BY RICHARD BAMMER
The Clarence Williams biography, especially his life in music, reads like a story of “firsts”: a first toy guitar, first acoustic guitar, first electric guitar, first garage band, first high school band, first professional jazz band, first CD. Next week the amiable Fairfield resident can add his first Vacaville Jazz Festival to the saga.
Williams and 2nd Planet, his backing trio, will play a concert on the festival’s second day, Saturday, in the Borders Bookstore cafe in the newly developed Nut Tree Village complex. They will perform original music, some of it from the group’s 2003 self-produced album, “2nd Planet: Beyond the Surface.”
An accomplished guitarist who specializes in the easy-listening, pop-influenced “smooth jazz,” Williams joins some 40 performers and bands during the three-day event, sponsored by the Vacaville Jazz Society, beginning Friday.
In a telephone interview, the Louisville, Ky., native said he grew up with music in the home. He recalled his father played harmonica and remembered his mother’s “diverse and strong appreciation” for all music.
“I just picked a guitar and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” said Williams, 51, who by day works as a demonstrator for the Bose speaker company in Walnut Creek. “When I was young, they gave me a toy guitar.”
Later, as a newspaper boy, he earned enough money to buy a first acoustic guitar and he recalled the moment he plucked the first sound from it.
“It was just a sound, it really wasn’t music coming from it,” recalled Williams, a U.S. Navy veteran. “It was like a baby taking its first step. That’s what I remember.”
He later bought another guitar for $10 and began playing its bass strings more than the others. A bass guitar came later, and, by age 13, he purchased his first six-string electric and “really got into James Brown, Motown, Aretha Franklin an R&B.”
Williams, like so many teenagers infatuated with popular music of their day, formed a garage band, when “kids were playing in their living rooms, backyards, everywhere.” In high school, he played in largely rock ‘n’ roll bands, influenced by Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, Jimi Hendrix and Santana, among others.
He eventually married and joined the Navy and formed a band aboard the USS Enterprise, a nuclear aircraft carrier, performing during shore leaves in the Philippines, Africa and Tasmania, just to name a few locales.
Also gifted with language, Williams wrote for Bass Frontiers Magazine after leaving the service and played with cover bands, such as Arabesque, throughout the Bay Area.
In 1993, Williams released his first album of original music, “Clarence Williams: Upside Down Xperience.” Seven years later, he formed 2nd Planet with longtime friend and bassist Theodore Valentine.
A former competitive bicycle rider, Williams has maintained the group despite personnel changes. Today, 2nd Planet is rounded out by Ron Menefee on drums, Archie White on keyboards. They perform throughout the Bay Area and the Central Valley, he said.
Vocalist Jamie Davis, a former singer with the Count Basie Band, is the festival’s featured headliner. He performs from 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday on the Courtyard Stage at Travis Credit Union Park.
Besides Williams and Davis, a San Francisco resident, local groups include Funky Saxman Ken Stout Band, Don Kidder’s Delta Flyers, Walt Wadenius & the Swing Savant Band, the Ray Zak Trio, the Dixon Phirehouse Philharmonic, the Dalt Williams Quintet, Keith Stout’s Alive Music Orchestra, featuring singer Frank Salamone, and pianist Delbert Bump.
All the performances are free.
As it was last year, the festival is dedicated to Hurricane Katrina victims and donation points will be set up at TCUP and at other festival sites.
“As we pay tribute to our roots, it is only fitting that we also dedicate this festival to our brothers and sisters in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast,” VJS president Keith Stout said.
Technically, the festival is already under way with America’s Jazz Roots workshops, including one Wednesday at the Vacaville Public Library – Town Square, in downtown Vacaville. The library is also the site of the VJS’ Crossroads Jazz Series concerts, the third afternoon of every month, September through December. Additionally, Drive’n Music shows, the society’s Jitterbug Jazz series, begins Saturday at various Vacaville auto dealerships on Orange Drive.
The festival’s popular jazz Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, 350 Stinson, Ave., with the American Heritage Band and popular Vacaville chanteuse Tina Benedict.
The festival ends with Gospel Jazz Sunday from noon to 9:15 p.m. at TCUP.