Interview with David Williams

Ethan Iverson  How did you get from Trinidad to New York?

David Williams:  In 1962 I left my home, Trinidad, and went to London. I came to America in 1969. My sister was here, it was supposed to be a two-week visit.  After three days my friend and I went to the Village, and I saw an ad on the wall of a club: “The 360-Degrees Experience. Beaver Harris with Grachan Moncur, Roland Alexander, Dave Burrell, and Jimmy Garrison.” I told my friend I wanted to hear this; he split, and I went in. It was supposed to start at 8:00. At 9:30 they showed up, played two sets, but without Jimmy Garrison. I was looking forward to hearing Jimmy Garrison of course, but he didn’t show up.

The next night I went back. Same thing: no bass player. During the break, I went up to Beaver and said, “Hello, my name is David Williams, I heard the music last night; I’m a bass player, do you mind if I sit in with you?”

He looked at me and said, “Oh? Okay.”

So I took a cab to my friend’s place, got my bass, ran back downtown, and set up in time just for the second set. I had no idea what they were playing, but I had good ears and made it through.

At the end of the set I was looking around, trying to get some feedback, but no one even looked at me: they were talking to one another and so forth. I felt like I should just pack up and go; after I zipped up my bass case and started for the door, Beaver grabbed me and said, “See you tomorrow night, eh?”

That was the most beautiful news I ever heard in my life.

The next night I was back there. We kept playing every night, and one night Ron Carter came in. I hadn’t met him but I knew him from pictures. Beaver told me then, “Oh yeah, this is Ron’s gig.” I started to pack up my bass, but Ron gestured for me to stay and he took out his cello.

At the end of the two weeks I called my friend and said, “I’m staying in New York, I’m not coming back to London. Sell the furniture, do whatever you want with my things, but I’m here now.”

And I’m still here.

EI:  Within a couple of years you are in Elvin Jones’s band and making major record dates with all sorts of people: Duke Jordan, Kenny Barron, Louis Hayes, Art Pepper…

DW:  Yeah, that’s right. I was just looking at Kenny’s Peruvian Blue today.

EI:  How did you first play with Cedar?

DW:  I was playing outdoors at Lincoln Center, I don’t even remember with whom. Sam Jones came by the gig. I had never met him but I knew who he was. He told me he was working at Boomer’s with Cedar and I said to myself I had to get down there.

I went to hear them, and Sam introduced me to Cedar. He said, “Cedar, this is David Williams. Whenever I can’t do the gig, call him.”

EI:  So Sam nominated you!

DW:  Yeah, he did! So I started to go hear them at Boomer’s often, and once in a while when Sam couldn’t do the gig, I would do it. By that time I knew most of Cedar’s music, so I felt fairly comfortable.

EI:  Sam also got you for the record where he plays cello.

DW:  I couldn’t believe it. It was a great honor. I’m not sure what he heard in me, but I was happy to be there.

For years Cedar carried around a nice picture of Sam and me talking together at Boomer’s. He wrote “Sam and Dave” on the back of the photo.

EI:  Tell me something about the way Sam Jones played.

DW:  He was such a solid foundation, and a great soloist. He could really listen hard. To play with Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins, you had to be constantly listening! They made each other sound good.

Cedar made everyone sound good. The way he played, the way he wrote.

EI:  And what about Ron Carter with Cedar?

DW:  That was the Sweet Basil gig; I would go and hear them there for two weeks at a stretch. Of course I heard Ron with other people too.

EI:  Cedar told me you might have taken a lesson with Ron?

DW:  Yes I did. Actually, after I played with him on the Beaver Harris gig, he called me and asked if I knew who Roberta Flack was. I didn’t, but he said she was looking for a bass player and that he had recommended me. I called her and the next day I was on a bus to Washington, DC. I worked with her for two years.

EI:  Sam Jones, Ron Carter, David Williams: to me there’s something circular about the quarter notes when you play a walking line. It’s not just four beats to the bar even when you are playing four beats to the bar.

DW:  I never looked at it like that.

You know, when I played with Billy Taylor (this was before Cedar) he told me that my playing was “too Caribbean.”

