|Courtesy of the Artist or their Representative|
The bass instrument can be hidden under a band ensemble or intone its voice through a solo performance, poetic reading, musical interlude, or through other capacities to be heard. I think of it as the masculine life force of jazz, whereas Bassist, Ben Williams expounds on it with a feminine analogy.
The first time I sampled Williams’ debut album, State of Art, I heard a level of jazz from a young musician, whom I instantly wanted to interview as former Culture Editor of a Fashion and Performing Arts magazine without any awareness of the album’s ranking and reviews, having reached #1 on the iTunes and National Billboard charts, and receiving a 4.5 Star Review from DownBeat Magazine.
Listening to the album in its entirety, has more than fulfilled what I’d imagined would be a worthy investment. I’d ascribe this to a formal education from the Duke Ellington High School of the Arts, followed by a Bachelor’s in Music Education from Michigan State University and a Master’s degree from Julliard, coupled with seasoned experience as a bass player-bandleader and a cadre of talented musicians making up his band, Sound Effect, which all have enabled Williams to co-produce a masterful debut on Concord Records after receiving the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition Award.
The debut’s arrangements, based on originals by Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Goapele, to Blackburn and Suessdorf’s, “Moonlight in Vermont,” are indicative of Williams’ talent as a polished arranger, while his originals attest to his overall craftsmanship.
Since winning the 2009 Monk Competition and debuting State of Art in 2011, Ben Williams has added Grammy Winner to his list of venerated accomplishments, earning a Grammy Award with the Pat Metheny Unity Band for Best Jazz Instrumental Album of 2012, and again receiving recognition from DownBeat Magazine as its 2013 Critics Poll Rising Star Award for Bass.
Having accomplished a great deal at a young age, the path to Williams’ career as a bassist can be foretold at a far younger age, as revealed at the start of my interview with Ben and near the end where his mother/manager personally recounts how Ben’s relationship with Congressman John Conyers influenced his future as a musician in the bonus, "How Ben’s Career Began."
Interiors of Man: Given that becoming a bassist was tied to your destiny – coming across the instrument as a six-year-old in the office of Congressman Conyers – relive for us if possible, your introduction to the bass and something about that experience, which you haven’t shared.
Ben Williams: Actually, I wasn’t aware at the time what the instrument was. I was pretty young, so I only have a vague memory of this enormous wooden “thing” sitting in the corner of his office. The acoustic bass is not a highly visible part of American culture these days, due mostly to the fact that it’s not used in the most popular genres. I wasn’t familiar with the instrument, but was very intrigued by it. I can’t say what type of connection occurred but I think it is more than just a coincidence that my mother’s boss happened to be a lover of jazz and of the bass. Destiny, or however you want to think of it, I do feel that everyone is given a path and there are things put in your life to tie everything together.
"I feel the bass is strong in the same sense that a mother is strong ... she is constantly working to make sure everything is taken care of and makes whatever sacrifices necessary to ensure the security of her family."
IOM: I see the bass instrument as the masculine life force of jazz and you have articulated its personality verbally and musically. What personality traits do you share with the bass that produces chemistry between you and the instrument?
BW: Well first of all, I don’t look at the bass as masculine. To me, it has a feminine force. I even name all of my instruments, and they all have female names. I feel the bass is strong in the same sense that a mother is strong. Maybe she isn’t the loudest, nor seeks the most attention, but she is constantly working to make sure everything is taken care of and makes whatever sacrifices necessary to ensure the security of her family. She puts everyone before herself. Though I am a male, I do feel I have certain personality traits that are conducive to being a great bass player. I think the most important is humility. The bass carries a great deal of responsibility as the rhythmic and harmonic foundation. Our job can go unnoticed and we are often underappreciated, but we still maintain a love for what it is we do. I think the bass is very fitting for the type of person I am.
IOM: What do you think were the key elements that played a role in your winning the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition, and what have been the greatest benefits of winning the award?
BW: It’s hard for me to say what made the judges decide to award me first prize, because music is so subjective, there is really no grading scale (once you get to a certain level) of what’s better than the rest. I can say though, that I performed to the best of my ability that particular evening and I chose the appropriate material to best demonstrate my strengths as a player. I think that is important in any competition; that you give yourself the best opportunity to succeed. Part of the competition was performing with Dee Dee Bridgewater, which I really enjoyed and I embraced the spirit she brought to the stage.
A lot of great things have happened as a result of winning the Monk Competition; I received a recording contract with Concord Records, under which I released my debut album “State of Art,” and preparing to release my second album “Coming of Age.” It has brought more attention to me as a bandleader, through which I have really been able to develop my skills as a composer. If I hadn’t won the competition, I’m not sure how much I would have delved into that path. I am very grateful for that opportunity.
"The essence of what is 'good' about music is innate; as spirit-filled individuals, we all have the ability to receive something from music."
IOM: With State of Art, you said that you wanted to make an album that regular people could enjoy and make a deep artistic statement as well. Do you find that achieving such a goal offers listeners artistic growth and the opportunity to expand their views and musical tastes?
BW: I've always felt that the greatest artists are able to grab the attention of the audience while challenging them at the same time. I think that's the beautiful mystique of great composition; the balance of what's familiar with the unexpected. My musical heroes have done that continuously throughout their careers. Miles, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles (to name a few) all have the uncanny ability to seduce us with the beauty of their music while pushing our tastes and expectations into a new direction. I always make it a point to stay in touch with my inner "music fan" in order to maintain an objective point of view of my music (as objective as one can be about their own work). The essence of what is "good" about music is innate; as spirit-filled individuals, we all have the ability to receive something from music.
