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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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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Editor’s Note: We attended Williams’ funeral, which was attended by a great many music legends. A number of them were willing to write testimonials remembering Williams as both a friend and peer. Here’s what they had to say, in their own handwriting:

Ginger Baker

Hal Blaine

Tom Brechtlein

Ron Carter

Chick Corea

Wallace Rooney

Ed Shaghnessy

Wayne Shorter

Michael Shrieve

Steve Smith

Armand Zildjian