Tony Williams: An Interview Scenario

By Pat Cox

(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: May 28, 1970)

Q: How do you identify yourself?
A: I don't; I don't identify myself.
Q: Not at all?
A: No. I let other people do that.

"What was trumpeted as progress was, it seems to me, an exclusive fashion, its immunity from plebeian emulation guaranteed by adherence to the dogma that pleasure, which all the great music in the past had given, was no longer admirable or even pertinent."

He's saying that the composers were saying that progress had to be that way, so those things were no longer needed, you know, pleasure and so forth, to the listener.
Q: In other words, it was composers composing for the sake of being ahead of the times.
A: Yeah, keeping up with the-at another point, he's saying about composers-there's a lot in here.
Q: Let's get into one thing. Tell me, how do you classify your music?
A: I just think of it as the best of everything, I guess. I was born in 1945 and it was the post-war era; we all grew up in that post-war era. At the time, my father, as he still is, was very interested in music and he had all the records of the day, you know. Bebop had just started, bebop with Billy Eckstine-and all through that time I was subjected to the music. You know, my father was always playing the records, and television affected all of us; we grew up watching television and learning from television.
(It feels stiff)
I started listening to classical music at about the time I left the pop scene. For a long time, I wasn't listening to any rock and roll, any pop. I was into heavy jazz and really esoteric things. We'd have an ensemble on Sundays and the guys would improvise to a time watch, to numbers, on the wall. A guy would say, "Okay, we're going to play this phrase for two and a half seconds," and it was really out. So I was doing that for a long time, even when I came to New York. And then, after I was with Miles, I started feeling very uneasy because everything-I wasn't listening to anybody. The group that I was with, with Miles, was so great everything else to me was-there was nothing that I had any desire to be a part of. People had asked me to make records with them and I had to turn them down because I didn't want to make records just for the sake of making records, for the romantic feeling of being in a studio. Another reason was because I had played with about everybody I had wanted to play with.
(to sound very vague)
When I first came to New York, I was with Jackie McLean; he is one of the legends of a certain era in jazz. So I was working with him. I had played with Eric Dolphy. I was working sometimes with Cecil Taylor and hanging out with them. I worked with John Coltrane one night, at the time when he had the band with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, because Elvin couldn't make it one night, so he called me and asked me to.
All these things kind of propped me up. It was really a lot of things I went through, you know; that I haven't really covered. I just scanned over them. And on some of the records I made with Blue Note, everybody was on them. Like one time, there was a record: Lee Morgan was on trumpet, and Bobby Hutcherson was playing vibes, and Bob Cranshaw, bass, and these records were like all-star record dates; you know, everybody was on them. So later on, when they started asking me to make records, I had already done that.
Q: Everything was below you.
(It's still vague)
A: Not egotistically. It was musically, because I had already done what these guys were doing, was on top of what was going to happen, so after that, when they asked me again, I said, I've already done that, you know. I've already made a record with you. Then I started feeling, well, there's got to be something else, because John Coltrane left such an impression, on not only the jazz scene, but the whole music scene with what his band produced. So it had to be something else.
At this time, something started filtering in. I started hearing a lot of electricity. The first thing I can remember-it wasn't the first thing that hit me, but it's the first thing I can remember-was Jimi Hendrix's first record, and the sound of it, you know, with all that electricity, you know-I mean, not presence electricity, but the amplified electricity, the sound of the guitars, and that started to excite me, and I wanted to hear more of that.
I heard all this stuff, and after awhile, I started saying-I knew that I was going to leave Miles because he was going in another direction. We'd get together; the band, like we were like this and Miles was like this, and we came together at a certain point in time, at a point like a "V". And we stayed at this point. It took us about a year to get there. Wayne Shorter finally came after a year of the rest of the group being together. We stayed together as a group, the four of us, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, about four years, and Ron left. We started using another bass player, and then the "V" started going into another direction-like an "X", you know. So we started hiding. I knew it was coming to that. I said, well, I've got to do something. And the pop scene, I wasn't necessarily as interested in the pop scene as much as I was interested in the sound of what was happening, and so it wasn't a question of making money, you know, to get into it. It was a question of something that was going to stimulate me to go on, to do something that I hadn't done.
Q: What caused the separation?
A: It was just circumstances, just the way it had to be, because my ego is so that I have to do my own thing. Do your own thing, you know-(Laughter). That kind of thing. That is what it was.
(You can transcribe it)
Because white people, when they go and want to listen to something, they listen to it to identify with it, just like everybody does, so they have all the money, right? When a white person goes out to see a musical act, or any entertainer, they look up and they say, gee, that could be me. You know, they go into an audience, and they want to see something that they feel they could be a part of; you know, they could be up there singing, that could be them up there playing the guitar.
