Prolific pianist and local legend Jessica Williams has passed away at the age of 73, leaving behind a lasting impact on Sacramento and its jazz legacy.
Williams was born in Baltimore, where she was classically trained in music from a young age at the Peabody Conservatory. Her interest in piano stemmed from the ability to associate colors with sounds, a phenomenon known as Synesthesia.
A natural talent and affinity for jazz music landed Williams a spot in drummer Philly Joe Jones’ band in New Jersey in the late 1970s before eventually bringing her to the west coast in 1976. While living in San Francisco, Williams became the house pianist at the storied Keystone Korner jazz club and would go on to perform with Eddie Harris, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Flora Purim and Charlie Rouse. Her control of the instrument and lyricism made Williams an inimitable talent.
The accomplishments of Williams’ career on the west coast included two Grammy nominations, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, guest spots on NPR’s Fresh Air and Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz,” as well the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. In addition to performing at hundreds of venues and festivals around the world, she also has a huge catalog of her own songs, littered throughout more than 40 albums.
Sacramento’s jazz scene veterans remember Williams fondly and with massive respect.
“It was unbelievable that an artist of this caliber graced the small jazz venues in Sacramento,” wrote pianist Joe Gilman. “Whenever we would ask, ‘how’s Jessica?’ Everybody knew we were speaking of Jessica Williams. First name only level of person. She was such a mercurial yet galvanizing figure, both musically and personally.”
San Francisco-based vocalist Kitty Margolis recently wrote that “She was one of the few women on the S.F. jazz scene when I was starting out and we would often share the stage at the North Beach clubs like Peta’s and Keystone Korner. A complex person with a unique life trajectory.”
Williams stayed on the west coast for the remainder of her life, going from San Francisco to Sacramento and eventually retiring from performing in the Pacific Northwest, where she would continue to compose and experiment with electronic music. She died on Saturday, March 12, 2022, five days before her 74th birthday. A legend gone but not forgotten.
Check out this Spotify playlist of gems from Jessica Williams.
And this live performance from 2006