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Remembering jazz pianist and composer Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams.
Jimmy and Deana Katz
Courtesy of the artist
Jessica Williams.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. For over 30 years on our show, we have played recordings by pianist and composer Jessica Williams. We were sorry to learn that she passed away last month on March 10, a week before her 74th birthday, after a period of declining health. She leaves behind dozens of great solo and trio recordings. For several years, Jessica Williams was the house pianist at the Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco, where she played with jazz giants, like saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and Charlie Rouse, and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Tony Williams, both of whom she became close to. McCoy Tyner and Dave Brubeck were among the jazz pianists who singled her out for her spectacular playing.

In 1994, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition. After years of trying, we finally were able to bring her to Philadelphia in 1997 to play on FRESH AIR. In a few minutes, we'll hear that performance and the interview she did with Terry. But first, a brief appreciation from our executive producer, Danny Miller.

DANNY MILLER, BYLINE: Jessica Williams has been called the greatest jazz pianist you've never heard of. But there is a good chance you've heard her playing on FRESH AIR because we often end the show with her music. Now, I should say at the top that I'm not a jazz critic. But I've been a devoted and grateful fan of hers for decades.

What we'll be hearing in a few minutes features Jessica at the piano by herself. She was a magnificent solo pianist. But I thought it would also be nice to hear a little bit of her trio playing and along the way, highlight a few musical moments that illustrate how much fun it was to hear her play and what was so distinctive about her touch at the keyboard. Her touch was crisp and precise, full of humor and joy at a romping tempo or expressing really deep emotion in a ballad. But hearing just a few notes, you can always tell it's Jessica because of her touch.


MILLER: That was bandmates Dave Captein on bass, with Mel Brown on drums. Jessica had great chops. But it wasn't about showing off. Though I suspect that every once in a while, she had a little bit of fun demonstrating her incredible technique. She loved other piano players - Monk, Bill Evans and Erroll Garner, to name a few - and her playing acknowledged the history of jazz piano.


MILLER: Jeff Johnson on bass and Dick Berk on drums - Jessica's playing was always full of fun surprises, like the quotes from other songs she couldn't resist sneaking in during her solos, sometimes obvious, but usually on the sly, like this on her version of "That Old Devil Moon."


MILLER: In case you missed it, that was just a couple of bars from "Swinging On A Star." It took me a couple of listens before I got it. Maybe the most profound demonstration of great playing is not just the playing that is obviously spectacular, but what you can also say with just a few notes and a gorgeous touch.


MILLER: I had the opportunity to get to know Jessica personally - just a little bit - over the last few years and to learn a little bit about her life and the challenges she overcame to make a career in jazz. It wasn't easy. She never made a lot of money, but she made a lifetime's worth of music. I'll miss her. But like her other fans, I'm grateful for the music she left behind.


MILLER: Thanks for giving me a few minutes to share this with you. And now let's hear the interview she did with Terry when she sat down at the piano at our studios in 1997.


TERRY GROSS: Jessica Williams, this is something we've wanted to do for a long time. It's a real pleasure to have you...


GROSS: ...Here in our studio.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

GROSS: I'd like you to open with some music. Maybe you can introduce it for us.

WILLIAMS: OK. Well, maybe I'll play a tune that everybody knows - or not everybody, but most everybody - "Getting Sentimental Over You." Is that OK?

GROSS: Sounds great.



GROSS: Oh, that was wonderful (laughter). And I'm not sure if our listeners could figure out exactly what was happening there when you were strumming inside the piano.

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. I don't know...

GROSS: You were strumming the keys sometimes instead of...

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Someone might have thought a string broke or something.

GROSS: Right. You were strumming the strings is what I should say, not strumming the keys.

WILLIAMS: Yes, occasionally. And I'll depress the keys on the piano, trying not to make them sound, not using the sustain pedal. And then I'll just run my fingernail over the strings.


WILLIAMS: And you can create a chord that way. It sounds a little like an autoharp.

GROSS: It does.

WILLIAMS: And it gets people's attention.


