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John B. Williams

Biography

I was born on February 27th, 1941, in the Bronx, New York, and lived there 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 inside our house, And drifting in through the back windows of our apartment every afternoon were the sounds of Sonny Rollins practicing. He taught me that to practice is a lifestyle – as important as breathing – if you were serious about the music.

My sisters, Jackie and Joyce, encouraged me to play drums and piano. My mother favored the quieter piano, eventually relenting and together with my elder sister Joyce, bought me my first Slingerland made drum set at age twelve.

Living in the racially mixed Sugar Hill neighborhood, I also learned to play Latin percussion (Congas, Bongos, and Timbales.) 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 and out of trouble. (So much for my tough image!) However, ballet exposed me to modern dance and the music of Igor Stravinski, Arron Copeland, and Leonard Berstein as well as Broadway musical theatre.

Yet another sister, Jean, played acoustic 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, the acoustic bass.

As a teen I played drums at community events and then the piano with a neighborhood jazz group we called “The Jazz Disciples.” We won the Amateur Night contest at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem three weeks in a row. But, the bad elements of the streets forced me to make a life altering choice. I decided to join the United States Marine Corps back in 1960.

My friend, Alex Lane, gave me my first lessons while I was stationed at Camp LeJeunne 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 into a car and drive up to New York City to visit our wives, girl friends and check out the thriving Jazz scene, then drive back to the base in time for Monday morning roll call. While I was on leave in Jacksonville, N.C., I found an acoustic bass in the window of a pawn shop that I bought for $100. During this time I tried to imitate the great bass players that I heard on recordings, radio, and in the New York Jazz clubs. Names like, PaulChambers, Jimmy Merrit, Wilbur Ware, Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Scott LaFaro, Bob Cranshaw, George Duvivier, Richard Davis and Milt Hinton.

In 1964, after my military discharge, I studied classical bass with Ron Carter 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, Randy Brecker, and Billy Cobham. Horace taught me so much, especially about playing in tune, getting a groove, and to not waste notes. Horace also introduced me to the electric bass guitar.

After two years with Horace, now playing both acoustic and electric basses, I went on to play with Hugh Masakela, Dizzy Gillespie, Leon Thomas, Kenny Burrell, Jon Hendricks, Horace Parland, Jimmy Smith, Grady Tate, Roland Hanna, and record with Roy Ayers, Bobby Hutchinson, Harold Land, Johnny Hammond Smith, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.

In 1969, thanks to the help and recommendations from the great studio and jazz bassist Bob Cranshaw , I developed a reputation around New York as an electric , as well as acoustic bassist. I was recommended to Doc Severinson, the musical director for “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson. I grooved with Doc and that great band for seven years, four years in New York (where I also shared the electric bass chair with Bob Cranshaw for “Sesame Street.”) and three years in Los Angeles. In 1972, shortly after relocating to the West coast with some of Doc’s key players, 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.”

Around 1974, I enrolled in “The International College” which was located in Los Angeles, and closed in the mid – 80s. I studied music history. The school was an experimental university that had no campus or classrooms. You would interview with a particular professor, and upon acceptance, Pay for your books, tuition, and travel to the residence of the professor. In my case, my teacher, professor Byron Cantrell, Ph.D. Musicologist, lived in Los Angeles and every week we would meet at his home for my lesson and weekly assignment. So with the required school books, all my study’s /assignments were done at home or on the road, (as I was still doing the “Tonight Show” and doing road-trips with Doc’s show band on weekends.) Proffessors,, like Lawrence Durrell, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Anais Nin, and Marshall McLuhan resided both, abroad as well as the US.

In 1975, suffering from talk- show burnout, I formed my own band called “Expectations.” The six-piece band featured saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Bill Mays, and later, Bobby Lyle, then Milcho Leviev, guitarist Mitch Foreman, percussionist Steve Foreman, drummer Ted Hawk, and special effects and sound engineer Fred Stites. The band was innovative and received rave reviews in some of the top LA 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 free-lance, recording, and touring with such artists as Benny Carter, Louie Bellson, Pearl Bailey, Freddy Hubbard and Laine Kazan.

In the fall of 1976, I was asked to join the “Nancy Wilson Trio,” playing alongside musical director/pianist Michael Wolff and drummer Ralph Penland. That began a great twenty-five year musical relationship with the great Nancy Wilson.

