Sunday, October 20, 2019

Part 1 - The John Williams Interview with Steve Voce

I am bringing this piece up again in anticipation of posting Part 3 of Steve's interview with John Williams on these pages tomorrow, Oct 21, 2019. You can locate Part 2 if the interview in the sidebar in the "Featured Article" section.
© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I will keep this introduction brief so as not to interfere too much with the tone and tenor of Steve Voce’s marvelous interview with pianist John Williams, the first-part of which is featured below.

After reading it, I was reminded of the late drummer Joe Dodge, a musician who was a prominent member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet during the mid-1950’s and who like John Williams left Jazz and went on to a career in banking services.

Joe, much like John Williams, was very self-deprecating about his abilities as a Jazz musician.

I served on a San Francisco chamber of commerce committee with Joe in the 1990’s and during one of these get-togethers I screwed up enough courage to ask him why he left Brubeck’s Quartet and the West Coast Jazz scene. [Joe was still playing as a hobby and was the drummer in a combo called The Swingmasters.]

His answer went something like this: “I had my fun and I had my fill, but it was time to go. As [the actor/director] Clint Eastwood says in one of his Dirty Harry movies: ‘A man has got to know his limitations.’ I knew where Dave wanted to go with his music and rhythmically I couldn’t take him there. My chops [technique] were basic and mostly home grown [self taught]. I was pretty much a time keeper who traded fours on occasion[four bar breaks with another instrument]. It was exhausting being on the road all the time and I wanted the security and stability of a day gig [a professional career] and the world of banking and finance offered that. It was a pretty simple trade off, really.”

As you read Steve's interview with pianist John Williams perhaps John, like Joe Dodge, had had his time in the [Jazz] sun and decided to take his life in another direction? The reasons for John's decision are explained in more detailed in Part 2 which you can read as the Featured Article in the sidebar of the blog.

By way of background, Steve is a British journalist and music critic who contributed regularly to The Independent and to Jazz Journal for over 40 years.

I am very grateful to Steve for allowing me to feature his work on my blog.

© -  Steve Voce;  copyright protected, all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.

“After galvanising the rhythm sections of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Charlie Barnet and others with his distinctive comping style, pianist John Williams dropped from sight in the late fifties. Now rediscovered, he talks about his heyday to STEVE VOCE.

THERE is a school of thought which holds that the fifties was the most productive decade in jazz history. It was not a time for revolution-all that had happened in the forties and was to begin again with the sixties, but the jazz which was recorded in the fifties remains by and large undated and fresh and frequently much better than its exponents were to record in later years. Buck Clayton, Mulligan, Davis, Getz, Ellington-a glance at the CBS or Verve catalogues for the decade testifies to the quality of the music.

It was John Williams's decade. His piano playing sparkled with original and inspired ideas and he swung his rhythm sections with a dedication and sense of time which few could match. In the conversation which follows (from which I have removed my questions) he frequently denigrates his own work, as he often does in general conversation. His friends have learned to ignore him when this happens, for he was one of the most satisfying and effective players of his time.
Of his time indeed, for at the end of the fifties he mysteriously vanished from the jazz scene, and it wasn't until 30 years later, when Spike Robinson stumbled across him by accident, that the puzzle was solved.

Some time later I wrote a piece in this magazine praising John's work [“Time Remembered,”  JazzJournal - June/July 1994] and someone in Florida showed it to him. Eventually we got in touch with each other and John and his wife Mary visited me and my wife when they came on a holiday to England.

I learned then where he had been since the fifties. Although his love of jazz remained undimmed, he had been disillusioned by the wasteful predations of the then contemporary jazz scene-a number of his friends had died from self-neglect and drug overdoses-and by the hard life of the touring musician. He decided to leave New York for Florida, where he has lived ever since.

At first John worked regularly in clubs in Florida but then turned to a new career which eventually led to him becoming an executive with the Home Savings Bank in Hollywood. Much involved in local politics, he was elected City Commissioner for five four-year terms, and involved himself in conservation work with such distinction that the John Williams Park in Hollywood is named after him to recognise his achievements. Until recently he worked with the annual Hollywood Jazz Festival, both as organiser and pianist, playing there with musicians as diverse as Bob Brookmeyer, Buddy de Franco, Terry Gibbs and Scott Hamilton. Shortly before Getz's death, John tried to reassemble the Stan Getz Quintet with Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Isola and John on piano to play at the festival. Stan's poor health intervened but Brookmeyer and John did play the festival together, and the reunion, charged by some of Bob's most recent compositions, struck sparks from both men, although Williams typically deprecates his own part.

