Did he make a significant contribution as a jazz composer, or was he an opportunistic promoter and sometime song thief? Like the story of New Orleans itself, Clarence Williams is a study in opposites. There is no doubt that Williams was a great popularize of jazz and created work for musicians—but it’s clear that he didn’t hesitate at times, to take advantage of them financially.
Born on the Mississippi Delta in the late 1890s, pianist Clarence Williams was of Creole and Choctaw Indian heritage. He was a tireless promoter of jazz—at a time when the music was so new it wasn’t yet called jazz. And he formed one of the first jazz publishing companies with New Orleans bandleader A. J. Piron. Williams went on to produce and perform on hundreds of recordings with artists who became legends—Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins and more.
Even Clarence Williams’ critics acknowledge that he had a ‘big vision’ of what jazz could be all over the country. And he worked hard—not only to make a name for himself—but for the music and all jazz musicians. However, Williams took composer credit on a long list of jazz standards, including “Royal Garden Blues,” “Squeeze Me,” “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll,” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Music scholars have repeatedly questioned whether he wrote these tunes, or simply put his name on them.
Williams has been accused of buying compositions from hard-up musicians at rock-bottom prices, then publishing their music under his own name—A common practice for publishers in the early days of the music business. Yet many of these artists acknowledged that he played an important role in popularizing their music and creating work for them.
Riverwalk Jazz looks at both sides of the Clarence Williams legacy. New Orleans’ Topsy Chapman and Broadway’s Vernel Bagneris lend their acting and vocal talents to this theatrical production as they join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band for Gulf Coast Blues; The Clarence Williams Story. The title track, “Gulf Coast Blues,” is widely acknowledged as a genuine Clarence Williams composition, and was famously recorded as a duet in 1923, with Williams on piano and blues legend Bessie Smith on vocals.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Original Sheet Music for “Gulf Coast Blues.” Image Courtesy Red Hot Jazz Archive
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2012