The team player

At 83, pianist and composer Howard Williams is still getting musicians to sound their best

Volume 113, No. 2February, 2013

Cornelia Caraballo
Howard Williams

Howard Williams has worked at Local 802 since 1991 and is a bandleader and composer.

Most musicians in the business stay in it because they love it. Our own Howard Williams, who has worked at Local 802 since 1991, has kept his love for music alive by assembling his own jazz orchestra. Described as a “16-piece juggernaut,” its members enjoy playing Howard’s arrangements, which he writes in his spare time. Aside from the beautiful sounds they create, one of the amazing things about the musicians is that they never rehearse. The band does have its core musicians. However, if any one of them is unable to make the gig, they select their own sub to fill in for them. “These individuals,” says Howard, “are such great and talented professionals, you would never know that some of them had never played with the band before.”

Howard was born in Alton, Illinois but grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. His love of music began at the tender age of three, when his parents brought home a piano. He recalls reaching up for the thrill of touching the keys – and later on blasting away in the middle of the night, never once hearing any complaints from his parents, who were sleeping in the next room. Aside from a few piano lessons around age eight, he had no formal music training.

In junior high, he started playing the trumpet in the school band. By 13, while World War II was raging across Europe, he was earning money playing in a dance band. He soon began experimenting with writing and arranging music and getting his buddies to play his charts. This led to a lifelong habit of getting a group of musicians together to try out his tunes. (At times the answer was, “Ugh! Won’t try that again.”)

After studying at Louisiana State University, he joined the Air Force Band, where he served for about three years. He later went on the road with numerous name bands, including Hal McIntyre. While touring in Houston, he was offered a gig with Jimmy Ford, whom he considers to be one of the best sax players ever. In time, however, his desire to do more and learn more musically led him to New York City. Here, he took classes at the New School, met his wife Joanne, and played with the likes of Woody Herman, Charlie Barnet and Billy Butterfield.

Along the way, Howard was privileged to record with John Coltrane. He met Coltrane and trumpeter Wilbur Harden through the loft party/jam session scene that was prevelent in New York City in the 1950s. Howard can be heard playing piano on the 1958 album “Tanganyika Strut,” which was one of the three Savoy recordings by Coltrane and Harden.

During the late 1980s, Howard was the regular piano player at a certain club that’s now defunct. Luckily, Howard was also able to use the club as a rehearsal space for his big band. The owner loved hearing the rehearsals and asked if the band would play a real set in front of an audience. Howard reluctantly agreed, although he didn’t want to have to talk to an audience. He didn’t think anyone would show up anyway, and that would be the end of that. But the place was packed and the group became regulars. A few years later when the club folded, Howard was offered a different gig at a club called the Garage.

Music has been a way of life for Howard and has guided most of his decisions and direction. Not only has music given him the chance to utilize his creative gifts, it has also served to open up his eyes to the world through his many travels. He recalls being fearful about going to Russia during the Cold War – only to realize that people in different parts of the world are human beings just like us and that we are all connected by our challenge to survive in an ever-changing world.

As it turned out, the real enemy came from within – in the form of cancer. Shortly before his wife’s sudden death, Howard was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Luckily, he managed to get medical help early on and he was fortunate to connect with Dr. George Bosl, a leading expert in testicular cancer at Sloane Kettering. Thankfully, Howard is free of cancer now.

Howard’s tireless quest to create music and his vast appreciation for life keeps him full of vitality and serves as an inspiration to many.