Claude Williams, Personal Notes on a Humble Hero and Friend
Claude Williams entered my life when I was turning 20. It was astounding that this vibrant man over 40 years my senior, now the last known active musician to have recorded jazz in the 1920s, was always so open minded and curious, so completely alive. Until recently, I had always thought of him as younger than myself.
I first heard him in 1972 at the Legionnaire Club in my hometown, Lincoln , Nebraska , where he was tripling on violin, electric guitar and electric bass with pianist Jay McShann and drummer Paul Gunther. Days later, he was having lunch at a favorite long-gone hole-in-the wall called the Soul Food Kitchen. I introduced myself, and was warmly and graciously received, even though it didn't seem we had anything in common but a love for music and perhaps good greens. In the following years, I found that he was warm and gracious to nearly anyone who wanted to speak with him. He never failed to be surprised if someone he didn't know knew who he was, an indication of a humble man.
Claude and Jay came to my Lincoln home in 1972 to tape some song lyrics Jay wanted to re-learn from records. I was nervous and excited, as I considered them both to be nothing less than walking jazz history books. I picked them both up, Claude first, and found he wasn't staying in a very nice place. They shocked me by being cool, calm, and so much fun it was hard to believe. Soon Claude stayed with me whenever he played Lincoln , and I got to visit him on many memorable weekends in Kansas City . In KC, we'd often hear the Frank Smith Trio at the Phillips house, The Fabulous Five Scamps at the Sni-Blue Lounge, or whoever was jamming at The Mutual Musicians Foundation. He'd sit in, never failing to raise the level of the music a couple of notches.
Wherever Claude was, he would, any and every time he felt like it, play a 4-hour-or-more club gig, then come home and play until all the musicians who came by were worn out. One night, after one of those long Zoo Bar gigs in Lincoln , he went through three young guitar players in my living room into the wee hours, not even considering packing up his instrument until all other musicians had first done so.
For six months of 1989 we were roommates in a little 4th floor walkup apartment in New York City , my home since late 1987, where we packed in a capacity crowd for his 80 th birthday. This was just one of many times that Blanche cooked up enough mouth-watering beans, rice and cornbread to feed an army. On that evening, with pianist Sir Roland Hanna, vocalist Carrie Smith and bassist Al McKibbon among the guests, the food had to be relayed from the stove to the living area, as it was not possible to move in that space.
Claude's time in New York City was the result of his signing on with “Black and Blue, a Musical Revue.” This major Broadway production was a celebration of the greatest Black dancers, musicians and singers available, including vocalists Ruth Brown and Carrie Smith, very young hoofer Savion Glover, and Claude as the senior member in the big band. With spectacular musicians, some from other cities, and Mondays off, an opportunity presented itself. On three consecutive Monday nights, Claude was able to make his first recordings as a leader since the 1970s, and the first to be released as CDs.
Claude's relaxed endurance on the road was impressive. He traveled light, and didn't seem to understand what jet-lag was, even when flying as far as Australia and Japan . He would happily work any number of consecutive days in a row, working more than one job each of those days! The lesson I still wish I could have learned from him was his ability to remain relaxed under nearly any circumstances. He seemed to let things that would disturb me just roll off his back. I believe his lack of perceived stress was a genuine key to his healthy and long life. He was repeatedly asked his secret, and his answer was not at all complicated. “Don't worry ‘bout nothing.'”
He gave me, and I know many others, some wonderful moments. Claude came to my mother's hospital bedside in Lincoln with his violin in 1982 when she was in bad shape in an intensive care unit. We snuck in that fiddle, knowing it would be against hospital rules to do so. Claude had a mute on his instrument, and asked my mom for a request. As he softly played "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," a nurse parted the curtain to speak to us. Busted, we thought. The nurse smiled and asked Claude if he could please play louder, so patients and staff could hear him better. My mom recovered, and went on to proudly tell this story to just about every person she ever knew. Both of my sisters wanted him to play at their weddings. A swinging entertainer off stage as well as on, he once, in his 80s at the time, swung upside down from a clothesline pole just to get Blanche, his host Bruce Cudly and myself laughing.
Claude was not being hired often as a bandleader in the 70s and 80s, and this was a frustration. When possible, bands were hired and gigs created for him to front in Lincoln , most often he played the Zoo Bar. Preceding one such engagement in 1992, some Lincoln friends voiced frustration that their young sons never had an opportunity to hear Claude. I told them that that if they brought steaks and Courvoisier to the place he was staying, we might work something out. The result was a memorable, spontaneous, children's music workshop. My niece played a song for Claude on her violin, and he then asked if he might borrow it. When he played, the rapt attention of even the youngest of the children there was something to behold.
Each musician lucky enough to have played with him under any circumstances was given a lesson, often none of it spoken. In the form of the most inviting challenge, he'd get the very best out of everyone he played with. When first approached about teaching lessons, he told me that with little formal training, he wasn't qualified, again displaying his modesty. He eventually allowed me to bring him students anyway. We set the format that they would play something for him first, and he would answer. Before you knew it, they were jamming together and getting the education of a lifetime. Matt Glaser, String Department Head of the Berklee School of Music and an important supporter of Claude's, told me he has at least 200 students who can play Fiddler's arrangement of "You've Got to See Your Mama, Ev'ry Night, or You Can't See Mama At All." Claude also admired Matt, once proudly telling me that his violin “sounds more like me than me.”
It was such a pleasure to not just hear Claude work with his esteemed peers, but to witness their amazement at his spontaneous inventions as they shared stages. I think in particular of pianists Roland Hanna and Barry Harris, bassists Earl May and Keter Betts, saxophonists Bill Easley and Kim Park, guitarists Gray Sargent, Joe Cohn and Bucky Pizzarelli, every vocalist he worked with, including Etta Jones, and drummer Jimmy Lovelace. Off stage, it was equally gratifying to see his first private meeting and jam with violinist Regina Carter in mid-1997, and countless students, including cellist Akua Dixon and violinist John Intrator of France.
Touring Japan briefly in 1997 with The Statesmen of Jazz was fascinating. Not only did fans typically know more about his history than Americans ever will, but they also revere age as we never have. Claude was treated like royalty, yet remained as unassuming as ever.
Fiddler went to Washington , DC , and the White House to accept a National Heritage Fellowship Award in 1998, along with “Pops” Staples of the Staples Singers. It was a delight to witness Pops' first sighting of Claude in the lobby of the Willard Hotel . His first words were, “ How old are you?” Fiddler was a very young 90 at that time. Pops looked Claude over for a moment and then asked, “And you don't hurt or nothin'?”
To Claude Williams, each performance was more than music, it was being respectful to an audience. He always presented himself to his audience well-groomed, smiling, and on time. In the smallest of joints, he dressed as if to meet heads of state. It was part of the job of his sidemen to have shined shoes.
By the late 1980s, Claude may have had a thousand people in Lincoln who considered themselves to be his friend – and who he honored by treating them as his friends. By the late 1990s, he had the same sort of family of friends in New York City.
Claude played his accessible swing and entertained in a way that made his fortunate audiences grin and tap their feet -- he would often say he didn't like to play music "over people's heads." Sorry Claude – we can still hear you, and you are definitely over our heads now.