Tony Williams

In order to attain the title “legend,” a musician usually has to have been around a lot longer than Tony Williams. But not only has the 38-year-old Williams earned the title, he has actually been holding it for quite some time—since he was a teenager, in fad. Tony was hired by Miles Davis at the age of 17, and that band, featuring Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, was THE innovative group of the ’60s. Playing the older Davis material, Williams proved himself well able to fill the shoes of his predecessors—drummers like Philly Joe Jones and Jimmie Cobb. But he was no mere imitator. Already, his playing had distinctive touches that hinted at things to come. For example, where the mainstream jazz drummers of the ’50s would “drop bombs” with their bass drums, Williams tended to punctuate his timekeeping by setting off multiple explosions using his entire kit. And as the music moved away from traditional jazz rhythms and approached a straight 8th-note feel, Williams defined the role of the “fusion” drummer by combining his formidable jazz training and technique with his teenager-growing-up-in-the- ’60s affinity for rock.

How was it that someone so young could have had such a total command of his instrument? Certainly, a lot of it had to do with that intangible something called “talent. “But no matter how great a talent is, it must be nurtured. In Tony’s case, much of that nurturing came from his saxophone-playing father who took Tony to the clubs in Boston, where they lived, and let Tony sit in with his dance group at the age of nine. A few years later, such drummers as Art Blakey and Max Roach were letting Tony sit in with their groups. Tony became friends with many of the prominent drummers, who recognized his ability and took the young drummer under their wings. “Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones were my first drum idols, and I got to meet them when I was very young, which was really exciting, ” Williams remembers. “Jimmie Cobb, Louis Hayes and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath were another threesome for me. Those guys were like my big brothers. There was a lot of animosity from some of the older players because I was competing for their gigs, but these guys were always very kind to me, and I appreciated that very much. It was a big help that I can only realize now. “Roy Haynes was another influence, as was Alan Dawson, who Tony studied with.

By his mid-teens, Williams was working regularly in Boston clubs, playing with various organ trios, as well as doing a number of gigs with Sam Rivers. One night Jackie McLean came in, and subsequently invited Tony to go to New York, to work with him in a play called The Connection. During Williams’ stint with McLean, Miles Davis heard him, and in May of 1963, Tony was invited to join the Davis group.

For someone Tony’s age, keeping up with the Miles Davis Quintet should have been more than enough, but not only did Williams handle that gig with aplomb, he also released two solo albums on Blue Note—Lifetime and Spring—which showed that he was equally accomplished in playing free mu sic. It also indicated that Williams had some ideas of his own, as all of the compositions on those albums were Williams’ originals.

In February 1969 Tony made his last recording with Miles Davis—In A Silent Way. Although the Davis group was at its height, Williams feared that he was taking on Davis’ style. As he told an interviewer, “I realized that I had to start doing something for myself and find out exactly what it was I had and what I didn’t have. “

What Tony had was a vision of the future. He revealed that vision with a double album entitled Emergency (which was reissued under the title Once In A Lifetime). The group was called The Tony Williams Lifetime, and featured guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. Combining the technique and finesse of jazz with the energy and volume of rock, this was the group that paved the way for a generation of fusion groups such as McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, and Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House. This album also firmly established the fact that Williams was a force to be reckoned with, both as a drummer and as a leader.

And then something went wrong. Williams’ next two albums, Turn It Over and Ego, were not nearly as well received by the critics or the public as Emergency had been. Some felt that Williams had gone a little too far out in his musical exploits. Others accused him of selling out and trying to be commercial. But perhaps the real problem was that the “legend” of Tony Williams had turned into something that no one, including Williams himself, could live up to. He wasn’t allowed to merely mark time; every album he made was expected to set a new standard. He tried hiring a completely new band and they re corded The Old Bum’s Rush. When it virtually bombed, Tony disappeared.

But the legend continued. For the next couple of years, Tony remained among the top five drummers in the down beat readers poll. Even though he wasn’t putting out records, and even though the last couple of records he did put out were not what people had expected, still, everyone had fond memories of what he had done with Miles Davis and with the original Lifetime band. His fans knew that sooner or later he’d be back.

