© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“There are certain individuals in jazz history who, no matter what their other credits, will always be best known through one particular association, even if it was relatively brief. Just as Ben Webster never escaped the billing "formerly with Duke Ellington" (though he worked with the band for a total of barely four years), so was Lester Young's association with Count Basic (1936-40, occasional reunions in 1943-4 and thereafter until Prez died in 1959) the one fact of his life that would always be remembered by fans and historians.
The case of Joe Williams is not dissimilar. Williams worked with a number of other name bands; he was even in Lionel Hampton's orchestra at the same time as Dinah Washington. But the magic of his years with Basie, which (not counting a brief stint with a small Basie Combo in 1950) began late in 1954 and ended slightly over six years later, stamped him forever as one of the most unforgettable of the Count's alumni.
A master of the blues (as his Basie recordings made forever clear), Joe also has been for many years a preeminent delineator of popular songs, and an occasional demonstrator of the very demanding art of le jazz scat. It was Dave Pell's brillant idea to combine his forces with those of Prez Conference in an album showing all three facets of Williams' talent.”
- Leonard Feather
While working on a recent feature about tenor saxophonist Dave Pell and his Prez Conference saxophone quartet tribute to the memory of Lester Young [with arrangements by Bill Holman], the editorial staff at JazzProfiles came across a recording that the group did with singer Joe Williams entitled Prez and Joe [Gene Norman-Crescendo Records [GNPD 2124].
This in turn led to a joyous reconnection with many of Joe Williams’ recordings and needless to say we’ve been smiling ever since.
We wanted to remember Joe on these pages by highlighting three of our favorite recordings by Joe and with a concluding video tribute to him that features his outstanding version of Foolin’ Myself with Dave’s Prez Conference in accompaniment.
Of course, its difficult to mention Joe Williams’ name without also mentioning Count Basie’s virtually in the same breath. The two had a close association for almost thirty years. Indeed, as explained in these excerpts from John Litweiler’s insert notes to the 1993 CD reissuance on Verve of the 1956 recording of Count Basie Swings - Joe Williams Sings [Clef MG-C-678], their joining on this record became a milestone in both of their careers.
“Among the thousands of jazz albums recorded through the decades, the LP debut of singer Joe Williams with the Count Basie band, with its striking David Stone Martin cover portrait of the two, was one of the most popular. More than that, it was a milestone in the careers of both of its principals, coming at a time when both Basie and Williams sorely needed a boost.
The germ of this album came when Basie was at the virtual low point of his life as a bandleader. He was leading a septet at the Brass Rail, a night spot in downtown Chicago, when a popular local singer named Joe Williams sat in with the group. Williams was electrified by the experience; he later told interviewer Dempsey J. Travis (in An Autobiography of Black Jazz, Urban Research Institute, 1983) that it was "the swingingest seven-piece outfit you ever wanted to hear. . . . Those cats could play you into bad health!" A few years later, when Basie met Williams again in Chicago, he planted the seed by suggesting to Joe that he join the band.
This was Basie's problem: His classic late-Thirties band, one of the great ensembles of individualists in jazz's history, had broken up. Since it was impossible to replace such great soloists as trumpeter Buck Clayton, trombonist Dicky Wells, tenor saxmen Herschel Evans and Lester Young, or vocalist Jimmy Rushing, Basie in the Forties increasingly relied on his arrangers to take their place. The Swing Machine was the result. His 1950-51 septet wasn't really enough to satisfy his ambitions, and his subsequent return to leading a big band was a struggle. He not only needed the right musicians (only guitarist Freddie Green remained from Basie's earlier years), he needed the right repertoire and the right balance of composition and improvisation if his new Fifties band was not to be an anachronism.
Joe Williams seemed to have been a popular figure in Chicago jazz ever since anybody could remember. When he was only twenty he sang with clarinet great Jimmie Noone's band on the radio, and though he toured with several big bands in the years to come — most prominently with Lionel Hampton's band, in which he and Dinah Washington sang duets — he always wound up back in Chicago. There he sang for years in such bands as Jay Burkhardt's and Red Saunders's, in clubs and at one of America's great theaters, the Regal. When he finally made his first recordings, in the early Fifties, for the Parrot label, his repertoire included Leroy Carr's standard "In the Evening" and a relatively new one written by journeyman singer-pianist Memphis Slim, "Every Day I Have the Blues". But even in the best of times, popular Chicago jazz artists have always been hard-pressed to live by their music alone; and for Joe the problem was exacerbated by difficulties in his marriage.
