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February 2023
Vol. 22, No. 5

Cover Story

J. OTIS WILLIAMS: Sharp Dressed Jazz Man Keeps It Real

by Robert BushDecember 2017

J. Otis Williams. Photo by John Hancock.

J. Otis and John Phillips, hosts of the monthly Jazz Live concert at KSDS.

Deejays in the studio at Jazz88: With Chad Fox, J. Otis Williams, John Phillips, Joe Kocherhans, Gary Beck, Janine Harty, Vince Outlaw and Larry Quick.

J. Otis with his wife, Jennifer.

Grandpa J. Otis with great grandson LC.

Blues Jam every Wednesday at Proud Mary’s.

Blues team: J. Otis with Janine Harty and Michael Kinsman.

“Coming at you in a grand fashion, and being heard all over the world at Jazz 88 —dot-org I’m J. Otis Williams.” Chances are, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to John Otis Williams, that voice is instantly recognizable and ultimately unforgettable. Raspy and relaxed, “jazz” is not a single syllable word in the J. Otis lexicon–rather, it comes out with an elongated drawl that heightens the listener’s perception that he is talking to each of them as an individual.

For the last 17 years, J. Otis has found his home at Jazz 88, San Diego’s only truly independent radio station where deejays still program their own content, pulling shifts in the morning, mid-morning, and late-night time slots. For the past 12 years, he’s programmed a weekend blues show from two in the morning until six or seven, and each week he hosts the blues jam session at Proud Mary’s although straight-ahead jazz remains his prime passion. If you’ve ever been to a “Jazz Live,” show, J. Otis is one of the handsome gentlemen who greet you at the door.

Mr. Williams originally hailed from the Windy City, but he spent his formative years up north in L.A. He was steeped in the art form of jazz long before he arrived in San Diego, and his life in music virtually guaranteed he’d end up in jazz radio.

Sweet Home Chicago
“I was born in Chicago back in 1945, so I’m a boomer,” says Williams. “I used to stay on 45th and Ellis; there was a Catholic Church right there on the corner, and I have fond memories of some of the summer carnivals we used to attend in the neighborhood.”

Some of Williams’ earliest memories came over the airwaves. “I do recall radio, man, back in those days there was a deejay named Al Vinson, and he used to play all the early R&B hits by people like Louis Jordan. I was always attracted to people like that and Al was my first experience with a radio personality. He’s probably gone now, because this was way back in the early fifties.”

Young Williams was drawn to music and the radio, but other aspects of life in Chicago were less enjoyable. “I do not have fond memories of walking to school in that knee-deep snow,” he recalls. “I do remember the snow and those days of being outside, because they wouldn’t let you in until the bell rang. I can’t believe we actually played in that stuff when the temperature was around zero!”

Cold winters aside, he looks back tenderly on those early years. “I dug going to school back there. I used to love the school. I didn’t know anything about segregated schools until we came to California. I went to mixed schools in Chicago. When we got to California, the segregation thing felt very weird.”

Williams and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was nine. He’s been a warm weather lover ever since. “I could never live there again,” he said. “I went back last November, but that didn’t last too long. I mean the cold is too much. I’m spoiled from being in California.”

L.A. proved just right for the man
“The thing about Otis is… he’s the real deal. All of that passion and energy and enjoyment of the music–of his roles in presenting and sharing it–is wholly authentic. You can’t fake that kind of appreciation for artists… Otis feels it and, in turn, gives that enthusiasm to his audience. He is also one of the most straight up guys I know. No BS with Otis. What you see is what you get…and you’re getting the good stuff.” –Claudia Russell, Jazz 88 deejay

“As a kid, I was mainly interested in sports and music. I got into jazz when I was in Junior High School, but even before then it was always around the house. We grew up with it in the house–both jazz and blues. My folks were really into the blues. They had records by T. Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, so the blues was definitely in the house.”

“But I really got into it when I got to Markham Junior High. We had a music teacher named Mr. Preston. I joined the ‘jazz club’ he had going, and I was playing tuba in the band. This was back in 1957. He hipped me to Charlie Parker. He had quite a collection of LPs. I didn’t dig playing tuba all that much; I wanted to play tenor saxophone or upright bass. But I ended up playing percussion, mostly congas. I was in a few bands back in L.A. I knew some members of the Gerald Wilson band like Phil Moore Jr. who was playing with Gerald. I played with Phil in a band we called the Jazz Messiahs. We had some heavyweights in that group like Walter Savage on bass who played with Horace Tapscott. I played timbales, Gary Alexander played congas, and Phil played piano.”

At the same time, Williams was captivated by sports. “I ran track and I played a little football. I was too small to play varsity but I played junior varsity. I loved sports and I still do to this day. I was serious about track. I lettered my first year and went to the State Tournament the next two years. I ran the 220, the 100-yard dash, and did some broad jumping. I wasn’t too quick off the blocks, I never really got that down, but I would catch ‘em! This would have been about 1960.”

Williams made one more connection at Markham Junior High that would have a lasting impact. That’s where he met Jennifer Walzer. “I met my wife when we were both 11 years old! We were best buddies. We used to fix each other up with girl and boyfriends. But in high school we knew it was real, and we’ve been together ever since.”