GROSS: Visually as well as sonically. You do all kinds of interesting sonic things.

WILLIAMS: Actually, the palette for playing inside the piano for me is limited to, I'd say, just a few things that I use pretty regularly. I try not to overuse them. When I first started doing this, I thought they were kind of gimmicky. As time went on, I realized that these were absolutely sounds that the piano could make. The important thing for me is to integrate it into the tune so it doesn't stand out as, you know, a device. Essentially, I use these things to try to add color to the music. I tend to hear a lot of things in the music, particularly when I'm playing solo, that are not physically possible. So to try to - you know, I hear bass, I hear drums, sometimes I hear saxophones, you know, because I've listened to so many records and not just piano players.

GROSS: Now, you're playing is very influenced by Thelonious Monk.


GROSS: And I'd like you to talk about what happened when you first started to listen to Monk and what you heard in his playing that you hadn't heard before.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I remember the first time I heard Thelonious. It was on a record called "It's Monk's Time." It was on Columbia Masterworks and was with Charlie Rouse, Butch Warren and Ben Riley. And the very first time I heard it, I thought that Thelonious sounded like he was wearing boxing gloves because I had heard all this precision piano playing from, like, Oscar, and this was a totally new thing for me. I grew to love Monk's music, and I still do. I had some questions about how he would do certain things.

And I think the one holdover I did have from my classical training was that I always thought there were specific ways to do things, right ways and wrong ways. And I discovered that the only right way is the way that works best for you. For instance, Thelonious Monk would do a whole-tone scale, like, hand over hand.


WILLIAMS: OK? I know this because I saw a video because I never saw him play in person. But when I saw him do that, it just made me realize that this guy had a way different technique than the one that I was taught.

BIANCULLI: Jessica Williams from an interview and performance recorded in 1997. She died last month, one week before her 74th birthday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 1997 interview and performance from our archives with the late jazz pianist and composer Jessica Williams.

GROSS: I want you to play a short version of a Monk tune that you particularly like and that's affected your way of listening and playing.

WILLIAMS: OK. I think I'll play "Bemsha Swing."


GROSS: That's wonderful. That's Jessica Williams at the piano. I wish our listeners could see your fingers.

WILLIAMS: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: They're really fun to watch. And you played half of that piece with your hands crossed over. So the right hand was playing in the bass clef. And the left hand was playing in the treble clef.


GROSS: Why play that part that way?

WILLIAMS: Why play it that way? I do know that it's a pretty standard technique to cross over in - perhaps not in jazz. But I've heard that Art Tatum did it. Now, I've never seen him play. But I've heard that he does it - or he did it. And it's just a way for me to get an effect that I couldn't otherwise get. I have a really good left hand. But it's good for certain things. It's the unconscious part of my playing because it's almost like a subconscious shadow. And it always seems to know what to do. That particular thing that I did was I started a figure...


WILLIAMS: ...Where I was keeping the chord changes, kind of like Earl Garner with the left hand...


WILLIAMS: ...Down in this register. But I moved it up enough so I could play underneath it with my right hand.



GROSS: Now, it's interesting, you seem like a born jazz musician. But you really started as a child, basically, studying, I guess, in a program for young people at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in a classical music...

WILLIAMS: Yeah. It was actually a Peabody prep - it was a preparatory school. I started very young. So I guess I was around 12 or 13 years old. And I was playing Rachmaninoff, I think, at that point. And I was playing the C-sharp minor concerto. I had a lot of trouble with that piece, so I went out and got a record. I - believe it or not, I think it was Carmen Cavallaro.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: And I learned it off the record. So I went and played it for my teacher. And he said, well, you know, most of the notes are right. And the chords are right. But the fingering is all wrong. And then there was this part that I totally improvised. And he says, you know, you're not going to make it as a classical musician if you do this, if you take these liberties with this music. But it was great because he was a moonlighting jazz musician. And we had two pianos in the room. He brought me a Dave Brubeck record. It was the first jazz I'd ever heard. And I learned "Take Five" in, like, a week. And then I went back and we played it together, me on one piano, him on the other. And he passed me in all my courses even though I never learned another classical piece with him.

