Courtesy of Luther Williams
Though Luther Williams comes from New Orleans and its tradition of virtuoso pianists, his technique is derived from the Harlem stride style popularized in 1920s New York.
This is the story of a musical career that almost happened — and may yet. It's the story of Luther G. Williams, Bible scholar, Hurricane Katrina survivor, and remarkable self-taught pianist.
You're less likely to find Williams in a recording studio or nightclub than in a nursing home in Little Rock, Ark., where Williams, who is also a reverend, preaches the gospel each week.
The son of two school principals, Williams grew up in New Orleans and started fooling around on the piano at the age of 6. Later, as a philosophy student at Tulane University, Williams spent all his free time at the keyboard. He was already good enough that the New Orleans jazz banjo legend Danny Barker gave him his nickname: "the panther."
Although Williams plays stride, the ragtime-based style that came out of Harlem in the 1920s, he maintains that his work is infused with his hometown. "The spirit of New Orleans is in my playing, but not the style because I don't know of any stride players out of New Orleans," he says. "And I think my zest for life and my approach to music in general is New Orleanian in character."
Harlem stride pianist luminary Joe Turner recognized talent in a recording Williams sent to him. Turner sent back a taped message: "Luther, in my books, you're the greatest. You're terrific, and I love your ideas and the way you play. And I hope someday to meet you and we sit down and have a chat together. But not to play together, 'cause you'll cut me to pieces."
Despite such praise, Williams' music career did not take off, and he turned to the academic life. With a Ph.D. in communications, he taught at Clark Atlanta and Xavier universities.
About 10 years ago, Williams heard yet another calling. He became senior pastor at House of Prayer for All Nations in New Orleans, and he began writing about Bible numerics: the study of numerical patterns in the bible. He likens jazz music to God's work.
"It's architecture," Williams says. "And bible numerics is architecture. Design, the intelligence behind what God does, is just a marvelous thing."
Williams wasn't making much money preaching, so he took a job in the office of standards at the New Orleans Police Department. And then came Hurricane Katrina. Their neighborhood devastated, Luther Williams and his 92-year-old father moved to Little Rock.
Little Rock suits Williams, and Arkansas has been good to him. In an unexpected turn of musical fortune, a local jazz impresario and pianist, Dr. Rex Bell, was knocked out by his playing and decided to bankroll a new CD, titled Testament.
The record marries Williams' religious and musical interests while highlighting the stride genre. "I'm concerned that stride has been placed in a glass case and people leer at it now, as if somehow it's something divorced from the American experience that gave birth to it," Williams says. "It's not a museum music; it's a music of the people. It's dance music. That's where it belongs."
For now, Williams plans to care for his ailing father, keep preaching, and see what happens with his music.