On December 31, 1986 John was driving home through The Everglades from a gig and listening on the car radio to the traditional New Year's Eve jazz broadcast which took music from each of the different time zones throughout the night. It was midnight in Denver when he was knocked out by a quartet broadcasting from there featuring a wonderful tenor sax player. John was delighted when he heard the tenor player announce that they'd had trouble getting their drummer Gus Johnson into the place because he was under 21 (Gus is an old friend and working colleague of John Williams's and at the time of the broadcast was 73).

The next day John, in search of Gus, called the club in Denver where the group was playing and managed to speak to the tenor player, who turned out to be Spike Robinson. John congratulated Spike on the band, and Spike reminded him that when John had played in Denver with a Norman Granz concert tour in 1954 Spike had sat in with John at a jam session after the concert. Happy to have spoken to Spike, John thought no more about it.

Eight months later, when Spike was approached to play a gig in Clearwater, Florida, he suggested to the promoter that since John lived in the area he should be hired to play piano. It was the tapes of that concert that revealed to the rest of us that John was not only still alive, but playing as well as ever.

Unfortunately John Williams doesn't get the chance to play regularly, although he seems to sit in at a local club each Friday. On taped evidence his playing is as rhythmically turbulent and unpredictable as it always was and is now if anything more creative than before. He should certainly record again, and would be ideal for an album in Concord's Maybeck series.

`I began like most kids of my age, listening to jazz on the radio. My brother and I used to listen under the covers because we were supposed to be sound asleep. These broadcasts started at 11.30 at night. Those were great days for big band music. Unfortunately I didn't learn piano at all well technically. I took lessons as a youngster from the time I was eight and then by the time I was 12 1 was a freshman in high school and I got a chance to play with a local band whose members were considerably older than I was. My so-called street education started there, but that's all the formal training I've ever had with the exception of six months at the Manhattan School of Music many years later. I've obviously regretted all my life not having had more.

`I was a junior in high school in 1945. The war was on. Most of all the good players had been drafted into the service. There was a very good band called the Mal Hallett Orchestra, which was booked out of Boston and which played the eastern half of the United States. One of the members was from Vermont and he was home during a break. They needed a piano player. He knew me. knew the band that I was playing with, and he came to the job one night and asked if I would like to go on the road with what was then a big name band. Of course it took much persuading of my parents to convince them that if they let me go for the six-month period-it was from March 1945 until September or October, that I would come back and finish school in the fall. I was 16 at the time.

`There were other 16 or 17-year-old players on the band-Sonny Rich was one of the trumpet players. Sonny had a record player and all the Parker-Gillespie records - Hothouse, Groovin' High and all those. He used to sit with me and teach me all the changes and make me listen-it didn't take much persuasion, and that's really what turned me on so terrifically in 1945.

`A couple of good players from that band who went on to be well recognised included Buddy Wise from Topeka, Kansas. He was 17. Later on he was with Woody and he ended up being another of many many victims of drug abuse when he was 27. There was also the trumpeter Don Fagerquist, who went on to play with Les Brown and the trombone player Dick Taylor who was on Gene Krupa's Disc Jockey Jump. Those were players who taught me a lot when I was 16. Mal Hallett had a sweet big band during the thirties, but during the war years he had good arrangements by Dick Taylor and a fellow called Mo Cooper. It was a cooking big band, like so many others from that era.

`I celebrated VJ-Day with that band by playing at the Steel Pier, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That was some experience for a 16-year-old. But then I did go back home as I had promised and graduated from high school in 1946.

`The joy that I had playing, being paid for it and the thrill of it all meant that there was never any question in my mind about staying in the profession. That was a pretty poor decision at the time. So much had happened with the end of the war. First of all the big bands started to disappear into the woodwork faster than one could count. It wasn't more than a couple of years after that that television appeared on the scene so there were no more big band opportunities for someone with my relative inexperience and limited skill at my age. Nevertheless music was the thing, and I kept playing local clubs around Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and ended up in Lowell, Mass., playing with a nice little bebop group in 1947, and from there got a chance to go with the alto player Johnny Bothwell's big band in 1948.

`The business was so bad that we used to end up wondering if we were going to be paid that week, and some weeks we weren't. That was another good experience as far as meeting and playing with exceptional musicians was concerned. That probably lasted four or five months. It was in the Bothwell band that I first met Frank Isola, one of my very favourite drummers of all time, and the trombone player Dick Kenney. Again, Sonny Rich was there and there was a lot of bebop being played in that band.

`I'll never forget the time that we played a club up in Harlem and Frank and I went to the bar in the intermission, and who should be at the bar but Bud Powell. That blew our minds! We bought him a few drinks and got him to sit in. That was a real high spot. Naturally he was my favourite piano player at the time, and I guess he still is.