IOM: Your music is identified as jazz, yet you claim it as Soul Music. Do you define yourself as a Soul Artist, and if so, what does being a Soul Artist mean to you?
BW: I like to think of my music as “Soul” music because that’s where it comes from. My music, though eclectic in influence, basically represents the Black American experience. “Soul” is a very important aspect of music in Black American culture. It’s hard to define what “it” is, but it is a feeling that must be a part of the music in order for us to connect with it. This is not genre specific; whether it’s jazz, funk, R&B, reggae, gospel, blues, country, folk, etc., it must connect to the spirit (or the “soul”). My music is no different. I use music as a tool of expression to convey my innermost feelings and emotions. In my opinion, that is when music is most powerful. Referring to myself as a “soul” artist represents more of an idea than a genre, per se.
IOM: What changes can we expect between State of Art and your future album, Coming of Age?
BW: My second release is not so much a change from the first album, but rather a continuation. My focus and intention remain the same, but this album reflects my growth as a man, musician, and composer. I have definitely grown in many aspects in the years following my first release, and while that is natural, it is also the theme of this next album. It is my reaction to both the changes in the world around me and my personal changes as a man. As I’ve grown older, I began to look at things in life differently, and naturally as an artist, my music reflects these newfound life discoveries. One major difference in this album is that all the compositions except one are original. I’ve become more comfortable as a composer and am starting to find somewhat of a voice. Also, I’m playing more electric bass than I did on the first album. Though “Coming of Age” may be more introspective, my intention always remains to connect with the listener.
IOM: Final question, what if any advice has Congressman Conyers given to you about jazz over the years, given his love for the genre, and how has he reacted to your accomplishments as a professional musician?
BW: Congressman Conyers has been very supportive of my career as a musician as well as the artform itself and the many issues we face. I have had the opportunity to perform at his annual Congressional Black Caucus Jazz Concert on two different occasions; the first time as a 12 year-old (as a member of the Fred Foss Youth Jazz Band) and years later as a 26 year-old, seasoned professional leading my own band, Sound Effect. Truly a full circle experience. He has been very supportive along the way as well. I have a lot of admiration and respect for Congressman Conyers, not only because of his love of the music, but the fact that he uses his political platform to advocate for artists. It is a great feeling for us artists to know that we have someone in Congress that shares our passion and is willing to speak up for us in a place where otherwise we might not have a voice.
“How Ben’s Career Began”
As told to Yvonne Grays Nathane
First I must tell you that not only am I Ben's Manager, I am his Mother. I call myself his "Mommanger." The story about his relationship with Conyers is that I had worked for the Congressman for a number of years and even before Ben was born. When Ben was toddling around and before he started school I used to take him to work with me on occasions. He saw this thing [upright bass] sitting in the corner in the Congressman's office and he appeared to have been intrigued and curious about it. He played with it as a little kid would play with a toy, banging on it, etc. Like any parent, I didn't know what career path my child would take. For many reasons I believed that he was destined to play the bass. Other things transpired that followed his discovery of the bass in Conyers' office although he didn't know what this thing was at the time.
When he started Middle School and attempted to sign up for music in the strings class since he was interested in playing the guitar, he found out that was the wrong class for guitar and it was too late to join the guitar class. He had to pick up a string instrument of the class he accidentally signed up for. The other part to the situation was that there were no other instruments left in that class but a bass and the only one at that. Again, sitting in the corner was this thing [the upright bass]. As a single mom I had to tote this big thing around for him because he could not and it was a prerequisite that the parent of that age kid had to sign an agreement with the music program that you would take on this added responsibility of caring for the bass along with the kid and bring it to and from school twice a week. Also, I had to bring my vehicle in to show them that I could properly handle this thing in my possession. Eventually I was known as the Bass Player's Mom among the local jazz musicians in DC who helped mentor Ben.
"Milt Hinton literally passed the bass torch over to Ben."
When it was time to decide on college, Ben decided on Michigan State University - again, a Conyers connection. Conyers, as you know sponsors the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Jazz Concert. When Ben was 12 years old, I had asked Conyers if this little kid band could do the opening act at his concert. He thought I was out of my mind. I promised him it would be a big hit and the people would love it. Well I was able to pull together the Chairman of NEA, a representative from the Monk Institute, and others to help support this effort. So happened that evening, the late legendary Bassist, Milt Hinton was being Honored by Conyers at the Concert. Fortunately for Ben, Milt was there to see him perform with his little band orchestra, The Fillmore Arts Center Jazz Band. Ben was given a couple solos and the crowd went ballistic. The MC called Ben back to the stage to perform with a senior group of artists. I couldn't allow Ben to return to the stage because he had injured his little tender fingers from the first set and they were bleeding. Milt Hinton and his wife invited us to sit at their table for the remainder of the evening where they shared valuable information about the joy and responsibilities of bass players, as well as the huge compliments he gave to Ben for a great performance of the evening. Milt Hinton literally passed the bass torch over to Ben. It was truly an honor. The next morning we got a phone call from Milt Hinton and he sent Ben his first set of bass strings by UPS within two days. They kept in touch with us until their failing illnesses.
To me this is what Conyers had done for Ben by providing a forum and opportunity to showcase his potential talent as an upcoming future musician. Ever since that night at age 12, Ben has been called upon as a bass player. It was also the beginning for me to learn how to manage and oversee my child's education and career simultaneously with hands on the deck.