Jessica Williams, jazz pianist, composer


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Giving Birth to Sound

I received a "call for literary submission" to be part of an anthology of women musicians. Here it is:

Dear Jessica,

We would really love you to be part of the planned book/anthology Giving Birth to Sound, putting together the voices of female musicians, composers, improvisers. The project is meant to document their philosophy, story and opinions about life, music and creativity.

When W__ and I put the questions together we thought of them as inspirational impulses. Which some of the invited musicians might not need. But some might find helpful as a guideline.

20 questions about "giving birth to sound"

I would be grateful if you could just let me know if you are interested in contributing. For information: By now about 25 musicians sent their pieces. Looking forward hearing from you. R_ in Denmark, on the web herenew window


1) Where and when were you born? Baltimore, Maryland, USA, on Mar 17, 1948.

2) How did you live out your creativity as a little girl? At four I was at Grandma's house. She had just gotten an upright piano. I played one note and saw a yellow ball of color. That must have been a C or possibly a D. More notes followed, as did more colors. It's a neurological, genetic trait, seeing color in sound. It's called synesthesia.

At seven I was enrolled in Peabody Preparatory. They wanted me to play Bach. I, in turn, wanted to play jazz. I would stomp my feet and get thrown out of practice rooms.

At home, my Dad had bought me a Kimball Spinet. I would improvise for hours, pretending that there was a huge audience, just off to my right. Later this would become true.

3) What were your early influences? Dave Brubeck was first. Then Oscar Peterson. Then came Miles and Trane. And a bit of Monk and Mingus. I also loved the Russian composers. I have a strong melodic streak in me. And I still love the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. Their music is such FUN!

4) Did your parents encourage you to become an artist/a musician? No. I was expected to get married. But I fooled them. The course of my life was so different than what they expected. They were mortified.

5) Do you see/feel a difference in the female and the male approach to creativity? Absolutely. I describe it as the difference between competition and cooperation. It is my intention to "disappear" into the music, to become transparent as a musician, so that the music was as pure and ego-less as possible. Also, there are less of us women. And we tend not to drink and smoke and take drugs and hang out. That's a "guy thing" . . . there are always exceptions. I don't want to paint folks with too broad a brush. But I never fit in. Now I don't care.

6) What is your conception of being a woman in the music scene? I am a woman at all times. It is a state of being. The ground of my existence. I will not play it down (or up) when I play piano. I am myself. I will not adjust who I am and how I express my femininity for anyone. It is always just me.

7) What were your personal breakthroughs in music and in life? Deciding to play music for a living was not a breakthrough. I chose it and it chose me. When I was fifteen I played my first 'gig' with two guys in a seedy bar. After the gig, they both threatened me with rape and death. I called the police and the police drove me home—really fast! It was the fastest I have ever been driven in a motor vehicle. I don't drive. But I sure enjoyed the ride!

When I was 28, it was marriage to guy #1 for me. I was living with him in Philadelphia when I met "Philly Joe" Jones, who asked me to join his quintet. I played with him for about four months. Then my husband decided to move to San Francisco. After two weeks there, I was asked to become "house pianist" at the Keystone Korner. That began three really intense years of learning, with such players as Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Eddie Harris, Tony Williams, Stan Getz, Big Nick Nicholaus, Airto and Flora Purim, Charlie Rouse, John Abercrombie, Leroy Vinnegar, Charlie Haden, Red Mitchell, Bobby Hutcherson, and many others. I opened for Bill Evans six times!

In 1994 I decided I wanted out of nightclubs. Husband #1 and #2 had come and gone. I applied for and received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Not the first time I had gotten a grant, but it was the largest sum. So I quit my gigs and I composed for a long time, and then started doing solo concerts in halls, and homes, and even festivals.

In 2011 my back was worn out from travel and hunching over the piano. I required a three-level lumbar fusion with internal instrumentation. I am bionic. I died three times during this operation, and came back here changed. I no longer hear the jazz I heard. I usually don't hear it at all, in my head. I'm not interested. I wanted to work with software to create movie music. I received a call to do just that. The Universe has given me everything I need, I believe.

8) How has being a woman held you back in the development of your musical career? Being a woman in a male-dominated field is trying. Being a woman on this planet at this time takes great patience and a certain degree of grace, even under fire. I never really thought of my music as "a career" . . . it was an imperative that I took as my Nature. And often I was objectified, somehow not a person at all but a female thing to be used, led, lied to, deceived. I never felt that I was treated as an equal.

Now I am older and more difficult to objectify. But ageism, racism, sexism, and other "ism's" still have a hold on our culture. I do not quite understand men and I think that they probably do not quite understand us. But my #3 husband, Duncan, is a shining light to me. He makes life OK. He is evolved. He is a wonderful husband and friend.

9) Has it affected your relationship with sound? I hear differently than I did before my back surgery. It was almost as if I woke up a different person with different priorities. And I have Meniere's Disease, meaning that I have constant tinnitus and have lost all hearing over 3600 KHz. But I hear well enough to know what I like.

Being a woman affects our relationship with everything and everyone. It is who we are. Biology as destiny? No. But it affects how we relate to our world immensely. I am more subdued, more introspective, more interested in other people's perspectives. I am not a star, and I am not the center of the Universe.

