Charles Anthony “Buster” Williams Jr. approaches the bass the same way he answers every question during our Saturday afternoon phone interview: precise timing, emphatic answers with no filibustering and thoughtful responses to every inquiry.
“I’ve never felt playing the bass was a hindrance or a detriment to doing anything in music,” Williams says in response to whether he deemed himself a bandleader or session player. “I’m a bass player, front and center. When I’m working in a group, then the music gets defined and determined by the leader.
The main reason I’ve decided now to concentrate on my own music is that I wanted to be the person determining what got played, how it was played and what it ultimately sounded like on the bandstand. That’s my focus now, to play my own music and emphasize my compositions.”
Still, Williams’ résumé ranks with that of any bassist in the modern era. Since he made his first substantial impact in 1959 as part of legendary saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s band alongside pianist Sam Dockery and the esteemed drummer Specs Wright, Williams has elevated every gig, session and date on which he’s been a participant. The list of his collaborations reaffirms Williams’ versatility. He’s backed such vocalists as Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan and Dakota Staton. If you want to talk giants, Williams has played with Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Count Basie, Lee Konitz and Freddie Hubbard, to list only a few. He’s done the soul-jazz and funk thing with The Crusaders and been part of a bass-oriented ensemble with Ron Carter. He’s performed repertory as a member of Sphere with Kenny Barron and Charlie Rouse, even served time in the swing academy with Count Basie. There’s almost no musical situation that Williams hasn’t been involved with, including working on both the Johnny Carson and Jay Leno versions of The Tonight Show, and even popping up on such long defunct pop culture landmarks as the Mike Douglas, Joan Rivers and Andy Williams television programs.
Yet for all the famous musicians that he’s played with, the first name Williams mentions when he discusses his career and influences is a family one. Charles Anthony Williams Sr., who was nicknamed Cholly, was the person who initially inspired Williams to play the bass and subsequently helped prepare him for a professional career.
“My father was a great, great player,” says Williams. “I heard many fine records when I was growing up, and the sound of Slam Stewart was a prime influence on me, both in terms of his arco sound and the way he strung the bass. My father told me that if he took the time to prepare my instrument I had better be serious about it. It’s something that I’ve never forgotten and will always remember about playing and about music.” Stewart strung his bass with a high C, thus the configuration C-G-D-A rather than the conventional G-D-A-E. Listen to such pieces as “I Have a Dream” from the Herbie Hancock gem The Prisoner and hear how high and enticing Williams’ bass lines sound.
Though Williams began working professionally upon graduating from Camden High School in Camden, New Jersey, he eventually took some courses in Composition and Harmony and Theory at Combs College of Music in Philadelphia. Throughout the early and mid-’60s Williams sharpened his craft and developed a sound and approach. He worked with Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and the Gerald Price Trio, then began earning better wages and getting more exposure with Dakota Staton, Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan. It was Vaughan who took Williams on his first tour of Europe, and she’s among the select list of people he gives highest praises.
“There have been so many wonderful folk that I’ve worked with and played with over my years, but Sarah Vaughan was special. So were Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and, of course, Herbie Hancock. These are people who didn’t just teach you about music. They took you aside and taught you about life, about what it really means to play this music well, to actually have something to say on the bandstand. This was my true college, if you will, traveling and playing with all these great people.”
Williams also earned a reputation for providing a huge, rich tone and ideal support without ever carping or demanding more solo time. When a four-year West Coast gig with Nancy Wilson ended in 1968, Williams was ready to come back to New York. While he’d been quite successful in California, making popular LPs with The Crusaders, playing with Kenny Dorham and doing a host of movie and television dates and sessions, Williams still was looking for something more. Once back in New York, Williams quickly found himself juggling prestige gigs with Art Blakey, Herbie Mann, Mary Lou Williams and Herbie Hancock. Ultimately, he decided to become a fulltime member of Hancock’s 1969 sextet, which soon became a prime jazz ensemble.
This band, which also included trumpeter Johnny Coles, trombonist Garnett Brown, saxophonist Joe Henderson and drummer Tootie Heath, was among the finest jazz-rock and pop-tinged units of all time. Their LP Fat Albert Rotunda featured spry funk and delightful tunes that still allowed substantial solos, while Hancock’s The Prisoner nicely merged symbolic protest fare with tremendous performances. When Hancock moved the band even further into the electric era, Williams went along for the ride despite lacking experience on the electric bass.
