Buster Williams discusses a life in time, and making the most of it
Rhythmic elasticity and cunning harmonic invention make bassist Buster Williams a leading catalyst in modern music. Williams, who turns 81 on April 17, has been an indispensable collaborator for the likes of Herbie Hancock, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and The Jazz Crusaders. He grew up on bandstands in his hometown of Camden, NJ, and across the river in Philadelphia.
I saw him honored recently by the IDEA Center for the Arts in Camden, where he remains a source of inspiration locally for the generations of improvisers that have followed him. His sound is sure and immediately identifiable. The same can be said of his band, Something More, whose most recent album, Unalome, is crafted in his musical image, with stellar contributions from Stefon Harris, Jean Baylor, Bruce Williams, George Colligan and Lenny White.
The subject of a 2021 documentary film — Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity — Williams has rightly assumed his stature as a jazz elder. As a lifelong fan of his work, I was honored to spend time with Williams and revel in his musical wisdom. He says that his main opportunity in life is to make the best use of time. Our conversation, lightly edited below, reveals how effective he has become at reaching the goal.
I’m so happy I got the chance to see you just a couple of weeks ago in Camden, New Jersey. I want to know a little bit about Camden and the scene that you came up in as a late teenager and early adult. Were there many places to play? Who were one or two people, in addition to your father, who gave you the desire for your instrument?
Well, you know, there were quite a few inspirational musicians in Camden when I was coming up. One of the first people that I worked with was a job my father sent me on — a tenor player named Louis Judge. Also, one of my father’s good friends was a bassist that played with Charlie Parker named Nelson Boyd. Charlie Parker penned the tune “Half Nelson” for Nelson Boyd, and he was how I got my introduction to Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. He called my father to play the weekend with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. The gig started on Tuesday at The Showboat in Philadelphia and Boyd couldn’t make the weekend, so he called my father to make the gig. My father was working, so he sent me instead. I also played quite a bit with Jimmy Heath in Philadelphia before going out on the road with Gene and Sonny. Camden and Philly were filled with clubs. It was quite inspirational.
As I’ve matured and gotten older, I think about the tune library that you had to have amassed at that time to be able to deal with cats like that. What was the learning curve like on the bandstand with folks like Sonny and Gene, and how did you prepare yourself to know their library?
Well, my father prepared me for all of that. He had an extensive record collection, and we had a roller piano, you know, you an upright piano. And you put these rolls of music in and press the pedals. We were listening to Art Tatum, Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and all of this music was going on in my house all the time. My father’s musician friends would come over. He had a good friend named Kenny Andrews, a piano player, and he would come over and they played duos all day long. I was hearing this music and any question that I would ask my father or his musician friends, they would answer for me. I had been listening to Thelonious Monk, and my oldest sister belonged to the Columbia Record Club. They would send us records every month. That’s when I first heard Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Horace Silver. So, when the call came to play with Gene Ammons, I was quite familiar with the jazz repertoire.
My father would also play drums, OK? He would take me to gigs with him. He would play drums, and I would play bass. And, you know, the best way to really learn this music is on the bandstand with musicians that know a whole lot more than you. Those are advantages that I had. When I went out on the road with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, it was exciting. And of course, I was nervous at first because I knew this was the big time. I didn’t realize, until I got on the bandstand, how much my father had really prepared me. That’s rich, you know? It was truly to my benefit.
I want to ask you about a guy, George “Dude” Brown, who was the drummer in the Stitt and Ammons band and later on, with Wes Montgomery. What was it about his style of playing that you could relate to in a band like that?
You know, that’s interesting. I was thinking about George Brown today. George Brown was a really likable guy. We called him “Dude” and he wore a porkpie hat just like Lester Young. He was the perfect guy for Gene Ammons. He had a real understanding of the drummer’s role in the band, and he pushed everybody. Every night was exciting on the bandstand with these guys.
