JOHN B. WILLIAMS "BASSICALLY SPEAKING"
I was born on February 27th, 1941 in the Bronx, New York, and lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem as the only son of a middle-class family surrounded by beautiful, talented women and beautiful music. Music was a staple in our house, while also drifting in through the back windows of our apartment every afternoon: Sonny Rollins practicing, practicing, practicing. He taught me that to practice is a lifestyle – as important as breathing - if you were serious about the music.
It all began with my sisters, Jackie and Joyce, who inspired me to play drums and piano. My Mother favored the quieter piano, although, eventually she relented and together with my elder sister Joyce, bought me my first Slingerland drum set at age twelve. I also learned to play Latin percussion (Congas, Bongos, and Timbales) do to my living in racially mixed 'Sugar Hill," As a teen I played drums at community events and then the piano with a neighborhood jazz group called "The Jazz Disciples." We won the Amateur Night contest at the famed Apollo Theatre three weeks in a row.
Another sister, June, convinced our mother that I should study ballet (she majored in Ballet at the High School Of Performing Arts in New York) to keep me off the streets. So much for my tough image! However, ballet exposed me to modem dance and the music of Stravinski, Copeland, Bernstein as well as Broadway musical theatre.
Yet another sister, Jean, played bass in her Seward Park High School orchestra, and she introduced me to the instrument that would stay with me for the next fifty years.
When I joined the Marine Corps in 1960, I returned to the drums which afforded me the opportunity to make extra money playing with local bands on the weekends. Soon there were too many drummers and not enough bass players and I switched back to the instrument that I loved.
A $100.00 bass was spotted in the window of a pawn shop in Jacksonville North Carolina was my first investment in an enriching history of U.S. and foreign concert tours, television and films.
My friend, Alex Lane gave me my first bass lessons while I was stationed at Camp LeJeunne U.S.Marine Base in North Carolina. Whenever we didn't have to pull guard duty on the weekend, a few of my New York buddies would pile in a car and drive up to New York City for the weekend and drive back to the base for Monday morning 9AM roll call. During this time I listened and tried to imitate the great bass players that I heard on recordings, on the radio, and in clubs: Paul Chambers, Jimmy Merrit, Wilbure Ware, Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Scott La Farro, Bob Cranshaw, George Duvivier, Richard Davis and Milt Hlnton. By 1962 my music was also influenced by Latin, Caribbean and Rhythm-&-Blues art forms.
In 1964, After my military discharge,1 began studying classical bass with Ron Carter and continued for three years. Thanks to his strict, no-nonsense training, I auditioned for, and got the chance to play with the legendary ."Horace Silver Quintet," playing alongside Bennie Maupin, Charles Tolliver and later Randy Brecker and Billy Cobham. That band stayed together for about two years. Horace taught me so much, especially about playing in tune, getting a groove, and not to Waste notes.
After my stint with Horace, I went on to play with Hugh Masakela, Dizzy Gellespie, Leon Thomas, Kenny Burrell, Jon Hendricks, Horace Parlam, Jimmy Smith, Grady Tate, Sir Roland Hanna, and recorded with Roy Ayres, Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land, Johnny Hammond Smith, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, and Benny Carter.
In 1969, adding classical and electric sounds to my bass rhythm, I was recommended to Doc Severinson, the musical director of "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson. To be a part of that great studio band. I grooved with Doc and that great band for seven years, four years in New York and three years in Los Angeles.
In 1972, shortly after relocating with some of Doc's key players to the West Coast, Billy Cobham (who had been my soulmate over the years) called and asked me to fly back to New York and play on his landmark recording, "Crosswinds." Doc granted me a two week leave and I was joined by George Duke and Garnett Brown, both of whom were living in Los Angeles. In New York we joined up with Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Lee Pastora, John Abecrombie, and Billy. That album was a milestone for all of us. Shortly after its release, Billy wanted to take the band on tour, but I chose to stay in L.A. with "The Tonight Show". While at the same time I was attending the International College where I majored in Music History.
In 1975, suffering from talk-show burnout, I formed my own band called "Expectations." The five-piece band featured saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Bill Mays, and later, Bobby Lyle, then Milcho Leviev, guitarist Mitch Foreman, percussionist Steve Forman, drummer Ted Hawk, and sound & special effects engineer Fred Stites.
