It was to be a scene on his career highlight reel: A Vietnam War Army veteran who had composed a dramatic symphonic score to express the most compelling emotional events of his military service, back in Vietnam to conduct the premier. But after the final rehearsal of “Symphony for the Sons of Nam,” Kimo Williams sensed something was very wrong as he sipped a beer in a hotel bar in Ho Chi Minh City. Glancing up at the TV, the Columbia College music professor wondered aloud to his colleagues: “Is this a movie? What’s going on?” It was September 11, 2001, and a dozen time zones away from home, Williams and his friends watched the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on live television.

Inspired by Jimi Hendrix and shaped by his in-country experiences, Kimo Williams became a boundless innovator

“The next day, everyone was coming up to us and shaking our hands and hugging us, and saying ‘We’re so sorry,’ ” said Williams. “You felt like the people really cared about us as a society. Finally, we’re not the aggressors anymore.” As the search for casualties continued in the United States, several hundred Vietnamese streamed into the conservatory of music to hear Williams’ saga of an earlier war, performed by the Ho Chi Minh City Symphony Orchestra. Williams remembers, “There was a moment of silence. It was surreal.”

Thirty-one years earlier, a more personal misfortune would influence a much younger Williams serving his time in Vietnam. His rock ’n’ roll idol, Jimi Hendrix, died of a drug overdose. By then, Williams had already dedicated himself to the abstract style of music represented by Hendrix; he’d even seen the guitar legend play live at the Waikiki Shell the night before he enlisted in the Army. Eighteen when he picked up his first guitar while attending high school in Honolulu, Williams admits he wasn’t very good, but he kept the instrument close at hand to help numb the effects of an abusive family life. Still, he recalls, he played well enough to attract his first fans: “The girls liked to hear a song by the Monkees, so I would play it and they would come around.”

ON DUTY: In Vietnam, Williams’ weapon of choice had six strings. (Courtesy Kimo Williams)
ON DUTY: In Vietnam, Williams’ weapon of choice had six strings. (Courtesy Kimo Williams)

Williams took his $35 Silvertone guitar with him to Vietnam, where he joined the 25th Combat Engineers Battalion in January 1970 at Lai Khe. “Boring, isolation, no sense of camaraderie,” is how he described being sent out to different units to do odd jobs. His guitar became his best friend, especially after he was transferred to Long Binh. When Hendrix died in September, Williams taught himself how to play the rocker’s psychedelic ballad “The Wind Cries Mary.” Instead of sitting in the barracks waiting for his next assignment out of Long Binh, Williams checked out guitars and practiced at the service club; “I got to a certain point that I started to sound pretty good. Another guy would come in and say, ‘Hey, I play bass, let’s play some tunes.’” Taking notice was an Army entertainment director who asked Williams to audition and suggested he put together a band. Before long, Williams was put on temporary duty with Special Services to travel the war zone entertaining the troops.

“We were called the Soul Coordinators, simply because we were black service members and most of them wanted to play the Temptations,” said Williams, who played guitar while the others played bass, drums, sax and trumpet, with a singer out front. Their repertoire included a lot of pop and rock—Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge and The Guess Who—and their gigs could be wild affairs.“We would go up to Da Nang and they would helicopter us into a fire base on the front lines and we’re playing ‘Purple Haze’ and the next thing you know there’s, like, incoming.” It turned out Williams the rock star saw more of the war than Williams the soldier.

“One time we came out of the bunker after some mortars came in and there was a hole in my Fender amplifier.” He quips that the VC were peeved: “I must not have been singing in tune.” Kimo Williams was then a 20-year-old bandleader, learning the hard knocks of the music business in an “environment of unpredictability.” “I’m proud of that more than anything else, being able to organize and deploy, and keep a band of heavy, heavy drug users. Two of them would stay high all the time; they were shooting up heroin, snorting coke, all of it.” All the while, Williams remained focused and clear-headed, and kept the group on track.

During October 1970, the Soul Coordinators played more than a dozen concerts, Williams estimates, including a TV appearance broadcast by the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). When their shows were in the field, the musicians wore fatigues and took their M16s and got a good reception, Williams remembers. “They need the break from the routine of the day, and if you’re playing music, they appreciate it.” Sometimes, if no helicopter was available to fly them back to base, they stayed on with the guys they had just entertained; the accommodations consisting of C rations and enough space in the bunker to stretch out until morning. “We played in the mud, we played in a makeshift shack, some places had a little service club, and others nothing at all. We’d set up next to a mortar foundation and play ‘My Girl.’” Once, the band hitched a ride home on a Chinook with about 20 soldiers in body bags.