He finally popped up again in 1975 with a new album called Believe It, followed shortly by Million Dollar Legs. Both albums featured guitarist Allan Holdsworth, and were basically rock oriented. While these albums were not exactly the answer to the critics’ prayers, nevertheless, enough time had elapsed that a lot of people were simply relieved to see that Tony was still around. And after several years of predictable pyrotechnics from a number of self-indulgent “fusion” drummers, it was nice to have the man who started it all remind everyone that energy and technique must be combined with taste.

Williams then turned up in a couple of situations which let everyone know that he was still true to his heritage. First, he toured and recorded with V. S. O. P., which reunited him with the Miles Davis band of the ’60s (Hancock, Shorter, and Carter, with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet). Jazz critics were quick to welcome them back to the realm of mainstream acoustic jazz, and hoped that they would not go astray again. Williams reassured them shortly thereafter. When Max Cordon invited him to bring a trio into the Village Vanguard in New York, Tony called Hank Jones and Ron Carter, thus forming what became known as The Great Jazz Trio. In addition, he could be found recording with such artists as Sonny Rollins and Weather Report.

Williams was back on the scene, but one thing had people a little confused. Just what kind of drummer had Tony decided to be? He had proven himself in a number of different genres. Which one represented the “real” Tony Williams? The answer came in ’79 with the release of The Joy Of Flying: Tony liked to play a lot of different things. The music on that album ranged from free jazz with Cecil Taylor to hard rock with Brian Auger and Ronnie Montrose. A few people complained about a cohesive lack of direction, but they missed the point. Combining all of those forms on one album, while retaining the unique character of each, was a direction in itself. As for sales, it was Tony’s most successful album in years.

Unfortunately, ’79 was not a good year for the record business, and Tony lost his recording contract as part of a massive belt-tightening in the record industry. He has continued to turn up here and there though, enough to let people know he’s still active. In the meantime, something else has happened that further confirms his status as a legend. A whole generation of drummers such as Vinnie Colaiuta, Peter Erskine, Andy Newmark, and Steve Smith—some of whom aren’t even all that much younger than Williams—have named him as an influence. And when Tony gave a clinic at last year’s PAS convention, you only had to look in the eyes of the other clinicians—all of whom attended Williams ‘clinic—to know that the man behind the big yellow Gretsch set was someone special.

RM: What has been happening recently in your career?

TW: Well, last summer I played with V.S.O.P. II for three months. We did a big tour. We played Japan for about two-and-a-half weeks, we did the States, and we did Europe. We worked for three months. I’ve also been doing some demo recordings, trying to put some new music together. But the biggest thing I’ve done and been most fascinated with are the musical studies I’ve been doing over the last five years. I’m beginning now to be able to use those things.

RM: What specifically are you studying?

TW: Composition. It’s like a five-year college course in composition, but I’m taking private lessons from Dr. Robert Greenberg, who’s a faculty member of UC Berkeley. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do in order to take some of the mystery out of certain things that I heard, and wondered about. Learning these things has just been amazing, and I’m so happy to be able to do this. Specifically I’ve been studying all the different tools you need to use when you write. It’s fascinating, and it’s been so much fun.

RM: Are you trying to make up for any schooling that you missed by going on the road when you were 17? Most people go to school at that age, and then go on the road. You’ve done it in reverse.

TW: That’s interesting, but no, I don’t feel that I missed anything. I’ve always been a student; I’ve always been studying, constantly. Learning has always been exciting for me. I’m always learning something. For example, when I moved to California, I didn’t know how to swim, but now I’ve learned how and I’ve overcome my fear of deep water. So I’ve always been learning something.

RM: Has your study of composition affected your approach to the drums?

TW: No. I’m trying to get my composition to the point where it’s equal to my drumming.

RM: When a person does something well, it’s sometimes hard to start something new, because you immediately want to be able to do the new thing on the level you’re used to being at.

TW: Yeah, it’s very frustrating. It was very easy for me to reach out and say that I wanted to do something, and find out where I had to go, and then go there. The hard part was doing it in the beginning when I didn’t know anything and I wanted so much to be good at it. That’s been the hard part over the five years, especially when I’ve done it to the exclusion of other things—not to be making my own records and not to be doing other things I could be doing. And then, after three years, I realized that, even though I’m taking these lessons, finding out all this stuff, and becoming more advanced, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to be good at it. [laughs] I could do this stuff for ten years, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to be good. So wait a minute! I had to start questioning a lot of things, and that was the hard part, because I know I want to be good at it. You want to do something, and if you can do it you want to be better, or better than average, or great! So I can learn this stuff and master it, but that doesn’t mean that the product is going to be pleasing.

