In my 40-plus-year career as a harmonica player, the little people's instrument has taken me from the Great Brook Valley Housing Projects of Worcester, MA, to memorable performances around the world.
Reflecting an ability to play a wide variety of musical styles, I have respectfully shared stages with many of the world’s most popular and finest musicians, including Sleepy LaBeef, Joan Osborne, Ronnie Earl, Duke Levine, Greg Abate, Yoko Miwa, Emil Haddad and Dick Odgren.
As a teenager, I played blues after hearing Paul Butterfield’s first album. I also had the good fortune to sit right next to Babe Pino -- a local phenom – all through junior and senior high school. At 15, I took part in regular weekly jam sessions at the Lincoln Neighborhood Center and hooked Pino up with a gig at Poli’s, which later became the Ale ‘n Bun. There, Pino led a band that featured pianist David Maxwell and guitarist Bob Margolin, musicians who went on to work with the likes of Freddie King and Muddy Waters. I also had the unique opportunity to have the experience of sitting in with local legends like saxophonist Howie Jefferson, drummer Reggie Walley and organist Al Arsenault at the Kitty Kat -- a highlight of my early development.
I began my professional career at the Ale 'n' Bun in Worcester performing with a young blues band called Tacoma Street. In the 1970s, I switched instruments, taking up the double bass and began classical study with Frank Gallagher of the Boston Pops and jazz studies with bassist Joe Holovnia, guitarist Rich Falco, and pianist Alan Mueller.
It was singer-songwriter, Dennis Brennan who got me back into playing the harmonica. At a party one night, Brennan handed me an old chromatic and said, “You should be playing this,” which I've been doing ever since.
A lifelong fan of Stevie Wonder, I began diving into the mix of the great chromatic solos by the Motown wizard. Through my jazz listening I started hearing the effortless mastery of Toots Thielemans.
In the early ‘80s, I started programming radio at WCUW 91.3 FM, a community broadcast station with a national reputation for excellence. There I shared the blues chair with Joanna Connor, Steve Ramsay, and Red Abare. The jazz programmers included Alan West, John Vocci, Tom Reney, and Jane Miller, among others. One of my many highlights at the station was interviewing Lazy Lester with Abare. In 1983, I was also responsible for introducing music to Gilrein’s, the Home of the Blues (for Central New England).
Throughout the decade I led bands that played around the city and region. In groups such as Big Town Blues, the Harmonics and Rhythm Oil, our bands opened for such blues and R&B greats as Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, Duke Robillard, Luther “Guitar Jr.,” Johnson, The Drifters, and The Platters.
In the late ‘80s, I began freelance music writing for local outlets, such as the Lobe, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and Worcester Magazine. Some of my favorite interviews of that period include those with Waylon Jennings, Laura Nyro, John Hiatt, Tito Puente, and Mose Allison.
In the early 1990s, I was hired as a talent buyer for the Plantation Club, and helped to present such acts as Dan Hicks, the Persuasions, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Harmonica players booked at the club included Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, William Clarke, Jerry Portnoyand Mark Hummel.
I also began recording. My harmonica styling can be heard on She’s Busy’s Strange Bedfellows, Michael Barrett’s "Steel Town Blues," Valerie and Walter Crockett's Moonbone and Emily’s Angel, Mike Duffy's Destined to be a Rumor, the Movie Channel's station ID, "Try a Little TMC," and Chuck and Mud’s 25th Anniversary DVD.
The first release under my own name, Chromatic Swing, features jump blues and standards from the swing era. In his review of the album, music writer, Scott McLennan from the Worcester Telegram, said, “Chromatic Swing is Williamson’s voice coming through loud and clear. The disc is a cooking session of swing era gems associated with the likes of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Harry “Sweets” Edison. It’s a likable fusion of jazz and blues traditions made possible by a cast of strong and colorful players.” They include pianist Matt McCabe, bassist Thomson Kneeland and drummer Steve Ramsay. One of the tunes can be heard in the film, A Wormtown Gimmick.
In 1998, I was hired as the A&E Editor at Worcester Magazine, where for the next 10 years I was afforded the opportunity to interview many of my favorite musicians, artists and writers. A partial list includes, Linda Ronstadt, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Sam Lay, Ruth Brown, B.B. King, Levon Helm, Jaki Byard, Howard Armstrong, Jackie McLean, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Candy Kane, E.L. Doctorow, Tommy Makem, Jerry Bergonzi, Dave McKenna, Phillip Walker, Roy Rogers, Joe Lovano, Monty Alexander, Katarina Witt and Darrell Hammond, among hundreds more.
