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Buster Williams: Take No Prisoners

George Colligan By

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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.
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