“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Pamela Williams
Smitty: It is certainly my wonderful pleasure to welcome to JazzMonthly.com a friend and a monster sax player. You know her from Sweet Saxations, The Perfect Love, Eight Days of Ecstasy, and now she has a great new project, it’s called Elixir, and I’ve got to mention the DVD, A Night With The Saxtress. Please welcome the incredible Ms. Pamela Williams. Pamela, how ya doin’?
Pamela Williams (PW): Real well.
Smitty: It’s great to talk to you.
PW: Great to talk with you too.
Smitty: You’ve got to really be excited about this new project. You’re not only giving us the audio, but you’re giving us the visual too.
PW: Yeah, that’s so cool. I was really happy when Shanachie approached me about doing a DVD. I was like “I think that would be a really, really good thing.”
Smitty: Which came first, the DVD or the new album?
PW: The DVD came first.
Smitty: What I like about this DVD, the artwork; you’ve got this great red outfit and you’ve got the hat workin’ and then you’ve got the white outfit, and I just love this whole layout.
PW: Oh, thank you.
Smitty: This was filmed at the Harbourfront Centre (Theatre) in Toronto, Canada?
PW: Toronto, Canada.
Smitty: What was that like? Talk about that experience there.
PW: Oh, it was beautiful in Toronto. Unfortunately, I was in and out to do the DVD, so I didn’t get a chance to really do much sightseeing, but from what I saw, what a beautiful city.
Smitty: Yeah, absolutely.
PW: Yeah, so it was fun. We got in there and did the DVD. I thought the DVD was gonna actually be in front of a live audience, when I got there, it was actually live, but it was live in a studio, but it was cool. I thought it came out really good. I was really happy with the DVD.
Smitty: Yes, and you’ve got the 5.1 Surround Sound working with this.
PW: Right, right.
Smitty: It’s a very hooked up DVD.
PW: Yeah, they did a really good job with it.
Smitty: I must congratulate Shanachie, it’s a wonderful idea.
PW: I think it was. I know Kim Waters had done one too.
PW: And also Chieli Minucci.
Smitty: Yes, I have those and they’re all great. So you’ve got some great label mates and you guys are just working the DVD thing.
Smitty: Yeah, I think it’s cool. Before we get started talking about the record, I just wanna talk about your days in Philadelphia.
Smitty: And what a great city to have grown up.
PW: Yes, it’s still a great city today.
Smitty: Talk about how that whole deep musical tradition there influenced you to want to get into music and to bring you to where you are now.
PW: Well, Philadelphia International Records was really, really popular at the time that I was growing up, there are so many legends who came to Philadelphia to record on that label and the radio was great when I was growing up. I mean, all the music was so good. Everything that they played on the radio was really good music and I think growing up in a city where you that was such a hotbed for so many different types of music; R&B and jazz and contemporary jazz. I think it did influence me as a musician because I got exposed to so much great music at a young age.
Smitty: Yeah, and radio was so friendly then, wasn’t it?
PW: Yeah, very friendly.
Smitty: And we got to hear so much great music, you’re right.
PW: It’s so different now. Back then, DJ’s had their own personality, they’d play whatever they wanted to play.
Smitty: Yes. It was good.
PW: It was very good.
Smitty: Another great musician that I just can’t get enough of is Grover Washington, Jr. What a great sax player. I know he had some influence on your career and your craft. Talk about what that did for you.
PW: Oh, man, Grover Washington is how I learned how to play the saxophone because people ask me, they’re like “How did you learn how to play this instrument?” “Did you have musical lessons?” I never really had lessons. I think I may have had maybe five lessons when I was starting out playing the saxophone, but really, even before I had those lessons, I learned how to play because once I got the saxophone in school, I was in the high school jazz band, and I used to put on Grover Washington, Jr. records and just copy everything he did.
Smitty: Yeah. Well, you picked a great one.
PW: My teacher!
Smitty: Okay, talk to me about how you got your first record deal. I love this story.
PW: This is a really strange coincidental type story. I was in Patti LaBelle’s band, we were on tour, and we were in New Orleans, and right down the street from where I was staying, Grover Washington was doing a concert. I didn’t know it at the time until I got a phone call from his keyboard player, who I had gone to school with, so we were really good friends, grew up in the same neighborhood, and he called me and said “Hey, it’s Curtis and I’m in Grover’s band and we’re playing right down the street from your hotel. As we were talking, he says “Hold on a second because somebody just walked in and I wanna put somebody on the phone.” And he puts Grover Washington on the phone.
