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Buster Williams: Take No Prisoners


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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

I first heard bassist Buster Williams on a Herbie Hancock recording called VSOP Live (Columbia, 1976). I remember thinking that their version of Hancock's "Toys" was pretty wild stuff. In addition to hearing him on some other recordings like Hancock's Sextant (Columbia, 1973)," the group Sphere's Four in One(Elektra/Musician, 1982), or Sarah Vaughan's Sassy Swings The Tivoli (Mercury, 1963), my friend David Ephross and I used to sit around and listen to a recording Williams made as a leader called Something More (In+Out, 19995). Ephross transcribed some of the tunes off of this recording; we would play Williams classic "Christina" on many gigs. Williams is a gifted composer, but as a bassist, he is iconic; you always know his sound and his approach. There's no one else like him.

I met Williams at the East Coast Jazz Festival in (I think) 1994. Williams called me for a three-night gig in Detroit sometime around 1995. I didn't even live in New York yet; drummer Aaron Walker and I took the bus to New York to rehearse with Williams, and then drove to Detroit from New York. I remember thinking that I had a vibe with William's music, but maybe I wasn't ready to really do it justice. Aside from a week long stint at Bradley's( it was actually my gig with Williams and a then unknown tenor saxophonist named Mark Turner) I didn't really hear from Williams again until 2001; I was in Basel, Switzerland, checking my phone messages on a payphone: "George, It's Buster. I want you to join my band." I've worked with Buster on and off since then. The band was usually Lenny White on drums and Steve Wilson on alto and soprano, although we also had Stefon Harris on vibes occasionally.

I had so many great experiences on tours and gigs with Williams' group over all those years. Playing with Williams requires total concentration. You can't just expect to plow through tunes; in Williams' own words to one drummer who was looking more at the charts than listening to the music: "Anything can happen!" Williams, in the tradition of Miles Davis, always tries to hire musicians that inspire him, and that bring the music to a higher level. I always have fun on the bandstand trying to find just the right reharmonized chord to make Williams go "Whoooo!"

We just finished a weekend jaunt at Smoke in New York City. I was able to sit down with Buster in the dressing room and score this wonderful interview. George Colligan: So ... How are you?

BW: Good, George. How are you doing?

GC: Good. How's your health? Everything's good?

BW: Great, yeah, everything's good.

GC: Okay, good. What are your earliest memories of music, when you knew what music was in the world?

BW: Well, there was always music in the house because my father was a musician. He played bass, drums, and piano. He always had his musician friends over playing, they had rehearsals at the house.

GC: In Camden, New Jersey?

BW: Yeah. But even before then ... at that time we had one of those roller pianos. You can play the rows with your foot and stuff. And my father was always playing his 78 [RPM] records. Between the records and the roller piano ... and I liked to sit there and play on the piano. Between the musicians and the piano and my father playing his records and practicing—that was another thing. I loved to watch him play the bass; I thought it was just so brilliant. And I can't remember a time where there wasn't music. It was always there; as far back as I can remember.

GC: When did you start playing bass?

BW: I started playing the bass, I guess I was about 13 or 14 or something like that. After I begged my father to teach me—'cause I had asked him to teach me piano and he started teaching me piano and I didn't stick with it. Then I asked him to teach me drums and he started teaching me the drums and I thought I was just going to sit down and start bashing and he's talking about "mamma daddy" paradiddle and I said "nah, this isn't what I want to do, I want to play the drums!" So anyway, I didn't stick with that. But I marveled at him playing the bass. Also he played a record with Oscar Pettiford, where Oscar Pettiford played "Star Dust," solo bass.

GC: Ah! That's funny, one of my students just transcribed that and learned it.

BW: Really! But you know what captivated me? The way they had miked the bass, I could hear his thumb squeak as he slid up and down the neck of the instrument. And that squeak—I mean, the notes were unbelievable but that squeak—it was just so personal. I don't know, that never left my head. It was like a psychic event, I don't know. But then when I heard that, I pleaded with my father to teach me the bass and he finally agreed.

