Williams, Clarence 1893(?)–1965
Clarence Williams 1893(?)–1965
Jazz musician, publisher
Clarence Williams was one of the premier music publishers of his time. He claimed to be the originator of jazz, and while this has not been proven true, it can be said that Williams did make a major impact in the development of jazz. He was also a very successful, though sometimes shady, businessman and entrepreneur.
Williams was born in 1893 (some accounts say 1898) in Plaquemine, Louisiana. His father was a hotel owner and a bass player. The family moved to New Orleans in 1906 and Williams began his career singing in the streets. At the age of twelve, Williams joined a minstrel show as a singer. He then became the show’s emcee.
In 1915 Williams returned to New Orleans, particularly the Storyville District. He began to work as an organizer, record producer, and composer. He also started a suit cleaning service and ran a cabaret. Williams teamed up with famed bandleader and violinist Armand (A.J.) Piron to start and music publishing company.
In 1916 Williams wrote “Brown Skin, Who You For” and received $1,600, his first payment for a composition and considered the largest payout ever in New Orleans. The song, included a short play with words some consider a precursor to rap music. During this time, many made the claim to be the creator of jazz music, Williams included. Tom Morgan at bluesnet.hub.org stated that Williams not only claimed to be the first person to use the word ‘jazz’ in a song but he had the title “The Originator of Jazz and Boogie Woogie” placed on his business card.
Williams worked with numerous jazz greats of the day including: Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Sidney Bechet. He and his partner, Piron, created a vaudeville act that had minimal success. While touring, the duo became acquainted with W. C. Handy. They were even on hand to perform in Handy’s program when he switched venues in Atlanta.
The Storyville district closed, and Williams moved to Chicago. He opened a music store that was so lucrative, he opened two more stores. Many people began listening to black female blues singers, and Williams decided to capitalize on this. He married blues singer Eva Taylor, sold his stores and moved to New York in 1923. He opened his own music publishing company.
Though Williams performed with his wife, he is perhaps known more for his collaborations with renowned
Born on October 8, 1893 (some sat 1898) in Plaquemine, LA; died on November 6, 1965 in New York. Married Eva Taylor (blues singer.)
Career: Singer, musician, composer, producer. Joined minstrel show; started suit cleaning service; formed music publishing company with A.J. Piron, circa 1915; composed and released songs with Columbia Records; moved to Chicago; owned three music stores; moved to New York City in 1923; founded own music publishing company; released over 300 sides; sold catalog to Decca Records in 1943.
vocalist, Bessie Smith. The two had released many songs, of those “Gulf Coast Blues,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” are considered classics. Though the two were successful together, Williams wasn’t honest with the singer. According to Tom Morgan, he fooled the singer into signing a contract with him instead of with Columbia Records, and he pocketed half of her recording fee. The teaming ended after a surprise visit by Smith and her boyfriend to Williams’ office.
Williams became A&R director for Okeh Records. He helped to develop many new artists and advanced the careers of many jazz legends including Louis Armstrong. He also employed a number of talented people including arranger Don Redman and saxophone player Coleman Hawkins. As A&R director, Williams nurtured and groomed many artists by arranging sessions, supplying material and publishing compositions.
Williams was also producing and playing for himself. He recorded over 300 records with his band. Williams was a perfectionist, and if he didn’t like how a session went, he’d record the music somewhere else under a pseudonyms, usually The Dixie Washboard Band or Bluegrass Footwarmers. According to basinstreet.com, Williams’ music was “never sweet, coy or weak. It had a sturdy solid strength, a deep emotionality, an inner calmness that provided beauty and true art.”
Williams also produced and composed the musical Bottomland, which also starred his wife, Eva. By the 1930s, swing had become popular and demand for his Dixieland style had waned. Williams switched his focus from performing and producing to mainly composing. According to Dick Stafford, a writer for www.musicweb. uk.net, Williams retired from full-time music after he sold his catalog to Decca Records. He lost his eyesight after an accident in 1956. He died nine years later in New York.
Williams’ music represented the early jazz sound of New Orleans. He was a well-respected pianist and publisher. Many looked to Williams’ work as a guide to what was in vogue at the time. Many of his songs have achieved lasting fame—though some of them he claimed credit for, he hadn’t composed alone. According to allmusic.com, Williams “had a real ear for talent,” and helped to make Okeh Records one of the preeminent record labels in the 1920s. He was an intriguing and highly profitable businessman. His nurturing of and collaborations with many of the top jazz musicians and singers of his time helped create the jazz heard and admired in both the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His name may have faded into obscurity but his sound has endured. Clarence Williams, though not the originator of jazz, can be considered one of its most influential pioneers.
“Brown Skin, Who You For.”
“Royal Garden Blues.”
“Jail House Blues.”
“Cushion Foot Stomp.”
“Gulf Coast Blues.”
“Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.”
“T’ain’t Nobody Bizness If I Do.”