`I've always felt myself not as capable as I'd like to be in many areas of my playing, but my joy and the one true talent that I can feel strong about and not deny is the fact that I have a good sense of time. I'm a good time player, and that's where the thrill and the pleasure come from. In my view it's really where the joy in jazz comes from anyway. I'm really totally dismayed that so much has happened to jazz where that part of it has been sacrificed and when I hear some of that kind of music being played today I wonder how can they be having any fun? That was what brought me the pleasure. Sitting in the rhythm section and being part of the rhythm section more than being a soloist was what it was all about as far as I was concerned. That's what made the world go round. I recognise that people identified me as having a different rhythmic comping style. I don't think I imitated anyone to get it. It just evolved naturally.

`But if I was influenced in my comping, the one person that really did it dramatically in those years was Horace Silver. When Horace was playing with a group he really pumped that rhythm section. He put the air in it and made it buoyant. Nobody was going to sit down on their can on the time when Horace was working that rhythm section.

`That's where the exhilaration comes from. One of the things that distresses me today is that there are some incredibly skillful young players out there, but no one seems to be teaching them that if you have a three-man rhythm section the piano is one-third of that rhythm section. It should be played that way, but a lot of the time it doesn't happen.

`I was working one of my very first jobs with Stan Getz at the Hi-Hat in Boston. Bill Crow was the bassist and Al Levitt the drummer. I think it was a quartet in that first week before Brookmeyer came on. Al Levitt said to me "John, how do you do that? That's terrific, that comping thing that you're doing with your left hand". I specifically remember that I was very pleased, but I couldn't answer. All I could say was "I don't know, but I'm glad you like it". That was a big boost for me, because I was very insecure and knew where my failings were and to have someone say that my comping was a strength was very helpful.

'In regard to time in the forties and fifties, any 14 or 15-year-old player on the way up, if he was going to play with a local band or something, he was going to be influenced by Count Basie. Perhaps the first jazz solo anybody learned was Basie's on One O'Clock Jump. The stock arrangement copies off Count Basie's first 12 bars in the key of F, the blues. The problem was the youngster had to play two 12-bar choruses and they only wrote out the first one. Once he learned the first one then it was where do I go from here? He'd find something, probably eventually play the second chorus the same way all the time too, but once he'd got that first chorus down he knew what the time was, because Basie played it so good. And of course that little band that you played with when you were 13 or 14 played all of the Basie stocks-the one I was with did, anyway. Every Tub, Jumpin' At The Woodside, all of them. You can't miss the time there.

`I was late going into the army. All my friends were wiser than I. When we graduated from high school in 1946 with all the demobilisation and the troops coming home from the war they had to refill the ranks quickly. They left all those wondrous GI benefits in place as an inducement, and nobody had to go and get shot at. You could go in the service and didn't even have to stay in the full two years. I had just come off the road. I thought I knew what real wonderful life was like. Would I go in the services? Of course not. It was a dreadful mistake. I should have done it and I would have come out like my friends did and I would have had those benefits and I would have gone to school and hopefully would have bettered myself. But I thought that there was nothing like playing music. I wasn't going in the army. But of course I ended up there anyway. When the Korean war came they were looking for fresh bodies and I was drafted because I hadn't done my service before.

`So, I worked New Year's Eve with Charlie Parker and went into the army three weeks later. My only paid job with Bird was New Year's Eve 1950. I've still got the poster for the gig on my wall at home because I took it down from the wall where we played at the Rollaway Ballroom in Revere Beach near Boston. My dad had it on the wall of his garage until he died in 1980, and I've had it ever since!

`I had been in New York. After I left the Bothwell band I went to New York either in late '48 or '49 and worked out my 802 card. I decided I'd had three years of total economic hardship and finally my young brain decided that I had to find a way to make a living. I had an electronic background, because I'd worked for my dad who was an electrical contractor back in Vermont. TV was just becoming the in thing and it seemed like a practical thing to do which would give me a way of making a living and let me play jazz on the side. So I worked nights and I went to a TV technicians' school for eight months and worked out my 802 union card at the same time.

`I fell right back in with some wonderful players that I had known earlier like Frank Isola and Don Lanphere. I made a demo record with Babs Gonzales and Don Lanphere. We never got paid for it, but that was my first record date. Those were magic days when I began to get the chances to play with everybody. There were places to play all over the city. You may know an album called Apartment Jazz (Spotlite SPJ 146) which was an assemblage of old wire recordings that Jimmy Knepper had made. Jimmy and Joe Maini had a sub-basement on Upper Broadway-we called it the underground pad. They talk about it in the liner to the album, and I'm glad about that, because otherwise I wouldn't have remembered where it was. It was just one big room with an upright piano. I was there one time in the daytime and the only light that came in was through some glass blocks. It was only then that I realised that the apartment extended out under the sidewalk.

