© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
A LESSON FROM TONY WILLIAMS
“When I was a kid, for about two years I played like Max Roach. Max is my favorite drummer. Art Blakey was my first drum idol, but Max was the biggest. So I would buy every record I could with Max on it and then I would play exactly what was on the record, solos and everything. I also did that with Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes, and all of the drummers I admired. I would even tune my drums just like they were on the record.
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. 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 can’t just 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.”
Our recent re-posting of an earlier piece on the late drummer Tony Williams [1945-1997] generated a lot of interest including a very nice note from drummer Ed Soph who teaches at the University of North Texas admonishing us for not saying more about the role of Tony’s teacher Alan Dawson in helping to shape Williams’ exciting approach to drumming.
Ed also kindly sent along the “Lesson from Tony” that opens this feature.
The earlier piece on Tony also overlooked other aspects of his later career particularly his tremendous accomplishments as a composer, arranger and bandleader, the latter during a time in the mid-1980’s when very few new, modern Jazz quintets were being formed.
The following interview by Tony Scherman is intended to rectify some of these omissions.
Very sadly, five short years after the interview was conducted, Tony would be dead from complication following an appendix surgery.
Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Growing: Tony Williams Reinvents Himself
“This may sound self-aggrandizing, but playing the drums was always easy for me. From an early age, it was so easy to figure stuff out it was almost embarrassing. I needed to prove to myself that I was deserving of all the praise, needed to feel that I'd accomplished something—that I had accomplished something, the person that I am. I needed to tackle something that was hard, that wasn't God-given, and see it grow. That's what writing music has been, and is, for me. I had to go get a teacher, I had to study composition for seven years. That was work. Writing music, that's work. Drumming has never been work, it's always been fun. It's still fun. So I could never put the word 'work' in my life, and how can you be a success to yourself if you've never had to work?"
As he enters middle age, Tony Williams looks less and less African American, more and more exotic, near-Eastern: Persian, Lebanese, Assyrian. In profile, his nose hooks luxuriantly. His big almond-shaped eyes are sleepy and liquid; their blank stare can be unnerving. He wears his hair semi-straightened now, brushed back into a stiff little ducktail, and with his lazy rolling gait and odd-shaped body—thick biceps, thick waist—he looks like an ill-tempered Buddha.
Tony Williams—a handful. He plays like the rushing wind, like an avalanche, like a natural disaster. People look at each other and start to laugh, he's so good, so loud, so unapologetically in their faces. There's nothing polite about Tony Williams's drumming, nor anything overly diplomatic about him. He's testy, suspicious, self-involved. Still, the gibe I've heard more than once—"the only thing bigger than Tony Williams's talent is his ego"—strikes me as untrue. Beneath the cold manner flickers a real vulnerability: unhealed wounds. I'll bet he's easily devastated. Something gnaws at this guy, some basic insecurity, and if it makes him difficult and defensive, it's also made him hungry to learn. How many drummers can write a fugue? Compose for string quartet? Organize a spectacularly tight five-man jazz group and write every bit of its thirty-song repertoire—sinuous, muscular, haunting pieces? Williams's composing hasn't yet approached the level of his playing (how many drummers could you non-fatuously call "the world's greatest"?), but his achievement is pretty amazing: He's willed a new facet of himself into being.
Back in 1963, Tony was already working hard, if somewhat in the dark, at composing. "When I was a kid I thought this was what you did: you worked at whatever there was to get better at. Being a good musician meant to keep studying, keep learning. You didn't just specialize. Even back then, the thing that drove me on was wanting to do more, to have a say, to create an atmosphere."
Herbie Hancock, a former prodigy himself, was a suave twenty-three to the kid's eager-beaver seventeen. "Tony was always calling me up: 'Hey man! What's happening!' and I'd think, 'Aw kid, don't bothah me!' and try to gracefully get him off the phone." Callow or not, the kid was an astonishing drummer. When the pair joined the Miles Davis Quintet that spring, says Hancock, "I very quickly went from thinking of Tony as someone who was a real good drummer for a kid to realizing he was a great drummer who happened to be a kid." Thirty years later, Hancock is still an intrigued Williams-watcher. "Tony Williams," he says, "is one of the most intelligent people I have ever known."
When Tony wrote the songs for his first album, 1964's Life Time, he played piano with two fingers, "one on his right hand," says Hancock, "one on his left. No chords really, just two lines, and I had to write out the notes for him. His writing was very raw. But I wasn't about to dismiss something because it was a two-fingered composition; knowing the kind of mind Tony had, I just wanted to not get in his way, to help him realize whatever he had in the back of his head. And I still think the compositions on those first two albums [Life Time and Spring] were great.
