© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Here’s Part 2 of Steve Voce’s extended 1998 interview with pianist John Williams. As noted in Part 1, Steve is a British journalist and music critic who contributed regularly to The Independent and to Jazz Journal for over 40 years.
In this segment of Steve’s brilliant interview, John is extremely candid about why he left the Jazz scene in the early 1960s and I daresay that many Jazz fans from that era can relate to his reasons for doing so. The music changed dramatically and not necessarily for the better.
Without going into a lot of technical detail, both Parts 1 and 2 of the original manuscript had to be modified to fit [work on] the blogging platform. It took a bit of doing and I think I corrected most of the errors caused by the transition, but should you find any mistakes the fault lies with me.
“'WHEN Stan disbanded in the fall of 1953, I went back to New York. I decided
to study at the Manhattan School of Music and worked there for six months. I
joined in the second semester but realised that I had gone in over my head.
Also they were still teaching heavy classical courses which didn't interest
me and I didn't really have the ears for it. After I got out of the school I
went back with Getz and I was with him for about a year.
' Stan was tough to work for because of his own problems. I usually felt
like I was the mediator on the band. God knows I had my own psychosis, but
not anything compared to what Stan had. I'd find myself saying to other
players on the band "When Stan said what he said to you he didn't really mean it. He said it because ...--Remember the old one-liner about the guy who says "Hey
man, how're you doing?" and the other guy says "What do you mean by that?"?
That was the Stan Getz group. It was then that I realised that you've got to
take people as they present themselves, and you mustn't keep looking for the real reasons as to why they are what they are. You can't keep looking for the excuses. Stan was tough to work for, but I was of course thrilled to be a part of the group. When we came back to New York and the band broke up a second time, I went through yet another personal fiasco.
' I have always had an intense interest in American history, and I thought
I'd get myself an education under the GI Bill Of Rights, which I was
entitled to do after my service in Korea. I went down to New York University
and I signed up with the intention of taking a major in American history and
a minor in music. That way I could take the music courses that I wanted to but I could also get something that really interested me for my future and to give me some stability. I'd gotten everything signed, sealed and accepted, when I discovered that if you interrupted your schooling for more than I2 months, all your benefits were cancelled. Since I had left the Manhattan School Of Music a year and three months earlier this applied to me. I really fouled up because right there I
cancelled all opportunities to get the higher education that I really needed and wanted to have. I've regretted it all my life.
'I stayed in New York, played some wonderful sessions, made a lot of records
and went out on the road a lot with Zoot Sims, which was the high point for
me musically. Zoot was always my favourite and, any of these records that
I'm on, if I had any good moments-and they're very rare and very few-that I
feel were OK, I can take you back to a few of the Zoot Sims records, because
that was the only time that I really felt that I began to open up and play with some potential. Zoot wouldn't have it any other way with his playing. Because of his incredible time, the whole thing in playing with him was to your wings out, get up there and soar. I loved Zoot Sims.
'But of course, the need to earn a living meant that I had to play music other than jazz. A lot of good musicians would from time to time get a chance to go on the Vincent Lopez Orchestra which worked at the Taft Grill for 25 years. It was in the Hotel Taft, a block from Charlie's Tavern. You played two hours at lunch time and another two hours at dinner time.
‘The salary was terrific and at both lunch a dinner there was a radio remote
which gave you extra money. But playing second piano to Vincent Lopez was
not terrific, but I stuck it out for three months from Christmas to spring. It was great because you'd get out of there by 8.30 so if you had a bebop gig you could do it afterwards. Also you could make the union floor in between your day and your evening shots.
'Vincent Lopez used to leave the stand to talk to the diners. We'd play all
this bad stuff, dance things that would have made Sammy Kaye sound good by
comparison There were two Baldwin grands on different levels, one for me in the rhythm section and one for him to play his solos on If he was talking to the people and didn't get over there I played the solo. Lots of times he'd let me do so whether he whether there or not. I remember one time when we were playing The Man I Love Vincent was late running over to the piano, sat down and came in two beats out of place. I just kept playing louder and louder at the right spot in the time until he shifted. From that moment on I was on his list!
'I was always the last one on stage. I'd run out of that subway station and run that block, into the building and onto the stage. Of course everyone else had had to be there to get their instruments out, and I used to try to arrive at the last minute.
