The late Joe Williams could sing "Every Day I Have the Blues" with a smile on his face and a gleam in his eyes.
These days it’s his friends and admirers who have the blues. There are no smiles among them, and if you look closely you might see tears in their eyes.
Williams, who died at age 80 in March 1999 in Las Vegas, left a prolific musical legacy of some of the best jazz vocals in the history of the great American art form. Among his many gifts to this community was the creation in 1989 of the Joe Williams Music Scholarship at what is now the College of Southern Nevada.
For 17 years the Williams scholarship fundraising concert brought together jazz fans who turned out not only to catch Joe’s remarkable vocals but also to be entertained by a variety of headliners ranging from the Four Freshmen to Dee Dee Bridgewater.
That changed this year when the concert was postponed due to the lack of availability of the South Point showroom, which was still under construction. Now the future of the concert is at stake, along with the scholarship that has helped many dozens of music students attend college.
Will Las Vegas really turn its back on the legacy of Joe Williams?
College of Southern Nevada Fine Arts Department Chairman Richard McGee sure hopes not. The concert has raised an approximated $140,000 in 18 years. It also has helped put the college’s music program on the charts.
"Joe was such a great guy," McGee says. "He was concerned about the scholarship and the students and just doing the right thing."
Although the concert initially was held at the Horn Theater on the college’s Cheyenne campus, its organizers found that headliners were more motivated to take time out of their schedules when the program was being produced in a casino showroom. So the concert was held at The Orleans for a few years, and Clint Holmes played the gracious host to the event in his showroom at Harrah’s.
Gradually, the reliable sources dried up, and McGee and his friends began making phone calls seeking alternative stages. Although several casinos showed an interest in helping, so far good intentions haven’t secured a concert date.
"We have had a hard time securing a venue," McGee says, admitting that he’d rather not throw stones at casino marquees. "We did run into a brick wall."
Williams’ friend and scholarship backer Ed Foster is less diplomatic than his academic counterpart.
"I think that they really have not done very, very much," Foster says. "It’s not as though they’re putting themselves out to a great extent."
Foster notes that the music was provided and the stagehands were compensated. Concert organizers received a hall, but they also brought from 400 to 800 people into the resort.
"If it’s a matter of some inconvenience, well, that’s what they have to put out. We’re not asking for a direct contribution. We make maybe $12,000 for that afternoon, but that pays for scholarships. That’s peanuts for them."
Foster suspects the word of the need of a venue just hasn’t trickled high enough up the corporate chain of command. Surely once the right people hear the Joe Williams scholarship concert is seeking a stage, they’ll respond. At least, that’s his hope.
McGee says, "I’ll stop short of saying that the corporate mentality has slammed the door on us. I don’t think there’s anything intentional going on."
If the prospect of bringing in a few hundred potential customers isn’t appealing, there’s the thought that the college’s music program boasts more than 4,000 students.
"This is a very worthwhile thing," McGee says. "The Joe Williams Music Scholarship Fund has really saved the day for a lot of students who simply wouldn’t have been able to attend college without it. We need a venue. We need a place to raise money for the fund and to help keep Joe’s name alive. That’s all we’re trying to do."
There’s one more thing, McGee says. From setting up to tearing down, including rehearsal time, the concert will consume six hours in the showroom.
Is that too much to ask to help ensure the legacy of the legendary Joe Williams?
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.JOHN L. SMITHMORE COLUMNSDiscuss this column in the eForums!