There's a grim joke that musicians tell.
Antoine Williamson, a Chattanooga jazz trumpeter, knows it well.
"What's the difference between a musician and a park bench?" Williamson said. "A park bench can support a family of four."
The point: Trying to make a living as an instrumentalist is a big ask — doubly so if your instrument of choice happens to be made of brass.
Still, Williamson, 46, is giving it a go.
And despite battling cancer, he recently set up a nonprofit called Doors Open Jazz, which he hopes will grow to include a teaching center where underserved children and adults can take music lessons.
After a sometimes fitful career as a furniture salesman, draftsman, fire-sprinkler designer and drug store worker, Williamson has settled into a job playing trumpet in an Atlanta-based wedding band called Rhythm Nation. He doesn't make a ton of money, he said, but the work is steady and it feels like a calling. The band plays gigs almost every weekend, Williamson said, although the winter months are slow.
"We play everything from James Brown to Bruno Mars," he said.
Williamson was a late bloomer musically. He didn't take up the trumpet until he was 19 years old, he said.
Growing up in the Middle Tennessee town of Gallatin, he played clarinet and bassoon in elementary and middle school, but then drifted away from band and into sports in high school. He came to Chattanooga to wrestle collegiately in 1991, but gave up the sport after about three months, he said.
"I thought to myself: What am I going to be, the world's skinniest WWF wrestler?" muses Williamson, who wrestled in the 130-pound weight class.
Almost on a whim, he picked up the trumpet and started hanging around the edges of the UTC jazz band. In high school, he had soothed himself at night by listening to jazz radio. Trumpeters Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis were his favorite artists.
Almost 10 years behind his peers in musical experience, Williamson said he began practicing the trumpet three or four hours a day. Sometimes he even slept with his horn.
"I'd wake up sometimes with the trumpet in my hand," he explained. "I practiced ALL THE TIME."
At UTC, he became a music education major. One day, he was invited to play with the No. 2 jazz band, "even though I didn't even know all my fingerings," he said.
"I had finally found my [musical] voice, and it was the trumpet," he said.
Before he left UTC, Williamson participated in jazz band, marching band, pep band and concert band, he said. But because he wanted to be a performer, not an educator, he began looking for a practical way to earn his daily bread. He eventually moved to Chattanooga State, where he got a certificate in drafting.
Music was sort of a side gig to his day jobs over the years. The list of artists he has played with is long. Most recently he has been associated with local reggae band, Milele Roots.
When Rhythm Nation offered Williamson a living-wage job last year, he jumped at the chance.
Also last year, Williamson said, he sought treatment for numbness in his left arm and found out cancer had attacked his endocrine and nervous systems. He is still undergoing treatment, but his symptoms have improved, he said.
Meanwhile, Williamson said he feels a calling to expand his nonprofit.
Although the effort is in its infancy, Williamson was able to form a board of directors and charter the group last month. He sees a need for a path to music for people like him who don't take up an instrument until after high school.
"It's something that's been building in my heart and that I've been praying about," he said.
"There are so many people I meet who tell me how much they love our music," Williamson explained. "And then they tell me, 'I wish I played the piano, or I wish I'd stuck with the guitar.'"
Williamson's message is that it's never too late for a person to find a path to music.
Let's see a park bench play the oboe.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.