Tony Williams: The Final Interview

by Michael Point

(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: April 1997)

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.
- ed.

All you need to know about Tony Williams can be found in Miles Davis' caustic, 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 prejudice.
"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 the process.
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 masterpiece.
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 experience."
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."


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 audio equipment.