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Interviews

Bill Ward: From Jazz to Black Sabbath, Part 1-2

By Published: October 23, 2005

Being influenced by dynamic music, I felt quite suited for blues and jazz which is pretty much what we really liked to play, especially more traditional blues.

Jazz is no longer the domain of classical purists. Renowned jazz and creative improvisational musicians Daniel Carter and Reuben Radding have both stated in interviews that jazz and creative musicians are increasingly coming out of the rock domain and looking to rock for inspiration, themselves included. The most creative of musicians are no longer content to adhere to the rules and boundaries of jazz and in recent years free jazz has become increasingly prevalent. Likewise, much of rock music has become so driven by commercialism that, like much of jazz, creativity is seen as a hindrance, not the driving force that it once was. Like jazz musicians, real creative rock musicians are no longer content to sit still and look for gigs. They want to play and express themselves seriously, and many of them are turning to free jazz and improvised music to do it. You only have to look at the work of Kinski, Ghidra, or Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore to validate that, and if you want a good album to listen to, try Moore's Live at Tonic recorded with Wally Shoup, Paul Flaherty, and Chris Corsano.

That having been said, Black Sabbath has had a serious influence not only in rock music, but increasingly in jazz as well. This can be validated in free jazz circles by highly acclaimed musicians such as pianist Gust Burns and saxophonist Gregory Reynolds who enthusiastically acknowledge Sabbath's music as "real jazz." The music on Burns' and Reynolds' Ficus Trio CD, recorded with drummer Greg Campbell, demonstrates clearly the power and integrity of real creative musicianship. Multiple reviews from BBC Radio to Amazon.com to free jazz distributor Forced Exposure state that Black Sabbath's music runs the gamut from blues to jazz to rock and is highly innovative and influential. Experiencing the music first hand by creative musicians who acknowledge and embrace their influence, this is a blatant understatement.

From their early days under the name Earth the musicians in this band—Ozzy Osbourne, vocals; Tony Iommi, guitar; Geezer Butler, bass; and Bill Ward, drums—created their music through extended improvisations based in rock, blues, and jazz. The influence that Black Sabbath has brought, not only to rock but increasingly to jazz also, has fueled the fire for musicians to play hard, take creative risks, and to color outside of the lines.

On the day prior to Black Sabbath's Seattle performance at Ozzfest in August 2005, All About Jazz writer Jack Gold was fortunate to have been invited to interview Sabbath's classic drummer Bill Ward. In part one of this two part interview, Mr. Ward talks in depth about his career playing the drums and how it felt to be influenced by the blues growing up in Birmingham, England.

All About Jazz: Who were some of your early influences as a musician?

Bill Ward: Childhood, all me influences were, say, between the time that I can remember, which would have been about three years old to the time that I was about five or six years old, all the music that I ever heard was jazz and it was American jazz, and it was big band jazz, to be more defined. Because of the time, it being in the fifties when I first heard Presley, of course I was just totally gone at that point. I was just absolutely trapped or gathered up, if you like, by rock and roll. But before that, what I consider to be traditional rock and roll would have been the Ink Spots and the Platters.

All of those bands I was extremely fond of listening to and they were very influential in my life. So, those were the combinations and I have always been attracted to the big swing bands throughout my life up to this very day. I'm 57 years old now, so I guess that's 54 years of listening to pretty much American swing, particularly big band swing. I like jazz in all the ways that it is played. I think I am probably attracted to it because of the drummers that played in those big swing bands at the time. So those were my very early influences.

AAJ: At what age did you start playing?

BW: I think I might have been about four, four or five, because my mother told me that they thought there was something wrong with me because I continually kept tapping on furniture. They thought I had something which, in Birmingham where I was born—or actually I was born in Aston which is in Birmingham—they said that I had Saint Vitus's Dance, and Saint Vitus's Dance is a common term in the midlands for somebody who can't sit still. So, apparently I was listless and discontent like I am now. [Laughs] But I couldn't stop tapping all the time, you know. I just was attracted to just wanting to make noise on different things.

So, I guess, I would say I was probably about four, four years old at that time. Because I remember when I was a child, about five or six years old, my mother and father would have parties every weekend, on every Saturday. My mom played a little bit of piano and then the man who lived on the street corner, no more than a two minute walk from our house, he had his traps, as they were called then. He brought his traps over because he set them up on a Saturday night and when everybody was sleeping the booze off on the Sunday mornings I would come downstairs and then I would look at his drums and, of course, as a child I explored the entire drum kit and eventually found myself trying to play them or trying to find out what these things were.

