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Claude Williams, National Treasure
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Don Rouse, editor, Tailgate Ramblings

During 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 by Williams).

   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, I believe.

   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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