Jessica Williams, jazz pianist, composer


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The State of Change, as of August of 2016

A semi-political report of no consequence whatsoever. You want the news, there's the Times. This is a year old, so forgive the dated quality. Yesterday's newspapers sold here.

Preface: I transitioned socially at 15, and surgically at 28. In 1976. I am almost 70 now.

70 years old already! It's funny with musicians — everybody thinks we stay young forever. Some people are shocked when they find out my age. Particularly in jazz, where there's an effect very similar to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. The rest of the planet and its citizens get old. But we musicians keep on going like little robots, until one day, phtttt. We die on-stage. I used to fantasize about getting hit by a meteor at the age of 40. I was playing, into some really monster lick, and crash-boom, a meteor lands on top of me, the piano, and possibly the drummer also. There's a smell of burnt hair in the air. A meteor has just become a meteorite. The crater is smoking. The audience is satisfied. It has been duly impressed. This will be my ticket to all the history books. My fame rode in on a comet! And out, too!

The history books already have put me in, taken me out, argued, and put me in again. It is, after all, HIS-story, not HER-story. And it's true:

When jazz critic and writer Leonard Feather heard I was a post-operative transsexual woman, a trans-woman, he removed me from his book. JAZZ, I think it was called. When he died, his replacement put me back in again, but this time as a vocalist. At the same time, the fellows who put out The Penguin Guide to Jazz expunged me from their pages, and miraculously ressurrected as being much more important than I was, taking up as much room as my namesakes, Mary Lou and Tony. I came and went for years as their "position on my gender-change" oscillated from year to year. Poor guys! They couldn't stand it! Not only was I one of the very few prized women pianists, but they were not sure about the "woman" part, so they tried to invent a new category of which only I was an example.

I have developed a good sense of humor. I've had to.

When my agent found out about my "change", he blamed me for him not being able to get work for his other luminary, Maynard Ferguson. I actually took that one seriously for awhile, as I had been making more money for him than all of his artists put together. Suddenly, I was out of a job. He told me I'd never work in Europe again. He was wrong, but I went back only once after that. Word had gotten out. I had "killed the Pope". I had offended his God by my mere existence.

I've never owned a house. I could never get a loan. I have been asked to vacate rentals simply because of the words I had written on Facebook, words to other women like myself, trans-women.

Being trans in America is kind of like being an illegal alien or a terrorist. Right now the Religious Right is trying to convince people that we are cold-blooded killers. I tried to be silent. But when you read about the women, just like yourself, who are being bludgeoned to death by guys who avoid doing time by using what they call the "trans-panic" defense, you get frightened. And when the local supermarket installs armed guards in all the ladies' bathrooms, causing death and destruction in the bathroom itself . . . Holy Mother, what insanity! So you must stand up. You must speak.

When I got to be 68, I told the world. I told the truthnew window. I had been mis-gendered at birth. It was something the doctors in 1948 did not understand. There was no TV to inform them. Not even a cell phone! And no Facebook. The Internet did not exist. Science was a new idea. The whole notion of gender difference was unknown to most people. Although at that time, millions of trans women and men were being born all over the planet. They always had been, always would be. But science had no chance against religion.

I was born to parents who were not religious. My mother was a Jew. Wow. Imagine that. She told my dad Thomas that she was German. He was Irish. She was terrified of the antisemitism. It was 1948, after all. We had won the war against Hitler's National Socialism, which we knew as Fascism. The Nazis seemed gone. But they were just hiding, because America was crawling with anti-this and anti-that. Jews were commies. They were taking our money. They were all filthy rich.

So she remained a German.

When I got my operation in 1976 and had my plumbing fixed (an operation called a vaginoplasty), everybody went totally ape. Lost their minds. I was attacked, shot at, screamed at, preached at, shot at some more, and finally had to leave my home forever. Even my mom lost her mind when she saw me changing a kotex pad (until the visual kicked in, it was somehow not real to her). I thus learned what my mom already knew: Don't ever tell them you're a Jew!

Later, the doctors would come to me with proof, on MRI's and CAT scans, and tell me I had A.I.S., "androgen insensitivity syndrome". They had found fallopian tubes and a half-formed uterus. I told a few folks because I figured it gave me an excuse to be different. As if anyone needs an excuse to be themselves.

After what I'd been through, I just sort of stopped telling people about all of it. My body was working just fine. I could play, I could make love, and I passed fairly easily as female. I was blessed with a woman's voice. There is justice in this Universe. I have never been called "sir" on the phone. Off of it, either.

I married a guy in Philadelphia immediately. I met the great drummer with Miles, Philly Joe Jones, and he hired me. He noticed I sat on an inner-tube for most of our gigs, but he only said, "I ain't gonna ask."

So I never talked about it. I learned to be what we call "stealth". Like that bomber, I was hopefully invisible. I didn't talk about it for 40 years. I told my closest friends, but often, that was a sure way to lose them as friends entirely. I told every husband I married, though. They deserved that. They didn't care. They loved women and I was a woman. Who cared about the dead past?

