Chicagoans of the Year 2006 - Kimo Williams

Captain Composer // Kimo Williams // Buffalo Soldiers

Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp
kimo williams
Kimo Williams

It happened 36 years ago and 13,000 miles away, but James “Kimo” Williams remembers as if it were yesterday. As a young combat engineer in Lai Khe, Vietnam, he was on guard duty one night, and he thought he saw an enemy soldier lurking a few feet away. He froze. Why didn’t I kiss that girl? Why didn’t I tell my dad he’s OK? If I get out of this, I’ll never say, “I wish I had.”

Williams, now 56 and a professor of music management at Columbia College Chicago, has lived up to his promise, hurtling himself full speed into anything that interests him. Since resigning from the army (with the rank of captain) in 1987, he has shot award-winning photos, released four CDs, and written a screenplay. He is currently working on an opera, and his symphonic pieces-including Buffalo Soldiers, which recently had its Chicago première-have been performed on three continents.

There’s more. In 1998, Williams founded the United States Vietnam Art Program, and he has worked closely with the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in the South Loop, where he served as executive director for a year. “Several conductors have told me it’s time to move on from Vietnam,” Williams says. “But that’s who I am. That’s what gives me passion.”

Williams always comes back to passion. “I tell my students, ‘You have to have passion for what you do. Aspiration is one thing, but passion is another completely.’” In the aftermath of 9/11, Williams and the actor Gary Sinise pooled their passions and founded the Lt. Dan Band, a rock outfit that, in addition to stateside fundraisers, has performed on USO tours everywhere from Singapore to the Pentagon. “Kimo is a great friend, a self-made man who has overcome many obstacles,” says Sinise. “His life’s journey is an inspiration.”

The son of an air force sergeant, Williams bounced around during his childhood from New York to North Carolina to Maryland to Hawaii. When he was 15, he found himself living at a whorehouse in Biloxi, where he picked up a guitar for the first time. Eleven years later, following his stint in Vietnam, he graduated from Boston’s hallowed Berklee College of Music with a degree in composition.

Themes of perseverance and bravery flow in and out of Williams’s music. This past November, his rousing composition Buffalo Soldiers, which honors the black cavalry regiments of the American West, was performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta at Symphony Center as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival-a moment of arrival in his adopted hometown.

And that “enemy” in the jungle in 1970? “It was just a tree,” Williams recalls. “But my life turned around after that." 

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