and I thought
I'd get myself an education under the GI Bill Of Rights, which I was
entitled to do after my service in Korea. I went down to New York University
and I signed up with the intention of taking a major in American history and
a minor in music. That way I could take the music courses that I wanted to but I could also get something that really interested me for my future and to give me some stability. I'd gotten everything signed, sealed and accepted, when I discovered that if you interrupted your schooling for more than I2 months, all your benefits were cancelled. Since I had left the Manhattan School Of Music a year and three months earlier this applied to me. I really fouled up because right there I
cancelled all opportunities to get the higher education that I really needed and wanted to have. I've regretted it all my life.


'I stayed in New York, played some wonderful sessions, made a lot of records
and went out on the road a lot with Zoot Sims, which was the high point for
me musically. Zoot was always my favourite and, any of these records that
I'm on, if I had any good moments-and they're very rare and very few-that I
feel were OK, I can take you back to a few of the Zoot Sims records, because
that was the only time that I really felt that I began to open up and play with some potential. Zoot wouldn't have it any other way with his playing. Because of his incredible time, the whole thing in playing with him was to your wings out, get up there and soar. I loved Zoot Sims.


'But of course, the need to earn a living meant that I had to play music other than jazz. A lot of good musicians would from time to time get a chance to go on the Vincent Lopez Orchestra which worked at the Taft Grill for 25 years. It was in the Hotel Taft, a block from Charlie's Tavern. You played two hours at lunch time and another two hours at dinner time.


‘The salary was terrific and at both lunch a dinner there was a radio remote
which gave you extra money. But playing second piano to Vincent Lopez was
not terrific, but I stuck it out for three months from Christmas to spring. It was great because you'd get out of there by 8.30 so if you had a bebop gig you could do it afterwards. Also you could make the union floor in between your day and your evening shots.


'Vincent Lopez used to leave the stand to talk to the diners. We'd play all
this bad stuff, dance things that would have made Sammy Kaye sound good by
comparison There were two Baldwin grands on different  levels, one for me in the rhythm section  and one for him to play his solos on If he was talking to the people and didn't get over there I played the solo. Lots of times he'd let me do so whether he whether there or not. I remember one time when we were playing The Man I Love Vincent was late running over to the piano, sat down and came in two beats out of place. I just kept playing louder and louder at the right spot in the time until he shifted. From that moment on I was on his list!


'I was always the last one on stage. I'd run out of that subway station and run that block, into the building and onto the stage. Of course everyone else had had to be there to get their instruments out, and I used to try to arrive at the last minute.


'St Patrick's Day came and I came running in almost late as usual. The band was up on the bandstand wearing green hat,, green boots and green bow ties. I couldn't handle that. I got up on the bandstand and Vincent said "Go get your suit". I said " don't think I wanna do that and of course I got fired on the spot.'


'While I was working that gig I'd go on and play all the jazz I could. One night I had been out drinking and playing, and I'd been in bed probably an hour and a half when, at about four in the morning, Hank Jones called. My wife answered, woke me up and handed me the phone. "Al and Zoot are doing , recording gig down at Webster Hall tomorrow," said Hank. "I just got a chance to go out of town and I can't make it. Will you do it for me?" I said "Sure, Hank, of course. What time?"


'I got up the next morning with no recollection of this whatsoever. It hadn't registered at all. My wife remembered, but she didn't say anything to me. I went to the lunchtime gig at the Taft Grill and was given a message by the Maitre D. to call this number. I called in and it was the A & R man.


"Where the hell are you? You're supposed to be here!"


‘Where?’ I asked.


"Here! You're supposed to be doing this record date with Zoot and Al'


'I said "For Christsakes, I'm working at the Taft Grill! Don't you think that . . ."


“Hank Jones said that he'd called you and YOU were going to sub for him.”


‘Don't you think that if I had been given a chance to play for Zoot and AI I'd be there?’


"You mean he didn't call you'?"


‘No, he didn't call me.--’"


'The next day I'm sitting playing piano for Vincent Lopez and all of a sudden I looked down and saw Hank Jones and his big brother Elvin sat at a table near the stand. They're mad.


'I said "Hi. Hank."-


'He growled some extremely uncomplimentary things and said "What're you trying to do, set me up?"


'I couldn't believe what he was telling me. Before he and Elvin left he knew that I was innocent. He believed that I had no recollection. My wife said "Yeah, of course he called you.---I was mortified that I would screw up so badly, but most important, I missed a date with Al and Zoot together. It all resolved nicely and Hank and I got on speaking terms again. I guess he knew how much I would not have missed that date!


'I tried to book Hank for the Hollywood Festival a couple of years ago. When I got him on the phone I said "Is this Hank Jones?" He said "Yeah," and I said "Hank, this is the piano player that you and Elvin were going to beat the hell out of at the Taft Grill---. He remembered the whole thing and fell out laughing.


'I was on a 1956 album of AI Cohn's called The Saxophone Section (Epic
LN3278). The tracks were intermingled with me on some and Hank on the rest.
I had what I thought were for me two or three good spots, but Hank was fabulous.
'There was a loft down in West Broadway owned by a guy who had a decent grand piano there. In those days everyone wanted to play. The loft was a great place. It wasn't a drug hangout. It was just a guy's apartment. We'd be sitting round in Charlie's Tavern on 7th Avenue at four o'clock in the morning. You could call him up at four o'clock in the morning from Charlie's and ask "Can we come down and play?" and he'd say "Sure." We'd go down there and play for four or five hours and walk out at eight or nine in the morning.


