Chicago-born musician Dizzy Dale Williams is a natural-born paragon, a master of both deep blues and free jazz, armed with electrifying capabilities and a stunning résumé that includes fruitful stints with everyone from Sun Ra to LL Cool J. Any conversation with the longtime San Fernando Valley resident is mind-bending, lined with a singular cosmological perspective and an utter disregard for the spiritually illegitimate. Tune him in:
“Being raised in the South Side of Chicago, there was this whole free-jazz scene, Sun Ra was always around and I lived near an entire apartment complex full of musicians, so I heard all kinds of stuff coming out of there when I was playing ball as a kid. That started me going down the free-jazz trip and once I got a guitar in my hand, this was like 1969, I was 14, my big influence was, ‘How many kinds of sound can I make with this instrument?’ I did anything, used feedback, whatever I could, trying to express myself. The scene was so different then, it wasn’t compartmentalized — radio played whatever they wanted, you’d hear Hendrix, Sun Ra, Coltrane, The Grateful Dead all on one station.”
His earliest counsel, Chicago guitarist Lefty Dizz, was a renowned live-wire showman with a dazzling bandstand presentation, and Williams today effortlessly summons that old-school ferocity and high-voltage attack. His blues are as biting and raw as they are elegant and refined, an intoxicating paradox that is never less than completely arresting.
“Lefty was my mentor. I did the whole jam thing at the Checkerboard and Theresa’s, where Junior Wells and Buddy Guy always were in the ’70s," Williams says. "It was pretty cool because everybody from that generation of blues would be there. It’s way different from the jams out here — you go play on a Monday and usually find a job for the weekend. It was like a meeting hall for work.
“As a child I got put out early, I was going to high school between touring with Oscar Brown Jr. and Little Milton. I was in Philly with Oscar and some friends invited Sun Ra to the show. He came down and afterward invited me over to his house and we played the blues all night. I stuck around a couple of days and joined the Arkestra when I was 15 or 16. Being that young, it was like I had 40 daddies — ‘don’t do this, don’t do that.’”
The legendary Sun Ra, one of the most profoundly critical forces in 20th-century American jazz, offered an undreamed-of universe for the teenager to explore.
“It was fun. Basically, it was like a commune at the house, and we’d just play all day and all night," Williams says. "I learned a lot — just to see how they practiced and what they practiced. The whole thing was discipline, even just playing one note, staying focused. Instead of playing regular funk, he wanted me to flip it, he didn’t want me to play in time, so he had me going both directions at once. I ended up studying a lot of the Egyptian stuff, too, but his greatest influence on me was that I became connected to someone who was connected to stride and jazz piano, from the start up to now. Early on, we were doing a lot of Fletcher Henderson stuff and it was an experience that kind of wrapped up music 360 degrees. ... I was someone who had absolute freedom in music, and that kept me there — I could play and not think about anything else, just play all the time. And you always had to play for the Creator, because otherwise you were selfish. Music first.”
Williams’ guitar was captured on the stunning 1974 Arkestra live set The Antique Blacks, and he played with the aggregation, off and on, until Sun Ra’s 1993 transition.
“Later, I was in D.C., had a funk band, but I wanted out of the cold. I was dating a girl from California who always talked about how great it was, so I jumped up one day and took a train here. I was about 25 or 26, knew a lot of the cats from Little Milton’s band who were out here, did some of the local blues hangouts in South Central. I played with everyone, Tito Jackson, Otis Day & the Knights, Solomon Burke — it was like a church. A great artist but he used to threaten to strand me, said, ‘I’ll leave you behind, just like I did to Jimi Hendrix!’ All that eventually led to LL Cool J, I was playing with him in ’91-’92, did the Grammys, MTV Awards, all across the country. Went to La Jolla for a minute and ended up teaching a jazz history course at Mesa City College.”
Williams stays busy as an in-demand sideman, gigging with everyone from post-bop shaman Azar Lawrence to veteran fusion siblings Ronnie and Eloise Laws, but he always returns to the blues, which, in 21st-century Los Angeles, is a deeply mixed bag.
“It’s a pretty weird thing, it’s lopsided here," he says. "I never quite joined the societies or been accepted by the guys with the bowling shirts who play on all the weekends — you put that uniform on and you’re a blues man? That kind of voided the culture for the most part, so it’s hard for me to fit in with them. It’s a cultural thing, it’s a heritage and pleasure for me, I love the blues from every kind of angle I can play it and those cats are kind of stuck in the ’50s.
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“All the black men are down in South Central and they never cross the line into Hollywood. It’s like two different kinds of blues. Blues is a living art, it’s still moving; it isn’t just about your girl leaving you, it’s about equality and the state of life itself. It’s rooted in the griots of Africa, they were like the news, kept everyone abreast of things. Blues and jazz are like that, too, and it’s not pretty where they come from: jazz from the whorehouses and blues out of the fields. In a lot of ways it tells the stories of those people; sometimes it’s a story of redemption or cultural memory that people want to share and keep alive since it isn’t written.”
When Williams takes the stage, all of this passion and knowledge radiates like a prismatic aura of truth, soul and beauty. It roars.
“Blues is the greatest folk music — it went around the world and they play it everywhere. It’s our gift to the world and I’m just trying to keep sharing it.”
Dizzy Dale Williams appears Wed., Nov. 28, 8 p.m.-mid., at Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; free; 21 & over. (818) 729-0805, joesgreatbar.com.