Personalities | Clarence Williams | Early Years | Jazz & Blues

Clarence Williams was born in 1898 in Plaquemine, Louisiana, migrating to New Orleans in the teens to play piano in the District and begin a long career as a composer, bandleader and musical promoter. He was manager of two early jazz venues – the Big 25 Club and Pete Lala’s Café – hiring the best musicians in the city.

He opened a publishing business with Armand J. Piron, the leader of a popular dance band operating at the Lake Pontchartrain resorts. In 1919 he partnered with the savvy publisher-writer Spencer Williams (no relation). They gathered, annotated and copyrighted musical numbers that were floating in the air around the dance halls, bars and brothels of the city, publishing such enduring mega-hits as ‘None Of My Jelly Roll’ and ‘Royal Garden Blues’.

The Blue Five

Williams left for Chicago around 1917, pursuing publishing and becoming an agent for recording companies. In the 1920s he shifted to New York City as it became a hub for hot music. He assembled bands of friends from New Orleans for OKeh and Columbia Records, including the seminal Blue Five group, which united a young Louis Armstrong, just emerging as the most innovative soloist in jazz, and Sidney Bechet, who was beginning his long reign as king of the soprano saxophone. Williams featured his wife, Eva Taylor, as vocalist on many blues and pop numbers. Among important songs he recorded were ‘Cakewalking Babies From Home’, ‘Papa De Da Da’, ‘Of All The Wrongs’, ‘Coal Cart Blues’ and ‘Texas Moaner Blues’. He also cut a series of Washboard Band recordings, including numbers from his ill-fated musical comedy, Bottomlands (1927), which he promoted in New York.

In The Studio

In his long career, Williams’ gift for spotting fresh talent and potential musical hits was renowned. Among the first-rate musicians he assembled were trumpeters such as King Oliver, Jabbo Smith, Henry Allen, Ed Allen, Bubber Miley and Louis Metcalf. He recorded clarinetists such as Buster Bailey, Arville Harris and Albert Nicholas and trombonists Charlie Irvis and Ed Cuffee. He was the session piano player on many recordings – for example, he can be heard playing piano on Bessie Smith’s classic track ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’ – but he was most comfortable as a musical director for OKeh Records, and an arranger and composer of jazz and pop tunes.

With a fine ear for both novelty jazz material and songs that bridged the gap between pure jazz and pure pop, Williams was an important transmitter of New Orleans traditions to the East Coast musicians he met in his recording and publishing roles. In the 1930s, during the squeeze of the Depression, Williams closed his publishing office, turned to radio promotion and went on to run an antique store in Harlem. He died in 1965, having sold his vast catalogue to Decca Records in 1943.

‘He was very important in coaching and teaching and working on our artists. He could somehow...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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