'You know me well enough now to know the insecurities I felt at that time (and still do) about my playing. But when I played with those guys, particularly Zoot and Al, the doors would get opened. I can remember walking out in the morning sunlight and thinking ---”My God. That was O.K!" Of course there was always some serious drinking involved and maybe some other minor vices from time to time, but there were no serious drugs down there, which was important. I'd go home feeling like I was on top of the world. It always felt like it had been the best fun I'd ever had and seven or eight hours later I'd wake up and say "Boy, that was terrific last night!" Then I'd start with the doubts and say "Well, I think it was. I had a little to drink . . ." and the old insecurities would come rushing back!


'I've always envied the artists who paint. An artist who sits up all night and paints something on canvas can see what he's done the next morning. And of course today the kids have all this marvellous recording equipment. Back  then, if anyone had a wire recorder like Jimmy Knepper had, he was really something unique. So the next time we were down there at the loft three or four days later I'd do the same thing again and open that door and this door, and have the same good time. But I never had any verification when I needed to have my mental pump primed the next day.


'I made at least three quartet albums with Zoot, and I did one with Brookmeyer and Zoot [The Modern Art Of Jazz, under Zoot's name and currently available on Fresh Sound FSR-CI3 25] and I wrote a tune on that called Down At The Loft. I called it that because you used to go down to the Village to go up to the loft. Didn't turn out too badly.


'And I loved Al Cohn. And I loved the two of them together. The sun shined when I played with Stan, too. The difference between those two and Stan was that with Stan you were always on stage making an appearance, and that always helped me self-destruct a little bit extra. I don't want to sound unfair to Stan, but I think a lot of his contemporaries would say the same. Even with all his skills and his incredible ear, he was showbiz too much of the time. He would inflict that on himself. He had the same problem "I've got to impress, I've got to perform," night in, night out. The best times with Stan were like so many times with Al and Zoot. If you got Stan in a corner and were playing with him in a non-performing environment, the meat and potatoes would come out. He was a most wonderful player, but again I think Stan's
minor paranoia, as with so many players, hindered him a lot.


'You suggest that I influenced Bob Brookmeyer's piano playing? I would say it was vice versa! Bobby was such an excellent piano player and, as I've said, he went out on the road as Tex Beneke's piano player. I think a lot of his skills as an arranger and a writer stem from his ability to express himself on the piano. Time and time again when we were on the road if there was ever a piano available where we were with Stan, we'd sit down and play four-handed piano. I learned a lot from Bobby right there. I was always in awe of Bobby. His ear and his harmonic ability. He is an exceptional musician and in the bleak era in the sixties when my kind of jazz disappeared into the woodwork, Bob went through a rough time for I0 years when he nearly killed himself because he apparently couldn't get a handle on his genius. But he got over that and came back to New York from the West Coast and look what happened! Nobody in my view has ever written better swinging and modern big band arrangements than Bobby wrote for the Mel Lewis band.


'I'm not a member of the Flat Earth Society that you've referred to in some of your articles, but I have great difficulty when jazz leaves the time. Bobby is at the point now where his mind is so full of sound and music and harmony, that he's experimenting in ways that are worlds apart from true jazz, and I have to say that I felt personal disappointment when he started to write these things where time is no longer a major factor. But oh, those things that he wrote for that Village Vanguard band of Mel's in the mid-eighties! Anyone who wants to listen to those and tell me that those pieces aren't an advanced form of pure true jazz when the time is doing what it's doing and all of the things that he's written in there are doing what they're doing - that was a real peak in jazz to me. I have no doubt that he's one of the major figures in jazz today. And I know what a personal loss it was for Bobby when Al Cohn died. I know they had the highest regard and respect for each other and enjoyed each other's music as much as they did each other's friendship.


'I made two trio albums for Mercury, one with Bill Anthony on bass and Frank
Isola on drums was done in September 1954, a month or so before the Shrine
concert, and the other was done in two sessions  in June 1955 with Bill and Dick Edie on one and Chuck Andrus and Frank or the other.
'Bobby Shad hired Leonard Feather to write the album notes. I waited to Leonard to call me or whatever, and he never did. Finally I got through the mail from him a questionnaire. It was almost like a government form. I didn't like it because he was finding things out about me but not really asking me anything to do with my opinions about music or anything about playing. I filled out my name address and social security number, whatever it was he was asking, and then I wrote something about my feeling for him to review, not to put in quotes and put on the back of the album cover.


'I was badly embarrassed when the album came out and all he had done was to
take what I had said and print it verbatim. If I were going to write my own notes, I wouldn't have said what I'd written in notes for him. I was trying to tell him how thrilled I felt about the time, particularly about playing with Zoot and Al. They epitomised  what I felt and wanted to play like They were my heroes. When he printed those remarks I felt, who am I to say these things and have them on the album cover Of course they keep being quoted from time to time and each time it embarrasses me anew!'


