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Buster Williams: Ready for His Close-Up

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

Buster Williams, Bryant Park, New York, 1973
Buster Williams, Bryant Park, New York, 1973 (photo courtesy of Adam Kahan)

“Miles said: ‘Buster, when they play fast, then you play slow. And when they play slow, you play fast.’ That said loads to me.”

The first animation episode in Bass to Infinity concerns a Friday evening in the summer of 1960 when Charles Anthony Williams, Sr., a respected Philadelphia-area bassist who held multiple day jobs to support his five children, got a call from fellow Camdenite Nelson Boyd, the dedicatee of Miles Davis’ “Half Nelson,” whose c.v. included consequential work with Charlie Parker, Tadd Dameron, and Dizzy Gillespie. Boyd needed a weekend sub to play bass with Ammons and Stitt in Philly at the Showboat, a basement club on the corner of Broad and Lombard. Mr. Williams had a conflicting gig. He recommended his son. Boyd asked, “Is he ready?” “Damn right.” He called Buster at his girlfriend’s house, awaiting her preparations for their date: “Come home and put your suit on—you’ve got a gig.” He hung up. Williams obeyed.

“I love how they told that story,” Williams says. “I’m sliding down a pole, jumping into my gig suit and tie and white shirt. I had one navy-blue gabardine suit. After wearing it for a while at different gigs, it turned purple where the bass rubbed against it. I had a slim-jim black tie. It had become so saturated with sweat that you didn’t dare try to untie it, so I loosened it enough to get the knot over my head.

“I was like, ‘Pinch me, am I dreaming?’ Then I drove to Philly for the gig, got set up, and waited in the hotel lobby for my heroes to appear and for the gig to start.”

Without benefit of soundcheck or rehearsal, Williams traversed the trial by fire with flying colors, holding his own through, among other numbers, a breakneck “Strike Up the Band,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Autumn Leaves,” and a blues in D-flat. He’s clear that his preparedness stemmed directly from his father’s intense ministrations. “Sometimes he took gigs as a drummer, and when I was 15 he started bringing me as the bass player,” Williams says. “I got a lot of training that way. He was very strict; sometimes I’d be working something out between tunes, and he’d hit my strings and say, ‘No practicing on the bandstand.’ He set up one of his basses for me, which I think had cost him a bit more than $200. Every time I had a gig—which paid $5, $10, maybe $15—I had to give him $2, until I’d paid him off.”

At 16, Williams—a Paul Chambers acolyte who’d imbibed, through his father, bass lineage from the 1930s onward—started practicing regularly with pianist Sam Dockery, a name familiar to hard-bop partisans for his several years with the Jackie McLean/Bill Hardman/Johnny Griffin editions of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. “I’d go across town on the bus with my bass to play with Sam all day long at his house,” Williams remembers. “Every morning he’d get up and put on a white shirt, tie, and suit. I can’t tell you how much I learned about harmony from playing with Sam.” Some nights, Dockery drove to Philadelphia to play in Jimmy Heath’s quartet, then propelled by drummer Lex Humphries. “I wanted to be on that scene,” Williams says. “That to me was the description of ‘making it.’”

Williams got word that Heath’s bassist, also from Camden, had jumped ship. He strategized. His father had been running a Monday-night jam session at a nearby club; Williams invited local-hero alto saxophonist Sam Reed to play. “I knew Sam was my stepping stone for getting into the jazz community in Philadelphia,” he states. “I was never one to go out and hang and talk a bunch of ‘splib-blop.’ I wanted to keep my mouth shut and let my music speak for me.” Reed promptly called Williams for a Wednesday-night ballroom gig opening for Heath. “On the bandstand I noticed that the curtain was open and Jimmy was peeking out, looking at me,” Williams says. “Two days later he called me to join his band at the Sahara Club. We worked there three, four nights a week. Jimmy’s influence on me was unlimited.”

“Buster was playing his ass off,” says Kenny Barron, a contemporaneous teen phenom then making his name around Philly. “He plays primarily in the bottom, which gives me something to hold onto as a pianist, and his sound is very deep. Also, he was reliable, which was very important. To me, he and Arthur Harper were the two best players in Philadelphia at the time.”

“During those days, you could tell the bass players who came out of Philly by their feel, which we used to call ‘the hump,’” Williams notes. His entrance into the Philadelphia scene coincided with the departure to New York City of such slightly older eminences as Jymie Merritt, Reggie Workman, and Jimmy Garrison, all deep swingers who would expand their scope to suit the “freedom principle” as the 1960s progressed.

Williams mirrored that progression. He conscientiously played in the traditional style for Betty Carter (who expressed intense displeasure when he gave notice), Vaughan (who, on a 1963 sojourn to Europe, bought him the Boosey & Hawkes bass that he still uses), and Wilson (who moved him to Los Angeles between 1965 and 1968). His commitment to Wilson, strengthened by the fact that she was a steady employer, led him to turn down a job offer from Miles Davis after a five-week West Coast run (Ron Carter was exploring opportunities in the New York studios) during which he displayed his skills at “playing free within the form.” After returning to New York, he eschewed gigs with Art Blakey and Herbie Mann to join Hancock’s nascent Mwandishi band, where, over the course of three years, “I could really express my melodic self because of all the colors and textures from Herbie.

“Joining Miles was entering a ready-made family that created a niche that spread through the whole genre,” Williams adds, noting that encounters with outcat Philadelphia drummer Edgar Bateman prepared him for interacting with Tony Williams. “Now I’m stepping in for one of the family members, and they’re not making any concessions because I’m new or haven’t had a rehearsal. That spoke to their confidence in me. They knew that Miles hired me and he knew what he was doing. Plus, we’d met in 1963 at the festival in Juan-les-Pins, when Sarah and Miles were both playing the week and we stayed at the same hotel.

“It enhanced my viewpoint and perception, and it was in keeping with what I wanted to do. I’d never felt such freedom before—such freedom to be free. Miles was kind to me. He bolstered my confidence. Every intermission he’d take me aside and we’d talk. I think on the third night I got up the nerve to ask him, ‘Miles, am I really doing what you want me to do?’ I wanted to know if I could make some detours or veer off a bit or, because of what everybody else is doing, do I need to stay and toe the line? Miles got this glitter in his eye. He smiled. He said: ‘Buster, when they play fast, then you play slow. And when they play slow, you play fast.’ That said loads to me.”

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.