GC: You were telling me a story before about him making you hold it with your thumb, right?

BW: Well he showed me the function of the thumb in the left hand. And the tendency—to play the bass correctly, it requires a sort of unnatural thing with your left hand. Well, unnatural until it becomes natural to you. And it caused pain. The natural tendency was to not do it correctly and just hold the neck, grab it like you're grabbing a ball or a stick. And he refused to let me acquiesce to those cowardly measures. And that was my moment of truth, when I realized how strict my father was going to be, and that I wasn't gonna get away with nothing. So I had that moment of "do I really want to do this?" And I decided that I wanted to, and that it was worth the pain.

GC: So when did you start playing gigs?

BW: Well ... let me see. I guess it was in junior high school. My father had a friend named Louis Judge, played saxophone. And Louis Judge had a gig and my father couldn't make the gig 'cause he had another gig, so he sent me on the gig. And I think that was one of my first professional jobs. I think I made $5. In those days, they called it a nickel. If it payed $10, it was ten cent. Twenty cent ... fifty cent ... hundred dollars was a yard.

GC: So you were in junior high ... at what point did you start doing major gigs?

BW: Well ... Jimmy Heath was in Philadelphia. And Jimmy Heath had a band that included a pianist named Sam Dockery. And Sam Dockery was from Camden.

GC: Would you say that Camden is kind of synonymous with Philly? Because it's basically the same area.

BW: Yeah, it was right across the bridge. But Camden musicians always wanted to be known to have come from Camden and not Philly.

GC: Ah, interesting.

BW: In fact, when I left home to go on the road to go with Gene Ammons, I was admonished by all of my Camden musician friends. "Hey man, when they do interviews, don't tell them you're from Philly, tell them you're from Camden!" So to the day, that's always ... that's where I'm from. Anyway, Sam Dockery was working with Jimmy Heath, and I was a "scener" by now. And I would go over to Sam's house every day and play. Sam taught me a lot of stuff. And I wanted the gig with him and Jimmy Heath. And I mentally prepared myself for that gig.

The bassist on that gig was also a bassist from Camden. His name was Bill Collick. Bill Collick, I liked the way he play. But I wanted Bill Collick's gig. Well, what happened was that Jimmy had a gig at a place on Vine Street in Philadelphia. It was one of those places where they had a dance, and people brought their own setup. They had two bands. The first band was Sam Reed, an alto player. And the other band was Jimmy Heath's band. So I got the gig with Sam Reed. And the way I got the gig was there was a jam session at this club called Rip's around the corner from where I lived.

My father hosted the jam session, and on this Monday night my father gave me the gig. He said, "you call who you want to be the band." So I called guys from Philly and I called Sam Reed. Because I always figured that I wasn't going to talk my way into my career, I had to play my way into my career. So if I wanted these guys to hire me, they had to hear me. And I wasn't going to go and make myself a nuisance. So I got a gig, and I hired Sam Reed. And sure enough, on Wednesday, Sam Reed called me for a gig that was on Saturday, which was this gig where he was the band along with Jimmy Heath's band. So Jimmy Heath heard me play with Sam's band. That following week, I got a call from Jimmy Heath to join his band. So my strategy worked.

GC: And at a certain point, you went with Gene Ammons.

BW: And I was with Jimmy Heath at the time that I got the call to go with Gene Ammons.

GC: You were still a senior in high school?

BW: I had just graduated from high school. And this gig was Nelson Boyd's gig, the bassist who played with Charlie Parker. He was a friend of my father's. And just like my first gig, my father couldn't make the gig, Nelson Boyd couldn't make the weekend with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. So he asked my father to do it and my father couldn't do it, so my father sent me.

GC: Wow!

BW: So I worked with Gene Ammons. Friday night after the first set, him and Sonny Stitt told me they wanted me to stay with the band. So we played Friday and Saturday and early Sunday morning, like 5:00 in the morning, we left Philadelphia in two cars and went to Chicago. And I was on the road from then on.

