Jessica Williams, jazz pianist, composer


Currents + | -

I get letters!

One of several thousand similar mailto:jjw1948@gmail.coms I've received—used with the kind permission of the sender:

"Dear Ms Williams,

I just ordered a bunch more cds for my collection. I have everything you've ever done, I think. I really love your music. I've been a fan since the Keystone days 30 years ago and I'm always looking for your stuff and whether you're playing in the Bay Area. I went to your gig page and saw that you're not playing very much and I just wanted you to know that I miss hearing you live, and to ask if you plan on coming to the Bay Area anytime soon to play? I guess I'll have to make-do with your recordings, meanwhile. Thanks for all the wonderful music through all these years. We love it!! Best wishes, Don ____ in Berkeley, CA"

I appreciate letters like this one so much. It can be from somewhere in California, or somewhere in Great Britain.

It can be from Seattle or Portland or DC or Detroit or LA or NYC or Columbus or Austin or Phoenix.

I get so many of them that I've put a form letter together, with a stock answer, and I cut and paste the text so that I don't have to write it over and over again, and it goes like this:

"Thanks so much, Don,

I appreciate your support all these years, and thank you for buying my cds from me! I really value your business and your heartfelt love and enjoyment of my work.

"Re my playing schedule: I don't often get to choose where or when I play. The music business is not all about music's also about politics and personal favoritism ...and many other "ism's" for that matter. The industry is controlled very strictly by certain individuals and their corporate sponsors, and they decide pretty much who plays where and when. Most of the work I do, I get for myself, through my web site. My Music gets heard because it's so much more powerful than any opposing force. It's the life-force, really. It's a force for Good, and I still believe that Good always wins in the end.

"I'm a success, and that's largely because I work very very hard, I believe in myself, I never give up, and I love what I do. I'm also a success because of all the great folks that support my vision through the web site I built. I never dreamed it would be such a powerful agent of change and growth for me ... but I can always use some help getting performances and new venues to play in!

"If you hear of a good agent, someone who really loves the MUSIC and wants to make people happy and make good money too, please let me know. I'd love to play. My terms are clearly laid out here

"Or, if you hear of a great venue, please send me an I need to play in a hall or a church or an auditorium or at someone's private house. Only a few festivals work for my kind of Music. I need quiet to do what I do. I need the combined concentration of myself AND my audience. I need a fine piano, and I need to be paid fairly. I can't play in bars, restaurants, or nightclubs because the smoke and the environment isn't conducive to my kind of Music - I don't drink or smoke.

"Thank you again for writing, and I promise I'll let you know when - not if, but when - there's a performance near you. Make sure you've signed up for my e-newsletter. And bless you for your support! - My best, Jessica"


I haven't drank a spot of alcohol or smoked a cigarette for a decade now. Most of the world I knew and moved through and lived in was built around alcohol - and attendant altered states. Most of the world I knew is dead and gone. There are hangers-on, people that won't let go of the misery and the illness, and that's OK. Sometimes that's all people have. But they're dying off, literally dying. It's sad.

Me, I have no desire to drink or smoke. And the smoking . . . well, most folks I know have quit that. But the alcohol remains the social lubricant of choice. And I just don't fit in. While everyone is having a bash, I'm bored stiff.

And there are times occasionally when people I meet on the road will want me to have "just one glass of wine" with them, and I can't. I can't have just one, because I'm a reformed alcoholic, solidly reformed. If I drank a drop I would throw up. Just thinking about it makes me nauseous. Just smelling it makes me queasy.

And I don't like being around drunken people. I feel embarrassed for them. Well, maybe that's too strong a term. I just feel uncomfortable. Like we're in different dimensions. I don't want to be judgmental. It's OK to drink.

I can't. That's all.

And I've lost work because of it. Because I didn't hang out after the concert, and was not considered very much fun. After all, I went there (usually many thousands of miles) to play serious Music.

I spent my whole life, since I was 4, getting ready for those moments alone with that piano.

And I didn't WANT to go and hang out afterwards. I wanted to go to my hotel room and sit in my jammies and think and relax and go over the Music in my mind. Unwind.

I get really high when I play, just from the Music and the people. All that joy and love just washes over me. And I give every ounce of energy I have. So if I'm asked to hang out afterwards to get a chance to play, I wind up saying no.

And I really have lost work, thousands and thousands of dollars.

And remember: most business deals are made at the bar.

Since I'm NEVER at the bar, I get very few opportunities or invitations to play.

So when people write me in mailto:jjw1948@gmail.coms and ask why I'm not at this or that venue, I can only answer that I've tried, but it requires that I hang out and "do the schmooze".

I don't know how. So I stay home.

I do call promoters for work, but I am not a wildly popular old lady. I don't play party music or wild and crazy party jazz. I don't get people's butts shakin' and I don't get the joint jumpin'.

I'm all alone creating delicate Beauty. Looking for Truth. Making people happy, changing some lives, making many folks cry.