'I never recorded with him, but I was the only pianist the Gerry Mulligan Sextet ever had! I was at a session in a New York apartment with Gerry one time and we were standing out on a rooftop drinking and talking. Finally I'd had enough to drink so that I could tell Gerry what I thought of rhythm sections without pianos in them. I really harangued him. "Everything sounds so flat without a piano. Go ahead with all your harmonic creativity, but for Pete's sake give me a rhythm section!"


'He had just expanded from a quartet to a sextet and was going out on a package tour. With himself he had Jon Eardley, Zoot and Bob Brookmeyer as his front line. Those are four incredible players. They had a lot of things written but they also had a lot of genuine creativity and they'd often have four intertwining lines going. But again, a two-piece rhythm section. Very flat. It didn't do anything for me.


'A few days later on a Friday Gerry called me and said "John, you wanna join the group? I've got a concert tour with Carmen McRae and others and we're opening in Columbus on Monday then on to Ann Arbor and so on".


'I said "Gerry, I'd love that, but this is Friday and you're going out on Monday". Besides that I was booked that Monday night at Birdland and another gig which was to be recorded, and also I had a booking to record with the Larry Sonn big band. I made the decision that I should go with Gerry, especially after having shot my mouth off to Gerry about the piano. So I cancelled all three.


"OK." he said, "You'll ride with Bobby and we'll meet in Columbus."


"But Gerry," I said. "This is a concert tour. I need something to work with.


You got any charts?"


"No," he said. "We'll work it out at the time."


'Well, it became very obvious that the minute Gerry had decided to add a piano he'd actually changed his own mind again.


'I got in the car with Bobby and we rode to Columbus. "Bobby," I said, "the guy's given me no charts, no lead sheets and no indication of what we're going to play. He hasn't used a piano before and as far as I can see he's made no preparation for one. What the hell's going on?"


'Bobby drove and from New York to Columbus he did his damnedest to try to sketch out the formats of some of the sextet's more famous numbers while I wrote them down. When we got to the concert I hit on Gerry again. "Don't worry about it," he said, and it was obvious that he was already regretting that he had taken me on.


'We got on the concert stage and, thanks to Bobby, I had some idea of what was going on. You know the word “stroll"? It means when the piano player lays out and lets the rest of the rhythm section carry on. We'd play something and I'd just begin to feel it was going to be all right, to begin to cook and feel that this was working when Gerry would turn round and say "Stroll!" and I'd have to drop out. Then he'd turn around and say "Come back!"


'You can't do that! You cannot build the time element of the machine, you can't put the wings up and put the buoyancy in the time and then let it all go phhhh! And then come back in and rise again from ground zero. It bothered me tremendously because I just was not prepared. And Gerry was apparently determined that I be not prepared.


'The next night was at Ann Arbor in the University Of Michigan where we had a massive big audience, then we went to Cincinnati. On the fourth night we were back in Philadelphia at the Academy Of Music and Gerry came to me and he said "John, I don't think I want to continue with the piano". So he paid me and sent me back to New York.


'Of course I was greatly relieved because, other than Bobby, I was getting zero help as to what was supposed to be happening. And I couldn't handle that stroll, come back in, stroll, come back in. That is no way to run a rhythm section! So I was Gerry Mulligan's only piano player. Besides that, don't ever forget this - Gerry Mulligan wants to be his own piano player. He doesn't want anyone else to play the piano anyway! He used to do that at sessions and frankly none of us ever cared too much for it because he wasn't working in the rhythm section, he was creating.


'My disappointment about piano players in rhythm sections goes back to the sixties. When I left New York and went to Miami I only turned around twice and all of a sudden Miles and those guys are going into this free thing. I'm sitting in Miami and I'm working with a nice group when we get to the bass solo and the bass player just drops the time altogether and starts to play a solo, totally out of left field. It was madness from my point of view! Why would you build this castle in the air and then just demolish it and forget it? To me that, and when, further down the road, they got into fusion and all that, call it what you will but don't call it jazz.


'We all evolved as jazz did. You can go back and listen to ragtime and it's happy music, right? Dixieland! Is there anything more joyful and happy than that? It's joy.
Zoot Sims, John Williams and Frank Isola in the loft joyful because the time is happy. The big bands, bebop, just the same. You can take a Charlie Parker solo and dissect it and everything in it is a gorgeous beat beautiful melody all worked right around the time. Nowadays, it seems to me, many of the players are playing meaningless "exercises" and sounding very angry. What happened to the fun?


'However, I am very relieved to see so many brilliant young players coming along now. Perhaps it's because of the schools. But whatever, some kind of return to reality has taken place and the young players today at least seem to be reaching back and trying to establish these roots before they do their things. There was none of that in the sixties and seventies. Then it was like taking Bach and Beethoven and saying "Forget that, that's nothing".


'I read an article, was it by one of the Harper Brothers or some young player where he asked "Who says that we should try and play our own music until we can understand Charlie Parker's music?" To me that was very eloquent. You listen to Bird today and nobody has been able to do what he had done. So much has beer wasted. And I have a personal animosity that I might as well tell you about. It's what seems to have happened to all the tenor players as a result of John Coltrane. They don't seem to go back to early John Coltrane when he was less involved with exercises, I will call them disrespectfully! In the big bands run by the young players many of the trumpets and trombones are superb, a lot of the piano players are outstanding-maybe I'm generalising, but all the tenor players coming out of the schools, they're all John Coltrane tenor players. You don't hear the Prez roots, the Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz roots that I think tell a much better story than
John Coltrane did, at least in his flamboyant playing.