RM: Plus, you already have a reputation to live up to, whereas if I wanted to compose, for instance, no one would be expecting as much from me.

TW: That’s part of it too; that’s exactly what I mean. But the music we did last summer with V.S.O.P. was good for me because I had two of my pieces in the set, and it gave me the chance to have the music I’d recently written played by that caliber of players. Those guys are great.

RM: I recall a quote from an earlier interview where you were talking about musicians you admired. You said that the thing they all had in common was a personal sound.

TW: Yeah, they have a way of playing. You can tell one musician from another by their sound. That’s what jazz is about. That’s what most music is about.

RM: Regarding your own way of playing, what would you say is the link between your drumming with such groups as Lifetime, the Great Jazz Trio, V.S.O.P., Stanley Clarke, and Ronnie Montrose? Some people might hear those musics and it would not even occur to them that it was the same person playing drums. What do you think are the things about your style that are consistent in all of those situations?

TW: I would think that it would be the strength, the consistency and the time. In all those different bands and in all those different things that I do play, I’m always trying to express the time.

RM: There’s also a certain energy that comes through all of those situations. This drummer isn’t laid-back. This is someone who plays the drums and means it. To me, that came through just as well with the Great Jazz Trio as it did with Lifetime.

TW: It’s an aggressiveness too, and the willingness to be a part of it. I’m not playing a role. That’s what I always strive for: Whatever style I play, I play the style rather than attempt to play. It’s two different sounds. You can hear when jazz drummers attempt to play rock, or rock drummers try to play jazz. It’s not quite there. You have to really work at that.

Tony Williams

RM: When you play rock, you don’t sound like a jazz drummer trying to play rock. You sound like a rock drummer.

TW: That comes from the aggressiveness. But I must say that it also comes from my training in jazz, because it seems to me that playing jazz gives a drummer more sensitivity for the drumset and much more of a rounded concept. It’s hard to explain that without someone feeling like I’m trying to say that I want them to play jazz. I’m not. I’m saying, “What I want you to do is play the drums better.” It just so happens that, if you learned a lot about jazz, practiced for two or three years and really tried to be good at it, you would become a better drummer. Drummers spend a long time not feeling good on their instruments because of the things they don’t want to do. Everyone has prejudices and fears. But anyone with experience knows that if you do take a couple of years to study something, several years later you will be very glad that you spent that amount of time improving yourself. Sometimes you don’t realize how much good something has done you until years later.

RM: Another thing that probably influenced your rock playing was that you grew up with rock tunes. I believe you once said that, when you were with Miles Davis, you had a Beatles poster on your wall at home.

TW: Yeah, when I was with Miles, I was 17. The Beatles are all older than me. So why would people find it odd that I like that music? When I was growing up, I would watch American Bandstand when I came home from school. I was leading two lives. I played with guns and holsters right up until I was about 14, and I joined Miles when I was 17.

RM: So I guess the question should not be how could you play rock, but what were you doing playing with people like Miles?

TW: Right. Yeah. I think I had a very full childhood. My childhood lasted into my 20’s, believe me. I’m still trying to shake a lot of it. But I didn’t miss anything.

RM: Lifetime was the group which seemed to lead you back to rock. This is something I read in a review once and I thought I’d ask you about it. The reviewer said, “It must have been galling for Williams to watch everyone else making money out of fusion knowing that his band, Lifetime, was among the seminal crossover bands.” Do the people who set the direction necessarily reap all of the rewards?

TW: Of course not. But then, I don’t see anybody making a lot of money. I’m not sure who they are talking about.

RM: Groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To For ever, all the way up to the Pat Metheny Group have maybe benefited from the seeds you planted.

TW: Well, that’s nice to hear.

RM: In fact, I would say the popular opinion is that you were one of the founders of fusion, crossover, or whatever you want to call it. Do you not see it that way yourself? People sometimes have a different view of themselves. Where do you see yourself in history, or do you even think about that?

