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Buster Williams: Ready for His Close-Up

In a new documentary, the revered bassist definitively takes the spotlight

Buster Williams
Buster Williams (courtesy of Adam Kahan)

“My music always expresses the way I see things from day to day—how my perceptions change, what’s meaningful or less meaningful,” bassist Buster Williams told me in 2004, when I wrote the liner notes for Griot Liberté (HighNote). That album, his last as a leader until 2018’s Audacity (Smoke Sessions), featured his working group of the time (Stefon Harris, vibes; George Colligan, piano; Lenny White, drums), navigating six Williams originals with aphoristic titles like “The Wind of an Immortal Soul” and “The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly.”

“The griot is a storyteller who liberates the soul and the spirit,” Williams elaborated. “To be liberated is to be able to go to sleep instantly at night because your day has been fulfilled with victory. The real victory is how we defeat our own devils—our limitations. That’s liberty. That’s freedom. And what am I? I’m the storyteller.”

Williams animates that credo throughout the 90 minutes of Bass to Infinity, Adam Kahan’s nuanced, intimate documentary portrait of an artist for whom the nostrum “played with everyone” is an apropos descriptor. (The film was commercially released in March; go to busterwilliamsmovie.com for more details.) A practiced raconteur, Williams spins a cohort of compelling tales, delivering oft-told episodes with authority and deliberation, as though telling them for the first time. Those qualities also suffuse his orotund, mellow instrumental voice, which we hear in several passages of unaccompanied invention; in duo encounters (and conversations) with old friends Benny Golson, Larry Willis, Rufus Reid, and Carmen Lundy; and in an impromptu trio vignette with White and Kenny Barron, Williams’ partner in Sphere from 1982 until well into the ’90s and in Ron Carter’s two-bass quartet from 1977-80.

Herbie Hancock—in whose pathbreaking Mwandishi band Williams played between 1970 and 1973 after they’d established a rapport during a five-week run with Miles Davis in the spring of 1967—recounts the occasion when Williams introduced him to Nichiren Buddhism. The camera homes in as Williams strokes tuned bells and chants namu myoho renge kyo during devotionals at his personal shrine. We eavesdrop as Williams, his wife, and four sisters converse around the kitchen table about their upbringing and family history.

Montaged into the narrative are personal photographs and archival footage of Williams playing behind Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson, his primary employers between 1962 and 1968. And three well-wrought animation sequences offer visual context for Williams’ amusing recollections of his tenure with saxophone titans Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, who hired him soon after he graduated from Camden (N.J.) High School in the summer of 1960 and retained his services for the next year-and-change.

Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity
Promo poster for Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity (illustration: Matt Smithson)

The film’s back story dates to early 2015. During a between-set break at Smoke Jazz Club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Kahan—who had recently wrapped The Case of the Three Sided Dream, a powerful bio-doc on Rahsaan Roland Kirk—approached Williams with a proposal that he participate in a documentary portraying the face of the bass through depictions of several master practitioners.

Williams declined. “I gave [Kahan] an alternate proposition,” he recalls via Zoom from the music room in his New Jersey home. “I said, ‘If you want to do a documentary on me, I’d be happy to do it.’ Now, all kinds of people come up to you on intermission and say all kinds of things. I had no idea whether it would pan out, but I had nothing to lose—if he wants to do this … okay, fine. Adam was a little surprised. But he agreed. He needed to find more information about me; meanwhile, I Googled him and found his film on Rahsaan, which I liked. Then he phoned and said he’d like to do the film. That was a good start.”

Initially, Williams thought that Kahan’s use of animation in Three Sided Dream “diminished its seriousness and quality.” Kahan asked him not to pre-judge. “That story about Ammons and Stitt was so important, and I didn’t know how else I was going to show it,” Kahan says. Accessing the flexible aesthetics that have served him so well throughout his 60-year career as a first-call sideman and bandleader, Williams came around. “When I saw [the final cut of Bass to Infinity], the animation is what I liked best,” he says. “At the premiere, I told the animator [Matt Smithson] that he caught the real essence of my experience out there on the road, for the first time.”

Originally Published

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.