A Self-Taught New Orleans Pianist's 'Testament' Luther G. Williams is an obscure but remarkable stride pianist from New Orleans. He's also a Bible scholar, a professor and a Hurricane Katrina survivor. Ever since the storm crippled his hometown, his musical fortunes have been looking up.
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A Self-Taught New Orleans Pianist's 'Testament'

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A Self-Taught New Orleans Pianist's 'Testament'

A Self-Taught New Orleans Pianist's 'Testament'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

This is a story of a musical career that almost happened and may yet. It's the story of Luther G. Williams. We didn't learn about him through his publicist, his record label or his Web site. We tracked him down.

NPR's John Burnett reports on this Hurricane Katrina survivor, Bible scholar, and remarkable, self-taught pianist.

JOHN BURNETT: I caught up with Luther G. Williams, not in a night club or a recording studio, but in a nursing home in Little Rock, Arkansas, one Sunday morning.

Reverend LUTHER G. WILLIAMS (Pastor, Pianist): Good to see you. God bless you.

Unidentified Woman: Good to see you.

Rev. WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you.

Unidentified Man: So are you.

Rev. WILLIAMS: Keeping up with your reading and with your prayer?

BURNETT: Reverend Luther Williams joins his friend, Pastor Robert Harris(ph) each week at the Pleasant Valley Living Center to preach the gospel.

Rev. WILLIAMS: He's not looking for a concubine. He's looking for a wife, hallelujah. And that wife is the church. We are the church. Thank God again for that wonderful message we heard today.

BURNETT: There's no reason why any of the white-haired women sitting in the carpeted dining room, listening to the sermon, would know that the two sets of long, thin fingers slicing the air for emphasis can do this.

(Soundbite of piano music)

BURNETT: Luther Williams recorded this piece 13 years ago. The eminent jazz historian and author Dan Morgenstern heard the disc for the first time late last month.

Mr. DAN MORGENSTERN (Jazz Historian and Author): You don't hear this kind of keyboard command very often. I mean, he's really is quite startling.

(Soundbite of piano music)

BURNETT: Luther Williams grew up in America's most musical city, New Orleans, the son of two school principals. He started fooling around on the piano at the age of 6 in their brick house in the 7th Ward. Williams sits in Little Rock's Java Roasting Company still wearing a tan sport coat from the church service.

Rev. WILLIAMS: I was an only child, so I'm used to keeping myself company. So I play for me. I don't play for anybody else. That was my whole attitude about it, you know?

BURNETT: As members of the black middle class, his parents did not want him to be a musician. They wanted a respectable life for him, so Williams never considered becoming a New Orleans piano professor. Even as he studied philosophy at Tulane University, though, he 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. Yet, he was playing anything but traditional New Orleans piano. This was stride, the ragtime-based style that came out of Harlem in the 1920s with the pounding left hand and intricate right hand runs.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Rev. WILLIAMS: 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. And I think my zest for life and my approach to music in general is New Orleanian in character.

BURNETT: In the mid 1980s, Williams sent a tape of his playing to the great Harlem stride pianist Joe Turner who's living in Paris at the time. Turner listened and sent Williams this recorded message.

Mr. JOE TURNER (Stride Pianist): 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 because you'll cut me into pieces.

Rev. WILLIAMS: This is Joe Turner, who played with Louis Armstrong, who knew Fats Waller, who knew Art Tatum so well, who knew James P. Johnson. It's a line. I don't just consider myself a player. I consider myself in that line of players.

BURNETT: Luther Williams considered such praise from a piano luminary to be a sort of apostolic succession. But his musical career never took off, so he chose the academic life. With a Ph.D. in communications, he taught at Clark Atlanta and Xavier universities. Then about 10 years ago, he 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 - that's the study of numerical patterns in the Bible. For Williams, the bridge between the pages of the Bible and the keys on the piano is obvious.

Rev. WILLIAMS: God's an architect. He's the designer of everything. In order to play stride, it involves imposing a design upon the piano. My left thumb, I love my left thumb, that's my trombone finger. Then you got your trumpet, which is your three or four fingers on your right hand. Then you got your clarinet, which is your pinky on your right hand. So you put that together and there's a jazz band, and everybody has to do their part. It's architecture. And Bible numerics is architecture. You know, design, the intelligence behind what God does is just a marvelous thing.

BURNETT: Williams wasn't making much money preaching. And he took a job in the office of standards at the New Orleans Police Department. And then came Katrina. As the mighty storm approached the city, he and his father fled to Little Rock. The tempest submerged his hometown and the rest is history. Their own house was spared, but their neighborhood of Gentilly was devastated.

Rev. WILLIAMS: And two days turned to two months and now, two years.

BURNETT: Luther Williams and his 92-year-old father are now part of the New Orleans diaspora. He says he doesn't miss the city's crime, racial disharmony and economic decay. Little Rock suits him just fine. What's more, he's had an unexpected turn of musical fortune in Arkansas.

(Soundbite of piano music)

A local jazz impresario, pianist and pathologist, Dr. Rex Bell, heard Williams playing, was knocked out, and decided to bankroll a new C.D. titled "Testament."

Dr. REX BELL (Jazz Impresario, Pianist and Pathologist): This thing of playing entire pieces in the stride style, it takes a tremendous amount of energy, strength in your left hand. And it just takes years to master the ability to keep the left hand thing going and get the right hand thing because that right hand is just unbelievably virtuosic.

(Soundbite of piano music)

BURNETT: For now, his plans are to care for his ailing father, keep preaching and writing on the Bible, and see what happens with his music.

Rev. WILLIAMS: 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. It's not a museum music. It's a music of the people. It's dance music. That's where it belongs.

BURNETT: For many years, Luther G. Williams believed that a dedication to the Bible and to stride were incompatible. But now, he says, he's ready for the musical career that's eluded him so far. He wants to prove that God lives in a piano, too.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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