In the very early 1950s, Los Angeles was awash in jazz pianists who could play with ferocious speed and delicate grace. The names that spring to mind include Russ Freeman, Marty Paich, Hampton Hawes, Dodo Marmarosa, Carl Perkins, Pete Jolly, Lorraine Geller, Victor Feldman, Sonny Clark and Jimmy Rowles. But perhaps the most overlooked member of this silky-swinger set is Claude Williamson. Back in 1954 and '55, Williams recorded two perfect trio albums for Capitol when Stan Kenton briefly headed the Stan Kenton Presents imprint, which showcased West Coast talent.
Williamson was born in Brattleboro, Vt., and his father was a drummer and leader of a local territory band. Williamson studied piano and soon joined his father's band from 1940 to 1944—an invaluable experience while in high school. After graduation, Williamson studied at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. But his exposure to an Al Haig record began to lure him regularly to New York. Before long, though, Williamson came under the influence of bop pianist Bud Powell.
Back in Boston, one of Williamson's teachers, Sam Saxe, moved to Los Angeles in late 1946 and convinced Williamson to join him there in early 1947. Soon, Williamson was behind the keyboard in Charlie Barnet's band, where he remained for several years. Manny Albam's flag-waver Claude Reigns, recorded by Barnet's '49 bop band, was written for Williamson as a feature, and he soon became June Christy's accompanist.
In 1951, Williamson was drafted into the Army, and when he was discharged two years later, he returned to Boston. But he soon received a call inviting him to take Russ Freeman's place as the house pianist at Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Williamson played with the Lighthouse All Stars from 1953 until 1955 while recording with a string of session leaders including Art Pepper, Charlie Mariano and Bud Shank.
It was during this period while at the Lighthouse that Kenton brought Williamson into Capitol's Melrose Ave. studios in Hollywood for a series of recordings that would become Claude Williamson (June and July 1954) and Keys West (May 1955).
Williamson's trio mates on the different sessions were Curtis Counce (b) and Stan Levey (d); Max Bennett (b) and Levey (d); and Buddy Clark (b) and Larry Bunker (d). The results remain exquisite—comparable in taste and dexterity to Sonny Clark. Not a track goes by without Williamson delighting the ear with stellar keyboard runs, minimalist but choice chord voicings, and trills added in just the right places.
Bean and the Boys puts Williams' bop chops to the test, as do Woody 'n You and All God's Chillun Got Rhythm. Penny and Like Someone in Love are revealing and sensitive solo tracks, while pop tunes like On the Atchinson, Topeka and the Santa Fe, Get Happy and Of Thee I Sing receive the Williamson touch.
This is magnificent West Coast piano trio playing, when the sound still had a churning New York sound along with a heaping scoop of L.A. parfait. Claude Williamson (whose brother was the great trumpeter Stu Williamson) is still with us. With any luck he'll reach out to me by email (the link is on the upper right-hand corner of this page).
JazzWax tracks: You'll find these recordings as a download or a double CD on Claude Williamson Trio: The Complete 1954-55 Kenton Presents Sessions (Fresh Sound) at Amazon.
JazzWax clip: Here's the Claude Williamson Trio in 1954 on Bouncing with Bud and Bean and the Boys. Dig how easily Williamson whisks into songs. And catch the minimalist chord and line treatment, but with just the right level of sophistication and taste. Reminds me of one of those glass Richard Neutra homes—airy but a knockout from every angle...