I can imagine. I do want to ask you also about vocalists as well. You've played with them all. When I hear Betty Carter and how she stretches her lyric way over the bar line, it’s as if the first temptation would be to go with her. However, you have to know where you are in the form of the song. How did you negotiate following and giving Betty Carter what she needed when you worked with her?
Well, the first thing you had to understand about Betty Carter is, “Don’t go with her.” You may start out together, then you look around and Betty Carter is two blocks behind you, but she knows where she is. She had that kind of intuitive understanding of improvisation. She would be improvising while she’s still singing the melody. If you make the mistake of trying to wait for her, then you’d be drastically wrong because she knows where she is and she’s going to be where she needs to be when she needs to be. I used to tell her, “Betty, when you come in and I hit my first beat, then I’m going to go out and have lunch and I’ll be back in time for me to play beat two.” I had never gotten to play a ballad so slow until I started playing with Betty Carter. She had such feeling and such emotion in what she did, and she could really swing.
I learned patience with Betty Carter, and I learned the importance of playing in tune with Sarah Vaughan. Sarah could hear anything that was out of tune. We did a rehearsal once with a big band. Sarah stopped the band, pointed to the second trumpet player, and told him to tune up.
Dakota Staton had such a way of sequencing. Each song had just the correct amount of difference from the song that preceded it. And she could swing. I joined her when she had just made the hit, “The Late Late Show.”
Nancy Wilson loved to do duets with me. We used to do the Beatles song, “Yesterday.” I would start it off any kind of way I wanted to. She always knew where to come in, and we would sync. It was just fantastic. I learned something unique from each one of the singers. They all said to me that they wouldn’t sing a song if they couldn’t relate to the lyric. And all the great musicians, I think, also told me, if you’re going to play a song that has a lyric, learn the lyric.
Yessir. I would be remiss if I did not ask about the Jazz Crusaders, one of my very favorite groups. How did you get the gig and what was your method for adding a different kind of element to what they had?
Well, in 1965, I married my high school sweetheart in Camden, New Jersey. And I was playing with Nancy and she was the maid of honor at our wedding. We got married at intermission between the matinee and the evening shows. After the wedding, Nancy announced that she was going to give us a wedding gift to move us out to Los Angeles, as Nancy was moving her operation out there. And I started getting known to guys in California. I was playing all kinds of gigs when Nancy was off. Anyway, I got a call from the Jazz Crusaders to play with them, and we opened at The Lighthouse. Before me, the Jazz Crusaders had a guy named Herbie Lewis. He was another great bass player. There was also a great studio player in L.A. named Jimmy Bond who played with them earlier.
You know, I never thought I was doing anything spectacular except, you know, enjoying myself, which was great. Wayne Henderson, their trombone player, and I had a real close comedy kind of relationship. I wrote a song for him called “Ruby P’gonia.” I think the first record we did was Lighthouse ‘68, and then Lighthouse ‘69. Then we did another record called Old Shoes, New Shoes. That band would have had a lot more international acclaim except for the fact that none of the other guys liked to fly. We had offers to go to Europe, but, unless we were going on a boat, we weren’t going. (Of course, I have never had a problem with flying.) We had lots of fun, and I made maybe about five records with them.
There's a tune of yours that debuted around that time.
Right. Tell me about “Firewater,” please.
I didn't have my own publishing company at that time, so I put it in their publishing company, Four Knights Music, and we recorded it. When I left the Jazz Crusaders, they sold the song back to me for $1. I put it into my own publishing company, and then I recorded it with Herbie Hancock, and it’s been recorded quite a few times. Then there was a problem. When I recorded it with Herbie, somehow the publishing was listed in his company. [Years later,] I went on the Jay Leno Tonight Show when Branford was the musical director to play with his band. They played about five of my songs on intermission, but I found out that they played “Firewater” every night and I wasn’t seeing the publishing money. So, things got all mixed up there, but I just recently saw that the Crusaders drummer, Stix Hooper, is living up in Seattle and he’s doing some radio broadcasting. Out of all the members, he and I are the only ones left.