"Today he's mastered the vocabulary, but without losing the beauty of that rawness. He's got a full palette now, from angular and surprising to very singable, very beautiful in the conventional sense. My feeling is, he has really got the compositional approach down. Tony doesn't need to study with anybody, at least not for a long while! I'll put it this way. Wayne Shorter and Stravinsky are my favorite composers of all time. Tony is developing so quickly as a composer that he's already one of my favorite jazz composers, and maybe moving toward being one of my favorite composers, period. I absolutely like his pieces that much."
Miles liked them, too; the Davis Quintet's classic Sixties albums are sprinkling Williams tunes like "Pee Wee" and "Hand Jive." But for Tony, "writing always felt hit-and-miss: 'Maybe this'll work, maybe it won't, why won't it?'" He had taken sporadic private lessons in theory and harmony since the mid-Sixties; 1979, however, was a turning point. He'd left Manhattan for the San Francisco Bay Area (where he still lives) "feeling in a hole, in a rut; 1 felt like 1 wasn't doing what I had the talent to do: write music, have a band, have better relationships." He thought about quitting music. Instead, he started private lessons in composition, mostly with Robert Greenberg, a young composer and university professor.
"It was a regular course of study, like at a university. You do a lot of analyzing of other people's work: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. I started with species counterpoint, went to intermediate forms of counterpoint, like canons, then invertible counterpoint, like fugues, and on to larger forms of composition—minuet and trio, theme and variations, rondo, that type of thing. It's all about learning how to weave structure and melody into a composition." When a recharged Williams launched his quintet in 1986, some of the band's best pieces came straight from his exercise book—"Arboretum" was an assignment in counterpoint, "Clear Ways" in voice-leading. Tony left Greenberg three years ago; "the band started working so much, I couldn't do my lessons. But 1 plan to go back and pick up where I stopped."
Before 1979, Williams says, "I knew everything there is to know about harmony and theory. What I mean is, I had a good solid grounding in all that stuff. But I didn't know how to organize. You might know emotionally what you want to say, but then it becomes a matter of getting the material to move where you want it to. It's problem-solving. For me it was like, 'I know there's a problem here but I don't know what it is.' When I come up to a problem now, I can pinpoint it. On paper. I can look at it and say, 'Oh, that's the problem and it's because of this, this and this, so if I adjust this, take that out, move this in'... problem solved."
What kind of problem, how to resolve a chord? "No, not how to resolve a chord, that's easy. How to expand an idea. How to make it go somewhere and then return. My big problem used to be that I agonized over things. I'd get an idea and not know what to do with it. Now when I get an idea, I know what to do. Writing is just being able to, as Bob Greenberg used to say, push notes around. Make the notes do what you want them to do.
"Sometimes when I was studying I'd wonder, 'What the hell am I doing? Will there come a time when I'll use this stud'and say, "Oh, this is why you've spent six, seven years staying up and writing these lessons out and driving back and forth to Berkeley three times a week?" ' But my insides would tell me, 'This is what you should be doing.' And now I can say, 'Yes! This is why I was doing it.'"
"What's the payoff?"
Long pause... "The fact that you're here. How's that? See, not only am I not just a drummer, I'm not just a musician either. I'm a person. A lot of things that are valid for me aren't only in musical terms. The fact that you're here and we're talking about what I've written, it tells me all those lessons have paid oil, are bringing me attention, it shows me I've done things people are interested in."
"Well, I like the songs. They stay in my mind."
"I'm glad. And that's why I wanted to study. I wanted to be able to write songs the way 1 knew I could, to present music my friends would like to hear, that would make people feel different things.
"So making the decision to study was easy. I make that kind of decision a lot. Moving to California was another of those things my insides told me to do. And after I got to California I decided to take swimming lessons. ["He did? Tony learned to swim? Aw, that's beautiful!"—Hancock.] I wanted to be able to go to a swimming pool and not just stand and wade; I got tired of going by the deep end and being scared. Now I can dive into the deep end. When I was in New York I was in therapy. In California, I have a therapist. It's helped me look at parts of my life 1Ineed to look at. It's the same kind of process—I'm always challenging myself to get better."
"Tony's composition, 'Sister Cheryl,'" says Herbie Hancock—"the first time I heard that tune [in 1982, when he and Williams played it on Wynton Marsalis's debut] I was shocked. Suddenly there was no more guesswork; Tony could really write chord changes. But what amazed me was that it was in a style that had eluded him for a long time. You know whal Tony once told me? That he wanted to be able to write a tune anybody could sing, like a very natural kind of pop melody. Not that 'Sister Cheryl' is pop— it isn't—but it's catchy. Tony was always asking me what I thought of this or that tune that he wrote. See, I can write melodies people can sing. Tony could never do that, not till then. In many ways—though it's not all the same, and it's definitely Tony's writing—'Sister Cheryl' reminded me of 'Maiden Voyage.' It's one of my favorite compositions ever.
