Don Rouse, editor, Tailgate Ramblings
a White House ceremony in October, in which First Lady Hilary Clinton
participated, 90 year old jazz violinist Claude Williams received a
National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the
Arts. The following evening, he and fellow awardees played in concert at
Lisner Auditorium celebrating the awards. The Endowment gives these awards
annually to honor artists nominated for keeping alive American folk
traditions-their (and our) cultural heritage.
While a set of biographical facts does not always give
insight into the character of the subject, in Claude Williams' case they
reveal his dedication and perseverance as he doggedly pursued what he
wanted in music.
Early on, Claude was playing violin, mandolin, cello,
guitar, and banjo in the family string band. Although Muskogee, Oklahoma,
his birthplace, was segregated, Claude listened behind a fence to an
outdoor concert that included Joe Venuti, and he was hooked. He has always
said that he was influenced at an early age by Venuti, and he decided to
concentrate on the jazz violin. He also has related that as the years went
by he became more and more interested in what could be done to enhance
pieces by finding alternative chords and generally exploring the potential
in a given chord progression.
He did some hard traveling with road shows, sometimes,
like his fellow musicians, sleeping in the car on the road (He was with
Terrance Holder (1927), and with Oscar Pettiford's Ten Brothers and
Sisters family orchestra). In the late 1920's he joined Andy Kirk.
Claude was involved in some classic jazz recordings
during this period. He recorded on violin in 1929 with John Williams, and
in 1929-1936 with Andy Kirk and his 12 Clouds of Joy (see Rust), including
the 1929 jazz classic, Blue Clarinet Stomp, (backed by Mess-A-Stomp). He
worked later in the 1930's with the Cole Brothers (that's Nat
"King" Cole), and the George E. Lee band (1933). He also
replaced his friend, Stuff Smith, in the Alphonse Trent Orchestra (1932).
It is not too widely known that Claude Williams preceded
Freddie Green on guitar with Count Basie, and recorded with the Basie band
in 1937. (He won the Downbeat best guitarist of the year award in 1936).
Claude also played violin with the band. The story goes (and this is what
Claude Williams will tell you) that recording executives did not want to
record a violin with the Basie band. That was the instrument that Claude
wanted to play, so he went his own way. (Spottswood played a nice version
of One O'clock Jump by the Basie band from that period with a violin solo
He began a long stretch during the late 1930's and the
1940's, where he made his living playing guitar with Austin Powell, and
with other rhythm and blues bands in the Detroit and Cleveland areas,
moving back to Kansas City in 1952 to once again concentrate on violin and
lead his own band.
During the 1970's he played with Jay McShann's Trio, and
in recent years Claude has been doing concerts and festivals here and
abroad, and has also performed in the Broadway production Black and Blue.
In 1989 I had the good fortune to experience a workshop at the Border Folk
Festival at the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas, where Claude
Williams and Howard Armstrong (Louis Bluie) played violin, guitar and
mandolin together. I think the Park Service or the NCTA would still have
the tape of this workshop. That same year he toured in the program Masters
of the Folk Violin, produced by the National Council for the Traditional
Arts (headquartered in DC). A video of this production is also available,
Claude also performed earlier this year at the White
House with a group including Bucky Pizzarelli and Keter Betts (who I bet
receives a Heritage Award himself someday), backing up dancer Jimmy Slyde.
This was televised over WETA in September as In Performance at the White
House, with Savion Glover.
(I am indebted to
the program notes for the Border Folk Festival and the Heritage Awards,
and to Chilton's Who's Who In Jazz for much information).
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