Today we celebrate the illustrious but commonly overlooked career of saxophonist, clarinetist, and band leader Stanley “Fess” Williams.
Born in 1894 in Danville, KY, the reedsman started his musical education on violin before switching musical families to learn the saxophone and clarinet. He attended the Tuskegee Institute where he furthered his musical education and vowed to make it his vocation. He moved to Cincinnati and joined Frank Port’s Quartet where Fess predominantly playing clarinet. To satisfy his mother, he took a job as a music and athletics teacher which garnered him the nickname “Professor”, later truncated to “Fess”. Though his tenure as a teacher might have been stellar, his musical career grew and he started leading his own bands in his native Kentucky and touring surrounding states.
To differentiate himself from other clarinet players, he employed a novelty style of playing called ‘gas pipe’ clarinet. When employed, the player used the clarinet as a veritable sound effect machine capable of reaching the highest highs and the lowest lows on the instrument. It was also capable of giving the instrument the effect of sounding like a train whistle as well, often for comedic effect. On his greatest hit “Hot Town” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiUeCAgk_BQ) it is used in a humorous manner accompanying a comedy routine.
After an outbreak of influenza overtook Kentucky in 1919, Fess moved and set up shop in Chicago. His first role as a musician came when he become a sideman to the legendary New Orleans trumpeter King Oliver. Fess would often stay up all night playing with different bands not only to sate his musical hunger, but to further his career.
Soon he made the move from Chicago to New York City and found success when working at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The famous Chick Webb song, “Stompin’ at the Savoy” was coined in tribute to the venue. Here Fess led one of the most prominent house bands called the Royal Flush Orchestra. In 1929 he was given the opportunity to participate in one of the most famous iterations of the Savoy’s highly publicized Battle of the Bands. In such a competition, bands would square off against one another by playing their best material in a speedy rotation. The audience’s feet often served as the ultimate arbiter. This particular battle included Duke Ellington’s world famous Orchestra, who was defeated along with the Royal Flush Orchestra by the Missourians; a band that would later back Cab Calloway.
Despite the defeat, he was still highly in demand for not only the Savoy in New York but also in Chicago. He opened the Savoy satellite in Chicago and wowed audiences with his unique band leader demeanor. His act as a showman increased with the big city lifestyle and he employed a flamboyant style of dress, wearing the finest top hats and suits encrusted with diamonds. Though he was known as a musician, he often acted as an emcee for the night’s shows, introducing comedians, fellow musicians and the like. He also led another band called the Joy Boys who recorded the rare finds as “Dixie Stomp” and “Drifting and Dreaming”.
His fame came to an end due to the massive effect that the Great Depression had on the music world. His fame as a multi-instrumentalist and consummate showman could do nothing to slow the dismal tide of economic downturn. Work dried up and Fess took up real estate as a way to make ends meet. By the mid-1930’s, he was no longer touring. As if this wasn’t bad enough, his final foray into music was on one of jazz’s most notorious incidents.
In 1962 Fess’ nephew, the legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus, held a concert at Town Hall in New York City. The concert was arranged as a workshop that featured Mingus’ new compositions and musicians who were unfamiliar with the material. Due to a combination of events, the concert is now known as one of Mingus’ musical blunders. His uncle apparently played during the intermission, though no recording was made.
Fess Williams stands as an important innovator in the world of swing and jazz when a musician often appeared in other circles including entertainment. As a showman, he was known and sought all over the country for his humorous and affable sensibilities that can not be recreated.