“I can’t stop,” says jazz violinist Samuel Williams. “Even when I really want to stop. Even when I don’t have enough money to eat and I’m living off $20 a week. I feel like I was made to play.”

Williams, who performs under the stage name Savoir Faire, has been playing violin since he was three. His mother put him on a waiting list for Suzuki lessons in Mount Prospect–an hour and a half from their Bronzeville home–when he was merely a kick in her belly, thinking music would teach him discipline.

Classically trained as a child, after high school Williams met jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson while on a summer scholarship at Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts. “He’s the one that told me there’s a possibility of a career in jazz.”

In 1991 Williams dropped out of Lewis University because of money problems. Unhappy in Chicago, he and several friends trekked to Minneapolis to start a pop band. That didn’t work out; instead Williams got involved with a girl, and eventually they had a child. But that didn’t work out either. He left his girlfriend–“a party girl”–and their daughter in Minneapolis and returned to Chicago for good, he thought, in 1995.

He got a job and was playing music around town when, worried about his daughter, “I panicked and stole some money to go up there and see if everything was OK.” The theft set him off on a string of misadventures that, several months later, landed him in jail in South Dakota, charged with stabbing a man (Williams says it was in self-defense). After six months in the Sioux Falls lockup, he pleaded guilty to an assault charge and was fined and sentenced to probation and time served. In jail, he says, he had an epiphany: “The thing that saved me was that I was a violinist, and it was the only consistent thing in my life.” He returned to Chicago determined to make it as a musician, and started playing on the streets and patching together a living doing odd jobs.

Four years ago, while working part-time as an usher at Orchestra Hall, he met Wynton Marsalis, who invited Williams to play for him the next day. Williams was sure this was his big break, but afterward Marsalis told him he still had more to learn about jazz theory and improvisation and he left disheartened. “I was so disappointed that I was going to quit playing altogether,” he says. “I was contemplating throwing my instruments in the garbage.”

Marsalis suggested Williams get to know other jazz violinists in Chicago. Williams was stunned. “At the time I didn’t know that there were any jazz violinists in the city,” he says. “I thought it was just me–I thought I was the only one who was trying to do it.” He went to see swing violinist Johnny Frigo play, and “was just blown away at what you could do improvising on the violin.”

That same year he got married and apprenticed himself to John Martin Sheridan, a luthier and owner of Chicago’s now defunct Abbey Strings. He worked at Abbey for two and a half years as a craftsman and salesman–even taking over from Sheridan for a while–and made enough money to pay off his fines and debt. Now 28 and the father of a four-month-old daughter (his six-year-old lives with her mother), he studies and practices religiously, and “every night that there’s a [jam] session I’m there.” He says he’s trying to create a sound that fuses postbop and contemporary jazz, with violin as the lead instrument. He’s played and recorded with the experimental Black Earth Ensemble and with the rock band Baddigo. He also performs with his own band, East Side Project, and has self-released two records: Savoir Faire (1999) and In the Moment (2001).

After he got out of jail a friend jokingly dubbed him “Savoir Faire,” after the mouse in the Klondike Kat cartoons who–no matter what the sticky situation–always winds up on top. The name didn’t play well in the clubs at first. “It’s not a real macho name,” he says, “and it doesn’t really reflect African-American heritage.” Nevertheless, he’s keeping it. “It means finesse. It means style. It means literally ‘to know to do,’ like I know what I’m doing.”

Savoir Faire and East Side Project perform at 9 on Thursday, March 21, at the Velvet Lounge, 21281/2 S. Indiana. Tickets are $10; call 312-791-9050 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.