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Remembering Tony Williams on What Would've and Should've Been His 78th Birthday

First of all, I’m a bit behind the beat on this recognition of Tony Williams’ birthday, which happened on Dec. 12. He would have turned 78 just the other day, but he died in his hospital bed on Sunday, Feb. 23, 1997 of cardiac arrest. He had entered Seton Medical in Daly City, California on Thursday afternoon, complaining of lower abdominal pains. Doctors had diagnosed gall bladder problems and performed minor surgery on Friday, February 21. There were no complications and Williams was scheduled to go home that Sunday. Early morning chest pains escalated in severity, culminating in a fatal heart attack. Attempts to resuscitate him failed. The news of his passing sent immediate shock waves through the jazz community.

Hospital neglect or just bad odds? (according to the National Library of Medicine just 0.15% patients died within 30 days after gallbladder surgery). I don’t know, but there’s certainly enough there to raise suspicions. And I’m still waiting for an investigation.

Regardless of the sad and possibly controversial circumstances of Tony’s passing, the fact is that the most volcanic and influential force in jazz drumming since Max Roach passed away nearly 27 years ago at age 51. And the tremors of his innovations on the kit — with Miles Davis, with the various edition of his Tony Williams Lifetime, leading longstanding quintet and as a member of the celebrated V.S.O.P. quintet — still reverberate to this day.

As Headhunters drummer Mike Clark recalled: “I remember how we all sounded before Tony and after. Very Different... Most of us were trying to sound like Max Roach, or Philly Joe Jones but then 'Four and More' came out. Within a year on the West Coast if you wanted to work with guys like Bobby Hutcherson or Woody Shaw - you had to have some sort of answer for this 'new and modern' type of playing. Tony turned the jazz drumming world upside down. He was a huge influence on me, and the early stuff he did with Miles still sounds modern, fresh, and thoughtful.”

Or as Miles Davis said about Tony Williams in his 1989 autobiography: “There ain’t but one Tony Williams when it comes to playing the drums. There was nobody like him before or since. The band revolved around Tony...Tony was the fire, the creative spark.”

I interviewed Tony on two occasions. The first time was in conjunction with his 1992 Blue Note release, The Story of Neptune. Recorded with his working quintet at the time (trumpeter Wallace Roney, tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce, bassist Ira Coleman and pianist Mulgrew Miller) it featured a three-part suite composed by Williams (“Neptune: Overture/Neptune: Fear Not/Neptune: Creates of Conscience”) along with covers of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Birdlike” and “Poinciana,” the 1936 tune popularized in jazz circles by the Ahmad Jamal Trio on their 1958 live album At the Pershing: But Not for Me, and later emulated by Williams himself on his oft-covered composition, “Sister Cheryl.” We met in the studio while Tony was listening to playbacks, pacing around the control room as he exhaled clouds of smoke from his cigar. We later retired to an Upper East Side hotel, where we chatted over cognac at the hotel bar about The Story of Neptune, the state of jazz, his feelings towards jazz critic Stanley Crouch in the wake of his excoriating article in The New Republic, his early love of the Beatles and Cream, and a myriad of other topics.

The second time I interviewed Tony Williams was following the release of his 1996 album, Wilderness. That all-star session, which featured pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist Michael Brecker and bassist Stanley Clarke, accompanied by full orchestra, was a collection of rich tone poems showcasing the drummer’s impressive compositional skills; something he had been consciously working on at the time. And the all-world crew gets to stretch on funk numbers like “China Town,” “China Road” and “China Moon,” and the moving ballads “Harlem Mist ’55,” “Cape Wilderness” and “The Night You Were Born.” Here is that story, which appeared in the August 1997 issue of Modern Drummer and was billed as “The Final MD Interview”:

In mid-December of last year (1996), Tony Williams came to New York to play a week-long engagement at the Birdland nightclub, located in the heart of Times Square. It was a rare trio gig with longtime rhythm section partner Ron Carter on bass and Mulgrew Miller, a key member of Tony's superb quintet of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, on piano. The night I attended, they swung mightily on mostly standard fare, finishing their blazing set on a buoyant note with Bobby Timmons’ “Dis Here,” a tune closely associated with the great alto saxophonist

Cannonball Adderley. Tony played loudly and proudly throughout the set (too loud, according to the New York Times). But then, he never was one to make any apologies for the way he played. As he had told me in a Modern Drummer interview back in 1992: “I like to play loud. I believe the drums should be hit hard.”

Between sets, I spoke with Tony backstage. He looked strong, if somewhat overweight, and seemed content with married life. (Colleen, his wife of three years, was in attendance at this gig.) He was in genuinely good spirits and exuded that typical Tony vibe — two parts ebullience mixed with San Franciscan consciousness and a touch of macho swagger.

