Iconic bassist recounts the gigs with Horace Silver, “The Tonight Show” and Arsenio Hall bands plus his long-running gig with Nancy Wilson
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
May 9, 2011
A native of the Bronx, New York, John B. Williams grew up in a musical family, studying drums and piano before ultimately settling on the bass. Throughout the course of a career that has spanned nearly fifty years, Williams has performed and/or recorded with Horace Silver, Hugh Masekela, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Burrell, Jon Hendricks, Jimmy Smith, Sir Roland Hanna, Benny Carter, Louie Bellson, Freddie Hubbard, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and many others. John was the house bassist for late night TV icons Johnny Carson and Arsenio Hall and was a member of the Nancy Wilson Trio for twenty-five years.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
JBW: I grew up in a musical household. My four older sisters all played musical instruments and sang and danced. They toured throughout the resorts in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York under the name “The J sisters.” The name comes from the fact that all of our names start with the letter “J” – Jackie, Joyce, Jean, June and John. Music was a constant in my home. I lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem, where many famous musicians and entertainers also lived, like the Heath Brothers, Duke Ellington, Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins and many others, so music rubbed off on me.
FBPO: How did you end up choosing the bass? Didn’t you start out on the piano and the drums?
JBW: I got a set of drums for my 13th birthday and my Mom got me lessons. We always had a piano in the house, too. It wasn’t until years later, after I joined the U.S. Marine Corps, that I took up the bass. I started after I found an acoustic bass for a hundred dollars in a pawn shop near the Marine bass in Jacksonville, North Carolina. I took up the bass for two reasons. Growing up, my sister Jean played the bass in her high school orchestra. When she was able to bring it home, she would let me play with it. The other reason was that there was an overabundance of drummers in the military, but scarcely any bass players. So that was my opening.
FBPO: I understand you took ballet lessons as a child. What was that like?
JBW: My youngest sister, June, studied ballet at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. She convinced our mother that it was the best way to keep me off the streets and out of trouble, but it turned out to be fun! I was introduced to the classical ballet music of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Leonard Bernstein and many other great composers.
FBPO: It seems that getting the gig with Horace Silver opened up a lot of doors for you, perhaps paving the way for your career as a bass player. Would you agree?
JBW: Horace Silver not only opened doors for me, but Horace convinced me to take up the electric bass, which led to sessions around New York with the likes of Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, The Tonight Show band and Sesame Street, just to name a few.
FBPO: Playing in The Tonight Show band must have been a great experience. Can you share one or two memorable moments that really stand out?
JBW: When Johnny would take a hiatus, he would have guest hosts. One time Don Rickles was the guest host and right from the start he started messing with the black bass player, calling me “Killer.” Well, that whole week, everyone around the country knew me as “Killer.” He made me a star!
FBPO: How about the Arsenio Hall Show? That must have been a very different vibe!
JBW: The pioneering Arsenio Hall Show was great for me, not only because of the national recognition – from the popular “John B. Williams Poetry Moment” – but it helped me develop my funk, hip-hop and rock playing chops.
FBPO: Performing in the Nancy Wilson Trio was such a significant part of your career. What can you tell me about her and your experience in that group?
JBW: My years with Nancy Wilson marked a highlight of my career. She is a musician, as well as a legendary song stylist. She never had to tell me what to play. She just said, “Play.”
FBPO: How would you describe your recordings, Gratitude and The Maupin/Williams Project?
JBW: Gratitude is my first trio CD with my Nancy Wilson bandmates. Nancy graced my CD with two songs. One song in particular sums up our musical relationship. It was “Blame It On My Youth,” a duet with Nancy and me.
The Maupin/Williams Project is a collaboration with my good, longtime friend, Bennie Maupin. We recorded it at a jazz club on the Camp Butler Marine base in Okinawa, Japan.
FBPO: What lies ahead for you and your career? What would you like to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
JBW: I’d like to pursue my solo and acting career with my new solo CD titled, Arabesque. I’ll be touring Europe and promoting it this spring. I’ll also be promoting and performing our Jazz Theater CD titled, Notes on Life, with my wife, singer/actress Jessica Williams, this fall.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
JBW: A clothing salesman or a librarian.