John Williams in conversation with Steve Voce

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John Williams. Photo: Robert Parent

The jazz pianist, animal lover and later one-time deputy mayor of Broadway, Florida told Gerry Mulligan why he needed a piano. First published in Jazz Journal, August 1994


‘I never recorded with him, but I was the only pianist the Gerry Mulligan Sextet ever had! I was at a session in a New York apartment with Gerry one time and we were standing out on a rooftop drinking and talking. Finally I’d had enough to drink so that I could tell Gerry what I thought of rhythm sections without pianos in them. I really harangued him. ‘Everything sounds so flat without a piano. Go ahead with all your harmonic creativity, but for Pete’s sake give me a rhythm section!’

“He had just expanded from a quartet to a sextet and was going out on a package tour. With himself he had Jon Eardley, Zoot and Bob Brookmeyer as his front line. Those are four incredible players. They had a lot of things written but they also had a lot of genuine creativity and they’d often have four intertwining lines going. But again, a two-piece rhythm section. Very flat. It didn’t do anything for me.

“A few days later on a Friday Gerry called me and said ‘John, you wanna join the group? I’ve got a concert tour with Carmen McRae and others and we’re opening in Columbus on Monday then on to Ann Arbor and so on’.

“I said ‘Gerry, I’d love that, but this is Friday and you’re going out on Monday’. Besides that I was booked that Monday night at Birdland and another gig which was to be recorded, and also I had a booking to record with the Larry Sonn big band. I made the decision that I should go with Gerry, especially after having shot my mouth off to Gerry about the piano. So I cancelled all three. ‘OK’, he said, ‘You’ll ride with Bobby and we’ll meet in Columbus’. ‘But Gerry’, I said, ‘this is a concert tour. I need something to work with. You got any charts?’ ‘No’, he said. ‘We’ll work it out at the time’.

“Well, it became very obvious that the minute Gerry had decided to add a piano he’d actually changed his own mind again. I got in the car with Bobby and we rode to Columbus. ‘Bobby’, I said, ‘the guy’s given me no charts, no lead sheets and no indication of what we’re going to play. He hasn’t used a piano before and as far as I can see he’s made no preparation for one. What the hell’s going on?’

“Bobby drove and from New York to Columbus he did his damnedest to try to sketch out the formats of some of the sextet’s more famous numbers while I wrote them down. When we got to the concert I hit on Gerry again. ‘Don’t worry about it’, he said, and it was obvious that he was already regretting that he had taken me on.

“We got on the concert stage and, thanks to Bobby, I had some idea of what was going on. You know the word ‘stroll’? It means when the piano player lays out and lets the rest of the rhythm section carry on. We’d play something and I’d just begin to feel it was going to be all right, to begin to cook and feel that this was working when Gerry would turn round and say ‘Stroll!’ and I’d have to drop out. Then he’d turn around and say ‘Come back!’

“You can’t do that! You cannot build the time element of the machine, you can’t put the wings up and put the buoyancy in the time and then let it all go phhhh! And then come back in and rise again from ground zero. It bothered me tremendously because I just was not prepared. And Gerry was apparently determined that I be not prepared.

“The next night was at Ann Arbor in the University Of Michigan where we had a massive big audience, then we went to Cincinnati. On the fourth night we were back in Philadelphia at the Academy Of Music and Gerry came to me and said ‘John, I don’t think I want to continue with the piano’. So he paid me and sent me back to New York.

“Of course I was greatly relieved because, other than Bobby, I was getting zero help as to what was supposed to be happening. And I couldn’t handle that stroll, come back in, stroll, come back in. That is no way to run a rhythm section! So I was Gerry Mulligan’s only piano player. Besides that, don’t ever forget this – Gerry Mulligan wants to be his own piano player. He doesn’t want anyone else to play the piano anyway! He used to do that at sessions and frankly none of us ever cared too much for it because he wasn’t working in the rhythm section, he was creating.

‘All of a sudden Miles and those guys are going into this free thing. the bass player just drops the time altogether and starts to play a solo, totally out on left field. It was madness from my point of view!’

“My disappointment about piano players in rhythm sections goes back to the 60s. When I left New York and went to Miami I only turned around twice and all of a sudden Miles and those guys are going into this free thing. I’m sitting in Miami and I’m working with a nice group when we get to the bass solo and the bass player just drops the time altogether and starts to play a solo, totally out on left field. It was madness from my point of view! Why would you build this castle in the air and then just demolish it and forget it? To me that, and when, further down the road, they got into fusion and all that, call it what you will but don’t call it jazz.