'St Patrick's Day came and I came running in almost late as usual. The band was up on the bandstand wearing green hat,, green boots and green bow ties. I couldn't handle that. I got up on the bandstand and Vincent said "Go get your suit". I said " don't think I wanna do that and of course I got fired on the spot.'
'While I was working that gig I'd go on and play all the jazz I could. One night I had been out drinking and playing, and I'd been in bed probably an hour and a half when, at about four in the morning, Hank Jones called. My wife answered, woke me up and handed me the phone. "Al and Zoot are doing , recording gig down at Webster Hall tomorrow," said Hank. "I just got a chance to go out of town and I can't make it. Will you do it for me?" I said "Sure, Hank, of course. What time?"
'I got up the next morning with no recollection of this whatsoever. It hadn't registered at all. My wife remembered, but she didn't say anything to me. I went to the lunchtime gig at the Taft Grill and was given a message by the Maitre D. to call this number. I called in and it was the A & R man.
"Where the hell are you? You're supposed to be here!"
‘Where?’ I asked.
"Here! You're supposed to be doing this record date with Zoot and Al'
'I said "For Christsakes, I'm working at the Taft Grill! Don't you think that . . ."
“Hank Jones said that he'd called you and YOU were going to sub for him.”
‘Don't you think that if I had been given a chance to play for Zoot and AI I'd be there?’
"You mean he didn't call you'?"
‘No, he didn't call me.--’"
'The next day I'm sitting playing piano for Vincent Lopez and all of a sudden I looked down and saw Hank Jones and his big brother Elvin sat at a table near the stand. They're mad.
'I said "Hi. Hank."-
'He growled some extremely uncomplimentary things and said "What're you trying to do, set me up?"
'I couldn't believe what he was telling me. Before he and Elvin left he knew that I was innocent. He believed that I had no recollection. My wife said "Yeah, of course he called you.---I was mortified that I would screw up so badly, but most important, I missed a date with Al and Zoot together. It all resolved nicely and Hank and I got on speaking terms again. I guess he knew how much I would not have missed that date!
'I tried to book Hank for the Hollywood Festival a couple of years ago. When I got him on the phone I said "Is this Hank Jones?" He said "Yeah," and I said "Hank, this is the piano player that you and Elvin were going to beat the hell out of at the Taft Grill---. He remembered the whole thing and fell out laughing.
'I was on a 1956 album of AI Cohn's called The Saxophone Section (Epic
LN3278). The tracks were intermingled with me on some and Hank on the rest.
I had what I thought were for me two or three good spots, but Hank was fabulous.
'There was a loft down in West Broadway owned by a guy who had a decent grand piano there. In those days everyone wanted to play. The loft was a great place. It wasn't a drug hangout. It was just a guy's apartment. We'd be sitting round in Charlie's Tavern on 7th Avenue at four o'clock in the morning. You could call him up at four o'clock in the morning from Charlie's and ask "Can we come down and play?" and he'd say "Sure." We'd go down there and play for four or five hours and walk out at eight or nine in the morning.
'You know me well enough now to know the insecurities I felt at that time (and still do) about my playing. But when I played with those guys, particularly Zoot and Al, the doors would get opened. I can remember walking out in the morning sunlight and thinking ---”My God. That was O.K!" Of course there was always some serious drinking involved and maybe some other minor vices from time to time, but there were no serious drugs down there, which was important. I'd go home feeling like I was on top of the world. It always felt like it had been the best fun I'd ever had and seven or eight hours later I'd wake up and say "Boy, that was terrific last night!" Then I'd start with the doubts and say "Well, I think it was. I had a little to drink . . ." and the old insecurities would come rushing back!
'I've always envied the artists who paint. An artist who sits up all night and paints something on canvas can see what he's done the next morning. And of course today the kids have all this marvellous recording equipment. Back then, if anyone had a wire recorder like Jimmy Knepper had, he was really something unique. So the next time we were down there at the loft three or four days later I'd do the same thing again and open that door and this door, and have the same good time. But I never had any verification when I needed to have my mental pump primed the next day.
'I made at least three quartet albums with Zoot, and I did one with Brookmeyer and Zoot [The Modern Art Of Jazz, under Zoot's name and currently available on Fresh Sound FSR-CI3 25] and I wrote a tune on that called Down At The Loft. I called it that because you used to go down to the Village to go up to the loft. Didn't turn out too badly.
