December 14, 2018

Nancy Wilson 1937-2018

On the heels of our tribute to Joe Williams, we now learn of the passing of vocalist Nancy Wilson at the age of 81. Nancy and Joe shared a number of parallel lines throughout their singing careers. They had a common manager in John Levy; they both recorded albums with Cannonball Adderley, George Shearing, and Count Basie; and both objected to being typecast as a certain style of vocalist. I was fortunate to sit with Nancy Wilson in November of 1995 for an interview, and she addressed the issue of stereotypes:
NW:   I have to say about jazz critics, they really gave me the pits for a while. They felt that the Cannonball Adderley album was a compromise for Cannon. Because I was a pop artist.
MR:   No kidding?
NW:   Oh, yes. You don’t know the stuff they did to us. But my point that I’ve always tried to stress is I came into this business with a gift, the voice is a given. It was a gift from God. I didn’t put any labels on it. I also decided to leave my home to do this, to be commercial. I mean the object of the game for me was why would I want to, why would anybody in their right mind want to give up their security, their home, all the things that mean happiness to me, to go out to only want to fulfill somebody else’s idea of who and what I am. I figured that I was going to do this on a major scale or I didn’t want to do it. Because I could go home, go to Carnegie Tech as opposed to Central State, and be a doctor or be something in medicine, and I’d have been fine. But the voice was always out front. But I have never apologized for being a commercial artist. That is why I do what I do, is to sell. I want to be heard, I want to reach as many people as I can. I believe in that mass thing. You know I want everybody to know who I am if I’m going to do it.
I recall being surprised to hear this recollection, as the Cannonball Adderley-Nancy Wilson LP is one of my absolute favorite recordings.
One thing Nancy did not have to deal with was performance anxiety. Again from her interview:
MR:   Can you recall as a child, were you always pretty comfortable in front of an audience? 
NW:   It never occurred to me that you should be nervous. When I found out I was so grown that it didn’t make any difference. Then I found out people actually get nauseous and tremble and shake. Well I don’t want to do this if I have to be sick before I go on. But some people do. Some people just feel that that’s a part of it. I like being relaxed. I like taking it in stride. I love it. I keep it in its proper perspective, and it allows me to continue to do it. As long as I do it this way I can do it.
Nancy was awarded three Grammys and was an NPR host for Jazz Profiles. She considered herself a storyteller, and she chose the songs in her repertoire based on their strong narrative element.
This interview was conducted early on in our oral history project, when I was still developing an interviewing style. I will always remember the dignity and class that was part of Nancy’s persona. You can view the complete video here.

December 11, 2018

Joe Williams Centennial

Joe Williams, in 1998
Today we celebrate singer Joe Williams’ one hundredth birthday. Joe was born Joseph Goreed on December 12, 1918 in Cordele, Georgia. He grew up in Chicago, paid his musical dues with a number of area swing bands, and joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1954. Joe started a solo career in 1961 which lasted four plus decades. Along the way he became close friends with Milt Fillius Jr., an avid jazz fan and a 1944 graduate of Hamilton College. Together Joe and Milt launched an oral history project, an effort to gather extemporaneous life stories of jazz musicians, their spouses, writers, producers, and jazz aficionados. This collaboration resulted in what is now called the Fillius Jazz Archive, and I am proud to be called the Joe Williams Director. Our 350+ video interviews are now posted on the Fillius Jazz YouTube Channel.
To celebrate Joe’s one-hundredth birthday we are posting a compilation of interview excerpts which were previously unpublished. Joe’s commentary is intertwined with anecdotes from his accompanist Norman Simmons, his manager John Levy, and Basie band members Bill Hughes and John Williams. These excerpts and outtakes were originally captured for the 1996 concert documentary called Joe Williams: A Portrait in Song, a film commissioned by Hamilton College and produced by Burrill Crohn.
We invite you to view this compilation here, and hope you enjoy the magic of Joe Williams all over again.