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The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has previously written quite extensively about the late drummer Tony Williams [1945-1997] and you can locate a combined posting of these features by going here.
We recently came across the following interview that Paul deBarros did with Tony that was published in the November 1983 edition of Downbeat and we thought we would bring it up on these pages to have more of Tony’s views on drumming and music available in his own words on the blog.
Never one to be at a loss for words or timid about expressing his opinions, his brashness, assertiveness, and candor - none of which is meant pejoratively - are also reflected in his musical “personality.”
After all, as Pops [Louis Armstrong] often stated: “Jazz is what you are.” Put another way, Tony’s style of drumming is bold, forceful and colorful so why would we expect him to be any less so in an interview?
“Tony Williams erupted onto the jazz scene in 1963, a 17-year-old prodigy with a full-blown, volcanic style of drumming that would blow hard-bop lustiness out the door. Williams' arrival was hailed with a great deal of fanfare. The week he came with Miles Davis to San Francisco's Jazz Workshop, the club temporarily relinquished its liquor license so the underage genius could play. I remember, because it was the first time I was allowed in as well. Williams played the drums that week at a level of energy and activity — not to mention volume — that was not only exciting, but liberating. Whirling from crash to ride to slack hi-hat, now pummeling, now tickling, now coaxing, he machine-gunned the bass drum, pulled low-pitched "pows" from the toms and jagged bursts from the snare as if his legs and arms were connected to four separate torsos. His complex, distinct style, which owed a lot to the floating time of Roy Haynes and thrust of Elvin Jones (Sunny Murray's unbridled freestyle was a simultaneous development rather than an influence), suggested that jazz drumming might exist as an adjunct to, as well as a support for, the rest of the band.
Williams stayed with Davis five years. In 1968, like Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter before him, Williams left Miles, smelling rock & roll in the air. Joining forces with keyboard man Larry Young and British guitarist John McLaughlin (whom Tony discovered, but Miles snatched into the recording studio first, for In a Silent Way), the drummer recorded a groundbreaking jazz-fusion trio album, Emergency, for Polydor (recently reissued as Once In a Lifetime, Verve), of psychedelic fervor and volume. For a while it looked as if Tony Williams was going to take the electric '70s by storm, as he had the acoustic '60s.
But it didn't turn out that way. At Polydor he suffered poor management, poor promotion and poor sales. Fans who had exhaled "far out" for Emergency dumped Turn It Over and Ego into the used-record bins. The critics lambasted him, crying, "Sellout." Williams, for all his bravado a vulnerable fellow, retreated, confused. From 1973 to '75 and again from 1976 to '79, he vanished as a leader. When he did come back, with Columbia, it was with the crisp, straight-ahead rock of Believe It, pumped full of hot air by a disco-ing promotional department. Jazz fans shook their heads, wondering what had happened to their young hero. After an exhibitionist tour de force, Joy of Flying, in 1979, on which he amassed everyone from Cecil Taylor to Tom Scott, Columbia dropped Williams in the middle of a seven-record contract. More than ever, he began to look like the Orson Welles of jazz, burst-ing into the world with creative energy only to make a long, agonizing finish. One critic, Valerie Wilmer, even went so far as to dismiss him as a showman.
But Wilmer, and others, weren't really paying attention. While it was true that Tony Williams hadn't come up with any project matching the creative vision of Emergency or the late-'60s Miles quintet (hard acts to follow), he had certainly held his ground, which is considerable. He is every bit as good a jazz drummer as he was 20 years ago, as his recent performance in Seattle with V.S.O.P. II attested. Besides, none of the other great jazz drummers — Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones — has altered his style after its initial breakthrough. Williams' work in rock has been a mighty influence, right down to the current work of Journey's Steve Smith.
As for integrity, Williams has this to say to his critics: "People have this thing that if you like pop music, it's because of the money. My career will tell you I've never done anything for the money. Writers and critics and people in the jazz world think you cannot possibly like the Police because of the music, which is absurd. I do the things I do because they excite me, and the rest is a load of rubbish."
Williams continues to tour both in rock and jazz situations. In 1980, he played Europe with young Portland, Ore., fusion keyboardist Tom Grant and Missing Persons bassist Pat O'Hearn; in 1981 and '83 he toured with V.S.O.P. He plays on one track of Grant's Columbia album You Hardly Know Me, and on several with Wynton Marsalis, who replaced Freddie Hubbard in V.S.O.P.