All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com
—Ashyia N. Henderson
Clarence Williams is one of the nation's most respected photojournalists. He rose to prominence quickly, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work in the Los Angeles Times by the time he was thirty-one years old. Upon leaving the Times in 2003, he embarked on a series of solo projects, most notably an in-depth examination of the devastation of New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
Born on January 22, 1967, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Williams attended local schools before entering Temple University, one of the city's leading educational institutions, which granted him a bachelor's degree in mass communication in 1993. While at Temple he worked closely with a highly regarded journalism professor, Ed Trayes, whom Williams has identified as one of his greatest mentors. In his senior year he worked for several months as an intern in the photography department of the Philadelphia Tribune, where he gained further experience in the specialized techniques of photojournalism.
Following graduation, Williams obtained a job as a staff photographer for Times Community Newspapers, the publisher of more than a dozen weekly newspapers across northern Virginia. He remained in Virginia for a year, from 1993 to 1994, before moving to Los Angeles, where he won a spot at the Los Angeles Times, one of the nation's most influential newspapers, as a trainee in a well-known diversity program known as METPRO. Founded in 1984 by the Times Mirror Group, then the publisher of the Times, in an effort to increase the minority presence in its newsrooms, METPRO offered participants intensive, on-the-job training. Williams completed the program in 1994 and was offered a permanent position as a photographer for the Times the following year. In 1996 he received a promotion to staff photographer, a position he held until leaving the Times in 2003.
It was while working for the Los Angeles newspaper that Williams established his reputation as a fearless journalist and gifted photographer. His assignments often took him to remote and dangerous regions across the globe, including the West Bank city of Hebron, a focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war-torn African nation of Angola. It was, however, Williams's detailed depiction of heroin addicts and their children in central Los Angeles that brought him to national prominence. In one widely reproduced photograph from the series, titled Orphans of Addiction, a girl of three is shown having her teeth brushed with a toothbrush belonging to her mother, an HIV-positive addict. Another photo depicts an eight-year-old boy cowering in fear from the verbal abuse of his father's girlfriend. In an interview with Vincent Alabiso in the Nieman Reports, a publication of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, critic James Dooley cited the series as a prime example of "hard-hitting, provocative, and tender photojournalism." Other critics agreed, and in April of 1998, it was announced that Orphans of Addiction had earned Williams the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. It was an extraordinary honor for someone only thirty- one years old, and with only five years of experience as a full-time journalist. As the Pulitzer Web site noted, however, Williams had begun receiving photography awards as early as 1991, when he took fourth place in a contest cosponsored by Photographer's Forum magazine and Nikon Corporation. Other notable awards have included first place for issues reporting in the 1996 Pictures of the Year Contest, an annual event sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association; Journalist of the Year honors from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1998; and first prize for domestic photojournalism from the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, also in 1998.
In 2003 Williams resigned his position at the Los Angeles Times to pursue a variety of solo projects. In August of 2005 his career took an unexpected turn when he found himself at the center of one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history. Williams was visiting relatives on the east side of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, submerging more than 80 percent of the city. Williams spent three days trapped in an attic, along with his family, before escaping. Emerging to face a scene of utter devastation, Williams responded by keeping a journal and by photographing the efforts of the city's mostly African-American population to survive without adequate supplies of food, fresh water, shelter, and electricity. Among Williams's most poignant photos from this period are those featuring members of his own family, including Dominique Williams, the wife of a first cousin, who is shown weeping as she places all that remains of her family's possessions into a few small laundry baskets. In the weeks following the storm, the Miami Herald published a large selection of these photos, as well as excerpts from Williams's journal. Though the Herald's series was the first time that Williams's writing had been featured so prominently, it has since become an important facet of his work, and his insightful commentaries on his own photographs have been widely admired.
Williams soon realized that the effects of Hurricane Katrina would not end with the initial recovery efforts he documented so thoroughly. In order to record the slow process of rebuilding, he moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans and obtained a grant from the Open Society Institute (OSI), an organization founded by the philanthropist George Soros, to produce what the institute's Web site calls "a photographic essay of post-Katrina New Orleans, from flood to aftermath to rebuilding, with a visual emphasis on the remnants of the cultural wealth and family ties that make this city unique." Williams's project, one of thirty-one sponsored by OSI in an effort to focus attention on Katrina and its aftermath, is titled Another Black Blues Story. "I am documenting the modern, real-life blues story that Hurricane Katrina thrust upon the world's consciousness," Williams wrote on OSI's Web site, adding that he is particularly concerned with "the continuing issues of racism, classism, and poverty that Katrina further unearthed."
In 2006 Williams was appointed distinguished visiting lecturer in photojournalism at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, a small town just over one hundred miles northeast of New Orleans. In addition to his teaching and mentoring duties there, he is heavily involved in the Iris Photo Collective, a group he cofounded with three other photographers in 1998. The purpose of the collective, according to its Website, is "to explore and document the relationships of people of color to the world." As of the summer of 2008, Williams was also reportedly working on his first book.
At a Glance …
Born Clarence J. Williams III on January 22, 1967, in Philadelphia, PA. Education: Temple University, BA, mass communication, 1993.