I thought that was incredibly exciting to discover a drum kit in the living room, or in our front room, as they were called then. It was a parlor where you never went in during the week. It was just a special room where we kept fruit and a piano. [Laughter] Christ.

AAJ: And a set of drums, it sounds like.

BW: And a set of drums but he would always come and collect them in the afternoon, on Sunday afternoon. So the window for me was early Sunday morning and it was great because everybody would have a hangover. And so when I was a kid I would be up at like six AM. [Laughter] Yeah.

AAJ: So how would you describe your approach to playing the drums leading into the early days of Earth and Black Sabbath, from that point?

BW: Well, I tried to listen to what other people were playing and I tried to capture that. And of course as a younger man, being very full of myself, I would be very angry about what I couldn't play and so I didn't know at the time that I was following a course, following drummers that were kind of easy—not easy, but that were attainable for me. For instance, the biggest example I can give of that is "Sing Sing" with Krupa, and that was one of the first things I ever learned as a kid. When I was like 10 years old I was already playing...[Gestures with his hands and sings the drum part to Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing"], with dropping the hat and playing on somebody else's drum kit, not mine, but a much wealthier kid that I knew who actually did have a drum kit when he was 10 years old. And I would play his drums and mimic Krupa or think that I was doing a really good job. Larry London, of course, when he played with Presley...all the crashes and the booms and the bangs and "Heartbreak Hotel" and just listening to the feel on that. Again, listening to Basie, "String of Pearls" by Glenn Miller, all these feels and touches, brushes, textures, all these things were things that I was eating up and I was being drawn into.

So, when Black Sabbath, or rather Earth, when we started to play we very much played in dynamics because that's how we were brought up. We were brought up in dynamics rather than full on, just gut wrenching, full out music. So, I felt that I was quite suited because having learned dynamic music, or being influenced by dynamic music, I felt quite suited for blues and jazz which is pretty much what we really liked to play, especially more traditional blues. The blues that was popular in London during the sixties, we were very much influenced by that.

I think one of the biggest ground break albums at the time that came from England was John Mayall's Blues Breakers. And so that was a big one to listen to, and listen to all the things that Mayall was doing. And I think what had happened to a lot of musicians in England in the mid-sixties was that by listening to people like Clapton or listening to early Stones records, that we were introduced to the blues, the rhythm and blues and the blues in the United States. When I was 15, 16 years old I was only just starting to hear about Howlin' Wolf. I didn't know about Howlin' Wolf when I was 10. I knew about Jerry Lee Lewis and I knew about Little Richard and I loved their music, but I didn't know about Howlin' Wolf. I didn't know about Lightning Hopkins or that there was a whole American blues genre. And, of course, when I started to discover that I could hear "Jailhouse Rock." (Laughs) So, to me it was an incredible—when I first heard it, it was like, "Oh my god. This stuff is just so uncannily roaring inredible." Just the whole thing. It was just like incredible.

It was like listening to Billie Holiday. We were listening to Billie Holiday just the other day and she was singing "Ain't Nobody's Business." Oh, god. When she sings that song, man. I just love that. But it's just that, the whole thing of that. I wouldn't even know how to even talk about Billie Holiday's singing "Ain't Nobody's Business." I wouldn't know how to talk about it other than to call it a thing, and I mean that in the most beautiful and most sincere way that I can possibly say it.

So, I guess we were talking about the blues, when I first heard that and the effect that that had. I think that I can only just speak for myself but Tony, whom I've played with since I was 15, 16 years old, of course he loved jazz, very much so, and growing up one of his mentors was Django Reinhart. So, I guess there was this thing that me and him had between us which we liked to fool around sometimes with different jazz pieces. I think Tony is just such a great jazz musician except that in public we only see him when he plays real hard rock guitar, but in actuality he's a very virtuoso musician. Then, of course, Oz and Geezer, you know, came into the picture and so we were Earth. We all shared our different influences and stuff. And Oz, I think Oz had a really natural kind of blues voice. I really like Ozzy's voice a lot. I think he was really extremely well suited for that kind of sound. And Geezer was just great, period. He was just like great. Geezer was a rhythm guitarist. He wasn't even a bassist! [Laughter]

AAJ: Is that right?