TW: I try not to. I mean, I do, but I try not to also. It’s kind of second-guessing yourself. I’ve been guilty of that sometimes, and I don’t like doing that. On those first records with Lifetime, or even those early Blue Note records, I was just trying to do something that no one else had done. I had been hearing things that other people had done and I thought, “Wow, if they can do that, then I can do this.” That’s how it came about. The problem I had was that I didn’t think about money. If I’d had that in mind, things might have been different. The music might not have been what it was. I don’t know. If I had thought about money, I might have gotten involved with studio work, or gone in some other direction. But I wasn’t involved in watching other people make money; I just wanted to work. That’s been the major thing that’s been frustrating—the fact that I wanted to work, and I wanted to play. Like anyone else, when I was a kid, I thought that all I had to do was be the best at what I did, and everything would be okay. But I found out that it wasn’t that way. It was very confusing.

RM: You once said in an interview that no one could look at your career, and then accuse you of doing things just to make money.

TW: Yeah. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done because I enjoyed doing it. Also, I didn’t want to repeat what I had already done. The reason that Miles’ band was so wonderful was because it was fresh. When you ask people to do the same thing year after year, it is no longer fresh. If I want that spark again, in myself, then I have to go on to something else. I have to find a fresh kind of thing that I’ll want to get up there and do. Another thing: What’s wrong with money? Money is o-kay. [laughs]

RM: Do people ever ask you to duplicate something that they heard you do before?

TW: Yeah, I get that a lot, and that’s why I don’t do a lot of records. Many times when people call me, they’re not really interested in something new. They’re interested in something they’ve heard before, and they want to duplicate that. That’s okay, but what I play is a reaction to what is going on around me, and it really feels good and genuine when it happens I wouldn’t play the way I played with Cecil Taylor behind Blossom Dearie, or Hank Jones, or Laurie Anderson. When I play with someone, I have to play the drums in a way that will sound good with that music, and be a part of that music. So when someone asks me to play something without any inspiration, I can do it. It’s easy to simply duplicate something, but it’s not fun. I get excited by having other musicians around who are playing really great stuff. In that situation, I can play what the music calls for.

RM: It’s possible that the reason they liked what you did originally was because of the spontaneity, but they’re trying to recapture that by having you duplicate the licks.

TW: Right, but it’s not the licks that are important. It’s the atmosphere of spontaneity, and the things that are playing off of each other that cause other things to happen.

RM: It seems that a lot of people try to imitate your licks and technique.

TW: When I was a kid, for about two years I played like Max Roach. Max is my favorite drummer. I don’t know if I’ve ever said this clearly and plainly, but Max Roach was my biggest drum idol. Art Blakey was my first drum idol, but Max was the biggest. So I would buy every record I could find with Max on it and then I would play exactly like him—exactly what was on the record, solos and everything. I also did that with drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmie Cobb, Roy Haynes, and all of the drummers I admired. I would even tune my drums just like they were on the rec ord. 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. I’ve found that 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 just can’t 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.

RM: Young drummers today are naming you as an influence. What do you hope they are getting from you?

TW: I hope that what they get from me is what I got from the people who influenced me. I would like to be able to give off the same things that inspired me to really love the instrument and love music. That was one of the things that impressed me when I was a child and saw these people who I thought were great. One of the things I noticed was that they inspired others. If you can do that, that’s a lot.

RM: We were talking before about hearing somebody and saying, “That’s a jazz drummer trying to play rock,” or “That’s a rock drummer trying to play jazz.” I remember a comment Buddy Rich made once when somebody was described to him as being a good big band drummer. He said, “That’s stupid. You’re either a good drummer or you’re not. If you’re a good drummer, you play the drums in any situation.”

TW: Exactly. That’s the problem that I see with people in certain bands— especially rock bands. These drummers come up and they’ve only played in one band, and people are calling them really great drummers. “I see. Okay. Let me see you play behind Sarah Vaughan one night, Lawrence Welk the next night, Mickey Gilley the following night, and Prince the night after that. Then I’ll tell you how good a drummer you are.” For me, that’s drumming. That’s how I was raised. I’m tired of these drummers who can’t play rolls. They can’t even play double-stroke rolls smoothly. These people are famous drummers making a lot of money. I don’t begrudge anybody the money they make. I’m just saying, “Come off it.”

