|The late, great James Williams|
I had met pianist Geoffrey Keezer at Bradley's in New York, who was good friends with Williams, and he gave me Williams' info in order to hook up some lessons. At that time, I was still living in Washington, D.C., so I would drive my 1984 Chevy Celebrity up to New York. (I remember it was a blinding rainstorm when I drove up for my first lesson. I was terrified driving across the Manhattan Bridge in a torrential downpour . Are they ever going to repair that bridge? C'mon, Bloomberg....) After getting lost in Brooklyn for a while, I found Williams' apartment.
Williams' was so down to earth, a really genuinely friendly person. He was extremely generous with his time. In fact, I believe the lesson lasted about four hours or more! I played piano for him, and he gave me some advice. He played some of his original tunes for me. I remember he showed me a really slick voicing for minor 11 chords, which I still use today. One of the hippest things Williams' said to me was regarding solo piano playing:" You don't have to play the whole time. You can play as if there is a bassist and drummer. Get comfortable with the space."(I have found this advice tremendously useful, and I regularly tell my students this. Many jazz pianists overplay when they are alone: they feel like they have to try to be Art Tatum in order to be interesting.)
I remember a bit of an awkward moment when I finally went to leave. Williams' had never told me how much he charged for lessons. "Pay me whatever you think is fair...." he offered. I wrote a check for what I figured a 4 hour lesson with James Williams was worth. I thanked him and then drove to my friend Andy Bachman's apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Bachman and his wife were nice enough to let me stay with them occasionally during these jazz fact-finding missions to New York. That night, Bachman showed me videos (that's right, videos.....) of a then up-and-coming TV show called Seinfeld. (I think I stayed up all night laughing my butt off......)
But I also remember the next time I spoke to James Williams on the phone. "Hey, I think you overpaid me for the lesson. I want to give you some money back....". "Uh, well.....why don't we just put it towards the next lesson?" I asked. " He agreed. I was really touched by his benevolence.
I would bump into James many times over about a decade. I was really shocked the last time I saw him before he died. He had lost a lot of weight. I didn't know it was so serious. We were both playing on a concert with three different bass players: Richard Davis, Eddie Gomez, and Buster Williams. I remember we were talking in the dressing room before the show, and there was a small upright piano in the room. Williams sat down and played some beautiful ballads. I got this sinking feeling that maybe he sort of knew he didn't have much time left.
I attended Williams' memorial service at St. Peter's Church on 54th and Lex. Like many of the events at this church, it was a veritable who's who of jazz. Williams had made a lot of friends in the community. I was almost moved to tears when pianist Mulgrew Miller gave a wonderful speech about how when he had moved to Memphis, he was asked to do a gig, but he didn't have a Fender Rhodes. Williams barely knew Miller, but offered Miller his own Rhodes, even though Williams had a gig that same night. It struck me how selfless Williams was, to give up his own instrument to someone else. That kind of magnanimity is rare.
If you are interested in hearing some of Williams' playing, you can go here to CD Baby, or go to Itunes: sadly, there is only one CD called Alter Ego, but it's a great CD with an all star lineup of saxophonists Billy Pierce, Bill Easley, bassist Ray Drummond, and the late drummer Tony Reedus. It features many of Williams' classic tunes.