'And I loved Al Cohn. And I loved the two of them together. The sun shined when I played with Stan, too. The difference between those two and Stan was that with Stan you were always on stage making an appearance, and that always helped me self-destruct a little bit extra. I don't want to sound unfair to Stan, but I think a lot of his contemporaries would say the same. Even with all his skills and his incredible ear, he was showbiz too much of the time. He would inflict that on himself. He had the same problem "I've got to impress, I've got to perform," night in, night out. The best times with Stan were like so many times with Al and Zoot. If you got Stan in a corner and were playing with him in a non-performing environment, the meat and potatoes would come out. He was a most wonderful player, but again I think Stan's
minor paranoia, as with so many players, hindered him a lot.
'You suggest that I influenced Bob Brookmeyer's piano playing? I would say it was vice versa! Bobby was such an excellent piano player and, as I've said, he went out on the road as Tex Beneke's piano player. I think a lot of his skills as an arranger and a writer stem from his ability to express himself on the piano. Time and time again when we were on the road if there was ever a piano available where we were with Stan, we'd sit down and play four-handed piano. I learned a lot from Bobby right there. I was always in awe of Bobby. His ear and his harmonic ability. He is an exceptional musician and in the bleak era in the sixties when my kind of jazz disappeared into the woodwork, Bob went through a rough time for I0 years when he nearly killed himself because he apparently couldn't get a handle on his genius. But he got over that and came back to New York from the West Coast and look what happened! Nobody in my view has ever written better swinging and modern big band arrangements than Bobby wrote for the Mel Lewis band.
'I'm not a member of the Flat Earth Society that you've referred to in some of your articles, but I have great difficulty when jazz leaves the time. Bobby is at the point now where his mind is so full of sound and music and harmony, that he's experimenting in ways that are worlds apart from true jazz, and I have to say that I felt personal disappointment when he started to write these things where time is no longer a major factor. But oh, those things that he wrote for that Village Vanguard band of Mel's in the mid-eighties! Anyone who wants to listen to those and tell me that those pieces aren't an advanced form of pure true jazz when the time is doing what it's doing and all of the things that he's written in there are doing what they're doing - that was a real peak in jazz to me. I have no doubt that he's one of the major figures in jazz today. And I know what a personal loss it was for Bobby when Al Cohn died. I know they had the highest regard and respect for each other and enjoyed each other's music as much as they did each other's friendship.
'I made two trio albums for Mercury, one with Bill Anthony on bass and Frank
Isola on drums was done in September 1954, a month or so before the Shrine
concert, and the other was done in two sessions in June 1955 with Bill and Dick Edie on one and Chuck Andrus and Frank or the other.
'Bobby Shad hired Leonard Feather to write the album notes. I waited to Leonard to call me or whatever, and he never did. Finally I got through the mail from him a questionnaire. It was almost like a government form. I didn't like it because he was finding things out about me but not really asking me anything to do with my opinions about music or anything about playing. I filled out my name address and social security number, whatever it was he was asking, and then I wrote something about my feeling for him to review, not to put in quotes and put on the back of the album cover.
'I was badly embarrassed when the album came out and all he had done was to
take what I had said and print it verbatim. If I were going to write my own notes, I wouldn't have said what I'd written in notes for him. I was trying to tell him how thrilled I felt about the time, particularly about playing with Zoot and Al. They epitomised what I felt and wanted to play like They were my heroes. When he printed those remarks I felt, who am I to say these things and have them on the album cover Of course they keep being quoted from time to time and each time it embarrasses me anew!'
'I never recorded with him, but I was the only pianist the Gerry Mulligan Sextet ever had! I was at a session in a New York apartment with Gerry one time and we were standing out on a rooftop drinking and talking. Finally I'd had enough to drink so that I could tell Gerry what I thought of rhythm sections without pianos in them. I really harangued him. "Everything sounds so flat without a piano. Go ahead with all your harmonic creativity, but for Pete's sake give me a rhythm section!"
'He had just expanded from a quartet to a sextet and was going out on a package tour. With himself he had Jon Eardley, Zoot and Bob Brookmeyer as his front line. Those are four incredible players. They had a lot of things written but they also had a lot of genuine creativity and they'd often have four intertwining lines going. But again, a two-piece rhythm section. Very flat. It didn't do anything for me.