Obviously, the critics cared, and, as the rumors grew fangs and fur, they cared more and more. They became increasingly annoying to me. Several of them threatened me with exposure. Blackmail! But I was defensive enough that once I started yelling at them that I would sue them for defamation of character and loss of income, they complied. Critics hate litigation. They make less money than musicians do. I adopted my "Miles Dewey Davis Critics Policy". No interviews, ever.

Growing up was hard enough. The experts took me out of school in 8th grade — I was breaking God's Law for having long blonde hair like a girl, and wearing makeup . . . like a girl. I'd wear makeup and perfume to school. I was a girl, right? Well, school officials didn't see it as I did. They demanded compliance to a gender role that was impossible for me to fit into convincingly.

I could and maybe should write a book. I mean, I survived playing for two whole weeks with Stan Getz, for heaven's sake! I am a survivor! And I certainly have many stories to tell. But I have little time for words right now. There are too many words in this world and not enough meaning. Besides, what's the big deal? Every trans-woman out there has tried to turn her experience into cash, only to be thwarted by a simple truth: humans, at least American ones, prefer rumors!

And many cannot read.

I told the basics. Let the rumors flow. I like the one where I'm born Black, and get some sort of skin treatment, like Michael Jackson had, that turned me white. That one was pretty entertaining. I mean, at one time, all my heroes were Black folk.

But it really hurt, also. Actually, the whole insult-mill hurt me on a level I find difficult to talk about. I have really bad PTSD from it. And other stuff that's even less pleasant to talk about, like broken hands. This is no confessional. I may be a Matrineal Jewess, but I'm not Kosher. I have no guilt or shame. I just want fairness, equality, and justice.

You might be aware that many trans-women are assaulted, raped, or killednew window, every day. In America, 2015 was our worst year. And the perps, in the main, did little-to-no time in jail. I find this unacceptable. Everyone has a right to live. No one should be killed because of who they are. It is barbaric. We are denied medical care. If we don't "pass", we get thrown out of homes, even our own. Thrown out of restaurants. Thrown out of our jobs. Thrown off buildings

We experience a thing called "economic apartheid". It stinks.

I've had to deal with it since I came out. Everybody that read those articles I released, everybody is gone away. It is silent in the Williams household. No phones ring. No piano is played (I lost everything). No song springs forth from my heart when I tell you of this. I am, at times such as these, worried for my country. We allow men like Donald Trump to spew his hate all over us and incite violence against all who are not male and white, yet it allows its best and brightest citizens to be targeted for death by "alt-right" criminals who carry assault rifles in grocery stores.

A dangerous man called Trump is, at the moment, spending 19 million dollars a month to run for president. He has known ties to white supremacy groups. He's holding a seat open for David Duke. He has friends in the Ku Klux Klan. He is vile and crude. The Italians are asking themselves, "What is wrong with the Americans?" I couldn't answer them.

19 million a month! Oy. I'm on 'special help' and food stamps. I get Social Security. It's $540 a month. Try living on that! For a while, author Stephen King helped me. But he isn't my DAD. He couldn't keep me afloat forever. He has other fish to fry. I try to sell a CD or two here. Outside of that, I'm adrift right now. I have a few house concerts coming up, and that's it. That career is ending, whether I want it to or not. I prefer it to end so that I can play my own compositions.

Nothing is forever in a Universe of Change. Everything ends, and I am thankful for that.

This attack on trans people has been brewing ever since I transitioned 40 years ago. Now it is here. Like it or not, my first duty is to stay alive. I have much more musicnew window to record and perform. It is more difficult when you are always looking over your shoulder, waiting to catch a bullet. Most of my life has been just that.

I was born to be tall. My dad was 6'4". I'm 5'11", now that my back surgery restored the distance between my lumbar disks. It was always good to be tall and thin. But when Caitlyn Jenner got on stage and sounded like a male drill-sergeant, being tall suddenly became a crime for all females. Many women who have died in the recent onslaught of attacks have been natal women. Child-bearing women. Why were they killed? Because they resembled Caitlyn.

If you weren't okay, you wouldn't have read this far. Many guys along the way have thrown every Jessica Williams CD or LP into the trash for just this reason. I think I understand, but I can't say it improves my outlook.

I could go on about how this goes right along with their War on Women. And that goes right along with their hatred and fear of anyone different than themselves. I could advance theories on why this makes people so violent. But, in the end, I don't understand violence at all. I've been the victim of it . . . the rape, the assault, the attempted murder. I have had all of this happen to me in my long life here. I've survived, barely. It's amazing how much music I made, given how hard I had to work to make it. Work? Fight is more the word. And I'm tired. But not tired enough to give up yet.

There are so few women in the field of jazz. My music is changing, and it's not what the old guard would call pure jazz anymore. Sorry, but very few people on Earth listen to that stuff anymore. Black folks don't attend the festivals because the music does not speak to their experience, and I've had friends tell me that it offended them. It reminded them of a time before Freedom. I know what they mean. I know that time. It's now for me, for those like me.

Now's the time.


Peace and all the other good things in this world.

Jessica Aug 26 2016

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You must be the change you wish to see in the world. - Mahatma Gandhi


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