In 1977, the drummer moved from New York to Marin County, north of San Francisco, where he lives in a country home with his girlfriend. Three days a week he drives to UC Berkeley, where he is studying classical composition with Robert Greenberg. When he is not composing fugues or studying counterpoint ("It's a mountain of work," says Williams), he is in the studio in San Francisco or busy catching up on some of the things he missed growing up a superstar: playing tennis, swimming, learning German and driving his Ferrari. Williams says the move to California has revitalized his creative life and helped him to get past the tangled 1970s.
Paul de Barros: You completely changed jazz drumming in the 1960s. Were you consciously aware at any certain point that you were doing something new?
Tony Williams: Not really. I guess I was aware that I was playing differently, but it was more of a thing that I was aware of a need, like if you see a hole, you think you can fill it. There were certain things that guys were not playing that I said, "Why not? Why can't you do this?"
de Barros: How important was Alan Dawson, your teacher in Boston, in your development of independence in all four limbs?
Williams: What I got basically from Alan was clarity. He had a lot of independence, but so did other people. I get this question about independence a lot, even from drummers, but they can't even be clear about their ideas. I mean, you hear them play something, and you say, "What was it that he played?" Or if they hear themselves back on tape, they say they thought they played good, but that it didn’t sound like that. So the idea is that when you play something for it to sound like what you intended, not to have a "maybe" kind of sound. So that's what I got from Alan, the idea that you have to play clearly
de Barros: Were you thrilled to be part of the Miles band in the '60s?
Williams: Well, when you're doing things it's hard to say, "Oh gee, this is going to be real historical sometime." I mean, you don't do that; you just go to the sessions, and 10 or 20 years later people are telling you that it was important. When you're doing it, you can't really feel that way.
de Barros: What is your relationship with Miles now?
Williams: Very friendly. I saw him this summer. I haven't heard the new albums. but when we played opposite him, I heard bits and pieces of the band, and Miles was sounding good. He's been practicing. I liked Al Foster [Miles' drummer] years ago, when I was with Miles.
de Barros: You've played with a lot of illustrious musicians. Being a drummer, you have to adapt to each one differently. Let's talk about some of them, say, beginning with Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner.
Williams: Sonny has a very loose attitude about things — the time, the whole situation. With McCoy I always felt like I was getting in his way, or that it never jelled. I felt inadequate. Actually, with both Sonny and McCoy, it's like you're playing this thing, and they're going to be on top of it.
de Barros: How about John McLaughlin and Alan Holdsworth?
Williams: Completely different. John is more rhythm oriented. He plays right with you, on the beat. He'll play accents with you. Even while he's soloing, he'll drop back and play things that are in the rhythm. Alan is less help, With Alan it’s like he's standing somewhere and he's just playing, no matter what the rhythm is,
de Barros: Wynton Marsalis and Freddie Hubbard?
Williams: Freddie plays the same kind of solo all the time. I get the feeling that if Freddie doesn't get to a climax in his solos, and people really hear it, he gets disappointed. With Wynton it's always different. I don't know what he's going to play. It's always stimulating.
de Barros: I gather you think Wynton Marsalis' manifesto about only playing jazz — and not funk or rock — is not that important?
Williams: He thinks it's an important attitude. That's what counts.
de Barros: A lot of fans and critics still find a contradiction in your playing what they see as oversimplified rock as well as the kind of complex jazz you played with Miles and you play now with V.S.O.P. II. What 's your reaction to that?
Williams: Well, first of all, just because it's jazz, doesn't mean it's going to be more complex. I've played with different people in jazz where it was just what you'd call very sweet music. No type of music, just because it's a certain kind of music, is all good. A lot of rock & roll is not happening. And a lot of so-called jazz, and the people who play it, are not happening. Complexity is not the attraction for me, anyway—it's the feeling of the music, the feeling generated on the bandstand. So playing in a heavy rock situation can be as satisfying as anything else. If I'm playing just a backbeat with an electric bass and a guitar, when it comes together, it's really a great feeling.
de Barros: You were quoted in Rolling Stone praising the drummer in the Ramones. Were you serious?
