Pittsburgh’s piano prodigy: Brett Williams is playing the keys to success

By: Zach Brendza | Features Editor

(Claire Murray / Ass.t Photo Editor) - Brett Williams (above) plays at his senior recital Sunday in room 322 of the Mary Pappert School of Music.
(Claire Murray / Ass.t Photo Editor) – Brett Williams (above) plays at his senior recital Sunday in room 322 of the Mary Pappert School of Music.

Growing up as a pastor’s son playing in a Wilkinsburg church, Duquesne senior Brett Williams learned to play in front of crowds.

He just didn’t expect to be spending the fall semester of his last year in college touring the world as the keyboard player for renowned jazz artist Marcus Miller in gigs from the Netherlands to Poland to Japan.

“At first it was very surreal. Like, ‘What, I’m actually doing this?’” Williams, a piano performance major, said. “Getting to see the world in half of the year is kind is ridiculous.”

Miller, 54, known in jazz circles as one of the most talented bassists in the country, has recorded with Eric Clapton, Paul Simon and Aretha Franklin among others. But he needed a keyboard player for his latest tour.

Williams, 22, scored the break of his young career when other artists recommended him for the job. Miller hired him before he ever heard him play.

“At first, I was very, kind of star-struck [by] Marcus. But the more I got to know him, man; he’s the most down to earth guy ever. He’s kind of like that favorite uncle that you have,” Williams said. “You just rap to him about anything.”

From June until mid-December, Williams toured Europe and Asia, playing at music festivals with the likes of The Roots, Sting and Robert Glasper.

Williams has been playing gigs since he was 9. His first one earned him $150 for playing a “handful of tunes” at a wedding. But last summer was his first time out on the road. With someone like Miller, who has played with jazz legends like Miles Davis, there was an adjustment period.

“It’s nice being able to make connections and friends [with people] that are on my iPod,” Williams said. “After meeting some of these people you get the confidence to go up and be like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ The part about it is you just got to be normal. They’re just normal guys.”

While Williams might not be at the same level as Miller yet, they were both playing with major jazz artists at the age of 21. Miller started playing with Miles Davis, the same age Williams was when he started to tour with Miller.

But age is irrelevant for Williams. At 22, he has four recorded albums. At age 14, he opened for jazz saxophonist David Sanborn at Hartwood Acres, playing for 20,000 people. At age 4, he was taking piano lessons from his preschool teacher before naptime.

“We noticed that he had a gift at about [age] 2. I kind of took a notice to the rhythm,” said Chett Williams, Brett’s father.

The Williams family would go to restaurants, only having so much time to get in and out with then-toddler Brett. He would be pounding on the table with forks and knives, drumming to whatever tune was on the loud speaker. Chett Williams would substitute the silverware with straws to keep the table percussion quiet.

And there were Sundays in Wilkinsburg at the non-denominational Covenant Church on Andrews Drive where Williams drummed and his dad preached.

“I grew up in the church, that’s really the first musical influence [I had],” Williams said. “I was exposed to a lot of music at a very young age.”

Being a “PK” or pastor’s kid, Brett was influenced by church life, with “God first, family second” being his family’s mantra. But more specifically, Brett was inspired by church music, which he cited as one of his musical influences.

Sean Jones, associate professor of jazz in the Mary Pappert School of Music, met Williams, then a student at Hampton High School, at Covenant Church and quickly formed a bond.

“In some ways he reminds me of me when I was young,” Jones said.

Jones never really gave him lessons in music. Instead they talked about life. Jones saw the two of them as a “big brother, little brother.”

“I grew up in the church, [learning how to] play, improvise and all that. I was going to go to school and sharpen my skill,” Jones said. “Brett is doing that same thing.”

Williams and Jones have shared the stage together, too. Jones played in Williams’ senior recital Sunday. Jones also toured with Marcus Miller and Williams during the tour’s first leg.

“There are always a few exceptional people, people that are gifted with no work ethic. People who have work ethic and no talent,” Jones said. “Brett has great work ethic and great talent.”

With his work ethic and connections he’s made, Williams isn’t stopping with one tour. He wants to write music for movies and play live with someone like Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars.

“I want to keep traveling. I want to keep playing. I want to keep getting my hands dirty,” Williams said.