'When I left New York in the late fifties to go to Florida it was because I was unhappy in my personal life. I had friends in Florida and when I got there I thought I was in heaven. I played Miami Beach with a jazz trio and a good singer. There was jazz all around and I played everywhere. Joe Mooney had a beautiful quartet there


'All the tenor players coming out of the schools, they're all John Coltrane tenor players. You don't bear the Prez roots, the Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz roots that I think tell a much better story than John Coltrane did, at least in his flamboyant playing.


'There were good players and clubs all over the place. But then came Elvis and the Beatles and jazz in Miami just did not survive. For me then music
had strictly become a way to make a living, and there's no poorer way to
make a living. I had one of the ---better---jobs in Miami Beach because I
worked at a night club that stayed open a] I the year round, not just during
the winter season. I played shows and a little dance music and was just
about ready to blow my brains out! If you can't have that intense pleasure
that jazz brings you, what the hell are you in that business for?


‘I've always had an intense interest in American history and politics, and
as a result of this I became involved with my city's political life and I
ran for office in I97 I. I was urged and pushed to do it. Nobody thought I
could win, least of all myself. Who's going to vote for a piano player
working in a club in Miami? But they did, I don't know why. After that I was
on the Commission three or four years-it was a part-time job, you know. I
was satisfied that I was able to do things which I felt had some lasting
importance.


'I took the opportunity to go to work for an advertising agency for two
years and then I went to work for the Home Savings Bank, where I've been
since I978. I can't tell you how fortunate I am. I love the people I work
with. I like what I'm doing and I'm happy that I feel like I'm contributing
and I'm making a good living.


'I suppose I was the environmentalist on the commission, very much an
advocate of controlled growth. I fought like the dickens to save some major
tracts of pristine land before they could be built on. It was a good major
accomplishment. It'll be there long after I've gone.


'Over the years I was much involved with the Hollywood Jazz Festival, both
organising and playing and indeed played with Bobby Brookmeyer, Buddy de
Franco, Terry Gibbs and Scott Hamilton at various concerts. In I989 I tried
to reassemble the original Stan Getz Quintet to play there-minus Teddy
Kotick, of course, who had died. Stan was keen to do it and I talked to him
many times on the phone to his home in Malibu to try to arrange it. Bobby
wanted to do it too, and I planned to bring Frank Isola down from Detroit.
'By then Stan had the quartet with Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis and Rufus
Reid. Phenomenal!


‘Kenny was wonderful on that Anniversary album with Stan (EmArcy 838 769 2).
On Stella By Starlight he's superb. There's a lot of Stan on there which is great too, but there an also a lot of times when he's throwing away stuff. So many times you hear Stan playing just for effect.


'I did my best to get Stan to the festival but he was already ill and he'd decided that he couldn't go anywhere without a big entourage - a Japanese cook, his manager, his acupuncturist and his lady friend, and it kept on building in cost.
Of course our budget was limited and I finally just had to tell him that we couldn't do it. So Bobby and I played with the quartet that year very enjoyable. I was sad about the quintet, but I felt good that I had come back, I really did.'


The recording career of John Williams resumes in October 1994 when he leads
a quartet date to be recorded in Hollywood for Mitsui Johfu. Apart from John
the lineup will include his old friends Spike Robinson on tenor and Frank
Isola on drums.”
(Note on July 28, 1998: John has retired and lives happily with his wife Mary in Sebring, Florida. He visits Europe in October with Bill Crow and Frank Isola to play a tour with tenorist Spike Robinson.The group will record for the BBC and, it is hoped, make an album. The musicians will also be interviewed for the BBC by Alyn Shipton).

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Part 1 - The John Williams Interview with Steve Voce

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.





I will keep this introduction brief so as not to interfere too much with the tone and tenor of Steve Voce’s marvelous interview with pianist John Williams, the first-part of which is featured below.


After reading it, I was reminded of the late drummer Joe Dodge, a musician who was a prominent member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet during the mid-1950’s and who like John Williams left Jazz and went on to a career in banking services.


Joe, much like John Williams, was very self-deprecating about his abilities as a Jazz musician.


I served on a San Francisco chamber of commerce committee with Joe in the 1990’s and during one of these get-togethers I screwed up enough courage to ask him why he left Brubeck’s Quartet and the West Coast Jazz scene. [Joe was still playing as a hobby and was the drummer in a combo called The Swingmasters.]


His answer went something like this: “I had my fun and I had my fill, but it was time to go. As [the actor/director] Clint Eastwood says in one of his Dirty Harry movies: ‘A man has got to know his limitations.’ I knew where Dave wanted to go with his music and rhythmically I couldn’t take him there. My chops [technique] were basic and mostly home grown [self taught]. I was pretty much a time keeper who traded fours on occasion[four bar breaks with another instrument]. It was exhausting being on the road all the time and I wanted the security and stability of a day gig [a professional career] and the world of banking and finance offered that. It was a pretty simple trade off, really.”


As you read Steve's interview with pianist John Williams perhaps John, like Joe Dodge, had had his time in the [Jazz] sun and decided to take his life in another direction? The reasons for John's decision are explained in more detailed in Part 2 which will post to the blog tomorrow [4/26/2018].


