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Keeping the arioso touch

Just before James Williams moved to New York from right around our corner in Boston, he took out his yellow tablet and blue ink and jotted down some thoughts about being a musician. He was fresh from recording a new album of his compositions to follow ''The Arioso Touch'' of a couple of years ago. The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines arioso as ''a recitative of a lyrical and expressive quality, not, as usual, narrative and speechlike.'' Mr. Williams defines arioso with his piano playing, which was a central part of drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for several years; which recently represented Tadd Dameron in the orchestra memorializing the late be-bop star; and which has taken the pianist and his records to many countries. Now he has been honored as one of the nominees for an ASCAP/Meet the Composer commission to write a work for performance next spring in a Brooklyn Philharmonic concert paying tribute to composer Aaron Copland.

Music has been the common denominator in making friends and in seeing places that I thought I'd only read about while growing up in Memphis. Most of all, it has given me the privilege of extending, in essence, the great traditions of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, and others. Jazz, like gospel music and the blues from which it comes, has a humbling effect on the dedicated musician and listener alike. For me, after meeting many receptive audiences abroad, the greatest thrill has come from playing ''at home'' in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Memphis, and especially here in Boston, where the rapport is as if we know everyone personally. And I guess some evenings that is almost the case.

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The clientele is as much a mixture as one can imagine: doctors, lawyers, professors, carpenters, clerks, businessmen, housewives, custodians, musicians, the unemployed (no, not the musicians), and many more with one basic common interest - to support what has become my favorite pastime.

I said ''pastime'' deliberately, though music is my profession. I also like basketball and baseball, both as a player and spectator, reading (nonfiction mostly), and traveling. But my main hobby is music, and I wonder if people in many jobs wouldn't say that it is good to keep the joy and enthusiasm of a hobby as they perform their daily work. If you're doing something you're serious about , it's important to take some kind of step forward each day. That's easier to do if you find enjoyment in it yourself.

As I have moved through the ranks of becoming a professional musician, I've seen part of the music industry unseen by the general public, and some of it is not very pleasant or encouraging, especially for the young music student. The competition for jobs in symphony orchestras, TV studio orchestras, musical shows , jazz ensembles (big bands or combos), can be fierce. The scarcity of some jobs is due to cutbacks in federal and state government aid for the arts.

Despite facing such obstacles, I feel fortunate. Few things in life can compare with the feeling of having performed for an appreciative audience, or of hearing one's compositions interpreted by creative artists, or of helping someone develop creative skills through instruction.

So finally, when deadlines for arrangements, rehearsals, performances, etc., are complete and I decide to take it easy and relax a bit, what do I do? You guessed it: listen to music and sometimes play some music on the piano.

I try to hear live music whenever possible; this is still the best way to capture the true spirit of a performance. The next best thing is recorded music. I may add that I get in a fair amount of ''pleasure listening'' while driving or shaving or letter-writing or doing some domestic chores. Right now I happen to be listening to Erroll Garner!

During these pleasure-listening times I'm listening primarily with ''layman ears''; that is, with total emotion, or nonacademically, so to speak. Of course, it's difficult to segregate a musician's instincts for listening analytically or intellectually for subtleties of rhythm, harmony, or tone colors that are present in all good music. But I succeed more often than not.

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Please excuse me while I turn up the volume on Erroll.

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