GROSS: You learned a lot from listening to records.


GROSS: Did you learn solos by heart when you were listening early on?

WILLIAMS: At the very beginning, I learned a few solos from Dave Brubeck from the "Time Out" record. And it was interesting. I went - I attended a gig a couple weeks ago where his - one of his sons, his son Dan, was playing drums. And it was a trio gig. And I sat in with Dan. It was the first time I'd ever played with Dan. And we played "Take Five." And it was interesting how we played it because we played it nothing like it was played on the record, where Dave was, pretty much throughout the entire record, was going...


WILLIAMS: Well, our hit on the melody was more like this.


GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: We took rhythmic liberties with it.

BIANCULLI: Jessica Williams talking with Terry Gross in 1997. Jessica Williams died last month, a week before her 74th birthday. We'll hear more of this concert and interview after a break. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of our concert and interview with jazz pianist and composer Jessica Williams. She died last month, a week before her 74th birthday. We often play her recordings on FRESH AIR, and we were delighted when she came to our studio in 1997.

GROSS: A lot of what you do in your music is what some people would consider mistakes, you know, dissonances that some people...

WILLIAMS: Sometimes they are mistakes, Terry. I'm sorry (laughter).

GROSS: Well, that's what I mean, though. There's dissonances you use that some people would perceive as, like, wrong notes or out-of-tempo things that some people would perceive as, like, wrong tempos. And I'm wondering, coming from classical music, if you assimilated that really quickly, if there were harmonies that were foreign to you when you started listening to jazz or rhythmic things that were foreign to you and that you learned and then learned to subvert in interesting ways, or if you just kind of naturally felt that as soon as you heard it.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it was pretty natural. There were certain things that I heard Thelonious do that at first sounded very wrong to me.

GROSS: Like what?

WILLIAMS: Let's take the way he played "I Should Care." This is very interesting. I don't play it exactly, and I never transcribe solos or learn things exactly off the record. But I was very influenced by the way he played it. And I think you'll hear some things in here - and I'll try to point them out...

GROSS: Great.

WILLIAMS: ...That are very unusual from a Western music standpoint.


WILLIAMS: That is a minor 9th. But we - the human ear is used to hearing...


WILLIAMS: That's easy. But this...


WILLIAMS: This way - and it's the same notes, but they're transposed differently. Anyway, the way it goes on from there would be this.


WILLIAMS: I like that.

GROSS: I like that, too.

WILLIAMS: And so it took me a while, I think, to actually hear those things as right. I remember a chord that Monk played on "Ghost Of A Chance." He played...


WILLIAMS: Oh, my God, what a chord. And at first I thought, well, that's totally ridiculous. And then he played it throughout the entire tune, and I realized it's exactly what he wanted to do. And that chord, for me, after I heard the record maybe five times or so, I couldn't wait for that chord to come...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: ...'Cause it was so different. It stood out like a billboard, like an orange billboard against a blue sky. It was like, look at me.

GROSS: You have a composition that's inspired by Monk's music...


GROSS: ...Called "Monk's Hat." It happens to be a piece that we play on FRESH AIR quite often.


GROSS: It's a great piece, and I'm going to ask you to play a short version of that for us.

WILLIAMS: Sure. Here we go.


GROSS: I really love that. And I love the way you play with tension and release in that because it's so fulfilling when you start going into more of, like, a swing or a stride tempo after playing with the rhythm and having all this jagged rhythms, and you switch back and forth. Love it (laughter).

WILLIAMS: I like variety.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

WILLIAMS: I think as I get older, what I'm starting to do is synthesize all the forms together. A little bit of stride, a little bit of - you know, taking different approaches within a tune, having a left-hand bass line, sometimes having a bass line in the upper register, like if I were to buy a blues - and play it in the lower register with the left hand and the right hand playing a lead line, it would be like...


