In his brief 53 years, from the promise of a sports career to fulfillment as a major jazz
musician, James Williams did it all. He became a noted performer, composer, arranger,
sought-after side man, accompanist, recording artist, producer, teacher, and selfless
promoter of young and established musical talent. He did all of these things with soul,
grace, and style.
Born March 8, 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee he grew up listening to such artists as Ray
Charles, Booker T., Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, King Curtis, and
Ramsey Lewis. He began his formal piano studies at age 13 and was subsequently an
organist at Eastern Star Baptist Church in Memphis, a position he held for 6 years. At one
point, organist James was teamed up with Pianist Mulgrew Miller during church services!
He earned a B.S. in Music Education at Memphis State University, where he formed solid
friendships with fellow pianists Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown. A devotee of the late
Memphis piano giant Phineas Newborn Jr., James took time to delve into his hometown's
rich jazz heritage. He formed strong and lasting associations with established Memphis
jazzmen such as pianist Harold Mabern Jr., bassist Jamil Nasser, and saxophonists
George Coleman and Frank Strozier, among others.
At age 22, James applied to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, as a student. Instead,
they offered him a teaching position, which he accepted. A year later, he joined drummer
Alan Dawson's group, which provided support in the Boston area for touring artists
including Art Farmer, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Pat Martino, Jean Carn, Red Norvo, and
Arnett Cobb. 1977 was an establishing year for James: he recorded his first album as a
leader, played his first concert featuring his original compositions, and met Art Blakey.
That encounter led to a four year, ten album tenure with the Jazz Messengers that
included Bobby Watson, Billy Pierce, Wynton Marsalis, and Charles Fambrough.
In 1981, James began performing independently with such musicians as Thad Jones, Joe
Henderson, Clark Terry, Chet Baker, and Benny Carter. Relocating to New York, he
settled in Brooklyn, where he remained until his death. He played, toured, and recorded
with such prominent artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, George Duvivier, Art Farmer,
Kenny Burrell, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, and Tony Williams. He was especially proud
of his own groups, including Progress Report, the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, a group
comprising of four pianos with bass and drums, and the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), a
jazz/gospel ensemble featuring two vocalists, saxophone, and rhythm section.
In addition to his own recordings, several of his compositions appear on albums by Art
Farmer, Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis, Gary Burton, Roy Hargrove, and others. Second
Floor Music published a folio of solo piano arrangements for 13 of his original
compositions. In the summer of 1999, James was appointed Director of Jazz Studies at
William Patterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, having previously taught at the Hartt
School of Music, Eastern Illinois University, Cornish College, the New England
Conservatory, Dartmouth College, and Harvard University. He also served since 1990 as
a regular contributor to the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE). We mourn
the loss of his prodigious talent and his warm and generous personality. But we are
grateful for the legacy of jazz music and teaching that James Williams leaves behind.
#2 James & #1 James
Paul & James
Joshua Redman, James,
#1 James & #2 James
#2 James & #1 James
Paul, #1 James
& #2 James
Paul & James