By way of background, Steve is a British journalist and music critic who contributed regularly to The Independent and to Jazz Journal for over 40 years.


I am very grateful to Steve for allowing me to feature his work on my blog.




© -  Steve Voce;  copyright protected, all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.


“After galvanising the rhythm sections of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Charlie Barnet and others with his distinctive comping style, pianist John Williams dropped from sight in the late fifties. Now rediscovered, he talks about his heyday to STEVE VOCE.


THERE is a school of thought which holds that the fifties was the most productive decade in jazz history. It was not a time for revolution-all that had happened in the forties and was to begin again with the sixties, but the jazz which was recorded in the fifties remains by and large undated and fresh and frequently much better than its exponents were to record in later years. Buck Clayton, Mulligan, Davis, Getz, Ellington-a glance at the CBS or Verve catalogues for the decade testifies to the quality of the music.


It was John Williams's decade. His piano playing sparkled with original and inspired ideas and he swung his rhythm sections with a dedication and sense of time which few could match. In the conversation which follows (from which I have removed my questions) he frequently denigrates his own work, as he often does in general conversation. His friends have learned to ignore him when this happens, for he was one of the most satisfying and effective players of his time.
Of his time indeed, for at the end of the fifties he mysteriously vanished from the jazz scene, and it wasn't until 30 years later, when Spike Robinson stumbled across him by accident, that the puzzle was solved.


Some time later I wrote a piece in this magazine praising John's work [“Time Remembered,”  JazzJournal - June/July 1994] and someone in Florida showed it to him. Eventually we got in touch with each other and John and his wife Mary visited me and my wife when they came on a holiday to England.


I learned then where he had been since the fifties. Although his love of jazz remained undimmed, he had been disillusioned by the wasteful predations of the then contemporary jazz scene-a number of his friends had died from self-neglect and drug overdoses-and by the hard life of the touring musician. He decided to leave New York for Florida, where he has lived ever since.


At first John worked regularly in clubs in Florida but then turned to a new career which eventually led to him becoming an executive with the Home Savings Bank in Hollywood. Much involved in local politics, he was elected City Commissioner for five four-year terms, and involved himself in conservation work with such distinction that the John Williams Park in Hollywood is named after him to recognise his achievements. Until recently he worked with the annual Hollywood Jazz Festival, both as organiser and pianist, playing there with musicians as diverse as Bob Brookmeyer, Buddy de Franco, Terry Gibbs and Scott Hamilton. Shortly before Getz's death, John tried to reassemble the Stan Getz Quintet with Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Isola and John on piano to play at the festival. Stan's poor health intervened but Brookmeyer and John did play the festival together, and the reunion, charged by some of Bob's most recent compositions, struck sparks from both men, although Williams typically deprecates his own part.

On December 31, 1986 John was driving home through The Everglades from a gig and listening on the car radio to the traditional New Year's Eve jazz broadcast which took music from each of the different time zones throughout the night. It was midnight in Denver when he was knocked out by a quartet broadcasting from there featuring a wonderful tenor sax player. John was delighted when he heard the tenor player announce that they'd had trouble getting their drummer Gus Johnson into the place because he was under 21 (Gus is an old friend and working colleague of John Williams's and at the time of the broadcast was 73).


The next day John, in search of Gus, called the club in Denver where the group was playing and managed to speak to the tenor player, who turned out to be Spike Robinson. John congratulated Spike on the band, and Spike reminded him that when John had played in Denver with a Norman Granz concert tour in 1954 Spike had sat in with John at a jam session after the concert. Happy to have spoken to Spike, John thought no more about it.


Eight months later, when Spike was approached to play a gig in Clearwater, Florida, he suggested to the promoter that since John lived in the area he should be hired to play piano. It was the tapes of that concert that revealed to the rest of us that John was not only still alive, but playing as well as ever.


Unfortunately John Williams doesn't get the chance to play regularly, although he seems to sit in at a local club each Friday. On taped evidence his playing is as rhythmically turbulent and unpredictable as it always was and is now if anything more creative than before. He should certainly record again, and would be ideal for an album in Concord's Maybeck series.


`I began like most kids of my age, listening to jazz on the radio. My brother and I used to listen under the covers because we were supposed to be sound asleep. These broadcasts started at 11.30 at night. Those were great days for big band music. Unfortunately I didn't learn piano at all well technically. I took lessons as a youngster from the time I was eight and then by the time I was 12 1 was a freshman in high school and I got a chance to play with a local band whose members were considerably older than I was. My so-called street education started there, but that's all the formal training I've ever had with the exception of six months at the Manhattan School of Music many years later. I've obviously regretted all my life not having had more.


`I was a junior in high school in 1945. The war was on. Most of all the good players had been drafted into the service. There was a very good band called the Mal Hallett Orchestra, which was booked out of Boston and which played the eastern half of the United States. One of the members was from Vermont and he was home during a break. They needed a piano player. He knew me. knew the band that I was playing with, and he came to the job one night and asked if I would like to go on the road with what was then a big name band. Of course it took much persuading of my parents to convince them that if they let me go for the six-month period-it was from March 1945 until September or October, that I would come back and finish school in the fall. I was 16 at the time.


