Claude Williamson dies at 89; versatile jazz pianist was mainstay of West Coast cool
By Jill Leovy
Claude Williamson, a versatile pianist who skillfully merged the bebop style of the East with the laid-back sound of the West, securing himself a seat in the cool L.A. jazz scene of the ‘50s, has died.
Williamson, 89, died in a facility in Sunland on Saturday, said his son, Marc Williamson. He fell and broke a hip last year and suffered complications afterward, his son said.
Williamson was believed to be the last surviving member of the Lighthouse All-Stars, the house band of the Hermosa Beach jazz club of the same name.
The Lighthouse’s fortunes tracked the era of cool jazz, a musical movement inspired by Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan that flowered in L.A. and came to be seen as an archetypical West Coast artistic style.
L.A. musicians brought cool tones and an experimental, laid-back style to jazz, and for a while, they stole the spotlight from counterparts back East.
Raised in Vermont and trained in Boston, Williamson was fully a product of East Coast bebop tradition: his musical idols were Al Haig and Bud Powell. But he was also a thoroughly skilled musician — a player with perfect pitch for whom music seemed effortless, his son said. Or rather, it seemed like it was “in the blood,” Marc Williamson said.
That depth and flexibility allowed Williamson to adapt to L.A.’s changing music scene and shift roles easily.
Club musician, vocal accompanist, studio player, band leader, trio player — Williamson could do it all, said Ken Poston, director of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute in Long Beach.
He was part of “a new generation of musicians who had the training and background to do all kinds of things,” Poston said. "He was one of the ones who set that standard.”
Williamson “was an extremely creative player — brilliant from that standpoint,” Poston said. But it was his high-caliber “harmonic sense” that allowed him to excel at playing behind others and backing vocalists, such as June Christy, whose accompanist he was for two years, Poston said.
Williamson was a member of Charlie Barnet’s band, and played alongside Chet Baker, Bud Shank and a many other big-name West Coast musicians in the days of cool. His brother Stu Williamson was a noted jazz trumpeter who was also a Lighthouse All-Star.
In 1960s, Williamson reinvented himself for television, joining the players on “The Andy Williams Show.” He went on to play piano for “Sonny and Cher" and “Donny and Marie” and he even accompanied the Brady Bunch during their short-lived experiment in a musical variety hour — “You can either thank him or curse him for that,” his son said.
It all spoke to his trademark versatility, a pianist equally comfortable playing lead or side. “There is only a handful of players that fit into that category, and he was right there at the top,” Poston said.
Claude B. Williamson Jr. was born Nov. 18, 1926, in Brattleboro, Vt., to a professional drummer and his wife, Louise. He never finished a degree at the New England Conservatory of Music, but this classical training was apparent for the rest of his career, a Times critic noted, evident in "the smoothness of his play and the harmonic textures" he developed.
He was drafted at the end of World War ll and got a reprieve when peace came, but was deployed with the Army and sent to Korea in ‘51. Family lore has it that he was spared combat when higher-ups got word he was a musician, his son said.
The Army needed a drummer. Williamson played the piano. But he was perfectly happy to say he played drums — and he could fake it well enough to ride out the war in an officers’ club on Okinawa, Marc Williamson said.
That suited him fine; he was no soldier. "My dad was a brilliant musician but one of those people who couldn’t get a nail in straight if you know what I mean,” his son said.
Williamson settled in L.A. and became the house pianist at Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse in Hermosa, then joined the Bud Shank Quartet in the late 1950s. He settled in Studio City, recorded regularly with other musicians and as a soloist enjoyed a second wave of fame in the 1980s when his music was rediscovered in Japan, and Japanese labels sought him out, Poston said.
The craze for L.A. cool jazz came and went — and came and went again. In his later years, Williamson suffered illnesses and frailty.
But a couple of years ago, when his son assumed he was long past playing, the musician agreed to appear at a jazz reunion. He was so weak he barely made it through the drive.
Then, on stage, at the age of 87, he played. "It was amazing,” the son recalled. "I'm so glad I was there." A listener told Williamson after he had “knocked it out of the park," music to the ears of the bebop artist who was also a lifelong baseball fan.
The performance recalled his old style, which was "seamless," his son said. "It flowed."
Along with son Marc, Williamson is survived by his wife Deanne and son Shawn.
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