Smitty: Oh, wow.
PW: And he goes “Hello, Pam, this is Grover.” And I was like “Grover Washington?” And he goes “Yeah,” and I’m like “Oh my God, I mean, I don’t even know what to say. I’m just….I love you. I mean, you’re the reason why I play the saxophone. I know how to play this instrument because of you.” And he was very humble and just a sweet persona, and he goes “Well, I just wanted to tell you, Pam, that I’ve been really following your career over the years and I’m really proud of you and I think you’re really gonna go far and I want you to just keep on going, don’t let anything get in your way.” “As a matter of fact, if you’re not doing anything tonight, why don’t you bring your horn down and sit in with me.” And I was like “Are you really serious?” So I was like “Of course. I mean, it would be an honor to just be on stage with you. I can’t even believe this.” So I get dressed, I grab my horn, I go down to the concert, and I’m back stage and I couldn’t believe this was really happening.” And this was totally spontaneous because I was just kickin’ it at the hotel, not really doing anything, and of course the song, the one song that I sit in on is “Mr. Magic.”
PW: You know? Oh, I’ll never forget that feeling. I mean, I’m on stage with Grover and it’s something that I will never forget. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Smitty: Oh, wow! One of the many examples of “giving” Grover was.
PW: At the time, Gerald Veasley was his bass player. And about a year after that concert, I got a phone call from my dad and he goes, you know, “This guy is calling you. His name is Gerald Veasley, he says that he’s on a record label, and they’re looking for a female saxophone player, so it sounds important. You should give him a call.” So I called Gerald and he’s like “Pam, I’ve been trying to catch you for a whole year because I’m on this label and they’re looking for a female saxophone player, and I remember that night you sat in with Grover and I think you will be perfect for this, so give them a call.” So that’s how I got my first record deal.
PW: Strange, huh?
Smitty: Yeah, but, you know, what great connections with two great musicians in Gerald Veasley and Grover Washington, Jr.
PW: Most definitely.
Smitty: Wow. Only good things could happen when you associate with people like that.
PW: It was magical. It was like a magical night, and who would’ve ever known that that would’ve been the night when Grover Washington would’ve actually led me into having a solo career of my own?
Smitty: Wow. What a great story. Speaking of Patti LaBelle, talk about your first gig. Your first major gig with Patti LaBelle, you must’ve been stoked!
PW: Oh, I was stoked, oh my God! I couldn’t believe it. I had to keep pinching myself because I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna wake up and realize that this is a dream.” But I was stoked when I got that gig with Patti LaBelle. Because it’s one thing when you’re on stage and you get to be in a band with somebody major like that, but she was always an idol of mine.
So Patti LaBelle was like this icon for me and I used to go to all of her concerts. I was so blown away during her shows and I was like, “You know, I wanna really be in her band one day.” I’m like “She lives here in Philadelphia, I’m in Philadelphia, maybe somehow our paths will cross and I’ll just get into this band somehow. I don’t know how it’s gonna happen, but I’m getting in that band!” (Both laughing.) And sure enough, a few years later, I started doing studio sessions around Philadelphia and I met her assistant musical director and her husband at the time, who was also her manager. He was starting to produce other people and I did a studio session for a vocalist that he was working with and a few months after that I got a phone call from her assistant musical director and he was like, “Patti is putting a new band together and she wants to have an interracial band, she wants to have males and females in her band, she needs a saxophone player, and I thought you would be perfect for this. So why don’t you come to the audition, it’s gonna be on Saturday and bring your horn and let’s see what happens.” I remember saying to him “You gotta be kidding me, right?” He’s like “No, I’m not joking. Here’s the address, just show up on Saturday.” I went down there and my heart was racing and I was a nervous wreck, and I played. I do think there were maybe one or two other saxophone players there at the audition. I got the gig and two weeks later I was on my way to Japan with Patti LaBelle.
Smitty: Wow! How cool is that?
PW: So I was just on a high all the time.
Smitty: Well, we have Patti to thank for giving you such a great start, and what a great experience. Wow. Yeah, I hope she’s doing well too.
PW: Yeah, me too.
Smitty: You mentioned how Patti LaBelle had an interracial band and she wanted females, a cross-gender band. Talk about what it was like for you coming up as a female with a saxophone because that wasn’t the norm.
PW: You’re right, it wasn’t.
Smitty: Were there obstacles for you or was it just a great novelty thing and everyone embraced it?
