Steve Williams: Explaining A Drummer's Role
AAJ: With 'Tain' and his two discs on Columbia, a major label, doesn't it have a lot to do with the connections he made with the Marsalis family?
SW: Tain was good to keep the bonds that he made and they served him well. But people say "Yeah, but he's a drummer." No. He's a musician. He should record on any label that would hire a singer or a pianist or a horn player. It's your contribution to the music that matters. And Columbia recorded Jeff and they should continue to as far as I'm concerned.
AAJ: What was the first memorable gig you did with Shirley where you're saying to yourself, "Wow, this is it. I am one of two guys playing behind Shirley Horn!" And not only that but replacing Billy Hart!
SW: Well, I could never take the place of Billy Hart, but I know what you mean. I can tell you right now, exactly that moment was at a concert for Miles Davis. Like a coming out of retirement concert at Radio City Music Hall called "Miles Ahead" or something like that. And we were playing "All My Bright Tomorrows," at Radio City Music Hall in front of Miles Davis and a host of all the greats including Tony Williams. I mean everybody was there for Miles. And here we are, it was a circular stage at the center of Radio City...if you've ever been there. It's an old fashioned stage. So you enter the stage downstairs. So Shirley's there, Charles is there and I'm there and before we rise to the top, the stage manager yells, "Downbeat!" And Shirley goes, "Right now," and when she says it, I realize that we're half way up and when we get to the top we're already swingin. And Miles was sitting right behind me, cause it was a round stage and I'm like "Oh, shit there's no turning back. I'm in deep shit now." I knew before then, but I was sure at that point, that something special was happening to me. And it's never been anything less than that since then. Even when we're playing the littlest joint in the middle of nowhere. It's still a thrill to look at this woman and to look down at my hands as I pick up my sticks.
AAJ: She brought you around the world.
SW: A few times.
AAJ: In the last year, it seems she's been working a little more. Some high profile gigs. The Jazz Au Bar in New York, for instance.
SW: We played three nights there.
AAJ: Is that the kind of place she prefers to play? The small rooms?
SW: No, actually. She has a special was of turning any place she plays in, into something bigger or smaller than it is. We just played the Atlanta Jazz Festival; a big beautiful festival. And she made that place feel as small as this table we're sitting at. And she loves the Village Vanguard. She makes the Vanguard feel like the Atlanta Festival. So she's able to make you feel like you're in the small intimate setting when you're in the grandiose Theatre du Calais, where there are people hanging over the balcony relishing her every syllable. But yeah, she's working' a little bit more this year. Her health has improved. She actually played Sunday night, our last night at the Jazz Au Bar, she played and sang the piano, which is rare now. Ever since her illness, she has had to have a pianist accompany her. That has been George Mesterhazy. And a dear friend of mine has been playing bass. Ed Howard.
AAJ: Another DC native.
SW: Yeah exactly! Me and Ed grew up together and moved to New York at the same time.
AAJ: Just to back up a bit, Ed is, if you can him this, a replacement for the late Charles Ables, another longtime musical cohort of Shirley's. I know Willard Jenkins' article in Down Beat said it was a major emotional and musical loss for Shirley Can you talk about how it was for you after being that close to him all those years and now for the first time, playing without him?
SW: It was a big loss. First of all, Charles was my teacher when I first joined Shirley. There was no written music. She's not a very verbal person when it comes to explaining how she wants the music, but she certainly wants things a certain way. She'd just start to play and Charles helped me get through and learn the tunes. And he wasn't even very forthcoming with that information either. I had two non-speaking people tryin' to help ease me into the position. It's nothing that college could have prepared me for. The only thing that could have prepared me in the slightest for that experience was my work with Carmen Lundy and my years in New York City; learning stuff right on the bandstand, which to me, is the nature of this music.
I learned on the spot, man. You know how they say "Appearing nightly." No. For me it was more like, "Embarrassing himself nightly on the drums, Steve Williams." That was incredible man, just to learn how to play the ballads. You know how you're supposed to play your hi-hat on two and four. Uh-uh. Not with Shirley. Because she's adamant about making the lyric speak as well as the music. And for the two of those to happen, it takes time. In other words, you need to space things out. With the hi-hat going on two and four, you're limiting your time. She's the classic American songbook stylist. And the fascinating thing is that she is a complete musician. The thing that's common with her, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae is that they're educated musicians. They're literate musicians.