Williams, Claude “Fiddler”
Claude “Fiddler” Williams
While “young lions” come and go in jazz, Claude “Fiddler” Williams has been playing his violin in everything from Kansas City bars to Carnegie Hall for the past 70 years. “With his eyes on his ninth decade,” noted Molly Murphy of National Public Radio, “Claude Williams continues to share his infectious jump-blues style with everyone from children at summer violin camps to the sophisticated audiences of the world’s best jazz festival.”
Williams began his career in the late 1920s, playing with greats like Ben Webster and Lester Young, and exploring the possibilities of jazz violin. He also made a strong comeback during the 1990s when many of his peers had long since retired or died. “True beauty,” wrote Michael J. Renner of Williams’s violin style in Jam, “comes from taking complexity and forging something smooth and lyrical, something where the sweat of creativity is undetectable to the eyes and ears.”
Claude Gabriel Williams was born on February 22, 1908, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was already playing guitar, mandolin, cello, and banjo by the age of ten, but after he heard violinist Jo Venuti, he was determined to also teach himself fiddle. “You could hear that fiddle over all the big band,” Williams told Chuck Haddix in
Born Claude Gabriel Williams on February 22, 1908, in Muskogee, OK.
Played with Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy, 1927-30; joined Alphonso Trent’s band and George E. Lee’s Orchestra, early 1930s; played with Count Basie, 1936; joined the Four Shades of Rhythm, early 1940s; played with Austin Powell’s Quintet in New York on the Arthur Godfrey Show; joined Roy Milton’s Blues Band in Los Angeles, 1951-52; relocated to Kansas City, worked locally, 1953-72; toured with pianist Jay McShann, 1970s; toured under his own name, 1980s-1990s; appeared at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, 1990s.
Awards: Induction, Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, 1997; National Heritage Fellowship, 1998.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 218-4495, website: http://www.rounder.com.
Down Beat. “I told my mama that’s what I want to play. The next day when I got home from school, there was a fiddle.” Williams got his start when he joined his brother-in-law’s string band, playing ragtime and popular music for tips, and traveling between Oklahoma City and Tulsa by train.
In 1927 he moved to Kansas City where he played his first professional job with Terrence Holder’s Eleven Clouds of Joy. “Kansas City was a good-time place,” Williams told Haddix. “The clubs never closed. You’d start playing at six that evening and go all night until the next morning when they would close the door to sweep up.” The band transformed into Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy, with Williams playing banjo, guitar, and fiddle. The band toured frequently, but when Williams injured his leg in 1930 he was forced to return to Kansas City. When he recovered, he worked locally, playing at a taxi dancehall and later with Chick Stevens at the Seneca Hotel in Illinois.
Williams then moved to Chicago where he auditioned for Eddie Cole’s band, which featured his brother, Nat King Cole, on the piano. “I played a tune for them on my guitar and then my fiddle,” he told Haddix. “They asked me to play another number on the fiddle. Then they told me to lay down the guitar and just play the fiddle. They asked me to join the band….” In 1936 Williams played guitar with Count Basie’s big band, but inner politics cut his stay short. Many believed that John Hammond, who backed Basie’s band, made the decision to replace Williams with Freddie Green. “I said (to myself),” Williams told Renner, “there was a lot of good guitar players, and the jazz violin players were kinda scarce, so I’m just gonna play fiddle.”
During the 1940s Williams worked for the Four Shades of Rhythm in Chicago and with a band sponsored by the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in Michigan. He played one date with Austin Powell’s quintet on the Arthur Godfrey Show and began amplifying his fiddle in 1950. He moved to Los Angeles in 1951-52 where he played with Roy Milton’s Blues Band. “I could always play the blues…,” he told Haddix. “Jazz isn’t anything but the blues.” Williams moved to Kansas City in 1953, keeping a lower profile during the 1950 and 1960s, where he led local bands. He also played stints in Denver and Las Vegas.
In 1972 Williams began playing with pianist Jay McShann, an association that would last for most of the 1970s, and was featured on his 1972 album, Man from Muskogee. In the 1970s Williams appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and Lincoln Center in New York. His true renaissance, though, began in 1981 when he gave violinist John Blake a tape of one of his performances. Blake recommended Williams for a Broadway production of Black and Blue, and after rehearsing for two weeks, he joined the show. “We played Paris for five or six months,” he told Haddix, “and I left the cast when we returned to New York.” After this point in his career, there would be no shortage of work.
During the 1990s, when Williams was in his eighties, he revitalized his career yet again with new recordings and performances at high-profile venues. He toured with the Statesmen of Jazz, a group of musicians 65 or older founded by the American Federation of Jazz Societies. In 1997 the group recorded an album for Arbors and the following year toured Japan. “With the Statesmen,” Williams told Renner, “all of them are what’cha call seasoned musicians. They can call a song we haven’t played for 20 years and then play it.”
In 1998 he received a National Heritage Fellowship presented by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House. Williams celebrated his ninetieth birthday by playing five shows in five days in four cities. His birthday was also honored at a concert in Northampton, Maine, where five other fiddlers joined him on stage. “He looks at least 20 years younger,” noted Bob Blumenthal in the Boston Globe, “and plays with the spirit of a recent college grad.”
In 2000 Williams recorded Swingin’ the Blues, yet another album that found the 92-year-old fiddler at the top of his form. “Williams’swing still sounds effortless,” noted Daniel Gewertz in the Boston Herald, “light and ferocious at once. His melodic and harmonic flair is nothing short of sensational.” With a lifetime of recordings and live appearances, Williams can proudly take his place among an elite core of jazz violinists that include Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty. “I don’t see any reason to quit playing,” Williams told Russ Dantzler in the liner notes to King of Kansas City. “I’ll be doing this at least till I get to a hundred and something. You know, I ain’t got far to go. But I’m still going to be playing, as long as I have good ideas, and can play as I do.”
Call for the Fiddler, Steeple Chase, 1976.
Fiddler’s Dream, Classic Jazz, 1977.
Live at J’s, Pt. 1, Arhoolie, 1989.
Live at J’s, Pt. 2, Arhoolie, 1989.
King of Kansas City, Progressive, 1996.
Swingin’ the Blues, Bullseye Blues, 2000.
Boston Globe, May 5, 1998, p. E4.
Boston Globe, May 5, 1998, p. E4.
Down Beat, March 1999, p. 32.
“Claude Williams,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (January 15, 2003).
“Claude ‘Fiddler’ Williams,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/programs/jazzprofiles/archive/williams_c.html (January 15, 2003).
“Claude ‘Fiddler’ Williams: Still Swingin’ at 90,” Jam,http://www.jazzkc.org/issues/1998-02/fiddler90.html (January 15, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from the “Claude Williams Biography” by Russ Dantzler included in the liner notes to King of Kansas City, 1996.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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