JAY WILLIAMS - "A Hero's Legacy-A Gift of Music That Keeps On Giving"
Interview by Terrence Richburg and Andrea R. Williams © 2009
I've learned and confirmed that no matter what you know about someone, whether they're famous or just someone working up the ranks or diligently behind the scenes, it's virtually impossible to predict the potential value or impact a life will have on another or even the world. Someone can be a "hero" or just someone striving to be the best that they can be and pass it on. I'm fortunate to have known a few heroes during my life, but when those heroes are connected in a way that produces musical genius and creativity on an unfathomable level, I count myself truly blessed. Such is the story of Jay Williams, drummer, producer, and musician extraordinaire.
Jay Williams is no stranger to the Gospel, Jazz & R&B community. He has been working at his craft for a little over three decades and is considered by those who know him not only to be astoundingly gifted, but also a man of integrity and a model of spiritual maturity. In this issue, our JGC Local Spotlight shines on Jay Williams, whom you soon will discover pays a great tribute to his patriarchal foundation-one whose hero's legacy is also a gift of musical blessing that keeps on giving to those who witness Jay's playing and encounter his Christ-like spirit.
Jay's musical passion, hard work, experience and dedication have significantly rewarded him professionally to appear at world-acclaimed venues and international live and recorded TV events. Williams has performed and recorded with a host of main stream artists all around the world-which are really too many to mention. However, a few include such greats as: Yolanda Adams, Karen Clark-Sheard, Richard Smallwood, Myrna Summers, Ben Tankard, Jonathan Butler, Kirk Whalum, Bobby Lyle, Gerald Albright, Najee, Kim Waters, Dave Koz, Will Downing, Lee Ritenour, Norman Brown, Nancy Wilson, Jagged Edge, Shai, Stephanie Mills, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Ledisi, Kim Burrell and the list goes on. Recently, Jay received national recognition as Co-Producer for the 2009 three-time Stellar-Award nominated CD "The John Tillery Project."
JGC was fortunate to chase down Jay from his busy schedule for an exclusive interview. For those who know Jay Williams, JGC would like for you to get to know him even better. For those who don't know Jay Williams, we want to introduce him to you on a personal note so that you'll become familiar with his life which is already impacting yours musically and spiritually unaware.
JGC: I wanted to interview you because I know you're doing a lot. I wanted to know how it was for you growing up and what was it that made you gravitate towards music, especially drums.
Jay Williams: My dad [Judge Williams, Sr.] was an organist in the D.C. area. I would go with him when he would play and watch the other drummers playing with him. There were drummers like Danny McCrimmon and Junior Salsa. I used to just sit, watch and learn. It caught my interest. I just loved music, from the start. Eventually, I gigged other places that needed a drummer. And of course, he said, "My son plays drums." So that's how it all started.
JGC: What specifically has served as training for you during your developmental stage in music?
JW: Sunday morning...in a storefront church...where they shouted for hours...[laughs]. I had to play on the worst equipment. The drums were different colors and the cymbals were cracked..[laughs]...on an old Ghost pedal. That was my best training. I also got my training listening to the music that my dad would play in the car. He was a big fan of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, even the Jazz musicians. He had old Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea records that I got into at a young age. It developed the musical sense that I have now. My dad introduced me to a video of Buddy Rich; after that, to me, he was king. That's how I started. It wasn't a formal training thing, just basically watching and listening.
JGC: What role has Christianity and the church played in developing opportunities to use your gift?
JW: It's played a big part. I tell young people that I can't do it without the Lord because He gave me the gift, first of all. So I have to do what I can to give it back to Him and to show others where I got it from. You have a lot of musicians who take credit for themselves - this is me, this is what I did. But for me, it's totally God. Many times when I'm playing, I know it's not me playing. It's what God gave me at that moment. It's kinda weird, maybe I shouldn't say weird, but it's kinda wild sometimes. There have been times when I have done something on the drums, and they ask me, "Can you do that again?" I'm like, "I don't know what I did!" I'm not trying to be funny or vain, but that's not me. I give it all back to Him, and I give Him all the credit for what I do. I believe where God has placed me and the opportunities He's given me are truly a blessing. I don't say, "Why didn't that person call me for the gig?" Our steps are ordered. It's important for musicians or people who are reaching for something to realize that.
JGC: Who are your major influences when it comes to your drumming style? I know you mentioned Buddy Rich, but who are others?