`Bird came by there many times to turn on. There was a lot of that. Somehow, I don't know how, I managed to avoid the heroin thing even though it was all around me. Whether it was because I was afraid of the needle or because I had too many friends that I'd lost, or maybe something to do with my upbringing, but whatever, thank God! So that was mainly why Bird would come by there, but also of course we would play. All the good players came by. It says on the album "John Williams, piano", and it was. I've always been thrilled about that.

`But I decided I had to make something of myself apart from playing jazz, so, in the spring of 1950, I went back to Massachusetts and put my new found skills as a TV repair man to work. I played nights around the Boston area. I had been set to be drafted into the army on January 21, 1951 when Charlie Parker had someone call me. He had a New Year's Eve gig in Boston at Revere Beach and wanted to know could I work with him. Could I work with him! I was thrilled to pieces. I arranged to meet him at the Hi Hat, and he was just as gracious as could be. We walked and talked and rode up to Revere Beach together. Of course I was worried sick, but he made it like velvet. So I did get to work with and be paid for one job with Bird.

`Immediately afterwards I was drafted and went into an army band at Fort Devens. I had met Al Cohn in New York, although at that stage I didn't know him well. He had lost his eye. His uncle owned a textile mill in an old mill town right near the section of Massachusetts where I was serving in the army. Chuck Andrus, a bass player friend of mine, was serving with me. We'd drive over to where Al was two or three times in the course of a month and we'd meet the trumpeter Sonny Rich, who lived nearby and we'd all play together with a local drummer.

`I got to know Al pretty well at this time. His father had wanted him to get out of music and learn about the textile business. Thank the Lord that didn't stick because Al went back to New York and became such a musical giant.

`When I got out of the army I went back to New York. Within a week I had joined Charlie Barnet's band. It was terrific, another dream come true, and Al Cohn, Ray Turner and Johnny Mandel were on the band. Johnny took me over to his home and played me all these tapes that he had made of the Elliot Lawrence band with Tiny Kahn on drums. That was one of those dream bands. I'll never forget that.

`All of a sudden out of a clear blue sky my old buddy Frank Isola called me up and told me that Stan Getz was looking for a piano player, and that I was to come down to Nola's, a set of studios at Broadway and 51st, to audition. I played at Nola's many many times. We used to chip in a few bucks each to hire the place and have sessions there. Anyway, I went there to audition and I got to go with Stan. Two long stints first began in January 1953 and the second in 1954. The first one had Al Levitt on drums for a while and Bill Crow on bass. Johnny Mandel played the first week or two on trombone with the band while we waited for Bobby Brookmeyer to work out his notice. He was playing piano with the Tex Beneke Orchestra. How about that! Johnny Mandel wrote Pot Luck at that time-the quintet recorded it later. The reason that there were two separate stints was that Stan disbanded to do a concert tour on his own in the fall of 1953. The photographs which I've sent you come from that period. They're poor quality because I had them made from existing prints that I had. Originally I had them done for Stan about four years ago at a time when we talked a lot over the 'phone when he was at his home in Malibu.

`Three of the pictures were taken on the trip we made by road between Washington DC and LA. I had only been with Stan about four months, so it would have been about May, 1953. We were on the road and as I remember the girls were very pretty along the way.

`We were working at The Blue Mirror in Washington DC which then was the jazz club in the city. It was a great jazz city in the early fifties. Every time you played Washington the good players came out of the wall. They were all over the place Earl Swope, Rob Swope, Bill Potts. Bill put together and wrote for that wonderful local band which worked under Willis Conover's name. Charlie Byrd used to work in an after hours club in the city. We got through at two o'clock and then there were all these private clubs all over the city where you could go and play until eight in the morning. We went to the place that Charlie was working with his trio and sat in almost every night that we were there.

`We closed on Sunday night at the Blue Mirror and we were supposed to open at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles on Friday night. Bobby Brookmeyer was going home to Kansas City and was going to fly out and meet us in LA. We left Al Levitt in Washington. I think that was his last week with the band. Frank was going to join later, and somebody from LA subbed until he did. I'm sorry to say I can't remember at this time just who it was.

`Anyway, it left three of us to go from Washington to Los Angeles in Stan's old stretch De Soto, longer than the usual car and with room for instruments and stuff.

