LIKE THE other great pianists who played for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, one of the most potent of all jazz groups, James Williams expressed himself with strong, individual musical character. But, like Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, George Cables and all the players who preceded him and came to fame in the role, he was given an education by the elderly drum master.
Whilst he was with the band in the 1970s Williams summed up what Blakey had taught him:
Blakey never says, "Play it this way." It's like father and sons - he sets examples. He puts you in tune with what you're supposed to do. You just listen to him and emulate what he does on your own instrument. He'll stay with the young guys and bring them up, and when they graduate, he'll find others. He's a real teacher.
Williams came comparatively late to jazz. He learned to play the piano in Memphis when he was 13, relishing the gospel music he played on the organ and sang in church for hours each Sunday. Studying Music Education at Memphis State University, he befriended two young pianists, Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown, both of them future members of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
At 22, Williams was accomplished enough to be invited to teach at the Berklee …