Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Farewell to Joe Williams

by Jeff Lindberg

Artistic Director, The Jazz Members Big Band of Chicago

It was a "Romantic" story—too good to be true: Joe Williams, sitting in his Las Vegas home, listening to The Jazz Members Big Band of Chicago in a live NPR broadcast of the Chicago Jazz Festival, then raving about "that band" the next day as he arrived at O’Hare. But no, it was not a dream—not my fantasy; it really did happen, in 1981.

Our dream relationship with Joe Williams ended with his passing on March 29. He left us with many memories of our work together: ten straight performances at The Kennedy Center Honors Awards festivities in Washington, DC; a performance at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy; and numerous performances in Chicago, including the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Jazz Unites Jazz Festival and the University of Illinois at Chicago Jazz Festival, among others.

The Jazz Members loved performing with Joe Williams, not just for his musical greatness, but also because he was a musician’s musician. He had the utmost respect for the musicians in the band; when he performed with us, he was always just "one of the guys," extremely serious about working together to perform great music. As a result, he had a rapport with the ensemble that was truly extraordinary.

It is impossible for us to adequately thank Joe Williams for everything that he did for us, both as a musician and friend, and in his passing there is no way that we can adequately pay tribute to him. But we will try. On Sunday, May 16, in a concert that was originally scheduled as "A Tribute to Count Basie featuring Joe Williams," we instead will present "A Tribute to Joe Williams and Count Basie featuring Kevin Mahogany." During this retrospective concert we will re-create representative examples of Joe Williams’s performances with the Count Basie Orchestra, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and The Jazz Members Big Band of Chicago.

My fondest memory of Joe was probably my last, and it occurred at our Kennedy Center performance in December. It was just days before his 80th birthday, and there had been quiet concerns raised about his struggles with emphysema. However, that evening he sounded as wonderful as ever—all the way to the end of the performance. At 1 a.m., immediately following Joe’s last song, the great Metropolian Opera bass-baritone Sherrill Milnes strode past Joe and gave him a comrade’s "thumbs-up." Mr. Milnes knew that Joe would never sing a bad note in his life.

If I never knew Joe Williams or never knew anything about his career and his impact on music, I would have said that he was "too good to be true." But, fortunately for all of us, Joe Williams was a dream come true.

Joe Williams died March 29, 1999 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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