Drummer Tony Williams, interview with Steve Rowland ©2016

Here’s just the start of my interview with the great drummer Tony Williams.  It was at his house in San Rafael, CA in 1989.  Tony was a little prickly and was one of those people who suggested that there is nothing to say about music – that it is all said in the music itself – and then goes on to break it down and explain it expertly.  Go figure.


Williams, Tony image

San Rafael, CA  1989

STEVE ROWLAND:  As I told you on the phone, the main thing that I’m interested in is sort of trying to trace the development of Miles’s music through different periods and within each of those periods, what–how he was approaching or how all of you were approaching music–what kind of–what the goals were in the music.  So, that’s basically the–that’s what I’m interested in talking about–so you know–so, one place that we could start talking about it is just your understanding or your impression of Miles’s relationship to drummers in general and his relationship to rhythm and percussion.

TONY WILLIAMS:  Well, let’s see.  Well, I really don’t know, you know, what his feelings are about it.  Only he can answer that, but my impression before–before I knew Miles or joined his band came from the fact that in the group that I enjoyed most first was Jimmy Cobb–I mean Philly Joe Jones and then Jimmy Cobb.  And I knew that Miles liked just by listening to those bands, I knew that he really wanted aggressive–I mean, he liked aggressive drummers–he liked, in general–not just in drummers, just people to play with–he thrived on people who took charge of their instruments, you know, who weren’t just holding the instrument, you know, or just sitting there.  He wanted people who could contribute on their instrument.  So, and I had, I knew that there were–there had been stories about people–stories of people criticizing Philly Joe Jones for playing too loud or even John Coltrane for playing too loud and things like that and Miles knew what he wanted and he heard things in their playing that that other people didn’t hear and Miles–his playing itself is rythymically his playing is great, it’s just the way people should play the trumpet or just any instrument, I mean, he’s rhythmically involved in the music.  A lot of people aren’t.  They’re just more involved in the chords and the notes.  Miles is also involved in the rhythm as John Coltrane was, as Cannonball Adderly was.  Their solos and the things that they played in their solos, which is so rhythmically exciting and inspiring so that’s what attracted me to Miles’s music and his concept, you know, was that those things, the fact that he wanted people to be involved, therefore, he always was noted for having a great band and secondly the fact that he was involved in the rhythm, you know, that he interacted with the people that he played with.  He interacted with the rhythm section.  Now, on both of those counts a lot of other artists don’t do that.  First of all, a lot of artists don’t–there’s no interaction some–most of the time in the way they play together.  They don’t play with the rhythm section or they don’t leave space for the rhythm section to react to something they play.  And secondly, a lot of people aren’t noted for having great bands because they seem to be uncomfortable with having side men in their groups who are really good at what they do.  They seem to need to be the only star or the only one that the audience looks at.  They need that security.  And Miles isn’t like that.  He knows that the better you are, the better the groups sounds, the better it makes him play and appear to be, you know.


STEVE ROWLAND:  What do you think causes the difference?  Is it that Miles is so much more confident in his own ability?

TONY WILLIAMS:  Oh, I’m sure.  I’m sure that’s a big part of it.  But I think that it’s just that he loves music.  He loves music and he likes hearing people play.  When he’s not playing, he wants to hear some good stuff.  He wants to hear stuff that he’s not in control of.  He wants to hear something that he wouldn’t think of.  I mean, when he walks off the stage, he’s not just going to go and you know, read a book or something.  He wants to hear the music still going on at a level that he left it at or something even better.  So I think that, you know, I think that’s great, I think that that always was inspiring to me.


STEVE ROWLAND:  Is there any–can you describe in any more detail or a little more specifically, say, for an audience that’s not musical, how this process of having somebody like Miles or Coltrane or Campbell–when they play, how does it show itself that they’re more in tune to rhythm?  Or that they’re more rhythmical?

TONY WILLIAMS:  They accent–the things that they accent.  They accent in different places.  What I mean is, you can hear like a player play a line and it will have no accents or it will have no pauses.  It’s just a series of notes and he’s playing very correctly on the changes and the chords or the harmonic structure or the song but other players for me the better players play that but they also stop and in mid stream of a thought and change and shade and play with dynamics and like I said earlier give the rhythm section something to react to.  And when they do that they’re also giving themselves something to react to, because when the rhythm section reacts to something you’ve played then it gives you a new idea and you go, oh, let me do this next.  There’s an interplay within a group and that’s what’s always been something for me that’s been very important.  It’s like a group feeling.  The feeling of a group of people playing together, like a family and you don’t get that sound when people are just going to take a solo and they’re not reacting to each other.  That group sound comes about through a give and take situation.


STEVE ROWLAND:  Now, you…..

TONY WILLIAMS:  And that’s rhythm, you know, that’s like rhythm even in life, you know.  Rhythm is change, you know, when you talk to somebody, if you don’t listen also, then there’s no interaction.  Interaction is what I’m talking–interaction is rhythm.


STEVE ROWLAND:  So–now, when you’re in a group, and always you are playing a tremendous amount, I mean, like rhythmically what was happening, you know, people were just astonished.  But–so, to hear you say that you would get something rhythmic back from Miles would be a little bit of a surprise to people.

TONY WILLIAMS:  I don’t see why.

STEVE ROWLAND:  So can you……

TONY WILLIAMS:  Have you ever listened to Miles?  Have you–if you listen to Miles play, I cannot understand how you cannot hear him playing rhythm.