The band was very innovative and earned rave reviews in all the top music magazines and newspapers, which resulted in the inevitable individual career advancements for most of the players and the group eventually dispersed. Afterwards, I continued on doing freelance work and recording with such artists as Benny Carter, Louie Bellson, Pearl Bailey, Laine Kazan, and Freddie Hubbard.
In the fall of 1976, I was asked to join the "Nancy Wilson Trio," playing alongside musical director and pianist Michael Wolff, and drummer Ralph Penland. That began a twenty-five year musical relationship with Nancy Wilson.
Then, actively persuing my solo career, I, recorded a cd co-leading a band with another long time friend, Bennie Maupin Titled "The Maupin/Williams project Live At Club Rhapsody."
In 1989, I accepted an invitation from Michael Wolff to be part of that great late night television band, "The Posse" on "The Arsenio Hall Show," where I could explore Funk, Acid Jazz and Hip-Hop. Because my 'imposing presence1 seemed the least likely to recite poetry, I began the popular, tongue-in-cheek, "John B. Williams Poetry Moment." What began as a lark became an ever-increasing interest of mine as I began to add spoken word to my music.
Performing at L.A. clubs such as Birdland West, Le Cafe, The Cinegrille, At My Place, and Maria Gibb's Jazz and Supper Club, I added dramatic (socially conscious) poetry and monologues to my music, a fusion which came about in part from my collaboration with Internationally acclaimed, Obie Award-winning playwright, Bradley Rand Smith. That collaboration gave birth to "Jazz Theatre," which combines the two art forms: theatre (spoken word) and jazz.
My love for the acoustic bass, reciting poetry and monologues has also provided me with acting opportunities. In the 1980s I played myself on the syndicated television series, "The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd," starring Blair Brown, and more recently I performed in the feature film, "The Tic Code," starring Gregory Hines and Polly Draper. I can also be seen in the feature film written and directed by Polly Draper on Nickelodeon titled:, "The Naked Brothers Band."
The Year 2000 ushered in a new musical mind set whereas I started scaling back on my career as a sideman and thinking more about my own solo career, I continued working with friends who were very inspiring artistically/musically like Michael Wolff's "Impure Thoughts Band," with whom I recorded several cds, Nancy Wilson, with whom I've always had creative freedom, Two years with the "Manhattan Transfer," whose work vocally was always a fascination and a challenge, My long time friend Bobby Mato's "Afro – Latin All Stars" band where I recorded several cds and have the opportunity to play Caribean Music which has always been my musical hearts desire, and a ten day Billy Cobham reunion with longtime friends, Randy Brecker, and Kenny Baron.
After a year of touring with that great band, I decided to strike out on my own with my first solo cd titled, "gratitude," which featured my "Nancy Wilson" band – mates: Llew Matthews piano, and Roy McCurdy Drums, with very special guest, Nancy Wilson.
Because of my love for musical theater and the spoken word, I'm releasing a spoken word cd based on the lives of my wife Jessica and myself titled, "Notes On Life Played In The Key Of Love," featuring the beautiful writings of Obie – award winning playwrite Bradley Rand Smith, the vocal stylings and acting talents of the beautiful and talented Jessica Williams, and myself, also performing monologs and performing on the acoustic bass. Which explores the trials of a singer and bass player dealing with the raising of a family while struggling to have careers in music.
Also currently, I just released my second solo cd for Alessa Records titled; "Arabesque
," which I recorded in Austria, with, except for Jessica Williams singing on two of the nine tracks, features all European musicians: Karen Asatrian piano/keyboards, from Armenia, Robert Pockfuss guitars from Vienna, Luis Robeiro percussion from Brazil, and Klemmens Marktl drums from Austria, Charly Schmid: tenor saxophone on "You're With Me," The wonderful keyboards of Llew Matthews performed on "So You Say" which features Jessica Williams. This cd was written with the exception of the title song "Arabesque," by Paul Motian, and "So You Say," by Djavan, by me, which makes this a very personal project where I can explore my compositional side, as well as performing on all Warwick electric basses. I want to thank my friend and executive producer and Alessa records president, Peter Guschelbauer for assembling these great musicians which made this cd a joy to make.