Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Art Farmer in L.A.

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1945 at the age of sixteen, trumpeter Art Farmer started playing professionally while attending Jefferson High School. Sam Browne headed up a great stage band at Jefferson and saxophone greats Dexter Gordon and Frank Morgan also attended the program.

Art left Los Angeles in 1952 to join Lionel Hampton’s band for a year of touring. In fall 1953 he settled in New York, forming a group with Gigi Gryce. He also played with Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, and Lester Young, among others. In 1959 he and Benny Golson formed the Jazztet, one of the definitive hard bop groups. A few years later Art teamed with guitarist Jim Hall to lead a memo­rable combo.

In the mid-1960s Art gradually abandoned the trumpet to play flugelhorn. In 1968 he moved to Vienna, married an Austrian, and they had two children. Art has toured the world and returns regularly to perform in the United States. He has appeared on dozens of albums, as sideman, bandleader, and co-leader.

Art and his twin brother, Addison, were born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in August 1928. When they were four the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona. Art was attracted to music at an early age, and was studying piano by the time he was in elementary school. He studied and played violin and bass tuba before picking up the cornet at thirteen to play in the school band. Soon he was play­ing trumpet in a local band and met one of his idols, Roy Eldridge.

Art gave the following interview as part of the UCLA Oral History Program’s Central Avenue Sounds Project and it has been published in Bryant, et al., Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998].

In his foreword to the book, Steve Isoardi offered the following comments about the book’s methodology:

“We set as our task encouraging the interviewees to share the freest, fullest narratives, told at their own pace and in their particular way of recalling. This approach reminded me of improvisation in Jazz, a symmetry I find compelling and satisfying.  We also wanted to avoid hearing the canned answers or accounts some of these artists might have given over the years to repetitious queries about their lives.”

Art’s self-interview is part of a section in the book entitled The Eastside at High Tide. Other subsections are entitled The Emergence of Central Avenue, The Watts Scene and Drawn by Central’s Magic – New Faces.

What emerges from reading the interviews in this book is an impression of a Central Avenue Los Angeles Jazz Scene that was every bit as vibrant and as hip as the one that took place on New York City’s 42nd Street in the years following World War II.

Although musicians such as Marshall Royal, Melba Liston and Art migrated east to continue their Jazz careers, many such as Gerald Wilson, Buddy Collette and Gerald Wilson continued to be based in Los Angeles long after the heyday of Central Avenue.

In retrospect, I never cease to be fascinated by learning more about just how vibrant and energetic the Central Avenue Jazz scene was. It is a shame that it’s legacy has remained poorly documented for so many years.

Thankfully, Art Farmer has these reminiscences to share about Central Avenue, including his meetings with Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Frank Morgan, Art Pepper and Chet Baker during his time there.

“Artie Shaw’s band came through on a one-nighter, and Roy Eldridge was working with him. I was playing in a little club, and he came by there, and he sat in on the drums first. Then he went to his room and got his horn and brought his horn back and played. Roy was a great person. The next night, at the dance hall, the Artie Shaw band played the first dance from nine to one, and then our band played from like two to five, because there was a thing then called the swing shift, where there would be a dance held for the people who were working on what is called the swing shift at night—they would get off at midnight. So the guys from Artie Shaw's band, they stood around and listened to us.

When the bands came through, we would go to where they were stay­ing and introduce ourselves and ask them if they would like to come by our house for a jam session. Some of them would, and they were very kind and gentle and helpful. There was never any kind of stuff about "Oh, we're tired and too busy" or something. They would come by.

There's a certain kind of community inside the jazz neighborhood, that's international. And there's a lot of mutual help going on. There always has been. This is what's kept the music alive until now, because it's been handed down from one person to the next. And as long as a young person would show that they were sincerely interested, nobody would say, "Hey, go to hell," you know, "I'm busy!" I never had that kind of expe­rience with anyone. So these guys would come by the house and they would give us whatever help. If you knew what questions to ask, you would get the answers. A lot of time you didn't know the questions. But whatever you'd ask, they would help you.

When Art and his brother arrived in Los Angeles during the summer of 1945, Central Avenue was still booming with wartime prosperity.

Then when we were around the age of sixteen, we came to Los Angeles on a summer vacation, and there was so much musical activity here that we just decided to stay. We had one more year to go in high school, which was fortunate. And we just didn't want to go back to Phoenix, because we knew that we wanted to be professional musicians, and this was where it was happening. And the center of it was Central Avenue.

I can remember pretty well the first evening I went to Central Avenue. That block where the Downbeat and the Last Word and the Dunbar— all those places—are, that was the block. And it was crowded. A lot of people on the street. Almost like a promenade, [laughter] I saw all these people. I remember seeing Howard McGhee; he was standing there talk­ing to some people. I saw Jimmy Rushing, because the Basic band was in town. And I said, "Wow!" I didn't really go into the Alabam, but I passed by there. I heard the big band sound coming out.

The other clubs were not large. They might hold maybe a hundred people at the most. And the stage might hold six, seven at the most. And they had a bar. There was no dancing in these little places. Just tables. Most clubs were like that. I think the first place I went into was the Downbeat. Howard McGhee was there with Teddy Edwards and another tenor player by the name of J. D. King. And Roy Porter was playing drums, and the bass player was named Bob Dingbod. It was crowded, so we just sort of walked in and stood around and stood up next to the wall.

As far as I know, that was the first organized band out here that was really playing bebop. Dizzy and Bird hadn't come out here at that time. I think Dizzy had been out here with other bands, but he and Bird hadn't come out with the quintet yet. Certainly people were playing bebop. We were playing it; we were trying to play it before Dizzy and Bird got here. It just sounded good to me. I didn't have to ask myself, "Gee, what is this? Do I like it or don't I like it?" because my mind was completely open at that time.

This time was the beginning of the bebop era, but it was also the beginning of the rock era in a certain sense, rock-pop, instrumentally. Across the street from the Downbeat was a place called the Last Word. I went in and listened to Jack McVea, who had more of a sort of a jump band entertainment type of thing, which wasn't as interesting to me as what was happening with Howard's group. There was a guy in Los An­geles by the name of Joe Liggins. He had a group called Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers. I guess you might call this like a jump band. Well, they had this very popular record called "The Honeydripper," and it was very, very simple music. It didn't have any of the harmonic complexity that bebop had to it, but it was very popular. So while the bebop thing was going in one direction, which was musically complex and had some quality to it, I would say this other thing was going in a completely dif­ferent direction. Very simple. The average person could get something out of it without any effort. So that's where things started going in a different direction.

Well, that kind of music didn't have any interest to me. Not at all. My attraction to music basically was the swing era with the big bands—Jim-mie Lunceford and Count Basic and Duke Ellington—and that was a high level of music to me. It had a lot of things going on. And things like "The Honeydripper" was just completely watered down. It's like TV; it's watered down to the lowest common denominator, something that's made for idiots, you know, for morons. That's what the whole pop music has become.

But the music I liked was more complex. The big band music had a lot of depth and profundity to it to me. So it was a natural movement from big band to bebop as far as I was concerned. It really pleased me. Plus the fact that at the end of the war, big bands started fading away. And one of the reasons was the music became too complex for the audi­ence, for one thing. The economic situation was against it—the cost of moving a band around the country. Plus the fact that the record compa­nies and the promoters thought that they could make as much money with five pieces as they could make with sixteen or seventeen. So the big bands faded away. And in order to stay in music, you have to be able to work in the small group. To work in a small group, you had to be able to play a decent solo. My first ambition was just to be a member of that sound in a big band. I would have been very happy just to be a second or third or fourth or first trumpet player, whatever. At that particular time, I would say it was beyond my dreams that I would ever become a soloist.
And there were a lot of people our age hanging around. One thing led to another; we would meet guys. But that was the heart of it right there.

Jefferson High— "A whole new world”

When school opened, we went over to Jefferson High School and en­rolled. Jeff to us was a great school, because we had gone to the schools in Arizona, which were totally segregated then and very limited, which I never will be able to overcome. Because I wanted to study music. There was nobody there that could teach me. I never had a trumpet lesson. I developed bad habits. And when you develop bad habits at an early age, and playing the trumpet is a physical thing, it's hard to overcome that. Like pushing the horn into my mouth, you know, pressure and all, when your teeth get loose and you get holes and sores on your lips. Well, I had to pay for that later on.

So we came over here and it was a whole new world, this big school with all kinds of white people, black people, Chinese, Mexican. Every­body was in this school. They had classes where you could study har­mony. They had this big band. You could sign up for the big band and go in there and learn how to play with other people. It was just completely different for us. And you'd meet people your age who were trying to do the same thing, and we would exchange ideas, of course. So it was great.

And Samuel Browne was a nice guy. He was really ahead of his time in training kids to be musicians. To my knowledge, this was the only school in the country that had a high school swing band, and that was part of the curriculum. Well, see, this kind of music wasn't regarded as serious music in the education system. But at Jeff maybe a couple of hours a day were spent on music at school. I remember big band and harmony—I would say harmony and theory. But other guys were studying arranging, also. Some of the students were making arrangements for the big band. You know, guys who had been there for a year or so in front of us—they were at the level then that they could write arrangements for the big band. And they could hear their stuff played then. We also not only learned to play in that type of a setting, but we would have exposure to audiences also, because we would go around to other schools in this area and play concerts. So they were really at least thirty years ahead of the rest of the United States.