"The way he wrote it, you just move the bass line and the chord will change radically. It starts on a B-major chord, but using the second instead of the third. It's B, C-sharp, F-sharp. With so few notes in the chord, you get lots of flexibility. From B-major it goes to A-flat minor 7— and everything from that first chord fits with the second chord. Then you go to A with a B-major. That's the theme. Now, all these chords fit with the B, C-sharp and F-sharp of the first chord, so by changing the bass line you've changed all the chords, but kept the harmony hanging over from that very first chord. The melody moves, the bass moves, but the harmony stays the same; the outer part changes, the inner part doesn't. It's a nice piece of work."
"Tony's harmonies are like a breath of fresh air," says the Williams Quintet's fine pianist, Mulgrew Miller. "Remember, we're talking about a jazz composer who isn't himself a harmonic and melodic improviser. So his progressions may be a little unorthodox—Tony didn't learn jazz writing by playing 'Stardust.' The standard iii-vi-ii-V-I turnaround, there's none of that. You won't hear many 32-bar choruses either: as long as the song needs to be, that's how long he writes 'em. And the keys he chooses are somewhat unusual. 'Sister Cheryl,' that's in B-major. Outside of practicing scales, I'd never even played in B-major; it's mostly sharps. A piano player might fool around with something in B and say, 'Hmmm, I like this progression, I think I'll move it down to E-flat.' Not Tony— it's B.
"He's got a tremendous set of ears and he loves harmony; he loves the color of complex chords. Catchy melodies are one of his traits, but catchy melodies with complex harmonies. The chord progressions and chorus lengths are almost always unconventional. And that goes back to Wayne Shorter. Listen to Wayne's 'Nefertiti.' Most of his pieces with Miles were like that: simple melody, complex harmony. A piece of Tony's like 'Two Worlds' is so melodic, if someone heard only the melody, they'd have no idea what harmonic convulsions, what explosions, are going on underneath. Of all Tony's pieces, that's probably the meanest ("Every time I call 'Two Worlds,' " says Williams, "I see at least one guy scrambling for the sheet music"]: a lot of changes at a fast tempo, and they're complex changes, like G 9 to A-flat major 7 to B-flat 11 to B-minor flat 6th. The challenge to the improvisor is finding the continuity in all these changes that don't relate!
"I just think Tony hears something different from most people. He's got influences, like Wayne and Herbie and contemporary classical music, but mainly it just comes from being an inventive person. It's the same thing that lets him play the way he does. From what I hear, Tony was challenging the accepted forms right from his earliest days. Listen to those records with Eric Dolphy. It's clear that even at the age of eighteen he was an advanced thinker,"
Tony Williams lit his third fat cigar in two hours. "It's a mark of a good song when anyone can play it, when it's so well-placed on the paper that it doesn't need a special interpretation, a great artist, to make it sound good." Brushing back the hotel-room curtain, he stood surveying Central Park West. He was beautifully dressed in a loose shirt, baggy winter pants and gorgeous two-toned shoes; circling his comfortable middle was the same metal-studded belt he'd worn the day before for his maiden voyage on David Letterman's TV show.
"It's like when you hear a hit song being played by some guy in a Holiday Inn bar and you say, 'Yeah, that's a great song.' Last night Paul Shaffer played 'Sister Cheryl' and it was a real turn-on. The song sounded so good. Those are good players, but what I'm saying is, the song translates easily from one group, one medium, to another; it doesn't take my band to play it.
"Or there's 'Native Heart'—the fact that I wrote that song (the title track on Williams's newest album] just knocks me out. It's like someone else wrote it and I'm getting a chance to play it. I worked on that song four, five months, playing it every day on the piano. It was crafted, like fine leather, like shoes."
"Could you analyze it for me?"
"No, I don't think I'd like to do that. Anyway, I can't. I write the songs and then I forget about them. It's up to the other guys to learn them. I don't need to. I'm playing the drums. Unless I'm working on a song, I can't tell you its chords; I'd have to go back to the piano with the music and I'd be able to play it after an hour or so. Besides, when you're writing, you have certain little things inside that tickle you, and you don't want to give them away. They wouldn't feel special if you flaunt them; it's like saying, 'Oooh, look how clever I am!' These things are private, they're little gems to me."
"But they're what's interesting: the things underneath."
"Yeah, and I'm interested in keeping them underneath. All I did in 'Native Heart' was invert the idea."
"Of the melody—?"
"—or the chords?"
[Coyly] "I don't want to give away all my secrets here! They're precious things!" Finally he relents. "Okay, what happened was, I had this idea and I wanted to make a song out of it." He sings a simple little eight-bar version of the melody. "In itself it was just an idea, just a real short thing. So first of all I had to weave length into it." Setting out, he broke the phrase into two-bar chunks and put a one-bar rest between each. More important, he rewrote it, introducing a subdominant in the eleventh measure so the tune didn't resolve so quickly. "All I did was put in a few new notes. And then the second time (he phrase comes around, you go right to the five chord, the dominant—bang!—and it resolves. So I aired it out, fleshed it out, by putting in the subdominant.