In 1989, I accepted an invitation from Michael Wolff and Arsenio Hall to be part of that great late night television band, “The Posse” on the new “Arsenio Hall Show,” where I brought my experience in late night television from my years working with Doc Severinson on the “Tonight Show.” This new show enabled me to explore Funk, Acid Jazz and Hip-Hop music. And because my ‘imposing presence’ seemed the least Likely to recite poetry, the writers and Arsenio had me begin the popular, tongue-in-cheek, “John B.Williams Poetry Moment.” What began as a lark on the show, became An ever-increasing interest of mine as I was fortunate to be introduced by Michael Wolff to his friend, Obie Award-winning playwright, Bradley Rand Smith, who invited Michael and myself to be cast-members in a play he had written titled “Mohave.” I was so inspired by my first acting experience that Bradley recommended that I should add spoken word to my music.

So, I started performing what we called, “Jazz & Theatre” which combines the two art forms: theatre (spoken word) and Jazz. NightClubs, such as Birdland West, Le Café, The Cinegrill, At My Place, and, actress Marla Gibb’s Jazz and Supper Club. At these venues, I introduced Bradley’s dramatic and socially conscious monologues to my music.

My love for the acoustic bass and reciting poetry and monologs has also provided me with acting opportunities. In the 1980’s l played myself in a recurring roll on the syndicated television series, “The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd,” starring Blair Brown, and also 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, where I started to scale-down on my work as a side man and to pursue my solo career, continuing to work with friends who were inspiring to me artistically as well as musically, like being a part of Michael Wolff’s “Impure Thoughts Band,” with whom I recorded several CDs; Nancy Wilson who always allowed me creative freedom; two years with “The Manhattan Transfer,” whose work vocally was always a fascination and challenge; My long time friend, Bobby Mato’s “Afro-Latin All Stars” band, with whom I recorded several CDs and having the opportunity to play Carribean music, which has always been one of my musical heart’s desires; And a ten day Billy Cobham reunion with long time friends, Randy Brecker and Kenny Baron.

Actively pursuing my solo career, I recorded a CD co-leading a band with another long time friend, Bennie Maupin, titled “The Maupin Williams Project” recorded live at the Club Rhapsody in Okinowa, Japan. After a year 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: pianist Llewelyn Matthews, drummer Roy McCurdy, and special guest, Nancy Wilson.

Because of my love for theatre and spoken word, I recorded a CD based on the ‘Jazz Lives’ of my Wife, Jessica Williams, and myself titled,”Notes On Life Played In The Key Of Love,” featuring the beautiful writings of Obie-award winning playwright, BradleyRand Smith, the vocal stylings and acting-talents of the beautiful and talented Jessica Williams, and myself, reciting monologs and performing on the acoustic bass. The. CD explores the trials and triumphs of a singer and Jazz bass player struggling to have both a personal relationship, raise a family and have a career in music.

In 2010, after relocating my family to Culver City, CA. I was asked to apply for, and later received from the City Council an appointment to serve on the Culver City Cultural Affairs Commission where I have served as a Commissioner from November 2012 to the present.

In 2013, I released my second solo CD project for Alessa records titled, “Arabesque,” which I recorded in Hagenber, Austria featuring all European musicians: Karen Asatrian piano/keyboards, from Armenia, Robert Pockfuss guitars from Austria, Luis Robeiro percussion from Brazil, Klemmens Marktl drums from Austria, Charly Schmid saxophone from Austria, on track #8, Llewelyn Matthews keyboards from USA on track #5, and Jessica Williams from USA vocals on tracks #’s 2 & 5. With the exception of the title song “Arabesque” written by drummer Paul Motian, and “So You Say,” by Brazilian guitarist/composer, Djavan, all other tracks are originals by the band.

In 2014, I was asked by Alessa record’s producer and friend, Peter Guschelbauer to record a follow up CD. After some thought, I decided it was time to look back on my blessed career and pay tribute to the man I started out with, The great Horace Silver. So with the help of my friend, pianist and arranger: Llewelyn Matthew’s great arrangements of 10 of my favorite Horace Silver compositions, I flew back to Hagenberg, Austriac, where Peter had assembled for me four great musicians for me to record, my third and current solo CD, “The African Queen.” Which also features my favorite vocal song stylist/Wife; Jessica Williams who also is my cd cover model.

This is my finest work to date. Playing with these incredible musicians brought out my best and made this a meaningful ‘thank you’ to The Great Horace Silver, the man from whom I owe my successful music career. My thanks to Austrian musicians: Lorenz Rabb on trumpet, New York native Andy Middleton on saxophones, Oliver Kent on piano, and Klemmens Marktl on drums.

All my recordings are available on this web page and CDbaby.

And the musical adventures continue.

Jessica