Pianist, bandleader, producer and educator James Williams died Tuesday (July 20) in New York of liver cancer. He was 53.
Williams was born in Memphis, where at age 13 he learned to play the piano in a gospel-soul style. After teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1972–77, Williams made his name in jazz circles as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1977–81), with whom he appeared on 10 albums.
His tenure there not only made him an in-demand session player (with the likes of Sonny Stitt, Bobby Hutcherson and Tom Harrell), but also trained him as a bandleader. Williams recorded several of his own albums for Concord Jazz, EmArcy, DIW/Columbia and Sunnyside. He also formed the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, a band featuring other pianists (including Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, Geoff Keezer and later Donald Brown). It recorded two albums, including the well-received 1993 set “The Key Players” on DIW/Columbia.
Williams also formed the gospel-meets-jazz group Intensive Care Unit, featuring an array of vocalists, and founded Finas Sound Productions Inc. to produce albums and concerts. In 1999, he was named director of jazz studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.
Most recently, Williams supported young Italian saxophone phenom Francesco Cafiso in his debut dates in the U.S. in January. Williams’ trio was schedule to back Cafiso at his week-long gig at this year’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, but was forced to cancel with the sudden onset of ill health. The cancellation came so late that festival organizers were forced to issue its concert calendar with Williams’ trio dates still on the schedule. Williams died a day after the 10-day festival concluded.