Joe Williams was the catalyst for this new Basie band's self-discovery. Just as he'd told Rushing two decades earlier, Basie told Williams to emphasize the blues — not that Joe needed much urging: "I love the blues because it's so natural. It's life, man."
What Williams and his collaborators, arrangers Frank Foster and Ernie Wilkins, came up with here was a new kind of Basic blues, and we may never know how much Basic, himself a gifted editor of arrangements, contributed to the scores. Frank Foster arranged most of this album; his scores are not just settings, they reinforce Williams, providing accompaniments with their own intrigue — no easy task. He and Wilkins made the Basic sound heavier, larger, higher, lower, louder, softer; they brought bop-era sonic discoveries to swing.”
Among Joe’s many other recordings apart from the Basie band, two have always stood out for me and both were produced by George Avakian when after many years with Columbia, he moved to RCA Victor in the early 1960s.
George couldn’t have found a better setting to produce his first Joe Williams LP than the Newport Jazz Festival because Joe always broke up the place whenever he appeared there.
This was no less the case with Joe Williams at Newport ‘63 [RCA LPM/LSP-2762] and album that was billed as The entire program that rocked the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival.
Aside from the fact that Joe was in fabulous form on the evening of July 5, 1963 and enjoyed his usual, ecstatic rapport with the festival audience, the group supporting Joe on this outing is made up of some of the more magnificent players in the history of the music: Clark Terry, trumpet and flugelhorn; Howard McGhee, trumpet; Coleman Hawkins and Zoot Sims, tenor sax; Junior Mance, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Mickey Roker, drums.
In his liner notes to the original LP, producer Avakian commented:
“How many times has Joe Williams, the greatest break-it-up singer on the jazz scene today, stolen the show at the Newport Jazz Festival? A group of musicians were talking about it in the blue-and-white striped tent backstage, as Joe stood at the foot of the stairs ready to bound on-stage for his performance at the 1963 Festival.
"This is only the tenth year." "Count slow," said another, "and he'll have this one stolen, too."
In the next fifty minutes, as John S. Wilson wrote in The New York Times, "a responding wave of joy erupted in the audience at Freebody Park. Suddenly there was dancing in the grassy aisles and an enthusiastic, cheering surge toward the gaily colored platform where Mr. Williams was singing." A spontaneous chant went up when he had finished his last number—"We want Joe! We want Joe!" And all of it — Joe's entire program, the joyful response of the audience at the end, the clearing-off of the stage, Festival producer George Wein's spontaneous on-mike reaction and his final please for the audience to go back to its seats — is all here.
The story of this memorable evening really began exactly one year earlier. Joe Williams had done it again with a blazing set that closed the opening night of the 1962 Festival. "Gee," he said as he came off the stand, "I wish we'd recorded that!" The same night, we talked about the possibility of an RCA Victor contract when his current commitments were completed. Looking ahead, we decided then and there that if we made a deal, Joe's second RCA Victor album would be made at Newport. And that's the way it's happened.”
A few months later, George had Joe back in the studios at Webster Hall in New York City where he recorded Me and The Blues [RCA LPM=LSP-2879] with another group of stellar musicians that featured as soloists Thad Jones and Clark Terry on trumpet, Phil Woods on alto sax, Seldon Powell and Ben Webster on tenor sax and Hank Jones and Junior Mance on piano with a big band arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson.
George Avakian had this to say in his liner notes to the LP:
“As someone once said, the blues have what you need to get over them. The blues are a personal view of a slice of life; even if the slice is a good-sized sliver of trouble, the view of it can be ironic or even humorous.
Joe Williams is the blues, but like the blues he's a lot of things, too. As a brilliant entertainer, he knows how to gauge an audience and enlarge on its mood. He is equally at home in ballads and in up-tempo songs; his wide background and his ability to project both the meaning of a lyric and the emotional nuances of a turn of melody make him a singer for whom composers love to write. He is a superb showman who never relies on exaggerated movement or facial expression to punch a song across to an audience; he has no tricks or mannerisms of style; all he has is a splendid voice, warmth, and that rarest of qualities, sincerity.
Joe Williams grew up with the blues in Chicago, where he served a thorough apprenticeship among the great musicians and singers who flocked to the Windy City from all over the country just before and after the World War II years.
Broad as the blues are in subject matter and structure, there are several songs in this album which are not strictly blues at all, but Joe is the element that makes them all come out blues.