Williams: I don't remember the occasion, but I do like that kind of drumming, like Keith Moon, any drumming where you have to hit the drum hard; that's why I like rock & roll drumming.
de Barros: Sometimes so much of that music seems very insensitive.
Williams: It depends on what you're saying the Ramones are supposed to be sensitive to. Just because it's jazz doesn't mean it's going to be sensitive to. You're trying to evoke a whole other type of feeling with the Ramones. When I drive through different cities and I look up in the Airport Hilton and I see the sign that says, "Tonight in the lounge, 'live jazz'" — I mean, what the hell does that mean? I'm not saying everybody's like this, but I can see a tinge of people saying, "This is the only way it was in 1950, and we're going to keep it that way, whether the music is vital or not, whether or not what we end up playing sounds filled with cobwebs." When John Coltrane was alive, there were all kinds of people who put him down. But these same people will now raise his name as some sort of banner to wave in people's faces to say, "How come you're not like this?" These same people. That's the hypocrisy, and I find it very tedious.
de Barros: How important is technique?
Williams: You've got to learn to play the instrument before you can have your own style. You have to practice. The rudiments are very important. Before I left home, I tried to play exactly like Max Roach, exactly like Art Blakey, exactly like Philly Joe Jones, and exactly like Roy Haynes. That's the way to learn the instrument. A lot of people don't do that. There are guys who have a drum set for two years and say they've got their own "style."
de Barros: How can we prevent those kinds of guys from taking; up more room than they deserve?
Williams: (Laughing.) Well, we could pass a law.
de Barros: The Bad Drummer Ordinance?
Williams: Exactly. Anyone who does not study is shot! Seriously, though, it's a big responsibility when you play the drums, and a lot of guys don't want the responsibility, but they want to play the drums. The drummer is playing all the time. You can have a terrible band and a great drummer, and you've got a good band; but you could have great horn players, and if the drummer and the bass player aren't happening, you've got a terrible band.
de Barros: Is tuning important?
Williams: Yes, I hear drummers that have maybe 12 drums that all sound the same. If you closed your eyes, you wouldn't know where they were on the set. Or else you'll have guys where each drum sounds like it's from a different set. It's important that the drum set sounds like one instrument. Like, if you have a piano, you wouldn't want the C to sound like a Rhodes, the D to sound like a Farfisa, the E to sound like a Prophet. A keyboard is a uniform system; a trumpet is a uniform system ... drummers are out to lunch. On some of my drums, the bottom head is tighter than the top head. On other drums they're about the same. And on the bass drum the front head is looser than the batter side.
de Barros: Have you tried electronic drums?
Williams: Yeah! I tried the Simmons. The separation you get on tape is great. The programmability, the sound, the sequencing... it's another thing to do that seems very interesting. I have a DMX (electronic, programmable drum machine by Oberheim] at home.
de Barros: Will electronic drums be part of what you're doing in the studio?
Williams: Oh yeah, they already are.
de Barros: Can you say anything more about what direction your music is going?
Williams: The popular direction. I like MTV. I like the Police, Missing Persons, Laurie Anderson. I performed with her on a San Francisco date. It was great, I love the new Bowie album. Prince. I like the idea of writing lyrics, of putting images with words that evoke a scene on top of the music. I like Herbie's new album - [Herbie Hancock, Future Shock, Columbia 38814]. It's really happening.
de Barros: Are you interested in making a video yourself?
Williams: Sure. Growing up in this country, watching TV and movies, everyone would like to make a movie. It's a new thing to do. You know writers want to be painters; screenwriters want to be directors. Musicians want to make movies. Doing a project and having a lot of people like it and maybe listen to it on the radio, that appeals to me. What I'm trying to do is something that captures a lot of people's imaginations. If the result is I'm more famous, fine. But it's not like I'm after being a pop star.
dd Barros: You've said in the past that jazz should be popular, not an elitist art form. But isn't it about time Americans claimed jazz as their art form and started recognizing it with the kind of respect they give to European music?
Williams: That's a fine thought, but how much is that really going to do for musicians? I don't think society really recognizes classical music, anyway. It's all patronage, and grants, a certain class of people. Jazz was originally the music of the people in the streets and not in concert halls, so when you lose that, you suffer the consequences. There's nothing wrong with jazz being an art form, but it has a certain roughness and vitality and unexpectedness that's important. I guess I'm old-fashioned.”