I couldn’t figure out what he meant, because I’d had other people say to me, “I like that feel.” Because I literally dance when I play. If I’m not dancing, something’s wrong. But if I’m into it, I’m dancing. I played steel pan in Trinidad.

Maybe that’s what you are talking about? I don’t know.

EI:  Did Billy Higgins ever sound Caribbean to you?

DW:  He listened to everything. He loved music from all cultures. African music, Caribbean music, Brazilian music — he would play Brazilian music on guitar, sometimes we’d play duets in the hotel room. He played the guitar beautifully!

Cedar always said, “Billy comes in the door listening.”  So by the time he sat at the drums, he had figured you out and what to do.

He was such a powerful spirit. He loved the music so much, loved people, he was pure light. Such joy, grinning through everything.

In that band with Cedar and Billy, we loved each other. Nothing was ever offensive; it was just three spirits all about the music. We could laugh at ourselves, too. That made touring easier, especially since I saw those two more than my wife! We weren’t afraid to be vulnerable.

Sometimes it would be two or three months at a time, but that’s what it had to be. Fortunately my wife was very strong and loved the music, too. She was very supportive.

EI:  According to the discography, the first record with Cedar was 1979, on tour in Europe. I have a feeling this group was treated very well in Europe.

DW:  Yes, very well! We played in Italy all the time, maybe even four or five times a year. The promoter, Alberto Alberti, had a great passion for the music and he loved us. In Italy we were treated like royalty.

We went to Germany and London frequently too. Also Japan. We were on the road all the time.

EI:  Did Cedar talk about the way to play his music?

DW:  Cedar didn’t talk much about music. Neither did Billy, really. When we traveled we talked about other things. If they did talk about music it would be stories, especially when Steve Grossman or Bob Berg were there to ask questions.

We played cards. If you lost you had to do 20 pushups. It could be on the plane or the train or wherever, but if you lost, you had to do them. People looked at us like we were crazy.

You’d think Cedar would have said more about music from an analytic perspective, since he had command of form and detail. But I never really heard him talk much about it. We would compliment one another when we had a great performance.

Cedar was really funny — funnier than some comedians. But a natural kind of funny; everything just came out humorous, even onstage.

When I joined the band, I thought I knew all of his music. Then I found out I didn’t. Cedar and Billy would just start playing together, ignoring me at first, but I’d have it by the third or fourth chorus.

EI:  Did he ever hand you a chart?

DW:  On some things, yes, especially if there were other musicians involved, like a singer or for a record date, but mostly no. I was just looking at my music folder for Cedar and was surprised how little was in there.

EI:  And those complicated arrangements of standards?

DW:  Sometimes they evolved over time. We’d add more to them over time. But on others they were pretty set from the beginning and stayed that way.

EI:  I always thought there was a big Ahmad Jamal influence on some of those arrangements.

DW:  Oh, Cedar loved Ahmad Jamal. That was a natural influence for Cedar. He also loved Duke Ellington.

EI:  Of course his song “The Maestro” is for Duke.

Many great jazz players of Cedar’s generation didn’t like to discuss music. You could play or not, it was that simple.

DW:  He didn’t like to explain much. I remember once we were doing a workshop at a college — Cedar, Willie Jones and myself. There were many students. We demonstrated, and then we took questions. It was quiet, kind of tense. Then a girl said, “Oh, Mr. Walton? I have trouble with the upper register. I kind of get stuck in the middle.”

And with a straight face, completely normal and natural, he answered, “You know, I need to work on the upper register myself…can we meet for coffee?” The whole place erupted with laughter, and from that point on everyone was relaxed.

If you met his mother, you’d see where that humor came from. She was such a sweet and funny lady.

EI:  And of course, “Dear Ruth” was for her.

It must have been so hard to lose Billy Higgins in the trio.

DW:  I remember when he got sick in Japan. The doctors treated him; he got a little better, seemed to be doing well…but then he got kidney problems. He started losing weight. You could see he wasn’t well by his complexion.

But he didn’t want to stop playing! He kept saying he was OK. We knew he wasn’t, but that didn’t stop him. Cedar played to the end, too. Those guys were all about the music –- true messengers, I could understand them being terrified about having to stop playing. When the music stopped, so did they.