Sam Browne was a very quiet person. He kept order by his personality. He never had to shout at anyone. He never had to say, "Do this or do that" and you didn't do this and you didn't do that. Somehow you just felt that you should do it. Otherwise you just felt that you were in the wrong place. This was a serious thing. And everyone who was there really wanted to work. They wanted to play music, otherwise they wouldn't be there. You know, he loved music, and he wanted to help kids.

And he would bring other people. If somebody came into the town that he knew, he would go around and tell them to come around and talk to the kids. He would get the people to come around and play what we'd call an assembly for the whole student body and then talk to the band. Leave themselves open. You could ask them any questions that would come to your mind.

Art was also surrounded by many students just as interested in music as he was, and in some cases just as talented.

Sonny Criss was there. Ernie Andrews, the singer, was there. There was a drummer by the name of Ed Thigpen, who was the year under us.

There was a tenor player named Hadley Caliman, who is now a teacher at a conservatory up in Seattle, Washington. Another tenor player by the name of Joe Howard. I don't know what happened—I think he's dead now—but he was writing very nice arrangements by then. Alto saxo­phone player named James Robinson. We called him "Sweet Pea." He was a very good player. He's not alive any more, either.

You know, meeting these guys and exchanging ideas was just a great thing. Big Jay McNeely was there. I think he was in the class in front of us. But I was in the harmony class with him. And my memory is not so clear, but somehow the story is there that he asked the teacher, "Well, how much money do you make?" And the teacher told him. And he said, "Well, I already make more money than you. How do you think you can teach me anything?" But he had his little group, and he was working around town. The scale was sixty dollars a week, you know, for a side-man. Sixty dollars. And that was big money. So he was getting that much, because the union was strong then.

When we first got here we took what jobs we could get. I remember having a job in a cold storage plant, [laughter] Stacking crates of fruit and vegetables. We were kids, you know; we didn't take anything seriously. A lot of the time we didn't have any money, and we got thrown out of rooms and things. We got fired from that job because we started throwing these potatoes at each other, [laughter]

Art was soon playing in regular bands at night, while attending Jefferson dur­ing the day. Word quickly got around about the young trumpeter.

The worst thing I remember was hanging out all night. Of course, the clubs would close around one or two o'clock, and then the first class in the morning was physical ed. And I remember the lowest thing to me was trying to climb a rope.

A lot of good players were still in the army, and there were still some big bands around getting some shows. I think the first job that I got in Los Angeles was with Horace Henderson, Fletcher's brother. I don't re­member how I met him. I think that he came by Jeff one day, and I was out on the playground.

He said, "Come over here."

I walked over there, and he said, "You're Arthur Farmer?"


"Well, I got a band. I need a trumpet player." I don't know how that happened. I got some work with him. And one thing leads to another, and I would work with Floyd Ray.

It wasn't that easy, because sometimes we would work and wouldn't get paid, you know. Things started getting weird. I remember I went down to San Diego with Horace Henderson and didn't get paid. And I remem­ber working somewhere around here with Floyd Ray and didn't get paid. That would happen sometimes. Club owners skipped out, or the people who would put on the dance, they skipped out. That was part of the business, and it still is. But it didn't take much to stay alive. Rent was very cheap, you know, and food was cheap. If you could get a gig every now and then, you could make it—if you didn't have any habits. We were too young to have any bad habits, [laughter]

Sometimes I had to go out of town for a week or two. Well, my brother and I, we were living by ourselves. So when we couldn't go to school, we would just write our own excuses. I'd say, "Please excuse my boy today because he has to do such-and-such a thing." And sign it "Mrs. Hazel Farmer," you know. Because the school didn't know we were living by ourselves.

When I got an offer to go on the road with the Johnny Otis band, the school year wasn't out yet. And my mother had told me I've got to get that diploma. So I went to the principal and I told him. I said, "Look, I have this chance to go on the road with this band. This is the beginning of my career, and I really don't want to lose it. I really need this. If my work has been okay, I would like to be able to get my diploma. I would like you to please consider this and write a letter to my mother to that effect." And the guy was nice enough to do it. And I said, "Would you put that diploma in the safe just in case you're no longer here?" I came out here with Gerry Mulligans group around '58. This was in ‘46 when I left. I came back in '58, and that diploma was in the safe, and I went over there and got it.

Johnny Otis had a big band that was sort of styled after the Count Basie band. They had been working at the Club Alabam for some time. But when they got ready to go on the road, some of the guys didn't want to leave, so that left an opening in the trumpet section. He sounded me and asked me did I want to go, and I said certainly. So that was my first chance to go back east.

Charlie Parker— 'He was out here just like everybody else."

I met Charlie Parker and Miles Davis when they first came out here. I actually met Miles at the union, 767. And he said, "Yeah, I came out here with Benny Carter’s band because I knew Charlie Parker came out here, and I'd go any place where Charlie Parker was, because you can learn so much. I would go to Africa." Well, our image of Africa at that time was people with bones in their nose, you know. Nobody would have thought about going to Africa. He said, "I would go to Africa if Charlie Parker was there because you could learn so much."

I met Charlie Parker at Gene Montgomery's house. He was a tenor player and was a close friend of Teddy Edwards. He used to run the Sun­day afternoon matinee jam sessions at the Downbeat on Central Avenue, and he was what we would call the session master. The club would hire one man to coordinate the session, to see that there weren't too many guys on the stand at one time, and keep things moving along.

On the way home from school, well, we just got in the habit of stop­ping by his house. And I met Charlie Parker over there. He was a very nice, approachable person. To me he was not really a monster at all; he was just a nice guy. Well, my brother and I, we had a sort of a large room on Fifty-fifth and Avalon, and eventually Charlie Parker was over there staying with us sometimes. We had two twin beds and a couch, so he was sleeping on the couch.

We would walk the streets on Central Avenue. One night we went up to Lovejoy's. He always had his horn with him. There was one guy play­ing the piano, playing music that would fit the silent movies—stride mu­sic, or stride piano and stuff. And he just took out his horn and started playing. After that, we were walking back to the house, and I told him, "Hey, you really surprised me playing with somebody like that," because Charlie Parker was regarded as the god of the future. And he's playing with this guy, who's just an amateur. He said, "Well, if you're trying to do something, you take advantage of any occasion. Go ahead, ignore that other stuff. That doesn't mean anything. You have to concentrate on what you're trying to put together yourself." So I always kept that in my mind.

And none of us had any money. My brother was working sometimes because the bass players would get more work than trumpet players, you know, because many little places would have a trio. Sometimes Charlie Parker would say, "Loan me five dollars" or "Loan me ten dollars. I'll pay you back tomorrow." He always paid him back. Always. He developed a reputation of being a sort of a swindler, borrowing money and never paying people and all sorts of negative things like that. But that never happened.

And I remember one night we were walking on Central Avenue to go to one of those movie theaters. Well, you wait until the last feature had already started and then go to the doorman and say, "Hey, man, we don't have any money. Why don't you let us in to see the end of the movie?" [laughter] It worked sometimes, [laughter] So there was the great Charlie Parker, who didn't have enough money to buy a ticket to go in a movie. But he was a human being, you know. He was out here just like every­body else.

Charlie Parker was supposed to be a drug addict. Well, at that time he didn't have any drugs, and he was in pretty bad shape. I remember one night there was an incident, and he was about to have a nervous break­down. We were on the second floor. There was a French window from the ceiling to the floor, and he opened it up, and he was standing there like he was going to jump out. And before that he'd been taking oft, putting on his clothes, and taking them off and putting them on, taking them off. He was just going off. So I took him out of the window and I said, "Let's go for a walk." So he put on his clothes and we went right across the street. It was Avalon Park. We went and walked in the park. And he had a bad cold, like his lungs were falling apart. I said, "You ought to do something about this." He said, "Not a goddamn thing!" I mean, he was really down. We took him back to the room, and he finally went to bed. But he was having a hard time. He was starting to come apart, because he had nervous tics. His nerves were really shot. I guess it was just stress from the withdrawal, because he didn't have any drugs at that time. And he wasn't working. No money. At that time, in the forties, he was the first guy that I heard of that had a narcotics habit. Of all the younger guys I knew, nobody was into hard drugs.

In late 1945 Bird and Dizzy Gillespie arrived in town for a long engagement at Billy Berg's club in Hollywood. It was their first foray to the West Coast and opening night attracted a large crowd; but when the turnout fell, Berg canceled the rest of the gig.

Yeah, I was there the first night. It was crowded at the opening, but then it kind of fell off, because the music was too far advanced for the general audience. And Billy Berg's had two other acts there also—Slim Gaillard and a guy named Harry "The Hipster" Gibson. And they were very, very entertaining. Billy Berg decided to give this new thing a chance, but when he saw the audience reaction, well, I think that he actually cut the engagement short a couple of weeks. So Dizzy went back east and Charlie Parker stayed out here.