WILLIAMS: It's kind of like playing the baritone saxophone.


BIANCULLI: We'll hear more of our performance and conversation from our archives with the late pianist Jessica Williams after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 1997 interview and performance with jazz pianist and composer Jessica Williams. She died last month, one week before her 74th birthday.

GROSS: Jessica, it strikes me from the incredible proficiency that you have at the piano that you must have spent a lot of your childhood in the house, at the piano practicing. While everybody else in the neighborhood went about their kid lives or their teenage lives, you were probably sitting at the piano a lot of that time, practicing.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, actually, actually, I was. And I think I was by choice. I mean, nobody stood over me and said, you have to do this. Matter of fact, I had to beg my family to get me a piano. I mean, it was something I knew I wanted to do, but they took convincing 'cause I had played my grandmother's piano when I was, like, 3 or 4. And I said I knew that was what I was supposed to be doing, you know? I mean, I hit the notes, and I saw colors. It was an intensely visual and visceral experience for me the first time I touched a keyboard, and I knew that I needed one. And it took a while to get one.

I think I did spend an awful lot of time playing and an awful lot of time in isolation. And it's really funny 'cause I became, I think as I got older, more extroverted, and - because I really love people, and I love being around people. And so I went through a period where I hung out in clubs and did some things I wasn't supposed to do. And now that I'm getting older, I'm definitely going full circle, back to - isolation, perhaps, is not a good word, but I do a lot of work when I'm alone at home. I compose a lot. I don't practice much anymore, nor did I ever. It was something that came really easy to me. But as far as sitting there and playing, I spent a lot of my childhood just playing.

GROSS: When you were young and spending a lot of time at home with the piano, did you ever feel like you were sacrificing something in the rest of life to stay home? Did you ever envy the kids who were out going to more parties or playing sports or whatever your peers were doing at the time?

WILLIAMS: I - yeah, that's an interesting question. That's a deep, deep question. Probably yes. I probably felt alienated a lot of times, probably well into adulthood. And - but I think that I tried to bring that to my art and make some sense of it through my art. And now I just - I don't know, at this age - I mean, I've been here almost a half-century. I'm really proud of it. And I really communicate with people well, and I enjoy people. It didn't always be that way, but it's becoming easier, you know, to communicate on other levels besides music. But that's the most important part of the music, is the communication. That's what makes me the happiest. It's what seems to bring people the most joy. That's my job.

GROSS: You do amazing things with jazz standards, with familiar tunes that you kind of take apart and put back together again. I'm going to ask you to play a standard for us and to do what you do with it. Would you play the Gershwin song, "Nice Work If You Can Get It"?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I'll give it a try.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. And this is Jessica Williams at the piano.


GROSS: Oh, it's great. It's Jessica Williams at the piano. I love that. You had a great stride thing going there. You use a kind of stride left hand a lot in...


GROSS: ...In your playing.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. It's an entirely different world for me. Stride piano is something that sometimes I can really get it going, and I can go really fast with it. Other times, I feel the time a little differently. I think it's just about how I'm feeling at the moment.

GROSS: For our listeners who aren't familiar with the expression stride piano, would you just...

WILLIAMS: A stride would be the root in the bass or the 5th or...


WILLIAMS: ...A bass note and a chord and...


WILLIAMS: Like that. So if you were to play "Cheek To Cheek" as a stride piece, it would be...


WILLIAMS: And then I could approach the tune from, say, another angle, which would be more, shall we say, streamlined or modern, which would be...



GROSS: That's great.

WILLIAMS: Or we could always do it as a ballad, you know? There's so many ways to play tunes. And the really great tunes you can do almost anything to. You know, you can play them fast, slow, run them up the flagpole. It's - lots of different things you can do with a tune, a good tune.

GROSS: In your listening, did you go back as early as James P. Johnson, who's, you know, one of the fathers of stride piano and started recording in the '20s?

