The Troy Street Observer

Mar 8, 1951: Pianist James Williams Born

Pianist, bandleader, composer, and educator James Williams was born in Memphis on March 8, 1951. If you were listening to jazz in Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, James Williams was a part of your life. He was on every bandstand in town, as a sideman or leading groups of his own. He was teaching at Berklee and active in the community, and releasing LPs on the Concord and Sunnyside labels. And he was helping to build the scene.

James Williams
Pianist and educator James Williams

Williams grew up in blues- and gospel-drenched Memphis, where Phineas Newborn, Jr. was his strongest influence. In 1973 he took a teaching post at Berklee, striking up a friendship and musical collaboration with Alan Dawson. That came to a temporary halt in 1977, when Art Blakey offered Williams the piano chair in the Jazz Messengers. He joined a potent lineup that included Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, and Bill Pierce, but his base remained in Boston. When he left the Messengers in 1981, he resumed his active playing and composing career, forming an ubiquitous trio with Dawson and John Lockwood, and staying in Boston until 1984.

Williams was a regular all over town, at Lulu White’s, Michael’s Pub, the Starlight Lounge, and the Willow (he called it “the Willow Performance Center” when talking to the audience), and he was deeply committed to Boston jazz. He was generouos with his time and he worked to bring people together through his activity with the Boston Jazz Society and the Jazz Coalition. He organized or participated in innumerable benefit concerts (one of which will be featured here May 4). He was a well-liked and well-respected member of the jazz community.

Williams died of cancer 20 years after leaving Boston, but those years were packed with accomplishment. He recorded with his Magical Trios, made CDs with Joe Henderson and with Clark Terry, organized the amazing four-piano front line called the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, formed the gospel-meets-jazz group Intensive Care Unit, started his own production company, Finas Sound Productions, and in 1999, was named director of jazz studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ. But it seemed like he never stayed away from Boston for long—there was always a gig or a tribute or a benefit drawing him back.

To the music. Here is a short clip featuring a Williams solo. There is a link with this clip that points to the entire performance.

Here is James with “Bohemia After Dark” with the Magical Trio that included Ray Brown and Elvin Jones.

And here is one with Art Blakey and an augmented Jazz Messengers (James solos at about the 2:40 mark).

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