CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Ben Williams’ World Is Growing

With his latest album, the bassist is making a wider statement to a larger audience

Ben Williams
Ben Williams (photo: Janette Beckman)

If the Hamilton isn’t sold out, it’s close.

It’s the night after Christmas in Washington, D.C., a city that famously empties for the holidays. Yet there are certainly enough people—of all ages, all genders, and all ethnicities, though a majority are African-American—to pack the 600-capacity basement venue a few blocks from the White House. No empty tables are in view, and the standing room area by the back bar is filling up fast.

The performer filling the seats at this ordinarily tough-booking time and place? Ben Williams, the jazz bassist and native Washingtonian who plays the Hamilton every year at this time. It’s a combined Christmas and birthday celebration (Williams will turn 35 two days after this concert), and family, friends, mentors, colleagues, and plain old fans have made it one of the District’s seasonal customs to turn out in droves.

This time out there’s yet another dimension to the performance. “I have a new album on the way,” he announced to cheers from the crowd. “I’m so excited to share this new music with you guys. The new album is titled I Am a Man, which of course comes from the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike … I wanted to address social issues in the world that was going on around me. It’s been somewhat of a journey, exploring a lot of new musical territory.”

Indeed it has. Williams brandishes not the upright wooden bass on which he made his reputation (though there is one on stage), but an electric bass guitar. He plays unabashedly funky, albeit lyrical, lines that immediately evoke his all-time hero, Prince. The real surprise, though, is this: He sings.

Williams wields a winning tenor voice, higher than his smooth baritone speaking voice and studded with R&B inflections. He starts with a dark, sexy version of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and continues into a medley of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “When Doves Cry,” on which he duets with Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Kendra Foster, and I Am a Man’s “If You Hear Me.” It’s a brand-new instrument for Williams—certainly this crowd hasn’t heard it before—and he’s remarkably good.

Still, the audience here might thrill at anything Williams does. They applaud politely at monster solos by saxophonist Chelsea Baratz, keyboardist Allyn Johnson, and guitarist David Rosenthal, but roar at everything the bassist/vocalist puts down. Naturally, he plays into it. “We just have one rule, just one—you have to have a good time,” he announces. “Is everybody good with that?” They respond accordingly.

To most of the jazz world, Williams is a talented, hard-working musician with an impressive arc of development; he commands respect from the likes of Christian McBride and Pat Metheny. “One of my favorite people,” says Metheny, who employed Williams in his Unity band (under whose auspices the bassist shared in a 2013 Grammy award). “He brings a level of professionalism that is increasingly difficult to find, even as there are more and more good players out there.”

In D.C., though, he’s something else again: a hometown hero.

That hero status isn’t restricted to the concert. Two days later, as we chat over lunch at a restaurant near his old neighborhood, a music lover approaches our table. “I’m thoroughly gobsmacked just to be so close to you!” he tells a blushing Williams. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

He’s been doing it since childhood. Williams grew up in a family that loved music. His mother Bennie worked for the late U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.), the Capitol’s most outspoken lover and patron of jazz; young Ben was exposed to the music early on. But the Williamses also collectively loved Prince. “We had Purple Rain on VHS and I used to watch that all the time when I was a kid,” the bassist recalls. “He was really the reason I wanted to become a musician. In fact, I wanted to play guitar like Prince, and when I got to middle school [where school bands began in D.C.], the guitar seats had already filled up so that’s how I ended up playing bass.”

Williams didn’t treat it like something he had to settle for, though—he worked hard. When he was out of the classroom, he took lessons with every local musician who would give them. By the ninth grade, when he passed an audition for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, he was deeply immersed.

“He was on his way,” recalls Davey Yarborough, then director of Ellington’s jazz program. “As a matter of fact he had taken piano lessons too, so he was on piano and bass. But what most impressed me was that his mother eventually became the parent group president, and every time I called her house, I would hear him practicing on either bass or piano in the background. And it was amazing to me, how studious he was.” That studiousness reaped rewards: Just before his 2002 graduation, Williams placed second in the student competition at Maryland’s East Coast Jazz Festival.

He matriculated at Michigan State University, where he studied bass with Rodney Whitaker, then enrolled in the Master of Music program at the Juilliard School in New York. Not surprisingly, Williams was soon juggling his coursework with gigs; he played some dates with Terence Blanchard, joined pianist Jacky Terrasson’s trio and vibraphonist Stefon Harris’ quintet Blackout. He had also forged a relationship with tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, who’d been hearing his name. “I finally got to hear him in person, and I understood why his name was floating around so much,” Strickland says. “He’s an incredible musician; I started playing trio and he was the first guy that came to mind.”

Williams was still maintaining the balancing act (though almost finished) when, in October 2009, he won what was then the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition. “The final was on a Sunday night,” he recalls. “I had to go to class the next day.” He finished his master’s in December.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.