BW: Yeah. He was just great so we had to have him because he was great in every possible way. So it was just like, "We gotta have this guy!" I'm not saying that Tony and I were in some kind of leadership or whatever. We weren't. It's just like we were all absolutely equal. But yeah, we were all impressed, I think, by the Blues Breakers album, by the blues players that used to come from the United States and play at the local blues clubs that we had in Birmingham at the time, and we all watched these guys play. We were all very much interested in what America had to offer from gospel to rhythm and blues to blues music or folk music, whatever it might be. There's just so much good stuff. I don't know, my drumming was...I was just a kid learning, really. I was just learning all the time and I was just devouring drummers and listening to music constantly so whatever it was that I was being influenced by I was pouring that back into Earth at the time and then into Black Sabbath.

AAJ: The early Black Sabbath material sounds really jazz influenced, especially the first two albums and, of course, the live material from that era like Walpurgis Night.

BW: Oh yeah. Yeah.

AAJ: How would you say the group's creative approach differed in the early days as compared to later albums?

BW: That's a tough question actually. I think it comes in several parts. The first three albums or four albums, for me at least, I felt like they came out of big jams because we literally would sit in a room and just jam and a song would come from that. Giving credit where credit is due, I think that Tony would jam a little bit more than everybody else [laughs], definitely work more on the arrangements and spend a lot more time with the song. Geezer spent more time as well, especially in the lyric area. But some of the songs—keep in mind that the band was playing every night, nearly; we were playing all over the world. It was really kind of a tight band to say the least.

So when we sat down and wrote something, sometimes it's almost like these things wrote themselves. Sometimes there were things that we would do and it was like we'd jam and go, "Well, what do we need to change if anything?" A song could come out inside half an hour or a song could come out inside a couple of days because that was just the nature of that. Sometimes when you have a tight band like that the band is going to just jam something out, and it's just like that happens when you're playing tight all the time with the same musicians because they know where the feel is and where to groove.

So a lot of that stuff came about like that intitially in, I'd say, the first three albums and then we slowed down from touring. We'd been on the road for like five years in the sense of 1968 through to '73. We'd been constantly gigging so it was time to maybe just back off just a little bit. (Laughs) We didn't back off a whole lot but we backed off a little bit and I think we put more thought to the songs. They were maybe less spontaneous. So as time went on things did change and as individuals we changed too.

Things became different or we'd like different things and I think that reflects in the music a lot in the later albums where it's not necessarily this tight band that's constantly touring. I think some of the things softened up, and what I mean is that the attitudes softened up. It's hard to be a hungry young man when you're not hungry anymore. We were very hungry young men when we wrote "Black Sabbath" and when we wrote "War Pigs."

But to try to still give that image that we're hungry and angry when really things were turning out to be quite palatial for us, it was like, "Well, what the fuck are we angry about? There's a lot of nice things going on in our lives." But at the same time there were a lot of things that were still, outside of our own personal comforts—well, I'll just speak for myself because I keep talking about the band and I don't want to go there with this—but, yeah, I went through a phase where it was I'm looking around going, "Well my life seems to be pretty good." The things that I had value in at the time, see, I valued money, property, and prestige at that time.

So when I started getting some of that stuff I thought my life was in order. I didn't know I was a train wreck, man. I didn't know I was heading to hell. I didn't know about all that. I couldn't see anything. I didn't know that around the bend I was going to run into the fucking brick wall. But at the time it made sense. I think the later albums, for me, I don't feel like I was as aggressive. I think there is a softening that comes. Yeah, I felt like, as a younger man—when I was 19, 20, or 21 years old—I felt like there had been some change come about inside me.

AAJ: So you were 19 or 20 when....

BW: Yeah, 21 I think, actually. I think I was 21. I was born in '48, so '68, I was 20. That's when we were in Germany. That's when we were doing all the different gigs. '69 we cut our first album, so I was 21 then. And so yet, in 1970 our first hit record, Paranoid, yeah I was 22.

AAJ: As a musician, how would you say that you grew from the time the first album was recorded and then through Heaven and Hell, during which tour you left initially?

BW: I think the growing came from—well, there's so many different ways of growing. Let's just take the example, if it's okay, of technique, and I grew because we continued to play and tour. We did multiple world tours. We played so often, even after that kind of slowing down period after the third album we still played all the time. Instead of playing a full year we just played for nine months of the year. So, you learn to define, you learn to grow, you learn to get better at certain things. I mean, I went into all kinds of different techniques or ways of playing or different drum lineups—two bass drums, one bass drum, multiple kits, 27-36 shells, 27 shells, crazy things just trying all these different ideas and that happened throughout the '70s.