RM: It would seem that a drummer who could play different styles would avoid being labeled. But you’ve played in a variety of settings, and the result has been that you get more labels than anybody. In most of the reviews I read for Joy Of Flying, people said things like, “This song is Williams in his such-and-such bag, and the next song is Williams in his so-and-so bag…” and so on.

Tony Williams

TW: Yeah, but that’s okay.

RM: I guess you’ve learned to live with it.

TW: Yeah, I have. The fact that you noticed it proves that it’s been worthwhile.

RM: Despite the different styles, the marketing people still label you as ‘ ‘jazz.” Can you accept the fact that the next album you make will be put in the jazz bin no matter what’s on it?

TW: That’s not true. I could make an al bum that doesn’t have my name on it and call it, say, The Television Set Band. It depends on what the music is. If I made a record and everybody started dancing to it, it wouldn’t go in the jazz bin. When you bring it to the record store, if it has already been played on the radio and people have been dancing to it, it’s going to be treated differently.

RM: Personally, the only place I’ve seen your records has been in the jazz bins.

TW: Yeah, they have never been anywhere else. I haven’t made that many records. I’ve made, I think, ten albums, which isn’t very many. If I averaged it out it’s like one every other year, so I’ve got to get on the stick. I hope to turn that around.

RM: Do you have anything coming up in the near future?

TW: Well, I’ve been talking to some people in New York about my writing, which has started to pay off now. I’m finally getting the kind of record deal that I’ve been looking for. So we start recording my new project in late July. It will be my first record in five years.

RM: That’s too long.

TW: Well, I had to wait, because I felt I had to acquire some of the tools that I lacked. I had to put my last record, Joy Of Flying, together really quickly. It was a real good album, but I had no music on it myself. After that experience and a couple of other experiences like that, I decided that I wanted to have a little bit more to say about certain things. So I waited and I think it’s going to pay off. It was important for me to do it this way, because I’ve wanted to write for a long time. It was one of my goals as a youngster.

RM: Is there anything specific you can say about what’s going to be on the album at this point, or would you rather that we wait to hear it?

TW: I don’t know how to be specific about it. I really want it to have a lot to do with my approach to the drums. A lot of it will probably be dance oriented. It’s going to be electric. I know that. But it’s really hard to be specific about it, because I’m just starting to write the music and get it going.

RM: When you say it will be electric, does that mean we might even hear an electric drum machine on the record?

TW: Oh yeah, and Simmons—all kinds of stuff.

RM: But also acoustic drums, right?

TW: Yeah. I’m working on putting the Simmons, the drum machines, and the acoustic drums all together.

RM: Will the album reflect any of the current trends in music?

TW: Putting a record out gives me a chance to let people hear my reaction to a lot of the music I’ve heard. I think most artists, composers, and painters react to what’s going on around them. It’s good to take a step back from the scene for a while, in order to observe and think about everything. When I finally come out with something, part of it will be a reaction. It’s like, “If I did that sort of thing, here’s what it would sound like.” I think it’s going to be great—or else I won’t do it! [laughs] I’m really excited about that, plus I’m excited about playing. This will give me an opportunity to put a band together, and go out and play. I haven’t done a lot of that in the last three years. So getting out to play is the main impetus.

RM: You really seem to enjoy playing the drums.

TW: The whole idea of the drummer has been a motivating factor for me for many years. Really, I love the drums. This is kind of a sappy story, but I remember one time as a kid listening to a band. The drummer was a very cold drummer, and he played louder and louder, and stiffer and stiffer. I looked at him and started crying. I thought, “This guy is really playing the drums terribly.” And I just got very emotional because I really love the drums and I want the drums to sound good. I see a lot of romance and beauty in a drum roll; I really hear it as a beautiful thing. So the idea of a drummer, and being part of that fraternity, has been strong, and it has carried me. Max Roach was the first drummer to really express it for me. He wrote music and expressed himself well. That was important to me.

As a result, I have this kind of tongue-in- cheek disdain for lead instrument players. I tell people that facetiously, but it needs to be said. With lead players, when you walk into the dressing room, what’s on the couch? Ten horn cases. “Get your cases off the couch! People are going to sit there.” Horn players are out front and they think the world revolves around them.

