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James Williams Dies

James Williams, a pianist and onetime member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, died Tuesday, July 20 of complications from liver cancer. He was 53.

Born in Memphis in 1951, Williams began playing piano at 13 and concentrated on gospel music and R&B, early influences that would remain a part of style throughout his career. While studying music education at Memphis State University he became interested in jazz. After graduating he landed a job teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he took area gigs with Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Milt Jackson, Clark Terry and others. He eventually left Berklee to join drummer Art Blakey’s jazz Messengers, a group he stayed with for four years, honing his chops both as a player and a composer. Williams began recording as a leader while still with the Messengers; Flying Colors, his leader debut, was released on Zim in 1977. After leaving the Messengers in 1981, Williams continued to make albums under his own name, recording for labels like Concord, EmArcy and DIW. In 1987 he formed the Magical Trio, a recording group originally comprised of the pianist, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Blakey. That band put out one album titled Magical Trio 1. Two later incarnations of the group-one featuring Brown and Elvin Jones, the other with Charnett Moffett and Jeff “Tain” Watts-followed up on the first album’s success.

In the ’90s Williams co-founded the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, which included fellow pianists Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown and Geoff Keezer, as well as ICU (Intensive Care Unit) a group that saw him revisit his gospel and R&B roots.

Williams was hospitalized in April.

Originally Published