In less hostile venues, the Coordinators dressed in civilian attire and took pride in their high fashion—coordinated suits with huge flyaway collars and vests. “We designed the clothes with a Vietnamese tailor to look like Motown,” says Williams. Entertaining wounded GIs, recalls Williams, was rewarding, but could be heartbreaking at the same time. At a gig at a hospital in Saigon, the band members were looking sharp in their hip ensemble, but no one was there to see them. The audience of sick and wounded patients was bedridden, and could only listen through the hospital corridors and open windows while Williams’ band played in an empty courtyard. Williams will never forget the juxtaposition of pain and beauty at another Coordinators’ jam at a Cam Ranh Bay hospital on the South China Sea: “All of these wounded soldiers and this beautiful blue water and beach, the horrors of war and the beauty of nature. That really stood out in my mind.” He says he’s still infuriated when he recounts playing for a group of officers at a barbecue. “Watching these guys eat hot dogs and hamburgers and chicken, while other guys are out eating rations. It was pathetic.”

TAKING ADVANTAGE: During downtime with the 25th Combat Engineers, Williams focused on honing his musical talents. (Courtesy Kimo Williams)
TAKING ADVANTAGE: During downtime with the 25th Combat Engineers, Williams focused on honing his musical talents. (Courtesy Kimo Williams)

More than 43 years since the Soul Coordinators were barnstorming across South Vietnam to boost morale, Kimo Williams continues to make music and work for the troops. “Everything he does has something to do with Vietnam,” says his closest band mate, and wife, Carol Williams, who is also a veteran. “I think that Vietnam came first and everything else came later.” A talented musician herself, Carol has played sax and flute while sharing the stage with Kimo during many of their performances and recording sessions.

It was around the time Saigon was falling that Kimo Williams stepped up from local bands to become a composer and teacher. He describes his unconventional music as “symphonic, big band, fusion, rock,” seemingly an awkward collision of styles. His band, dubbed Kimotion, is versatile, often performing with more than 30 members and featuring a large brass section, strings, percussion and an electric guitar. This is Williams’ singular sound: “I’ll have a classical piece that really speaks to Beethoven, but within, there would be syncopated rhythms, much like there is in jazz or rock.”

Although Williams’ music is complex, listening to it is straightforward, raw entertainment. When asked what has had more influence on his music, Vietnam or Hendrix, he says without hesitation: “Mussorgsky”—the 19th-century Russian composer of the highly acclaimed suite, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The affinity becomes clear when Williams explains that Modest Mussorgsky wrote music as a form of expression rather than as a demonstration of virtuosity or technical ability. “And that’s how I write music. I look at my music as a photograph album.” Indeed, Williams beckons the listener to visualize his music as if it were an abstract painting on canvas. “I want people to hear it as if they are looking at a photograph…to see what it is the music is interpreting.”

Nothing captures this technique more than Williams’ Vietnam War portfolio. Within his first years back in the States, Williams wrote the earliest music for his postwar collection. “His War Stories album is the definitive sound of what he is,” says wife Carol. “That’s the guy I met, the person I wanted to be supportive of, the type of sound that was completely innovative.” The music is more instrumental than lyrical; Williams gives the listener the responsibility to apply the final strokes to his melodic painting. The cut titled “Ton Raw” opens with the sound of shelling, and a voice says, “They’re really hitting them today. Wow.” Then you hear a Huey fly by.

In the selection “Fique,” the first sounds you hear are the squeaky tracks of a rolling tank, followed by a blast of a big brass band. The song “Bleath” addresses innocent casualties. Williams starts the track with an actual recording from AFVN radio. After an announcer says, “From Saigon, ladies and gentlemen, the beat goes on,” Kimotion takes over, as if pouring all the ingredients into a blender and pushing “emulsify.” Every instrument contributes to the flavor. At midtrack, Williams returns to AFVN radio as a newscaster reports that 46 civilians are dead after the mining of a passenger boat near Dong Ha. “Bleath” is a powerful sound portrait of the war; a troubling flashback, until the soothing solo by Carol on sax offers a momentary breather. For Kimo, the War Stories anthology would be imperfect without a Hendrix tune, so he reincarnates the rocker in “The Wind Cries Mary.”

Not all of Williams’ 150 compositions have direct connections to Vietnam. One of his most unusual concepts revolves around what soldiers of any war can relate to: guard duty. Like so many vets, Williams has taken his turn as a solitary sentry. He re-created the experience in a live routine customized for an experimental string ensemble in New York City known as Ethel. Williams wrote “Quiet Shadows” for a string quartet, including unusual directions about positioning the musicians. One violin was stage right, a cello was stage left. The viola player’s back was to the audience. “So everybody is as if they were guarding a perimeter,” according to the composer. “The music is the same melody, but it starts at different times for each person. My point being that with four people on guard duty, everybody’s thinking about home, about being scared, about their safety, but they’re all thinking about it differently.”

Carol Williams suggests Kimo’s Vietnam experience has made him a better artist. “Oddly enough, I think it was, in a lot of ways, a good experience. He likes to be the leader.” The discipline he learned in corralling the Soul Coordinators in Vietnam prepared him for creating and managing bands in the United States. It takes a firm leader to navigate road trips and logistics for the many musicians that Williams has managed. He says he imposes a set of essential “core values,” and knows how to hire and how to fire. There is also an independent streak he adopted in Vietnam that has continued to serve him well, in his music and his behavior. “If everybody else is wearing blue, I’m going to wear yellow,” he says. “So if everybody is smoking dope, and that’s the thing you do in Vietnam, then I’m not going to. I didn’t touch marijuana, or anything, while I was in Vietnam.”

