SALT LAKE CITY — Steve Williams' love for jazz might have been baked in at birth.
Reflecting on his life and his decision to retire after 31 years of hosting a nightly jazz program on KUER-FM, Williams looks back on his parents' musical experiences as a formative influence on his life. He even has an album of big-band jazz recorded at the concert where his parents met.
"My dad was a professional saxophonist; she was a tap dancer," Williams said. "At 12 years old, 13, she was a professional tap dancer."
On a fateful night at the Hollywood Palladium in 1945, Murray Williams was playing lead alto sax for the Gene Krupa Orchestra. His future wife — visiting from Utah — came to hear the band play. There must have been magic in the air as well as music; they met that night and got married not long after.
"The night they met at the Palladium, they recorded it," Williams said, proudly holding the Gene Krupa CD album recorded that night. "I found this four years ago, five years ago, on Amazon. I had no idea (it existed)."
Murray Williams went on to play reed instruments with many famous jazz musicians in the post-World War II era.
"Charlie Parker, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnett," Williams said. "I grew up with the music every day. Charlie Parker was my first musical hero. I mean, at 3 years old."
Williams' decision to retire has sparked controversy because it triggered a decision by KUER management to eliminate jazz from the station's schedule. Williams avoids criticizing the decision and emphasizes that the time had come for him personally.
"Well, I'm going to be 70," Williams said. "I can't work forever."
He said he looks forward to traveling and spending most weeknights at home with his wife, Vicki, instead of sitting by himself at a radio control board.
For Utahns who love jazz, Williams' departure is a big deal and an unwelcome turning point. Williams has been the voice of jazz in Utah for 31 years, always choosing his playlist from the best of mainstream jazz, drawing on his family influences and his deep knowledge of jazz history.
Charlie Parker, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnett. I grew up with the music every day. Charlie Parker was my first musical hero. I mean, at 3 years old.
When asked what he likes about jazz, Williams snapped his fingers rhythmically and said, "Everything. The groove, you know. Jazz is a feeling."
When there's "live" jazz to be heard in Salt Lake City, Williams is often the face of jazz as well, serving as on-stage host for many jazz-related events. And now, jazz fans are saying goodbye.
"You're a tremendous friend," said Stephen Denkers, executive director of the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation, as he raised a glass to toast Williams on stage at a music venue called the State Room. "You're a tremendous asset to this community, you always will be and you shall be in the future. Thank you very, very much. And here's a hearty cheer to you and your future."
The tribute was met with enthusiastic applause by music fans who had come to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Although Williams lived his first few years in Manhattan — the birthplace of the modern jazz pioneered by Charlie Parker — he and his family moved west in 1952. Murray Williams gave up the big-time music scene so his wife could live near her family in Utah.
"My dad, because he loved my mother, he said, 'Yes. We'll move. We'll take a chance.'" Williams recalled.
He grew up and became a musician too, playing soprano sax. But in the 1980s he found his true calling, first at KRCL and then at KUER.
Listeners have long had the benefit of Williams' vast knowledge and experience. He has interviewed or met many of the big names in jazz and he often travels to jazz festivals and conferences. He regrets that jazz is no longer America's popular music, but he says a crop of young musicians is keeping it alive.
"It's an acquired thing," Williams said. "I have people tell me this all the time: 'I didn't know I liked jazz, but you turned me into a jazz person.'"
"He has such a conviction about the music and such a sincerity about it and obviously such a depth with it," said Chris Mautz, co-owner of the State Room as he spoke from the stage to honor Williams. He was joined by KRCL's Eugenie Hero Jaffe, who said to the audience, "Let's raise our glass for 31 amazing years of music and radio. Thank you. Thank you, Steve Williams."
Williams' final broadcast will be on the evening of June 30. A major goodbye celebration and free jazz concert are planned at the Gallivan Center on Thursday, June 25.
"It's a gift; it's a blessing for me to be able to do this for 31 years and make a living," Williams said. "If my old dad was alive he'd say, 'Kid, you really did it. I'm proud of you.'"