"Okay, now I had to figure out, 'Where is this song going?' I had this two-note thing happening in the melody [D to A, a fifth]. Now, I deeply wanted the song to sound organic. So what I did was, I took that two-note phrase and gradually stretched it [to a sixth, F to D and then G to E] while slowing it down. Then 1 compressed it [accelerating it as it descends toward the tonic]—and when you compress a figure it brings a sense of resolution. So that was the work I did [in bars 25-33] to give the song a middle part, a so-called bridge, that sounded like it belonged, that was part of the opening melody." Just to strengthen the connection, Tony took a phrase from the fourth and fifth bars of the opening melody, turned the notes—B, C, D and B—upside down, and made this the last two bars of the middle: "a mirror, a reflective callback," as he puts it, of the opening melody.
All he needed now was an ending. "I was going to end it one way, with a little phrase that kind of drifts off. I decided that was too protracted, even though 1 liked the phrase." So he wrote another ending: the opening melody, but with a few new intervals and one brand-new note, an A-flat: "It's a piece of music, and a note, that's never been heard in the song before, so it really puts a cap on things. And then 1 said, 'Hey, wait a minute'—and I took that first ending, the one I'd loved but hadn't used, and made it the intro and outro. It was perfect there." And he had his song: a sultry, moodily swirling 45-measure composition, patiently teased from an eight-bar scrap.
"I think more about these kinds of things than I do about drums. 'Cause like I said, the drumming has never been a problem for me. That was the problem! I felt like all everybody wanted was this drummer, that Tony Williams was not there, that I didn't matter. And it caused me a lot of emotional pain.
"I'm not talking about fans, I'm talking about people I worked with. That was the pain, that if I weren't this drummer I wouldn't have these people as my friends. And 1 realized that was true. Everything that went on told me that. There I was in New York by myself—seventeen, eighteen, nineteen—and the only reason I was here was because I played the drums as well as I did. It was strange, very strange. In Miles Davis's band I was the youngest, the smallest and, as I felt, the least educated. I didn't feel good about myself. So that's to answer your question why would a person who's good at one thing want to be good at something else too. And those are valid reasons.
"I'd like to write things I wouldn't have to play. I'd like to write for certain orchestras. I've never been the type that needed to play drums in order to feel like a person. I choose to play, it's my desire to play. I'm not the kind of guy that goes around with drumsticks in his hands beating on things. I could live without drumming. There was a couple of years when I didn't play at all; I just hung out, lived off the rent from a house I own uptown here. Because I don't need the drums, I think I play belter. I respect them too much to use them as a crutch. When I sit down at the drums it's because I want to; it's like 'I'm here to be your friend.'
"The drums are my best friend. The drums are the only thing I've been able to count on totally, except my mother— and sometimes when she gets pissed off, boy, she can give me a look.... If it weren't for the drums, I wouldn't be here. But I can listen to the drums in my head. I mean, I rarely, in the last ten years, get the feeling to just go downstairs and play drums. I never practice. I can not play for a year and it'll only take me a night or two to get back to where I was. After thirty-six years, there's a certain level you won't never go below."
Which leaves him free to chase his new passion. Last autumn, in "one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had," Williams performed his first extended composition, the fifteen-minute "Rituals: Music for Piano, String Quartet, Drums and Cymbals,” with the Kronos Quartet and Hancock. He's sniffing out the world of soundtracks: "I'd do basically anything, movies, TV, jingles, just to see how it came out." The quintet, finally getting its due as one of the best of jazz's small groups, is always digesting some new Williams piece, and he's also writing for an electric band (sax, guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums) he plans to start.
"The more I write, the easier it comes. And it's really a pleasure to be able to write something, have it make sense, and then play it: to have it be not just an exercise but something the other guys enjoy playing. That's more important to me than just being able to say 'I wrote this.'
"I'm really surprised I've had the emotional stamina to stay resilient. Especially considering how burnt out I was feeling maybe fifteen years ago. It took courage to put a band together when no one else was doing it, and to write all the music. I've had to put myself out there for the scrutiny of everyone, to write songs everyone would scrutinize and criticize and review and critique. That's something that's very scary. To have done it, and to have gotten the reaction I've had, has been very, very wonderful."
"But it shouldn't have been scary, you'd been writing for years."
"What do you mean 'shouldn't have been'? It just was. Like I said, my writing was not the kind of writing I would have wanted it to be. Now it is. But I had to trust that. So now, I've finally gained trust in these other parts of myself.
I’m not just ‘Tony Williams drummer.’ And that feels pretty neat.”