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Bernie Williams and the journey to jazz
Iconic former Yankee recalls his early passion for the guitar, and what led him to his musical second act

Bernie Williams @ Savannah Jazz Festival

Forsyth Park

Fri., Sep. 28, 9:30 p.m., free & open to public

ONE OF the most celebrated baseball players in modern history, Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams took a completely different path when he stopped playing in 2006.

His lifelong love of music, which first began to show signs of professional life with the release of his 2003 album The Journey Within, became much more than a passion almost immediately after his sports career ended. Williams, a classically-trained guitar player since a very young age, decided to jump head first into getting a music education and furthering his efforts on his instrument.

Raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Williams’ love of jazz stemmed from his interest in the guitar music that he grew up around. His two critically-acclaimed albums fuse jazz with Latin, rock, classical and blues influences, and were augmented by some serious session musicians. He’s bringing those songs and more to Savannah Jazz Festival on September 28, and we caught up with him beforehand to talk jazz, music education, and the links between music and baseball.

What were some of your early influences? What records were you listening to when you started?

I wasn’t really listening to a lot of records. I was mostly listening to the radio. My mom used to, every Sunday afternoon, listen to a lot of the traditional music that was played. When I turned eight years old, I started taking lessons with the neighborhood teacher, and after about a year we started going to this sort of impromptu AM radio show. The students would perform dances to some of the traditional music that we were learning to play.

It wasn’t until ninth grade that I started taking it a little bit more seriously. I went to a performing arts high school in Puerto Rico, where I started learning more in a classical sense – learning about Segovia and Fernando Sor, and all these other types of music that I was getting familiar with. That took me to my sports endeavors, which led me to signing with The Yankees. When I came to New York, I started listening more to rock and blues and jazz. But I never really forgot the things that I listened to growing up in Puerto Rico.

When you got into jazz, was that happening after you moved to New York? There’s obviously some rich jazz history in that city. Were you immersing yourself in that?

I really hadn’t immersed myself in jazz until I went back to school, and that was just a couple years after I retired in 2006. About five years ago, I sort of left and came again. I auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music, and I was able to get in and go through the whole jazz performance program. That’s when I got interested in learning about the music, learning the history of the music, and really figuring out what I could do. The more interested [I became] in learning the theory and the harmony behind it, I could put some of that stuff in my playing and utilize it to play other kinds of music with a jazz aesthetic.

In the credits to your first album, there’s almost a dream list of session players – Leland Sklar, David Sancious, Shawn Pelton. Was it a dream list for you? Did you have a wish list?

Assembling the music was something I did on my own. At the time I wasn’t much of a writer – I would do demos and overdub stuff, and I’d make samples of my music so that people could get a vibe of what I was going after. Assembling the musicians came about because my producer had access to all of these incredible musicians. Some of them were New York cats, some were L.A. cats, and they were flown in to play on the record. To be quite honest, when we first started I didn’t know who some of the people were. Obviously being more involved in baseball than music [at the time], I only really knew the people that I gravitated towards listening to – more fusion kind of people like Pat Methany and Mike Stern, George Benson, Robin Ford, people like that. Those were the people that I was tailoring myself after as a player.

Going backwards and forwards into the music, you start learning about people like Charlie Christian, etc. Getting into my jazz studies further, I started going more backwards to get a sense of the source of all this music. When I was in school, I took two or three years of music history – going as far as Congo Square, the music of New Orleans, Chicago and New York, following Armstrong and the big swing bands all the way to bebop and all that stuff. So I had a pretty good sense of the history of the music and how it involved over time. The more I listened to it, the more fascinated I got. It’s been a great journey of discovery.

When you go back and learn the history of music, you realize jazz and blues are the backbone of what we have now. That gets lost often, unfortunately.

Yeah, I totally agree.

When did you figure out this was the next phase of your life as a full-time thing?

It kind of came about, more or less, after I retired. Even though The Journey Within was made while I was still playing, I didn't really feel that I could do justice to being a full-time musician at the level that I was playing baseball in New York. It was very time consuming, and required me to really be there. It was impossible for me to do both things at a high level at the same time. But I had a great affinity for trying to educate myself by listening to videos, going to concerts, and reading a ton of books at home. So I was always interested in educating my ear.

When it came time for me to not play baseball anymore, instead of just trying to land a job as a coach or a manager or broadcaster, I knew that my next chapter in life was going to be more related to music. I didn’t know if I was going to be a performer, or where that journey was going to take me, but I knew that music had to be involved. With that said, I figured if I was going to go into music full time, I had to do it the right way. I started looking for colleges or conservatories that could perhaps facilitate an education in music at that point in my life. Because I wasn’t a teenager or someone in high school, but I wanted to pursue it seriously. So that’s when I decided to go to the Manhattan School of Music, and it was a really cool thing for me to experience. It put everything into perspective as far as why I was doing what I was doing.

In baseball and sports, it’s all about stats and competing against other people. That couldn’t be further away from my experience in music [laughs]. I think what motivates me to try to become a better musician every day is that I really relish the opportunity to play with other people in different genres of music. For instance, a couple of years ago I’d been invited to be part of a house band in tribute to Dave Brubeck. We ended up playing the same stage with his son, and we played this version of “Take Five.” It was just amazing to be there amongst all of these great jazz musicians.

The next day, I’m in Long Island at another joint playing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” with Twisted Sister and just rocking it out [laughs].

That’s amazing!

To me, it was more about utilizing music as a language to reach out. To me it didn’t matter what kind of music we were playing, the fact of the matter was that we were playing music. I figured that in order for me to be able to be proficient playing with a jazz ensemble or a metal ensemble or maybe just playing some Latin Jazz, I needed to really pursue it in a serious matter and educate myself. I probably would’ve been able to do it in some other way, maybe hiring a private instructor or something, but I wanted to get the experience of going to college and fulfilling a lifelong dream.

You basically wrote a book about this, but in shorter terms – are there parallels between music and baseball that maybe people don’t realize?

The process that you go through to be a baseball player is not so different than the one you have to take on to become a really good musician. There are certain routines you have to follow on an everyday basis. In baseball, it’s your swing and your skill level, and in music it’s your chops. You have to keep them right and improve on them as you become a better player. There are no shortcuts, you just have to go through the process by studying harmony and theory, working on arpeggios and chord melody, all of that stuff. In baseball it’s taking swings off of the tee, doing the soft toss, batting practice with the machines and everything. The preparation aspect was a parallel I was able to draw.

The other thing is overcoming adversity and not really dwelling on your mistakes. In baseball you always have an opportunity to redeem yourself, and in music you can’t really dwell on what you do wrong because you always have more to play.

As a player it’s easy to beat yourself up about the things you do wrong.

I know! The one thing that I’ve realized is that, even if I see them as mistakes because they weren’t planned, a lot of times you go, “Woah! That kind of came out okay” [laughs].

Like a happy accident.

Yeah, a happy accident. But really, the two are no different. You engage the audience, play as hard as you can, and play as good as you possibly can so that you can draw a connection with the people who enjoy what you’re doing.