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John Williams: The Jazz Musician You Didn’t Think You Knew

John Williams: The Jazz Musician You Didn’t Think You Knew

Even if you aren’t a music nerd, John Williams is a name you’ve heard before. Known primarily for his iconic film scores, it turns out he has a forgotten past. 

If you’re a fan of piano jazz, greats like Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett come to mind. But what if we told you the second most nominated individual in Academy Awards history had a similar start? 

We’re wandering down memory lane and discover the swinging past of film composer and jazz pianist Johnny T Williams. 

Let’s take a stroll!

The Story of John Williams

Born in 1932 as John Towner Williams into a musical family, little Johnny cut his teeth on jazz. His father worked as a professional drummer with groups like the Raymond Scott Quintet. Surrounded by melodies and harmonies as a child, young John felt a close bond with his father. 

In 1948, the family moved to Los Angeles, which proved instrumental in Williams’ life. After graduating from North Hollywood High School, John attended UCLA for composition. He studied with Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco before joining the U.S. Air Force Band. 

During his time with U.S. Air Force, he arranged music and played piano and brass in the band. Part of his assignment included taking courses at the University of Arizona. In 1955, after his duty to the military was complete, he moved to New York City. 

In the city, he studied at Julliard, where he planned to become a concert pianist. However, when he heard his contemporaries like Van Cliburn perform, he changed his mind. He switched gears entirely to composition. As Johnny Williams, he gigged around in the jazz clubs of New York.

Early Work in Film

After completing his studies at Julliard and the Eastman School of Music, Williams returned home to Los Angeles. He hung out his shingle as a composer and orchestrator, although he still played as a session pianist. 

He quickly built connections in the film industry by working with famous composers like Leonard Bernstein, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith. His piano chops got him in the door, but his true calling was composition. His first foray on his own was in B-movies like Daddy-O, his first feature. 

Oscar-Worthy Scores

He finally broke out of B-movies by winning an Academy Award for the score of Fiddler on the Roof. Fresh of that win, he penned music for several of Irwin Allen’s disaster films in the 1970s. He worked with Steven Spielberg on his debut feature, and the two formed a decades-long partnership. 

And in 1977, a young filmmaker named George Lucas reached out about a little space epic you may know. Star Wars changed the industry, and its music remains the highest-grossing film score recording of all time. 

As a composer, John Williams is easily one of the most successful of the 20th century. His scores are instantly recognizable. He’s also composed several works for orchestra and chamber orchestra. Throughout his career, he’s also written around twenty concertos for solo instruments and orchestras. 

Did Johnny T. Williams Play Jazz?

In his college years, the composer cut a wide path through the jazz clubs of New York. Under the name Johnny T. Williams, he performed all over the city and found himself highly in demand. 

When he moved back to Los Angeles, he spent time as a studio musician working. The Henry Mancini band hired him to work on film scores like Peter Gunn and the T.V. show Mr. Lucky. Williams also worked with Broadway great Leonard Bernstein, playing piano for his film adaptation of West Side Story.

The truth is that we remember Williams’ neo-romantic film scores. But jazz infuses nearly every soundtrack he’s written. He uses the genre’s complex structures and techniques to enhance his compositions. So, even if the music sounds like a lush orchestral approach, there’s a bit of a smoky swing club hidden in it. 

Are There Recordings of John Williams Playing Jazz?

Johnny Williams, the jazz pianist, made several albums. World on a String and The John Towner Touch were recorded and released in the 1960s. YouTube has most of The John Towner Touch streaming and videos of him playing with other groups. 

In the early 2000s, Kapp records reissued Williams’ early albums, and you can still find them easily. These recordings offer a fresh look at his compositional roots for true fans. His thoughtful, precise playing is evident throughout these albums. 

What John Williams Film Scores Are Influenced by Jazz?

Williams’ love for jazz is part of his film scores. Whether you hear it or not, the complex rhythms and harmonies owe a lot to his history as a hepcat. Let’s look at just a couple of his features.

Star Wars

One of the most groundbreaking films in history, Star Wars marked the beginning of something new. In A New Hope, George Lucas wrote a scene in a divey bar and told Williams his vision. Instead of synthy, futuristic music, Lucas wanted something like Benny Goodman reimagined by futuristic creatures. 

Cantina Band was Williams’ response to the request. In the pivotal scene where we meet Han Solo, the jaunty tune seems either perfect or out of place. Throughout the rest of the score, there’s jazz theory hidden everywhere. From the rebel theme to Jabba the Hut, the genre’s harmonies and chord structures are one of his favorite tools. 


This film, Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the Peter Pan story, featured an Academy Award-nominated score. Williams created the songs under the impression that the film would be a musical. He wrote eight tunes with lyricist Leslie Bricusse before Spielberg canned that idea. 

As the film developed, the score matched the outsized world of Neverland. But he still found a way to sneak some bebop into the mix. Petter Banning’s (played by Robin Williams) workplace has a jazz theme during the regular world scenes. Underscoring the chaotic and stressful adult world, the scene cuts back and forth to Banning’s son playing baseball. 

Is John Williams Still Alive?

John Williams, now 90, is still active in the film and orchestral music worlds. His most recent film score for The Fabelmans, directed by Steven Spielberg, came out in 2022. While nominated for a Golden Globe award, it didn’t bag the win. 

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny will also feature his work and will probably be his last feature. In 2022, Williams announced his plan to retire from film work and focus on orchestral compositions. 

He’s been called the greatest composer of any century by Norwegian songwriter Marcus Paus. To date, twenty-one American universities have bestowed him honorary degrees. The impact of Williams’ compositions even earned him a knighthood in 2022, one of the last granted by Queen Elizabeth II. 

Remembering the Beginnings of a Legend

Now, one of the last century’s most prolific and influential composers still fills our lives with music. John Williams forged his own path from the smoky jazz clubs of New York City to the Academy Awards.

When he gave up on his goal of being a concert pianist, he probably never dreamed of where he’d end up. From the silver screen to the Netflix stream, John Williams is one of the best. And that man can swing.

Did you already have Johnny T. on your jazz playlist, or is this news to you? Let us know in the comments!