Stu Williamson: Two Januarys


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Stu Williamson
It was gratifying last week to hear that New York's Verse Music was remastering and re-issuing the entire Bethlehem catalog. The 1950s label not only consistently released superb albums on both coasts but also pioneered the early use of glossy color-saturated covers that tapped into consumer moods. This trend was the innovation of Creed Taylor, who was the label's East Coast producer from 1954 to '56. (Which reminds me, I'm so waiting for Herbie Mann's Love and the Weather.)

Two superb but little-known Bethlehem albums that were recorded in Los Angeles and led by facile trumpeter Stu Williamson were Stu Williamson Plays (January 1955) and Pee Jay (January 1956). Here's the lineup for the first date: Stu Williamson (tp), Charlie Mariano (as), Claude Williamson (p), Max Bennett (b) and Stan Levey (d).

And here's the second:  Stu Williamson (tp) accompanied on different tracks by Charlie Mariano (as), Bill Holman (ts) and Jimmy Giuffre (bar). The rhythm section throughout was Claude Williamson (p), Leroy Vinnegar (b) and Mel Lewis (d).

Like Pete and Conte Candoli, Stu and Claude Williamson were brothers (Claude being six years and change older than Stu). Both brothers were born in Vermont, but after Claude moved to Los Angeles in '47 to play, the family followed in 1948. [Pictured above: Stu Williamson with Jimmy Giuffre, left, and Bill Holman]

Music was in the family. The Williams's father was a drummer and their sister was a singer. After the family moved to L.A., Stu studied with Del Staigers [pictured], a trumpet virtuoso who had played in leading orchestras of the 1920s and '30s. Within a few years, Stu Williamson became a West Coast jazz stalwart, playing and recording in bands led by Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Billy May before becoming a ubiquitous session musician.

 During his big band and studio period in the '50s, Williamson also was a member of Shelly Manne and His Men between 1954 and '58 and recorded on Johnny Richards' Something Else in '56 and the Art Pepper Nine in '57 with trumpeter Don Fagerquist.

In a decade of West Coast trumpet giants—the Candolis, Fagerquist, Burt Collins, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Dick Collins, Al Porcino, Jack Sheldon, Chet Baker, Doug Metome, Ray Triscari, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Childers and I'm leaving out about 20 others—Williamson had a tender touch. Though he wasn't a blaster or upper-register torcher, Williamson's notes were always in perfect pitch while his lines were consistently romantic.

Listen to Darn That Dream, for example, or Talk of the Town—both from Pee Jay. Or Autumn in New York and The Things We Did Last Summer from Stu Williamson Plays. The beauty of his playing rested in his gentle attack and barrel-rolls out of formation to improvise softy while diving or climbing. [Pictured above: Stu Williamson by Ray Avery]

As evidenced on these sessions, Williamson's up-tempo work also was skilled and taught, particularly in counterpoint exchanges. He tended to hit high notes in exploration, tagging them before descending rather than building up to them for dramatic effect. And his muted horn work on songs like Stu's Dues Blues was exceptional.

For me, Williamson was at his best on ballads, where he had an opportunity to “sing" melodies on his horn. The notes he choose always lingered like the smell of fresh oranges. [Pictured above: Stu Williamson on trumpet, left, with Shelly Manne and His Men on Bobby Troup's Stars of Jazz in 1955 by Ray Avery]

Sadly, according to his Wikipedia page, Williamson battled drug addiction for years during and after he left music. Williamson died in 1991 at age 57.

JazzWax tracks: You can wait for Verse Music to release these two albums. Or you'll find many of the tracks here and here

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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