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Tony Williams: Last Words Of A Drumming Genius

Editor’s Note: The drumming world was shocked when Tony Williams suddenly passed away in his hospital bed on February 23, 1997. He was only 52 years old and appeared to have been in good health, with decades of creative expression ahead of him. We rushed the following cover story together at the last moment, pulling Williams quotes from various press releases and an interview generously shared by Christophe Rossi, who was the editor of the French drumming magazine Batteur. We worked frantically to make a short deadline, and the issue was on newsstands by mid-April.

“A drummer like Tony comes around only once in 30 years.” –Miles Davis

When Tony Williams died on February 23, he left behind not only a rich legacy of extraordinary drumming, but also the promise of incredible things to come. He entered the Seton Medical Center in Daly City, California, on Thursday, February 20, for minor gall bladder surgery and was in the process of recovering when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

While in the hospital recovery room with his wife Colleen at his side, Williams reportedly began to experience discomfort and asked his wife to summon a doctor or nurse. Once Mrs. Williams found a staff member, she was told not to worry, since such pains were common during recovery from gall bladder surgery. When she returned to her husband, though, it was clear that his condition was deteriorating rapidly. She once again found a health practitioner and asked for help. At press time, it’s unclear how many times Mrs. Williams summoned the hospital staff, but when a health worker finally did come to Williams’ aid, he was already dead.

Just this year, Williams had entered a new phase of his career as a composer of contemporary orchestral music with the release of Wilderness. The music on the album was unlike any of his past recorded work. At the core of the ensemble were Williams on drums, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Stanley Clarke, pianist Herbie Hancock, and guitarist Pat Metheny, who were accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra. The album opens with “Wilderness Rising,” a composition structured much like Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Four more variations – “Infant Wilderness,” “Wilderness Voyager,” “Sea Of Wilderness” and “Cape Wilderness” – complete the suite, which is interspersed with other original compositions that allow more room for improvisation.

“When you make a record with so-called all-stars, most of them end up being sessions where the guys get together and jam,” Williams said. “I wanted this to be more than a jam, more than the sum of its parts. I wanted this album to have a central theme, a train of thought. But I also wanted to reflect a vision that I have. I wanted something that would give Pat, Herbie, Michael and Stanley a gift: an exciting musical experience. I wanted to surprise them with a more involved project. I also wanted to do that for the listener – the buying public. You’re asking them to listen to something, and they know somewhat what to expect. I wanted to give them something more for their trouble.”

From the beginning of his professional career, Williams considered composition and drumming to be of equal importance. He began writing in the ’60s when he played with Miles Davis, who recorded three of his songs: “Pee Wee,” “Hand Jive,” and “Black Comedy.” Williams studied orchestration, harmony, and composition at the Julliard School of Music, and more recently, at the University of California at Berkeley. In fact, Williams’ orchestration teacher at UC was the first to suggest that he write “Wilderness Rising” for an orchestra.

“I study all the time,” Williams said. “It’s like being a doctor in a way. In music, you have to always keep learning, and I like learning. Right now, I am just trying to write as well as I can. I would like to be as good a composer as I think I am a drummer. I’d like to get it up to the same level as my playing. The people I like are mostly classical composers – Stravinski, Shostakovich, Bartok, Edward Algar, Aaron Copeland and a lot of nineteenth-century composers like Chopin and Greig.”

It’s unfortunate that, even in the ’90s, most people still are shocked to hear a drummer cite Stravinski as an influence. Such irony was not lost on Williams, known for a quick temper, who said: “Just because you play saxophone doesn’t mean you are a composer, and just because you play piano doesn’t mean you can write music. There are tons of players on every instrument who can’t write, and when they try, it’s dismal.”

Williams was resolute about the musicality of drumming, and for very good reasons. He was one of the first to approach the drum set like a composer staring at a fresh sheet of manuscript paper. In his hands, the kit offered a variety of sounds that could be orchestrated into infinite variations. It wasn’t simply a matter of keeping time, though he kept the deepest grooves on record. But his grooves also suggested melody, counterpoint, and harmony, and that was a revelation to most drummers in the ’60s.

“The dance band drum set is an American invention that people don’t pay much attention to,” Williams said. “It is an American treasure. A lot of players gave their blood to this instrument – and it is afforded less dignity than, say, the harmonica. Maybe because I’m a drummer, I’m prejudiced. I think it needs to be brought to light what the drum set and the drummer mean. You can have some below-average players and a great drummer, and the audience thinks the band was great, but not know why. You can have a great band with a lousy drummer and people will shake their heads and not know why.”

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