Tony Williams: The Final Interview
by Michael Point
(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: April 1997)
All you need to know about Tony Williams can be found in Miles Davis'
cut-no-slack autobiography. Dissing his friends, fans, relatives and fellow
musicians alike with barbed wit, Miles trashes the talent of a litany of
jazz legends, but there's never a disparaging word muttered about Williams.
Instead, Miles volunteers some exceedingly rare self-deprecation when
discussing the drummer he brought into his band as a teenager.
"I was learning something new every night with that group. One reason was
that Tony Williams was such a progressive drummer. He was the only guy in
my band who ever told me, 'Why don't you practice?' I was missing notes and
shit and trying to keep up with his young ass," Miles writes.
"I enjoy learning things," Williams states first and foremost. "I always
have. If there's one single thing that my career's been about, it's my
desire to learn more about music and how it's made."
Williams, always an astute student, has become a teacher with the release
of Wilderness, an ambitious project that showcases his composing talents
with the same flair that his past recordings have displayed his drumming
dexterity (see "CD Reviews" Mar. '97). Combining Williams' orchestral
compositions with quintet pieces, Wilderness dramatically expands the
drummer's musical reach while also serving to disprove a long-held musical
"Drummers don't write-or at least, that's what everybody believes,"
Williams says with more than a little exasperation. "That's other drummers.
I'm a musician who plays drums. And I write."
The creation of Wilderness, however, was much more demanding than just
coming up with a couple of new tunes. "It's bigger than anything I've done,
but it's a logical extension of what I've been studying for years,"
Williams says. "I've studied all my musical life, but learning is only good
if you do something constructive with it."
Williams has had his share of legendary learning experiences, and he's
made the most of them. If the past is truly prelude to the present, not to
mention the future, his educational evolution should provide insight to his
development as a complete musician. Some of the musical extrapolations are
more conspicuous than others, but all are essential elements of the
Williams sound, circa 1997.
The 51-year-old Williams, born in Chicago, was raised in Boston and hit
the professional stage at age eight He was taking private lessons as a
young teen from Berklee legend Alan Dawson. Williams immediately put the
education Dawson gave him into action, playing regularly on the Boston club
circuit with a wide variety of musicians, including a steady gig with Sam
Rivers, where he explored Third Stream sounds, probably the first public
expression of some of the musical sensibilities found on Wilderness.
The classical core of Wilderness is embellished with classic jazz
touches, many the product of Williams' exposure to his first learning
experiences. The depth and diversity of those experiences color Wilderness
with veteran virtuosity, both in the writing and the playing.
Williams was playing in the house band backing a touring Jackie McLean
when his educational horizons expanded again. McLean convinced Williams,
after getting his mother's permission, to relocate to New York City in 1962
and join his quintet. The master class work began in earnest the next year
when Miles Davis recruited him at the age of 17 to anchor one of the most
inventive and accomplished ensembles in modern jazz. Playing alongside
Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter, Williams recorded more than a
dozen albums with the Davis group, helping reconfigure the shape of jazz in
But Williams, in the center of a jazz situation most musicians only dream
about, was dreaming of other things. It was time for a change. He had been
signed to Blue Note, a label known for producing mainstream jazz albums.
Williams soon changed that. His debut, Lifetime, was an unabashedly
avant-garde release, full of youthful energy and intelligent free-jazz. He
followed it with Spring, featuring five original compositions and powerful
playing by Rivers, announcing his presence on the scene as a fully mature
talent capable of much more than just powering a rhythm section. The albums
also served as a preview of Williams' intention and ability to explore as
many facets of music as he could.
The Davis band was rewriting jazz history nightly, but, by the late '60s,
Williams' musical muse had called again. A major element was John
McLaughlin, a young guitarist Williams had introduced to Davis, who
subsequently used him on his In A Silent Way sessions. Williams, along with
organist Larry Young, took McLaughlin with him to form the Tony Williams
Lifetime in 1969. The flame-throwing, furious trio rocked harder than the
reigning rock bands without losing its innate jazz sensibilities. It was
the true origin of fusion, but its creators didn't know, nor care.
