Steve Williams: Explaining A Drummer's Role
AAJ: What year was this?
SW: Well, after leaving college, I gigged for a year in Miami, then a year in Washington, and then moved to New York in about 1983 - I think. I stayed there for about five, six years.
AAJ: When you were in New York, what were some of your preferred hangouts?
SW: The Star Café. There used to be a place called Studio We down on Livingston in the Lower East Side. There was Ali's Alley, a club owned by Rashied Ali. There was Green Street, which was a club where a lot of great singers would play. There was the Tin Palace, which was...I mean, on any given night you would see people like Philly Joe Jones, Milt Jackson, Art Blakey hangin' out, at the bar, downstairs in the basement sittin' in or something like that. I mean, like we're sitting here right now, I remember going to Katz Deli, an incredible deli down on uh...
AAJ: Houston Street.
SW: Yeah. So I was standing' in line, and the guy in front of me eating a hot dog was Philly Joe. New York was like that when I lived there. You saw the guys that you admired. You the guys whose records you had. At the Bottom Line I remember seeing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Betty Carter and I got backstage because when I first moved to New York, I lived with Jim Green, Art Blakey's road manager. I used to carry Art Blakey's cymbals. I could barely lift 'em. So I got to meet all these incredible guys. I remember one night, Betty Carter was there and Jack DeJohnette just showed up and sat in with Betty Carter. Who's sittin in with a singer. I mean, that's unheard of. And Jack DeJohnette took a bass drum solo. I mean, you just don't see that kind of stuff anywhere these days.
AAJ: And all this is happening in the 80s, when I thought jazz was really suffering compared to now.
SW: Lemme tell you something man. It's not as vibrant now for sure. And even though I don't live there, when I go a few times a year to play with Shirley or to see family or whatever, just the fact that four or five of the clubs that used to be there are gone, has just...annihilated the scene. I mean there's no Bradley's. Bradley's was a piano bar. It was a solo piano bar at first where you'd see people like John Hicks, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton play solo. And then they added bass players and then they added drummers.
AAJ: I can hear the noise level slowly increasing.
SW: Yeah ( laughter ). But seriously, you could go in there...I saw Billy Higgins playing' drums there man. Connie Kay. But those are the guys playing. The audience...there was hardly any public. It was all musicians after their gigs coming in and hangin' out 'til 4 or 5 in the morning. And that's unheard of in New York now. Guys go home at 11:30 and 12 o'clock these days. I mean, we used to go to the Red Rooster in Harlem after our gigs. Across the streets was Wells' Chicken and Waffles. And we used to go to Wells' because Walter Bishop, Jr. was there with Michael Carvin on drums and a teenage Marcus Miller on bass.
AAJ: So you've seen guys like Marcus Miller go from unknown to...
SW: Millionaire? I mean going from playing at Wells Chicken and Waffles to saying he was so happy that he could buy his mom a house. Miles loved Marcus. In fact, apparently from what I understand, Miles didn't wanna do any more records unless Marcus was producing it.
AAJ: You've been Shirley Horn's right hand man for about twenty years now.
SW: I'll tell you, twenty-three years ago coming this August since I had my first gig with Shirley. And I was back and forth with other drummers. Among them was Billy Hart. She wasn't working that much back then. She never really retired, but she didn't work as much
AAJ: Was that because of the nature of the market?
SW: I mean, I could speak for her, but out of respect for her, I'll let her tell you what the reasons were. I can speak from my personal experience though. That is that she was dealing with record companies that weren't being...
SW: I gotta tell you man, they weren't being on the proper level with her. My first record with Shirley was with this guy from Steeplechase. They served their purpose very well to a degree, because there was a few great records that Shirley did with them with Billy Hart and Buster Williams. Some of my favorite Shirley Horn records are those records. And it served its purpose. But really man, let's get real about the responsibility a record company has to an artist. Don't fool yourself man. These guys have no business treating musicians the way they do. Lying about sales. Giving them low scale pay for the dates and then never paying royalties. Some are like this. Not all. But some record companies thank goodness, that are about to record a drummer as a leader, like 'Tain' Watts. Thank goodness. They're smart enough. That's the difference I'm talkin' about. But you got more than a handful of companies that claim they're this and claim they're that and after the session, they're like "Ok, see ya," and you're on your own.