When the Chicago Reader declared in 1997 that audiences “will not find a busier saxophonist in Chicago than Mars Williams,” more timeless words have hardly been written.
Even into his 60s, Williams remained a ubiquitous and tireless musical presence in this city and beyond. His live string saxophone sound has expanded to fill the space he’s in, whether it’s a DIY hole in the wall or a packed arena gig with the Psychedelic Furs, whom he toured with last month.
Saxophonist Dave Rempis said, “I don’t know anyone else who can go from playing a rock concert in front of 5,000 people in one night to playing in front of 10 people at the Beat Kitchen and taking both contexts absolutely seriously.” he told the Tribune Lately. “This isn’t even rare; “It’s unheard of for him to move back and forth between all the worlds he does.”
Williams died on Nov. 20 of ampoular cancer, a rare form of cancer that affects the area around the small intestine, which he was diagnosed with almost a year ago. She was 68 years old. His death was confirmed to the Tribune by his brother, Paul Williams.
One of six children, Williams was born May 29, 1955, in Elmhurst and grew up in nearby Franklin Park. Then “Marc” Williams was a star clarinetist in the school music program. But a summer spent playing in a cover band distracted him from the classical studies he devoted himself to at DePaul University. Instead, he delved into the distant sounds of the South Side music collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, eventually counting two of its members — Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell — as mentors.
After a formative trip west to Colorado, Williams headed to New York City in the late 1970s, earning money as a bike courier and trying to break into the live music scene. By then, Williams had begun using “Mars”, inspired by his younger brother’s attempts to pronounce his name. There she met her heroes Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry and caught the attention of downtown luminaries like John Zorn.
“Mars Williams is one of the real saxophonists; he’s someone who enjoys playing the horn, and there aren’t many saxophonists I can honestly say that about,” Zorn said. Wrote in the liner notes “Very soon,” Williams’s 1984 duo album with multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell.
Williams also began his parallel career in the rock world in New York, playing punk shows at the CBGB music club and picking up gigs by word of mouth. This path eventually led him to the Psychedelic Furs, where he became the band’s longest-serving member after founders Richard and Tim Butler. He played for the Furs from 1983 to 1989, then from 2005 to the present.
Guitarist Rich Good, who joined the Furs, praised Williams’ masterfully radical interpretations of familiar solos, even songs he did not record with the band.
“It never strays away from the theme of the song, but it transcends it, takes it to the next level,” Good says. “Viewers are a little bit stunned when they see these events happen.”
Like his co-stars, Williams has never been a household name, but his many performances include: Billy Idol, The Killers, Ministery, Dirty Projectors and Jerry Garcia, to name a few. A core member of short-lived hit magnets The Waitresses, Williams sang some of that band’s most enduring tunes. “Christmas Packaging” And “I Know What Men Like.”
But in the niche field of experimental free jazz, Williams was the musician’s musician. A sample of projects he has led or founded include: NRG CommunityLegendary improv unit founded by Russell; Extraordinary Popular Illusions, arguably the longest-running free jazz act in the city; Witches & Devils, a tribute to saxophonist Albert Ayler; and Chicago Reed Quartet. In addition, he toured internationally with acclaimed free jazz groups led by fellow saxophonists Peter Brötzmann (Brötzmann Tentet) and Ken Vandermark (Vandermark Five).
This is not to say that Williams lumped together the many genres he discovered – far from it. Rap-meets-jazz-funk band Liquid Soul earned Grammy acclaim at the peak of ’90s acid jazz; the band played Bill Clinton’s second inauguration and became a favorite for the Chicago Bulls. On another project, XMARSX, Williams collaborated with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. Another invention of Williams, Sonic Soul Cirkus combines loud jazz, hip-hop rhythms, aerial acrobats and per own website“a performing pit bull.”
Williams, who has been sober for nearly two decades, has offered guidance and support to other musicians living with addiction. famous trumpeter jaimie branchThe one who died last year once believed Williams had exonerated him. Even as the radiation rounds intensified, Williams refused painkillers for fear of a relapse.
“I am always available; people know this. Needless to say, I’m sober. “A lot of people in the industry know, and I’ll take a call,” he said.
Last June, Rempis started a GoFundMe to help with Williams’ medical expenses. It surpassed its $100,000 goal by a large margin; That’s just one measure of the love Williams has received from audiences around the world.
“When it became clear in late summer that his treatment options were running out, he chose to spend his remaining six weeks living as he had since he was a teenager – performing on the road every night.” reads an update posted on GoFundMe the day Williams died.
The update, signed by “family and friends of Mars,” notes that details of a future memorial event are pending.
The aim is to transfer the income from the charity show, which will be held at Metro on November 25 and organized by colleagues from all walks of Williams’ adventurous musical life, to Williams’ treatment fund.
Instead, it will celebrate his life and the music that filled every inch of it.
“So contagious is Mars’ love playing“Literally,” says guitarist Steve Marquette, who has played and toured with Williams in various configurations. “Sometimes the academically rigorous language used in this music is at the forefront of the enjoyment of sounding out. But Mars’ music is never about pushing people away. It is a pure and honest form of expression.”
Williams is survived by his mother Hilda Williams of Chicago, sisters Michele (Miki) of Oak Park and Suzy of Santa Barbara, Calif., and brother Paul of Chicago.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
“Music for Mars,” featuring Liquid Soul, Joe Marcinek Band and Jesse De La Peña, along with special guests Dave Matthews Band’s Jeff Coffin, Guns N’ Roses’ Richard Fortus and Ike Reilly, airs Nov. 25 at At 20.00 at Metro. 3730 N. Clark St., tickets $35 at the door, $30 in advance, $150 table for two, metrochicago.com