STEVE ROWLAND:  Ok.  I’m asking the question badly.  I’m–Certainly, well I hear that, but what I’m saying is, you’re so much in control of rhythm and…..

TONY WILLIAMS:  No, I’m not.  No, I’m not controlling anybody else’s rhythm.  I’m controlling what I’m playing, you know.  And I don’t I don’t like to play in a situation where I’m the only one playing rhythm.  So that should tell you a lot about the band that I was in with Miles and Ron and Herbie and Wayne.


STEVE ROWLAND:  Well we were talking about this idea of you playing with other people.  To me what you’re saying is real interesting because, what I’m responding to is just the idea that people look at you or any other great drummer and say, well, you know, here’s a guy who’s just gotten so much control of rhythm and of rhythmic ideas and they don’t think of specifically, you know, they don’t think of other musicians being part of the whole rhythmic development.

TONY WILLIAMS:  Well that’s all–that goes the other way too.  They don’t think of drummers having anything to do with the melodic development also, so what can I say?


STEVE ROWLAND:  Well, you could help us, explain to us how that interaction works.

TONY WILLIAMS:  I can’t do that.  I don’t think I even want to do that.  That’s not my job.  My job is to play music, you know.  I’m not explaining it, you know, it is something that will miss the mark.  I mean, it’s not important to–it’s not important to me that–you know, I don’t necessarily have to know how a special effect is done in a movie to enjoy it.  So, but I understand, you know, but I understand the desire to understand–you know, that people want to know these things.  It’s interaction.  It’s people who–it’s a desire to make music fun for everybody, for every instrument.  I’ve played in different situations that became very intolerable for me because I was expected to be the one to add the excitement all the time.  And that becomes very very tedious you know when it’s a very mundane–when drums are thought of in a very mundane sense and put in that position.  When I as a drummer am put in that position, I react badly to it.  I love playing with people who are exciting and add excitement so that gives me something to do.  I don’t like playing in a vacuum.  I don’t like playing with nothing else going on.  I might as well stay home, you know, and play in the basement, you know, by myself.  Because that to me is not what a band is about.  When you get people together, people are supposed to play together on all levels, on a emotional level, on a rhythmic level on a harmonic level and that’s to me what you’re supposed to do when you have people together.  You know, I believe that that’s the best kind of music.  Monolithic type of music isn’t very–isn’t colorful, it isn’t–monolithic playing isn’t colorful.  It isn’t dynamic.  It isn’t–it’s monotonous.  So, as you can tell by listening to Miles Davis, he is the opposite of those things.  He is very colorful.  He’s very exciting.  You know, and he’s a joy to listen to because he plays on all levels.  He plays on a very emotional level, a very rhythmic level, a very high harmonic level.


STEVE ROWLAND:  Are these ideas or these ways of relating to a band, are these things that you learned while you were with Miles and then carried on into your own bands later on.

TONY WILLIAMS:  No.  No.  No, I learned those things from the very first time that I started playing with people, when I was a young boy.  That’s why Miles hired me because I had already–you know I had knowledge of certain things and brought certain things to that band.


STEVE ROWLAND:  What was it–when you started playing in that band, you were aware already of the tradition of Jimmy Cobb and Philly Joe.  Did you feel a lot of pressure?

TONY WILLIAMS:  No.  No, I didn’t.  What I felt was just great joy to be invited to play with that band because it was the–it was the dream of my young life at the time, to do that.  I mean, it couldn’t have been better.  That–what happened couldn’t not have been–it couldn’t have been written better than for that to happen to me at that time, because it was the one thing that I had always wanted to do.  So, when Miles called me to join the band, it was just–I almost could not believe it.  Like, how good can it get?  You know.


STEVE ROWLAND:  Do you remember that day, that he called you?

TONY WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I remember the day.  I remember the first, yeah the first time we played together.  It was just as I had imagined it would be.  So, to answer your question, no there wasn’t, I didn’t I was–I wasn’t–I was too–I don’t know if this is a clear or if this is correct, but I guess I was just too young to feel pressure like that, you know, musically.  There was never any pressure musically.  I never felt that.

STEVE ROWLAND:  What was–what was Miles like?  How did he talk to you or did he talk to you about music?


STEVE ROWLAND:  Not at all?


STEVE ROWLAND:  What was the–how did things progress musically in the band?

TONY WILLIAMS:  They mostly progressed through playing.  Through just us playing and when we’d go to the recording studio the record something, Miles would you know, give little enigmatic hints as to what he wanted, you know, very cryptic kind of hints and you had to decipher things, you know, cause he didn’t want to be specific or–not that he didn’t want to be specific, what I mean is, he didn’t want to–he didn’t want to–see I think Miles doesn’t like to over-explain things, or to explain things to the point where it becomes something becomes crystalized in your head and you’ll do only that.  He wants to give impressions so that you have a wider range of discerning what he wants.  You know, if he tells you specifically something, you’ll do that and only that, see.  What he wants you to do–he wants to point you in direction and then your own talent and creativity will let you do maybe five things, you know, and it works out better that way, so he doesn’t–he–our group was not–there wasn’t any real–real–you know, the direction of the band came from the musician themselves, you know, the direction came from the way each person played and the way you play determines how the band goes.  So when we were the band, meaning the band from ’63 to ’68, the band sounds the way it did because of the people who were in it, not because of anything that Miles wanted.  He would listen to how you play, and then the next thing would be, ok, let’s enhance this part, you know, you enhance the group by the way you interpreted the songs………


to be continued……….