WILLIAMS: I kind of did everything backwards. I started with the music - by the time I was 6 years old, listening to Coltrane, Miles, even Eric Dolphy. I was introduced to free music. And then I turned around and went backwards and got into the history of the music. But it wasn't until, I think, probably the last five or six years that I actually even had heard Albert Ammons or James P. Johnson or Fats Waller - I mean, really heard them, really listened to them, to the point where they became a part of me. And Erroll Garner just changed my life. I mean...

GROSS: What about his playing changed you?

WILLIAMS: Well, first, it was these records with tunes that last two or three minutes, and they're just little gems of pure joy and optimism. He had such a quirky sense of humor, where Thelonious had kind of a - one kind of humor that was kind of an inside humor. Erroll Garner was just flat-out goofy sometimes. It's so much fun to listen to his music. And I think a lot of people are aware that he would play four beats to a measure in the left hand, very similar to what Freddie Green was doing on the guitar in the Count Basie Orchestra. So you would get a feeling like - let's see - "I Wish I Knew."


WILLIAMS: And it's funny because that approach even works on very slow tempos. He would play "Body And Soul."


WILLIAMS: Yeah, that real - oh, so groovy, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: And even without a rhythm section, it really swung.

BIANCULLI: Jessica Williams at the piano from an interview and performance recorded in 1997. She died last month, one week before her 74th birthday. We'll hear the final part of her performance and conversation with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the rest of our concert and interview with Jessica Williams, recorded in 1997.

GROSS: Talking about music that has influenced you, I know a lot of horn players, saxophonists, have influenced you, although they don't play chording instruments. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about, say, the influence of Sonny Rollins on your playing, the saxophone of Sonny Rollins.

WILLIAMS: OK. Well, one thing actually I was thinking about this morning - I had written a tune to dedicate it to Sonny Rollins, several actually. One tune is called "Newk's Fluke." Newk is his nickname. And - like a nuclear power plant. He's so powerful in his playing. And I realized that - and I had forgotten about this, actually. I realized that I got the melody from a fragment of one of his improvisations. And the improvisation was on an album called "The Bridge." And the tune, I believe, was "Without A Song." And he's coming out of the tune, and he's going like...


WILLIAMS: That's what he plays, and that's what I wrote the tune around, I realized - was...


GROSS: Great. Now, what did you quote in there - "Camptown Races" and "Dixie"?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I put a whole bunch of quotes in there. I've been...

GROSS: Why do those come to mind?

WILLIAMS: Well, I was just trying to be funny (laughter). I was trying to be cute. Now, I was - while I was playing, it just occurred to me that I had heard Sonny play something - I can't remember. This is in the murky, distant past, and I can't remember if it was at a live concert or on TV. But almost everything he played in the tune was a quote from something. And of course, you can overdo that. But he did it with such style and everything fit together like this big puzzle. And it seemed like he had no end to the inventiveness that he was using these quotes that they didn't set sound cliche-ridden at all. It sounded - it was incredible. It just made a big impression on me. So I was trying to - just trying to sound a little bit like him, I guess.

GROSS: Jessica Williams, I have enjoyed this so much. It's been a concert and a piano lesson. Thank you so much for being with us.

WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me. I'm really honored to be here. Thank you.

GROSS: And we all love your music on FRESH AIR. So thank you.

WILLIAMS: It's been a pleasure meeting you all, and I just - I have enjoyed it immensely. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Our concert and interview with Jessica Williams was recorded in 1997. Jessica Williams passed away last month, one week before her 74th birthday. We send our sympathies to Jessica's husband of many years, Duncan Atherton. The concert was recorded by Joyce Lieberman with Audrey Bentham and Chris Fraley (ph). It was produced by Danny Miller. Special thanks to Donald Elfman for helping to arrange the concert.

On Monday's show, comic, actor and writer Jerrod Carmichael. He hosted "Saturday Night Live" a couple of weeks ago, and he has a new HBO comedy special that's all about secrets - secrets about his name, his family and his sexual orientation. This is his third HBO comedy special. He's had two others directed by Spike Lee and Bo Burnham. I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Tina Callique (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "I LOVE YOU PORGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.