My 3 nights with Tony Williams

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My tribute to Tony:

Spoken Softly, for Tony Williams, mp3 - From Blue Tuesday - Jessica Williams, piano, composer - buy

Anthony Tilman Williams played drums for Miles Davis in the '60s. The group also featured pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Ron Carter.

Tony went on to lead his own trio featuring John McLaughlin on guitar and B-3 organist Larry Young.

He died in 1997 at the age of 51.

I played with Tony for three nights at a club in San Francisco called 'Bajones'. It was in the Mission and I think it was on Valencia. Our bassist for those three nights was Wyatt 'Bull' Reuther, a fine musician.

I think the bill was called something totally contrived and silly... 'Williams versus Williams' (how embarrassing). But that wasn't the band's idea.

I was very blonde and very scared, but I think I did OK. It was certainly not my best work. I was physically too far away from him (and Bajones was not known for its great acoustics). Tony was clear across the stage from me, and I really couldn't hear myself at all, because he was, well, a bit loud. But he was 'good' loud, if that makes any sense. And, if my memory serves correctly, he was using a 22-inch bass drum, and pretty hefty sticks.

I do remember that he was using a lot of 'matched-grip' techniques.

Half the drummers in the Bay Area were gathered at his end of the stage. He was trying out new things on those nights, and some of the tempos fell. That usually drives me crazy, but it's sometimes hard to tell who (if anyone) is responsible. It could have been (and probably was) me. I just know it was a great honor and the thrill of a lifetime to play three entire nights of music with the great Tony Williams.

He was such a fine man, a very soft-spoken gentleman. His work with Miles, for me, is pure genius. I have never heard drumming like that, ever.

It'll never happen again. Tony was a supernova. A giant.

One day shortly before we played together, he asked me to come to his house (in Marin County, CA, I think) for a short rehearsal.

He told me he wanted to play Coltrane's Moment's Notice. He said he had always wanted to play that tune. I said that I'd do my best to accommodate him (it wasn't exactly my favorite type of tune). Fortunately, I had the Coltrane album Blue Trane, and I knew the tune and the changes. So we worked on that for a while on his upright. His silver pearl trap set was in his living room.

At one point, I mentioned to him that I was fascinated by a particular effect he had gotten on the Miles Davis album Filles de Kilimanjaro.. I said it sounded (and somehow looked) like birds all flying together out of the bush on the plains of Africa (it was a very visual sound to me, achieved by the hi hat alone, and it was just brilliant... it had always left me stunned).

He sat and showed me how he had done it, with his left hand. It wasn't a lick. Tony didn't play licks. He couldn't quite duplicate it because he wasn't playing. For him, playing was like it is to me; you can never tell others what it is you're doing because it's somehow not you doing it.

In that living room, just him and I, a moment came into existence for me that would never ever leave me.

It was late afternoon, the sun was coming through the leaves and dappling the walls and floor with a serene movement of light and shadow. Tony was relaxed totally, and he made me feel totally relaxed too.

He carried all this Music in his soul and in his every movement, just like I do. I don't know if he knew how great his gift was. I sure didn't know back then how great my gift was, and I think most of us only 'get it' later in life. I just know I remember this one slice of sunlight and shadow, of Tony, sticks in hand, a smile on his beautiful face, sitting there in his house and just being.

After we played that three night engagement, I only saw him once face to face before he passed away. He was with the great Bobby Hutcherson at Kimball's in San Francisco. He sent me Christmas cards every year, though.

I wanted to make a CD with him when I was working for Jazz Focus Records, and Tony intervened during the negotiations with his agent, offering to do the date for half his usual fee, just because he 'wanted to play with Jessica'. The hotshot that headed up that (now defunct) company said that it was 'too much money' (it wasn't), and so the date never happened. Maybe it's just as well. I have nothing but the memories, and they are enough.

(Said hotshot went on to get into serious trouble with the law, and was a criminal of the worst sort. My tenure with him is happily over, and my Music is healthier now that I'm away from such negativity. I'm glad that Tony wasn't exposed to that.)

I loved Tony. I deeply loved him, and not a day goes by that I don't miss him and think of him.

One more miracle in my life, a life full of miracles.

There are moments like this and they are frozen forever in amber for me. These are the moments of my life, and I wonder at them sometimes; I have difficulty believing that they really happened.

They did, though (thank goodness there were witnesses, or I'd doubt my own memories!) and I am eternally grateful for the opportunities.


Above: for Tony

now in the collection of Baltimore Tenor Saxophonist Al Saunders