JW: I'm into a lot of different drummers, but my top three favorite drummers are Vinnie Colaiuta, Dennis Chambers and Will Kennedy. All three bring something different to the table. They have their own style, their own voicing in the way they do things. Will is very musical in his playing. Even when he's playing drums by himself, he gives you a real feel of the song. Vinnie is a "groove drummer." He's the type of drummer who can lay a groove and keep you there. Then he'll do something real slick; it doesn't have to be an amazing chop, but it's a chop that speaks for a long time. Dennis, he's just...fire. Once he's gone, it's over. He brings a lot. I like Vinnie's groove. One thing about Vinnie that sticks out to me is his rim shot. His shot is amazing. I could be in the car listening to the radio and not know who the artist is or who the drummer is, but when I hear that rim shot, I'm sure it's Vinnie. He has his own sound when it comes to that.
JGC: Who are your heroes as it relates to music?
JW: My dad definitely was a huge hero of mine. As you know, he passed a couple of years ago. He was a big influence in my musical career. He supported me in everything I did. I owe a lot to him for placing me in certain situations where I am today and where I'm going. I really thank him for that. There are others, but he's my main musical hero. He's my main hero, period. He was a true dad. And that was much more important. It helped me to strive to be a good dad.
JGC: Do you aspire to play other instruments?
JW: Actually, it's funny you ask me that. At a young age, I started messing around with the bass and the keyboards. Then once I got into my teen years, I saw that I wanted to really enhance my drumming even more so I paid attention to that. But looking back, I wished I had given everything an equal amount of time so I could be more like Terrence Richburg...[laughs]. But I definitely want to get back into the other instruments, mainly for writing purposes, especially as I get older. I don't want to be on the road at 70.
JGC: Who gave you your first start as a musician professionally and how did that come about ?
JW: My first start professionally was with a local choir called Toby Palmer & Chosen Generation. That was basically my first professional start. I think I was about 16 when I started playing with them. Then when I got older, I started playing with Jazz musicians and it just grew from there. But it started with me playing out a lot, traveling with the choir. My first live recording was when I was 15 with D.C. Fellowship Mass Choir under the leadership of Pastor D. Lee Owens. As far as traveling though, it was Toby Palmer & Chosen Generation.
JGC: You've played with many artists in various styles and it appears that the major part of what you do is in the Jazz field. What is it about Jazz that really attracts you?
JW: I think Jazz and Gospel are a happy medium of all musical styles. In Jazz, you can have Jazz tunes that have a Gospel feel or a Rock feel or an Afro Cuban feel or a Classical feel. Jazz is really a musical style, almost like a bowl of gumbo. You get all of that in Jazz. I think that's why I do Jazz a lot.
JGC: What would you say the major difference is between Jazz as opposed to a Rock gig or an R&B gig?
JW: One major difference in playing R&B - you have to play parts on everything you do - but playing R&B is more of a structured situation. Many times in R&B, you're playing with tracks so there are certain boundaries you have to stay in. The song ends at a certain time, every time. Within Jazz, it's more of a spontaneous thing that happens. You can still have arrangements, but you can play in and out of those arrangements. In R&B, you have to support the singer and not overshadow them.
JGC: What is your impression of Gospel Jazz as a genre and what does it mean to you?
JW: It means a lot to me because I and other musicians love Jazz music and they also love the Lord. It's music that He gave us. I can make it what I like while worshiping Him at the same time. A lot of people have different views, but simply put, it's instrumental music that has a feeling. It depends on how you interpret it. Even if I do a Chick Corea tune (and his goal may not have been to praise the Lord), I could play "Spain" and send it to God. It's about what I'm feeling and what's coming from my heart.
JGC: How do you feel about Gospel Jazz being utilized in the church and how could it be used more effectively?
JW: Well, Gospel Jazz being used in the church is a great thing. But to be honest, church folks are not just listening to Gospel music anyway. When 105.9 changed (a former Smooth Jazz station in Washington, D.C.), a lot of church people were mad. It's like a happy medium between the two. I have seen pastors at Jazz concerts because they love music. When Jazz lovers who are in church hear a Gospel tune like "O Happy Day" interpreted in a Jazz way, I think it makes them feel comfortable. Ramsey Lewis did a Jazz version of that song and it was wonderful. Jazz music in the church is a good thing. You have traditional people in the church who say, "That's taking it too far." But we're in a new day.
JGC: What would you say is the most defining moment for you professionally as a musician and an artist?
