IN A CAREER THAT SPANS MORE THAN 40 years, John B. Williams has performed with some the world’s most renowned jazz artists—Nancy Wilson, Horace Silver, Count Basie, Louie Bellson, Billy Cobham, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and the Manhattan Transfer, to name a few. He was a fixture on late-night television, first with Doc Severinsen’s house band on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, and later as part of the Posse on the Arsenio Hall Show. Williams recently released his second solo CD, Arabesque, and he’s currently prepping Notes on Life (Played in the Key of Love), a collaboration with his wife Jessica for release on his own imprint, JBW Entertainment.
Arabesque has a strong Caribbean influence.
When I write original music, I mostly hear calypso, samba, bossa nova, cha-cha-chá, and reggae. I hear them more naturally than I hear bebop or jazz. It’s where my heart is.
Where does that influence come from?
It’s always been a part of me—my father was from the Caribbean, and I played calypso long before I played jazz. It has a very joyous, celebratory kind of feel; it’s colorful and uplifting. I like to see people dancing and having a good time. I don’t like to inundate them with intellectual jazz.
What do you mean by that?
Whereas somebody who doesn’t know much about jazz can appreciate Kenny G or George Benson, intellectual jazz is for aficionados. I wanted to do something with Arabesque that was more far-reaching than straight-ahead jazz—something that would celebrate my roots.
There also seems to be a classical influence on this album. Would you say that’s true?
Absolutely. When I was a kid, my sister June convinced my mother to get me off the street by going to ballet classes. It screwed up my macho image, but I loved it. As a benefit, I saw Stravinsky’s Petrushka and was blown away. The music really grabbed me. As I got older I started listening to Stan Kenton and Johnny Richards, and the avant-garde sounds of Charles Ives and Béla Bartók. That really opened my mind.
Did studying upright bass influence that classical aspect of your playing?
Yes, it did. I studied classical bass with Ron Carter for almost three years. He wouldn’t let me play any pizzicato—it had to be all arco.
Why was that?
Intonation. On the upright bass, the best way to develop outstanding intonation is to bow; the bow tells the truth. My first professional gig after studying with Ron was with Horace Silver, who was a stickler for intonation. I had to double his left hand on the piano in a lot of songs, and he would call me on it if I were off.
To what do you attribute such a long, successful, and diverse career?
I chose a style that really suited me, which was to groove. I grew up listening to Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Milt Hinton, and Jimmy Blanton—players who got up under the band. Doc Severinsen used to say, “The band is only as good as the bass upon which it rests.” I had to play electric bass exclusively with Doc, and my tendency was to play a lot of notes; I had to learn how to lay down in the basement. Eventually I got so comfortable down there that I found it was more fun creating great bass lines that would make the band sound a certain way. Rather than play a lot of fancy, technical stuff, I chose to be a good bottom player. That has carried me through a wonderful career that I’m still enjoying today.
HEAR HIM ON
John B. Williams, Arabesque [Alessa, 2011]
Basses Warwick Streamer Stage II 4-string, Warwick Dolphin 5-string, Warwick Infinity 4- and 5-strings, fretless Warwick Thumb 4-string, Warwick Triumph 4-string electric upright, fretless Warwick Alien 5-string, u-size German-made Goetz upright, esize Chinese-made Charles W. Liu
Rig Warwick Hellborg System (Preamp, Stereo 250 power amp, Lo Cab 1x15, and Club Cab 1x15)
Strings, etc. La Bella strings, Fishman Pro EQ Preamp/DI, Levy’s Straps