Tony Williams

Tony Williams

Just what is a Tony Williams? Many of his admirers have described his style as “free”, “he doesn’t really play rudimental things”, “he’s loose”, “there’s something out of the ordinary about what he does”, “it’s different.” If those descriptions don’t tell you what a Tony Williams is, permit me to drop a few names on you: Alan Dawson, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John McLaughlin, Larry Young and Miles Davis.

Dawson was Anthony Williams’ first teacher when Tony was nine, having moved to Boston from his native Chicago. Early gigs with Jackie McLean led him to the infamous Miles Davis Quintet of the early sixties, which included Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter.

John McLaughlin was a Davis “muse”, as was Larry Young; add Tony, and you had the first Lifetime, the threesomes group name from the title track of an album. There were other major jazz figures criss-crossing Tony’s comet-like tail. When Columbia records had the idea of reuniting that famous Miles Davis group for a Newport Jazz Festival in New York in 1976, Tony, Herbie, Ron and Wayne made it, but fearless leader did not. Freddie Hubbard – probably the major trumpet voice on the scene at the moment – replaced Miles. The quintet – dubbed V.S.O.P. (Very Special Onetime Performance) – was born. A double pocket LP came of the NJF gig; a reprise tour was organized and a second LP recorded.

Now residing in the Bay area of San Francisco, Tony is currently in the studio polishing up the group he fronts in preparation for a new album. In the meantime, he tours for short spurts within a short radius of his home, “to give the group some work, and make them more self-assured when we get into the studio.”

The interview was done during a casual long distance hook-up between the coasts. It was an “I’ve got all afternoon” affair, with no ego infringements whatsoever.

WALD: Let’s start from right now, the new record and the new group.

WILLIAMS: We haven’t gone into the studio yet. We’ve played some local dates around the coast. At the moment we have Gerry Mule and Mike Hoffman on guitars, Paul Potyen keyboards, and Mike Formanek, bass. We play some of the tunes from Million Dollar Legs, some from the Believe It album; we’re even playing one song from Ego.

WALD: Why the west coast as home base?

WILLIAMS: I’m on the west coast to enjoy it. It’s a personal move, having lived in New York for fourteen years. I’ve never really lived anywhere else on my own. I lived at home until I was sixteen. New York was my first and only stop. It’s not like I’m running away from New York; I love it. It’s just that I thought it was time for a change. I chose San Francisco because it has seasons, and I like the changes. I always like changes.

WALD: You’ve been playing drums since you were…


WALD: What was your first set of drums like?

WILLIAMS: An old Radio King set. It consisted of a very large bass drum, 28 or 30 inches, and a 16″ tom that was mounted on the bass. It was a very old type of set, probably made in the early forties. There was also a snare and a hi-hat. The hi-hat cymbals were almost all bell. The bell used up more space than the flat section. They were only about 12 or 13 inches, with this huge bell – about nine inches. I got rid of those pretty quickly.

WALD: When did you move up to the big time sets?

WILLIAMS: I had the Radio Kings for about three years. My father had bought them for me. I got my first job at eleven or twelve years old, and it paid pretty well – for a kid. Thirty dollars for three nights work, and steady work, too. I saved twenty dollars of each weeks pay, and with the help of my mother, I bought my first Gretsch set.

WALD: The start of a long association, right?

WILLIAMS: Yes, right from the beginning. I was working at a club in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I bought a silver sparkle set, the exact same outfit that Max played. I haven’t played anything other than Gretsch since.

WALD: Have you ever had formal lessons?

WILLIAMS: After about four or five years on my own, I took lessons with Alan Dawson. Private lessons. I never did play in school because there were no musical facilities in my high school. Now, this was Boston in the late 50’s, remember? Before the riots. The trouble there now – due to busing – was even heavier then. Consequently, I didn’t play in school. I’ll tell you though; I played drums outside of school all the time. I left high school to play drums. I started playing around Boston and became house drummer with a trio. We’d work with the guest artists coming in from out of town; famous players. Jackie McLean came through, and he liked the way I played. He asked me to go to New York with him, and well, you know the rest.

WALD: That must have been heavy training; cutting shows for all those people.

WILLIAMS:Yes, it was rough. But you got to play for a lot of different acts. I guess it’s somewhat like studio playing in that regard.

WALD: Who were you listening to in those years?

WILLIAMS: I was listening to Miles, the Jazz Messengers, Trane, Rollins.

WALD: All those Prestige and Blue Notes…

WILLIAMS:…and the Riversides.

WALD: Did all those horn players have much of an influence on you?