AAJ: 27-inch bass drum shells?

BW: No, no, no—27 shells.

AAJ: 27 different shells?

BW: Yeah, yeah.

AAJ: At the same time?

BW: Yeah, just these massive drum kits. Enormous fucking drum kits. [Laughter] Ridiculously stupid drum kits. But I went to 26-inch bass drums and pushing air through a 26-inch bass drum when you're in your twenties, that's pretty cool. I'm 57 now and I'm still pushing air through 26-inch bass drums and that takes something else. That becomes different again. But I think I saw the biggest growth, if there was growth, in the way that I was more in harmony with my instrument because you're constantly learning, so I think you do get better as time goes on.

As far as other growth as a musician, I enjoyed the outlook of wanting to go further or broader or wider. We had a very hard core sound, a very hard rock sound, and I sometimes wanted to look at being outside that. We tried some things, I mean we did "Air Dance" which is, to me, like a jazz song—on Technical Ecstasy. And I think Rick Wakeman did play keyboards on that particular track. You know, I don't think it was Rick. It was Don Airey. Don Airey played keyboards on Technical Ecstasy and we did a song called "Air Dance," and that's just like a typical jazz with a soft song. Tony's playing piano, it's great.

I think the band is very versatile and it was doing that. We all wanted to stretch out a little further, you know, but again just talking about myself, my part in this, if you like. That's what it was for me, just those things that I would like to have tried and I think the things that we were trying were taking us away from the very original sound, the hard rock sound that kind of established us. But in one sense that was growth because you're moving on and the next album is going to be different and the next album is going to be different. So, yeah, there's a few examples about growing as a musician.

AAJ: Would you say that you stayed close to your roots?

BW: I think so, yeah. Pretty much at all times, I mean, because it's still there right now. When we go up tomorrow night and play, I mean, all my basic stuff is just from the stuff that I learned when I was a child, really. So, yeah, I'd say that I think everybody is still strongly connected to all the things that they've learned or the things that were impressed upon them in the early days, definitely.

AAJ: What was the transition like musically from the recording and touring for Never Say Die in '78, then Ozzy leaving the band, and then recording and touring for Heaven and Hell with Ronnie James Dio replacing Ozzy on vocals?

BW: This might be tough for me to answer this question because throughout the entire making of Heaven and Hell I was almost trumatized because at that time in my life I was going through the loss of what I saw as the original Black Sabbath and I was going through really feeling pretty shitty about not having Oz as my kind of daily friend. I mean, we always saw each other all the time, you know. So now we were separated and it was really different. That felt really, really weird to be away from him. That felt really horrible.

And then my mom died at that time. So, to be honest with you, I just fell right into the bottle and I was just slamming. I was just fucked up all the time. In fact, I was so fucked up I don't remember recording Heaven and Hell. I remember the first part of it because the trauma, things hadn't quite gotten that bad. Oz was gone and I was trying to have a good relationship with Ronnie. But when my mom died, I don't remember much after that. What I remember was Tony being unbelievably supportive because I just couldn't hold it together at all. All the guys were supportive. Everybody was supportive but I was blacked out when I did that album so I don't remember anything, really, of the album. Tony would basically, on things that I just couldn't handle, he would basically just kind of nod and go, "Now." It's really ironic because the very next album I made with Black Sabbath I was completely sober. I was clean and sober.

AAJ: Oh yeah. Born Again, yeah.

BW: Yeah, I was totally sober on that album. So the change from the very last Sabbath album to Heaven and Hell was, for me, not a very well defined change, I guess is the best way I can summarize.

AAJ: Well, the music from that period drives so powerfully but it still maintains a definite, like, jazz feel to it. The title track to Never Say Die, for example, has got this really strong blues swing to it with open tones on the drums.

BW: Yeah, I think on Heaven and Hell as well, when you listen to "Lonely Is the Word," to me it's just black, black blues. It's like, it's just that kind of feel. It's derivative. It's right in the center of black blues music, as far as I'm concerned. Ronnie also had the ability, just like Oz, of being able to go back to his roots. It's obvious, when you listen to Ronnie's singing, he's obviously been singing blues for a long, long time. He's from that same music, that same background.

Please join us next issue for the conclusion of this two part interview when Bill Ward talks about his own projects outside of Black Sabbath, staying creative, and what musicians can do to pursue success in the music industry.

Continue to part 2.


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