RM: You should put your bass drum case on the couch and see what they say.

TW: Yeah, right, right. And then I walk in a place and what’s on my cases? Their coats, their horn cases, their guitar cases. My case isn’t a table. I give them a hard time. But I mean it in a way, because I really want people to know that I think drumming is really important. It’s a bit of defensiveness because I’m accused of playing loud, but that’s what the drums are. I mean, that’s like telling a piano player, “Don’t play any higher than this octave.” That’s like telling a saxophone player, “Don’t play these three keys. Play all you want, play all night, play all year, but don’t play these keys.” The volume and dynamics are part of the vocabulary of the drums. And that’s part of people’s fear, which goes back to the whole thing of slavery. When people were taken from Africa, their drums were also taken away, and the drum has been a very fearful instrument for a lot of people.

RM: That just reminded me of something Elvin said. He was talking about how drumsets have evolved. The first drumset he ever saw was sort of a Gene Krupa-type set. It was big and it was white pearl. And, of course, the reason it was white pearl was because it was part of the stage decoration; it matched the front of the music stands. They didn’t have a white pearl string bass because that was an instrument, but drums were part of the furniture.

TW: Exactly, exactly. And there’s a defensiveness built into this whole thing. The bass player has a 200-year-old bass and sax players have handcrafted saxophones. It’s all these things that come up. I love the drumset. I don’t play a lot of percussion. I’m a drummer. I don’t play maracas; I don’t play congas. I like drums. And it gets to be defensive. There’s like a caste system that goes on with drummers.

RM: Like the old joke about a band being made up of five musicians and a drummer.

TW: Right.

RM: In your own case, though, with a group like V.S.O.P. you’re recognized as being an equal member; you’re not just the hired drummer.

TW: Yeah, because I don’t do that. I haven’t been playing with one band one year, and another band the next year, and so on, except for some of the things I’ve done at jazz festivals.

RM: I know you’ll turn up here and there, but you don’t really have that reputation as a sideman—a session drummer.

TW: Good.

RM: Hearing how warmly you speak about the drums, I’m surprised to read that you’re fooling around with drum machines. So many drummers are violently opposed to them.

TW: Oh, yeah?

RM: A lot of studio drummers contend that they are actually losing work because of those machines.

TW: Yeah, I understand. But not having to deal with that, I use it because it’s a tool, and it’s great, and I’m in control of it. I’m the one programming it, so it’s going to sound like me. I’m going to do something different from what you would do if you were programming it. You’re going to pro gram something different than someone else would program. So the result is going to sound like you. Do you understand? I like the Linn, I like the Oberheim DMX, and I like the Roland. Right now it’s a matter of sound. The DMX has the capability for me and the snare sound is really hot. I also have a set of Simmons.

RM: When you were first on the scene, one of the things you had in common with all of the prominent jazz drummers was that everyone used Gretsch drums and K. Zildjian cymbals. When I started playing the drums, I bought Ludwigs because Ringo played Ludwigs. When you started, did you buy Gretsch because you had an idol who played Gretsch drums?

TW: Totally, [laughs] When I was a kid, I used to sit and look at the pictures of Max, and he always had a Gretsch drumset. I thought, “I want to have one of those.” My dad bought me my first set, which was an old set of Slingerland Radio Kings. The bass drum was huge, and some of the drums didn’t match. Finally, I had my first job—30 dollars a week. My mom helped me buy the first set that / bought, for 20 dollars a week, which I saved from the 30 dollars I was making on a weekend gig. So I bought my first set of Gretsch, which was silver sparkle—the same color, the same size as Max Roach’s. Gretsch still makes the drums, to me it seems, with a certain sound. They are good drums for me. I’ve played Gretsch drums for ages.

RM: In fact, you’ve used them throughout your entire career.

TW: Yeah, I guess so. Consistency and loyalty have always meant something to me. I try to express that in different ways.

RM: Is there anything that you can put into words about what characterizes that sound?

TW: Yeah, it’s the essence of the drum—a warm tone, a tone that’s consistent throughout the set. It has a certain character. I just like the feel of the Gretsch drums. I see no reason to change equipment. I’m sure all the other drum companies make great drums. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying, what would I be doing? No one’s offered me a better sound.

RM: I’ve often heard you equated with the K. sound more than any other single person.