J. Otis and Jennifer Williams have been married for 53 years. I had to ask him what their secret was. “There is no secret,” he declared. “It’s not easy. You just have to stick it out and hang in there. But you have to be friends first. I think that’s the most important thing. Everything else, that comes later. You can’t call everyone your friend; oh God, a friend is hard to come by. That very special someone has got to be your friend. She can look at me and tell if I’m hungry. She can look at me and tell if I’m sick. I don’t have to say anything. She knows me.”

J. Otis and Jennifer tied the knot back in 1964, and are the proud parents of Ursula, Deon, Precious, and Christy. They have seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Watts after the rebellion of ’65

Williams was swept into the social consciousness of the times, and those moments would shape his life forever at a time where music and politics were inseparable. “We had a coffeehouse, the Watts Coffee House. I ran that after the revolt. Horace Tapscott used to come down and rehearse. I remember Arthur Blythe–he wasn’t nothing but a kid back then. He used to come down; Harold Land used to come down. Teddy Edwards, Jack Wilson; all the local L.A. guys.

We used to have jam sessions at the coffeehouse. When I first heard Arthur Blythe I knew he was going places. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that these were great people. I was just a kid myself, probably 21 or 22, but I knew jazz, and when these cats came through it was special. Everybody came down, I remember Roy Ayers coming through. And they were doing it in Watts: in the hood. Man, I met so many great artists at that time.”

Williams had a front-row seat for the development of the Black Power movement, which was unfolding practically right next door. “The Black Panthers were right down the street from us. Their office was about two doors down. Elaine Brown was there, and she had a lot to do with it.”

With the world changing right before his eyes, Williams realized he was changing, too. “I was a young man then,” he said. “And it woke me up to what was really going on. Before that, I wasn’t really paying attention. I knew what was happening, but this was like someone turning the light on and saying ‘this isn’t right.’ And when that happened, it changed me, the way I look at life, the way I look at a lot of people. It was a wakeup call. You can be at risk for certain poisons until you acquire the proper antidote, you know what I mean?”
Along with the social turmoil and the ever- changing times, L.A. was the source of an incredible music community. Remember that this is a city that produced revolutionaries like Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and mainstream giants like Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus. Williams has his own list of highlight moments.

“Here is my standout memory of my time on the L.A. jazz scene: I attended the recording sessions for Dizzy Gillespie’s iconic album Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac. I was there. It’s one of his signature recordings, with an incredible cast that included James Moody and Mike Longo. I was a youngster–this was, like ,1967–and I was in awe being around those people. I talked about that session for days.”

Of course, making a living playing jazz when you have a family to support is a tough proposition, and even though Williams has always sought employment in the arts, sometimes life happens, and he found himself in another industry. “I did do a little steel work for about five years as well. I worked in the steel mills producing America’s back bone. I can tell you, that was work. You earned your money at that job. You know when you got that paycheck you had earned it. It was tough, but it kept food on the table.”

Family ties lead to San Diego
“In 1980 my mom got very ill,” Williams remembers. “She lived in San Diego so we came down here to help take care of her. And I immediately fell in love with the place, because you know life up north can be pretty hectic, and things move a little slower down here.”

Even though the music scene in a huge metropolis like L.A. is pretty hard to top, Williams was impressed with the San Diego jazz community. “I immediately fell into the music scene here. I used to go down to those Sunday jam sessions that the Cheathams hosted. Boy, I’ve seen some jazz legends playing down there, and I sat in with some too. I met Vi Redd and Curtis Peagler at the Cheathams. I even got the chance to sit in with Charles McPherson one time. I busted my hand on that one.”

Williams love for jazz led directly into the next phase in his life. “I was working in maintenance for the Community College district and blasting some jazz that I had recorded, and it just so happened that one of the Chancellors heard me and he was moved. He hooked me up with the folks at the radio station (KSDS.) Dave Drexler told me that I was destined for radio. So I did my two years and I got on the air in 2000.”

On the radio
He was one of those guys that you hear about–and they keep bugging you until you finally give them a job. He was always asking me to listen to his tape, and I finally got around to it and I realized how much he loves jazz so we got him on the air, and he’s been a great asset ever since. He’s very reliable and he just loves the music. That really comes through.
–Joe Kocherhans, Jazz 88 Music Director

Over the years, Williams has worked a variety of shifts and day parts. “I started off in the mornings; I was coming on from 6 to 9 a.m. about three days a week. I did that for a couple of years. Then I went from 9 to 12 and did that for a few years. Now I do early mornings. On Friday, I have a jazz show from 12 a.m. to 7 in the mornings. On Saturday, I have a blues show from 2 to 6 a.m. and on Sundays I do another blues show from midnight to 5 a.m.”

The blues shows are the result of a surprise vacancy at the station. “They said they needed someone to do it–they had lost their blues host. It was only supposed to be temporary, but they have kept me here, so I guess I was okay. I do dig it, though, because the blues was always in my house growing up. I am primarily a jazz man, but I love the blues too.”