I remember one time, Howard McGhee was part owner of a place called the Finale Club in the Little Tokyo area. Howard McGhee worked there with his band, and Charlie Parker worked there one time with his own group, which Miles was in. Miles was working with Benny Carter and Charlie Parker. Benny Carter had a job at some dance hall or some­thing. So there was a lady working for a weekly black newspaper called the Los Angeles Sentinel, I think. And she came and checked out the group and wrote a review in the paper, and was very negative. She said, "This group has this saxophone player who carries himself with the air of a prophet, but really not that much is happening. And he s got a little wispy black boy playing the trumpet who doesn't quite make it," you know, [laughter] "It has a moon-faced bass player with an indefatigable arm," speaking about my brother. She didn't have anything good to say about anybody.

Well, I saw that paper, and I went over to where Bird was staying at Genes house and said, "Hey man, wake up!" [laughter] I said, "Wake up, man! You have to read what this bitch is saying about you, man!" He's still laying in bed. [laughter] Well, we couldn't get him to move unless you gave him a joint. You'd have to baby him. Anyway, he read this and said, "Well, she's probably all right. Just the wrong people got to her first." And then he got kind of in a self-pitying mood and he said, "Well, Dizzy left me out here, and I'm catching it." You know, "Dizzy got away, but he left me out here, and I'm catching this from everybody." That really brought him down, because he didn't see nothing strange about his music. His music was very melodic. And for somebody to say something like that— You know, he was proud to get good reviews. He liked that and would send the reviews to his mother.

Almost 99 percent of the younger guys really loved this new music. The disagreement came with the older guys, some of the older guys, who were more firmly entrenched in the swing era, and they just couldn't see anything else happening. But bebop was an outgrowth of big band, be­cause all those guys had worked with big bands and they went into bebop because they were able to play more. It presented more of a challenge to them. If you played in a big band, you didn't get that much chance to really play. You jumped up every now and then and played a short solo. But if you were working with a small group, well, you had much more time to play, and you could play different kinds of tunes that were more challenging. There was more flexibility than in a big band.

So lets see. That was my introduction to bebop. So when I got this offer to go back east with Johnny Otis, I think Bird was already in the institution [Camarillo State Hospital], or else he went in shortly after that. And the next time I saw him was when he first came back to New York City. Someone had fixed a job for him, a one-nighter up at a place called Small's Paradise in Harlem. So I went by to see him. He said, "Hey, Arthur Farmer, we're in New York, man. You can get anything you want in New York!" [laughter] He was so happy to be out of California, [laughter]

Jam Sessions and Gigs on Central

After a few months on the road with Johnny Otis, Art returned to Los Angeles.
But there were sessions, jam sessions, on Central Avenue. The Downbeat and Last Word. Monday night was the off night, so there was always a session on Monday night in these clubs. Then the after-hours clubs— Lovejoy's was an after-hours club. And then there was a place called Jack's Basket Room, which was farther north. That was a big session place. And farther north from that, there was a little place called the Gaiety. That became the Jungle Room. We'd go from club to club.

These jam sessions were a great part of life, because that's the way you learn. They were well attended and the music was still a part of the ordinary people s community. People would come into the jam session. They liked music. You'd go into the restaurant and you'd have a jukebox there. There would be bebop tunes and tunes by swing bands and things. So we still hadn't reached that gap where the general audience sort of lost interest. So it was a different thing, because now the average person doesn't know anything about jazz at all, or they know very little. They go to a place like the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl for the spectacle. I played one in New York at a place called Randall's Island years ago. Every attraction was given a bulletin about what to do and what not to do. It said, "No ballads." [laughter]

In the late 1940’s, the Los Angeles police increased their presence on Central.

The police started really becoming a problem. I remember, you would walk down the street, and every time they'd see you, they would stop you and search you. I remember one night me and someone else were walking from the Downbeat area up north to Jack's Basket Room or the Gaiety or some other place like that, and we got stopped two times. And the third time some cops on foot stopped us, and I said, "Hey, look, you guys are going the same way. Do you mind if we walk with you?" [laughter] We'd been stopped so many times we were getting later and later. So they said, "Okay." But we didn't have anything. It would be insane to be car­rying some stuff on you on Central Avenue, because you'd get in trouble. You could get put in jail. You didn't have any money for a lawyer. If you had one marijuana cigarette, you could get ninety days. And if you had one mark on your arm, you'd be called a vagrant addict. Ninety days. The police were very obnoxious around there.

I remember working at a place, somewhere in the Fifties on Main or Broadway, some years later, in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. It was a nice club, what we would call black and tan, because black people and white people went there too. I was working with a band that was led by Teddy Edwards. People went in there, and we could have stayed there a long time, but then the manager said we had to go, because the police said that they didn't want this racial mixing there, and if the club didn't change its policy there was going to be trouble.

This mixing thing, this thing about white women and black men, was really a hard issue. When the war came, all the people from the South came in, and they brought their racial prejudices with them. And that's why we've had the problems here.

And then there was a lot of prostitution going on. There were some cases where black men were pimps, and the white women were prosti­tutes. And the police, they would rather kill somebody than see that hap­pen. And every time they saw an interracial couple, that's what they thought was going on, which was not the case. As far as they were con­cerned, the only thing they saw anytime they saw any interracial thing going on was crime. This was a crime. If it wasn't a crime on the books, it was still a crime as far as they were concerned. So their main worry was this interracial mixing, because it was a crime leading to prostitution and narcotics.

They weren't worried that much about robbery, because that wasn't the problem then, because people were working. The economic picture was better then than it is now. The people had a chance to get a job. And more people had what we call the work ethic. People would rather get a job that they were overqualified for than not to work at all. The mem­bers of the black community then felt more that it was a disgrace not to have a job.

Then everybody had a job, everybody was working, and if they were working they figured that they should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and that would include entertainment. There were no TVs. The clubs were thriving. Johnny Otis's band would go into the Alabam and stay there for months, [laughter] At Joe Morris's Plantation Club in Watts, well, Count Basic would come out, and Billy Eckstine would come out. And they were supported by the community. Some white people would come in, but the white people were not enough to keep this going. They were really the fringe. It was the black audiences that supported these places.

Another important influence on Art was Roy Porter’s big band. Porter also appeared on Charlie Parker's sessions for Dial Records in Los Angeles.

The Roy Porter band was important to us, to the younger guys. Roy Porter was the drummer who had played with Howard McGhee when I first heard Howard McGhee on Central Avenue at the Downbeat. Then later on Howard McGhee went back east again, and Roy Porter organized a big band. The members were younger guys like myself, mostly. A lot of us had gone to Jeff. Eric Dolphy was in the band. There were other good players. So that was like a training ground. The charts were patterned after Dizzy Gillespie's big band. By then Dizzy had come out to Califor­nia with his big band, and that was the next earthquake, [laughter] Well, some of the kids that had gone to Jeff, who learned how to write arrange­ments at Jeff, were writing arrangements for this big band. We made some recordings for a company called Savoy Records. They're out now in an album called something like "Black Jazz in California."

Eric Dolphy was a prince. You know, he was an angel. He really lived for music. He lived for music, and he loved music. Twenty-four hours wasn't long enough for him. Eric was always a very enthusiastic guy, but he was 100 percent about music. He was a nice, nice, friendly, warm person, but he just loved to play. During that time I didn't feel it was necessary to spend all that time playing. I figured it would just come naturally, [laughter] I figured if I spent a couple of hours on it, why, heck, that's great. Somebody like Eric would practice all day long. All day.

At that time he was very much under the influence of Charlie Parker, as all the young guys were. Then later on, when he went back east, I think he got involved with Charles Mingus, and I think Mingus broad­ened his boundaries. It wasn't that he stopped loving Charlie Parker, but he started being interested in more of a less-structured type of music thing. He used to imitate the sounds of birds and things on his horn, on his flute. He'd listen to bird calls and play them, do things like that. Then he got hooked up with John Coltrane, and John Coltrane was the same way. It was like his wife said: he was 95 percent saxophone. They were really kindred spirits.

Charles Mingus, a graduate of Jordan High School in Watts, had been a main­stay on the Avenue until he left for New York in the late 1940’s

I never played with him in California, but I knew him. That was the first bass player that I heard of when I got here. They said, "Yeah, there's a guy here named Charlie Mingus. He's got a bad temper, too." [laughter] "Last week he took his bass stand and chased the vocalist off the stage with it." That was the first I heard of him. He didn't like the way she was singing, [laughter] He was a bad boy. [laughter] So nobody messed with Charles Mingus. Everybody was afraid of Mingus.

When I got to New York, I started playing with Mingus. I developed a reputation of being able to play anything that anybody put in front of me. So there was a certain group of guys back there who were getting into very difficult music. They were stretching out, venturing into areas where it wasn't just ordinary jazz. That's how I happened to have hooked up with Mingus out there, because that's the way his music was. You just couldn't play it the way you played everything else. You really had to work with it. You had to have the time to give it.

