Boston-born Floyd Williams had a long career in jazz, first as a musician and then as an educator. In his home town, the drummer was known by his nickname, “Floogie.” No one around now knows how he got it. Later in his career, people knew him as Floyd Williams.
His Boston story is an intriguing one. As with many artists of past decades who did not achieve great stardom in New York, there are facts about his story we don’t know. We do know he attended Boston public schools, started on piano as a boy, switched to the drums, gigged with friends while still at Roxbury High School, and studied briefly at the New England Conservatory. I have read that Johnny Hodges was his godfather, and I am still looking into that.
Legendary godfather or not, Floogie Williams earned his own recognition as a drummer in the late 1940s, at a time when Boston was incubating an exciting brand of modern jazz. The numerous G.I. Bill students at the music schools were mixing with the local musicians in the clubs clustered around Mass Ave and Columbus Ave. Disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin called this intersection “the jazz corner of Boston.” Williams was a regular on the bandstand at the Sunnyside Cafe, where he worked with saxophonists Sam Rivers and Gigi Gryce. He also played occasionally in the big band of Jimmie Martin, where he met trumpeters Joe Gordon and Lennie Johnson, and Jaki Byard—who played trombone!
Although Williams identified with the modernists, he was equally adept at playing swing. In 1952 he was with Sabby Lewis, who in the 1940s led the most important swing-era band in Boston, and still had plenty of gas in the tank in the early 1950s. Floyd Williams also worked the resort towns in Maine during the summers with pianist and arranger Hi Diggs, also firmly in the swing camp.
Floogie made it to a name band in late 1953, joining the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. He stayed with Hamp about a year. Back in Boston, interest in modern jazz was building to a mid-fifties peak. There were some very good working bands in town, like the house band at the Stable with Joe Gordon, and the sextet of baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. Tenor saxophonist Jay Migliori was forming another one, and he needed a drummer. Williams got the job, and for almost two years he anchored Migliori’s groups. The first was a quintet featuring Tommy Ball’s trumpet. The second was a septet, with Bill Berry replacing Ball. Williams and pianist Danny Kent were in both, providing continuity and rhythmic drive.
Migliori’s quintet was the house band at the Downbeat, a club on Park Square, for much of 1955. They recorded an album for Tom Wilson’s Transition label that November called Downbeat Jazz (unless it was called Jazz Downbeat), but it was not released and the tapes have never surfaced. One tantalizing track, “Something’s Gotta Give,” was included on the label’s sampler album, Jazz in Transition, in 1956. Follow the link at the bottom of this post to hear this gem.
Floyd Williams was back with Hampton for an extended tour of Europe and Africa in 1958; Hampton had been named a “Goodwill Ambassador” and was touring constantly on behalf of the State Department. Williams was fascinated by his experiences in Africa. At the completion of the tour, he remained in Ghana for four months, absorbing the local music and culture. When Williams returned to the U.S., he toured and recorded with Carmen McRae.
In 1959, Williams returned Boston, for what would be his last long stay. He put his big band experience to good use with the Rollins Griffith Nonet. They played on Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival in June. But there was less jazz work than there had been a few years earlier, and Williams’s ability fit into any musical setting served him well. For instance, in 1959 he worked one night a week in a Dixieland band at the Jazz Village—and a reviewer wrote, if Williams isn’t on the bandstand, don’t bother going. He also spent time in the house band at Caesar’s Monticello in suburban Framingham, a room that presented the big names in middle-of-the-road pop music. A few years later, he shifted gears again and played with the Chamber Society of New York. The versatile Williams could play percussion in any setting.
On the Road with the Duke
In the early 1960s, Williams was back on the road with Carmen McRae, and also with Della Reese. There was another long tour with Lionel Hampton in 1963.
Floyd Williams had one more notable experience on the road, a long stay as a substitute with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. This is one of those engagements that’s hard to place in time. Williams often talked about the gig, but didn’t mention when it was or for whom he was subbing. He noted that he filled in when Duke’s drummer was absent for a medical reason—in one telling, the fellow had broken his foot. Williams implied the gig lasted for several months. I’ve been unable to identify the who and when, but one possibility is 1960-61, during one of Sam Woodyard’s absences from the band. This is only a guess.
Williams was dogged by poor health, and the rigors of the road eventually became too much for him. In 1964 he settled into New York and turned his attention to composing and studio work. In 1965, Williams formed a songwriting team with lyricist Gene Lees (former editor of Down Beat and future publisher of the Jazzletter). The two signed with publisher Hollis Music, but had only limited success. Tony Bennett performed their song “The Birthday Gift,” but I don’t know if he recorded it. Years after the duo ended their partnership, Meredith D’Ambrosio recorded their “Self-Defense Waltz” on her 1982 album, Little Jazz Bird.
Meanwhile, Floyd Williams had tired of the New York scene in general and the music publishing industry in particular. He and his wife moved first to Mexico, then to the town of Warren, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh, near the New York border. There he built a new life in music for himself, and that is a subject for another post. At the time of his death at age 68 in 1994, he was director of the Allegheny Jazz Lab at Allegheny College in nearby Meadville.
I hope to fill the holes in the Floyd “Floogie” Williams story. He was a man of many musical talents, and it is always rewarding to recognize people like Williams, even in their absence.
When Williams died, his son, also named Floyd, was asked if his father had any hobbies. “No,” he answered, “no hobbies. Just music, music, and more music.”
Something’s Gotta Give
So with that, let’s go to the music. Floyd Williams recorded with Hampton, and on a number of Carmen McRae albums including Comes Love (1961). But only one example of his Boston years survives: “Something’s Gotta Give,” from 1955. Jay Migliori and Tommy Ball go to town on it, and pianist Danny Kent, bassist Paul Morrison, and Williams supply a driving rhythm.