The rise of Ben Williams is deeply tied to New York. Days after winning the prestigious Monk Competition in 2009, Williams played his first concert as a bandleader at–where else–The Jazz Gallery. Since then, Williams has toured with greats across the genre’s wide field, most recently José James and Kamasi Washington, while always returning to the Gallery to premiere new work, present fresh ideas, or bring a new band.
Williams’ most recent album, I AM A MAN, was released just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic brought New York to a standstill. We caught up with Williams to find out about how he’s doing in self-isolation, as well as his thoughts on The Jazz Gallery’s position in the world of New York jazz.
The Jazz Gallery: Hey Ben. How’s the self-isolation treating you?
Ben Williams: I’m trying to make the best of it. I live alone in New York, and this is the most time I’ve spent at home, basically ever, since I’ve been here. I’m trying to use the time to, first of all, get some rest. Then, I’m working on things. Long-term projects, personal projects, musical things. Over all, being still.
TJG: You released I Am A MAN pretty recently, right?
BW: Yeah, that came out in January.
TJG: It’s super fresh. It’s funny, after a big project like that, people either hit the road and start touring immediately, or take some time, rest, and reflect. This time, the world seems to have made that choice for you.
BW: Luckily, I got a chance to release the album and do some shows after the album came out. I went out on the road with Kamasi Washington about ten days after the record was released, and we were out for about a month. By the end of that tour, everything had hit the fan in terms of the pandemic. I had to cancel or postpone dates that were scheduled for when I was getting back. Everyone’s in the same boat. I know people who had really long tours they had to cancel or postpone. We’re all in this mess.
TJG: Did you have gigs booked to support the album that got cancelled?
BW: Yeah. I’ve got more stuff coming up, things that are pending. Not sure if they’ll happen. They may have to postpone those shows too. We’ll see. I’m not trying to dwell on it. I’ve gotten somewhat over the urgency of doing a ton of shows right when a record comes out: These days, because there’s so much content coming out all the time, it’s more important to give the project some longevity. You obviously want to capture the momentum at the release and strike the iron while it’s hot, but I’m always thinking long-term. There’s no expiration date on an album. We’ll get back to these shows at some point, and I have other ideas for expanding the project down the road. It’s going to have a long life.
TJG: It’s beautiful music too, I was listening all morning.
BW: Thank you.
TJG: So you’re now at home alone, twenty-four hours a day. What kind of stuff are you doing to keep yourself occupied, musically or otherwise?
BW: I was just talking to a friend about this yesterday. I’ve been going pretty hard, touring, recording, being busy for the greater part of the last fifteen years. I realize–and I feel a bit conflicted about it–that this has been a necessary break. Sometimes it’s okay to just stop, do nothing for a little bit. It took me a few days, probably a couple of weeks, to embrace not doing something. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. I’ve been going so fast I didn’t realize it, until I came to a complete stop. I’ve been taking things back to the basics.
To be honest, the first week of the lockdown, I said “I’m gonna be practicing all day, I’m gonna write a symphony, a big band chart…” [laughs]. That didn’t happen. I had to tell myself, “This is an unprecedented moment. Just sit down.” I didn’t do much the first week. I’d pick up my instrument, but without any rigorous plan to accomplish or do anything. I needed that. I needed to stop, take this time to recalibrate, reset. Think about the future, focus on being present. I’ve probably done more cooking in the last two weeks than I did all of last year. I’m getting my space together in my apartment, tossing out stuff, going through clothes, stuff that’s been sitting around that I don’t need, paying some attention to the space I’m going to be in for a little bit.
TJG: How do you tend to do with isolation? Being on the road can have its own kind of isolation too.
BW: I’m good with it. I’m a private, isolated person in a way. I don’t necessarily need to be around people to be okay. Right now, I’m not having any issues with isolation. Obviously, there are things I miss: I miss seeing my friends, and playing with other musicians… I miss that. But I’m taking advantage of the isolation. Anything can be a positive, based on your perspective. Isolation can be loneliness, and you can dwell on what’s lacking. Or you can look at it as an opportunity. For example, I’m learning how to hone my chops so I can play by myself, develop and perform a solo concept. There’s always the silver lining. You can find positivity in even the most dire, tragic circumstances.
