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Remembering Jazz Pianist Jessica Williams (1948-2022)
I'm mourning the death of Jessica Williams, a jazz pianist of technical brilliance and exceptional creativity. I came close to studying with her when I was in college, and a decade later almost produced one of her albums—both never happened, much to my regret. But what an inspiring artist!
My first encounter with Williams came about in this way.
Back in college I was lamenting the fact that I'd never had a jazz teacher. Out of sheer necessity, I’d been forced to teach myself all the tricks of the trade. As a result, I was a completely home-made musician, and though I’d reached a level of comfort and control at the keyboard, and was making money as a jazz pianist, I still wondered what I’d missed by inventing my own pedagogical regimen.
If I was ever going to have a teacher, now was the time. Soon I would be so set in my personal approach and style, that I might not be able to assimilate anything different.
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So I finally decided to make a bold move—and after thinking things over carefully, I concluded that there were two jazz pianists in the SF Area I'd be excited to have as teachers: Denny Zeitlin and Jessica Williams.
Denny was extremely busy as both a jazz artist and eminent psychiatrist, while also teaching in the medical program at University of California, San Francisco, and for those reasons wasn’t a option. Even if he agreed to teach piano (unlikely in my opinion), who could afford his billing rates? So I gave up on that plan, although I felt that, on many levels, he would be an ideal mentor for someone like me.
That left me with just one option. So I focused on Jessica Williams.
She had recently moved to the Bay Area, and was all but unknown even among jazz insiders—but not for long. She would occasionally play piano at the Keystone Korner during the break between the headline acts, and her powerful command of the keyboard was immediately apparent to listeners. This wasn’t tinkly intermission piano, but something quite extraordinary.
You could hear the magic in her playing. Her tone control and ease of execution were the first things that hit you. But Williams also had a remarkable ability to enter into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the ‘flow state’—a openness to the possibilities of the immediate moment that is the ideal mindset for jazz improvisation.
I’d always believed that music was an ecstatic vocation, and here was someone demonstrating it right before my eyes. It might just be an intermission between sets, but Jessica had blocked out all the noise and conversation, and was flying off into some higher sphere of music-driven nirvana.
I became an ardent fan, and bought copies of the few indie albums featuring Williams that were now showing up in record stores. I had heard of her quirks and eccentricities—and even just seeing her in live performance I could tell that Jessica Williams would not be a typical teacher. But that didn’t deter me. Her approach to the keyboard—with that singing tone, harmonic richness, and melodic freedom—was very closely aligned with what I was pursuing in my own music.
I tracked her down at gigs, and we eventually had several conversations. Her first reaction was that she had no idea how to teach what she did. Her music just happened. She didn’t have a method to share.
My glib response was: “No worries. We will do stop-and-cop.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“I’ll watch you play the piano. And at certain junctures, I will ask you to stop. And I’ll cop what you just did. That’s the stop-and-cop method—and it always works.”
Jessica eventually agreed to be my teacher—but now things really got strange. She set certain conditions: (1) I had to provide the piano and a place for the lesson, (2) I had to drive her to and from the lesson, and (3) the lesson had to be in the middle of the night. 3 AM was the best time for her.
Yes, jazz education was a little different back then. The students at Berklee have no idea.
It was summer break at the time, and I was staying with my parents in an almost-off-the-grid place on a dirt road in Sonoma County. So I broached the subject in a casual conversation with Mom & Dad:
Ted: “Hey, is it cool if I have a piano lesson here at home? My piano teacher doesn’t have a piano. . . .”
Dad: “Your piano teacher doesn’t have a piano? How in the world. . . ”
Mom (interrupting): “Well, of course. That’s no problem. You can have the lesson here.”
Ted: “By the way, I’ll need keys to the car—I have to drive my teacher here and back.”
Mom: Where does she live?
Ted: “The East Bay.”
Dad: “That’s more than an hour away, maybe a lot more. . .”
Ted: “Did I mention that the lesson has to take place at 3 AM?”
Mom and Dad: !?! . . . .
Needless to say, the logistics proved insurmountable. I never had my jazz lesson from Jessica, or anyone else. I’m still that unblemished self-taught player.
The situation when I almost produced a Jessica Williams album was equally unusual—also with challenging conditions set by her, and further complications added by other parties. But that’s a story for another day. Today I’m focused instead on mourning a remarkable musician, celebrating her achievements, and regretting those missed opportunities.
A small group of admirers knew how talented Jessica Williams was. But her reputation was never fully commensurate with her abilities. I don’t know all the details, but I know enough of them to say that she was often her own worst enemy. The same spontaneous immersion in the moment of creativity that made her such an formidable keyboardist also made it impossible for her to pursue the careful career management that would have brought wider attention.
I believe that, under the right circumstances, she might have enjoyed a crossover audience. There was a visceral appeal to her music-making that could have drawn in listeners outside of a jazz clique. But I don’t think Jessica thought much about audience expansion—everything about her suggested that she made music for her own enjoyment and as part of her personal quest for self-expression and bliss.
She never had the backing of a major label. There was no marketing campaign to boost her visibility. Most of her best work was for companies of limited distribution and even less clout. Even so, she still earned two Grammy nominations and a handful of high profile honors (Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Grant, etc.).
It would be easy for the music world to forget Jessica Williams because they never paid much attention in the first place. But the work is still out there—for posterity and for those who care to seek it out in the current day. She made more than forty albums, each one of them demonstrating the effortless mastery that always characterized her work.
For a while in the 1980s, Jessica and I both gigged with the same drummer—the late Bud Spangler, a beloved presence on the Bay Area jazz scene. Because he was performing and recording constantly with Williams, I often asked Bud questions about her playing—perhaps still hoping at this late stage to garner some hints of how she achieved those high standards night after night.
Bud found working with her endlessly inspiring, but it was difficult to put all that into words. One day he tried. “You want to know about Jessica Williams?” he asked. “Let me tell you: Jessica never plays a bad note. Never.”
I merely nodded my head. Because I’d heard enough of her music to know that was true. Jessica Williams might have made missteps elsewhere in her career, but at the piano she was—and remains—sheer perfection.