Largely forgotten to everyone except twenties aficionados and record collectors and occasionally mentioned for bringing Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet together for their gladiatorial first encounter, Williams was born just outside New Orleans, touring by age twelve, ran successful publishing houses in New Orleans, Chicago and New York, accompanied and managed the likes of Bessie Smith and Fats Waller and composed (or at least collected royalties for) early jazz standards such “Royal Garden Blues,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
Most histories treat Williams as a better businessman than musician, glossing over the hundred or so recordings he made under his own name for various labels throughout the twenties and early thirties. Williams was a competent pianist and at best a charming singer, yet despite never being a great performer he still created some of the most unique jazz of the prewar era.
The best Williams sides combine the relaxed, airy beat of his hometown with simple but effective arrangements influenced by Northern dance bands. “Close Fit Blues” couples unsung hero Ed Allen’s cornet and Cyrus St. Clair’s tuba commentary with a pastoral clarinet duet from Fletcher Henderson‘s star sidemen Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins:
“Breeze” strikes a similarly pacific mood, starting with trombonist Ed Cuffee barking against a limpid sax trio. It combines theme and variation at the same time, followed by Williams’ tender singing [just click the arrow to play]:
When Williams turns up the heat, as for example on “Sweet Emmalina,” it’s with a broad, gentle but driving energy, far removed from the jerky intensity of many other bands of the time and with St. Clair’s slap tonguing, on tuba, as an added treat timbral effect [just click on the song title to listen]:
Williams also knew when to just let soloists stretch out. “Sweet Emmalina” and “Dreaming the Hours Away” forego snappy arranged introductions and simply let Bailey cut loose, with an especially finger-busting solo on “Dreaming.” Later on, Hawkins sweats out a stabbing, metallic solo before the two reeds provide clarinet and sax riffs that make Williams’ little band sound much larger. Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington weren’t the only bandleaders experimenting with textures around this time:
Williams is best known for the Armstrong/Bechet recordings, but he usually employed the same core of imaginative, now obscure players in addition to occasional guests from big name bands. Allen was one of the most imaginative pre-Armstrong hornmen. On “I’ve Found A New Baby” with a Williams washboard group, the cornetist’s scorching lead and rhythmically liberated lines make his historical neglect seem all the more surprising:
Reedman Albert Soccaras also appears on several Williams’ sides, including hot flute solos like the one on “Have You Ever Felt That Way” predating Herbie Mann by a few decades:
As for Williams’ own piano, he provided solid harmonies and steady, bumping rhythm underneath it all. The piano rolls and solos he recorded may never have given his client and collaborator James P. Johnson anything to worry about, but Williams’ real instrument was his ear.
For a faithful but utterly individual tribute to Williams, check out the Hot Antic Jazz Band at the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival, captured by Elin Smith and posted on Michael Steinman’s (excellent) blog here.