What can possibly by written about John Williams that isn’t covered at length in thousands of other places (this is a recent, particularly nice one featuring Mark Hamill by my friend Tim Grieving)? Very few people ever truly deserve the title “living legend” and yet, in his case, that surely falls short.
I would be hard-pressed to name more than a half dozen composers / musicians (if that) who’ve had a more significant impact on culture (Mozart? Beethoven? The Beatles? Michael Jackson?). As much as I cherish the work of Jerry Goldsmith, or Bela Bartok, these are names that 99% of the population doesn’t know. And sadly, with time, that number will only increase as history moves us further from the time period of their lives and active contribution.
On the other hand, it’s safe to say that literally billions of people know Williams’ music. And don’t just know it. Love it. It carries tremendous significance to them. It’s the “soundtrack to their lives,” or even more primally significant, “the soundtrack to their childhoods.” I already wrote about this with regard to Williams and I don’t want to be redundant to it.
In my case, I had the stereotypical youthful obsession with Indiana Jones and Star Wars, so a love of Williams’ music manifested early on. But a true watershed moment came when I was 16, and my parents and I took a trip to Pittsburgh. This included seeing Williams and the Pittsburgh Symphony perform a concert of his music.
I was so in love with his work already but seeing it come to life, with the man himself literally just a few hundreed feet away, was genuinely thrilling. We saw the show two nights in a row (subtext: I begged and pleaded to see it again and my wonderful parents actually acquiesced!). The second night I saw a member of the orchestra roaming around the lobby during intermission (the principal cellist, who had performed the gorgeous solos from Angela’s Ashes the night before), so I approached her and told her I was there visiting from Denver, and had seen it the previous night as well. She was very surprised to hear this, of course, and so when I asked her if there was a way to meet the Maestro afterward, she got excited and conspired to meet me at the stage door and lead the charge to the green room.
I could never recall being so nervous. After standing outside his room for a seeming eternity, he came out and smiled and stuck out his hand. I shook it and said, probably incoherently “It’s my goal to be a composer like you some day.” Matching my absurdly bland greeting, he replied equally generically (but with genuine warmth) “Well good luck, don’t give up!” I told him I’d from Denver to see him and that made him perk up, though honestly don’t remember if he said anything specifically about it.
Funny enough, despite the complete lack of substance in the exchange, that was a life-changing encounter. It dawned me as I made my to the lobby to my patiently-waiting parents that I had just shaken the actual hand that’d penned all those incredible scores and themes. I’d met John Williams himself, a name which carries so much gravitas, and then I realized …. he was a normal human.
Nothing was ever so empowering for me in my quest to be a ‘real’ composer than the realization the most well-known, towering example of them all was just as mundanely human as I was. It’s one thing to know that in one’s head, but to feel it so viscerally, at age 16, completely altered my thinking. It made this ambition something incredibly achievable.
I’ve since then had occasion for several one-on-one interactions with him, and it’s always been a special experience. One occasion, during a reception at the memorial service for composer Alexander Courage, I asked the Maestro if he had any recollection of meeting me backstage in Pittsburgh when I was 16. He squinted and seemed to genuinely try to remember, before asking “what year was it?” I realized I was competing with 50+ years of identical encounters in his memory and just said “oh nevermind, it was very quick.” But he then asked “How have things been going since then?” I was working on a film called GRACE at the time, my first collaboration director Paul Solet, and told him I’d felt very inspired by his score to Robert Altman’s IMAGES. His eyes widened and he laughed, “IMAGES?! God that scores is so … old!”
At every encounter he’s been genuine and polite. John Williams is not a man that opens up to random strangers, and thus never leaves you with the impression that you’ve just met your new best friend. Fundamentally, he’s a private and humble man. So it’s with immense gratitude that I can reflect on having met him more than once, and had these nice exchanges. It truly can’t overstated the impact it had on me at that young age.
Above all, and beyond his incredible musical contributions to our world, I cherish the fact that he inspires so many others to be creative. A cursory glance at Youtube reveals endless musicians, orchestras, and bands creating their own spins on his work. I mean, we live in a universe where this exists.
The fact that John Williams has inspired so many legions of people to engage with their creativity is, to my mind, his true contribution. It goes beyond what he did. It’s akin to when an inventor doesn’t just build a better mousetrap, but ends up spawning an entire industry. Williams has caused people to engage with their inner selves; to share their talents with the world in ways that, had his work not existed, they may not have. That is legacy that few humans have ever achieved. It’s his true gift to us all.
A few years ago my non-profit oranization Education Through Music — Los Angeles honored the Maestro at our annual fundraiser gala. I was tasked with producing the tribute video, so I decided to interview some of his most frequent musician collaborators. This was the result:
Happy birthday Maestro Williams. It’s not uncommon that we, as humans, wish to leave the world better than how we found it but almost none have done so on such a grand scale. You are, quite earnestly, a living legend.
I’ll just leave a few of my absolute favorite works of his, in case somehow they remain unknown to you.