Remembering Jessica Williams

March 17, 1948 – March 12, 2022

 

A tribute to the brilliant pianist

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Pianist Jessica Williams passed away on March 12, 2022 at the age of 73.

She was born on March 17, 1948 in Baltimore, Maryland, and began playing piano when she was four.

Williams had piano lessons from the age of five and studied classical music at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Because she was able to play anything that she heard and could improvise from an early age, by the time she was 12 she had turned her focus to jazz.

Inspired most by horn players (including Miles Davis and John Coltrane), she worked early on with such visiting artists as Richie Cole and Buck Hill, and was part of drummer Philly Joe Jones’group in 1976.

After moving to San Francisco in 1977, she was in the house band at Keystone Korner and worked with such giants as Eddie Harris, Tony Williams, Stan Getz, Bobby Hutcherson, and Charlie Haden before forming her own trio.

A superb technician and a consistently inventive and often-witty improviser, Williams had a particular knack for playing Thelonious Monk tunes in a fresh way.

While she never became as famous as she deserved, Jessica Williams was admired by many other pianists including Dave Brubeck, she recorded regularly (both for other labels and her own Red and Blue Records), and was a West Coast legend.

Bad health forced her retirement in 2012 although she continued to play classical and electronic music privately whenever she could.

There is surprisingly little footage of Jessica Williams performing but this recorded version of “Lulu’s Back In Town,” (in a trio with bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis), which starts out with some Thelonious Monk-type stride and then really cooks, gives one an idea of the greatness of her piano playing.

-Scott Yanow

 

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