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His given name was John Andre Williams, but the lanky saxophone player with a wide easy smile was better known as Doc Night.
He played in so many local bands that it would be difficult to compile a completely accurate list. Doc, who died last week at the age of 52, was a gifted musical gatecrasher. Over the course of nearly four decades, he played a broad array of musical styles in a variety of bands, many of which blurred the lines between musical genres.
“This is a huge loss for D.C.,” says bassist Skeeter Thompson, who played alongside Doc in several bands, including Scream and the Ted Feldman Band. “Very few people can play across the board the way Doc did: Jazz, funk rock, punk—and not just regular punk but hardcore punk—and also reggae, ska, blues, and go-go. His music was tight in every way. He could go to a club like Black Cat and play, and he could also play at Blues Alley.”
During the ’80s, Doc was one of a small number of African-American musicians who played punk rock but also reggae and go-go. “Doc was a crucial kind of connection between those different types of music,” says bassist Kenny Dread, who collaborated with Doc early on with Static Disruptors and Outrage. “I don’t want to make too much of the racial issue, but that did represent a busting down of perceived social-musical boundaries.”
The ’80s were a heady time for local music: D.C.’s punk underground was exploding while on the other side of town, the city’s go-go scene was at its most vital. Doc joined the Static Disruptors funk band in the early ’80s. Later, members of that band formed Outrage, which Dread describes as “the funky band on the punk rock circuit.” Outrage included guitarist Dave Byers, another local punk icon who died before his time.
In the years that followed, Williams played on stage and in the studio with bands of local and international renown: He played with Scream years before Dave Grohl joined the band. He performed with punk-legend-turned-Rasta H.R. and with hardcore punk band Body Count. There was also a speed-metal/jazz/hardcore band known as Chucky Sluggo. And a ska-punk-reggae-funk band called D.C. Riot Squad. He led his own group, the ska-punk Doc Knight & the Hypnotix. He also reunited with his old friend Skeeter in the Ted Feldman Band.
More recently, Doc joined the reggae/ska Scotch Bonnets, which recently toured the U.S. with Roddy Radiation of English ska revivalists the Specials. He was in the process of recording a second Hypnotix album as well.
“Doc played with so many bands, and that’s really a measure of him as a musician,” says Scream vocalist Pete Stahl. “If you’re a sax player, you gotta gig.”
Doc recorded the saxophone solo in the version of “Still Screamin’” that appeared on the band’s 1985 album The Side Up. Nearly 30 years later, he and Stahl appeared together in Dave Grohl’s one-off punk supergroup Don’t Need Its at the 9:30 Club, where once again, Doc joined the group for a sax solo. “He was the kind of guy you would want to play with,” says Stahl. “Doc was a real musician and a creative, caring loving person.”
In between so many gigs, Doc worked various day and night jobs, got married, raised two children, and made a lot of friends. Last count on his Facebook page: 3,872. Now that page is filled with tributes from friends, family, and fans he had never met.
Last weekend, a post from December 2011 surfaced. It showed a photo of Doc’s family—including daughter Laila and son Adriel—at Adriel’s graduation recital at the New School in New York City. Adriel, who plays violin, invited his dad to join him on stage. Doc wrote: “I was so cised because my son and I performed together at his Senior recital that year. We performed a song called ‘Go-Go Time’ which I wrote in 1984 for my band Outrage. It was the first time we had performed together. What a rush!”
Doc grew up in Prince George’s County, where his father, John J. Williams, was the first plaintiff in the legal fight against the county’s segregated schools. During their years at Walker Mill Elementary School, his family endured considerable hostility from unfriendly white neighbors. From this crucible emerged a musician with a wide-ranging love for people and music.
“I don’t sit around saying, ‘Let’s do this kind of hybrid and that kind of hybrid,’” Doc told the Washington Post in 2002, “but I hear music that way in my head, all those different genres together.”
Some friends suspect that Doc never achieved greater recognition because he was ahead of his time. “Doc was a trailblazer in the Afro-punk scene,” says Grant Garretson, a longtime friend who played alongside him in the Hypnotix and Chucky Sluggo. “He was one of the elders.”
A graveside service will take place this Saturday, Sept. 19, at 11 a.m. at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood. The public is invited to a memorial celebration of Doc’s life Saturday evening at 6 p.m.
at Bowie State University’s Fine & Performing Arts Center.
UPDATE: The venue for the memorial celebration has changed. It will now be held at Mount Ranier Artist Lofts at 3311 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier, Md.
Photo by Nalinee Darmrong