Career: Philadelphia Tribune, photography intern, 1992-93; Times Community Newspapers, Reston, VA, staff photographer, 1993-94; Los Angeles Times, METPRO trainee, 1994, photographer, 1995, staff photographer, 1996-2003; Iris Photo Collective, cofounder, 1998; University of Southern Mississippi, distinguished visiting lecturer in photojournalism, 2006—.
Memberships: National Association of Black Journalists; National Press Photographers Association.
Awards: Fourth place, Photographer's Forum and Nikon Corporation Competition, 1991; first place for issues reporting, Pictures of the Year Contest, National Press Photographers Association, 1996; Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, 1998; first prize for domestic photojournalism, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, 1998; Journalist of the Year, National Association of Black Journalists, 1998; Katrina Media Fellowship, Open Society Institute, 2006—.
Addresses: Office—c/o Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, 118 College Dr., #5121, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS 39406-0001.
Associated Press, April 14, 1998.
Nieman Reports, Summer 1998.
Temple Review, Fall 2003, pp. 28-33.
"About Iris Photo Collective," Iris Photo Collective, http://www.irisphotocollective.com/index2.php?ver=v1 (accessed July 30, 2008).
"Biography: Clarence Williams," Photography at Temple University, http://www.temple.edu/photo/photographers/clarence williams by Sarah Green/bio.htm (accessed July 27, 2008).
"Faculty Biographies," University of Southern Mississippi, http://www.usm.edu/mcj/facultybios.htm (accessed July 27, 2008).
"Fellow: Clarence Williams," Open Society Institute, http://www.soros.org/resources/multimedia/katrina/fellows/williams.php (accessed July 27, 2008).
"The 1998 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Feature Photography," Pulitzer Prizes, http://www.pulitzer.org/biography/1998,Feature+Photography (accessed July 27, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler
Williams, Clarence, important early African American jazz and blues pianist, record producer, composer; b. Plaquemine (Delta), La., Oct. 8, 1893; d. Queens, N.Y., Nov. 6, 1965. He was the son of bass-player Dennis Williams and was married to Eva Taylor; their daughter, Irene, did professional work as a singer. He was part Creole and part Choctaw; at one time, his birth date was given as 1898; however, further research revealed it as 1893. His childhood included periods of working in a hotel and singing in a street band. His family moved to New Orleans in 1906. At the age of 12 he ran away with Billy Kersand’s Minstrel Show, working as a master of ceremonies and singer. He returned to New Orleans and began concentrating on playing the piano, receiving some lessons from Ophelia Gould Smith. By 1913 he had begun composing; he also toured vaudeville circuits as a dancer. Williams did extensive touring in a duo with Armand Pirón and they briefly toured with W. C. Handy (c. 1917). With Piron, he started a publishing company and, when it failed, Williams moved to Chicago and opened a music store near the Vendóme Theatre. Later he opened other shops in Chicago before moving to N.Y. around 1920, where he organized his own highly successful publishing company. He cut his first records in 1921, singing with a white band. He was a “race-record” judge for the Okeh recording company from 1923-28, and occasionally led his own bands at various venues, usually in and around N.Y. He also appeared regularly on radio programs, sometimes in company with Eva Taylor (they had married in 1921), sometimes as solo vocalist, pianist, or jug-player. During the 1920s and 1930s he organized many recording sessions, playing piano or acting solely as director. Williams played on sessions with Bessie Smith, and she cut several of his songs; he also backed vocalists Butterbeans & Susie, Sara Martin, and Sippie Wallace. He made nearly 300 sides under his own name in the period 1921-38, including the Blue Five sessions of 1924, with Thomas Morris, Charlie Irvis or John Mayfield, Sticky Elliott or Sidney Bechet, and Buddy Christian. Louis Armstrong was a member in 1924 and 1925, as were Buster Bailey, Aaron Thompson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, and Bubber Miley later. They continued recording through 1927. He also made nearly 100 recordings for Okeh, Vocalion, and Victor between 1927 and 1939, with “washboard” bands that included Ed Allen, Bailey or Cecil Scott, and Floyd Casey. He published and promoted the work of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and others.
Williams wrote words and/or music for “Royal Garden Blues,” “Cake Walking Babies from Home,” “Gulf Coast Blues,” “Michigan Water Blues,” “Swing Brother Swing,” “The Stuff Is Here (And It’s Mellow),” “Wild Cat Blues,” “West End Blues,” “West Indies Blues,” “Squeeze Me,” “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and many, many more, often working with Spencer Williams (no relation). After the late 1930s Williams concentrated on writing, but led a final Blue Five session in 1941 with James P. Johnson, Wellman Braud, and Taylor doing the vocals. He sold his publishing catalogue to Decca in 1943 for a reputed $50,000 and lived well on his royalties for the rest of his life. He owned a bargain store in Harlem for many years. In 1956, he lost his sight after being knocked down by a taxi, but continued to work until shortly before his death.
“Kansas City Man Blues” (1923); “Cake Walkin’ Babies from Home”.
Tom Lord, Clarence Williams (London, 1976).
—John Chilton/Lewis Porter/Music Master Jazz and Blues Catalogue