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John Williams or John Williams?

SOURCE: Published: 2011-01-23
Stan Getz An old bit of confusion revived for a time this week when Mosaic Records announced a Stan Getz box set to be issued next spring. The electronic news release about the 1950s Getz quintet recordings for Norman Granz's Norgran label mentioned Getz, Bob Brookmeyer and “pianist Johnny Williams (who later became film composer John Williams)."

After several people hopped on the web with corrections, Mosaic commander-in-chief Michael Cuscuna explained, “Earlier version of the write-up got pasted in by mistake." Mosaic corrected the goof. Here is further clarification. The man on the left below is John Thomas Williams, the pianist who worked with Getz, Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Cannonball Adderley in the '50s. The man on the right is John Towner Williams, who had a brief career as a jazz pianist and went on to Star Wars and the Boston Pops.

For a few decades the “Yes" John Williams took side trips into successful careers in banking and government. He lives in Florida and, at 82, still plays gigs, mostly solo piano. When I spoke with him this morning, he sounded content, although he allowed that he wouldn't mind having the “No" John Williams's royalty income. To further dissipate confusion, here's a rerun of a Rifftides piece about him that first appeared on April 18, 2006. It contains a link to a reissue CD of Williams' widely praised trio records.
THAT John Williams

During long stretches of 1953 and '54, John Williams was the pianist in Stan Getz's quintet and quartet. Wiliams is often described in biographies as a disciple of Bud Powell who was also influenced by Horace Silver. That is true. It is also true that oxygen influences flame, a fact that tells us nothing about the differences among flames. In the population of pianists influenced by Powell and Silver, Williams was identifiable by a keyboard touch that produced a spikey, percussive, rollicking forward motion, an infectious swing. Almost in contradiction, at the same time he somehow achieved a smoothness of phrasing that invested his improvised lines with the logic of inevitability. He managed to make his listeners anticipate what was coming in a solo and yet surprise them when he got there.

Williams' first album under his own name was John Williams, a ten-inch LP on the Emarcy label, recorded in 1954. His trio had Bill Anthony on bass and the unique Detroit drummer Frank Isola, fellow members of the Stan Getz group. Williams jokes today that he often wonders who got the third copy of the album after he and his mother each bought one. It may not have been a big seller, but it quickly became a favorite of musicians and, after Emarcy pulled it, of collectors. In the 1990s, a broker of rare LPs who sold to Japanese LP zealots told me that a mint copy of John Williams was going in Japan for upwards of $300. I blush to confess that I sold him my beat-up copy for considerably less than that, making him wait while I first copied it to tape. As we listened, I hummed along to Wiliams' solos, so embedded in my brain had they become over four decades of nearly wearing out the album.

It was a puzzle, given the LP's iconic status, why Emarcy did not reissue it on CD, and why Verve did not bring it out after the company acquired the Emarcy catalog. A good guess is that the decision was made by accountants. Time has cured that ill. Copyright laws in Spain declare that after fifty years, recorded material is fair game (I'm not sure that's the exact wording of the law). So, the resourceful Fresh Sound label has put on one CD John Williams and the pianist's second Emarcy album, a twelve-inch LP called John Williams Trio, recorded in 1955. This belated event probably doesn't do much for the inflated price of the original LPs, but it is a boon to the substantial number of Williams fans who have been clamoring for a reissue. It may also gain him new fans.

The second album, done in three sessions with shifting personnel among bassists and drummers, doesn't have quite the concentrated charm of the ten-inch 1954 session. That is in part, I suspect, because Frank Isola is on only one track. Nonetheless, it has wonderful moments. Taken together, the twenty tracks capture John Williams when his playing was full of freshness, vigor and peppery lyricism. By all accounts, including the evidence of an appearance with Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz, it still is. He has never stopped playing, but he took a few decades off to become a banker and, for twenty years, a city commissioner of Hollywood, Florida. In conversation, Williams tends to deprecate his playing in the 1950s as inadequate, an evaluation that flies in the face of the wisdom of his employers—StanGetz, Bob Brookmeyer, Cannonball Adderley, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims among them—and of listeners who have been stimulated by his work for half a century.

I should point out, although by now it may be obvious, that this John Williams is not the Star Wars John Williams.


For news about the Getz Quintet reissue featuring THAT John Williams, go here.


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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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