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Tony Williams: Memories Of A Drum Genius

Throughout his adult life, Williams struggled with the public’s perception that drummers are somehow less musical than other musicians, and it angered him. “The drums are perceived just like noise – banging,” he said. “People don’t think that the drums can speak and sing and whisper. Today, the drummers are looked upon as less than musicians, and I am tired of it. That’s what I am interested in doing: educating, not only the public, but the drummers. A lot of drummers who are playing in bands today just can’t do little things a drummer should be able to do. They can’t play a roll. I just want to raise the standards for drummers, and I am setting a challenge.”

This wasn’t a casual remark. Williams had worked for years to develop an educational method that would change the way drummers learned about drumming. “I am working on a book about drumming that will be accompanied by at least ten one-hour videos to be sold to the universities and schools as a college course,” he said. “It will be a curriculum that teaches, first, how to sit down, how to pick up the sticks, and then, how to play; where things come from, and how to make music on the drums, rather than just playing beats. When you learn how to play piano or trumpet, you have to play certain things. With every instrument there are standards. With the drums, there are no standards. And there are people who teach drums and who don’t play, don’t make records, don’t go on the road. They just teach. I want drummers to understand that you can play music on the drums and that there is more to playing the drums than just playing beats. Anybody can play a beat.”

Like most other innovators, Williams was a complex man of countless contradictions. He clearly wanted to elevate the study of drumming to a higher level, but didn’t particularly like giving advice to young drummers. In fact, he never even practiced. Apparently, he really didn’t have to. “Playing the drums has always been a growing process to me,” he said. “I played the drums when I was very angry; I played the drums when I was very sad; I played the drums when I was miserable. I have always felt confident playing drums. Where I didn’t feel confident was just in life, with relationships with people. I grew up as an only child, so I didn’t have any brothers or sisters to bounce things off of growing up.

“When I left home at the age of 16 to go to New York, in 1962, there were a lot of things I didn’t understand emotionally. So it took me a long time to become the person I am now. But the drums have never been a problem. Fortunately I had my drums as my best friend all these years to see me through. At times, I really felt miserable, just because of things I perceived in my own life. That perception of things makes you what you are. I have always felt confident with the drums. Whenever I go on stage and sit down behind the drums, that’s when I am the most relaxed and confident, that’s when I am really who I am supposed to be. When I leave the stage, things are not the same. So I had to figure out how to live my life the same way I played the drums.”

Thrust into the adult world of professional jazz at such an early age, it’s not surprising that much of Williams’ personal strength and musical philosophy was inspired by his mentor, the late trumpeter Miles Davis. “The main thing I learned from Miles was how to deal with fear,” he said. “How you deal with fear is what determines your character. You can either side-step it, or run away from things, or you can ignore things, or you can confront things. I am the kind of person that confronts things. And that’s one of the things about Miles that I admired: he would go into situations feet first. But I have to say that if I had never met Miles, if I had not played with Miles, he would still have been a major influence on my life.”

Like Davis, Williams never once compromised his artistic vision, gladly shouldering any challenge that confronted him. But his stubbornness didn’t come cheaply. As the first jazz drummer to adopt the fury and sheer volume of rock, Williams had to endure boundless criticism from purists who felt he had bastardized the art form. And remember: he was still in his teens. “The jazz community seems to turn its back on people like me,” he said. “The band that I have is a very special band and I think the record company, the agents, the managers, let us down. What the jazz community wants – I don’t necessarily mean the audience, but the writers, the agents, the managers, those people – what they want is dinner music. They want mediocrity. They want status quo. That’s the kind of jazz they want.

“And also the jazz community is being fooled by charlatans. There are a lot of guys out there who are just honking and squeaking horns – that’s supposed to be avant-garde, especially in Europe. I don’t want to name names. The writers missed out on what ’Trane was about. Now he is a legend. So the writers are embracing everything, including the charlatans. Write that! And I stand behind it. These people are fooling you and you are eating it up. People are being led around by the nose, and it makes me sick. So that’s what the jazz community wants? Fine, you can have it.”

For most of his 51 years, Williams drove himself to higher levels, always reaching for the next plateau, and then beyond. In many ways, he felt that Wilderness told his story. “Wilderness is the world we live in,” he said. “In a broad sense, the record is a journey – a journey that we all travel in this world, to make our lives more complete. It is scary, it is anxiety-filled, but you do it anyway. It is a leap of faith.

“This is a new beginning for me.”

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