'A few days later on a Friday Gerry called me and said "John, you wanna join the group? I've got a concert tour with Carmen McRae and others and we're opening in Columbus on Monday then on to Ann Arbor and so on".
'I said "Gerry, I'd love that, but this is Friday and you're going out on Monday". Besides that I was booked that Monday night at Birdland and another gig which was to be recorded, and also I had a booking to record with the Larry Sonn big band. I made the decision that I should go with Gerry, especially after having shot my mouth off to Gerry about the piano. So I cancelled all three.
"OK." he said, "You'll ride with Bobby and we'll meet in Columbus."
"But Gerry," I said. "This is a concert tour. I need something to work with.
You got any charts?"
"No," he said. "We'll work it out at the time."
'Well, it became very obvious that the minute Gerry had decided to add a piano he'd actually changed his own mind again.
'I got in the car with Bobby and we rode to Columbus. "Bobby," I said, "the guy's given me no charts, no lead sheets and no indication of what we're going to play. He hasn't used a piano before and as far as I can see he's made no preparation for one. What the hell's going on?"
'Bobby drove and from New York to Columbus he did his damnedest to try to sketch out the formats of some of the sextet's more famous numbers while I wrote them down. When we got to the concert I hit on Gerry again. "Don't worry about it," he said, and it was obvious that he was already regretting that he had taken me on.
'We got on the concert stage and, thanks to Bobby, I had some idea of what was going on. You know the word “stroll"? It means when the piano player lays out and lets the rest of the rhythm section carry on. We'd play something and I'd just begin to feel it was going to be all right, to begin to cook and feel that this was working when Gerry would turn round and say "Stroll!" and I'd have to drop out. Then he'd turn around and say "Come back!"
'You can't do that! You cannot build the time element of the machine, you can't put the wings up and put the buoyancy in the time and then let it all go phhhh! And then come back in and rise again from ground zero. It bothered me tremendously because I just was not prepared. And Gerry was apparently determined that I be not prepared.
'The next night was at Ann Arbor in the University Of Michigan where we had a massive big audience, then we went to Cincinnati. On the fourth night we were back in Philadelphia at the Academy Of Music and Gerry came to me and he said "John, I don't think I want to continue with the piano". So he paid me and sent me back to New York.
'Of course I was greatly relieved because, other than Bobby, I was getting zero help as to what was supposed to be happening. And I couldn't handle that stroll, come back in, stroll, come back in. That is no way to run a rhythm section! So I was Gerry Mulligan's only piano player. Besides that, don't ever forget this - Gerry Mulligan wants to be his own piano player. He doesn't want anyone else to play the piano anyway! He used to do that at sessions and frankly none of us ever cared too much for it because he wasn't working in the rhythm section, he was creating.
'My disappointment about piano players in rhythm sections goes back to the sixties. When I left New York and went to Miami I only turned around twice and all of a sudden Miles and those guys are going into this free thing. I'm sitting in Miami and I'm working with a nice group when we get to the bass solo and the bass player just drops the time altogether and starts to play a solo, totally out of left field. It was madness from my point of view! Why would you build this castle in the air and then just demolish it and forget it? To me that, and when, further down the road, they got into fusion and all that, call it what you will but don't call it jazz.
'We all evolved as jazz did. You can go back and listen to ragtime and it's happy music, right? Dixieland! Is there anything more joyful and happy than that? It's joy.
Zoot Sims, John Williams and Frank Isola in the loft joyful because the time is happy. The big bands, bebop, just the same. You can take a Charlie Parker solo and dissect it and everything in it is a gorgeous beat beautiful melody all worked right around the time. Nowadays, it seems to me, many of the players are playing meaningless "exercises" and sounding very angry. What happened to the fun?
'However, I am very relieved to see so many brilliant young players coming along now. Perhaps it's because of the schools. But whatever, some kind of return to reality has taken place and the young players today at least seem to be reaching back and trying to establish these roots before they do their things. There was none of that in the sixties and seventies. Then it was like taking Bach and Beethoven and saying "Forget that, that's nothing".