That's right. I’m grateful for the music that you all made together. Around that time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you doubled on that wonderful Hawkes acoustic bass along with the Fender electric bass. Was that decision a reaction to being in the studios and maybe some of the jingles called for it? Or, when you arrived in the Mwandishi band, did you add the electric bass to help bring out some of those electric keyboard sounds that Herbie Hancock used?
All of what you said is correct. But even before Herbie, I made some records with Harold Mabern playing Fender electric bass. One was called Greasy Kid Stuff! I did about two or three records around that time doubling on Fender. I just did an interview recently, and the person that I did the interview with, he did research and told me about records that I played electric bass on that I totally forgot. But anyway, when I was with Herbie, when we started the band, we did not use any electronic instruments. Shortly afterwards, I played the Fender on “Ostinato : Suite for Angela,” and I was playing electric bass and the acoustic bass and couldn’t leave home without both of them.
We’d be playing and look down in the audience, and there’s a young Christian McBride, Anthony Jackson or Alphonso Johnson. These guys would be sitting up there, right up there in front, watching me play electric bass. I was coming up with all these basslines. It was fun stuff, but I never look at myself as an electric bass player because my love is the acoustic, the upright.
Carol Kaye was the electric bass player in the studios in L.A., and in New York, you mentioned I started getting calls for commercials and stuff, and they required electric bass. Then, I started getting calls for exclusive upright bass. I was recognized in the jingle industry as one who played both basses. I enjoyed playing both. Eventually it became unnecessary for me to do that, and I think the electric bass just faded away. However, I still have a whole bunch of them around the house.
You also found a way around that time to play odd time signatures in a way that still made them feel accessible. What advice would you give to a musician approaching odd times to make them feel more natural?
Well, playing in odd time is not unique anymore. The young players that are coming up now, you have a harder time getting them to play in 4/4. [Laughs] What I would say is this: I don’t like to do anything just to do it. Music has got to feel good. And if you don’t feel it, and you can’t make others feel it, then what’s the point? Art Blakey said, “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” People get off of work and go home, get a shower, get dressed, and put on their favorite clothes or perfumes, and put out $35, you know, for one drink. And if they want food, then it’s going to be more. You’ve got to make them feel good, man. If you think that that’s not your point, well, then you just stay home and play to the four walls in the bathroom. I always tell my students, “Listen, you’re the only one that knows you’re playing a C7 chord.” The audience doesn’t know what it is. Does it sound good? Does it feel good? And that does not limit you. If you think that limits you, then you’re missing the scope of things.
Thank you for that wisdom. Before we move on, I know Mr. Hancock talks about a night in Seattle, Washington, where the band is enjoying the company of fans and friends well into the next afternoon. You all must perform the next day, and everybody was understandably groggy, coming to work that night. As you all assemble onto the bandstand, Herbie turns to you and calls for a bass solo because he’s still not awake yet. What he described next is nothing short of miraculous. You guys had been hanging out, but somehow you were finding this reservoir of energy and information that just kept pouring out of you. Tell me about that reservoir and what you were finding outside the music that had begun to inspire you and energize you?
I had been introduced by my wife, who was introduced by her sister to this rhythm, and this wonderful phrase – Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. It was giving me a whole different perspective on things and gave me a new sense of victory. I was seeing results. I wanted to tell Herbie about this, but I was looking for the right time, and I knew that I had to be convincing. I think we were playing at The Penthouse in Seattle. Everyone was tired, but I had chanted before coming to the gig. We were playing “Toys,” a fantastic piece that Herbie wrote that would open with the bass. I started playing my solo and it was longer than usual. And I noticed Benny Maupin, Julian Priester and Eddie Henderson — they sat down on the floor, and Herbie’s just leaning over the electric piano. The place is quiet, you know, and I’ve got everybody’s attention. And I played until I had nothing else to say. And when I finished, the place exploded in an uproar. People just wouldn’t stop applauding. When we got in the dressing room afterwards, Herbie grabbed me by the shoulders and says: “Man, I’ve never heard you play like that. That was fantastic. I’ve been hearing that you’re doing something. What is it?” So that’s when I told Herbie about my Buddhism. Herbie said, “Well, if it makes you play like that, I want to know more about it.” And that was back in 1972. And we’ve been chanting every day since 1972.