PW: Well, no, no, it was 50/50 novelty and 50/50 people didn’t take it seriously. I knew this guy that was a big major accountant, he had a lot of friends in the entertainment industry, so when I finally did my own demo, I was still with Patti LaBelle’s band, I gave him a demo. And he gave it to everyone he knew in the industry, and later he would call me back. He’d be like “Pam, nobody’s even listening to your demo. They’re just not even taking a female saxophone player very seriously.”
So I didn’t get discouraged with that and being around Patti and being around a lot of people in the industry, I’d meet record company executives and I remember telling this guy who was the vice president of MCA Records that I wanted to do my own solo thing, and ask if he could give me some advice. George Howard was on that label. He told me that George Howard he had a hard time getting to where he was and if George Howard had a hard time doing it, you being a woman, I think it’s just gonna be real difficult for you. However, you can’t let other people deter you, you’ve gotta have the vision for yourself more than anybody else. If you don’t have that vision for you getting there, you’ll never get there.
Smitty: Yeah, I like that. That’s great advice for anyone, actually.
PW: Even now there are days when I think “Maybe I should be doing something else,” but we always go back to what we love, don’t we?
Smitty: Yes we do. We’re drawn to it like a magnet. It’s kinda like even when you wanna get away from it, something draws you right back. And aren’t we glad that you have stuck with it and you keep giving us this great music and now this great DVD, so we love you, girl!
PW: Oh, thank you. I definitely appreciate that.
Smitty: Absolutely. I heard that you are one of the featured artists on the upcoming Brian Culbertson All Star Cruise.
PW: Yes, and I’m very excited about that.
Smitty: It’s just going to be a party.
PW: Yeah, this upcoming cruise, they’re gonna have some really, really, really cool people on this one. I can’t believe some of the artists that are gonna be there that I’ll have a chance to meet.
Smitty: Talk about what you anticipate in terms of being able to mingle with the fans and have that interaction because when you think about it, when you’re on tour or doing a show, you come out, you do your thing, afterwards you sign a few autographs, take a couple pictures, and you’re out and you’re on your way to the next gig.
PW: Yes, you’re right.
Smitty: But in this case, you will have a captive audience of fans on the ship and everybody gets to mingle for six or seven days. Talk about what that means for you.
PW: It means I’m never gonna stay in my cabin. I’m gonna like end up sleeping for a few hours and then I’ll be back out again. That’s kinda what happened on the cruise last year. There was at least one day I was like, okay, I’ve done things every single day. There’s gonna be one day where I’m just gonna relax. I don’t get a chance to have a lotta chill days where I don’t do anything but lay around and kinda veg out. I was just going to stay in the cabin for one day and I still didn’t even do that. I just had this like itchy feeling, because there was so much going on.
Smitty: Oh, the cabin was just a stopover.
PW: It was a stop, it was. You know, sleep, shower, change, back out to the world, back out and into the action.
Smitty: Yes, isn’t it fun when you get to actually sit down at the bar or by the pool with the fans and they’re talking about your music and you’re talking about how much you appreciate them listening to your music and then they start to tell you intimate things about your music and what they really like about it, perhaps things that you may have never heard before.
PW: It’s really cool. I made a few friends on that cruise. It was people who….we just started talking, hanging out by the pool and next thing you knew we were hooking up at the clubs and I still get e-mails from people from that cruise. You’re right, usually you’re in one location and you are off to another city, so you don’t ever really get a chance to have that kind of interaction. I’m looking forward to it.
Smitty: Absolutely, so I am. Yeah, just think, you’re gonna be with Gerald Albright, George Benson….
PW: Oh my God, now.
Smitty: Can you imagine?
PW: I love George Benson. I am such a George Benson fan.
Smitty: Yeah, and Nick Colionne, Eric Darius.
PW: I just did a show with Eric, yeah, Eric’s a great saxophone player, boy, he’s really gone far.
Smitty: Yes indeed. So it’s just a lot to look forward to, it’s like the gig to get up for.
PW: Yes it is.
Smitty: Well, let’s talk about Elixir because I’m really digging the record. David Mann…what a great keyboard player.
PW: Isn’t he? He really is.
Smitty: You’ve got some great cats on this record, and you did some amazing things on this project. I love the title track, but my favorite is “In the Cut.” That’s one of those tracks where if you haven’t been up on the dance floor all night at the club, you’re gonna get up for that one.
PW: You know what? I really like that track too and when I was here in the studio, because a lotta times you don’t know what you’re gonna come up with. Sometimes I’ll listen to old school stuff and I’m like “You know, I wanna do something that has an old school funky vibe.” And I was listening to “Play That Funky Music.”