`There were other 16 or 17-year-old players on the band-Sonny Rich was one of the trumpet players. Sonny had a record player and all the Parker-Gillespie records - Hothouse, Groovin' High and all those. He used to sit with me and teach me all the changes and make me listen-it didn't take much persuasion, and that's really what turned me on so terrifically in 1945.


`A couple of good players from that band who went on to be well recognised included Buddy Wise from Topeka, Kansas. He was 17. Later on he was with Woody and he ended up being another of many many victims of drug abuse when he was 27. There was also the trumpeter Don Fagerquist, who went on to play with Les Brown and the trombone player Dick Taylor who was on Gene Krupa's Disc Jockey Jump. Those were players who taught me a lot when I was 16. Mal Hallett had a sweet big band during the thirties, but during the war years he had good arrangements by Dick Taylor and a fellow called Mo Cooper. It was a cooking big band, like so many others from that era.


`I celebrated VJ-Day with that band by playing at the Steel Pier, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That was some experience for a 16-year-old. But then I did go back home as I had promised and graduated from high school in 1946.


`The joy that I had playing, being paid for it and the thrill of it all meant that there was never any question in my mind about staying in the profession. That was a pretty poor decision at the time. So much had happened with the end of the war. First of all the big bands started to disappear into the woodwork faster than one could count. It wasn't more than a couple of years after that that television appeared on the scene so there were no more big band opportunities for someone with my relative inexperience and limited skill at my age. Nevertheless music was the thing, and I kept playing local clubs around Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and ended up in Lowell, Mass., playing with a nice little bebop group in 1947, and from there got a chance to go with the alto player Johnny Bothwell's big band in 1948.


`The business was so bad that we used to end up wondering if we were going to be paid that week, and some weeks we weren't. That was another good experience as far as meeting and playing with exceptional musicians was concerned. That probably lasted four or five months. It was in the Bothwell band that I first met Frank Isola, one of my very favourite drummers of all time, and the trombone player Dick Kenney. Again, Sonny Rich was there and there was a lot of bebop being played in that band.


`I'll never forget the time that we played a club up in Harlem and Frank and I went to the bar in the intermission, and who should be at the bar but Bud Powell. That blew our minds! We bought him a few drinks and got him to sit in. That was a real high spot. Naturally he was my favourite piano player at the time, and I guess he still is.


`I've always felt myself not as capable as I'd like to be in many areas of my playing, but my joy and the one true talent that I can feel strong about and not deny is the fact that I have a good sense of time. I'm a good time player, and that's where the thrill and the pleasure come from. In my view it's really where the joy in jazz comes from anyway. I'm really totally dismayed that so much has happened to jazz where that part of it has been sacrificed and when I hear some of that kind of music being played today I wonder how can they be having any fun? That was what brought me the pleasure. Sitting in the rhythm section and being part of the rhythm section more than being a soloist was what it was all about as far as I was concerned. That's what made the world go round. I recognise that people identified me as having a different rhythmic comping style. I don't think I imitated anyone to get it. It just evolved naturally.


`But if I was influenced in my comping, the one person that really did it dramatically in those years was Horace Silver. When Horace was playing with a group he really pumped that rhythm section. He put the air in it and made it buoyant. Nobody was going to sit down on their can on the time when Horace was working that rhythm section.


`That's where the exhilaration comes from. One of the things that distresses me today is that there are some incredibly skillful young players out there, but no one seems to be teaching them that if you have a three-man rhythm section the piano is one-third of that rhythm section. It should be played that way, but a lot of the time it doesn't happen.



`I was working one of my very first jobs with Stan Getz at the Hi-Hat in Boston. Bill Crow was the bassist and Al Levitt the drummer. I think it was a quartet in that first week before Brookmeyer came on. Al Levitt said to me "John, how do you do that? That's terrific, that comping thing that you're doing with your left hand". I specifically remember that I was very pleased, but I couldn't answer. All I could say was "I don't know, but I'm glad you like it". That was a big boost for me, because I was very insecure and knew where my failings were and to have someone say that my comping was a strength was very helpful.


'In regard to time in the forties and fifties, any 14 or 15-year-old player on the way up, if he was going to play with a local band or something, he was going to be influenced by Count Basie. Perhaps the first jazz solo anybody learned was Basie's on One O'Clock Jump. The stock arrangement copies off Count Basie's first 12 bars in the key of F, the blues. The problem was the youngster had to play two 12-bar choruses and they only wrote out the first one. Once he learned the first one then it was where do I go from here? He'd find something, probably eventually play the second chorus the same way all the time too, but once he'd got that first chorus down he knew what the time was, because Basie played it so good. And of course that little band that you played with when you were 13 or 14 played all of the Basie stocks-the one I was with did, anyway. Every Tub, Jumpin' At The Woodside, all of them. You can't miss the time there.


`I was late going into the army. All my friends were wiser than I. When we graduated from high school in 1946 with all the demobilisation and the troops coming home from the war they had to refill the ranks quickly. They left all those wondrous GI benefits in place as an inducement, and nobody had to go and get shot at. You could go in the service and didn't even have to stay in the full two years. I had just come off the road. I thought I knew what real wonderful life was like. Would I go in the services? Of course not. It was a dreadful mistake. I should have done it and I would have come out like my friends did and I would have had those benefits and I would have gone to school and hopefully would have bettered myself. But I thought that there was nothing like playing music. I wasn't going in the army. But of course I ended up there anyway. When the Korean war came they were looking for fresh bodies and I was drafted because I hadn't done my service before.