If they go hear a black person, they can't do that, because they can't imagine themselves being black. So that's why the white musicians are making all the money, because they have the image of all the white people who have all the money, who support them, and give them $30,000 a night to play something. They won't give a black musician $30,000 a night who plays the same thing, because they can't imagine that, you know.
Q: They can't imagine-identify-
A: They can't identify. And like with my band, every time we move off the bandstand, if there's a lot of white people in the audience, all the white musicians will walk over to Johnny (McLaughlin), and really rap with him, and the people want to know how this white cat can do what he does, you know, and that makes them feel, well, gee, there's hope for me, you know, because they feel, well, he can do it, maybe-you know-we're all right, maybe we're all right.
Yes, you can talk about it and experiment with it and I can hear things in my mind that I would like to play, but I have to play something else first. I have to feel good playing it. I have to want to go to work at night. If I don't want to go to work, then I don't want to play anything. Some things just don't make me want to play. Like bass players: there's a whole movement in jazz with bass players. I can't play with them anymore, because they make me play a certain way, you know, because after playing with Ron Carter and those people, they play the best of that style, and I don't want to play with them anymore. They play a certain way, they play out of a certain feeling for the bass, which is beautiful. But I don't want to be made to play that way anymore. Because if I play that way, I'm going to keep playing that way and I'm not going to play any different, you know. My whole background has been that every time I hear something, I want to play something better, I want to play something that's going to keep making me feel good. I guess that's ego, you know, because I like to feel good. I have no desire to communicate something to an audience that says that I'm above it all, that I'm above the decadence of rhythm.
Everything is an influence. I can't go out and listen to a record, I play what I want to hear, to produce what I think other people would like to hear that they're not hearing. I've always been a romantic in the sense that I've always wanted to let other people feel things.
Well, jazz is such a bad word, and rock is such a bad word. All those things are so limiting, and commercial music is such a bad word, all the words are really bad. And there's another sound that's going to happen and that's what I want to be a part of. Because I basically don't like white people, you know, and that's basically what it is, yes.
My father and mother-they never told me what to do, see, they never said I had to do this or I had to be that. They never told me how to act. They never told me to be polite. And I'm still learning how to act. In a way, I wish they had told me how to act; in a way I'm glad they didn't. Because the way I wish they had is because I'm having trouble adjusting to myself. And when I say I wish they did, it's because I wish I didn't have the trouble. I'm going to get it sooner or later.
If you were left alone and grew up wild in society, pretty soon, things would start hitting you.
My mother and father broke up. My mother had custody of me. And she was so intent on not going on welfare and on making her own way, that she went out and she was working two jobs, you know, for me and for herself. Most of the time, I was left by myself and she wanted to further herself, so she went away to school; she went away to school from Monday to Friday and she'd come back on weekends, so all that time I was by myself, you know. I entertained myself, you know, and so I spent a lot of time with my father; he was a bachelor at this time, and was making gigs and things, and so I'd go with him, on the scene, you know, with his friends.
He had more or less to do with my seeing how not to be used by other people, because my father is a very easy-going guy, you know, and he always told me things like, "Don't worry about anything, whatever happens to me, don't worry about me, whatever happens to me. I want you not to have any bitterness." I would see him get-like I've seen him rise up to a certain position, like his day job, because he always had a day job in the Post Office, and then he lost that job and went down, and that hurt me very much. And these things always affected me, and I was never going to let myself get in that position of being at the mercy of other people. And so from that he rose up again to where he is today. He's got a really great gig, and he's in charge of people, and so forth. He's working for the Veterans Administration. I'm very proud of both my mother and father.
He rocks around.
We were like brothers.
I'm my biggest obstacle, you know, because I have an image of myself, you know, that image _____ me up sometimes.
I got a friend who can roll his stomach.
Q: Does it make a noise when he does it?
A: When my mother would go to school from Monday to Wednesday, she'd leave on Monday morning, and Monday afternoon I was on the bus going away, to New York. And I'd be here 'till Friday morning; I'd come right back and she'd come in Friday night and she'd say, "How was your week?," and I'd say, "Oh-"
When I was little, I used to count the cars that went by, and listen to the sound. The sound of everything makes it.
I could spend a week in my apartment by myself, just doing what I have to do without communicating with other people, and that doesn't help a marriage.
Q: What makes you feel good beside your music?
A: Music.
Q: Besides that?
A: Besides music, watching two women make it together. That really turns me on.
Q: Really?
A: Oh, man.
Q: You're serious?
A: Yes. That's a gas when you see it.
Q: What are your other interests? (Laughter) Do you have any hobbles?
A: I like to cheat at pool while watching two women make it in a Ferrari.