'I read an article, was it by one of the Harper Brothers or some young player where he asked "Who says that we should try and play our own music until we can understand Charlie Parker's music?" To me that was very eloquent. You listen to Bird today and nobody has been able to do what he had done. So much has beer wasted. And I have a personal animosity that I might as well tell you about. It's what seems to have happened to all the tenor players as a result of John Coltrane. They don't seem to go back to early John Coltrane when he was less involved with exercises, I will call them disrespectfully! In the big bands run by the young players many of the trumpets and trombones are superb, a lot of the piano players are outstanding-maybe I'm generalising, but all the tenor players coming out of the schools, they're all John Coltrane tenor players. You don't hear the Prez roots, the Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz roots that I think tell a much better story than
John Coltrane did, at least in his flamboyant playing.
'When I left New York in the late fifties to go to Florida it was because I was unhappy in my personal life. I had friends in Florida and when I got there I thought I was in heaven. I played Miami Beach with a jazz trio and a good singer. There was jazz all around and I played everywhere. Joe Mooney had a beautiful quartet there
'All the tenor players coming out of the schools, they're all John Coltrane tenor players. You don't bear the Prez roots, the Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz roots that I think tell a much better story than John Coltrane did, at least in his flamboyant playing.
'There were good players and clubs all over the place. But then came Elvis and the Beatles and jazz in Miami just did not survive. For me then music
had strictly become a way to make a living, and there's no poorer way to
make a living. I had one of the ---better---jobs in Miami Beach because I
worked at a night club that stayed open a] I the year round, not just during
the winter season. I played shows and a little dance music and was just
about ready to blow my brains out! If you can't have that intense pleasure
that jazz brings you, what the hell are you in that business for?
‘I've always had an intense interest in American history and politics, and
as a result of this I became involved with my city's political life and I
ran for office in I97 I. I was urged and pushed to do it. Nobody thought I
could win, least of all myself. Who's going to vote for a piano player
working in a club in Miami? But they did, I don't know why. After that I was
on the Commission three or four years-it was a part-time job, you know. I
was satisfied that I was able to do things which I felt had some lasting
'I took the opportunity to go to work for an advertising agency for two
years and then I went to work for the Home Savings Bank, where I've been
since I978. I can't tell you how fortunate I am. I love the people I work
with. I like what I'm doing and I'm happy that I feel like I'm contributing
and I'm making a good living.
'I suppose I was the environmentalist on the commission, very much an
advocate of controlled growth. I fought like the dickens to save some major
tracts of pristine land before they could be built on. It was a good major
accomplishment. It'll be there long after I've gone.
'Over the years I was much involved with the Hollywood Jazz Festival, both
organising and playing and indeed played with Bobby Brookmeyer, Buddy de
Franco, Terry Gibbs and Scott Hamilton at various concerts. In I989 I tried
to reassemble the original Stan Getz Quintet to play there-minus Teddy
Kotick, of course, who had died. Stan was keen to do it and I talked to him
many times on the phone to his home in Malibu to try to arrange it. Bobby
wanted to do it too, and I planned to bring Frank Isola down from Detroit.
'By then Stan had the quartet with Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis and Rufus
‘Kenny was wonderful on that Anniversary album with Stan (EmArcy 838 769 2).
On Stella By Starlight he's superb. There's a lot of Stan on there which is great too, but there an also a lot of times when he's throwing away stuff. So many times you hear Stan playing just for effect.
'I did my best to get Stan to the festival but he was already ill and he'd decided that he couldn't go anywhere without a big entourage - a Japanese cook, his manager, his acupuncturist and his lady friend, and it kept on building in cost.
Of course our budget was limited and I finally just had to tell him that we couldn't do it. So Bobby and I played with the quartet that year very enjoyable. I was sad about the quintet, but I felt good that I had come back, I really did.'
The recording career of John Williams resumes in October 1994 when he leads
a quartet date to be recorded in Hollywood for Mitsui Johfu. Apart from John
the lineup will include his old friends Spike Robinson on tenor and Frank
Isola on drums.”
(Note on July 28, 1998: John has retired and lives happily with his wife Mary in Sebring, Florida. He visits Europe in October with Bill Crow and Frank Isola to play a tour with tenorist Spike Robinson.The group will record for the BBC and, it is hoped, make an album. The musicians will also be interviewed for the BBC by Alyn Shipton).