“We all evolved as jazz did. You can go back and listen to ragtime and it’s happy music, right? Dixieland! Is there anything more joyful and happy than that? It’s joyful because the time is happy and joyful. The big bands, bebop, just the same. You can take a Charlie Parker solo and dissect it and everything in it is a gorgeous beautiful melody all worked right around the time. Nowadays, it seems to me, many of the players are playing meaningless “exercises” and sounding very angry. What happened to the fun?

“However, I am very relieved to see so many brilliant young players coming along now. Perhaps it’s because of the schools. But whatever, some kind of return to reality has taken place and the young players today at least seem to be reaching back and trying to establish these roots before they do their things. There was none of that in the 60s and 70s. Then it was like taking Bach and Beethoven and saying ‘Forget that, that’s nothing’.

‘I have a personal animosity that I might as well tell you about. It’s what seems to have happened to all the tenor players as a result of John Coltrane’

“I read an article, was it by one of the Harper Brothers or some young player, where he asked ‘Who says that we should try and play our own music until we can understand Charlie Parker’s music?’ To me that was very eloquent. You listen to Bird today and nobody has been able to do what he had done. So much has been wasted. And I have a personal animosity that I might as well tell you about. It’s what seems to have happened to all the tenor players as a result of John Coltrane. They don’t seem to go back to early John Coltrane when he was less involved with exercises, I will call them disrespectfully! In the big bands run by the young players many of the trumpets and trombones are superb, a lot of the piano players are outstanding… maybe I’m generalising, but all the tenor players coming out of the schools, they’re all John Coltrane tenor players. You don’t hear the Prez roots, the Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz roots that I think tell a much better story than John Coltrane did, at least in his flamboyant playing.

“When I left New York in the late 50s to go to Florida it was because I was unhappy in my personal life. I had friends in Florida and when I got there I thought I was in heaven. I played Miami Beach with a jazz trio and a good singer. There was jazz all around and I played everywhere. Joe Mooney had a beautiful quartet there.

‘There were good players and clubs all over the place. But then came Elvis and the Beatles and jazz in Miami just did not survive’

“There were good players and clubs all over the place. But then came Elvis and the Beatles and jazz in Miami just did not survive. For me then music had strictly become a way to make a living, and there’s no poorer way to make a living. I had one of the ‘better’ jobs in Miami Beach because I worked at a night club that stayed open all the year round, not just during the winter season. I played shows and a little dance music and was just about ready to blow my brains out! If you can’t have that intense pleasure that jazz brings you, what the hell are you in that business for?

“I’ve always had an intense interest in American history and politics, and as a result of this I became involved with my city’s political life and I ran for office in 1971. I was urged and pushed to do it. Nobody thought I could win, least of all myself. Who’s going to vote for a piano player working in a club in Miami? But they did, I don’t know why. After that I was on the commission three or four years – it was a part-time job, you know. I was satisfied that I was able to do things which I felt had some lasting importance.

“I took the opportunity to go to work for an advertising agency for two years and then I went to work for the Home Savings Bank, where I’ve been since 1978. I can’t tell you how fortunate I am. I love the people I work with. I like what I’m doing and I’m happy that I feel like I’m contributing and I’m making a good living.

“I suppose I was the environmentalist on the commission, very much an advocate of controlled growth. I fought like the dickens to save some major tracts of pristine land before they could be built on. It was a good major accomplishment. It’ll be there long after I’ve gone.

“Over the years I was much involved with the Hollywood Jazz Festival, both organising and playing and indeed played with Bobby Brookmeyer, Buddy DeFranco, Terry Gibbs and Scott Hamilton at various concerts. In 1989 I tried to reassemble the original Stan Getz Quintet to play there – minus Teddy Kotick, of course, who had died. Stan was keen to do it and I talked to him many times on the phone to his home in Malibu to try to arrange it. Bobby wanted to do it too, and I planned to bring Frank Isola down from Detroit.

“By then Stan had the quartet with Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis and Rufus Reid. Phenomenal! Kenny was wonderful on that Anniversary album with Stan (EmArcy 838 769 2). On Stella by Starlight he’s superb. There’s a lot of Stan on there which is great too, but there are also a lot of times when he’s throwing away stuff. So many times you hear Stan playing just for effect.

“I did my best to get Stan to the festival but he was already ill and he’d decided that he couldn’t go anywhere without a big entourage – a Japanese cook, his manager, his acupuncturist and his lady friend, and it kept on building in cost. Of course our budget was limited and I finally just had to tell him that we couldn’t do it. So Bobby and I played with the quartet that year – very enjoyable. I was sad about the quintet, but I felt good that I had come back, I really did”.

The recording career of John Williams resumed in October 1994 when he led a quartet date in Hollywood for Mitsui Johfu. Apart from John the lineup included his old friends Spike Robinson on tenor and Frank Isola on drums.