Claude Williams

Exuberant jazz violinist

Although the rich impresario John Hammond was usually regarded as a benign influence in jazz, some musicians, Claude "Fiddler" Williams amongst them, had good reason to resent what they saw not as influencing but interfering.

Claude Gabriel Williams, violinist, guitarist and singer: born Muskogee, Oklahoma 22 February 1908; married (one son); died Kansas City 25 April 2004.

Although the rich impresario John Hammond was usually regarded as a benign influence in jazz, some musicians, Claude "Fiddler" Williams amongst them, had good reason to resent what they saw not as influencing but interfering.

Williams sat playing guitar happily in the Count Basie rhythm section of 1937, coming to the microphone to play violin in a sequence of soloists that included Buck Clayton and Lester Young as well as Basie. Williams's career was set to take off and to parallel theirs. But Basie was persuaded by Hammond to fire Williams and instead bring in the more incisive and skilful guitarist Freddie Green. On this occasion Hammond was right, because Basie and Green then formed a rhythm team that lasted until Basie expired in 1984. Williams shot off into 35 years of obscurity.

He was rediscovered in 1972 when Kansas City jazz returned to fashion and its roots were dug up. His worth as a solo jazz violinist was recognised at last, and he was able to jump on Hammond's grave until his last appearance, at 95, in December.

Mainstream jazz violin playing split broadly into two schools, one true to the classical approach to the instrument best represented by Joe Venuti and the other, a far more rugged style which might be called impressionist, by Stuff Smith. Williams was technically gifted enough to qualify for Venuti's salon, but was by nature a rugged and exciting jazz improviser, also happy with Smith's less formal manners.

When Joe Venuti played in Williams's home town of Muskogee, he became the 10-year-old's first inspiration. Venuti's performance was in the segregated city park and the young black boy had to watch through a hole in the fence. The youngster was already adept on the mandolin, guitar, cello and banjo. The day after the concert his generous parents took the cello away and replaced it with a violin.

Williams's first professional jobs were in local hotels in Muskogee and in the band led by Oscar Pettiford and his brothers. Moving to Kansas City in 1927, Williams joined the territory band led by Terence Holder. This was soon taken over by Andy Kirk and renamed The Twelve Clouds of Joy. Williams recorded with the band in 1929 and 1930.

He worked with more territory bands including that of Alphonso Trent, where he succeeded Stuff Smith. He became a member of the group led by Eddie Cole, whose younger brother Nat played the piano in the band.

In 1936 Count Basie asked Williams to enlist in his Barons of Rhythm in Kansas City. Williams travelled with the band when it moved to New York and played on the band's first recordings. Then came Hammond's intervention. The band was handicapped by the inability of several of the musicians to read music. They were all fine at building riffs, but hopeless when it came to everyday chores like accompanying dancers or stage shows. Green was to become the best rhythm guitar player in the world. Williams was outclassed.

Disconsolate, he returned to Kansas City and for many years travelled the "territory" (Midwest) with a variety of small groups. He returned to live in Kansas City in 1953. After his rediscovery in 1972 he was hailed as a star and recorded with the legendary Kansas City pianist Jay McShann. From then onwards Williams made albums under his own name. He toured Europe, visiting Britain and working in the Paris production of the Broadway show Black and Blue for six months in 1981. He toured with the "Masters of the Folk Violin" package in 1988. He was called in as a consultant for the 1996 film Kansas City.

From 1992 to 1996 Williams worked and toured with the Statesmen of Jazz, a truly all-star band that included Clark Terry, Buddy Tate, Milt Hinton and Al Grey. These were amongst the hardest-swinging musicians on the scene, and yet Williams was the most vibrant of them, soloing and adding touches to the ensembles with irrepressible glee and enthusiasm.

On one European tour with McShann, Williams's exuberance became too much for the bassist Gene Ramey:

I threatened to come home. Fiddler brought both his violin and guitar, and he played them at the highest pitch he could get them. I spoke to McShann first and then to Fiddler and I said, "You don't really have to play that loud. We're supposed to be a team, and one guy isn't supposed to walk off as the individual god of this thing."

The violinist was a guest soloist at President Bill Clinton's second inaugural ceremony and was awarded a National Heritage fellowship in 1998. He continued to record until 2000 when he made his last album.

Steve Voce



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