Heart of Art

"I'm totally addicted to the arts. I've been doing it all my life," says Louisville's David Williams. But he's just hinting at the depth and breadth of his artistic output. The term "Renaissance man" might sound overblown, but it almost falls short in describing the prolific creator: Over the years, he's been a writer, an educator, a cartoonist and a musician who's won numerous awards, grants and accolades from organizations as diverse as the Smithsonian Institution and Newsweek.

Now add entrepreneur to his resumé. On Sunday at Boulder's Chautauqua Dining Hall, Williams will officially launch his eclectic greeting-card company, Trapdoor Media Cardtoons, while celebrating the release of Gypsy Jazz, the debut CD by his newest project, David Williams and Deco Django.

"Gypsy jazz started in the '30s with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli," Williams explains. If you look at gypsy music as it left India and moved across Europe, it was always picking up little pieces and strains of music. Gypsy jazz was a combination of American swing music, jazz tunes and Tin Pan Alley embellished with Django's gypsy background and Grappelli's Parisian sense of cafe music."

Accordingly, Gypsy Jazz is a rousing, soulful set of Reinhardt originals and pop standards, all rendered in Williams's intricate, virtuoso picking style. Though most of the tunes feature two acoustic guitars -- Williams on lead and Jerry Rudy on rhythm -- the album closes with five tracks by the Hot Club of the Rockies, the quintet Williams has fronted since he moved to Colorado seven years ago.

A Chicago native, Williams was a protegé of noted mandolinist Jethro Burns, who instilled in him a love of swing music. But he took a few detours before returning to the style. After earning degrees in anthropology and English, Williams went the singer-songwriter route, garnering favorable comparisons to Ry Cooder. At the time, he was also starting to get his poetry, prose and cartoons published, but it still wasn't enough to pay the bills.

"I couldn't find a job doing anything, so I started working for the Illinois and Iowa art councils, going into schools and doing writing and music with kids," Williams says. "And all my work in children's literature was just part of that accident."

One of his children's books, Grandma Essie's Covered Wagon, was a huge success, and excerpts from it are still included in grade-school textbooks. Williams soon began recording children's music, which has gained him as much notoriety as his writing. Still, he just couldn't shake that swing.

"I got back into the music about ten years ago. I became absolutely entrenched in Django," he says. "Then when I moved here, I found that there was actually a community of people in the area who play gypsy jazz. It's pretty amazing."

Now, after years of cartooning -- his witty, highbrow work is reminiscent of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" and the urbane comics of the New Yorker -- Williams has formed Trapdoor. With nearly 300 designs ranging in topic from birthdays to the aftermath of the presidential election, the artist offers an alternative to the gooey smarm of most greeting cards. "My cards are all satiric, poking fun at our human frailties," he says. "I've also got a whole line that's translations of the great Japanese poet Issa. They're more like fine-art cards." (Cardtoons are available at the Tattered Cover or www.trapdoor-cards.com.)

Williams's cards will be on display at Sunday's show, but the main event will be the music. "Gypsy jazz has just got it," he says. "It's got this infectious sound. It's like the joy of life, this wonderful feeling of joy. It's good to see that there are thousands of people getting interested in this particular music again."

Williams is hoping you'll be one of them.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller

Latest Stories