GC: Wow ... so you never went to college?

BW: You know, now during the time that I was with Jimmy Heath, I was attending Combs College of Music, in Philadelphia. And then I went on the road with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, and I was still in college, trying to balance the two things. And when I'd come back, when we'd have some time off, I'd go back. I had this great teacher named Whiggins. And Whiggins was an astonishing pianist; he made some great inventions also. He helped me make up all my stuff, my courses. He was my primary teacher. So I never really sat in a classroom, other than his. He taught me composition, syntax, harmony and theory—he was just amazing. He was my all-around music teacher. He didn't teach me anything about the bass—my father taught me all that. But he taught me so much stuff about music.

GC: It's interesting, as people get older it's easy to get accustomed to being a professional, but can you remember what it felt like to be in a car with these jazz heroes? Was that an incredible thrill?

BW: Oh, I'll never forget it. Yeah. But you know, the thing about it George, I don't know about anybody else, but for me, it's still an incredible feeling. I marvel at what guys do on the bandstand. My biggest thrill in playing this music is what I get from the guys and girls that I play with. You know? I think it's astonishing, just astonishing! And I'm always saying, "How do they do that?" So I'm always trying to get to something. And I don't think that that's anything remarkable—I just think that's what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be trying to get to something, man.

GC: Always.

BW: So you know ... as I get older, of course I know a whole lot more than I knew back then, but man, it's sort of like peeling an onion skin. There's no core like an apple, or a piece of fruit with a pit like a peach—there's no end! So I can't fathom myself thinking of it any other way because that's the way it presents itself.

GC: So just going back—you were with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt; when did you move to New York?

BW: I moved to New York in 1968. I was with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, and then I did a period with a lot of singers. I worked with Dakota Staton, then I went with Betty Carter, then I went with Sarah Vaughan, then I joined Nancy Wilson.

GC: Did you learn anything from working with all those singers?

BW: Oh, every one of them. Every one of them.

GC: What would you say to a young bassist, or rhythm section player, or really anybody that is interested in playing with singers?

BW: I'll tell you, you know ... see, there's this weird idea that musicians don't want to play with

singers. Well, everybody's got their little idiosyncrasies. But I tell you, if you have an opportunity to play with a great singer, it's something that's going to shape your approach to music in a big way, and in a very positive way. Every singer I worked with, there's something in particular that I took away. Sarah Vaughan had perfect pitch. Sarah Vaughan made me really pay attention to each note that I played. Betty Carter could sing a ballad slower than anybody could even imagine. So she taught me patience. And she had a sense of swing. Dakota Staton had a power about her. And Nancy Wilson was just—she had emotion.

And see, the thing that every musician needs to know is the power and the significance and the real meaning of melody. And if you are working with a singer, you get to see the importance of these things. I remember one time my father was out on the road, and I was out on the road with Nancy Wilson. And we happened to be home at the same time. And I was telling my father how I was getting bored playing with these singers, playing the same repertoire over and over, and I don't get a chance to express myself. My father told me, he says, "I want you to remember that the true gift is to be able to have your instrument in your hand, night after night. If your job just demands that you play a whole note tonight, then you just play this whole note better tonight than you played it last night."

I'll never forget that. That gave me not only a respect for the opportunities that I had, but also how to view everything as a point of development. How to use everything to develop. In my career I've played a lot of different kinds of gigs, I've played rhythm & blues, all kinds of stuff. But I learned from my father that if you're not in the moment, you're missing the moment. And if you're missing the moment, then you've missed a valuable time in your life that was necessary for you to appreciate the next moment.

GC: Wow. Very wise ... So you were with Nancy Wilson when you got called by Herbie to play with Miles?

BW: Yeah. That was in 1967. And that was like a dream come true. I looked at each gig as a stepping stone to the next one. And Miles was it; it's where I wanted to go. Interesting enough it came at a time in my life where I was making good money. And I had a wife and a house.

