By Sarah Downey

Vietnam might seem like the last place Kimo Williams would want to take his music. He played his first professional gig 30 years ago in the jungle south of Da Nang, as lead guitarist for a band of soldiers called the Soul Coordinators. “Sniper shots came while we were playing ‘Purple Haze,’ and we all started running for the bunker,” says Williams. “After it was over I found a hole in my amp. I couldn’t tell if it was a bullet or shrapnel, but I guess they didn’t like that song.”

Never one to be dissuaded by critics, Williams has spent years writing music that often draws from his experiences in the war. His 1991 composition Symphony for the Sons of Nam, a 22-minute piece for a full orchestra, has been performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta and other orchestras from Sacramento to Savannah. National Public Radio devotes airtime to it every Memorial Day. “It’s not like something by Mahler,” says Williams. “It’s not technically phenomenal. It’s a very personal piece of music.”

Nor is it entirely finished. The 49-year-old composer made his first journey back to Vietnam last year, seeking inspiration to expand the piece. “All I know is I had this need to go back. It’s like facing the enemy finally. I’m able to look at my experience in Vietnam from many different perspectives. As a soldier in Vietnam, I always felt a camaraderie with its people. I feel this had to do mostly with the fact that they as a people were fighting for their basic freedoms. As a black man, I related, and I think that’s what motivates me to go back.”

Williams tempers his moments of reflection with a wicked laugh; with a father in the army, laughter became a survival skill. He’d lived everywhere from Canada to Louisiana by the time he was 14 and his parents split up. A year later he left an aunt’s home in Baltimore to join his father on a military base in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he learned to play guitar at the airmen’s club. But after a year in the heart of segregated Dixie, father and son headed for Hawaii, where Williams became a leader on his high school’s track, football, and basketball teams.

Only after enlisting for Vietnam did Williams begin to hone his guitar skills. One night an army entertainment director heard him playing and suggested he start a band to perform for men in the field. Soon Williams was jamming with a gospel singer and four other soldiers who’d quickly mastered their government-supplied instruments. The Soul Coordinators spent the next two months playing at fire bases, filling up the humid jungle nights with rock, jazz, and Edwin Starr’s “Twenty-five Miles,” which became a top request. “We’d be singing that, and the guys would start yelling, ‘I got ten more miles…five more miles to go now.’ Especially the ones that were getting ready to go back.”

When his tour of duty ended in 1970, Williams returned to Hawaii, played in a rock band, and used his earnings to help finance his education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduating in 1976 with a degree in composition he taught music and worked as a doorman at a fancy Boston apartment building, but he got the boot after a resident saw him napping on the graveyard shift. In 1977 Williams married Carol Perkins, a Berklee student who played saxophone, but the employment outlook was so grim that they both joined the army. They spent the next decade writing music and performing with marching bands. Today Williams teaches at Columbia College, and Carol is a part-time nurse. They live in Bucktown, and their record company, Little Beck Music, is named for their 14-year-old daughter, Becky.

Carol played on her husband’s first album, War Stories, which came out in 1990. “I’m the one who’s always questioning and analyzing what he does,” she says. “I think we’ve become better than average, better than adequate, but I’d still like to be hot.” War Stories drew positive notices from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Down Beat, which helped put Williams in a small but growing group of sought-after African-American composers. He won commissions from the Joffrey Ballet and Goodman Theatre, and his work caught the ear of actor Gary Sinise. The men became friends, and in 1997 Williams scored the Steppenwolf production of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Sinise playing Stanley Kowalski. A few months later Sinise and his costars in the film Snake Eyes wanted to have a jam session after shooting wrapped in Montreal, and Sinise paid for Williams’s plane ticket north. Says Williams, “It was pretty cool for a little guy who started out playing guitar in Vietnam.”

Today a photograph Williams took of the Soul Coordinators hangs in the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum on South Indiana. Williams is confident that when he takes Carol and the rest of his 26-piece band, Kimotion, to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City next year, the Vietnamese will be more receptive than they were the first time. His symphonic, big band, and rock compositions will be part of the ArtSynergy program he started last year to encourage collaboration between Vietnamese and American performers.

“It’s like going back to where I performed before, but instead we’ll be playing for the people who used to be the so-called enemy,” says Williams. He wants to show the Vietnamese who he is as a person rather than who he was as a soldier. “Maybe I’m curious, maybe I feel guilty. Who knows? But by showing them my artistic side, I’m showing them I have more than an M-16; I also have notes on a page.” ArtSynergy is still in its formative stage, but Williams’s efforts have attracted the attention of Pham Zuan Sinh, deputy director of international relations for Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture and Information. Pete Peterson, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, is helping Williams arrange a trip that will bring Vietnamese musicians to Chicago this winter.

Matthew Lewis, the 26-year-old trumpet player for Kimotion, is excited by the prospect of performing in Vietnam: “You don’t always find gigs that are so challenging.” Lewis took Williams’s guitar ensemble class at New Trier High School in 1989, and Williams later recommended him for the Kennedy Center’s Jazz Ambassadors Tour, which will take Lewis to Africa in September. “Kimo’s been a long-term mentor,” says Lewis. “He sort of busted my chops–so to speak. He would get on my case to push myself to make me a better musician. He doesn’t want you to compromise.” Kimotion drummer Tom Hipskind thinks searching for new means of musical expression is typical of Williams. “This isn’t music you can really dance to,” says Hipskind. “It has these technical twists and turns and odd-timed signatures, as opposed to just boom-boom-boom-boom. It’s very ambitious writing.”

Williams shares his band members’ excitement over the tour, but he’s also looking forward to the premiere of Symphony for the Sons of Nam at the Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music. “A lot of the Vietnamese performers will be too young to remember the war,” says Williams. “From what I saw when I went there last year, it seems like they’re dying for American music–something fresh. I think that’s a signal to speak to them about history, and hopefully they’re able to see it and hear it and learn about it through my music.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.