`So, I worked New Year's Eve with Charlie Parker and went into the army three weeks later. My only paid job with Bird was New Year's Eve 1950. I've still got the poster for the gig on my wall at home because I took it down from the wall where we played at the Rollaway Ballroom in Revere Beach near Boston. My dad had it on the wall of his garage until he died in 1980, and I've had it ever since!


`I had been in New York. After I left the Bothwell band I went to New York either in late '48 or '49 and worked out my 802 card. I decided I'd had three years of total economic hardship and finally my young brain decided that I had to find a way to make a living. I had an electronic background, because I'd worked for my dad who was an electrical contractor back in Vermont. TV was just becoming the in thing and it seemed like a practical thing to do which would give me a way of making a living and let me play jazz on the side. So I worked nights and I went to a TV technicians' school for eight months and worked out my 802 union card at the same time.


`I fell right back in with some wonderful players that I had known earlier like Frank Isola and Don Lanphere. I made a demo record with Babs Gonzales and Don Lanphere. We never got paid for it, but that was my first record date. Those were magic days when I began to get the chances to play with everybody. There were places to play all over the city. You may know an album called Apartment Jazz (Spotlite SPJ 146) which was an assemblage of old wire recordings that Jimmy Knepper had made. Jimmy and Joe Maini had a sub-basement on Upper Broadway-we called it the underground pad. They talk about it in the liner to the album, and I'm glad about that, because otherwise I wouldn't have remembered where it was. It was just one big room with an upright piano. I was there one time in the daytime and the only light that came in was through some glass blocks. It was only then that I realised that the apartment extended out under the sidewalk.


`Bird came by there many times to turn on. There was a lot of that. Somehow, I don't know how, I managed to avoid the heroin thing even though it was all around me. Whether it was because I was afraid of the needle or because I had too many friends that I'd lost, or maybe something to do with my upbringing, but whatever, thank God! So that was mainly why Bird would come by there, but also of course we would play. All the good players came by. It says on the album "John Williams, piano", and it was. I've always been thrilled about that.


`But I decided I had to make something of myself apart from playing jazz, so, in the spring of 1950, I went back to Massachusetts and put my new found skills as a TV repair man to work. I played nights around the Boston area. I had been set to be drafted into the army on January 21, 1951 when Charlie Parker had someone call me. He had a New Year's Eve gig in Boston at Revere Beach and wanted to know could I work with him. Could I work with him! I was thrilled to pieces. I arranged to meet him at the Hi Hat, and he was just as gracious as could be. We walked and talked and rode up to Revere Beach together. Of course I was worried sick, but he made it like velvet. So I did get to work with and be paid for one job with Bird.


`Immediately afterwards I was drafted and went into an army band at Fort Devens. I had met Al Cohn in New York, although at that stage I didn't know him well. He had lost his eye. His uncle owned a textile mill in an old mill town right near the section of Massachusetts where I was serving in the army. Chuck Andrus, a bass player friend of mine, was serving with me. We'd drive over to where Al was two or three times in the course of a month and we'd meet the trumpeter Sonny Rich, who lived nearby and we'd all play together with a local drummer.


`I got to know Al pretty well at this time. His father had wanted him to get out of music and learn about the textile business. Thank the Lord that didn't stick because Al went back to New York and became such a musical giant.


`When I got out of the army I went back to New York. Within a week I had joined Charlie Barnet's band. It was terrific, another dream come true, and Al Cohn, Ray Turner and Johnny Mandel were on the band. Johnny took me over to his home and played me all these tapes that he had made of the Elliot Lawrence band with Tiny Kahn on drums. That was one of those dream bands. I'll never forget that.



`All of a sudden out of a clear blue sky my old buddy Frank Isola called me up and told me that Stan Getz was looking for a piano player, and that I was to come down to Nola's, a set of studios at Broadway and 51st, to audition. I played at Nola's many many times. We used to chip in a few bucks each to hire the place and have sessions there. Anyway, I went there to audition and I got to go with Stan. Two long stints first began in January 1953 and the second in 1954. The first one had Al Levitt on drums for a while and Bill Crow on bass. Johnny Mandel played the first week or two on trombone with the band while we waited for Bobby Brookmeyer to work out his notice. He was playing piano with the Tex Beneke Orchestra. How about that! Johnny Mandel wrote Pot Luck at that time-the quintet recorded it later. The reason that there were two separate stints was that Stan disbanded to do a concert tour on his own in the fall of 1953. The photographs which I've sent you come from that period. They're poor quality because I had them made from existing prints that I had. Originally I had them done for Stan about four years ago at a time when we talked a lot over the 'phone when he was at his home in Malibu.


`Three of the pictures were taken on the trip we made by road between Washington DC and LA. I had only been with Stan about four months, so it would have been about May, 1953. We were on the road and as I remember the girls were very pretty along the way.


`We were working at The Blue Mirror in Washington DC which then was the jazz club in the city. It was a great jazz city in the early fifties. Every time you played Washington the good players came out of the wall. They were all over the place Earl Swope, Rob Swope, Bill Potts. Bill put together and wrote for that wonderful local band which worked under Willis Conover's name. Charlie Byrd used to work in an after hours club in the city. We got through at two o'clock and then there were all these private clubs all over the city where you could go and play until eight in the morning. We went to the place that Charlie was working with his trio and sat in almost every night that we were there.


