Jazz Profiles from NPR
Claude "Fiddler" Williams (1908-2004)
Produced by Molly Murphy

Claude Williams  

Violinist Claude "Fiddler" Williams' career spanned much of the history of jazz. Known for his swinging, bluesy style and his musical sense of humor, he was as comfortable playing the guitar as on violin. Williams still performed and recorded into his mid-90's, but the elder statesman hardly had time to note his longevity.

Listen to historian Chuck Haddix, bassist Keter Betts, violinist and teacher Matt Glaser, and violinist Mark O'Connor talk about Claude's playing

Born Claude Gabriel Williams on February 22, 1908, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Williams spent most of his life and career in Kansas City. His brother-in-law, Ben Johnson, played guitar in a local string band, which intrigued the young Claude.

Listen to Claude recall his brother-in-law's love for string instruments


By age 10, Claude was playing his own guitar. It wasn't until he heard the music of Joe Venuti (left) play that he became interested in the violin. Venuti's confidence and style made a lasting impression on Williams.

Listen to Claude recall when he first heard Joe Venuti play

After tireless practicing, Claude received his first professional gig playing in his brother-in-law's group. In 1927, he joined trumpeter T. Holder and his 12 Clouds of Joy and the following year, after Holder was replaced by Andy Kirk, Williams recorded his first sides with the group.

Listen to Claude describe being on the road with "territory" bands like T. Holder's 12 Clouds of Joy

During the 1920s and '30s, Claude was considered the top violinist in Kansas City, occasionally going head to head in nightly jam sessions with visiting fiddlers like Stuff Smith as well as several horn players including Ben Webster and Lester Young.

Listen to historian Chuck Haddix explain how battling with saxophonists helped Claude develop his signature sound

Williams played on Andy Kirk's first recording, "Blue Clarinet Stomp" and by 1930, the 12 Clouds of Joy were on the brink of success. Then the fiddler became ill during the middle of a tour and, unable to finish out the bookings, he was let go from the group.

Listen to Andy Kirk praise Claude's violin playing

Claude traveled to Illinios where he played both violin and guitar in a number of ensembles, including the Nat King Cole Trio and the Count Basie Orchestra. Later, in the 1940s and '50s he played with saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and pianists Hank Jones and Jay McShann. But in that entire time -- a span of almost thirty years -- Claude had not participated in any studio recording sessions until he sat in on with McShann. It began a second career for the fiddler.

In 1993, Claude was recruited by fiddler Mark O'Connor to teach at a camp outside of Nashville, Tennesee. Well into his ninth decade, Williams continued to share his infectious jump-blues style with everyone from children at the summer camp to sophisticated audiences at the world's premiere jazz festivals. Claude Williams died of pneumonia at his home in Kansas City on Sunday, April 26, 2004.


View the Claude Williams show playlist


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