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  • Smooth Jazz Network

Pamela Williams: Behind the Beats

Each week we'll take you 'Behind the Beats' to learn more about the artists that play on our airwaves. This week: Pamela Williams.

We spoke with Pamela Williams in our 2021 Year-End BEATS magazine but some questions didn't quite fit. Check out the original article below but keep scrolling for the full version of our conversation.

Read the rest of the BEATS magazine here.

You entered the smooth jazz scene 25 years ago with your debut album “Saxtress”. At that time you made the transition from touring with pop and R&B artists to becoming a solo artist. Tell us about performing with some of those artists like Pattu LaBelle, Prince, Babyface and others.

Yes I did transition professionally in my music career from performing with R&B artists into a contemporary jazz artist but before I made that transition, I was already playing that genre around Philadelphia. Patti LaBelle was myfirst major R&B artist I toured with and it was quite an incredible experience. I toured with her for 8 years and really learned how to interact with an audience amongst other things. Because I worked with Patti, I was able to meet and work with some of the other artists you’ve mentioned. Teena Marie was another artist I toured with for almost as long as I worked with Patti. I had the opportunity to produce a couple of tracks for her and she sang on a few of my recordings. I appeared on some TV shows with Babyface and never went on tour with him. I did one studio session with Prince which was awesome....just meeting him and being able to sit next to him at his mixing console watching him work up close and personal was fantastic. They were all musical geniuses and I was fortunate to have worked with them.

How did you make the leap? Was it a quick decision?

I always wanted to be a solo jazz saxophonist and was previously performing as such in clubs before working with those R&B artists. So making the decision to take that leap was pretty easy for me. Although it was very hard and scary to quit Patti LaBelle’s band. Stepping out on my own was an act of faith, but also unrelenting dedication because it was not easy to break into the jazz genre for a female saxophonist.

Your first album was titled “Saxtress” and your listing as an artist now reads “The Saxtress Pamela Williams”. How did this come about?

Yes my debut CD was entitled “Saxtress”. The name was suggested to me by a dear friend while we were listening to and looking at Anita Baker’s “Songtress” album in the 80’s. My friend said to me , “if you ever record a solo album, you should call yourself theSaxtress!” I agreed that it was a very cool-sounding name and that it should be my a part of my stage name, as well as the title of myfirst CD. Throughout my career the name Saxtress has been used interchangeably with my real name so I decided to trademark it as an official stage name. As more and more female saxophonists emerged onto the scene, they were starting to use the name Saxtress. Some radio personalities, promoters and websites were also using the name Saxtress to describe and announce other female saxophonists. When I returned to radio, I decided that it was time to clear up the confusion and reclaim my original stage name which a lot of my fans know me by.

You grew up in Grover Washington Jr’s hometown of Philadelphia. Was he an influence?

Yes I did. Grover Washington Jr. was absolutely an influence on me. I always say that he was my saxophone teacher because I use to listen to all of his records and tried to play what he was playing. I think people can hear his influence in some of my playing.

Was saxophone your first instrument?

I did mess around with the piano when I was a little girl, and some percussion instruments. I actually wanted to play drums but my parents way...too loud! So the clarinet was the first instrument I really learned how to seriously play in my high school band. I then switched over to the saxophone in the jazz band and I also played flute a little. I still play piano on a lot of my recordings. I always knew early on that I wanted to be a musician.

I have not yet had the opportunity to see you perform live, but the reviews are always outstanding and I’ve seen some YouTube videos too. How do you approach live performance and presentation?

During a live performance my approach is to just come out being myself and being true to the performance and giving it 100%. I feed off of the audience’s energy and the band, so I think of it as an interactive experience between us. Me and the musicians I perform with rehearse the songs but the live music is always spontaneous. I just reach down deep and try to get the crowd to feel what I’m feeling on stage. I’m on a musical high and I want the crowd to be right there with me and leave the show feeling excited and happy.

Did working with pop acts prepare you to be such an exciting solo artist?

Oh yes absolutely. Watching them perform and watching their impact on the crowd definitely taught me some things. I think that being polished in your performance and and letting the audience get to know the real you up there is a win win situation.

You have seen some changes in the music business over the years. How has it changed your approach to making a record etc.

I have for sure seen some changes in the recording industry. It went from a more free approach in the music to some limitations. The challenge is being able to stay true to yourself artistically while working within some of the limitations and changes. I’ve had to be adaptable in my approach and that’s okay as long as I am still able to express who I am really am musically.

What advice do you have for young musicians getting their start.

My advice to young musicians just starting out is to be dedicated to your instrument or voice. It’s always something you have to stay up on regardless of how many years you will be in this business. It has been said that practice makes perfect. Always be professional and learn and understand the business aspect of music. Be able to work well with others and check your ego at the door. Music is not a competition or a contact sport...just be the best at expressing your talent. Music does change, as well as how it’s being sold, so be aware of that. You have to market yourself. Surround yourself with people you can trust who have the same vision for yourself and you will be successful. Most importantly, make sure that it brings you happiness so that you will be able to spread that to others through your music.

Keep up with Pamela Williams via her website.

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