I remember one night he came into a place where I was playing. He had this fearsome reputation. And he was sitting in this club, and he hollered up to the stage, "Hey, Art Farmer, play a C scale!" And I'd say, "Oh, man." I didn't want to get any stuff. And I hollered back down, "I really don't know how you want it played." I got out of it some way. And then I found out later that he had told some people there with him, he said, "This guy here, he can play a C scale and make it into music."

Nights on the Avenue—"it was like the Wild West."

When rhythm and blues began to attract a large appreciative audience, some jazz players, including Big]ay McNeely, made the transition from bop to r&b.
I remember one night I was in the Downbeat, and Big Jay McNeely was working across the street at the Last Word. He came out in the street with his horn and came all the way across Central Avenue and walked into the Downbeat with his horn, playing it, honking, whooping and hollering, [laughter] And the owner, a little bald-headed guy, he must have been about seventy years old. I think he was an immigrant, European Jewish guy, with a heavy accent. He said, "Get the horn! Get the horn! Someone get the horn!" [laughter] It was like the Wild West, [laughter] That was the funniest thing, [laughter] Because the Downbeat was the bebop club that night, and this guy—he was like the enemy!

Well, Jay, part of his act was complete, total abandon. It was like some­body who had become completely possessed by the music. He throws off his coat and throws that down, then he jumps on his back, and he's playing the horn, he puts his legs up in the air, and he's playing all the time. So there was a place called the Olympia Theatre where he would play on Saturday night, a midnight show. I'm working with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. They had a band—and these are highly respected jazz stars, and I was working with that band. We got a job there one Saturday night, and we figured, "Well, gee, this is a step up." [laughter] Dexter decides that he's going to pull a Big Jay. So he's up there, and he's playing his thing, and all of a sudden he starts to come out of his coat, and War-dell had to help him out with the coat. Wardell takes the coat and very civilly takes it and folds it and puts it on his arm. There's Dexter, and he's honking a la Big Jay, and he finally gets down on his knees a la Big Jay. And then the people in the audience, these kids, these teenagers, are look­ing up there like, "Gee, when is he going to do something?" He stayed down there so long like that. He stayed down there on his knees like he's praying, like he didn't know what to do then. So he finally got up off his knees, and the show went on. But that Big Jay, he was something else.

Earlier, Big Jay and Sonny Criss, the alto player, had a bebop quintet together. And he was getting gigs. But then his brother came back from the army and told him that he was going in the wrong direction. He said he wouldn't be able to make a quarter playing that. With Big Jay it was either one thing completely. Because when he was playing bebop, it was extreme. It was either everything had to be the hippest or the most corny with him. We called him "bebop" because everything he played sounded like bebop, like he didn't give a damn about any other aspect of music than that. So he changed. He made a radical change.

But Sonny was strictly a jazz player. The trouble with Sonny is that he never really studied. He took some lessons from Buddy Collette, but he never really learned how to read that well. He never learned how to read good enough to play with the big bands and things like that. He said, "I shouldn't have to do that. I'm a jazz player." So that just closed down a lot of possibilities, because if you play jazz, well, a lot of your income is going to be from making records. And you go into a studio, you have to be able to play whatever is thrown in front of you. If they call you one time and if you hold up the thing, they're not going to call you anymore regardless of how great a solo you play. And then most saxophone players double. They play flute or clarinet or something. He said, "Well, I'm an alto saxophone player." So he didn't get as far as he should have.

As a teenager, Frank Morgan was an extremely promising saxophonist. Unfor­tunately, his drug addiction led to his first prison term in the mid-1950’s. Not until the 1980’s was he able to realize his full potential.

I first met Frank Morgan in the late forties, and I guess Central Avenue was on its way down, but there were still some things happening then. Frank was about sixteen years old. Frank went to Jeff also. We were quite close. But then, when I left here in '52 with Lionel Hampton, after then, well, he started getting involved with narcotics and really got too deep into it, and spent a lot of time in prison.

But the tragedy is that a lot of guys didn't survive this narcotics thing. Too many. Between narcotics and the prejudice thing and I don't know what— The prejudice thing might have led to the narcotics in some cases, just feeling like the avenues are blocked anyway, so we might as well get high. Guys spent years and years in prison, and then they're just out of the music thing completely. Or else they take an overdose and they're dead. So a lot of guys didn't survive. Of the students who went to Jeff in Samuel Browne's band, when they left there a lot of them got hooked on narcotics, and they just fell by the wayside. Talented people.

But the narcotics killed white people, too, some talented white people. For instance, there was a saxophone player named Art Pepper. I used to make gigs with Art sometimes. We'd work in Latin bands around Los Angeles sometimes, playing montunos and things. Well, he got hung up in narcotics. It was sad because he said, "I'm a junkie, and I'll be a junkie till I die." You know, that's it. That's the reality. And Chet Baker is an­other one, too. I met Chet and guys like that coming into this part of town to participate in jam sessions.

It was a scourge. They'd get hooked, and they'd get arrested by the police. You go to jail, you come out, you have a record, and if the police want a promotion, then they arrest other people. They know who to come to. Like if they want to put another star behind their name, they look down the list and say, "Oh, here's so-and-so. He's been arrested be­fore. Well, we'll go see what he's doing." Sometimes they might even manufacture some evidence, because you already have the record. If you go before the judge and you've already been arrested for narcotics and the police say, "Well, we found such and such a thing in his pocket," the judge is going to believe the police before he believes the criminal who has this record of being a narcotics offender. So guys started going in and out of jails. And the next thing they know, it's all over, because the music is highly competitive, and you have to be able to do what you're supposed to do. It's hard enough then, you know. But if you lose a year here and a year there, it's just impossible.

So Frank—I give him credit for at least being able to survive somehow, because he was a rare one from California. He's not without scars from all the stuff he's been through. It's changed him. He's not the sixteen-year-old kid that I used to know. After you spend some years in San Quentin, you develop something else. He's hardened. He has hardened a lot, which I guess you'd have to do in order to survive. But he still plays very well.

Union Musician — ' We figured that's part of being a professional musician."

I joined the union in Phoenix first, and I even had a problem getting in there because of race. When me and my brother and other guys had this little band and we were getting jobs, well, we decided we wanted to be in the union. We figured that's part of being a professional musician. So we went there and told them we wanted to be in the union, and they said no. There were no blacks in the union. So we wrote to the headquarters in Chicago. That's where Caesar [James] Petrillo’s office was. They said they have to let us join the union. So we joined the union in Phoenix, because the federation told the local that they had to let us in if we were qualified. So we got in.
When we came over here, we transferred to Local 767. The first time I heard Gerald Wilson was at the union. They had this house and the rooms on the second floor were used for rehearsal rooms.

By the late 1940’s the amalgamation movement had begun.

Certainly I was supporting it. Everybody from a certain age group was, certainly. They didn't see any reason not to support it. Because it was a matter of territory, also. You see, Local 47 had the larger part of Los Angeles. There were certain territories that were allotted to each local. And we figured if we were all in the same local, then we would be able to play anyplace in town. And this whole studio thing, like the movie stu­dios—that was Local 47 territory. In order to work in the studio, you were supposed to be a member of Local 47. But if you were black, then you had to be in Local 767. The white people could come and work on Central Avenue, but the blacks had trouble coming to work in Holly­wood. They could work in some places, but there would have to be some kind of special dispensation to work like at Billy Berg’s or a place like the Swing Club.

The Legacy of Central

I stayed in Los Angeles until '52, when I left with Lionel Hampton. So during that time, that's when Central went into history. I remember the Alabam was still going, and I heard Josephine Baker there one time. Sweets Edison was the musical director of her show. That was probably one of the last big events at the Club Alabam—that I was aware of, any­way. And things were just thinning out generally. I was working with Gerald Wilson or Benny Carter or whoever had a job. Dexter Gordon or Wardell Gray or Sonny Criss, Frank Morgan—people like that. You see, the downfall of Central Avenue was more than anything else economics. When the war ended, people didn't have money to be going out into clubs. Then television came into being and they would go home and watch TV. The attendance at these clubs became sparse and they even­tually had to close.

Also there was a migration from the Eastside to the Westside. We would call Central Avenue the Eastside. The people who had work and had some kind of equity and property in that part of Los Angeles, they made a step up the ladder and moved to the west of Los Angeles, say, around Western Avenue or Normandie, places in that part of town. And what was left on the Eastside were people who didn't have the money to move. People were able to buy houses in what had until then been exclu­sively white neighborhoods. There were a few key cases that opened the thing up. There was something out here called restrictive covenants that were eventually beaten. So people were able to buy in other neighbor­hoods. And they got out of that neighborhood.

Then there were some clubs opening up over there on the Westside, like there was a place called the Oasis on Western Avenue and some other smaller clubs. It was nothing like Central Avenue, because Central Ave­nue was more compact. That's where everything was going on. The real center was located around where the Alabam and the Dunbar Hotel and the Downbeat were. Yeah, that was the real center. But then after that, as Los Angeles is, you have one place here and another place thirty miles over there, so there's nothing like Central Avenue.

