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November 17, 2005

The Hum heading

In Search of the Bishop, photo of Bishop Norman Williams
Above: Bishop Norman Williams.


I 've never heard Bishop Norman Williams play saxophone; in fact, I didn't really know his name until I got an e-mail a few weeks back from the folks running the Jazz at the Woodside series in Westhaven and Trinidad. A second note followed from my friend Darius Brotman, who will be playing with Williams when he comes to Trinidad Town Hall Friday, Nov. 18. His press release had a bit more information, but its main purpose was to say that the show was moved from Westhaven.

I figured it would be easy to find biographical information about the guy who is described by Darius as a "protégé of Charlie 'Bird' Parker." I was wrong.

With the aid of Google, I scanned the Internet looking for a definitive source on Williams. While he's listed as a leader or session player on a number of jazz albums, jazzy blues albums, funk records, even the occasional hip hop disc, I found no bio.

What I did find was endless praise: The man is described variously as "the great saxophonist," "a Bay Area icon," "the wild sax man" and an "alto sax guru."

Jazz singer Lavay Smith's website notes that, "Bishop Norman Williams is a legendary jazz alto saxophonist who specializes in burnin' bebop! His soulful Kansas City roots are always present in his brilliant solos." Lavay even includes a phone number in case you want to book him.

I came across a DJ set list that placed Williams' tune "Hip Funk" in between tracks by Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Arto Lindsay, following with "One Mind Experience," another cut by the man known as "The Bishop." Then there was the Pennsylvanian crate-digger who listed Williams' 1976 album, The One Mind Experience, as his No. 1 find of the week, describing it as "spiritual jazz."

Williams is described as "a very talented popular musician and composer who lives in San Francisco, Calif." on a family genealogy site that shows he's the oldest of eight children of Lee Edna Margaret Anderson Rollins, a resident of Kansas City.

Numerous jazz players said something to the effect that they "played for several years with the local bebop legend," among them bassist Michael Formanek. In an interview he described Williams as a "mentor," saying, "He's an alto saxophonist [who] came from Kansas City, and he's been a real mainstay in the San Francisco scene since the '60s probably ... The thing about the Bishop -- with him it was all about the spirit of music, just playing, and it was not about talking. In fact, we'd say, 'the Bishop is a man of few words.' He would just call tunes, you couldn't understand what he was saying half the time; he'd just mumble out the name of some standard you never heard of and count it off and you just kind of had to go."

Formanek, who was a high school student when he met The Bishop, talks about playing with him in a church called the One Mind Temple, "which is now known as the Church of John Coltrane. It was so weird; two months earlier, I'd been in my friend's garage in the suburbs learning the changes to 'Stairway to Heaven,' and now I was playing 'A Love Supreme' in a church in the San Francisco ghetto."

With these facts in mind, I decided to give that number a call, and sure enough, The Bishop answered. With some prodding, I learned that he first came to San Francisco in 1961.

"I started [playing saxophone] when I was 11 years old," he told me. "When I got to be 15, I left home and moved to Omaha, then on to Chicago, then I would up out here."

How did he learn sax? "I had the same teacher Charlie Parker had: Bill Davis. That was in Kansas City. I got my first job when I was 15 years old, playing with a cat named Rudy Darling -- he was a singer, then he got to be a piano player. I gave him some lessons on the piano."

He said he does not really see himself as a teacher. "I've done that, taught a lot, but I'm just a saxophone player."

Where did the name "Bishop" come from? "I got that title from a friend, years ago. I played in his church, the Church of John Coltrane," which Williams confirmed was previously known as the One Mind Temple. Since the "one mind" concept seemed to be a recurring theme, at least in the titles of his songs and records, I asked what the phrase means to him. He just laughed and said, "You know I'm still half asleep, I can't hardly remember." Then he laughed again and promised to call me in a couple of days when he recollects the answer.

The show at Trinidad Town Hall features The Bishop in a band that also includes Darius Brotman on piano, Ed Campbell on drums and former Humboldt resident Bishu Chatterjee on bass, with Tina Marzell supplying vocals. See you there.

Also in the jazz vein, the Graves Museum's Sunday afternoon Open Jazz Jam Session on Nov. 20, features Greg Moore, son of local music prof Jerry Moore and brother of Dutch jazzman Michael Moore, playing jazz based on folk melodies he learned while living in Portugal.

I'm not really sure who is in the current lineup of The Melodians, a Jamaican vocal group that plays Friday night at Six Rivers Brewing. The original Melodians started recording 40 years ago, before the reggae era began, and recorded their most successful song, "Rivers of Babylon" (with lyrics adapted from "Psalm 137") with producer Leslie Kong in 1969. By the time American audiences heard it on the soundtrack for The Harder They Come, the band had split up. The group has reunited intermittently since then, but never came anywhere near matching the success they had in the rocksteady era.

It's yet another eclectic weekend at Six Rivers. Saturday, the AfroCuban salsa rhythms of Ponche! fill the dance floor. Before that, on Thursday, Nov. 17, it's Surprise Me Mr. Davis, a band you've probably never heard before. The flyers says "with The Slip," but that's inaccurate. In fact, SMMD is the Boston-based jam trio The Slip, plus vocalist Nathan Moore from ThaMuseMeant.

It's a pretty good weekend for those interested in jammy variations in the funk, reggae and rock modes. Thursday it's PsychOut! in HSU's Kate Buchanan Room, with Mobile Chiefing Unit, Moo-Got-2, Strix Vega and DJ B-Science. (It's yet another disaster relief thing.)

American Drag plays Friday at Kelly O'Brien's, and while they're more neo-classic rock than jamband, they'll have Eric Levy from Garaj Mahal along with them. (G.M. plays Tuesday, Nov. 29, at the Sapphire Palace.)

Friday at Humboldt Brews it's local jammers Something Different, plus Sonoma's Acacia with special guest saxophonist Martin Fierro from the Jeff Jolly Band. Saturday at HumBrews: The Dave Stein Band, a trio from Santa Cruz led by a funky chicken-scratch guitarist/songwriter.

Muddy Waters has The New Up mixing elements of psychedelia, pop, ska and funk on Friday, followed by the organ duo Day-Go on Saturday, with Lennie Pettinelli on keys and the ever-nuclear Pete Ciotti on drums.

Not into all that jammin'? Head for the Alibi Saturday, where a freshly expanded version of The Buffy Swayze plays with a new local post-punk outfit called Dickey La La.

With Thanksgiving around the corner it time again for Clan Dyken's annual Beauty Way Tour gathering donations to take to Big Mountain. The road show comes to Arcata's D Street Neighborhood Center Saturday, where new Arcata resident Joanne Rand and her Rhythm of the Open Hearts band open the show.

The Mateel has three shows in a row, starting with the monthly Mateel Jam Thursday, featuring Skunk Train and Roxanne. Friday, it's EPIC's annual meeting, followed by a show with the amazing Joe Craven and his Latin/Gypsy band, Django Tango. (Also in SoHum Friday, catch blues harp master Mark Hummel and the Blues Survivors at the Riverwood.) Saturday, Tempest hits the Mateel (see Calendar), along with The Marjo Wilson Band and, from the Bay Area, another Gypsy fusion combo, Fishtank, led by French-born violinist Fabrice Martinez, who spent some time in the Balkans learning from the real Gypsies. You can also catch his seven-piece band Friday at the Red Radish.


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