THE SMOOTH JAZZ RIDE
Smooth Conversations -- Pamela Williams
Artist Interviews
 

Mar. 14, 2010

My experience with the "Saxtress," Pamela Williams, began many years ago with her debut release by the same name, and I’ve been following this incredibly talented saxophonist ever since. With a personality as charming as her music, she opens the door here to her compelling story of how to get it done in style.  Enjoy.

TSJR: You're from Philadelphia, right? I understand that, like so many others—especially those from Philly-- one of your early jazz influences was the late great Grover Washington Jr.  Are there others, as well?

PW:  Oh, yes.  While Grover was actually the first saxophone player that I heard who really got my attention, as an alto player—and I don’t just play alto, but when I first started, I started with alto--I also listened to Charlie Parker, the Crusaders, David Sanborn, and a whole lot of other horn players because I like a lot of different styles.

TSJR: Do you come from a musical family?

PW: Actually, no. I’ve asked my family, “So, no one sings or plays anything but me?” I guess I was supposed to be the first (laughs).

TSJR: Are you formally trained or self-taught?

PW: I’m actually self-taught.

TSJR: Along with being an accomplished musician, you are also involved in visual art. Tell us about that. 

PW: Well, I have been a visual artist a lot longer than I have been a musician. I started drawing when I was about 4 years old—I do get that from my dad (laughs)--and have been seriously drawing and painting since graduating from high school. I actually went to college for art, not music.

TSJR: How do you balance your schedule between your art gallery and your music career?

PW: It gets hard. I never sleep (laughs). Music has actually taken precedence over the art, even though I love them both equally. Still, in between touring and playing, I still manage to squeeze in some art work.

TSJR: At what point in your life did you get a gut feeling that you would achieve success with your music?

PW: Well, from when I was a little girl, I always wanted to play music and to be in a band. When I would go to concerts, I would be so inspired by the musicians. Then, in high school, I joined the high school band, and I also started playing clubs around Philadelphia. It was then that I started thinking “You know, this could be a career.” I didn’t know at the time that it would go as far as it did. Then, I got my first big break with Patti Labelle, and I thought “Hey, maybe this can go a little bit further.”

TSJR: What was it like working with Patti, and did that happen?

PW: Oh, it was just wonderful. I learned so much from her, just watching her stage presence. She’s a musical genius. Very gracious and easy to work with. You know, she also has no formal training, yet she has such perfect pitch.

I was recruited after I had done some studio work with one of her musical directors. A couple of months later, he called and informed me that Patti was looking for a female sax player, and I think you should audition. I was on pins and needles when I auditioned, but I gave it my best. Two weeks later, I was on a plane to Japan as a member of her band. (laughs) I stayed with her for about 8 years.

TSJR: Let’s talk about Chameleon, which is an awesome CD.  How did this project come about, and what does the title Chameleon represent to you?

PW: Well, it’s my 8th CD and, even though my 3rd CD (after I left Heads Up) was somewhat of an independent project, this is my first truly independent project (I did the whole thing myself). It being my first truly independent project also meant my having complete creative control, and that’s a wonderful thing. 

I like a lot of different styles (funk, smooth jazz, Latin, straight-ahead, etc.), and I try to show that in my songs; so, for me, the title Chameleon represents diversity and different “colors.

TSJR: On that album, you immediately pay tribute to George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic.  Any particular reason?

PW: You know, because I’m a sax player, people often think that I only listen to jazz. (laughs) Growing up in Philadelphia as an African-American child, I listened to a lot of funk and R&B. Later, as I listened to the different jazz albums that my grandfather would play, I learned to love that music as well. Since my roots are in funk and R&B, one of my favorite groups was Parliament/Funkadelic.  I remember going to parties, dancing to music like “Give Up the Funk.” Wow. (laughs)

TSJR: Do you have a favorite track on the album?

PW: Wow, that’s hard. Of course, I like them all. (laughs) I’m my own worst critic, I think. I guess I like the track "Camouflage" a lot.

TSJR: Are you on tour or planning a tour to promote the CD?

PW: Yes. We have some pending dates for next month, June, and July. I’ve also been talking to a promoter in Malaysia who wants me to play there. Since I just did the Java Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia (which was great), I just may be heading back to Asia. It’s so amazing how the people there receive the music. Many don’t even speak the language, yet they love jazz. They don’t distinguish between smooth jazz and R&B or any of the other genres. It’s all on the same level; so smooth jazz isn’t buried beneath pop or rock, and it’s so refreshing to see the combination and unity between the styles. John Legend, Babyface, and Toni Braxton were all there, as well.

TSJR: You’ve recorded nine releases, and you call this latest your baby.  I assume that it because you completely produced it yourself.  A lot of artists—even established ones such as yourself--are turning to independent production. For those aspiring artists considering such a move, what advice can you offer them?

PW: Well, I would say: Believe that you can really do it, especially in this day and time. The internet is really on our side. Before, you couldn’t record an album without going through a big recording studio, which can be really expensive. Now, with technology being what it is, you can do so much. I use a program that allowed me to do this whole project. It’s like having a virtual recording studio right there on your computer. So, take advantage of those tools and avenues—and be persistent.  Never take no for an answer.
 
TSJR: Who would you credit with getting you to where you are today?

PW: First and foremost, God. Without Him, I couldn’t have made it this far. Next would be my very supportive family. Of course, I owe Patti such gratitude because she was my door into the industry.

What’s ironic is that I got my first record deal in a strange way. I was on the road with Patti and one night, one of my high school friends who was playing piano with Grover Washington, called me from a show where Grover was playing which was down the street from the hotel where I was staying. He said “I have someone here who wants to speak with you,” and Grover comes on the line! I was blushing and so nervous! Here I was talking with my all-time idol! (laughs) He says “I want you to know that I’ve been following your career, and I want you to keep going and don’t get discouraged. In fact, if you’re not doing anything right now, why don’t you come down and sit in with me on my show?” I was thinking, “Am I dreaming or what?” (laughs) So, I went down there, and the song he calls out is “Mr. Magic,” which was actually the very first song I learned to play. I felt like a kid in a toy store! (laughs) A year later, my dad calls and says “There’s a guy who plays bass for Grover Washington, and he’s on a label, and they’re looking for a female sax player.” It’s amazing how things can fall into place.

TSJR: Finally, where can fans find more information on you?

PW: Well they can go to Pamelawilliamssaxtress.com or send me an e-mail to Saxtress2003@aol.com. I try to answer all of my e-mails, by the way.

TSJR: Thanks, Pamela. We wish you much success with your career, your label, and your new CD.

PW: Thanks so much.

Patti Labelle witnessed her electricity, Grover Washington Jr. witnessed it, smooth jazzers in the know have witnessed it.  I think that’s testimony enough to encourage The Saxtress to keep it where we like it.  In TSJR's opinion, she is--and will remain--a huge component of the smooth jazz elixir we so enjoy.