It was 1990 when Williams launched the sweeping project that would become his signature piece: “Symphony for the Sons of Nam.” According to his composer notes, after marching in a 1986 “welcome home” parade for veterans in Chicago, “I felt a desire to finally confront the emotions from my own time in Vietnam.” Williams writes that the symphonic piece represents his personal catharsis. Of his originally envisioned four “chapters” in his symphony, two have been completed. The first chapter covers the events leading to his departure: boys from all walks of life coming together, deployment briefings, apprehension, and pride and patriotism on arriving in-country. The second chapter jumps to the expectation of going home: nervous anticipation, reflecting on friends made and friends lost, and praying for peace. Chapters three and four are on hold. In addition to the unforgettable concert in Vietnam, the incomplete classical score has been performed by orchestras from coast to coast in the United States. Reviewers have embraced the symphony. One critic raved, “Williams’ orchestration is lavish, his style cinematic…this is vivid, vital music.” National Public Radio’s classical music program Performance Today even made “Sons of Nam” a regular feature.

Carol Williams has a theory on why her husband’s “Sons of Nam” remains unfinished. “Going to Vietnam and coming home, those were the most important parts. We sort of figured out that the whole idea of being in-country in Vietnam wasn’t as painful as his experience being a black American here at home. And when you looked at it that way, he didn’t really have much [more] to say.”

Williams saw as soon as he arrived at Lai Khe that America’s racial tensions went to Vietnam along with her troops. “There was a hooch for the black soldiers and a hooch for the white soldiers. It was totally segregated. I think it was a mirror of life in America.” He remembers that bars were unique flash points. “When the music starts, everybody is getting along, but there’s always this one guy who gets drunk and says something stupid, and the next thing you know it’s a full-blown blacks against whites thing.”

Music preference could also ignite discord in the barracks. “Somebody would turn up Johnny Cash real loud and the other person would turn up Jerry Butler and everyone would start fighting,” recalls Williams. “Then I’d put on some Hendrix and they’d go, ‘that’s OK.’”

On a return visit to Vietnam in 1998, Williams had hoped to find inspiration to complete his symphony. Instead, the trip produced a poignant footnote to “Symphony for the Sons of Nam,” one that still brings joy to countless veterans. It was during a lecture in Ho Chi Minh City when Williams played a recording of the piece. He describes how a Vietnamese man approached him afterward: “He wanted to know if I would listen to his symphony. So we have the score between us—it was a very beautiful piece—it moved both of us to tears almost, and we became good friends. He could not speak English and I could not speak Vietnamese, but we were bonded by this music. I said, ‘Look how powerful art is. We should be able to do more things like this.’” As a result, when Williams returned home he established a cross-cultural arts program he called Art Synergy. It would later evolve into the United States Veterans Arts Program, which encourages American veterans to explore a wide array of artistic endeavors. With funding from nonprofit groups and foundations, “artistic tools,” including musical instruments, art supplies, photography gear, horticulture equipment, iPads and even a wheelchair-accessible pottery wheel, have been donated to dozens of veterans’ facilities across the country.

More than four decades ago the Soul Coordinators went into the boonies and performed the soldiers’ favorite number, Edwin Starr’s ballad “Twenty-Five Miles,” about a lonely guy missing his girlfriend. As he gets closer to home, the miles tick down: 15 miles to go, then 10, and five. For GIs in Vietnam, it was the musical equivalent of “getting short.” For Kimo Williams, there are no signs that he is “getting short” in his musical career. Rather, he continues to break new ground.

In the fall of 2013 a Wall Street Journal story described the opening of “Documerica,” the latest inventive show from the New York string quartet Ethel. Williams, who was commissioned to write some of the music, describes his composition as a veteran’s lament: “I think about those who did not make it, and those in the hospital, or those that are homeless….There is a sadness because we had to lose so many people. It’s a very, very important piece of music for me.” And Williams’ latest album is both contemporary, and erstwhile. Contemporary for its title, “N,” and its theme, the “N-word,” which Williams insists, “Is a word that should never be used, in any context, whatsoever.” He’ll offer it in vinyl, and his great-great-grandfather, who was a slave, will be pictured on the album jacket.

Williams, now 64, is ambiguous on whether he’ll ever finish his signature score. “At this point, I don’t plan to return to ‘Sons of Nam.’ If it comes to me, it will come.” For now, his in-country experience is best represented by his War Stories.

However, nearly 45 years after he was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and experienced Vietnam, his fellow veterans and fans of his music would be well served by an encore—one that has more than just 25 miles to go.

Marine veteran Rick Fredericksen was an editor and newscaster at American Forces Vietnam Network in Saigon in 1969-70 and a civilian reporter in Asia and the Pacific for 13 years. His 2012 e-book, After the Hanoi Hilton: An Accounting, chronicles the diplomacy and search for POW/MIAs after the Vietnam War.