Central Avenue was the neighborhood where I could go and hear people play and meet people. On Central Avenue, Count Basic and Duke Ellington were more accessible. They were part of the neighborhood. I got to meet people and got to hear them play, and I could go there any night, stand around and listen, and see what was going on. It was a matter of getting experience. And you could get that on Central Avenue more than you could get it anyplace else. Central Avenue was the main thing for Los Angeles. After you left Los Angeles, you had a long way to go to Chicago or New York City. By the time you got there, you were really supposed to be ready. But here you could start off.

I think Central Avenue was important also to groups that were really not regarded as jazz groups—like Roy Milton, blues groups, things like that—because they had a lot of work. I wouldn't want to give the im­pression that Central Avenue was just a jazz place, because it really wasn't. You had Roy Milton and Pee Wee Crayton and T-Bone Walker and Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner. And they were much more successful than the jazz was, without a doubt, [laughter] This was their happy hunting ground, [laughter] But you see, groups like that had jazz players playing with them. That was certainly a big part of the street.

My final thoughts are kind of sad, because when you go there now, I feel like I'm stepping into a graveyard. It's very emotional to see some­thing that played such a large part in your life, and now there's nothing left there. Nothing would give you the impression that this place had ever been anything other than what it is right now. And you have to stop and ask yourself, Well, is it all an illusion? Is it all an illusion? And that's the big question. You know, I'm sixty-three years old, and when I first went there I was, say, sixteen or something like that, and what happened then at that age has influenced me until now. But if I look at that street now, what could have influenced me? What was there? There's nothing there that would influence anybody now. Nothing at all. Not one brick. I mean, there's no sign of anything ever happening of any value or impor­tance to anyone in the world.

It's a loss, because the kids come up and they don't have any idea. All they know is crack and shoot somebody, that kind of stuff. Basketball. Basketball is okay, but there's more to life than basketball. You know, everybody can't be six, seven feet tall and make a million dollars playing basketball.

So the kids come up, and their role models are so limited that they don't see any alternative to what's before them. And what's before them is almost totally negative, almost totally negative, in the black commu­nity. That's the pity. That's really the pity. And not enough is done to make the people aware of what could be, of what was and what could be.

One day things that happened here will be looked on with more inter­est than there is now. But the people who did it will be long gone. Some people made a great contribution, like Sam Browne. He is a good ex­ample for others to live by, to try to do something to pass on some knowl­edge to people who didn't come in contact with it. And that's about the best thing that we can do.”

The following video features Art Farmer's quintet performing Mox Nix.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tony Williams 1945-1997: The Unpredictable in Jazz Drumming - Revised and Expanded

The following feature on drummer, bandleader and composer, Tony Williams has been revised to include below "A Lesson from Tony" sent to us from drummer Ed Soph who teaches at the University of North Texas and the Tony Scherman Interview with Tony that appeared in the March, 1992 edition of Musician Magazine and which originally featured on these pages as a separate postings. This represents another of our efforts to "put it all in one place" so that these combined features might be easier to research in the future.

The original posting about Tony Williams has consistently been one of the most popular pieces on the blog having received almost 12,500 hits to date.

To put it mildly, Tony Williams' drumming on Miles Davis' 1963 recording of Seven Steps to Heaven shocked the Jazz world in general and Jazz drummers in particular.

No one had ever played Jazz drums like that before.

Bar lines disappeared; solos stopped and started everywhere and anywhere; drums crackled, popped and exploded; cymbals splashed and crashed in unexpected places; the hi-hat was played on four-beats-to-the-bar almost as though it were being danced on; the metronomic pulse that underscores Jazz became heightened and unrelenting.

Tony pushed, shoved and pulled the momentum of the music unceasingly, almost unmercifully at times.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Pianist Victor Feldman, who was himself a master drummer, and who essentially wrote the title tune with a few additions by Miles, was scheduled to play on that date along with Los Angeles-based drummer, Frank Butler.

Although Victor and Frank did play Seven Steps to Heaven with Miles, along with Joshua, another original by Victor, and the other songs on the LP [Victor's arrangement of Basin Street Blues remains a masterpiece of re-harmonization] during Miles' brief stint on the West Coast in 1963, Victor was too busy in the Los Angeles studios [and Frank had other stuff going on] and didn't make the trip back to New York to record his two original compositions with Miles for Columbia [CL 2051].

Enter Tony Williams' stunning recording debut on Seven Steps to Heaven.

The rest as they say is history.

“Though regarded as one of the greatest drummers in the 20th century, in many ways Tony Williams remains un-credited with his contributions to American music. Speak to his collaborators and the musicians he has influenced about his music, and you often hear what amounts to mysteries and fables.”
- Ken Micallef, “Bridge to the Beyond,” down beat, November 2008

“Tony Williams was only seventeen years old when he joined [Miles] Davis in May 1963 …. Williams was so young that Davis faced problems with authorities when he was booked to play nightclubs where minors were not allowed. But Williams compensated for his lack of professional experience with an excess of power, passion and creativity – indeed no other percussionist in the history of Jazz ever played so well, so young.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, p. 333.

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Tony Williams literally walked into my life.

To digress for a moment, during most of the decade of the 1990s, I lived in San Francisco, but I could have lived anywhere because due to a dispersed, national group of clients, I traveled a portion of every week, every year for over a decade.

For a variety of reasons, all bad, San Francisco International Airport is a horrible place for the business traveler. Delays and flight cancellations are the rule rather than the exception, so I frequently found myself stranded following business meetings.

Fortunately, I worked for a major firm that allowed me to stay in a hotel of my choice while the company’s travel agents re-booked my flight home for the following day [hopefully].

One such incident occurred in October, 1993 when a cancelled flight to San Francisco found me staying over at the Palmer House in Chicago.

Of course, every Jazz fan has heard about Chicago’s legendary club – The Jazz Showcase. Founded in the late 1940’s by Joe Segal, its tenure as a club that featured top Jazz groups rivaled that of Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in New York.

Although I was aware of its existence, I had never been there.  Being marooned overnight in Chicago one autumn night gave me the opportunity to do so.

When I asked at the hotel’s Concierge Desk if they could help with directions to the club, one of the gentlemen there looked up at me, gently smiled and in a wonderful accented voice asked: “Fancy short walk do you?” I found out later that it was a Yorkshire accent in which the use of articles such as “the” and “a” are dropped.

Now, October is generally an absolutely gorgeous month in Chicago weather-wise, so when I said I did, he continued: “Out front door of hotel, turn right down Monroe for block to Michigan Avenue, turn left, you’ll find it ways up on right in old Blackstone Hotel.”

Piece ‘o cake. Twenty minutes later I was in the beautiful lobby of the historic Blackstone with its aged, wood paneling and marble columns. I gather that Joe Segal had been forced to move The Jazz Showcase from a previous location and it was now housed in one of the hotel’s conference rooms just off the main lobby that had been re-fashioned for this purpose.

On the bill that evening was guitarist John Scofield who was fronting a trio that included Larry Goldings on piano and Hammond B-3 organ and Bill Stewart on drums.

There were more marble columns in the club area, in fact, these seemed so ubiquitous that they blocked a number of views of the stage. I glommed onto a small table off to the side of the stage with a perfect view of Bill Stewart [old habits die hard for drummers].

Just after the set began, someone was at my shoulder and pointing to the other chair at the table while asking: “Is anyone sitting here.”

I was so engrossed in watching Bill and listening to the music that I didn’t even look up to the male voice asking the question.  I just held out my hand in the direction of the chair and said: “It’s all yours.”

When the tune was finished, I looked over at my table guest, smiled and in a flash of recognition said” “You’re Tony Williams!” And he said: “Yes, I am, and you’re a drummer.”  “How did you know that?”, I queried. Tony offered: “The whole time you were digging Bill, your left foot was playing the high-hat on 2 and 4 and your right foot was feathering the bass drum on all 4 beats.”

And that’s how I met Tony Williams. He bought me a drink “ …for being kind enough to share ‘my’ table with him….”  I found out that, while he had been born in Chicago and was in town on some personal business, he too, lived in the San Francisco Bay area.

We talked about drums and drummers until Bill Stewart came by our table, and then all three of us talked about – you guessed it – drums and drummers.

When Bill left us to get ready for the next set, Tony shared how much he was enjoying writing for his own band and continuing his studies to expand his knowledge of music theory and harmony.

I had to confess that while I had been very familiar with Tony’s musical travels with Miles Davis in the 1960s and the group Lifetime in the 1970s, I had really lost touch with his career after that. 

He asked for my address in San Francisco and a short while later two Blue Note CDs that Tony had produced with his then current group, and for which he had written most of the music, arrived in my mailbox.

Later he sent me a copy of the CD Marvelous on which he appears with pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Dave Holland.

In the ensuing years, my world became professionally busier and, as it is sometimes wont to do, LIFE skipped a heartbeat and three years later in June, 1997 Tony was gone having died from complications following a surgery.

