January 1, 1970Just one story this week — yesterday's profile of bassist Buster Williams in the Boston Globe.
I first saw him play at the Amazingrace in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, back in the late '70s. He was playing in a quartet led by another great bassist I wrote about a few weeks ago, Ron Carter.
In fact, Buster has been involved with a bunch of other great talents I've recently written about. He got his only Grammy nomination for a trio album he did in 1979 with Hank Jones and Tony Williams. He played in Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band from 1969 to 1973. And he worked with Nancy Wilson for four years in the 1960s. Wilson was also a bridesmaid at Williams's 1965 wedding — a detail cut out of the story below in editing.
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From his wife's illness comes musical stories of transformation
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | July 30, 2004
The "griot" of Buster Williams's new CD, "Griot Liberte," is, in West African tradition, a traveling storyteller — typically a combination oral historian and musician charged with keeping alive the history of a people. Williams, 62, figures he's something of a griot himself, having spent nearly 45 years on the road playing bass with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Sarah Vaughan to his own groups Sphere and Something More.
Certainly he's got stories to tell about his people and their effect on his distinguished career.
The new disc itself, for example (which Williams and his quartet of Stefon Harris on vibes, George Colligan on piano, and Lenny White on drums will perform selections from at Scullers Tuesday), has quite a story behind it.
This past Christmas day, Williams says by phone from Los Angeles, he had to rush Ronnie, his wife of 38 years, to the hospital, where she spent the next 11 days in a coma. The precise cause of her illness remains unexplained, he says, but during that time she suffered a heart attack, kidney failure brought on by extremely low blood pressure, and pneumonia.
"When she woke up out of her coma," Williams says, "she told me she felt that she had been surfing the universe. And she said she felt that she was a caterpillar that had been transformed into a butterfly. And the other thing was that she saw the phoenix rise from the ashes."
Ronnie's illness and recovery provided "Griot Liberte" with its theme, Williams says.
"After daily diagnosis of everything just getting worse and worse and worse," he says, "then everything started getting better and better and better. And she's up and about and running all around. You know, it was just incredible. And that's where I got the [song] title from, `The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly.'"
The other seven songs on the disc are also linked to the couple's experience, including the two well-known pieces that Williams didn't write himself — Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez." "Buster was able to come up with some new music while his wife was recovering," Colligan recalls. "We went to Rudy Van Gelder's studio for two days, and this is what came out. Lenny White said he thought this was one of Buster's best recordings to date."
In a career as long as Williams's, that means a lot. Williams grew up in Camden, N.J., and was taught to play bass by his bassist father, Charles Anthony Williams Sr. "Cholly" Williams spent his life working an assortment of day jobs to support his five children, and he insisted his only son learn to play the bass well enough to avoid doing likewise.
"My father made it very clear to me," Williams said, "that if he was going to teach me, then I was going to be the best. Because he saw this would be his legacy. He wanted to be proud when they spoke of his son. He didn't want to teach a bum. He made it very clear to me that if I wasn't going to be serious about it, he wasn't going to do it."
The younger Williams was serious enough about it to begin working regularly in nearby Philadelphia with saxophonist Jimmy Heath while still in high school. Eventually his only peers among his generation of jazz bassists would be Ron Carter and Dave Holland. But first he had to move beyond Camden and Philadelphia. And Cholly Williams played a key role in that as well.
"One Friday, I was at my girlfriend's house, getting ready to take her to a movie," Williams recalls, "and my father called me and told me to come home and put on my suit, I had a gig. And I said, `Yeah, but Dad, I'm getting ready to go to the movies.' And he just hung up the phone. [He] told me, you know, `OK, get your [butt] home.'"
He did so and was told he'd be working with saxophonists Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. Nelson Boyd, a sometime associate of Dizzy Gillespie and a good friend of Cholly's, had been backing Ammons and Stitt that week as the bassist in a locally supplied rhythm section. Boyd was unavailable that weekend, and asked Cholly to fill in for him. But Cholly was busy, too. So he sent his son, who had graduated from high school a few weeks earlier.
"When we finished with the first set," Williams says, "Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt hired me, and when we finished the gig on Sunday, 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, we loaded up the car, went to Chicago. And I've been on the road ever since."
The Buster Williams quartet Something More performs Tuesday at Scullers at 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets $20. Call 617-562-4111.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company