James Williams

Pianist with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers
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The Independent Online

Like the other great pianists who played for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, one of the most potent of all jazz groups, James Williams expressed himself with strong, individual musical character. But, like Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, George Cables and all the players who preceded him and came to fame in the role, he was given an education by the elderly drum master.



James Williams, pianist, teacher and bandleader: born Memphis 8 March 1951; died New York 20 July 2004.



Like the other great pianists who played for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, one of the most potent of all jazz groups, James Williams expressed himself with strong, individual musical character. But, like Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, George Cables and all the players who preceded him and came to fame in the role, he was given an education by the elderly drum master.

Whilst he was with the band in the 1970s Williams summed up what Blakey had taught him:

Blakey never says, "Play it this way." It's like father and sons - he sets examples. He puts you in tune with what you're supposed to do. You just listen to him and emulate what he does on your own instrument. He'll stay with the young guys and bring them up, and when they graduate, he'll find others. He's a real teacher.

Williams came comparatively late to jazz. He learned to play the piano in Memphis when he was 13, relishing the gospel music he played on the organ and sang in church for hours each Sunday. Studying Music Education at Memphis State University, he befriended two young pianists, Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown, both of them future members of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

At 22, Williams was accomplished enough to be invited to teach at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He stayed there for three and a half years, playing jazz in the evenings with the drummer Alan Dawson's group and as accompanist to jazz stars who visited the city.

He also worked with Billy Pierce, the tenor saxophonist who was to become his lifelong friend and who, too, was to play as a contemporary with Blakey.

It was at the third invitation that Williams finally joined the Jazz Messengers in 1977. Having stayed long enough to make a dozen albums with the band, Williams in his turn graduated from Blakey in 1981, returning to Boston, where he worked until in 1984 he was able to move to New York to lead his own trio and work with the top-class musicians.

As well as following up his gifts as an educator, Williams became expert at record producing, making albums of his own and others by his Memphis pianist colleagues Phineas Newborn and Harold Mabern.

Williams was very popular in Japan and Europe and made his last visit to England in May, travelling to Haslemere in Surrey, despite suffering from cancer, to play piano at a memorial concert for his driver in Britain, John King.

Steve Voce

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