So there was bassist Teddy Kotick, Stan and I. But Teddy didn't have a licence and didn't know how to drive. So Stan and I had to drive these three thousand miles between us. Now I wasn't too orderly in those days, but there were times when I felt a lot more orderly than some of the people I was working with and I'd assumed that we ought to leave Monday if we were going to open Friday three thousand miles away. But Stan, as always, had better things to do on Monday, namely some lovely young lady. That happened with him in every city we played. So he called Teddy and me at our hotel and told us that we couldn't leave until Tuesday. It was about five o'clock on Tuesday that we finally pulled out of Washington.

`Thankfully there was a friendly little druggist in Washington who was a real jazz enthusiast-he particularly loved Louis Armstrong as I recall-and with the help of his amphetamines we made it to LA in about 60 hours of driving time!

`Teddy was relegated to the front seat because he was a non-driver. Stan and I would take turns to drive eight hours, then wake the other guy up and he would drive eight hours. Of course, when you finished driving after eight hours you took a big swig of whiskey and lay down in the back seat while the other guy drove. We did so good that we even stopped in Kansas City for about six hours. Stan and I crashed out in a hotel while Teddy went to see his estranged wife Peggy (they got back together later). As you can see from the photo of the stop at Salt River Canyon, Arizona (we probably just stopped to relieve ourselves), with Stan and Teddy cheek to cheek, it was kind of a cuckoo ride. But not only did we make it to the gig, we pulled into Santa Monica at the Pacific Ocean about 10 o'clock on Friday morning. We stopped at Red Norvo's place. By pre-arrangement his wife had gotten us some rooms at a motel on the beach. I went down to the beach and fell asleep and ended up with one of the worst sunburns I've ever had in my life. I had to play that night and subsequent nights in real misery.

`We were at the Tiffany Club in LA at the same time as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Carson Smith and Larry Bunker were at The Haig. That was the origin of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless saga. The Tiffany Club and The Haig were only about 10 or 12 blocks apart, so every intermission we'd run out to the car, and head for The Haig and hope that we would hit it while they were playing. We'd listen to the band for 20 minutes or so and then back to The Tiffany. Chet and Gerry would do the same thing in reverse. It was during that period when I got to know Chet pretty well. We went to Chet's house one afternoon and jammed, and on another day Chet took Teddy and me down to Balboa Bay and took us sailing in his yacht as you can see from the photo.

`I think we were at Tiffany's for three or four weeks and then Frank Isola came out and joined the group. We went into a place called Zardi's at Hollywood and Vine and we stayed there all summer, for about three months. We all lived at the Elaine Apartments on Vine Street. There was a pool, and the picture that you see of the rhythm section was of us sitting round that pool at the Elaine. It takes me back, because on my feet are the rubber shoes that I had brought home from Korea five or six months before. The final picture is of Frank Isola warming up before the concert at the Milwaukee Auditorium. [Both of these pictures were published on page 10 of the December 1993 issue-S.V.] That was on the concert tour when Stan Getz At The Shrine was recorded. We went right across the country and played every major city and concert hall. We had Art Mardigan on drums with Stan's group. Frank was on the tour but he was then with Gerry Mulligan's Quartet. The others on the tour were the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

`Right after that Frank came back to the Getz group. There was some confusion amongst record collectors because the day after The Shrine concert recordings were made; we made some more in the studios with Frank, who of course was still with Gerry, playing in our quintet instead of Art Mardigan.'

[There was some friction and rivalry between Getz and Mulligan. Bob Brookmeyer had already given Mulligan his notice in June 1954 when the famous Mulligan quartet concerts were recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Mulligan wasn't pleased when Frank recorded with Stan's group before he'd actually left Mulligan. When Frank did leave Gerry to join Stan's group, Mulligan drove off with Frank's drum kit in his car, and for a few days Getz had to hire drums for Frank. S.V.]

`I never understood why Norman Granz had left that fragment of my solo piano at the beginning of the Stan Getz At The Shrine album, sitting there all by itself before Duke Ellington introduces the band. I can't remember playing the piece, which I suspect is a blues I wrote called I'll Take The Lo Road. The chances for a pianist to warm up on that tour were so rare that whenever I saw a piano I'd rush to it. I must have been doing that before the concert when the sound engineers were coincidentally testing for level and recorded me. It was a real problem for a pianist out on a seven-week tour like that. I was called on to play maybe 45 minutes a day at each concert. You can't keep your hands in shape that way. So wherever we were, whenever anyone invited us to jam after the concerts I always accepted. And there was nearly always somebody in every town who asked us. Consequently I'd be up all night playing my heart out and then spend the next day travelling. It was a hard way to live!'

...To Be Continued in Part 2

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