Thursday, November 26, 2009

As Long As I'm Vertical - The District

From the District - (11/25/09)

Running a jazz club isn’t the easiest way to take home wheelbarrows full of cash. Fortunately, Long Beach has the determined Al Williams—consummate drummer, passionate raconteur, wheelbarrow-less entrepreneur. Starting out in the ’70s drumming with some of the best hard-bop talents to survive the ’50s, Williams toured regularly with titans of the Central Ave. scene: Hampton Hawes and Teddy Edwards, as well as tenor sax heavyweight Eddie Harris. “Eddie was a master,” recalls Williams. “He could do anything he wanted on stage. He could play a saxophone with a trumpet mouthpiece!” After meeting and marrying a local girl, Williams became a permanent resident of Long Beach, choosing the comforts of his new home over the lonely road.

The Jazz Safari, Long Beach’s “first jazz club,” opened in 1978 across the asphalt from the Queen Mary. “Al created and designed a very special listening and performing environment. It was like working in an acoustically correct, intimate, warm and comfortable living room,” recalls vocalist Bev Kelly. Williams successfully ran the club for eight years before packing up the piano and moving to the other side of the ship. In 1987, Williams opened Birdland West in the heart of downtown. Bigger and more ambitious, the club managed to survive seven years of great performances before closing. The same year he started Birdland West, however, Williams decided to resuscitate his idea for a jazz festival.

Last August, Williams’ longest-running venture, the Long Beach Jazz Festival, celebrated its 22nd consecutive year. “I wasn’t even thinking about how long it would last,” he says. “I’m just really pleased that it has gone as well as it has.”

Attracting some of the biggest names in jazz (both smooth and straight-ahead), Williams has managed to find a profitable business plan in something he is passionate about. His work has introduced great jazz to Long Beach for over 30 years, becoming an institution in the process. “I’ve had a great career,” he says. “And I’m looking forward to continuing on this venture as long as I’m vertical.”


As Long As I'm Vertical @ the District

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