I had conducted a phone interview with Tony earlier in connection with his latest recording project, Wilderness, on the newly formed Ark 21 label. It was his first release since 1992’s The Story Of Neptune, the last of six excellent albums by him on the Blue Note label. Unlike propulsive bashathons like Lifetime’s Emergency! and Turn It Over, or revelations in timekeeping like the series of landmark recordings by the Miles Davis quintet of the late ‘60s (Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, E.S.P., Nefertiti, Filles De Kilimanjaro), or classy, swinging vehicles like his Blue Note offerings Angel Street, Native Heart and The Story Of Neptune, Wilderness is a romantic, enchanting, and highly ambitious orchestral project that showcases Williams’ often overlooked compositional vision.

How did this very ambitious Wilderness project come about?

Actually, it all sprang from the piece “Wilderness Rising.” I put that together thinking of it as a hymn, and it just manifested into so many other ideas. I had been working on the piece since 1994. And as it became more complete, I played it for my orchestration teacher [Dr. Oily Wilson, head of the music department at UC-Berkeley]. He suggested that it would sound great in the orchestra, so I decided to make it an orchestral piece. And it kind of grew from there. Once I started orchestrating it, I wanted to hear more of it. So I asked composer John Van Tongeren to write variations on different sections of “Wilderness Rising,” and he came up with “Infant Wilderness,” which is a variation on the 3/8 section of "Wilderness Rising.” “Wilderness Voyager” is another type of variation on “Wilderness Rising.” And “Sea Of Wilderness” is a more abstract version of “Wilderness Rising.”

Does this concept album come out of The Story Of Neptune, where you were also dealing with variations on a theme?

No, this is something that has gone on with me for years. I’m interested in a record being a whole complete thing, not just a series of unrelated pieces. It’s just a concept that I've liked, where you have pieces that are so connected in different ways. And that concept didn’t start with Neptune. It's just that idea of looking at things over a larger arc rather than just local events.

This is such a far-reaching project. It’s so ambitious and goes in so many directions. Were you concerned that it might scare away those people who are needing it to be a single thing that they can more easily market?

That’s true, it could happen that way. A lot of people want everything to be in their comfort zone. And if it’s not they're either threatened by it, they’re fearful of it, or they resent it. I understand that. I'm just glad that there was somebody who wanted to do it and do it right. We put it together, mixed it, did the artwork, and now it’s out on the street. I’m just so grateful for that. Now, the other part of it is, I was talking to Pat [Metheny] the other day and he said, “You’re going to have to get ready for all the slings and arrows of the jazz community.” And I’m ready for that. I mean, I’ve been through it so often in my life.

Yeah, people must’ve been outraged when you came out with Lifetime.

I gather they were.

And yet, there’s a whole other generation that viewed Lifetime as a touchstone for some music that was deep and meaningful for me.

Me too. It was something that had to be done at that time. But I’m so used to it [negative criticism]. I expect things like that to happen. I have to do things and I know that there’s going to be a certain level of people that are going to cry out, “Why did you have to do that?” And it’s very curious.

There's a cinematic vibe to your new album. The opening piece, “Wilderness,” almost functions as an overture. And the rest of the music conjures up different images.

That’s what I was trying to do. I could’ve sequenced the record in different ways, as you can probably gather. But the sequence that I finally settled on, I think, is the best one for what I tried to portray.

And just like a movie, it takes different turns and twists along the way.

Well, it’s supposed to be a journey. That’s the idea of it. It’s a story in my head and it’s almost like a movie, but without the film. All the pieces play a part in this journey that you go through from beginning to end. And hopefully by the end of it you’ll want to go back to the beginning and go through it again. The whole thing is about people and their quest, especially immigrant people, which is part of the whole story that I’ve written out. It’s another part of our American heritage — the immigrant voyage, going from one land to another. “Sea Of Wilderness" represents that idea of being in the middle of the sea, that point in time when you’ve left the known but you haven’t gotten to the unknown.

That unresolved state of being in process.

Yeah, you know — that void, that feeling inside when you haven't arrived yet to where you’re going but you know you can’t go back. Now that can be scary or that can be kind of calming.

The tune "Wilderness Voyager” is part of this storyboard that I followed for the album. The whole thing is like a book I wrote, and in this particular story of “Wilderness Voyager,” these people have to take this train trip across the country in turn-of-the-century America.

So you’ve actually scripted this out?

Yeah, just to guide me on this trip of the record. Again, the idea is that it’s not some kind of arbitrary music or idea. I’m telling you this to let you know how serious I am when I put something together, that it does have a concrete meaning to me.

And you’ve assembled quite an amazing band for this project.

Yeah, it was sort of like a godsend to get all these guys together with all their different schedules and companies and management and all the legal stuff. I’m so blessed to be able to do it.

That’s a monumental undertaking on the business end alone.

I’lI tell you, this project has been like a mountain of work to get it done and out on the street — business work and emotional work. And, of course, people have their own expectations about putting together a record with musicians of this caliber. The typical response is, “Well, why don’t you get the guys together and just jam?” And that turns me off. Of course, when you get those guys together it’s going to sound great, just everybody falling out of bed and sounding amazing. But I wanted to give them something more to do than the typical thing. That didn’t seem right. I wanted to make it more than just us getting together and playing some standard jazz tunes. It was important to me to make this something bigger than that, and also for the listener. Because the listener, I believe, sees through things like that. They want more. There’s so much mediocrity out there. And I hope that I’ve given them more than that.