I was actually on the phone yesterday with David Sanborn. He’s in his mid-seventies now, and I asked him, “Man, have you ever seen or experienced anything like this?” At first he said no, but then he said, “I take that back: This is like when I was a kid, and the polio epidemic was going around.” A lot of people died, a lot of people got ill, and he actually contracted polio as a kid. He had to spend years of his childhood handicapped, paralyzed, under medical care. They had to use an iron lung to help him breathe, some kind of medieval breathing machine… As part of his rehabilitation to strengthen his lungs, the doctor recommended for him to play a wind instrument. That’s why he plays the saxophone.
BW: Yeah. If it wasn’t for polio, there would be no David Sanborn.
TJG: That’s an outrageous story. So, you’re in New York right now, the epicenter of what’s going in the states with the virus… I imagine that lot of your relationship with New York circles back to The Jazz Gallery. As a transition, can you tell me a little about your New York life? How did it start, and where you were at the time?
BW: I moved to New York in 2007. Like a lot of musicians who move here, especially when they’re young, The Jazz Gallery was a really important place for me. It’s one of the first venues where you really get to present music and play. They’re all about nurturing the future, the up-and-coming musicians. Before you get a chance to play at The Blue Note or The Jazz Standard, the more high-profile clubs in New York, you get to play at The Jazz Gallery. It’s more than a venue: It’s almost like a community center for musicians, and not just young musicians either. My first gig as a bandleader was at The Jazz Gallery right after The Monk Competition. The staff there, Rio, Leslie, Dale–rest in peace–are like family, to this day. We owe so much to the Gallery. They do so much to support the community.
TJG: How old are you?
BW: I’m thirty-five, now.
TJG: How does it feel to think that The Jazz Gallery is ten years younger than you?
BW: Wow… The fact that they’ve been around for so long, just doing what they do, it’s remarkable. It’s hard to keep anything open for twenty-five years, but it’s been such an important time. What they’ve done in that time… Beyond the fact that they’re still in operation… There are so many people you talk to who have fond memories of the Gallery. Twenty-five years… You know, compared to other jazz clubs, maybe it’s not that old. But what they’ve done in that period is what’s so important.
TJG: Right, it’s so important as a NYC mainstay. To be a young musician and have that chance, it fills an important niche. Can you take me back to a particularly memorable hang or show?
BW: There are so many. Wow. I’ve seen so many shows there, and have performed there a lot. You know, honestly, my first gig as a bandleader was so memorable. It was my first time in New York doing a gig under my name. I had just won the Monk competition. I don’t know if the Gallery was psychic like that–obviously, the gig was booked before they knew I was going to win. But it just so happened to be scheduled a week after. It was a real starting point for what I’m doing now as a bandleader, composer, now singer-songwriter, it set me on that path. All of that started at that moment on that day in October 2009 at the Gallery. There was a writeup in The New York Times. Whoa.
TJG: When you look at what you’re doing now, with I Am A Man and your new music, do you see roots that stretch back to the Gallery? Can you trace parts of what you’re doing now to experiences you’ve had on the Gallery stage?
BW: Absolutely. That first show was over ten years ago, and I’ve returned several times since then. What’s cool about the Gallery is that it’s a place where you can work on ideas, without as much pressure of thinking about filling seats, selling out. It’s a little bit of a different animal. It’s not a tourist destination, although people visit from all over. It’s a safe space for creativity. Over the years, you can always come back and say “I’ve got this new thing, this new music I’m working out.” That’s the place to try it out in front of folks. Your development over the years, as an artist, as your music evolves, it’s a great place to work it out. The Gallery has always been that. That’s why it’s a journey. What I’m doing now with this project is a culmination of everything I’ve done, everything I’ve discovered through the years. You have to find out who that is, and you need a place to share, to get a feeling for who you are, to establish your identity.