Fess Williams

Biography by

Williams came from--and fathered--a musical family; his brother Rudolph was a saxophonist and clarinetist, his sons Rudy and Phil were both saxophonists, and his daughter Estella was a pianist and vocalist.…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

Williams came from--and fathered--a musical family; his brother Rudolph was a saxophonist and clarinetist, his sons Rudy and Phil were both saxophonists, and his daughter Estella was a pianist and vocalist. He was also bassist Charles Mingus's uncle. Williams started on violin. He attended Tuskegee in his teens and studied with Major N. Clark-Smith, learning several instruments but settling finally on clarinet. He moved to Cincinnati in 1914 and played saxophone in a local band. He also led his own group for several years before moving to Chicago around 1923. He moved to New York a year later and led bands in Albany and at the Rosemont Ballroom in New York City. He was in residence from 1926-8 at the Savoy Ballroom in NYC, leading his own band, The Royal Flush Orchestra. He recorded with the band on sax, clarinet, and vocals for the Okeh label. Williams left his own group's leadership in the hands others for a time and went to Chicago, where he briefly took over Dave Peyton's band. He returned to New York in 1929 and continued to lead bands there throughout the '30s. Williams retired from music full-time and went into real estate, occasionally performing with his own group in the mid Atlantic states. He served as an official in the musician's union, Local 802 in New York, after he ceased being active as a performer; he left that post in 1964. Williams's retirement was interrupted in 1962 by his nephew Mingus, who reportedly featured Williams as a guest performer at his infamous Town Hall concert that October. The album resulting from that notoriously chaotic event did not include recorded evidence of Williams's participation. Mingus may have been having problems with the union; it's been implied by at least one of the bassist's biographers that Williams's appearance may have been part of some mutual back scratching arrangement.