While working on the Davy Tough and Papa Jo Jones blog features, the JazzProfiles editorial staff began reflecting on who amongst contemporary Jazz drummers have been similarly influential in terms of setting trends in drumming styles?

The name that readily came to mind was Elvin Jones as elements of his method of playing have had a far-reaching influence of drummers such as Peter Erskine, Bill Stewart, Adam Nussbaum and a host of others. The way in which Elvin accented eight note and quarter note triplets and inflected them with the bass drum is everywhere apparent in the phrasing of many of today’s Jazz drummers.

But what of the influence of Tony Williams?  It’s there, but why is it harder to discern as compared with that of Elvin?  The answer may lie in Elvin’s predictability as compared with Tony’s unpredictability.

Although he would reconfigured them by beginning and ending on different parts of the drum kit, Elvin essentially played the same “licks” over and over again to create, what many describe as a “polyrhythmic” feeling or sound to his drumming.

With Tony, you never knew what was coming next; the licks and phrases were not repetitive so how could they be copied? How does one mimic unpredictability?

Instead of rudimental phrases, Tony Williams offered drummers a whole new concept of playing Jazz drums based around what has been described as “controlled chaos.” 

Tony underscored this tendency by making tempos sound “elastic” and by playing with intense swiftness and a pulsating forward motion.  All of these qualities became more pronounced in his playing as the years moved along.

The following description by Peter Watrous is an excellent overview of the elements and evolution of Tony’s approach to Jazz drumming:

“Early in his career he was the master of the ride cymbal. He liked a clean spare sound evoking the slight sizzle of fat in a frying pan, and often moved abruptly between light and cluttered textures. And in his swing, Mr. Williams was utterly committed. …

As part of the Miles Davis quintet rhythm section with Herbie Hancock on piano and Ron Carter on bass, Mr. Williams radically changed the way a band worked. In his hands, tempos were pliable, ….

Along with his band mates, Mr. Williams took group improvisation further than it had gone before, developing structural improvisations that made the form of a tune seem finally irrelevant to the music. Thirty years later, his early playing is still striking for its audacity; his capacity to listen, to hear within the group and augment the musical conversation, seemed unbounded.” [New York Times obituary, June 7, 2009].

Before moving on, let’s be clear about what type of drumming is being discussed here. This is not the unobtrusive playing-like-the-wind style of Jo Jones, or playing under a band like Davy Tough; Tony Williams drumming is pure, unadulterated, bombastic explosiveness.

In a 1992 interview he have to Bill Milkowski for the Modern Drummer, Tony stated:

“I like to play loud. I believe the drums should be hit hard.”

Maybe the reason that Tony’s style is so idiosyncratic is that he did not come up into the world of Jazz through the typical big band route.  And the reason for that is easy to understand because when Tony was growing up, primarily in the 1950’s, for all intents and purposes, big bands were a dying breed.

Perhaps another basis for the stylistic distinctiveness of Tony’s drumming is because it embraced the new, more complex Rock ‘n Roll that was just coming into existence as he was reaching his majority in the mid-to-late 1960s.

The infusion or inflection of Latin rhythms also gave Tony’s drumming another element of uniqueness in combination with other sources that he drew from outside the mainstream of the Jazz tradition.

As is the case with many creative young people, Tony was in-step with the influences around him; the influences of his time. His temperament seemed to prefer the inclusion of these seemingly disparate influences, rather than drawing lines or creating categories based around mutual exclusivity.

Given this process of development, Tony’s impressionistic and fiery timekeeping made an enormous contribution to the landmark series of recordings made by the Miles Davis Quintet in the late 1960’s including Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, E.S.P., Nefertiti and Filles de Kilimanjaro.

What was apparent in the 1960s was that Jazz was changing and, according to many, not necessarily for the better.  But this was largely the opinion of those Jazz fans who preferred the understated swing of the 1930s or the straight-ahead rhythms of the post World War II be-bop and hard bop eras.

The former group heralded the tap dance-like drumming of Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson while the latter group preferred the driving propulsion of Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.

Tony along with drummers of his generation and those that would follow, while certainly respectful and admiring of the technical ability of all these drummers, heard the music differently and wanted to incorporate other elements into their drumming in response to it.

Drummer Terri Lynne Carrington explains Tony’s significance this way:

“Every time I hear Tony I remember how great he is. It’s always fresh and amazing. Tony brought the drums to the forefront more than ever. He took from Roy Haynes and moved it forward in his own way. I hate to talk in absolutes, but he made the greatest individual personal statement on the instrument ever. His technique was incredible and he had the most important element – time feel.”

Put another way from drummer Peter Erskine:

“Words seem inadequate to describe his work with Miles, and how new it was and yet completely tied into tradition. … all of a sudden the drums were right in your face, the visceral reaction was that it was one of drumming’s biggest shots across the bow.”

And this from drummer Bill Stewart about Tony’s seminal recordings with Miles:

“One of the things I love about Tony’s playing in this period is his listening ability, his interaction and timing. He plays these interactive things at moments in the music that propel the music forward. It’s about the spaces he plays those things in…. The other thing that crept into his playing was using the hi-hat on all fours sometimes.”

These late 1960’s recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet on which Tony appears as such a dominant force are a dividing line of sorts for those Jazz fans who prefer the group’s from the period from 1955-1965.

In this later period, Miles continued to push forward and explore new areas for his music through the use of electronic instruments, primarily keyboards and guitar, percussion instruments that are played either in Latin rhythms [including the newly arrived bossa nova] or freely to add tonal colors and cross rhythms and by using rock beats.  Add to this what has been described as Tony Williams “scorched earth campaign” drumming, and it is easy to understand why those who preferred more traditional Jazz styles could become disenchanted with this music, let alone overwhelmed by it.

As drummer Billy Hart explicates:

“When Tony joined Miles … he had been a prolific young student under Alan Dawson. Tony had figured out the bebop guys, and that they were playing Latin from Dizzy and Bird’s interest in Afro-Cuban. Around the same time, the Brazilian thing hit. Tony had the advantage over the previous bebop drummers in that he could compare the Cuban vocabulary with the Brazilian. … Tony was in a position to use all incoming styles as part of his vocabulary.”

What super-charged all of this was Tony’s whole-hearted embracing of rock drumming and the manner in which he infused it into Jazz, especially of Miles’ Filles de Kilimanjaro and one particular tune on this album – Frelon Brun.

Drummer Lennie White details the significance of this turn of events as follows:

“Tony plays Jazz-Rock, not Fusion. The connotation is different. Added to this was another innovation in the way he got a whole new drum sound with his larger kit and the way played eight notes and back beats. Tony played grooves and beats with a Jazz sensibility. He played his grooves on the sock cymbal. He’s got Papa Jo Jones up top with his back beat stuff on the bottom with bass drum and snare, playing in between like a great Jazz drummer would. He’s playing the history of Jazz drumming, because he is comping. He never forgot his roots.”

In 1998, the year following Tony Williams’ death, the Mike Zwerin published a feature for entitled Tony Williams: Finding His Beautiful Vase in which he commented:

“He would not be who he is without those he learned from. It’s a matter on universality. As he learned technique, he also learned that the drums are more important than he is.

He compares the learning process to a dusty living room. You’re comfortable there, it’s home, but one day you see something in the corner that attracts your eye. You never saw it before. To get it, you have to move everything and clean the dust.  Williams cleaned and cleaned and found his beautiful vase. Improvising is about being able to clean your dust, to find the vase and to recognize that it is beautiful in itself.” …

An optimist by nature, Williams does not believe in the good old days. He will not hold on to the past, he can envision the days when he will no longer play the drums.

The drummer never stops playing back there – there are aching feet, ankles, thighs, hips and elbows. He cannot imagine himself doing that forever. Plus, he loves being in his home south of San Francisco, even when he’s staring at the walls.

P.S. All hats off to Tony Williams. RIP.”

Part 2: Tony Williams - The Tony Scherman Interview

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“When I was a kid, for about two years I played like Max Roach. Max is my favorite drummer. Art Blakey was my first drum idol, but Max was the biggest. So I would buy every record I could with Max on it and then I would play exactly what was on the record, solos and everything. I also did that with Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes, and all of the drummers I admired. I would even tune my drums just like they were on the record.

People try to get into drums today, and after a year, they’re working on their own style. You must first spend a long time doing everything that the great drummers do. Then you can understand what it means. Not only do you learn how to play something, but you also learn why it was played. That’s the value of playing like someone. You can’t just learn a lick; you’ve got to learn where it came from, what caused the drummer to play that way, and a number of things. Drumming is like an evolutionary pattern.”

Our recent re-posting of an earlier piece on the late drummer Tony Williams [1945-1997] generated a lot of interest including a very nice note from drummer Ed Soph who teaches at the University of North Texas admonishing us for not saying more about the role of Tony’s teacher Alan Dawson in helping to shape Williams’ exciting approach to drumming.

Ed also kindly sent along the “Lesson from Tony” that opens this feature.

The earlier piece on Tony also overlooked other aspects of his later career particularly his tremendous accomplishments as a composer, arranger and bandleader, the latter during a time in the mid-1980’s when very few new, modern Jazz quintets were being formed.

