The Big Beat

Richmond drummer Billy Williams talks about his passion for jazz.

Billy Williams

Photo by Craig Zirpolo

It was at Norfolk’s Brotherly Love Church of God in Christ where Billy Williams got bid by the music bug. Under leadership of his great-grandfather, a pastor, the Virginia Beach native began playing drums at the age of 10. Now 30, and after finding a new home in Richmond, Williams has traveled the world as an ambassador of jazz, sharing the stage with many of the genre’s legends, including saxophonists Benny Golson and Gary Bartz, bassist Christian McBride and the Marsalis family.

Earlier this month, he returned home for a show with award-winning trumpeter Terell Stafford at Capital Ale House as part of the Richmond Jazz Society’s Guest Educators Concert Series. Ahead of his show, we talked to Williams about his love for the music that is widely considered America’s greatest art form.

Like many great drummers, you flexed your skills in church. How did you find your path to jazz?

It was pretty organic. I was very fortunate to be in a church environment where I had the opportunity to play every week and grow. My great grandfather was the pastor and my mother played piano and directed the choir. That environment made me want to be a drummer. As far as playing jazz, I think it was about finding a way to play drum set in my middle school band, initially. After I started checking out the music, I found that it really spoke to me. I didn’t quite understand what was happening musically, but it was stimulating. I really wanted to figure out how it all came together. Looking back, I hadn’t even considered the fact that the swing rhythm was something that I had been hearing long before I even played the drums. The music felt familiar in an unfamiliar way.

Richmond isn’t exactly known as the jazz capital of the world, but the VCU jazz studies program has produced some great talent. What are your hopes for the city’s jazz community?

The jazz community here in Richmond is really great. There are a lot of extremely talented musicians that are always out and about. My hope for the scene is that it continues to grow. The city is developing and I hope that the jazz scene continues to be a part of that. I’ve met many people who have recently relocated to the area and are surprised to discover the level of talent that’s here. Richmond is a quiet hotbed for world-class musicians. I think it has a lot to do with the opportunity to play out a lot during your formative years. An aspiring young musician can come in and get invaluable professional experience early on. I was very fortunate in that regard during my college years. The community here is special.

You’re currently on tour with acclaimed trumpeter Terell Stafford. How did you become part of his group?

I first played with Terell maybe about 6 or 7 years ago. He was doing a college residency in Norfolk and came out to a jam session where I was in the house band. I was thrilled to play with him, even in such a casual setting. The following year I got contacted by another amazing musician, saxophonist Tim Warfield, to do some gigs with his band and Terell was on a few of them. Tim and Terell are really great friends and one of the best front lines playing today in my opinion. The gigs went well and I made sure to stay in touch with both of them. I was genuinely excited to simply be connected to these musicians that I admired. In 2014, Terell contacted me to do a one-off in Pennsylvania. In 2015, I started touring with him and it has been an amazing ride thus far. I’m learning so much and everyone in the band is so encouraging. A highlight would have to be having the opportunity to play a few week-long engagements at the Village Vanguard in New York City with him. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to play there. A dream come true.

If you could travel back through time and pick any jazz legend to form the sextet of your dreams, who would you choose?

That is a hard question! One, because a lot of my all time favorite musicians are still alive. But if I had to put a jazz sextet together of musicians who have passed, I would have John Coltrane on saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone, Kenny Kirklandon piano, and Sam Jones on bass. That would sound pretty wild! This would probably also change tomorrow. So many great musicians to choose from.

Some critics believe that jazz died with Coltrane — because everything has been said. More than 50 years later, jazz is still here. What is the future of jazz?

I don’t believe jazz is dead, but it definitely looks different. The music continues to grow and include various influences and cultures. It’s being presented in ways that make it accessible to a wide range of people. So much so that even the word “jazz” means different things to different people. There are so many great musicians presenting great ideas. As a musician and fan, this is exciting to me. I want to be a part of It all. Touring internationally has been great, as it’s shown me that people all around the world are still very hungry for the music. The future of jazz looks very bright when you adjust your lens.

Want to know more? Click here to read about the history of jazz in Virginia: meet the artists, read profiles and watch performance videos and interviews.

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