Once Williams got on the air, all of his early musical influences coalesced. Al Vinson, of course, and another seminal figure from the L.A. radio waves. “There were some guys in L.A. at a station called 105 KBCA. They were the envy of the city, those guys. There was one in particular I loved. His name was Tollie Strode; his brother was a famous actor named Woody Strode. He was one of the best jazz deejays I ever heard. I envied him. In those days, everybody’s radio station was tuned to 105, it was in everyone’s home, in everyone’s car. Tollie Strode was a guy that I studied–right up to this day. Some of the things he used to say, the way he would phrase things, I use to this day–he had that much influence on me and that’s a big reason I wanted to get into radio because of Tollie Strode.”

When Williams joined the KSDS staff 17 years ago, everyone contributed on a volunteer basis. “I love this station. I mean, I used to work for nothing. There was a time back in 2002 during the Christmas holidays when they couldn’t get anybody to come in. They were going to take the station off the air, but that wouldn’t be right. We have donors who pay to be members and there is no excuse to be off air because you couldn’t get anyone to come down. So myself and John Phillips ran the station ourselves for 24 hours. We would each work a six-hour shift. That’s how much the station means to me.”

Two years ago, Jazz 88 moved their physical location from the first floor of the “C” building at City College into brand-new facilities in the “L” building, which includes a new computerized console to replace the ancient analog board built in the 1970s. Learning a new system represented the source of considerable anxiety to the radio staff. “Scared me to death,” Williams confessed. “The new technology–just looking at it frightened me. But I shouldn’t have been so stressed by it because it turned out to be a piece of cake. I’m still learning, but initially it just looked like it was going to be so hard to learn. Just looking at all those new buttons was scary, because we had a very primitive system back in our old location.”

These days deejays use an automated software system called ENCO to pull up music digitized from the station’s huge CD library. Williams sees the advantages of the new system now. “I think the changes scared most of us. We knew we were moving up, and we knew how the new studios worked, but we never thought it would come to us. So we were nervous, but it’s turned out so beautiful! It’s wonderful and I love it. No more putting away CDs! Sometimes I would have to put away as many as 60 CDs after a shift if I’m on the air for five hours. That’s over, thank God. Most of the scripts now are recorded as well, so I gotta say–technology, I love it!”

Fashion, family and the Raiders
J. Otis and I go way back. We formed this alliance from working the doors at Jazz Live. When it comes to this radio station, he’s like my right hand. You couldn’t ask for a better friend. I know if my car broke down at 3 or 4 in the morning he’d come pick me up, and I’d do the same for him. We feed off each other–the people who come to Jazz Live know we’re going to be sharp on that door.
–John Phillips, Jazz 88 deejay

Anyone who has ever met Williams manning the doors at a Jazz Live event can attest to his fine sense of fashion. This man understands how to wear a suit. I had to ask him if there was a philosophy behind all the fine threads. “I don’t know… it might trace back to being from Chicago. I’ve always loved fashion. My wife loves fashion. She’s a fashionista too. We both love to shop and dress. I feel good when I’m sharp. Even when we were in school, we used to dress alike. Clothes are something I admire and love. It makes you feel good to be dressed sharp. At least it does for me.”

Also important to Williams is his large extended family, and the Williams clan is always looking to get together. “We have a thing we do every 4th of July; my son lives in L.A. and the entire family goes up there every year for his birthday and what a great time we have. A lot of my great grandkids have birthdays in sequence, so the whole family gathers in Riverside for those. We always get together on Memorial Day. We do have some incredible food on those occasions. You better not go there with a diet on your mind, because we pig out big time!”

And no portrait of Williams would be complete without mentioning his favorite football team, the notorious Oakland Raiders. “I have a love for my team. That’s one thing about the Raider Nation, it doesn’t matter where we are, or where we move–we’re always going to be Raiders. It never bothered us when we went to Los Angeles, and it won’t bother us when we move to Las Vegas. Now the folks in Oakland might not be happy–but no one lets go of the Silver and Black. I’ve been a fan since the beginning and I love my team.”

Even though Williams is a rabid jazz and blues man it would be a mistake to assume he’s some kind of “jazz snob.” “I love all good music. Good music I dig. You can’t miss me if it’s good. I dig country music–I love Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. When it comes to symphonic music, I love Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. If it’s good I love it. I came up on R&B and soul music so I can name them all day too. I used to go see James Brown for $5, man!”

Williams isn’t contemplating slowing down anytime soon. “I plan on doing this until they tell me I can’t do it anymore. I don’t see a stoppage for me. I’m in pretty good shape for a guy my age (73) so hopefully I’ll be around for a while.”
I asked Williams if he enjoyed greeting the public when the station sponsors their monthly concert series Jazz Live. “I do love that, because I’m working directly with the people. I get the chance to meet my listeners and that’s so important. John Phillips and I’ve been doing that for about 15 years.”

I also had to inquire about any personal creed Williams might hold dear. “Just be real. That’s the only way you can make this world a better place–be real. That’s my thing. I’m J. Otis, I’m going to be J. Otis, nobody but J. Otis. If you’re real you can’t miss. I know where you’re at if you’re real.”

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