The following interview by Tony Scherman is intended to rectify some of these omissions.

Very sadly, five short years after the interview was conducted, Tony would be dead from complication following an appendix surgery.

March, 1992
Musician Magazine
Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Growing: Tony Williams Reinvents Himself

“This may sound self-aggrandizing, but playing the drums was always easy for me. From an early age, it was so easy to figure stuff out it was almost embarrassing. I needed to prove to myself that I was deserving of all the praise, needed to feel that I'd accomplished something—that I had accomplished something, the person that I am. I needed to tackle something that was hard, that wasn't God-given, and see it grow. That's what writing music has been, and is, for me. I had to go get a teacher, I had to study composition for seven years. That was work. Writing music, that's work. Drumming has never been work, it's always been fun. It's still fun. So I could never put the word 'work' in my life, and how can you be a success to yourself if you've never had to work?"

As he enters middle age, Tony Williams looks less and less African American, more and more exotic, near-Eastern: Persian, Lebanese, Assyrian. In profile, his nose hooks luxuriantly. His big almond-shaped eyes are sleepy and liquid; their blank stare can be unnerving. He wears his hair semi-straightened now, brushed back into a stiff little ducktail, and with his lazy rolling gait and odd-shaped body—thick biceps, thick waist—he looks like an ill-tempered Buddha.

Tony Williams—a handful. He plays like the rushing wind, like an avalanche, like a natural disaster. People look at each other and start to laugh, he's so good, so loud, so unapologetically in their faces. There's nothing polite about Tony Williams's drumming, nor anything overly diplomatic about him. He's testy, suspicious, self-involved. Still, the gibe I've heard more than once—"the only thing bigger than Tony Williams's talent is his ego"—strikes me as untrue. Beneath the cold manner flickers a real vulnerability: unhealed wounds. I'll bet he's easily devastated. Something gnaws at this guy, some basic insecurity, and if it makes him difficult and defensive, it's also made him hungry to learn. How many drummers can write a fugue? Compose for string quartet? Organize a spectacularly tight five-man jazz group and write every bit of its thirty-song repertoire—sinuous, muscular, haunting pieces? Williams's composing hasn't yet approached the level of his playing (how many drummers could you non-fatuously call "the world's greatest"?), but his achievement is pretty amazing: He's willed a new facet of himself into being.

Back in 1963, Tony was already working hard, if somewhat in the dark, at composing. "When I was a kid I thought this was what you did: you worked at whatever there was to get better at. Being a good musician meant to keep studying, keep learning. You didn't just specialize. Even back then, the thing that drove me on was wanting to do more, to have a say, to create an atmosphere."

Herbie Hancock, a former prodigy himself, was a suave twenty-three to the kid's eager-beaver seventeen. "Tony was always calling me up: 'Hey man! What's happening!' and I'd think, 'Aw kid, don't bothah me!' and try to gracefully get him off the phone." Callow or not, the kid was an astonishing drummer. When the pair joined the Miles Davis Quintet that spring, says Hancock, "I very quickly went from thinking of Tony as someone who was a real good drummer for a kid to realizing he was a great drummer who happened to be a kid." Thirty years later, Hancock is still an intrigued Williams-watcher. "Tony Williams," he says, "is one of the most intelligent people I have ever known."

When Tony wrote the songs for his first album, 1964's Life Time, he played piano with two fingers, "one on his right hand," says Hancock, "one on his left. No chords really, just two lines, and I had to write out the notes for him. His writing was very raw. But I wasn't about to dismiss something because it was a two-fingered composition; knowing the kind of mind Tony had, I just wanted to not get in his way, to help him realize whatever he had in the back of his head. And I still think the compositions on those first two albums [Life Time and Spring] were great.

"Today he's mastered the vocabulary, but without losing the beauty of that rawness. He's got a full palette now, from angular and surprising to very singable, very beautiful in the conventional sense. My feeling is, he has really got the compositional approach down. Tony doesn't need to study with anybody, at least not for a long while! I'll put it this way. Wayne Shorter and Stravinsky are my favorite composers of all time. Tony is developing so quickly as a composer that he's already one of my favorite jazz composers, and maybe moving toward being one of my favorite composers, period. I absolutely like his pieces that much."

Miles liked them, too; the Davis Quintet's classic Sixties albums are sprinkling Williams tunes like "Pee Wee" and "Hand Jive." But for Tony, "writing always felt hit-and-miss: 'Maybe this'll work, maybe it won't, why won't it?'" He had taken sporadic private lessons in theory and harmony since the mid-Sixties; 1979, however, was a turning point. He'd left Manhattan for the San Francisco Bay Area (where he still lives) "feeling in a hole, in a rut; 1 felt like 1 wasn't doing what I had the talent to do: write music, have a band, have better relationships." He thought about quitting music. Instead, he started private lessons in composition, mostly with Robert Greenberg, a young composer and university professor.

"It was a regular course of study, like at a university. You do a lot of analyzing of other people's work: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. I started with species counterpoint, went to intermediate forms of counterpoint, like canons, then invertible counterpoint, like fugues, and on to larger forms of composition—minuet and trio, theme and variations, rondo, that type of thing. It's all about learning how to weave structure and melody into a composition." When a recharged Williams launched his quintet in 1986, some of the band's best pieces came straight from his exercise book—"Arboretum" was an assignment in counterpoint, "Clear Ways" in voice-leading. Tony left Greenberg three years ago; "the band started working so much, I couldn't do my lessons. But 1 plan to go back and pick up where I stopped."

Before 1979, Williams says, "I knew everything there is to know about harmony and theory. What I mean is, I had a good solid grounding in all that stuff. But I didn't know how to organize. You might know emotionally what you want to say, but then it becomes a matter of getting the material to move where you want it to. It's problem-solving. For me it was like, 'I know there's a problem here but I don't know what it is.' When I come up to a problem now, I can pinpoint it. On paper. I can look at it and say, 'Oh, that's the problem and it's because of this, this and this, so if I adjust this, take that out, move this in'... problem solved."

What kind of problem, how to resolve a chord? "No, not how to resolve a chord, that's easy. How to expand an idea. How to make it go somewhere and then return. My big problem used to be that I agonized over things. I'd get an idea and not know what to do with it. Now when I get an idea, I know what to do. Writing is just being able to, as Bob Greenberg used to say, push notes around. Make the notes do what you want them to do.

"Sometimes when I was studying I'd wonder, 'What the hell am I doing? Will there come a time when I'll use this stud'and say, "Oh, this is why you've spent six, seven years staying up and writing these lessons out and driving back and forth to Berkeley three times a week?" ' But my insides would tell me, 'This is what you should be doing.' And now I can say, 'Yes! This is why I was doing it.'"
"What's the payoff?"

Long pause... "The fact that you're here. How's that? See, not only am I not just a drummer, I'm not just a musician either. I'm a person. A lot of things that are valid for me aren't only in musical terms. The fact that you're here and we're talking about what I've written, it tells me all those lessons have paid oil, are bringing me attention, it shows me I've done things people are interested in."

"Well, I like the songs. They stay in my mind."

"I'm glad. And that's why I wanted to study. I wanted to be able to write songs the way 1 knew I could, to present music my friends would like to hear, that would make people feel different things.

"So making the decision to study was easy. I make that kind of decision a lot. Moving to California was another of those things my insides told me to do. And after I got to California I decided to take swimming lessons. ["He did? Tony learned to swim? Aw, that's beautiful!"—Hancock.] I wanted to be able to go to a swimming pool and not just stand and wade; I got tired of going by the deep end and being scared. Now I can dive into the deep end. When I was in New York I was in therapy. In California, I have a therapist. It's helped me look at parts of my life 1Ineed to look at. It's the same kind of process—I'm always challenging myself to get better."

"Tony's composition, 'Sister Cheryl,'" says Herbie Hancock—"the first time I heard that tune [in 1982, when he and Williams played it on Wynton Marsalis's debut] I was shocked. Suddenly there was no more guesswork; Tony could really write chord changes. But what amazed me was that it was in a style that had eluded him for a long time. You know whal Tony once told me? That he wanted to be able to write a tune anybody could sing, like a very natural kind of pop melody. Not that 'Sister Cheryl' is pop— it isn't—but it's catchy. Tony was always asking me what I thought of this or that tune that he wrote. See, I can write melodies people can sing. Tony could never do that, not till then. In many ways—though it's not all the same, and it's definitely Tony's writing—'Sister Cheryl' reminded me of 'Maiden Voyage.' It's one of my favorite compositions ever.

"The way he wrote it, you just move the bass line and the chord will change radically. It starts on a B-major chord, but using the second instead of the third. It's B, C-sharp, F-sharp. With so few notes in the chord, you get lots of flexibility. From B-major it goes to A-flat minor 7— and everything from that first chord fits with the second chord. Then you go to A with a B-major. That's the theme. Now, all these chords fit with the B, C-sharp and F-sharp of the first chord, so by changing the bass line you've changed all the chords, but kept the harmony hanging over from that very first chord. The melody moves, the bass moves, but the harmony stays the same; the outer part changes, the inner part doesn't. It's a nice piece of work."