I’ve heard you speak about wanting to be able to write tunes that stayed with you that you could still enjoy before you decided that you wanted to be a bandleader. What practices have you learned from different bandleaders over the years that you’ve employed to become a better leader?
I’ve learned so many things from all these great bandleaders. The one constant is that the bandleader must take responsibility for everything. I remember one bandleader telling me, “If you got five guys in your band, then that’s five families that you’ve got to take care of. The responsibility is mine.” I learned that bandleaders don’t just hire you because you play well. If you lack integrity; if you’re late; if you don’t know how to dress; if you don’t take pride in being on the bandstand — then you’re not the person for my band. I found that a bandleader may choose the next guy that maybe doesn’t play as well as you, but he’s got these nice necessities that make it easier on the bandleader. I remember Duke Ellington saying something about when he would write, he would know who was going to play the tune. Guys were in his band for 30 and 40 years. He knew what he could expect when he wrote.
My band has been together over 20 years, so when I write I hear Steve Wilson. I know what Lenny White is going to do, or George Colligan, or Stefon Harris or Bruce Williams. These are things that make bandleading a little a little simpler for you. Someone told me that your journey in trying to play this music is going to teach you how to be a better human being. And I think that’s the greatest blessing of it all.
Your first album after the pandemic is Unalome.
Right. I had never heard that word. But my daughter, who works with me in my business, was talking about Unalome. She said it’s a symbol that’s becoming very popular in fashion. People are getting this symbol tattooed on their arm, and it’s being made into jewelry. It symbolizes birth, your path in life, your aspiration for enlightenment. She showed me what the symbol looked like, as it has the lotus flower on top. In Buddhism it’s the symbol for the law of cause and effect. So I liked my daughter’s explanation of Unalome. Although it’s not a symbol of the Buddhism that I practice, which is Nichiren Buddhism, it is talking about the same principles. I thought it was mysterious enough, so I went with it. And I like the way it looks on the cover art.
I’m sure a lot of listeners will enjoy your tune, “The Wisdom of Silence.” Can you tell me about that song and what that means to you?
You know, I’m not surprised you asked me about that because everyone asks me about that song, and I can only say that that song is not finished. It’s not finished. And I say that because it means so much to me. It puts me in a certain mood every time I hear it. As I was writing music for this CD, every time I would stop and start to play this song, it just took me somewhere else. I say, it’s not finished because I don’t know where it’s taking me.
When I was with Herbie, he had already written “Maiden Voyage,” but we started playing “Maiden Voyage” a little bit differently. I remember once Herbie and I were working out some things and he started adding different things to that song. And the song grew another eight bars, and then it grew something like another 16 bars? And I think that’s what is going to happen to my song, “The Wisdom of Silence.” These new developments will not be written out, but I know that I can count on unexpected things to happen when we play this song in concert. I feel it has the kind of nucleus that will allow it to expand.
I agree. There’s an eternal quality about that song. Anything else you’re looking forward to in life or in music that you would care to share with us?
Well, you know, the challenge is to not waste a moment. And I say “challenge” because we all know how to waste moments. [Laughs] During my weekly drives to New York, I listen to your radio show, and the music is inspiring. And I get so many ideas that draw my attention. I’m already beginning to prepare the music for my next CD. I have to decide, “Do I want to do this, or do I want to do that?” So, my challenge is to make the most profound use of the 24 hours a day that I have — the same 24 hours that you have, that everyone else has, you know? How can I make it work for me?
Buster Williams’ Unalome is available now from Smoke Sessions Records.