Well, you must feel very gratified by the results. It’s quite a beautiful product — great music, great packaging. And I’m interested in the quotes strung throughout the booklet, which are thought-provoking and poetic in their own way.

Oh yeah, I rounded up all those quotes to give people an idea of what it means to be “Wilderness.”

And your own quote, “The unique wilderness of our soul is an infinite frontier,” may be the most profound.

Well, thank you. I wanted to put something on there to give it a more personal touch.

Do you feel like this is an artistic breakthrough for you?

Sure, yeah. It’s the first time I really got a chance to hear something that l’ve written and orchestrated. That alone is a big step for me, especially coming from where I come from and feeling like I’ve been fighting my way uphill.

Against what, the perception of being a drummer?

Maybe that. A lot of things. Against myself more so, I think. Just my own imperfections.

the things that people have inside them that hold them back, like being your own worst enemy-things like that.

We all have that tragic flaw.

Yeah, and that’s why I like to learn and study, because I really understand that it’s helpful for me to just keep going and following my dream. All my life there have been people who told me what I can and cannot do, or what I’m supposed to do. If I listened to those people I would never have made this record. That's the way it's been all my life. So maybe I’m fighting uphill against that kind of stuff, too.

In our previous interview together [MS, July 1992] you mentioned that there’s a stigma about drummers, that they’re basically the Rodney Dangerfield of a band…they can’t get no respect.

Well, everybody knows that. It’s not unique to me saying that. People do kind of look down on drummers. When I grew up, that’s the way it was. There’s a joke: What do you call people who hang out with musicians? Drummers! And so, the drummer was always the least paid in the band because they had to pay to get their drums carted to the job. So immediately you’re penalized for playing the drums. And people think of the drummer as the least educated, the most uninhibited member of the band. We’re the wildmen, you know? So that’s what I’ve been dealing with throughout my career, and I try not to wear that as a defensive thing. I mean, the drum set is an American invention, it’s an American treasure, but it isn’t afforded the dignity that people afford, say, the harmonica. That’s just a fact of history. The whole concept of the drum set itself is unique unique throughout the world. The drums of Africa, India, and Japan, they’re not played with the feet and hands at the same time. What we have is a unique configuration in the musical history of the world. And it isn’t really afforded the kind of dignity that it should have.

But what about the whole legacy of drum royalty, from Baby Dodds and Big Sid to Art Blakey and Max Roach and beyond?

I’m not questioning that. Of course there is. I’m talking about how drums and drummers are perceived in people’s minds. I mean, do you know that there is a fear of drums?

Hmmm...I don’t suffer from it.

Well, that’s good. I don’t either. But there is, and it’s been documented. I’m just talking about

how drummers and drums are perceived by the mainstream.

What is it based in?

It’s based in myth and folklore and stuff like that. I mean, I had some woman at a Hertz counter ask me one time, “Why do drummers take drugs?” She didn't ask me whether or not it’s true that drummers take drugs. To her,

it was a fact, a natural thing. Drummers have been perceived since the beginning as the crazy person in the band, the wild man, the least educated. I can’t go into why and the whole chronological order of how it came to be that way, but we all know it’s true.

You haven’t played a lot of brushes on your records, but you do on your new release, on Stanley Clarke’s “Harlem Mist ’55” and Pat Metheny’s “The Night You Were Born.”

Well, if you look at what I’ve done on other people’s records, I play brushes. But there was never a need for them on my records. Now there’s a need.

You played brushes on “Poinciana” from The Story Of Neptune.

Oh yeah, that’s right. It’s just something else that I’m interested in portraying. I’m also working on double bass drums now. So I’m working at different things in my drumming — portraying or fleshing out other aspects of my playing.

You’ve never played double bass drums before. What brought it up now?

It’s just something to keep me off the streets at night; just something to do. In the '60s I used to play a set that had an 18” bass drum with one tom on the bass drum and one floor tom. And over the years that configuration has grown, basically because of my ear, because of what I want to hear. The first change I made was to go from an 18” bass drum to a 24” bass drum. That’s because I couldn't hear the smaller drum after a while. I started playing things I needed to hear. I needed to get a physical response from what I was playing. When I got to a bigger bass drum, all of a sudden I got this impact back into my chest. Basically everything that I’ve tried to do or change was because of a need I had, either in my ear or something physical I was going after. So double bass drums is just another one of those steps.

What else have you been learning lately?

I'm learning gardening and more business stuff. It’s always fascinating dealing in the music business with record companies and lawyers. So I’m learning something every day. I’m always taking lessons for something. Since moving to California in 1977, I’ve gone to cooking classes, I’ve learned how to swim, I taken up tennis, learned to deal in the stock market. I even took an intensive course in German. The next thing I’m going to do is learning scuba diving. I’m always trying new things. I feel like an eternal student. It’s fun.

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