GC: You were still in New York?

BW: I was living in Los Angeles. Had a yellow Corvette Stingray ...

I'm in L.A., I've been working with Nancy, she's got me on retainer, and I'm working with the Jazz Crusaders, and I'm in the recording studio every day, I'm the number one sub for Ray Brown, and so everything was just great. So I got the call to go with Miles, and that's just icing on the cake. But I couldn't give up everything to stay with Miles, 'cause Miles asked me. And I said, "Well, Miles, this is what I got." And he says, "Well, I can't give you a retainer." And that's it!

GC: Wow.

BW: And Nancy, at the beginning of the year, you got an itinerary that covered the whole year. And she would take her times off but you knew when you were gonna be off, so you could play on other things. And I was still paid while she took her—what do you call them?

GC: Breaks? Sabbatical?

BW: Sabbatical! 'Cause that's how I worked with Miles for five weeks. She took another sabbatical and I worked with him again, another five-seven weeks, something like that.

GC: What was the most important thing you learned from playing with Miles?

BW: How to listen. How to listen and how to respect what everyone else was doing. See, in that band, Herbie Hancock had developed this phenomenal ability to hear what everyone else was doing, and react to it in a way that wasn't mimicking, he could react to it in a way that was not only answering what you said but preparing you to say what you wanted to say. It was remarkable. And Miles did the same thing. So Miles never told you what to do. He just demonstrated through his ability how to do it. I mean, I learned so much from Miles—see that was one of those times in my life that shaped the rest of my life. Miles had a sensitivity. When he played a ballad—you knew he loved ballads—he'd play a ballad that really described his heart. He could play any tempo and not be jarred by anything you did because he was always aware of the quarter note. He played that quarter note precisely. So whether it was a whole note or half note, eighth note or sixteenth note, or thirty-second note or sixty-fourth, he played it precisely. I'm still trying to do that.

GC: Have you seen Bob Gluck's book about Mwandishi?

BW: Yes, it's a very good book. He came to interview me when he was first preparing to start on that book. And then throughout his writing the book, we talked off and on. I like the book. Have you read it?

GC: Yeah. What was the best thing about that band for you?

BW: Oh, the searching. The searching. The feeling that, if there's no searching involved, there's no creativity. I mean searching to the point of really denying yourself comfort. Searching to the point of—this is my quest, I've gotta find it, I've gotta find something tonight. And it wasn't easy. It was painful sometimes. But the beauty of it was just the greatest reward.

GC: Can you tell me when exactly you discovered Buddhism and how that changed your life?

BW: That was in 1972. My youngest sister had started chanting. She was going through a divorce, and she told me that while she was going through this she was chanting. This is what she was chanting for; this is how she wanted it to go. And it was one of those nasty divorces. And she came out in top shape, against all odds. And I was amazed. But that's not what necessarily made me chant. My wife was in a car accident, she had a brain concussion. She was going back and forth to the doctors, they gave her a couple of spinal taps and did all kinds of stuff with her brain, and the prognosis was very negative. But she ran into my sister one day and my sister told her about the chanting. And I was in Europe.

My wife and I were separated at that time, and I was in Europe with Herbie. I called my wife to see how she was doing, and she told me that my sister had told her about Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō. I'm going, "What is that? I don't know what that is." And says, "Well, she wants me to go to a meeting, you think I should go?" So I said, "Sure, it sounds like it might be something that could help you." So anyway, when I got back to the States I went to see my wife and she and my sister started telling me more about chanting and they took me to a meeting. And I found that all of the things that they were talking about made so much sense to me. And this religion was giving them something that my attempts at religion had never touched on. And I was a vegetarian at this time.

