Magazine article IAJRC Journal

The Baddest Alto Player Walking in New York: The Life and Music of Rudy Williams 1909-1954

Magazine article IAJRC Journal

The Baddest Alto Player Walking in New York: The Life and Music of Rudy Williams 1909-1954

Article excerpt

The title to this article is a statement that alto sax Jackie McLean made at an interview with Steve Lehman in the year 2000. The full quote goes: "Well, he was a legend. Before Bird came to New York, he was the baddest alto player walking in New York".

If you try to find references to Rudy Williams on the internet, there is a good chance that they will tell you that Rudy Williams was the son of the bandleader Stanley "Fess" Williams. However, he was not. The confusion comes from the fact, that "Fess" Williams had a son Rudolph (Rudy) who played sax, but he was born in 1918 and still living when "Fess" Williams died in 1975, while the subject of this article was born in 1909 and died in 1954. To complicate matters even more they were actually related and they were also related to bass player Charlie Mingus whose mother, Mammie Mingus was the sister of "Fess" Williams' wife, Louise. It is likely that Rudy Williams' father was a brother to "Fess" Williams, but their father died before the turn of the century and the family was scattered and is therefore difficult to follow through the official registrations.

Rudy Williams grew up in New Jersey and began playing sax around the age of 12. As he became more proficient, he did not follow the usual main stream of the period's alto sax inspirations from Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, but rather modelled his style after Jimmy Lunceford's lead alto Willie Smith, although with a distinct personal twist as can be heard from Rudy Williams' earliest recordings.

The Savoy Sultans

Rudy Williams became a member of the band called The Savoy Sultans from 1937. The band originated in Newark, New Jersey where the leader, sax and clarinet player Al Cooper (Lofton Alfonso Cooper 1911-81) lived and where John Hammond already in 1935 had discovered Grachan Moncur, who was Al Cooper's half-brother and became The Savoy Sultans' bass player. The nucleus of the Sultans were playing at the 101 Club on Lenox Avenue when they were hired to play at a place in New Jersey called Harlem-On-The-Hudson. That job lasted for 3 months and gave them a chance to polish their style and repertoire, so when they went from there to the White Towers in Pleasantville in upstate New York, John Hammond was able to bring in Charles Buchanan who managed Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. After a successful audition, The Savoy Sultans opened at the Savoy on Labour Day 1937 and stayed as the house band way into the 1940s.

Opinions of The Savoy Sultans have differed considerably between those who have heard them live and those who base their opinion on the records only. Gunther Schuller wrote in his book "The Swing Era" that:

".. .their playing in the studios on recordings was musically rather crude and overbearing, oftentimes out of tune and in its rigid adherence to riff formulas and cliché phrases - all in the same tempo - suffered from a deadening redundancy".

However, to Dizzy Gillespie there was no deadening redundancy. He had a clear recollection that:

"The Savoy Sultans had enough rhythm for a thousandpiece orchestra, that's what they really generated up there on the bandstand; and the dancers were always grooved with the Sultans".

Dizzy even claimed that the dance floor at the Savoy caved in when the Sultans played for dancing, - something that manager Charles Buchanan indignantly denied. And Jackie McLean had this to say in the interview mentioned above,

"It was like a little 9-piece band that just kicked ass. They played at the Savoy all the time. And when like a guest band would come in, they would open for them, and then present whoever the band was. And then, if they didn't act right, then the Savoy Sultans would challenge them. And, so there would be a battle of the bands on the weekend and the Savoy Sultans could kick everybody's was 9 pieces".

Trombonist Dickie Wells described the problems other bands that played the Savoy would have with The Savoy Sultans:

"The Savoy Sultans was another band that was a living headache to everyone. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.