"Tony's harmonies are like a breath of fresh air," says the Williams Quintet's fine pianist, Mulgrew Miller. "Remember, we're talking about a jazz composer who isn't himself a harmonic and melodic improviser. So his progressions may be a little unorthodox—Tony didn't learn jazz writing by playing 'Stardust.' The standard iii-vi-ii-V-I turnaround, there's none of that. You won't hear many 32-bar choruses either: as long as the song needs to be, that's how long he writes 'em. And the keys he chooses are somewhat unusual. 'Sister Cheryl,' that's in B-major. Outside of practicing scales, I'd never even played in B-major; it's mostly sharps. A piano player might fool around with something in B and say, 'Hmmm, I like this progression, I think I'll move it down to E-flat.' Not Tony— it's B.

"He's got a tremendous set of ears and he loves harmony; he loves the color of complex chords. Catchy melodies are one of his traits, but catchy melodies with complex harmonies. The chord progressions and chorus lengths are almost always unconventional. And that goes back to Wayne Shorter. Listen to Wayne's 'Nefertiti.' Most of his pieces with Miles were like that: simple melody, complex harmony. A piece of Tony's like 'Two Worlds' is so melodic, if someone heard only the melody, they'd have no idea what harmonic convulsions, what explosions, are going on underneath. Of all Tony's pieces, that's probably the meanest ("Every time I call 'Two Worlds,' " says Williams, "I see at least one guy scrambling for the sheet music"]: a lot of changes at a fast tempo, and they're complex changes, like G 9 to A-flat major 7 to B-flat 11 to B-minor flat 6th. The challenge to the improvisor is finding the continuity in all these changes that don't relate!

"I just think Tony hears something different from most people. He's got influences, like Wayne and Herbie and contemporary classical music, but mainly it just comes from being an inventive person. It's the same thing that lets him play the way he does. From what I hear, Tony was challenging the accepted forms right from his earliest days. Listen to those records with Eric Dolphy. It's clear that even at the age of eighteen he was an advanced thinker,"

Tony Williams lit his third fat cigar in two hours. "It's a mark of a good song when anyone can play it, when it's so well-placed on the paper that it doesn't need a special interpretation, a great artist, to make it sound good." Brushing back the hotel-room curtain, he stood surveying Central Park West. He was beautifully dressed in a loose shirt, baggy winter pants and gorgeous two-toned shoes; circling his comfortable middle was the same metal-studded belt he'd worn the day before for his maiden voyage on David Letterman's TV show.

"It's like when you hear a hit song being played by some guy in a Holiday Inn bar and you say, 'Yeah, that's a great song.' Last night Paul Shaffer played 'Sister Cheryl' and it was a real turn-on. The song sounded so good. Those are good players, but what I'm saying is, the song translates easily from one group, one medium, to another; it doesn't take my band to play it.

"Or there's 'Native Heart'—the fact that I wrote that song (the title track on Williams's newest album] just knocks me out. It's like someone else wrote it and I'm getting a chance to play it. I worked on that song four, five months, playing it every day on the piano. It was crafted, like fine leather, like shoes."

"Could you analyze it for me?"

"No, I don't think I'd like to do that. Anyway, I can't. I write the songs and then I forget about them. It's up to the other guys to learn them. I don't need to. I'm playing the drums. Unless I'm working on a song, I can't tell you its chords; I'd have to go back to the piano with the music and I'd be able to play it after an hour or so. Besides, when you're writing, you have certain little things inside that tickle you, and you don't want to give them away. They wouldn't feel special if you flaunt them; it's like saying, 'Oooh, look how clever I am!' These things are private, they're little gems to me."

"But they're what's interesting: the things underneath."

"Yeah, and I'm interested in keeping them underneath. All I did in 'Native Heart' was invert the idea."

"Of the melody—?"

"Sort of."

"—or the chords?"



[Coyly] "I don't want to give away all my secrets here! They're precious things!" Finally he relents. "Okay, what happened was, I had this idea and I wanted to make a song out of it." He sings a simple little eight-bar version of the melody. "In itself it was just an idea, just a real short thing. So first of all I had to weave length into it." Setting out, he broke the phrase into two-bar chunks and put a one-bar rest between each. More important, he rewrote it, introducing a subdominant in the eleventh measure so the tune didn't resolve so quickly. "All I did was put in a few new notes. And then the second time (he phrase comes around, you go right to the five chord, the dominant—bang!—and it resolves. So I aired it out, fleshed it out, by putting in the subdominant.

"Okay, now I had to figure out, 'Where is this song going?' I had this two-note thing happening in the melody [D to A, a fifth]. Now, I deeply wanted the song to sound organic. So what I did was, I took that two-note phrase and gradually stretched it [to a sixth, F to D and then G to E] while slowing it down. Then 1 compressed it [accelerating it as it descends toward the tonic]—and when you compress a figure it brings a sense of resolution. So that was the work I did [in bars 25-33] to give the song a middle part, a so-called bridge, that sounded like it belonged, that was part of the opening melody." Just to strengthen the connection, Tony took a phrase from the fourth and fifth bars of the opening melody, turned the notes—B, C, D and B—upside down, and made this the last two bars of the middle: "a mirror, a reflective callback," as he puts it, of the opening melody.

All he needed now was an ending. "I was going to end it one way, with a little phrase that kind of drifts off. I decided that was too protracted, even though 1 liked the phrase." So he wrote another ending: the opening melody, but with a few new intervals and one brand-new note, an A-flat: "It's a piece of music, and a note, that's never been heard in the song before, so it really puts a cap on things. And then 1 said, 'Hey, wait a minute'—and I took that first ending, the one I'd loved but hadn't used, and made it the intro and outro. It was perfect there." And he had his song: a sultry, moodily swirling 45-measure composition, patiently teased from an eight-bar scrap.

"I think more about these kinds of things than I do about drums. 'Cause like I said, the drumming has never been a problem for me. That was the problem! I felt like all everybody wanted was this drummer, that Tony Williams was not there, that I didn't matter. And it caused me a lot of emotional pain.

"I'm not talking about fans, I'm talking about people I worked with. That was the pain, that if I weren't this drummer I wouldn't have these people as my friends. And 1 realized that was true. Everything that went on told me that. There I was in New York by myself—seventeen, eighteen, nineteen—and the only reason I was here was because I played the drums as well as I did. It was strange, very strange. In Miles Davis's band I was the youngest, the smallest and, as I felt, the least educated. I didn't feel good about myself. So that's to answer your question why would a person who's good at one thing want to be good at something else too. And those are valid reasons.

"I'd like to write things I wouldn't have to play. I'd like to write for certain orchestras. I've never been the type that needed to play drums in order to feel like a person. I choose to play, it's my desire to play. I'm not the kind of guy that goes around with drumsticks in his hands beating on things. I could live without drumming. There was a couple of years when I didn't play at all; I just hung out, lived off the rent from a house I own uptown here. Because I don't need the drums, I think I play belter. I respect them too much to use them as a crutch. When I sit down at the drums it's because I want to; it's like 'I'm here to be your friend.'

"The drums are my best friend. The drums are the only thing I've been able to count on totally, except my mother— and sometimes when she gets pissed off, boy, she can give me a look.... If it weren't for the drums, I wouldn't be here. But I can listen to the drums in my head. I mean, I rarely, in the last ten years, get the feeling to just go downstairs and play drums. I never practice. I can not play for a year and it'll only take me a night or two to get back to where I was. After thirty-six years, there's a certain level you won't never go below."

Which leaves him free to chase his new passion. Last autumn, in "one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had," Williams performed his first extended composition, the fifteen-minute "Rituals: Music for Piano, String Quartet, Drums and Cymbals,” with the Kronos Quartet and Hancock. He's sniffing out the world of soundtracks: "I'd do basically anything, movies, TV, jingles, just to see how it came out." The quintet, finally getting its due as one of the best of jazz's small groups, is always digesting some new Williams piece, and he's also writing for an electric band (sax, guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums) he plans to start.

"The more I write, the easier it comes. And it's really a pleasure to be able to write something, have it make sense, and then play it: to have it be not just an exercise but something the other guys enjoy playing. That's more important to me than just being able to say 'I wrote this.'

"I'm really surprised I've had the emotional stamina to stay resilient. Especially considering how burnt out I was feeling maybe fifteen years ago. It took courage to put a band together when no one else was doing it, and to write all the music. I've had to put myself out there for the scrutiny of everyone, to write songs everyone would scrutinize and criticize and review and critique. That's something that's very scary. To have done it, and to have gotten the reaction I've had, has been very, very wonderful."

"But it shouldn't have been scary, you'd been writing for years."

"What do you mean 'shouldn't have been'? It just was. Like I said, my writing was not the kind of writing I would have wanted it to be. Now it is. But I had to trust that. So now, I've finally gained trust in these other parts of myself.

I’m not just ‘Tony Williams drummer.’ And that feels pretty neat.”