Over this past weekend, I had the chance to present Invisible Country at the wonderful, independent bookstore, Canio's in Sag Harbor. While there, I noticed, on the wall of my friends' house, a picture of my host Paul with Joe Williams. We talked about how Paul knew Joe, and Paul said Joe was "the best." Paul used to arrange weekend jazz concerts in New York, so he really knew Joe. I agreed with his assessment, but my connection with the great jazz singer from afar, just another face in the crowd.
I have no recollection of how my first love in jazz came about. We were working class teenagers going to Catholic high school next to the Paterson, NJ jail, in a school building condemned by the fire department in a moribund city that is still in its death throes more than fifty years later. Somehow, some way, we decided it would be cool to go to New York City, less than twenty miles away, to a club called Birdland on Broadway to hear the Count Basie band with Joe Williams. I was sixteen the first time we went. Whatever took us there, we returned every time Joe and the Count came back, for three years running. Perhaps the whole thing began because the boys a year ahead of me in school got drivers’ licenses and wanted someplace to drive. Maybe the New Jersey eighteen year olds among us wanted to get over the New York State line where they could legally drink alcohol. Whatever took me there, I fell in love with the music and especially with Joe’s voice.
The Kid from Red Bank, Count Basie, played splendidly to be sure. (On one visit, I sat where I could see his fingers, chubby they were, dancing on the keys. That was decades ago, but I still see them now.) Great Stuff, but it was Joe's singing that knocked me out. It still does. In all those years, not a fortnight has gone by that I haven’t listened to my favorite, “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”
YouTubes of Joe are sparse and to my way of thinking do not capture him at his best, but I share a couple here.
Here he is with the GREAT George shearing:
Many, many of Joe’s recordings are widely available. Check out a few. I think I have most of them and know they will be keeping me company for the rest of my life.