Not too many people get the opportunity to follow up their dream job with another dream job, but that is what former New York Yankee Bernie Williams did when he transitioned from a Major League Baseball All-Star into a successful jazz guitarist and recording artist.
Williams will perform at this year’s Savannah Jazz Festival with his band, the Bernie Williams Collective, a stripped-down version of his usual All-Star Band.
“It gives me an opportunity to have a more intimate setting to play,” says Williams. “And these guys, in my estimation, are the top-of-the-line studio musicians. It will be a good experience for me to see where music takes me in this kind of ensemble.”
Williams discovered a love for both sports and the guitar as a child in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “I started playing [baseball] when I was 8 years old at the insistence of my mother,” says Williams. “She had determined that we were watching too much TV. We had to go out there and play a sport. She was an educator for 40 years in the public education system in Puerto Rico and she wanted us to be well rounded.”
Williams also began playing music, and when he was 13, he began attending the Escuela Libre de Musica performing arts school to study classical guitar. As much as he enjoyed making music, Williams had an incredible talent for baseball that got noticed by the New York Yankees, who recruited him into the minor leagues when he was 17.
“But, I always kept my guitar and my music with me,” Williams says. “I had a small Spanish guitar, and I took it with me on all of my trips in the minor leagues. I had one in the club house ... I was that prototypical baseball player sitting in the back of the bus playing guitar.”
While in New York, Williams perused music shops and discovered the electric guitar for the first time. “I just fell in love with it and started getting my amplifiers and my stomp boxes,” says Williams. “I became a fan of the different sounds I could get from a guitar.”
Williams played centerfield in the majors for the Yankees from 1991 until 2006, where he won four World Series, earned four Golden Gloves, was a five-time All-Star, the 1996 ALCS MVP, and won a 1998 American League batting title. During his amazing baseball career, he never stopped playing guitar during his free time and looked ahead to when he would be done with the game and pursue his music.
In 2003, Williams released his debut album “The Journey Within,” which was a fusion of smooth jazz, rock and the tropical sounds of his home. His follow-up in 2009 was the release of “Moving Forward,” which was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Instrumental Album.
“Moving Forward” features several guest artists, including Jon Secada and Wayman Tisdale. Tisdale played professional basketball for 12 seasons and, like Williams, forged a music career after his retirement.
“He was somebody I really looked up to because he also made the transition from playing sports into music, and that was kind of what I was going for when I retired from professional baseball,” says Williams.
Tisdale contributed bass on the title track, but never met with Williams face-to-face. He passed away from cancer shortly after recording for the album. “Probably one the big regrets I have in my musical journey is not having the opportunity to meet him and spend some time with him,” Williams says.
“Moving Forward” also features a live recording of Williams performing “Glory Days” with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. “That was definitely one of the highlights of my young musical career,” Williams reminisces.
Williams had met Springsteen 15 years earlier when one of his teammates introduced the Boss to the Yankees.
“He brought him into the clubhouse,” Williams recounts. “He was saying hey to all the guys, and I had him sign a guitar I had in my dressing room. He wrote ‘To Bernie, if you ever get tired of baseball ...’”