`We closed on Sunday night at the Blue Mirror and we were supposed to open at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles on Friday night. Bobby Brookmeyer was going home to Kansas City and was going to fly out and meet us in LA. We left Al Levitt in Washington. I think that was his last week with the band. Frank was going to join later, and somebody from LA subbed until he did. I'm sorry to say I can't remember at this time just who it was.


`Anyway, it left three of us to go from Washington to Los Angeles in Stan's old stretch De Soto, longer than the usual car and with room for instruments and stuff.


So there was bassist Teddy Kotick, Stan and I. But Teddy didn't have a licence and didn't know how to drive. So Stan and I had to drive these three thousand miles between us. Now I wasn't too orderly in those days, but there were times when I felt a lot more orderly than some of the people I was working with and I'd assumed that we ought to leave Monday if we were going to open Friday three thousand miles away. But Stan, as always, had better things to do on Monday, namely some lovely young lady. That happened with him in every city we played. So he called Teddy and me at our hotel and told us that we couldn't leave until Tuesday. It was about five o'clock on Tuesday that we finally pulled out of Washington.


`Thankfully there was a friendly little druggist in Washington who was a real jazz enthusiast-he particularly loved Louis Armstrong as I recall-and with the help of his amphetamines we made it to LA in about 60 hours of driving time!


`Teddy was relegated to the front seat because he was a non-driver. Stan and I would take turns to drive eight hours, then wake the other guy up and he would drive eight hours. Of course, when you finished driving after eight hours you took a big swig of whiskey and lay down in the back seat while the other guy drove. We did so good that we even stopped in Kansas City for about six hours. Stan and I crashed out in a hotel while Teddy went to see his estranged wife Peggy (they got back together later). As you can see from the photo of the stop at Salt River Canyon, Arizona (we probably just stopped to relieve ourselves), with Stan and Teddy cheek to cheek, it was kind of a cuckoo ride. But not only did we make it to the gig, we pulled into Santa Monica at the Pacific Ocean about 10 o'clock on Friday morning. We stopped at Red Norvo's place. By pre-arrangement his wife had gotten us some rooms at a motel on the beach. I went down to the beach and fell asleep and ended up with one of the worst sunburns I've ever had in my life. I had to play that night and subsequent nights in real misery.


`We were at the Tiffany Club in LA at the same time as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Carson Smith and Larry Bunker were at The Haig. That was the origin of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless saga. The Tiffany Club and The Haig were only about 10 or 12 blocks apart, so every intermission we'd run out to the car, and head for The Haig and hope that we would hit it while they were playing. We'd listen to the band for 20 minutes or so and then back to The Tiffany. Chet and Gerry would do the same thing in reverse. It was during that period when I got to know Chet pretty well. We went to Chet's house one afternoon and jammed, and on another day Chet took Teddy and me down to Balboa Bay and took us sailing in his yacht as you can see from the photo.


`I think we were at Tiffany's for three or four weeks and then Frank Isola came out and joined the group. We went into a place called Zardi's at Hollywood and Vine and we stayed there all summer, for about three months. We all lived at the Elaine Apartments on Vine Street. There was a pool, and the picture that you see of the rhythm section was of us sitting round that pool at the Elaine. It takes me back, because on my feet are the rubber shoes that I had brought home from Korea five or six months before. The final picture is of Frank Isola warming up before the concert at the Milwaukee Auditorium. [Both of these pictures were published on page 10 of the December 1993 issue-S.V.] That was on the concert tour when Stan Getz At The Shrine was recorded. We went right across the country and played every major city and concert hall. We had Art Mardigan on drums with Stan's group. Frank was on the tour but he was then with Gerry Mulligan's Quartet. The others on the tour were the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.


`Right after that Frank came back to the Getz group. There was some confusion amongst record collectors because the day after The Shrine concert recordings were made; we made some more in the studios with Frank, who of course was still with Gerry, playing in our quintet instead of Art Mardigan.'


[There was some friction and rivalry between Getz and Mulligan. Bob Brookmeyer had already given Mulligan his notice in June 1954 when the famous Mulligan quartet concerts were recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Mulligan wasn't pleased when Frank recorded with Stan's group before he'd actually left Mulligan. When Frank did leave Gerry to join Stan's group, Mulligan drove off with Frank's drum kit in his car, and for a few days Getz had to hire drums for Frank. S.V.]


`I never understood why Norman Granz had left that fragment of my solo piano at the beginning of the Stan Getz At The Shrine album, sitting there all by itself before Duke Ellington introduces the band. I can't remember playing the piece, which I suspect is a blues I wrote called I'll Take The Lo Road. The chances for a pianist to warm up on that tour were so rare that whenever I saw a piano I'd rush to it. I must have been doing that before the concert when the sound engineers were coincidentally testing for level and recorded me. It was a real problem for a pianist out on a seven-week tour like that. I was called on to play maybe 45 minutes a day at each concert. You can't keep your hands in shape that way. So wherever we were, whenever anyone invited us to jam after the concerts I always accepted. And there was nearly always somebody in every town who asked us. Consequently I'd be up all night playing my heart out and then spend the next day travelling. It was a hard way to live!'


...To Be Continued in Part 2