TW: Great, fantastic. The K. sound—I got that from Max actually. Years ago—I think it was 1960—I came to New York to visit Max. I had met him I think in ’59 or ’58. He was kind enough to let me play with his band. Actually, he let me come up and sit in. I was about 12 or 13. Anyway, I went to visit him and we went out to the old Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. I met Mr. Gretsch—Fred Gretsch. At this time they had K. Zildjians at the factory. Max said, “Here, why don’t you take this one? This sounds great.” Max started me on the sound—a big, high, dark sound. That’s the ride cymbal I have. It’s a high tone, but the cymbal itself is a dark sound. I learned that, definitely, among other things from Max.

Tony Williams

RM: How do you choose your cymbals now?

TW: I choose my cymbals in the same fashion that I tune my drums. I try to get the cymbals to sound good together as a group—homogeneous as a group—but individually they also sound distinctive, so that you know which cymbal I’m hitting. If you’ve heard that cymbal once and you hear it again, you know it must be that cymbal. The hi-hat sounds very distinctive—big. It’s not a thin sound. I have heavy cymbals. I like that. I hit them and they’re loud. So they sound distinctive individually, but they sound great as a group if you hear them all in succession. You hear a definite tone pattern. And I tune the drums that way too, so that they sound really distinctive—high to low. With drums that are next to each other, the hard part is to get the first tom definitely different from the second tom. My second tom has just enough tone space in between that it doesn’t sound like the same drum. I see a lot of drummers who hit all these drums but they all sound the same, and I wonder why. It amazes me what some of us don’t think about. I don’t understand why some people do that. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind. Don’t they hear that all of their drums sound the same?

RM: Speaking of K.s, is there anything to be said about the new ones?

TW: Oh, yeah. I love them. If you give me a cymbal, I either like the way it sounds or I don’t. If it’s a K., then I like K.’s. Years ago they were all made in Turkey. Now they’re all made in the USA. As long as I get what I need, you can call them Z.’s. A cymbal is a cymbal. I’m not that much of an equipment freak. That’s not the product. The product is the music.

RM: Some people have several drumsets. If they’re playing with a big band, they’ll use a 24″ bass drum. If they’re playing with a trio, they’ll use an 18″, and so on and so forth. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know, you use the same set from electric music to the Great Jazz Trio. Is there something to be said about controlling the sound?

TW: Yeah, I think so. That’s exactly what it is. That’s exactly what I’m trying to portray. People I’ve worked with have asked me why I don’t get a smaller bass drum. Why should I?

RM: Tell them to get a smaller piano.

TW: Yeah. “Play on two strings. Get out of here.” I really like the drums. That’s what I’m about. If we’re playing soft and I have a 24″ bass drum, I can play it there. One of the reasons I don’t play an 18″ anymore is that I got to the point where I was playing harder. If you know anything about physics, if I’m hitting the drums and they’re not responding, I’m going to hit harder, and then I’m going to wear myself out. So that little drum sounds nice, but from back here where I’m sitting I’m not going to hear it. So I needed a little more weight, especially when I started playing in an electric situation. And when I played in the Great Jazz Trio, on my solo I could open up. A little drumset is nice. I like the 18″. It’s cute. It’s really nice looking—easy to carry. It fits in the backseat of my car.

RM: When I started playing jazz, I was coming out of rock and I had a 22″ bass drum. When I played at jazz sessions, people would say, “That’s not a jazz bass drum.”

TW: Everyone has these ideas. It was the same way when I was coming up. Everyone told me these preconceived things, like on cymbals it says “ride.” Hey man, that’s a cymbal. Don’t tell me . . . You can use a cymbal anyway you want, but the company stamps them “ride” or “crash.”

RM: Good Lord! That drummer is riding on a crash cymbal!

TW: [laughing] We saw you! We saw you!

RM: People were giving me all these profound reasons why Max and Elvin used an 18″ bass. I finally had a chance to meet Elvin and Max and ask, “Why did you start using an 18″ bass drum?” They said, “Well, we were on the road . . . ”

TW: Yeah. You can put that thing in the back of the station wagon, and carry three or four toms.

RM: Anyway, I have never heard a trio recording that had a bass drum sound like the Great Jazz Trio recordings.