I am the author of The Jazz Worcester Real Book, bios and profiles of Worcester jazz musicians including Frank Capp, Barbara Carroll, Jaki Byard, Steve Davis, Don Fagerquist, Boots Mussulli, Rick Stepton, Gary Valente and Tony Zano, among others. As a freelance writer, my work can be read in Boston Magazine, Blues Wire, The WPI Journal, Blues Audience, Artscope, JazzEd and North Shore Living.
My other publication is called Jackson's First Blues Harp, a children's book about a seven year-old who receives a special holiday gift of a harmonica from his uncle Tee, a "magic man of music." See: https://www.amazon.com/Jacksons-First-Blues-Harp-Williamson-ebook/dp/B00OI1PK34 My writing continues atwww.jazzriffing.blogspot.com and www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com. You can also find me on Facebook, where I manage two local music pages -- Jazz Worcester and Blues Worcester. For the record, I have five other books that are not yet published. I am currently working on a biography of Jaki Byard.
Articles on harmonica players include profiles of Toots Thielemans, Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza, Paul Delay, Carey Bell, Mike Turk, James Cotton, Hendrik Meurkens, Yvonnic Prenn, Gregoire Maret, Clint Hoover, Kim Wilson, Sugar Ray, Jerry Portnoy, James Harmon, Rick Estrin, Danny Russo, Kim Field, and John Mayall, among others.
The city of Worcester has been a magnet for harmonica players. At one time or another such players as Magic Dave Therault, Kim Field, Rupert Oysler, and Billy Blue lived in town and I befriended all of them. Magic Dick, of course went to WPI, and in addition to me and Pino, harmonica players Ron Sloan, Shaky Steve Prunier, and Revin’ Kevin Keith grew up here.
While writing full-time, I continued performing. I studied briefly with Mike Turk, Robert Bonfiglio, Pierre Beauregard, and Peter “Madcat” Ruth and gigged with a variety of players throughout New England including such blues acts as the Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra, Ken Pino, Shirley Lewis, Nat Simpkins, Troy Gonyea, Marc Copely, Kevin Barry, Ric Maure, Tomo Fujita, Ken Clark, Little Anthony Geraci, George McCann, Ronnie Earl, Mike Williams, Michelle Willson, Pete Henderson, Jim Perry, Reggie Walley’s Bluescians with Bunny Price, and Lou Terricciano. My jazz credits include dates with Alan Dawson, Rich Greenblatt, Jay Messer, Amanda Carr, Mitch Seidman, Tom McClung, Pamela Hines, Gerry Beaudoin, Jeff Galindo, Jack Pezanelli, the Russo Brothers, Shane Wood, Paul Courchaine, Genevieve Rose, Paul Arslanian, Rich Falco, Paul Arslanian, John Wilkins, Jane Miller, Linda Dagnello, Mark Holovnia, Bill Fanning, Jerry Sabatini, John Harrison, Nick Goumas, Emil Haddad and Dick Odgren.
Touring and other highlights: In addition to traveling extensively stateside, including a gospel music caravan in Florida with Brother Earl Waithe, I have toured France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Highlights include Jazz at Sunset, Mechanics Hall and the Hanover Theater. Impromtu sessions in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn with Rick Estrin are among the most instructive and benefit for the homeless in Paris was the most rewarding.
Beginning December of 2012, I began hosting "Jazz Matinee," heard Monday through Thursday from 4-6 p.m. at WICN 90.5 FM. A partial list of musicians I interviewed include Randy Weston, Anat Cohen, Ingrid Jensen, Jane Ira Bloom, Maria Mauldaur, Bela Fleck, Stanley Jordan, Felix Cavalieri, Curtis Fuller, Marcus Roberts, Pat Metheny, Paul Winter, and Roy Haynes.
In 2008, I recorded a duo album with guitarist Steve Cancelli. Called Two for the Road, it features jazz standards, harmonica favorites, blues, ballads and bossa novas. The disc has received international critical acclaim – even making a front page review in a Swedish newspaper. The late Cancelli was a player of impeccable sound and taste. Hear more of him on singer Monica Hatch's album, If You Never Come to Me.
Williamson’s 2009 recording is Chromology: Compositions for the Chromatic Harmonica, with pianist Dick Odgren. The pieces feature musical portraits and tributes of many of the musicians that keep inspiring and recharging my musical battery. No stranger to the national jazz scene, Odgren has recorded with Pat and Mike Metheny, Bill Frisell and Rufus Reed, among others. This CD is the debut release for Altimeter Records.
My 2010 release is called Chromatic Noir, original music inspired by the film genre with pianist Joe Mazzarella and guitarist Jimmy Morrell.The following year, I produced a long time coming project called The Resurrection of Little David’s Harp.
These days, you'll find me performing regularly with guitarists Rich Falco or Jimmy Morrell, and pianist James Dower.