Although there was no marching brass band or second-line parade, like a New Orleans-style funeral, Memphis pianist James Williams received a send-off worthy of his stature in the jazz world. "This man of ordinary name was no ordinary person," Mulgrew Miller wrote in a letter to Williams' family. His niece, Jacqueline Walls, noted during Williams' funeral at St. John Baptist Church last Saturday that now "he's playing to a different audience on a different stage."
Williams died of cancer on Tuesday, July 20th. He was just 53 years old.
While Williams' name might not be familiar to many on the local music scene -- he left town for Boston in 1973 when he was just 22 years old -- he helped define Memphis' jazz legacy in contemporary terms.
A graduate of the University of Memphis music program, Williams taught countless students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Dartmouth College, Howard University, the New England Conservatory, and Harvard. After spending a decade with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, he led his own sessions on more than nine albums and produced many others, including projects for Donald Brown and Billy Pierce.
But his musical hero was hometown legend Phineas Newborn Jr. In the late '80s, Williams founded the Contemporary Piano Ensemble -- a roster of five pianists, including Miller, Brown, Harold Mabern, and Geoff Keezer -- to showcase Newborn's work. He also formed a production company, Finas Sound, which staged numerous concert series in Newborn's honor.
"He was an interesting guy -- very diverse, an accomplished pianist and also a writer and arranger," remarked keyboardist Charlie Wood, who worked with Williams on his Christmas reunion concerts, traditionally held at King's Palace Café on Beale Street. "He had great chops, but he wasn't a hotshot soloist. He was a great scholar who could tell you anything about any tune. You could really hear the history of jazz in his playing.
"No one can play jazz in Memphis seven days a week. The only towns that can happen in are New York and San Francisco," Wood said, explaining why Williams -- and dozens of other jazz musicians -- left town for greener pastures over the last few decades. "When James came home to do his Christmas concerts, he knew he wasn't going to fill the Mid-South Coliseum. For his career, he needed to be in a place where jazz was really happening."
A native of the Washington Bottoms neighborhood in Midtown, Williams was eulogized as a generous friend who was quick to help others. One local musician recalled borrowing a keyboard from Williams for a gig in the early '70s, even though that meant the pianist would have to secure another instrument for his own performance. Other friends recalled his talent on the basketball court: Williams was a star point guard at Central High School, and, his niece Cheryl Ajamu remembered, he longed to be a professional player before he gave up that dream to pursue a career in music.
"James was such a gracious guy, and he was so interested in other people's music," Wood said, after a weekend of jam sessions celebrating Williams' life. "He was very encouraging, and he would always give me great advice. He made me want to play better, but I definitely learned as much from him as a person as I did as a musician."
From Stax soulsters Marvell and Carla Thomas to U of M professors such as Jack Cooper, Alvie Givhan, and Gene Rush, local and national figures paid tribute as hundreds of Williams' friends, family members, and fans packed St. John on Saturday afternoon and filled King's Palace Café in his honor later that night.
Onstage at King's Palace, there were too many players to mention. Pianists Givhan and Rush traded off with Wood, Donald Brown, Russell Wilson, David Torkanowsky, Chris Parker, and Rene Koopman. Saxophonists Cooper, Bill Easley, Bobby Watson, Bryant Lockhart, Kirk Whalum, Herman Green, and Gary Topper and trumpeters Bill Mobley, Johnny Yancey, and Melvin Robinson all sat in. Bassists Sylvester Sample, Jonathan Wires, and Sam Shoup also played, while Renardo Ward, Tom Lonardo, Mike Assad, and Tony Reedus -- Williams' nephew -- took turns providing the beat.
"The folks at Amro Music were really fantastic," Wood said. "Rick Jefferies and Richard Boyington got together and donated a baby grand for the proceedings. We could've made do with a keyboard, but it was great to have an actual piano.
"We played all kinds of tunes, basic stuff you'd do at a jam session. Of course, we played a few of James' songs too. The club was packed both nights. It was amazing. I heard so much over those 48 hours," Woods added. "I'm headed back to the woodshed immediately. It was one helluva send-off. There was only one guy missing, and he couldn't be there. We did the best we could without him."
For more information on Williams' life, visit JamesWilliamsPiano.com.