JW: Wow...I would say when I got the call to play with Lee Ritenour. Will Kennedy gigs with him regularly, but there were two particular gigs that he couldn't do. The first gig was in Hong Kong in November and I got the call in July. When I got that opportunity, it was a kind of a nervous feeling and kind of a happy feeling. The nervousness left once I got to rehearsal at Lee's house. I got to know him and the gig turned out wonderfully. I got a call from him again that next year in January. He said to me that if Will can't do certain things, he says that he'll call me. It felt good.
JGC: During your extensive travels, what did you learn from those experiences and what has impacted you most?
JW: I've been able to check out other musicians and check out their attitude. I have been able to network with others, even those who aren't musicians but are in the music business including stage managers, sound and light people and promoters. I think it's important to communicate with people in the business who don't do what we do. Eventually, you will see them again. There are times when I'll be all over the country, but there will be people who will recognize me from other things I've done - even though I don't know them from a can of paint. That's a good experience, too.
JGC: I know you have a project you're working on and what can we expect from you in the future?
JW: My wife suggested I finish 5 or 6 tunes to get a feel for how it will work out. I have been in this business for a while, but as far as a "front man" and an artist, I'm a rookie. I don't want to jump in there with two feet, so I want to learn and grow into it. Hopefully, by the end of September, I should have something pressed so I can get a feel for how people receive it.
JGC: I know that when you're given an opportunity to solo, the audience really gets excited about what you do. How do you approach drumming as a soloist?
JW: In my solo approach, I try to make it musical to the point where the average ear knows what's going on so it doesn't sound like a whole bunch of racket. You have to start somewhere and build and that's how I approach it. I am known for being a "pocket" drummer - which I love. I love playing pocket; I love groovin'. But when it's time to do the solo thing, I'm a totally different person. A young bass player Nate Fields always jokes with me saying "Oh, he's young again!" I'm the kind of person that if I don't feel it, I won't do it. If I'm not comfortable physically - or not warmed up like I should be - I don't want to try to attack it if it's not coming freely. I would rather do my job as a timekeeper but still in a musical sense. There have been times when I have been given a solo and I will do a groove, but it will be a different groove than the original groove. A lot of times when James Brown said "Give the drummer some," the drummer kept a groove, but he did something distinctive.
JGC: What would you want to share with drummers who are up-and-coming and want to develop professionally?
JW: First and foremost, have fun. Parents of 5 or 6 year-old kids come to me and they want to give them drum lessons. I think I'm the opposite of other people; I told them to just let them play and let them enjoy doing it. You don't want to put them in a classroom setting where they start from the basics - not yet. Right now, they just want to bang and do their thing. Let them enjoy it; don't waste your money until you see they have a serious interest. I don't want to waste their money or my time. It's important for youngsters to read music, but let them develop their sense of music. Make sure they enjoy it.
JGC: I noticed you have some companies that you endorse. I have talked to artists who want to get an endorsement deal. How important is it and how would you approach doing it?
JW: First and foremost, it's always good to be working on a regular basis because companies don't want to give endorsements just because you play drums. If you're playing at your home church or in jazz clubs around the city, it's good. But they want their product to be seen across the country. They aren't in a rush to sign people who just want free gear. It took about a year and a half for me to get an endorsement deal with Yamaha Drums. They wanted to see my passion in playing their instrument first. I had to keep in touch with them to let them know what I was doing. And it wasn't just about asking them about an endorsement deal when I called. I told this one young drummer that I'm mentoring - who wants endorsements and gigs - that it's all in due time. You have to be patient. There's one endorsement deal that I'm trying to get now, but I'm being patient. I have a relationship with them, but I'm trying to develop a better relationship with them to the point where they can trust me and give me what I need. Also, even in having an endorsement, don't just get a whole bunch of gear because you can get it. There are a lot of musicians out there that have endorsements that get a lot of drum sets or cymbals and they end up selling them because they don't have any money because they aren't gigging. They know that game as well.
JGC: Finally, I know you're on the road a lot and you've performed with a lot of people. Who would you say is your favorite artist to perform with? And do you have opportunities to share Christ with people?
JW: In a lot of situations I have been in, the artists have been saved as well. That helps a lot. I have worked with Jonathan Butler. He and I might do a jazz festival one day and a church the next day. He's one of my favorite artists to work with. I'll be doing some dates with Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum and we'll be doing gospel songs within the sets. They do a gospel medley so we're definitely keeping it spiritually focused. Even off stage, our conversation is about the Lord, about church and about life period.