"Everybody talks about Lifetime being the first fusion band, but it was
really sort of a throwback to what was going on when I started out in
Boston," Williams relates. "I played with a lot of organ trios because that
was one of the big sounds there, and that's what the original Lifetime
really was." The group's recorded debut, Emergency! buzzing and crackling
with barely controlled energy, was a sonic disaster but an artistic
Gathering Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke and Michael
Brecker-all of whom have had high-profile fusion experiences in their vast
and varied careers-for Wilderness means many fans' initial expectations
will naturally be fusion-oriented. Williams professes to have never even
thought of the possibility. "Fusion, at least in its old jazz-rock form,
was never mentioned by anybody," he says.
A second edition of Lifetime, first with bassist Jack Bruce and then
guitarist Allan Holdsworth, expanded the group's sound and instrumentation.
But it soon faded from view as well.
Bouncing back with a more mainstream sound in the '80s, Williams
re-established himself with a no-nonsense band, including trumpeter Wallace
Roney, saxist Billy Pierce, pianist Mulgrew Miller and bassist Charnett
Moffett (later replaced by Bob Hurst and then Ira Coleman). The group's
enlightened approach was featured on six albums in its first seven years.
But just leading his own band wasn't enough for Williams. "I had years of
studying to my credit, and I didn't want to sit on that learning," the
drummer explains. "I've taken lessons all my life just because I wanted to,
but it seemed a waste not to take advantage of what I've learned."
Williams also learned a lot about his fellow musicians when he decided to
devote his time and energy to seriously studying composition. "I remember
when I started taking serious compositional classes, people were always
asking me why I was doing it," Williams says. "They seemed to believe that
since I had a record out I didn't need to do anything else. I don't
understand that attitude at all. To me, being a musician is like being a
doctor: You've got to keep up with all the changes, and the more you learn
about your profession, the better off you are."
Thus, the advent of Tony Williams, composer. Williams' songwriting wasn't
exactly a secret. The Davis group recorded several of his compositions, and
other samples of his writing had already appeared on his albums and Wynton
Marsalis' debut, Branford's Renaissance and other high-profile recordings.
Williams also wrote a piece for the Kronos Quartet as part of a festival
tribute to his career. In addition, almost all of his later group
recordings have been filled with Williams tunes.
Wilderness, however, is Williams' first orchestral endeavor, and he
rightly regards it as a significant step in his ongoing musical evolution.
With a 30-piece orchestra performing the music, which is intercut with
tunes played by Williams, Metheny, Hancock, Brecker and Clarke, Wilderness
is definitely a magnum opus. Williams, however, sees it as just a logical
progression of his career path.
"I think my playing has been orchestral throughout the years, and this is
another way of expressing that. But I primarily see it as the ultimate
accomplishment of a musician. Composing makes me feel like I've finally
gotten all the way up the ladder as a musician."
The final product is infused with virtuosic musicianship while colored
strongly by Williams' chosen approach to classicism. "I specifically wanted
it to have an Americana sound," he states. "If there are any obvious
influences, they would be Aaron Copland, Gershwin, Elgar and 19th-century
composers in that vein."
Giving Wilderness an identifiable Americana sound was essential to
Williams' artistic vision. "The story is about a journey a person takes to
a new world, to uncharted territory," he explains. "I wanted to capture the
spirit of the American immigrants who came here in 1898-1920. They didn't
know what they were going to encounter, but they were open to the
Williams has justifiable pride in the success of Wilderness, but he's
dedicated to elevating his art still higher. "I'd really like to get my
writing ability up to the same level as my playing," he says. "The only way
to do that is by serious study and a lot of practice."
At press time, we learned of the sudden death of Tony Williams, who
suffered a heart attack on Feb. 23 after undergoing routine gall bladder
surgery. The following article, which was already in place for this issue,
is based on Down Beat's last interview with Williams. A full obituary will
appear in our next issue.
Tony Williams plays a custom Drum Workshop kit with Zildjian cymbals and
drumsticks. His standard setup is an 18x24 kick; 9x13 and 10x13 rack toms;
14x14, 14x16 and 14x18 floor toms; and a 6.5x14x12 split-lug snare. His
cymbals include two 15 inch K bottom hats, an 18 inch medium-thin crash, a
15 inch A custom crash, a 22 inch A custom ride, an 8 inch Avedis splash
mounted above an 18 inch Avedis, and an 18inch preaged K dry lite ride with
a 10 inch Avedis splash mounted above. All hardware is black. He uses a
Rok'n'Soc throne, Shure mics, XL Specialty cases, and Mackie and Tascam