TW: Yeah, it’s there. My drumming has gotten more percussive. That’s why I lean towards electric-kinds of stuff, because it has impact. That’s drumming. If you’re a bass player and you like to play long notes, that’s great, but I don’t play an acoustic bass, so I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the drums and I want to beat the shit out of them all the time. I’m a drummer and I want to express drums. I really think that the drums are as poetic and romantic as any instrument. Another thing I do is insist on not being penalized because I play drums. If you want me to do something— and this is for all drummers—don’t let people treat you like that. Say you’re in a band and everybody is getting $100. Don’t let them say, “Hey, we’ve got to get transportation for the drums, so we can only pay you $75.” Bullshit. Don’t be penalized because you play the drums. When people call me for stuff, they pay me what I’m worth and get my drums there.

RM: They’re probably renting the piano.

TW: Exactly. They’re renting a piano, and they’re renting the hall. Pay me what I’m worth and then see that my drums get there. There are a lot of things that they don’t do for drummers that we have to stick up for.

RM: For the technical minded, how do you tune the bass drum?

TW: I try to make all my drums have a tone and a nice resonance.

RM: Anything inside?

TW: I put a little pad in that’s almost like a piece of carpet to absorb some of the twang that you get, because I really loosen the bass drum. It gets that sound you can feel in your chest. I like that. I put something in there for a short tone.

RM: Some drummers seem to concentrate more on cymbals, while others concentrate more on the drums. I’ve always felt that your approach seemed to integrate the two. How do you perceive the function of each?

TW: Well, of course it can be different, depending on who you’re playing with. Basically, the cymbals are the long tones, and they can provide the highlights and the shadings. And because the tone lasts longer, they can be used as background for the drums. But I try to use that both ways; sometimes I use the drums as backgrounds for the cymbals. I look at a lot of things that way. It’s like reversing roles.

RM: From your experience as a teacher and clinician, are there any particular misconceptions that you keep running into about drums and drummers?

TW: There are a few of them. One of them is the matched grip. And I can’t blame people because the traditional grip can seem very awkward to a beginner, but it’s because no one’s teaching it. I’ve been trying to write a book to show these things, because they’re really easy to do. The only reason people don’t play that way is because it appears to be awkward and it doesn’t feel good in the beginning, which are valid reasons, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Everyone I’ve taught how to do it has gotten it and said, “Wow, that’s great.” People say, “Well, I play matched grip because it’s the same thing on both sides.” I kind of knock all that down because I tell them that the reason I play the way I play is that I enjoy having a right and a left. That’s part of life. When you have things that are opposite, they have to work together. If you try to make things the same, they become neuter. Matched grip is great as a tool, but my concept is alternatives. That’s what I’m asking people to do. With traditional grip, there are certain things that the mind thinks of. When you’re in matched grip, you won’t think of these other things. When you turn your hand around, you’ll think, “Oh, I’ll do this other thing.” There’s the whole world there for you to learn, so why not learn it? It’s like saying, “I’m going to be a piano player, but never in my life am I going to play an F.” People should learn how to play rolls comfortably—single stroke, double stroke. They should learn these things to be drummers. People come to me who have already been playing. “How long have you been playing?” “Five years.” I say, “Play me a roll.” They can’t play one, but they say, “Show me these licks—these polyrhythmic things you do.” And this person can’t play a roll.

RM: A lot of people seem to be looking for the thing that will solve all of their problems—the grip, the exercise, the book . . .

TW: That’s what I’m talking about. In the ’60s, rock ‘n’ roll exploded with the Beatles. Since then, everybody and his grandmother is a musician. It’s great. It helps everyone tap into their own abilities as artists. Everybody is a songwriter; everybody plays an instrument. Wonderful, but if you want to be a drummer—this analogy is another one that I’m trying to get better at explaining. If you have a drumset in the room and the postman walks in, he will sit down and go “dat.dat, dat, do, do, do, buzz, buzz, buzz, bam, boom, boom.” Anybody can do that and keep a beat. If you’re really serious about drumming, don’t you think that there’s something more to it than that? There’s a technique that really takes concentration, work, dedication, discipline and time. Right? But nobody thinks of that. Anyone can sit down and bang on the drums. My mother could come in here and bang on the drums. There must be more to it than that.