But all of the things that I was doing weren't even coming close to what kind of results they were getting from chanting Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō, so I tried it. And you know, sure enough, I started seeing amazing results. When I started chanting, I had a prostate condition that I had had for ten years, and it had worsened to the point where they were getting ready to do an operation. And I was afraid of that. I started chanting, and just as it was time for me to go do this operation, my doctor checked me out and he says, "Wait a minute, you're perfectly normal." And this is after ten years of my prostate being swollen to the point of having to sit on hot water bottles. I couldn't eat spicy foods; I couldn't sit for long periods of time. I was constantly in pain. And the pain was gone, and my prostate was normal. And that was when I was 32 years old.

Now I'm 71 and I'm still going. So that convinced me to continue, needless to say. There's been revelations and benefits in abundance every day. But more than that, the change in my life that's so subtle. It's like your hair turning grey—you can try to watch it, but you'll never see it turning grey. Putting on weight, you can watch but you never see it happen. You look at your fingernails, but you never see them grow. But the positive change and the happiness that has come about in my life as a result of chanting have been amazing. Far beyond what I even dared to expect.

GC: Does Buddhism help you stay positive in the face of everything that we face in humanity these days?

BW: Oh yeah. Yeah, you know ... if your environment has to become something that is un-stressful to you, or something that changes in your favor ... we all look for that. "If I had a better job." "If I had a prettier wife." "If I didn't have all these children." "If I had more money." We all look for something outside of us to change, in order for us to change.

But it's totally the opposite. Buddhism teaches that if you change, then everything else will change. You're here, and I'm here, but the environment could be totally different depending on each one of us, according to what's happening in your life and according to what's happening in my life. The puppy could come in, it's a different environment for that puppy. The roach crawls around, it's a different environment for that roach. So contentment, the feeling of happiness or not in your life is not determined by your environment, it's determined by you. And that's the great power of Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō—it connects you with that unchanging force in the universe called the mystic law.

"Renge" is cause and effect. Cause and effect. To chant Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō is to become in tune with this mystic law that's in the universe, that's in your life itself. So when you chant Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō, it's like an explosion taking place in your life. Being out of tune, now you're aligning yourself with this Myōhō Renge Kyō, this Buddha nature. And then you start seeing the changes in your environment, because your environment is always a reaction to you. So as you bring forth your Buddha nature, the Buddha nature in your environment starts to show. Things start to work for you.

GC: Do you think that that kind of attitude has helped you musically, for example, being a sideman in countless different types of situations?

BW: Sure, sure. But I mean, the greatest thing is to be a sideman.

GC: Really?

BW: Yeah.

GC: Why?

BW: Because that's when you learn something. It's hard to learn something when you're the boss. Ain't nobody gonna tell you nothing. Plus, as the boss, you've got a whole bunch of different problems.

GC: ([aughs] Yeah.

BW: But as the sideman, I can learn. I can listen, I can learn. So being a sideman has taught me how to be a leader.

GC: Right. So I assume you believe in the philosophy of apprenticeship?

BW: That's the thing that's missing these days. That's the thing that can possibly destroy the music. I say possibly because I don't think the music will ever be destroyed. We can sink to the lowest level, but we'll always rise again. But the mentor-disciple relationship is absolutely necessary. It's a requirement for learning this music. Without it, there's always going to be something missing in a person who has not experienced that relationship.

GC: Your advice to young musicians?

BW: Choose another field! [laughs]

GC: (laughs) Wow! Well, uh, that's...

BW: No, no, I'll tell you what—my advice to young musicians is to do it because you love it. Do it because you have to. Do it because it's the one thing that makes you happy. Do it because it's your decision. And strive to be the best, because that is your potential, and also, that is the real truth of the noble ego. And see, the other thing too, is that if you don't strive to be your best, then you're no good to anybody else. There's a big poster on bus signs, out there in the street, of a picture of [Nelson] Mandela. And the caption is something of ... inspiration. I mean, it's great to be an inspiration to others. If you're not, your whole life on this planet was for naught.

GC: Lastly, what do you think about tonight's band [Buster Williams, Mark Gross, George Colligan, Paul Bollenback, Lenny White, Jean Baylor]?

BW: I love it! We're gonna kill! Taking no prisoners.

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Buster Williams

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