WILLIAMS: Sure, of course. Miles was a big influence, years before I went with him. But I was also listening to classical music and living the life of a teenager, and that included the rock ‘n’ roll of the day. The Clovers, Drifters, Dion and the Belmonts. That was all going on in my regular life.

WALD: What about drummers?

WILLIAMS: There was a lot going on at the time. You still had the bop drummers around; Roach, Blakey, Kenny Clarke, as well as the rock drummers with their heavy-handed beats. I first started listening to drummers around Boston. There was a guy named Baggie – I’ve forgotten his last name. He didn’t have any, what you’d call technique, but he had such a great feeling. He made anything sound good. Then, of course, there was Alan Dawson. He’s so exact – so precise.

WALD: Where did you get the harmonic training you have to write the tunes you do?


WILLIAMS: I play piano. I decided I wanted piano lessons around 1965, after I had made two albums, Lifetime and Spring, on Blue Note. I knew what I could do without knowledge of the piano and I wondered what I could do with some harmony and theory, knowledge of chords, you know. It was a progression I felt I needed and I studied privately for two years. I don’t write on the piano, though. I try to avoid that. Right now I’m writing out sketches and bringing them to the group. It’s not a formal procedure. I’m also doing head charts, developing them until I find a way of writing that suits me. I have a teacher now for orchestration. This way, I can write out whatever I’m asked to. Right now, I bring the sketch to rehearsal, work it out with the group, and rewrite it afterwards.

WALD: Who, of the musicians you’ve worked with, do you feel you learned the most from?

WILLIAMS: That’s strange, because there are different categories. I’ve learned from bass players, horn players, probably the most from bass players. Drummers have to work closely with bassists, and I’ve been trying to understand bass players. Ron Carter, Gary
Peacock, Richard Davis, Jack Bruce. I also learned a lot from Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor. To work with Cecil and to see what it was I could do for him…that’s what I mean. To be able to apply yourself to other people’s trips. It’s not just playing your instrument, getting off on how good you are alone. It’s also seeing how well you can apply yourself to other people’s music and how you can give them what they want. It’s not always what you think is best, but rather what someone else might think is best.

WALD: Did you play with Miles during his Gil Evans days?

WILLIAMS: Oh yeah. We made some recordings that were never released. We played a concert in L.A. with the whole orchestra. I recorded with Gil on his last album, There Comes A Time.

WALD: What kind of a learning experience was that, a large orchestra?

WILLIAMS: I like big bands. I think I could push a big band on a steady basis and I’d like to try.

WALD: Do you still practice?

WILLIAMS: Not as much as I would like to, and used to. It’s just that I spend so much time doing other things. When I was practicing every day, I was doing nothing else but that. I’d get up in the morning and not even bother getting dressed. I’d just move to the drums in my pajamas. I would be playing on the pad while I watched TV, and I’d go over
another drummer’s house and play with him. All drumming — all day. I practiced on the pad to develop my hands. I started reading when I began studying with Alan. I feel that my hands are the most important thing. But I also liked to practice for at least an hour on the drums . . No routines, no books.

WALD: How do you position your drums?

WILLIAMS: I like to place my drums and cymbals a fair distance away from me so that I can get a good healthy swing. If things are too close, it’s rather stifling. There is a posture, but it’s not necessarily sitting up straight. I try to have everything set up so that there’s space to move and keep things evenly apart from each other. Your feet should be directly across from each other, rather than one in front of the other. I believe that whatever is going on around me physically, I’m going to feel emotionally. It’s like having a paper cut. It’s not something that’s going to kill you, but you know it’s there. You might be just a little bit irritable and not realize it. I have to be very relaxed and comfortable to play and sound relaxed. Very balanced…that’s the key word. If my environment is balanced, then I’m going to have a better chance at sounding balanced. I want to give myself as much of an opportunity of sounding that way as possible. So, I really believe in sitting and having my hands in a balanced position. My cymbals and drums are up, so I have to reach for them like the way a baseball player, golfer, or tennis player uses the full force of the arm. Some people feel that bringing things in closer will help you hit easier and therefore faster. That’s cheating. And I’m not at all for it if I’m the one who’s being cheated.

WALD: What is your full set-up? Does it vary?

WILLIAMS: No, it doesn’t vary. Three floor toms, 14″, 16″ and 18″, a 6 1/2″ by 14″ snare drum, and 13″ and 14″ toms mounted on a 24″ bass drum. My cymbals are all K. Zildjian.

WALD: What about tuning?