Why would a promoter want me for THAT? And I've heard that from others. Things get back to me.

"The music is too serious."

"Sheesh - a white woman who can't sing. And OLD, too. Forget it!"

Now, that's racist, sexist, AND ageist.

You can't win!


So there are big strikes against me. I won't play in noisy, smoky nightclubs for a hundred dollars a night (average pay for most musicians, slightly more for very well-known musicians).

I won't play in noisy, smoky nightclubs for any amount of money. Music like this belongs in the concert halls and churches. I'll even ask for silence (if I have to, which is infrequent) while I perform. It's sacred.

And white musicians in 2008 are not allowed to play jazz, not seriously. It's what a well-known and infamous Jazz Kingpinitem calls "not genuine" and he makes me itch. Neither are women, according to the jazz cartels, and that would be just fine, except that the organizations and academia that could support this music are in TOTAL agreement with these idiots.

And I'm not supposed to tell you any of this. Especially the part about how most musicians make $50 or $75 dollars for a "gig" (a word I hate!) and that I set my OWN value, unrelated to the "market value" placed on "musicians as product".

So I am not popular with many many musicians. Most musicians will work for very little money. They will consistently undersell themselves. It has become an almost universal habit.


I have focused ALL of my energies on the MUSIC. And the MUSIC moves the PEOPLE. Consequently, I have a "draw".

That means that there is money involved. I continue to do marginally well because I work very hard on my Music and I love what I do. I take full responsibility for how often and where I play, and I take full responsibility for my "draw".

So this means that often I work like any self-respecting rock musician does; off of a percentage.

Yet many musicians will work that same "gig" for a a standard fee. I won't even refer to a concert performance by that silly, obsolete, demeaning name.

And why should someone pay me thousands of dollars for what they perceive is "the same thing" for hundreds of dollars or even less?

Again, I take responsibility for my own draw. I don't expect people to lose money over me. I want everyone to make money and be happy. And the PEOPLE are the most important part.

How can I feel GOOD about myself, good enough to play the Music of the Masters for people who have paid their good hard-earned money, if I am feeling used and "ripped off"? I wouldn't feel worth anything, and I'd let the music slip. I'd stop writing music. I wouldn't put my whole life on the line the way I do now.

I've written over 350 compositions at this point. I have a body of work. It is as much of who I am as my WAY of playing. But my detractors HAVE NO BODY OF WORK. Someone may have written a tune, one tune, once.


But it is not a body of ORIGINAL MUSIC.

This Music is beautiful... it's not a way to get out of the house for the evening and get high! To me, it's like meeting with a divine power.

It is my way of bringing PEACE and JUSTICE, LIGHT and LOVE, and BEAUTY and TRUTH to the world in the face of an encroaching darkness and a deadening silence.

Occasionally, not often but very occasionally, it may get out of hand - as all great gifts do . . . like big jungle cats, they have claws and fangs - but I've learned over the years how to walk with it, run with it, play with it. Very rarely do I get bitten, and others even less often. Art is like that too. It is not safe. It is not boring. It is not mediocre.

So I am a lonely woman - shades of Ornette Coleman - in that my business model (pure common sense, to me) is totally different than that of my peers.

I don't like feeling anger. But I find myself being angry at other musicians at times, for playing in good venues for large crowds for next to nothing.

Of course, everyone has a right to do what they want to with their gifts, but I feel that it hurts all of us. The people who listen to the music certainly wouldn't approve. Everyone seems aghast if and when they learn that this practice is an ongoing habit. To me it's a shame. It is not morally right that a promoter or "club-owner" makes twenty times as much as a musician, especially if that musician fills the hall or room. I know that its roots go way back to the beer-halls of Kansas City and the 'Beat' joints of the Village.

But this is 2008. No one can live on a few hundred dollars a month. Really, no one can live on a few hundred dollars a week. This is the future, and yet this old model persists because musicians let it and because many promoters encourage it.


So, let's see. There's racism, sexism, ageism, and apathy. there's alcohol abuse and the nightly hang to procure gigs. There's a$$-kissing and the kissing of other body-parts, too. There's homophobia! There's hate-speech.

Gee. Sounds like hell on earth to me. Why would I want to be part of THAT?

Only because I love the Music so very much, but I just can't bear the immorality anymore, the back-biting, the vicious attacks on others, on myself, on good people. I can't stand to see another musician die of abuse.

I'm not going into any names here, any particulars. But right now there are at least 5 people who are dying slowly and no one is helping them to live. They have no money, no health care, no family, no friends. And the jazz "cats" just ignore them.

They're "all used up."

"Anyway, Don...

I'm sorry I'm not playing more. The jazz cartels are having their parties.

They're going on world cruises and junkets.

The promoters are rich, and the musicians are working for nothing. This is the letter I should have written you a few years ago. I may be be playing your town, God willing.

It's just taking me a while to figure out the ways to get around these gatekeepers. - JW



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