Joe Williams – An Appreciation

With the death of jazz vocalist Joe Williams on March 29, 1999, the world has lost one of the truly great musical talents of our time. Williams was the very embodiment of taste, elegance, swing, and creativity.

I first heard Joe Williams on recordings with Count Basie. His performance of “Going To Chicago” with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross on Sing Along With Basie remains one of my all-time favorite recorded jazz performances—and there are so many more.

Joe Williams, jazz vocalist
Joe Williams,

I had the good fortune to experience an unusual Joe Williams performance in January 1993, at the International Association of Jazz Educators conference in San Antonio. Dizzy Gillespie had died just before the start of the conference, and the entire event was pervaded by a mixture of sadness and a special family feeling that gave everyone who was there that weekend a deep feeling of joy and thankfulness just to be part of the world of jazz.

One afternoon several of us traipsed across the street to a small auditorium for a workshop by Betty Carter. (“You going to Betty’s workshop?” “Sure, nothing else going on. Should be fun.”)

This workshop turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference—and, frankly, my life. I’m sure everybody else who was lucky enough to be there feels the same.

As you may know, Betty was in the habit of requiring participants in her workshops to sing their questions and comments. (Me, I was content to listen!)

Her young band played behind her non-stop for more than an hour, responding instantly to her subtle cues, changing on a dime, every bit as impeccable and inventive as she was. Among the main lessons of the day: Someday you might be able to do what I do, she told (and showed) us, but only if you’re willing to work as hard as I do to make the most of your talent.

Singers with varying degrees of chops and experience were encouraged or prodded or gently let down. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove was one of those who posed a tremulous query. And even the MC for the event, a mortified but brave jazz journalist and arts administrator Willard Jenkins, had to sing as he presented Betty with her certificate of appreciation from IAJE (and, yes, there were those of us who couldn’t resist jeering Willard on).

But the highlight of the session came after a young woman had just finished singing a couple of choruses that demonstrated some musical promise but lacked polish. The cordless microphone was passed to the person sitting directly behind me. “Joe Williams!” squeaked Betty Carter, twisting her body in paroxysms of elation. Again, squealing like a school girl: “Joe Williams!!”

Williams flashed his platinum smile and proceeded to envelop us in that fabulous baritone as he sang a mini-lesson on microphone technique, finally ending on a rich note so low and beautiful that everybody in the room was smiling and quietly crying with joy. Every woman in the room was in love with him, and every man wanted to be him. All we could do, though, was stomp and clap and hoot and holler–and we did all that, for a good couple of minutes.

We’ve lost Betty, and now we’ve lost Joe. But this was a gift that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

Thanks, Joe.

March 30, 1999 (personal site)

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