Nobody around, there's nobody I want to hear in person except Stravinsky. The only thing I like to see is ballet. That's what I like to do. The film I want to do would be like filming a ballet of something that someone has choreographed to something that I write.
I had seen it, you know, and one day I saw it in a music store, a music book store, and I went in, and I started reading it, you know, because the guys in there looked so like "What are you doing in here?" So-I'll show them. I know something about-I can look studious. I started reading this, and no, just because-
Q: Satyricon?
A: Yes. This friend of mine, the guy who wrote a story, he was telling me that in the movie, everybody in the movie is a cartoon, you know, they look like characters, and so forth. The only true people in the film, the way Fellini did it, are the black people.
Q: No kidding.
A: No kidding. Satyricon.
Q: I went to see that last night and they were sold out. I went right up to the box office-
A: Right. But the only true people, and every time you see a black person's face, they're laughing as if to say, what the ____ are these white people doing, you know. This is what's happening, this is what I feel.
But anyway, it's going to take somebody with a knowledge of the whole scene, of the past in classical, the past in jazz, the future in classical, the future in jazz, the future in rock, to put it all together, because all this ____ now is chaotic-I'm going to try.
The thing that's happening now, it's all dominated by black culture. Everything on TV is black, if you really want to look at it, if you can really understand what I mean. Musically, it's all black.
Some day, Otto Preminger might come and ask me to do a movie, and I'd say no. I don't like background music.
And like many interviews, lots of times, the interviewer would ask a question and the person who is being interviewed would answer something else. I don't want to explain what I'm trying to do or get across.
I found out something else when I was talking about how white people identify, can identify with something that they don't know anything about, that's the reason why performers, rock performers, make all the money and are more accepted, because the audience that has all the money is white. The white audience can look up, you know, listen to a record and say, "Gee, that could be me", right? Well, the thing is, what makes it like that is that those musicians and those performers got their thing with the people who are identifying with other black performers. If they didn't identify with black performers, if there was a color barrier, ethnic barrier, they wouldn't be as good as they are.
You never hear a white performer say to a black performer, "How are you doing, boy?" Because they know a black performer doesn't like to hear that. You know, people in general don't know what offends a black person, because they never took the time or the patience to find out. But black people know what offends white people. They know everything about white people because they've always had to live in white surroundings. So a white performer would never say anything that would offend a fellow black performer because he knows what would offend him, and he doesn't feel funny about relating to a black person.
When bebop first started, Dizzy Gillespie and all the guys were singing, you know, they were singing songs. They would sing a few phrases, you know, and then they'd play some more and sing something else. But today some of the jazz musicians are so bound up in ego, you know, that I can imagine when some of the guys hear me sing now, they say I'm copping out, you know what I mean? I'm not taking my lead from white musicians or popular things, but from my background, from Billy Eckstine. When Billy Eckstine first stated, he was also a trumpet player, a trombone player with a band, and his band was the first bebop big band.
Nat King Cole-he was a fantastic piano player. He had classic trios in jazz; Ahmad Jamal and all those people are relating to Nat King Cole's group. He had a group with bass, guitar, and piano. He never said anything. It was fantastic. He never sang. He just played.
I'm singing because I like to and because I'm developing as a performer.
I'd like to see Cecil Taylor play the electric piano.
You know, Johnny (McLaughlin) plays so fantastically; you know, I mean we play good together. I could find no other trumpet player that would make me feel like playing after playing with Miles, right? I could find no saxophone player that I like as much and who has as broad a scope as Wayne Shorter. I could find no other bass player in that style, playing like Ron Carter, or another piano player, so I had to find something completely different to throw myself into, instead of trying to carry on that kind of style. It would have been disastrous for me to try to get a group, a quintet, saxophone, and make nice pleasant records. I'd like to be able for people to say, yeah, that's great, you know, but I'm not going out of my way to do it.
Any woman that tells you that she wants-wait a minute, any woman that tells you she wants to go out and work is not black because black women, all through history, have worked more than black men. They were the only ones that could get jobs. They had to bring home the pay and the man had to stay home because he couldn't get a job.
Somebody came back to me and said, "What are you doing about white guys in your band?" That's such a drag, because like I told other people, it's such a thing now, I'm really in the middle of everything. On one side, I've got black militants, you know, and it should be all black, and the rock musicians don't really consider us rock. You know, we're not trying to be rock. They think we're trying to play up to them, and we're not. And I'm not trying to get away from jazz because I want to make money, and that's not it either. I've got all these things coming down on me.
Oh, that's a thing. I like all kinds of food. I'm a food freak, all kinds of stuff, raw fish to Wheaties.
I love playing the drums.
Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, even my father. I'm not going to let them just be in vain. I'm not going to let the black experience be in vain.