Local trumpeter Eric Williams shares his journey to serving with Army’s Jazz Ambassadors

Published 11:12 am Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Eric Williams has been inspired by music for as long as he can remember. Around the time he started to walk, he began to play the drums.

The daycare in Edenton that Williams attended had access to drums and a piano, which he would use frequently and eventually learn how to play.

After moving to Manteo when he was 11 years old, Williams picked up a trumpet for the first time. “I practiced, but I didn’t understand the importance of practice or where it could take me at that time,” Williams told The Coastland Times in an interview on June 3.

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It wasn’t until Williams entered eighth grade that he began to take music seriously. “I started to get more into playing trumpet, and I realized that maybe I could do this for a career.”

He was accepted into the all district band that year and upon entering ninth grade at Manteo High School, Williams was encouraged by his band director, Larry Heeler, to audition for an all regional jazz band.

“I got the lead trumpet spot – first trumpet – with a bunch of high notes that I wasn’t great at playing at the time,” Williams chuckled. The role was a big accomplishment for Williams; he was the only freshman in a room full of seniors during auditions.

Courtesy Eric Williams

After evolving as a trumpeter, Williams chose to attend a jazz camp at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill his junior year of high school. There he met professor James Ketch, who had heard about the young man’s talent and took him in as a mentee.

“That camp kinda influenced my interest in jazz further,” Williams mused. The interest grew in Williams to the point where he dreamt of performing at the “Essentially Ellington” jazz competition hosted by the Lincoln Center.

The dream was a longshot; the nearest high school invited to participate in the competition was located in Raleigh. Even if Williams wanted to practice with a group known as the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble, who were based in Raleigh, transportation was near impossible.

So, like most teenagers with wild goals and infinite imaginations, Williams and his close friend Enrique Babilonia created what became known as the Eastern North Carolina Jazz Orchestra.

Courtesy Eric Williams

The ENCJO was comprised of 17 musicians that Williams and Babilonia had met through their respective organizations/schools/camps. The goal was to create an orchestra that would be invited to perform at Lincoln Center.

Williams laughed: “Our band director did not think it would work out the way it did.” But every other Sunday from fall through late spring, Williams and his 16 contracted musicians would practice.

Gabriel DiMartino with the Eastern Carolina University School of Music served as the director/chaperon for ENCJO’s first show. DiMartino orchestrated their first concert at ECU with Rex Richardson during the Superbowl of 2017. Richardson is an international trumpet soloist, one of the many Williams admires.

From there, Williams said he had the opportunity to meet many renowned musicians, some of which learned about the creation of ENCJO and supported their dreams of performing at Essentially Ellington.

Eventually, the orchestra landed a spot at the Charlotte Jazz Festival. The famous trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was in attendance that day. Even though Williams was unable to perform at that particular concert due to personal reasons, he helped organize the event and his fellow musicians were able to receive a master class from Marsalis.

Word was spreading.

His senior year, Williams was accepted to UNC Greensboro. He spent a year there, meeting more people and bringing them back to his hometown. “I brought some of my friends back to Manteo and had a Christmas concert at the Arts Council,” he said.

He found a tight knit group in Greensboro, saying they have a jazz program set apart from all others: “Greensboro definitely has best jazz team in NC as far as musicians and playing opportunities. When I was in school, we had jam session and jazz party every Monday night, everyone in the jazz program get together and play over songs we learned previous week . . . a lot of other places don’t do that and you don’t have the tight connection.”

Williams recounted one stand-out memory he holds with him from Greensboro. In May of 2019, he was invited back to the Charlotte Jazz Festival. He brought his UNCG friends with him, and they were scheduled to perform a 30-minute jazz routine. Unfortunately, the rain prevented an outside performance.

“We saved the show, though,” Williams shared. The group of UNCG students formed a circle near the inside bar and started to play. Over 100 people congregated around the group and listened for two hours as the band played. “It was all improvised songs we had practiced before,” Williams said, but impressive nonetheless.

Courtesy Eric Williams

With an undeniable passion to perform, Williams decided to take a leap of faith and focus on his music career in the spring of 2020. After missing an audition deadline for the Army’s Jazz Ambassadors in the fall, the application showed back up for Williams in December of 2019. The prior candidate had dropped out.

“I was scheduled to have a live audition on April 29, but because of COVID, the army was not allowing travel.”

Williams said he didn’t play for the entire month of May, but received an email from the Jazz Ambassadors on May 19 explaining that auditions would be held virtually. “The video audition was the worst thing in the world. The whole point of live audition was to see how you interact with people, but I wasn’t able to do that.”

Nonetheless, Williams made it through to the semifinals and finals, and on June 1 he was chosen to join the Jazz Ambassadors.

Despite never making it to the Lincoln Center, Williams made a lifelong dream a reality on Monday. He was sworn in on June 3 and heads out to Oklahoma on July 7 for basic training.

“When I first heard I was in shock because I really did not think I was gonna get it because I didn’t play for a whole month. I was surprised I was able to pull it together,” he said.

Williams will relocate to Fort Meade, Maryland once training is finished. From there, he will tour the country, performing with the Jazz Ambassadors for years to come.

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