Brattleboro-born jazz pianist

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BRATTLEBORO >> Claude Berkeley Williamson Jr.'s write-up in the Brattleboro High School 1944 yearbook (called "The Dial" back then) predicted it: "Some day we'll say, 'Claude? — we knew him when.'"

Born in Brattleboro on Nov. 18, 1926, the son of a professional drummer of some local note and his wife, Louise. Claude built a career on the West Coast as an influential jazz pianist. He died at the age of 89 on Saturday, July 16, in a hospice facility in Sunland, Calif. His son Marc Williamson, who lives in California, said in a phone interview that his father experienced a mild stroke about 10 years ago and gradually grew more frail. After breaking a hip last year, he never fully recovered.

Claude started playing the piano at the age of seven and took 10 years of classical lessons, according to Scott Yanow at www.allmusic.com. In the BHS yearbook, Claude, praised for his musical versatility, is listed as participating in the All-State Music Festival, serving as piano accompanist for the glee club and the solo violinist at graduation, and playing in the high school band. Every mention of his name in all four years of the "Class History" refers to his musical ability.

After high school, Claude moved to Boston, Mass., where he studied piano with Sam Saxe at the New England Conservatory of Music from 1944 to 1947 although he never completed his degree there. With Saxe's encouragement, he followed his teacher out West because that's where things were happening musically and where there was more opportunity. By 1948 Claude was a member, along with Dick Hafer and Doc Severinsen, of the Charlie Barnet band with its "Big Band" sound.

"Although when times were lean and work was scarce," Marc said, "that's when the family wished Claude had finished his degree because then he could have taught at a university, like his contemporary, guitarist Kenny Burrell, who is a distinguished professor of music at UCLA."

Music kept Claude out of combat, his son said. Although deployed to Korea in 1951, he ended up on Okinawa playing drums in an officers' club.

Marc believes his father was the last survivor of the Lighthouse All-Stars' original two incarnations from the early-mid 1950s. Claude also worked on many television variety shows from 1968 to the mid-1980s, including the Andy Williams Show, Sonny and Cher, and Donny and Marie, among others.

Marc related what he called an amazing coincidence that happened on the day his father died.

"A postcard came in the mail from the daughter of a woman who grew up in Binghamton, N.Y. When I called, the daughter told me her mother, a vocalist, and my father met at the conservatory. The woman wore his pin — that was a big thing back then, almost like being engaged. They were an item.

"But she had been dating someone else since high school," he continued, "and he was in the service, having been drafted during World War Two. She wanted to wait and break up with him in person. But when he returned, he proposed at a surprise party, and she felt compelled to accept."

Claude urged the woman to break the engagement, and she wanted to, but she just couldn't. Finally, Claude gave up.

"They had two or three meetings about it," Marc said, "and he just didn't show for the fourth. There had been no contact between them since until the postcard."

Claude traveled all over for his music and occasionally came back east.

"In 1976, my dad and his younger brother, my uncle Stu (trumpeter Stu Williamson, 1933 — 1991) had a gig at UMass Amherst, which was arranged by my mother's brother," Marc said. "It was a jazz symposium, and they taught some classes. I remember the trip because it was the first time I ever flew."

Marc said his dad spoke often of how much he liked growing up in Brattleboro because of its small-town atmosphere, adding that his dad's address book contained the name of one local couple, Fannie (née Greene) and Mark Speno, with whom he exchanged Christmas cards.

Fannie (BHS class of 1947) remembers Claude well.

"He had an orchestra in high school," she said in a recent interview. "They played Saturday nights in the Odd Fellows Temple, which used to be where the Shriners are now. The band played popular songs. It was during the war."

Noting he was her first love, Fannie said she would wait for him after the dances, and "he'd walk me home. He didn't have a car. He left town right after he graduated, and I lost track of him."

Claude — he was known as Sonny in his youth, she said, adding "nobody ever called him Claude," — played a concert at the Vermont Jazz Center on Cotton Mill Hill in Brattleboro some time ago.

"That's when we reconnected," she said. "Of course, he knew my husband, too. We invited him for dinner. It was great seeing him again. He was a nice guy, a nice gentleman. I could say I knew him when."

Eugene Uman, executive artistic director of the VJC, said Williamson was an amazing pianist who performed at the VJC twice.

"We have some history buffs on our board of directors," Uman said. "Sherm Fox (secretary of the VJC board) told us about Williamson, who was living in Los Angeles but was from Brattleboro. I followed through, and Claude was delighted to come. The first time was on June 18, 1999, with Genevieve Rose on bass and Richard Mayer on drums. It was a small event. The second time, June 20, 2003, was with a rhythm section from Boston, two of the most highly regarded players, John Lockwood on bass and Bob Gullotti on drums. When they heard that Claude had played with bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Roy Haynes, and trumpeter Chet Baker, they were amazed. We filled the house."

Claude Williamson is a legend, Uman said, adding that Williamson played music in the style of virtuosic jazz pianist Bud Powell, who influenced him the most. Powell is regarded as one of the pioneers of bebop, the revolutionary sound that emerged in the 1940s.

"This guy (Williamson) played from the source," Uman said. "He was in his 20s when bebop emerged. He loved it, pursued it, studied the solos of the masters. He had the language of bebop, the drive, the authenticity. He belongs to that legendary club."

At the same time, Uman said, Williamson's ego was low-key.

"He was mellow, unassuming, and humble," Uman said. "A really sweet guy. He wanted to play music."

Available on YouTube are "soundies" (short films from the 1940s featuring a single number by a band or vocalist) of the Charlie Barnet orchestra with Claude Williamson on piano.

In addition to his son Marc, Williamson is survived by his wife Deanne and son Shawn.

Nancy A. Olson can be contacted at olsonnan47@gmail.com.


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