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Claude “Fiddler” Williams Dies

Claude “Fiddler” Williams, a jazz violinist and guitarist who throughout his eight-decade career helped solidify the role of the violin in jazz, died April 25 of pneumonia at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. He was 96.

Born in 1908 in Muskogee, Okla., Claude Williams was a musician by the age of 10 and, while performing with his brother in string bands, demonstrated proficiency on a number of instruments, including guitar, mandolin, mango and cello.

In 1927 Williams moved to Kansas City where he began his professional career, playing and touring with a number of bands, including the Twelve Clouds of Joy, the Cole Brothers (featuring a young Nat “King” Cole) and the Alphonso Trent Band. In 1936, he joined the Count Basie Band as its first guitar player and was recognized as “Guitarist of the Year” in Downbeat‘s readers’ poll. He left Basie’s group a year later (he was replaced by Freddie Green) and formed his own Kansas City-based band.

In the late ’30s and early ’40s Williams played in Chicago with the Four Shades of Rhythm vocal harmony group. In the ’50s Williams worked with saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and pianist Hank Jones, and began his longstanding relationship with pianist Jay McShann.

It was McShann who, in the early ’70s, gave Williams his first recording gig in nearly 30 years. Williams had spent most of the ’50s and ’60s leading his own bands, but never recording them. The McShann date led to tours with the pianist throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

In 1989 Williams was tapped to perform in the hit Broadway show Black and Blue, which starred Ruth Brown. He joined an all-star orchestra that included Leonard Oxley, Sir Roland Hanna, Virgil Jones and Grady Tate. In 1994 and 1995, he headlined the Masters of the Folk Violin tour of 23 cities, leading a troupe that included bluegrass great Kenny Baker, Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet and Cape Breton stylist Natalie MacMaster. Williams also performed at the White House a number of times, most recently in 1998, when he, Bucky Pizzarelli and Keter Betts played in a performance featuring dancers Savion Glover and Jimmy Slyde. That same year, he received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Williams has 10 albums under his name. His most recent recordings include the two-volume Claude Williams Live at J’s (Arhoolie), with drummer Grady Tate and Swingtime in New York (Progressive), with pianist Sir Roland Hanna, and Swingin’ the Blues (Bullseye), with bassist Keter Betts.

Williams was performing until recent weeks. In December 2003, he appeared in Kansas City at The [email protected] III, where he was a popular and regular performer. He was also scheduled to teach at the upcoming Mark O’Connor Strings Conference in San Diego and appear at the Tony Williams Jazz Fest in Cherry Hill, N.J. later this year.

He is survived by is wife, Blanche Williams, of Kansas City, son Michael Williams, also of Kansas City, and four stepsons: Michael Fouse of Los Angeles; Thomas Fouse, Fontana, Calif.; Kevin Fouse, Kingman, Ariz. and Brent Fouse, Santa Cruz, Calif.

Originally Published