Tom Williams, a 28-year-old Army jazz trumpeter raised in Baltimore's Forest Park, one recent weekend acted out the "Hit the Road Jack" song routine of his old boss Ray Charles.
He ended the period winning the $5000 second place prize in the Louis Armstrong International Trumpet Competition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, beating out all but one of the original 300 contestants who sent in tapes.
Baltimore jazz fans will get a chance to hear Williams' playing when Morgan State University's radio station WEAA FM (88.9) broadcasts the Armstrong finals at 8 p.m. Thursday Dec. 20. Bill Cosby taped remarks for the two-hour program.
On the Friday and Monday before and after the contest, he was a staff sergeant at his regular job as a trumpeter with the Army's 17-member Jazz Ambassadors based at Fort Meade.
In the middle of the weekend, he finished the Armstrong semi-finals, barely made Douglass High School in Baltimore for a gig with his dad's jazz band, "Now's the Time", then returned to Washington to squeeze in time with another jazz band doing a Howard University fund-raiser. He learned at 1 a.m. Sunday he had reached the finals scheduled later that day. "All I wanted in the Armstrong was exposure, to reach the semi-finals. I was one of 19. I can't remember a time I was more nervous. All the other players were really great players."
As one of six finalists, he played "The Night has a Thousand Eyes," an up-tempo jazz number; "Ask Me Now", a bebop tune by Thelonius Monk, and "Speak Low" by Kurt Weill.
Ryan Kisor, a 17-year-old Sioux City, Iowa high school student won first prize and "I was second," a still disbelieving Williams said the other day. The modesty seems genuine. Williams is a soft-spoken giant of a man, 6'3" and still 230 pounds though losing "another whole person of 160 pounds" in a recent diet.
Baltimore buffs squealed over Williams at the Douglass appearance. He stood ram-rod straight in dark suit as he showed bright technical virtuosity and a special flair for modern jazz without ignoring the older stuff. He was influenced by the likes of Kenny Durham, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Woodie Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Winton Kelly and drummer Joe Jones and ,yes, Armstrong.
"I've noticed Armstrong's influence, mostly indirect, in myself and others in the last couple of years. I hear Louis in Kenny Durham."
Williams' one record is "Peer Pleasure" with Jimmy Heath in 1987 on the Landmark Records label. Although he has no immediate live Baltimore dates, his Tom Williams Quartet plays Dec. 28 and 29 at The Trumpets jazz club in Washington. The vocalist is his wife Delores King Williams. Others are pianist Bob Butta; Jeff Harper, bass, and Lennie Robinson, drums.
Re-upping a year ago in the Army and with two years left, Williams is on the road with the Ambassadors, of the U.S. Army Field Band, up to 120 days a year. They play dates here and abroad, including overseas jazz festivals in Switzerland, the Netherlands and India.
Williams was graduated from Meade Senior High School in Anne Arundel county, hitching a ride to school with his father, a long-time teacher in the county. He studied two years at Towson State University and left in 1982 to pursue music "but I do want to go back to school sometime."
Williams has done a pile of playing in his young life. From 1983 to 1987, he toured with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under Mercer Ellington. But he also sneaked in a 1983 tour of Japan with the "Sophisticated Lady" company and a five-month stint with Ray Charles in 1984.
He is re-assessing his life after the Army. It might be music. It might be something else. Meanwhile he enjoys riding a bike with his wife and just being at home.
"When you lose 160 pounds in 18 months, some people lose a lot of muscle. I lost muscle. And after four hours rehearsal with the Ambassadors, you can't do any more. So sometimes I sit around at home doing nothing. I love doing nothing."