James Williams (musician)
James Williams was born March 8, 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee. He began his formal piano studies at age 13, and was subsequently an organist at Eastern Star Baptist Church in Memphis, a position he held for six years. He earned a B.S. in Music Education at Memphis State University, where he also formed solid friendships with fellow Memphis pianists Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown. A devotee of the late Memphis piano giant Phineas Newborn, Jr., James took time to delve into his hometown’s rich jazz heritage, associating with pianist Harold Mabern, bassists Jamil Nasser and saxophonists George Coleman and Frank Strozier, among others.
At 22, Williams moved to Boston to accept a teaching position at the Berklee College of Music. A year later, he joined drummer Alan Dawson’s group, which provided support in the Boston area for touring artists including Art Farmer, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Pat Martino, Jean Carn, Red Norvo, and Arnett Cobb. In 1977, Williams recorded his first album as a leader, played his first concert featuring his original compositions, and first met Art Blakey. That encounter ultimately led to James’s resigning from the Berklee faculty for a four-year, 10-album tenure with the Jazz Messengers, as part of the famous lineup which included Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, Bill Pierce and Charles Fambrough. After leaving the Messengers in 1981, James remained in Boston, re-joining Alan Dawson and also playing independently with such artists as Thad Jones, Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, Chet Baker and Benny Carter.
In 1984, Williams moved to New York, residing in Brooklyn and becoming deeply involved in the city’s musical activities, omnipresent in jazz clubs not only as a performer but also as a devoted listener. He played, toured and recorded with such prominent artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, George Duvivier, Art Farmer, Kenny Burrell, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and Tony Williams.
As a leader, James worked in a broad range of formats. His own CDs comprise traditional piano-bass-drums trios; larger ensembles with several horns; jazz trio with the Boys Choir of Harlem and guest Diane Reeves; a unique four-piano format with rhythm section; a sextet with a front line featuring three master saxophonists; a classic setting for Clark Terry; a solo piano recital on the prestigious Maybeck series; and James’s last group, “Intensive Care Unit,” a jazz-gospel ensemble featuring two vocalists, saxophone and rhythm section.
After self-producing his own album Alter Ego for Sunnyside Records in 1984, he went on to produce albums for several other musicians, including Phineas Newborn, Jr., Harold Mabern, Donald Brown, Billy Pierce, Bill Easley, Tony Reedus and Geoff Keezer. In 1993, Williams focused his production activities under the umbrella of his company, Finas Sound Productions, Inc. The name is a phonetic tribute to Phineas Newborn, Jr., who pronounced his name “Fine’-us.” Finas Sound produced numerous concerts and recordings, including its highly-acclaimed “Musical Tributes” and the “The Key Players” series, both held at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City.
Williams was also a prolific composer with a unique voice. His pieces like “Arioso,” “Black Scholars” and “Alter Ego” embody memorable melodies and snappy rhythmic construction. Second Floor Music publishes a folio of solo piano arrangements by James for 13 of his original compositions. Several of his tunes appear on other artists’ albums, including those of Art Farmer, Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis, Gary Burton and Roy Hargrove.
Williams was also a dedicated and longtime educator. As early as 1975, in addition to his responsibilities at Berklee, he was a faculty member of the National Combo Camp. He also held a teaching position at the Hartt School of Music during the 1984-85 academic year, was a regular contributor to the International Association of Jazz Educators, and was artist-in-residence and presented clinics, demonstration-lectures and workshops at numerous institutions. He was a charter member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra under the direction of David Baker and Gunther Schuller.
In 1999, he became Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University, succeeding Rufus Reid and Thad Jones in that position. He taught a full-time load of ensembles and lessons, hosted dozens of pre-concert interviews and performed on the campus’s Jazz Room Series as well as with members of the classical faculty, and was a huge influence on his students until his unexpected death of liver cancer in 2004. The James Williams Archive is now part of the Living Jazz Archives on the William Paterson campus, containing his LP collection, original manuscripts, hundreds of performance tapes, photos and awards.
Blues band Lady Dottie and the Diamonds dedicated their debut album Livin' it up (2007) to the memory of James Williams.
- 1982: The Arioso Touch The James Williams Trio, Concord Jazz
- 1984: Alter Ego, Sunnyside
- 1985: Progress Report, Sunnyside
- 1987: The Magical Trio 1 , Emarcy with Ray Brown, Art Blakey
- 1987: The Magical Trio 2 , Emarcy, with Ray Brown, Elvin Jones
- 1989: Meet the Magical Trio, Emarcy
- 1991: Up to the Minute Blues, DIW, Sextett with Joe Henderson
- 1991: James Williams Meets the Saxophone Masters, DIW, with Joe Henderson, George Coleman, and Bill Pierce
- 1994: Truth, Justice & Blues, Intensive Care Unit, Evidence Music
- 1995: James Williams at Maybeck, Vol. 42, Concord
- 1998: We've Got What You Need, Intensive Care Unit, Evidence Music
- 2003: Jazz Dialogues, Vol. 1 Willpower, Vol. 2 Focus, Vol. 3 Out of Nowhere, Vol. 4 Music For a While
With Art Blakey
- In My Prime Vol. 1 (Timeless, 1977)
- In My Prime Vol. 2 (Timeless, 1977)
- In This Korner (Concord Jazz, 1978)
- Reflections in Blue (Timeless, 1978)
- Night in Tunisia: Digital Recording (Philips, 1979)
- One by One (Palcoscenico, 1979)
- Live at Montreux and Northsea (Timeless, 1980)
- Art Blakey in Sweden (Amigo, 1981)
- Album of the Year (Timeless, 1981)
- Straight Ahead (Concord, 1981)
With Art Farmer
- Art Farmer: PH.D (4/89) (Concord CCD-14055-2) w/Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, Kenny Burrell, James Williams, Rufus Reid, Marvin “Smitty” Smith.
With Tom Harrell
- Sail Away (Contemporary CCD 14054 and Contemporary CCD 14054-2)
- Visions (Contemporary CCD 14063-2)
With Karyn Allison
- Ballads - Remembering John Coltrane(Concord Jazz CCD-4950-2)
With Kenny Burrell
- Midnight at the Village Vanguard (1993) - Evidence
- Love is the Answer (1998) - Concord