Posted on 10/13/2004at 1:24 PM
The world lost one of its brightest lights when "Uncle James" Williams passed away this summer at the age of 53. Many musicians were very close with James. I certainly was. James had a warm southern charm that's so different from the harsh, bitter and scorned personality of many jazz musicians. He wore his Memphis roots on his sleeve all the time.
It was my VERY first gig in New York City in September of 1989 that I met and played with James. It was with Bobby Watson's Quartet, and it was my introduction to the fast paced, no-nonsense world known as "The New York Scene." Bobby and Victor Lewis were very, very hard on me that fateful night - calling tunes I didn't know (and playing them anyway!), staying on me about playing "on top" and "behind the beat" - but now, I appreciate them being so hard on me. However, what I appreciated deeply then, and maybe more now, was the gentle hand James laid on my shoulder that night when it was becoming a bit overwhelming for me and said, "Hey, it's ok, Christian. This is what happens to all the young cats when they come to the city. You'll be a better musician after tonight, trust me....." But he said it in such a warm and gentle tone, it made me feel light years better. After that night, I continued to play with James on and off on gigs, recording sessions and the like. He was also such a fabulous Gospel pianist. His fusion of Gospel, R&B and straight-ahead Jazz with his "I.C.U." group was a hit with all jazz lovers. He was also a great programmer and producer. His various productions with his "Magical Trios" and the Contemporary Piano Ensemble were just a few projects that exemplified his versatility. But more than anything else, James Williams was family to, literally, everyone. May his music and his spirit live on forever.
We'll miss you, "Unc"