“That band with Herbie really was a high point in my musical life. We were doing some things that no one ever thought a jazz band would ever consider. I remember one time we were in Italy and Herbie saw this huge Moog synthesizer and he decided he wanted to add it to the band. This was the time when those things were huge. We ended up carting this enormous thing all over Italy and having to plug all that stuff up; we looked like an airport up on the bandstand. I had never played the electric bass before we started going electric. I didn’t know then that it’s a totally different instrument. The stuff that cats do today, all the slapping and the ripping, that’s something I’ve never done on the electric. I put that thing down back in the ’70s, and if anyone asks me today if I play electric bass, I tell them I don’t. That’s a whole different animal now.”
Hancock’s electric crew made some marvelous works in Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant, then Hancock disbanded the group, reportedly due to his disenchantment at not being able to reach a broader audience. While Williams had urged Hancock not to break up the unit, he soon found a home with a totally different band. He joined Ron Carter in a two-bass group that earned critical raves in the late ’70s. Williams also did some dates as a leader with Muse and Buddah, before once more becoming a star session man throughout the ’80s.
As part of the Great Jazz Trio in 1980, Williams earned a Grammy nomination for his participation on the LP The Great Jazz Trio with pianist Hank Jones and drummer Tony Williams. Buster Williams would ultimately win a Grammy as part of a group with Hancock, Tony Williams and Bobby McFerrin. A 1989 LP featuring Buster as a leader titled Something More proved the catalyst for the bassist to eventually form his own band, appropriately titled Something More. He’d also put in time with both Sphere, a Thelonious Monk repertory band with pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Ben Riley and longtime Monk saxophonist Charlie Rouse, and as part of the Timeless All Stars, with pianist Cedar Walton, drummer Billy Higgins, trombonist Curtis Fuller, saxophonist Harold Land and vibist Bobby Hutcherson.
But an even more important development during the ’80s and ’90s involved writing. Williams began penning more compositions, and even earned a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1991 to create and perform a work for quintet, string ensemble and vocal chorus. That same year saw Williams also earn a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Williams’ latest album, Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1999 (TCB), features Williams playing with his regular pianist Mulgrew Miller, guest vibist Steve Nelson and another special contributor, drummer Carl Allen. The piano/vibes/bass/drum lineup mirrors the personnel of another famed jazz band, the Modern Jazz Quartet, but that’s not the reason for this instrumentation. Rather it reflects Williams’ preference for spotlighting the vibes.
“It’s an instrument that I enjoy immensely. The vibes bring a different sound to the band. It gives us a different flavor. I like the romanticism of the vibes, and in my view it has what I call a great blendability, if that’s a word, with the rest of the instruments. I’m excited by the chance to have it in my band. The only problem with this new record is that this isn’t my working band. It’s really becoming difficult today to make records with even the same personnel from one time to the other, let alone have your regular group. My working band includes Miller on piano, Stefon Harris, a wonderful young vibes player, and Lenny White on drums. Steve Wilson, who is Gerald Wilson’s son, plays with us at times on alto and soprano sax. I really would love to be able to actually rehearse and record a series of records with this same band, but that’s just one of the problems with what’s happening today.”
That comment is just a prelude to a full barrage that Williams unloads when asked what he thinks about jazz in the 21st century.
“If I really answered that one the way I want to, it would take about seven books. Let’s just say that the scene has never been like it is today. There are so many elements in play that have nothing whatsoever to do with the music. I’ve always been an optimist, someone who saw the glass and said it was half full, rather than saying it was half empty. It’s very interesting that in terms of the legitimacy of the music, you’ve got so many people in high places that don’t have any idea about what even constitutes musical quality. You’ve got these bureaucracies in place on gigs and in every situation, and in that way I’m a little bit disturbed. But you have to keep on fighting, no matter who’s supposedly in charge and whatever it is they try to tell you.
“I get upset sometimes because the real deal is being overlooked, and being assaulted by politics, economics and all the people who want to be part of the controlling forces. This isn’t something I sit around and complain about a lot, but it really is something that anyone who’s been out here even a little bit can easily see.”
But these obstacles won’t deter Williams from making the kind of great music that he’s routinely delivered his entire career. He’s very specific when asked whether there’s anything left to do musically.
“I still haven’t written my symphony yet. I would like to write some movies. Those two things are pretty much my goals, and I want to do everything in between as well. I never feel like I’ve arrived or that there’s nothing more for me to do. I don’t ever feel like things have brought me to some sort of stalemate. There’s always more things to do and more things to say, and that’s what I plan to continue doing as long as I’m capable.”
He doesn’t win any polls, or dominate the charts or appear as a featured narrator in jazz documentaries. All Buster Williams does is play the bass, and play it as well as anyone.
Williams plays a copy of a late-1800s Boosey & Hawkes Panormo. He uses La Bella strings, a Fishman BP-100 pickup and a 1×15 Polytone Mini-Brute.