Smitty: Yeah, Wild Cherry.
PW: I was like “Oh, that’s such a funky track, I wanna do something with that kind of groove behind it,” so I just started playing around on the keyboard and I came up with that groove and I just liked where it was going. I really wanted it to be something danceable, something funky, and because it’s instrumental music, it doesn’t mean it can’t be funky enough for people to get up and dance.
Smitty: That’s true.
PW: It’s great at the shows when I do it. I make everybody in the audience get up and dance.
Smitty: Yeah, why not?
PW: I wanna have fun at shows, you know? I know it’s supposed to be Contemporary Smooth Jazz, but it can be danceable.
Smitty: That’s right. You gotta get up and do it, absolutely. I know you play the tenor, the alto, soprano…is there a favorite?
PW: The alto, I would say, is my favorite.
Smitty: Yeah, it’s a sweet tone.
PW: That’s my baby of the bunch and then soprano would be next. Tenor…I’ve never been much of a tenor player. I used to use it every now and then in the studio. Like on my second CD I used tenor on, I think, just one track, on a solo, and I just decided, you know, I’ve always loved the sound of the tenor. What a beautiful, sexy, tone.
Smitty: Yeah, it’s got that phat thing working.
PW: Yeah, you know? And I always love what Grover (Washington Jr.) did with the tenor.
Smitty: Oh yeah. Okay, now, you’ve gotta tell me about this album cover.
PW: Well, it’s really strange because it really wasn’t supposed to end up looking that way. I had a different concept for the cover and it kinda ended up being that way. It happens sometimes, but it was supposed to have smoke coming out of the saxophone and all around. And I had the feathers on because I just had like a really short sweater and I didn’t really have anything else under that except underwear, so we were thinking….
Smitty: I’m listening.
PW: …. “We better drape some feathers. (Both laughing.) We better drape some feathers over your legs,” so it ended up kinda being where you didn’t really see the smoke.
Smitty: But it’s great, I like it.
PW: That’s what the cover ended up being, so we were trying to do something with the dry ice and all that stuff, so we got a little bit of it coming out of the sax. I think the back cover came out cool with the cup, with the smoke coming out of the martini glass .
Smitty: This is really cool.”
PW: Yeah, thank you, thank you.
Smitty: All right, the record is out and people can get it in stores and at your Website.
Smitty: What about the DVD, where is it available?
PW: I actually have the DVD for sale on my Website as well, and you should be able to get it in stores.
Smitty: Yeah. Give me your Website.
PW: It’s www.pamelawilliamsthesaxtress.com.
Smitty: All right, very cool. I understand you like to paint.
PW: Oh, I love to paint.
Smitty: How did you get into painting?
PW: Actually, I was an artist, a visual artist before I was a musician….long before I was a musician. I guess I was about four or five years old when my parents realized that I had artistic talent. And I got it from my dad because my dad’s an incredible artist. He doesn’t draw anymore, but he’s got this wonderful talent and I’m like “Oh my God, don’t you just wanna paint? I mean, don’t you have the urge?” But anyway, I got it from my dad and I was always into art and that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know I was gonna end up being a famous jazz musician, but I actually went to college and got a degree in art, and when I got that first big break with Patti LaBelle, I was in college for art and I was like “Oh, God, how am I gonna do this? How am I gonna finish school and go on tour?” And I worked it out. I begged my instructor to let me go. I promised him that I would make up all my grades. But, yeah, art has been very much a part of my life before music, I must say.
Smitty: Yeah, well, it all ties together when we really think about it, doesn’t it?
PW: Yeah, it does. One is just visual and one is audio, but there’s a lotta similarities with music and art.
Smitty: Yes indeed. Well, this is just wonderful, Pamela. I just can’t congratulate you enough on these two great projects and all the wonderful things you’re doing.
PW: Thank you.
Smitty: And can’t wait to see you on that cruise again.
PW: Right. I can’t wait.
Smitty: Yeah, it’s gonna be a party.
PW: It is.
Smitty: We’ve been talking with the fantastic Ms. Pamela Williams. She’s got a great new project out, it’s called Elixir. You’ve got to have this one in your CD changer and now you’ve gotta put something in your DVD player. She has a great DVD out, it’s called A Night With The Saxtress. Pamela, thank you so much and let’s get together and talk some more, all right?
PW: You’re welcome and we can definitely do that.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.pamelawilliamsthesaxtress.com or www.shanachie.com.