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Sons of Miles
TONY WILLIAMS: Finding His Beautiful Vase
by Mike Zwerin
20 November 1998

After considering the question, he says he never had to earn money making music he did not want to make. Sometimes music forced him to be with people he did not want to be with, but he won't hesitate to tell you he's fortunate. Without sounding pompous, he would even say he's blessed. Tony Williams of Pacifica, California, is not the starving artist type.

It's a two-way blessing. He wants people to feel that drums are the most beautiful instrument in the world, as romantic as violins, heroic as trumpets. It's not a matter of style, of who plays what how. The role is more important than the actor. Drummers with "style" can produce noises that make people hate the drums.

When he started to play seriously in Boston at the age of 12, he tried to sound like Max Roach, Art Blakey and his other heros. Exactly like them. When he joined Miles Davis at the age of 17 (sic!), he was still trying to sound like them. He was still doing it at the age of 50.

He would not be who he is without those he learned from. It's a matter of universality. As he learned technique, he also learned that the drums are more important than he is. He compares the learning process to a dusty living room. You're comfortable there, it's home, but one day you see something in a corner that attracts your eye. You never saw it before. To get to it, you have to move everything and clean the dust. Williams cleaned and cleaned and found his beautiful vase. Improvising is about being able to clean your dust, to find the vase and recognize that it is beautiful in itself.

Williams was in Paris to record a string quartet by and with Michel Petrucciani (with Dave Holland on bass). If you take what he says at face value, and there is no reason not to, Williams should be the perfect choice to play your jazz string quartet. He knows what you want, no matter how unusual, and how to get it maybe better than you do without imposition and still sound like the one-and-only. A short man, he somehow manages to tower over you anyway. Confidence can be measured. Music exists in time, which should not be killed. Killing time is like spare time, a waste of time. Williams relates to time as value.

The first time he played a real drum kit was as a pre-teen with his father Tillman, a saxophonist, in a Boston club. This was a child who played an instrument in public the first time he ever touched one. He firmly believes that whatever you want, you can make it happen. The first time he ever heard Miles Davis live, he asked him: "Mr Davis, can I sit in with your band?" Miles suggested the child just sit and listen first.

Jackie McLean had asked Tony's mother for permission to bring him to New York. He was 16. One year later there was this dreamed-of call, I don't believe there was ever a jazz musician before 1991 who did not fantasize it: "Miles is calling. He wants to talk to you." Williams, who was back in Boston, took the call, and....zap! He played on "Seven Steps to Heaven," "In a Silent Way" and many others advancing the vocabulary of the rhythm function by leaps and bounds along with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter.

In 1965, he had a great idea. "Miles," he said. "Why don't we open for the Beatles?" Miles said something like "What??!!" Williams had a Beatles poster on his wall.

T O N Y   W I L L I A M S

In 1969, he formed Lifetime, one of the first fusion groups, bringing John McLaughlin from England for the purpose. With Larry Young on organ, the band was so far ahead of its time it got left behind. Forming an organ trio might at first seem like a step backward but Young was no ordinary organist, and Williams could not see forming another Miles Davis band because it could not be any better. People did not understand.

A bitter undertone surfaces when he talks about Lifetime. He'd have "done it differently" today, kept more authority, been less democratic: "It was my vision, and I let other guys take control. And I learned something else - people are not necessarily affected by excellence."

But in general he does not believe that a sound psyche is necessary for excellence. He has known people who were "as crazy as loons, who thought that the locusts were coming," make excellent music: "Music can transcend such things. It's magic." However that's not the case with him. If he's not happy and "comfy," he just sits and stares at walls. At times like this, he won't even listen to music. Music he hasn't made irritates him.

It's not a matter of style here either. There's room for all styles; he's a U2 fan. Unfortunately - and here he becomes grim and caustic - there are "musical fascists who deal in fear, who tell people that this or that music is dangerous."

He could name names but he won't: "There's a clique in New York who are trying to rewrite history because, although they are famous, it's a marketing gambit and they don't really play all that well. They just know how to look and talk a certain way. They go around rewriting history by preaching and telling people what to listen to and not listen to. They have no talent of their own so the easiest way for them to attract attention is to say outrageous things. 'Did you hear what he said?'"

An optimist by nature, Williams does not believe in the good old days. He will not hold on to the past, he can envision the day when he will no longer play the drums. The drummer never stops playing back there - there are aching feet, ankles, thighs, hips and elbows. He cannot imagine himself doing that forever. Plus, he loves being in his home south of San Francisco, even when he's staring at the walls.

He's mounting a campaign to build a career as a film-music composer, something that has fascinated him ever since he saw "Gunfight At The OK Corral" at the age of 12 (he saw it seven times). How do film composers make music that remains cohesive through love scenes, chase scenes and murder scenes so that it still sounds like the same piece of music? How is it possible to enhance images with music? He started composing when he was with Miles Davis, who encouraged sidemen to contribute to his repertoire. He has written the music for the six Blue Note albums he has made under his own name.

When it finally hit him that Miles was gone, something changed. It was going to be tough for him to live in a world without Miles Davis: "When I was like 13, he was already teaching kids like me about self-esteem, to fight for our rights. That was his real genius, as much as the music. He was really the first one. He was doing it before that woman on the bus, before Martin Luther King. When some cops beat him up in front of Birdland - when was it, 1959? - he took them to court and won the case. Self-esteem. That's what he represented to kids like me. He carried himself like he was king of the world.

"Miles was the point man. You know, in the army, when the scouts go out, there's always one guy 20 or 30 yards up ahead who makes sure the coast is clear. Then he waves the other guys to move up, he tells them it's safe. Miles was the point man who took all the heat. Before I even knew what the term meant, he was my role model."

P.S. All hats off to Tony Williams. RIP.

Photo: Tony Williams.
Credit: Christian Rose

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