D.C.’s queen of Sunday jazz for 36 years
A recent radio show on WPFW began with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V, as the love-struck king woos his future wife. Then the great tenor sax player Ben Webster soloed with strings on “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the lyrics of which begin: “I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you.”
All that amour aired on the aptly named “A Sunday Kind of Love,” the weekly noon to 2 p.m. program on Washington’s Pacifica Radio station. The program was hosted, as it has been for the past 36 years, by longtime D.C. resident Miyuki Williams.
Williams, 64, chooses mostly timeless jazz for her sessions, with some exceptions.
“I play on my program the music I love,” Williams said. “I’m most familiar with jazz, but I also love the blues. I love pop. I love the classics. Music is one of the wonderful elements in being alive.”
Williams got her on-air training, she said in a recent interview with the Beacon, from the late disc jockey Jerry Washington, who was known as “The ‘Bama.”
One spring day in 1981, Williams was driving her car along Minnesota Avenue in southeast D.C., listening to “the ‘Bama” on the radio. When he began having trouble with some of the records he was spinning, a listener called him with on-air complaints.
The DJ told the caller, “If you think you can do a better job, come on in, and I’ll teach you.”
Washington soon got another phone call — this time from Williams.
“I have no idea where I got the nerve or the notion that I could do it, but at the next phone booth I got to, I called him and asked, ‘Mr. Washington, are you serious? Would you train me to be a DJ?’ He said, ‘Yes. Come here on Sunday.’”
The rest is Washington-area jazz, blues and pop-classics history.
From Nina Simone to Eva Cassidy
Williams not only hosts and programs her show, carrying on as a radio engineer as she spins CDs from her personal collection, but she also answers phone calls and raises funds for the station.
When a recent Sunday fell on the birthday of Nina Simone, Williams featured two hours of the pianist-vocalist’s recordings, from her heart-rending rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” to the classically trained artist’s own compositions, including the sad, angry, rousing civil rights protest anthem, “Mississippi Goddam.”
Among other highlights of Williams’ show are her tributes to Eva Cassidy, the legendary vocalist, born and raised in the Washington area, who died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 33. Her parents, Barbara and Hugh Cassidy, have appeared on the program, relating stories about their daughter, known for her beautiful, soulful recordings of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.”
A childhood on Army bases
Williams said her appreciation of jazz began when listening as a kid to the records played by her father, a career Army soldier, at their home at Fort Dix, New Jersey. She remembers listening for the first time to vibraphonist-band leader Lionel Hampton and singers Dinah Washington, Roy Hamilton and Frank Sinatra, among others.
Her father, who was African-American, met Williams’ mother in Yokohama, Japan, and they married there in 1955. Later that year, Sgt. Williams returned with his Japanese wife to the states, and Miyuki, a self-described “Japanese-Afro-American,” was born in Philadelphia in 1956.
From 1963 to 1967, when her father was once again based in the Pacific, Williams lived in Japan.
“Those were my formative years, when I was exposed to Japanese culture,” she said.
“One of the things I appreciate is how the Japanese revere elders and artists. Once artists reach a certain level of proficiency — at ceramic design, playing an instrument, painting, etc. — they can be deemed national treasures. Then they can be expected to teach the next generation their expertise, share their craft and preserve the culture. I love that,” she said.
Williams has several favorite jazz artists.
First, there’s tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane. “He made me understand improvisation and appreciate it.
“I grew up hearing Julie Andrews sing ‘My Favorite Things,’ and singing it [myself] in choir. When I heard Coltrane play it, jazz made sense. The journey he takes me on is familiar, then earth-shattering, opening my ears and my heart.”
Williams admires Billie Holiday for her “unique voice that is so musical and expressive, creative in the use of time and timing — an exquisite master storyteller.”
And the aforementioned Nina Simone, she said, was an “immense pianist, [who,] thwarted in her dreams of becoming a classical pianist because of racism, perseveres and pushes through.
“She was an incredible artist who was incited to become an activist because of the killing of four little girls in a Birmingham church…She sacrificed for the greater good.”
The pandemic, Williams noted, has led her to change her selection of songs for her weekly program.
“I don’t play the heartbreak stuff so much,” she said. “I want to show some hope — that it’s not all bleakness. Focus on the silver lining.”
After a momentary pause, she said, “‘Look for the Silver Lining’ by [jazz trumpeter-vocalist] Chet Baker. I’ll play that record.”