A Jazz Saxophonist Scratching His Soul in Central Park
By Kurt Wildermuth
In the spring and summer of 2020, New York City was shut down during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many residents were living elsewhere, and tourists were staying away. You could walk through Central Park and have long stretches to yourself. If you continued toward what often feels like the heart of the park--a bench-lined plaza at the end of a shaded promenade called the Mall and just before Bethesda Terrace, with its staircase and angel-adorned fountain--you might have encountered a lone figure standing and playing a tenor saxophone.
His playing filled the plaza and echoed into the tree-lined hill to the east, where you might have stood in the cool shade and soaked in the sound. The songs were recognizable standards from the Great American Songbook, but as so often in jazz, the tunes were vehicles for improvisation. This saxophonist could take off into wild flights of cascading notes that felt controlled and lyrical.
You might have thought of the late, great tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. The player in the park didn't have the burning, boundary-pushing drive of Coltrane, but he played with the same purity of spirit, as though the instrument represented not just a means of making music but an extension of himself, and he had nontrivial matters to express. The important thing was getting the notes out now, but doing so with style. If you had ever seen Coltrane play live, surely he would have held your attention the same way this musician did. You'd have felt the same desire to keep listening as long as the man kept playing.
The Central Park Mall tenor saxophonist's name is Ralph U. Williams, or just Ralph Williams, and he is the real thing. A 2011 profile at fordhamobserver.com notes that Williams moved to New York to be part of the city's jazz scene, and he has become a one-man scene. At the time of that profile, he lived on Manhattan's West Side and did not have a side job.
As a fixture at the Mall, Williams has been photographed, painted, and captured on video. In a brief to ABC News profile of May 21, 2020, he says, "I'm not just playing. I'm not just performing. I'm scratching my soul, so to speak."
According to the YouTube poster mediamanny53, who captured about three minutes of Williams in action, "his knowledge & feel for the music" are "legendary."
According to the YouTube poster Andrew Willis, who captured a different three minutes, Williams is an "incredibly interesting and charming guy too."
As noted at the Internet Movie Database, Williams stars in Benches (2011), a short film about a jazz saxophonist in Central Park and a woman who repeatedly comes to see him play. Williams doesn't seem to have played on many audio recordings, but he solos splendidly on Regina Spektor's "Lady," from her CD Begin to Hope (2006). That recording was produced by David Kahne, who incorporated Williams's playing on his soundtrack for the documentary Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place (2011).
The paragraphs you just read were written in mid-December 2020. To flesh out this article, I needed additional information about Williams. I wanted to let him have a say beyond what he says with his instrument. I hoped to let you know about the man and his music, what he played and what he thought about playing, even what he thought about while playing.
By that time, the city was no longer locked down, and more people were frequenting the park. Williams was playing Christmas songs to warm hearts and make bucks. He was also creating new works of sonic art on the spot, but meanwhile there's nothing wrong with a heartfelt "Silent Night" or "White Christmas" from a talented soloist on a brisk fall day.
On such a day, I walked up to Williams with a printout of what I'd written about him. He wasn't playing at that moment. In fact, he hadn't played for the five minutes or so I'd been walking through the Mall. Perhaps he was on a break. He was simply standing there, holding his weather-beaten instrument.
"Mr. Williams," I said, holding out my pages. "I'm a big fan of your music." He seemed to smile. "I sometimes write about music on the Internet, and I'd like to write about you. Here's what I have so far."
Now he seemed wary. He looked at my offering, but didn't reach for it.
"Would you like to have a conversation sometime, maybe here, or maybe on the phone?"
"Not really," he said, and he was indeed smiling--smiling in a friendly You know how it is or I am what I am way.
"Not at all, huh?"
He was being honest but not brutal. In fact, he encouraged me: "You know what you want to say."
"Maybe we can do it now," I ventured. "You have two minutes?"
He nodded, and I grabbed a pen. "Who are your influences?" I asked. "Who do you listen to?"
He visibly relaxed, seemingly because I was serious about the music and not wanting to talk trivia or pump him for information about his life. "I started with Joe Henderson," he replied. "Coltrane, of course. Sonny Rollins. Dexter Gordon."
"Who was that?" I asked, not quite hearing him.
He looked mildly alarmed, as though perhaps I hadn't heard of Gordon, but he repeated the name.
"Dexter, right. On the web, I read that when you play, you're scratching your soul."
He smiled enigmatically, possibly proud of having been on the news, possibly gratified to know I'd done my homework.
"What does the music mean to you?" I asked.
"Everything," he answered earnestly.
"When you say 'everything,' you mean it's your life?"
He nodded. "I don't know what else I'd do, if I wasn't doing this."
"It's been good for you...?"
"Yes." He nodded. "It's taken me places I'd never have expected."
I wish I'd pressed for details about those places, but I felt pressed for time. Time is money, especially when you're performing for money, and he wasn't performing. I was grateful for the time he was giving me.
"When the city was shut down," I told him, trying to make a personal connection and get beneath the surface, "I came here and heard you play. I don't know how you'll feel about this, but I thought if I'd been able to hear Coltrane play, this is what it would have been like. You know, you have a great tone and depth of expression."
He didn't seem fazed by the comparison. "He's the cat. No one's gone beyond that."
"No, no one has." (Has no one? Could anyone?)
"You can imitate, but..." His voice trailed off.
If I had kept prompting, Williams might have kept answering. He was answering in his way, as a man of few words who wanted his music to do the talking--in this case, the cliché is true--and I wanted to respect his privacy and sense of proportion. He'd both confirmed my impressions of him and given me enough material to flesh out this piece. We'd reached an understanding, and any more conversation would have been, as he put it when I asked about his personal life, "too much information."
"So I want to tell people to come hear you. Maybe they can get you more recordings. I know you've done some...?"
Again his expression was hard to read: how much enthusiasm, how much realism, how much You do what you do, and we'll see what happens. I'm just going to keep coming here and scratching my soul.
"Tell them to come check me out," he replied. "And to give me some money!"
He smiled, I smiled beneath my mask, and I gave him some money. Then I thanked him and left, went to sit on a bench nearby.
Williams started playing, blowing hard, sounding inspired. He ran through a few Christmas tunes, among them a touching "Winter Wonderland." Normally I'd run from Christmas music, but this was Ralph Williams on tenor sax; and as a longtime citizen of what remains the most surprising and exciting city I've ever been to, I was hanging out in my "backyard." So I stuck around, waiting for his flights off of the melodies. Williams played the notes he needed to convey the tunes, but here and there he'd hang on them or detour out briefly. He delivered the expected tastefully, economically. That style, even when he's taking chances, is why people like me walk past perfectly fine jazz musicians elsewhere in the park but pause to appreciate Williams.
A park worker drove by in a small vehicle. Another walked by with a noisy leaf blower. A woman pushing a stroller talked on her cellphone. Nearby, guys were blasting R&B on a boombox. A singer did "Mack the Knife" and "Over the Rainbow" to prerecorded backing tracks. All around us was movement and change, but Williams accepted the flow.
You can't listen to Ralph Williams forever, just as you can't keep looking at the beautiful bluejays hopping around the bushes near the Mall. Eventually, you have to go elsewhere. Everything goes elsewhere.
When you are next in New York--soon, let's hope--please visit the Central Park Mall and try to catch some playing by Mr. Williams. If you have the means, leave him a tip. If you have music-business connections, maybe give him an opportunity (@RalphWilliams, says a sign in his case). He reportedly has gigged in Japan. Who knows--maybe he's big in Japan. He has "made it" in New York, so he potentially can make it anywhere.
Also see Kurt Wildermuth's website
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