WILLIAMS: I don’t want to be conscious of tuning my drums. They’re all in sort of a resonant pitch. I tune them so they’ll sound good together in a group. I don’t vary the pitch for different groups either. My bass is completely loose, while the other drums are tight. I’m really just interested in a good sound. Now, if we had drums that were made by craftsmen rather than machine, it would be different. I mean, let’s face it, drums are not made like acoustic basses or violins. They’re made by big machines. I believe, I can get a good sound out of any drum. Just give me half an hour and I’ll get a good sound… with any equipment, any snares, any heads, whatever.

WALD: Any preferences in heads and sticks?

WILLIAMS: I use Remo heads and there are two on all my drums. I also prefer wood drums. I’m not especially fond of plastic. I can play them, but I’d rather not. I do like plastic heads though. Calf is so vulnerable to the weather. Every time I played outdoors,
I found myself tuning the things. You put a calf head set on a plane and it gets cold in those cargo compartments. The heads go up and down, tight and loose. Too many changes with calf.


WALD: Isn’t there a problem in playing with brushes on plastic heads?

WILLIAMS: That’s true. The clear calf heads do have a good grain to them, and that’s what you need for brushwork. I use the CS heads with the black dot, and they have no grain. They’re less suited to brushwork. But, I don’t play with brushes as much as I used to, and I prefer the plastic. I don’t like plastic tipped drumsticks, though. As far as sticks are concerned, I like to use a good solid wood tipped stick, like a Gretsch 2B. No artificial tips, no steel.

WALD: Have you ever played single headed drums? What’s the difference?

WILLIAMS: A double headed drum is combustible; a single headed drum isn’t. When you hit a single headed drum, the sound just goes out, and that’s it. But with double heads, you have the bottom head pushing back against the top. Inside the drum you have what I like to think of as combustion, resonance, happening. The sound is more apt to come back at you. You have to work harder on a single headed drum, too. It takes its toll over a long period of time.

WALD: Does it matter to you which stick grip you use?

WILLIAMS: It depends on the situation. I don’t think the matched grip is something you can base a whole technique on. You have to work on technique. You have to work on holding the sticks. That’s the biggest problem for a drummer. That’s what he has to do most — hold the sticks. For a trumpet player, it’s his embouchure. That’s where it all begins. With drums, it’s how you pick up the sticks. That’s what you have to do best. Those are your chops. It begins where your hand raises up, comes down and makes a distinctive sound, and you work on it until it becomes right. I still work on it. I’m very conscious of my technique.

WALD: Where do you teach?

WILLIAMS: I teach privately wherever I am…east, west. And I do clinics where I teach feeling the drums, feeling comfortable, understanding what it is. Your technique is there, so you can express a feeling. The physical and emotional feeling of playing drums is what I teach, that’s all. I don’t want to subject myself to describing what it is that I do. I don’t want to teach anyone to play like me, but to be as good a drummer as you can.

WALD: Would you ever consider electronics?

WILLIAMS: I have no desire to do that. It might have been a natural for me with Miles, but I didn’t try it, and I don’t know if I wanted to. I wouldn’t even think about it right now even though it’s all being perfected. It would have to be the drums that make me do it, not
Miles, or Gil Evans or Joe Gallivan (electronic drum experimenter). It would have to be a good sounding electronic drum.

WALD: What’s your concept of the drummer’s role in a group?

WILLIAMS: In any group, a drummer’s first responsibility is time. Another is to act as a bridge between the other instruments, the bass and piano, the piano and horns, the bass and horns. He should also help them to feel comfortable. When you’ve got those three things covered, then you can go on to other things.

WALD: Do you like soloing? Do you think it should be done all the time, every tune, every night?

WILLIAMS: I love soloing. Some people say I don’t solo enough. If the audience wants to see me solo more, I don’t mind doing it.

WALD: Who, in your opinion, has been the most influential force in modern drumming?

WILLIAMS: I think Max was the most dynamic of his time, the state of the art at that moment. He was the forefront of that type of drumming, more so than say, Buddy. Jo Jones has been a big influence on drummers. I got a lot from everybody. Philly Jo, who played differently from Max, and Art Blakey who played differently from everybody. Philly Jo was influenced more by Sid Catlett than Max. The independence of hands and feet, that all came from Catlett and Kenny Clarke. They were the founders of what we all do today. Guys like Davey Tough were doing it way back.

WALD: Are you totally fulfilled, or is there still something you want to accomplish in music?

WILLIAMS: I’d like to write for orchestra. Other than that, I’d like to have a hit record – you know, make a million dollars.

WALD: Any parting words directed towards fellow drummers?

WILLIAMS: Sure. Basically, you’ve really got to love the instrument, and love playing no matter what music it is. The best thing any drummer can do is to really love what he’s doing. If you do that, you’ll play them well.


by Aran Wald