Rock Hill students get a lesson in jazz from a Grammy winner

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comDecember 20, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    What: Downtown Holiday Jazz, featuring Ben Williams and Sound Effect

    Where: City Club of Rock Hill, 140 E. Main St.

    When: 8 tonight

    Tickets: 803-327-4441

It’s not every day that students get to share the stage with a Grammy award-winning musician, but on Thursday, a group from South Pointe High School got to do just that.

Ben Williams, a graduate of Michigan State University and The Juilliard School, hosted a master class for South Pointe band and orchestra students as part of a larger visit to Rock Hill.

“We think it’s very important for students to see professional musicians,” said Dot Killian, who helped bring Williams to Rock Hill, along with Gladys Robinson and Jacqueline Wilson.

Williams has Rock Hill roots. His mother, Bennie Barnes-Williams, and his grandparents are from here, he said, as are numerous other family members. He said he always wanted to perform in Rock Hill for his grandfather, the late James Barnes Sr.

“We had been talking about doing something for a long time,” Williams said. “He was always so proud of everything I was doing.”

At South Pointe, after a short performance on bass, his instrument of choice, Williams shared stories of spotting celebrities at the Grammy Awards, where he won for Best Jazz Instrumental Album with the Pat Metheny Unity Band. He talked about falling in love with a Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” cassette tape a teacher gave him in middle school and about picking up the bass because he got shut out of a guitar class and was forced to pick something else.

When he speaks to students, Williams hopes he teaches them something to help them move forward with their own musical careers.

“I’m not that much older than them,” said Williams, who is in his 20s. “I just hope I can give them some insight into the professional world.”

After asking and answering some questions, Williams and the band and orchestra students got into what’s really important to them all – the music.

Five band members, instruments in hand, joined Williams on stage, where they played a piece of music he wrote called “Home.” The lesson was part theory, part practice, and by the end, the five sounded like they’d been practicing the piece for weeks, with steady drum, bass and guitar lines and improvised saxophone and trumpet melodies.

“It’s not just about the notes,” Williams told them about improvisation, a key element of jazz music. “It’s about making it interesting with the limited information that you have.”

A musician of Williams’ stature, with awards and titles under his belt despite his relative youth, rarely visits Rock Hill, and the fact that he was willing to come to area high schools to speak directly to students was “awesome,” said James Turner, South Pointe’s band director.

“To have someone like that come here, it’s got to inspire (the students) to want to be better,” Turner said.

For the students who got to play and to be coached by Williams, it was an “awesome experience,” said saxophone player Andrey Ridling.

“At first, it was kind of intimidating, especially when I had to play alone,” Ridling said.

Trumpet player Ian Cavin said when they started clicking, it turned into a lot of fun.

“It was pretty awesome,” he said. “It’s not every day you get to play with a Grammy-winner.”

Williams will conduct a similar visit at Northwestern High School today before performing at the City Club of Rock Hill tonight.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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