Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

In Memoriam: Jessica Williams

John Bishop reflects on Williams (March 17, 1948–March 10, 2022), and the love, joy and enlightenment she provided the jazz world.

Jessica Williams (March 17, 1948–March 10, 2022). Photo by Jimmy Katz

“Where the hell did you come from?” – Bill Evans

Jessica loved that little anecdote from Evans discovering her playing for the first time and would usually follow its telling with a laugh. I think she secretly enjoyed her less-than-widely-known status just for those kinds of moments. Indeed, as I remember it, her early-’90s entrance to the Pacific Northwest and our world was a dreary Monday night at a club in Tacoma. The loud, smoky jam sessions were a good hang and one night we discovered that she happened to be there. She had no intention of sitting in, but during the break she made her way to the piano and just started pecking out a ballad amidst the den of talking and rumbling. Still vivid is how quickly the room turned absolutely silent. No show was going on. It was just her and a few choruses of “Ask Me Now” that sucked everyone in. The room buzzed after that.

For those who saw her live, it’d be hard to deny that she had something magical in her playing. Everything always felt “complete”—technically, musically, and emotionally, all virtuosic. In comments after she passed, it was recognizable that the themes ran toward how her performances made people feel over “what a great concert!” I saw it time and time again through the performances we recorded and the many I attended otherwise, starting with that enlightening jam session. 

The bassist that night, Jeff Johnson, would end up in her trio for the next decade, and though I was just a drummer at that point, she entrusted the label I would start six years later with what turned out to be her late-career solo piano releases. Her being able to connect with people, even in the most unlikely of places, seemed to be a trait that kept her thriving over the last 30 years as her and her partner moved often. She avoided the club scene that she grew up in—playing with Philly Joe Jones, Eddie Harris, Stan Getz, Tony Williams, etc.—in order to play the music as she wanted. Through the network of house concerts and specific presenters she was very comfortable with, she steadily built one of the more loyal international fanbases you’d ever see, with each concert wrapping up with an equal period of time for CD signing and talking.

Though filled with ongoing, debilitating medical issues since childhood and a search for self-discovery way beyond what most of us have to deal with, her vivid, complex being attracted all within earshot. Wicked smart, engaging and wildly complex, conversations were usually long and broad. She loved music, she loved laughing, contradiction, politics, beauty, mysticism, science, the profane, whatever, and her opinions and convictions were quite clear, particularly when it came to disrespect, injustice, and the like. Her liner notes for many of the recordings we released give a great peek into her mind over those years, and her website (now gone) was an outlet for her thoughts through huge essays on whatever got her going, especially during the last 10 surgery/recovery years when traveling and playing were not an option. 


From the clubs of Baltimore and Philly, to her “home” at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, to Sacramento and Santa Cruz, and then to the Northwest, Jessica left her mark on colleagues all along the way (and yes, sometimes it stung!), on her audiences who enjoyed an unusually intimate connection with her, and on the people who felt the need to work with her and help see her vision through. They’ll all continue to miss the love, joy, enlightenment, and even the upheaval her presence provided.