10) What is your process and system of putting music together? It usually comes slowly now. When I was younger, I'd compose three pieces in a day. Now, it is more important that I take my time, and apply what only age can teach: restraint, subtlety, and surprise. Writing a movie score is vastly different than playing a jazz date or composing a jazz piece. Every single note must be perfect. It must fit the scenes in the movie. It must never interfere with the flow of a story. I enjoy these limitations. Limits often create wonderful frameworks for originality.

11) What were the major steps that led to your commitment to music? I was so young! I can't remember! I was just born, and there it was, stretched in front of me. My job as a human.

12) At this point in time, what is your strategy for tomorrow (works planned, outlook, vision)? Ah, planning. I am terribly inept at planning anything. I absolutely love the science fiction story DUNE by Frank Herbert. In it, Muad'Dib asks Stilgar, "Stil, do you ever think about the future?" And Stilgar, rolling over to go to sleep, answers curtly, "The future, Muad'Dib? The future just IS." And I think that way about the Universe. It just IS. We can rail against it and throw things at it, but the meteor will still fall, the volcano will still erupt, and the living and dying will continue. No one escapes. Illnesses will happen. Accidents will occur. Love will spring forth. Births will be celebrated, deaths will be mourned. Protesting it is futile. Arguing against it is useless. In the end, as at the beginning, this Universe just IS.

So my strategy is not a strategy. It is submission to what IS.

I would, however, love to do the music for the rumored cinematic version of DUNE, the third version. The first was a David Lynch film. Very good. The second was made by the British and aired on the SciFi Channel. Very, very good. But no movie has touched that story in scope or power. It is a profound story. I would LOVE to score at least some of the music for that!

And I'd like to live long enough to see an America that's gotten its soul back. Prejudice, hate, greed, and fear have ripped our country apart. It doesn't work this way. We are not meant to distrust or detest our neighbor. We were meant to love them. We're all one family. That, I probably will not see. I hope you do.

13) Do you think you paid a price being an artist? Of course. You pay, you play . . . you play, you pay. Nothing in life is free (not my life, anyway) and sacrifices must be made. This will either teach you or make you bitter. Better to be a student, be silent, and LEARN.

14) What would you recommend other/young women who are struggling to live and work in a creative way? I would never discourage them! I would just say: keep your publishing rights. Start your own Indie label. Know about ASCAP or other music rights organizations. Know about streaming. Learn the technologies. Use them. Use electronic instruments and computers in your music. Your mind will expand. Do not listen to others' opinions. Often, they are driven by greed or envy. Think original. And number one: BE YOURSELF. Hide nothing. Be confident. You are perfect.

15) Does your music have political or spiritual undertones? I sure hope so! But it has no words. It speaks to FREEDOM. It speaks to social justice and parity for everyone. I name pieces often to give the listener a clue. "The Quilt." "The Sheikh." "Stonewall Blues." "Holocaust Blues." "The Golden Path."

16) What is your point of view about the concept of justice? We are young as a species. Many have not evolved. I hope to make a world in which everyone is free, fed, clothed, housed, and employed with the work they love. Or not, as not everyone wishes to work, and not everyone can work. I'm a socialist, a liberal, a feminist, and a humanist. Our country has been corrupted from within by greed and fear. Where there is fear there is no love. Love and fear cannot exist simultaneously. Change is needed. I do what I can, because justice starts in the heart of individuals, and I am one of many. We may work alone but our efforts are for the same goals.

17) What is your point of view about the concept of truth? Logic, belief systems, religions, and politics all stifle the impulse for wild creativity. Beyond these tricks of the mind awaits our Freedom.

I mean that absolutism is often a mistake in thinking.

Each of us should live their truth with courage and determination. But we must remember that others may not abide or value our truth. It requires strength of will to be truthful to the self.

As for absolute Truth with a capital T, I believe it is just like our Universe: always changing, always mutable.

18) What is music to you? Paul Klee said that music was the only form of Art that touches the absolute. I say that music speaks in a language almost everyone understands. It is not necessary for life. But it is one of our greatest gifts and abilities. Music to me is like food. I can live without it for a month or more. But it won't be any fun.

19) What is magic? Magic is a confluence of micro- and macro-events that conspire to create a portal through which we may see and experience creation. A blazing infinity of possibility. Magic is Miles running the Voodoo down. Magic is Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. Magic is the paintings of Van Gogh. Magic is what we feel when we witness true, unfettered, wild creativity.

Elvin Jones said that, when the John Coltrane Quartet was recording "A Love Supreme", there was "somebody else in that room with us". I think he alludes to a god. Well, that's magic. I've heard that masterpiece a thousand times and I concur, THAT IS MAGIC.

20) The late Abbey Lincoln recorded a song called "World is Falling Down". What do you do with a world that is falling down? It's been falling down since I was old enough to notice its descent. I've done what I could, making music, making recordings, making Art. 360 compositions and 76 CDs and LPs. And it's not enough. But it's all I can do for now. Abbey was right, though. It seems worse. I guess the net generations will have to work harder.

I know they'll be up to the task. These young kids are amazing!

- Jessica Williams, Nov 22, 2014




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