Billy Higgins was so humble. A lot of people called him to work, and he did almost every gig. He was so open; he would play with anyone.

EI:  These days I feel like there is something similar with Billy Higgins and Elvin Jones, even though they are on the surface so different. Since you spent so much time with both, what’s your take?

DW:  Both Elvin and Billy were so natural, man — just so natural. But they were distinct individuals. Elvin was a powerhouse rhythmically, yet he was very gentle.  Billy’s playing had a sense of playfulness and so much swing.

I ran into Jimmy Garrison when I first started playing with Elvin. I told him about the gig and he said, “Don’t let him scare you! He’ll try to intimidate you but don’t worry about it. Just be in tune.”

I’ll never forget that. “Play in tune!” I’m always in tune, anyway, because I played violin first. The bass is hard but the violin will drive you crazy. So my intonation is pretty good.

Anyway, sure enough, when I played with Elvin, while I was afraid I would have to bust my chops to get through, it wasn’t like that. He was so musical.

Trading 8’s and 4’s, sometimes I’d get lost because I was so busy listening to him. But if you’re listening and not counting, it sounds like he’s behind the beat. Listening back to the records, you realize he’s right on. But the way he plays so laid back, the “one” seems really late.

If I got lost, he would hear immediately and would play the melody on the drums to show me where I needed to be.

After Billy’s death, Cedar and I played with several great drummers who knew Cedar’s music. Kenny Washington was the first. Then there was Joe Farnsworth, Lewis Nash, Willie Jones III, and George Fludas.

EI:  When I saw you and Cedar with those other drummers, I always felt that the drummers had to come to the two of you. They may have been used to being in charge of the beat in other situations but in this case, they had to give up some real estate.

DW:  [laughs] Well, that was like me with Cedar and Billy in the beginning. “What do I do?” When two people have done this together for so long, then the other has to catch up. But all these guys are great, though. I enjoyed playing with all of them. They all knew what to do and did it very well.

EI:  What about the horn players? I heard you with Jackie Mac, Roy Hargrove, Vincent Herring, and Piero Odorici. Did you play with George Coleman?

DW:  Yes, but not in Cedar’s band. When I joined Cedar, it was Bob Berg, who I loved. He was a monster! In addition to the guys you mentioned, I also remember having a good time with Steve Grossman. And Ralph Moore was beautiful, too. Beautiful sound. Vincent was powerful, an awesome player. Javon Jackson too; all those guys were great. Eric Alexander I loved, and now it’s great to play with him in One For All.

Jackie McLean was a life experience, very lyrical, infectious and unique. Just hearing them tell stories together was great.

In the back of my mind, although I try not to go there, I wonder sometimes if Cedar was acknowledged and recognized the way he should have been in the critics’ polls. But we stayed away from thinking about it because that had nothing to do with the music. We had the blessings and joy of what we were doing, and the writers didn’t. Nor did many of them understand the spirit and strength of our music.

EI:  I wrote something already about the New York Times Cedar Walton obit, which I thought was superficial. There are two good jazz writers at the Times, Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff, but for some reason William Yardley was assigned and he just didn’t get it. Yardley clearly didn’t talk to you, for example.

Has anyone talked to you about Cedar?

DW:  No.

EI:  Yeah. So that’s why I wanted to focus on Cedar today. Another time I’d like to interview you about you, too!

DW:  That would be a very different interview. But I’m glad you are asking me about Cedar. I immediately agreed because I remembered when Billy Higgins died, no one talked to Cedar or me about him. The obits mentioned his work with Ornette Coleman, Charles Lloyd, and Pat Metheny over and over, but never with Cedar and me, though we spent so much time together.

EI:  Do you have favorite records of you and Cedar together?

DW: There are so many, man. I pulled out what I could find offhand. There are some I don’t have. And there are many more that I’m on with Cedar where he is not the leader.

stack of Cedar Cds

Some of my favorites include The Bouncer, which is the last one that we did. Also Mosaic, As Long as There’s Music, The Promised Land, Never Let Me Go, and You’re My Everything, just to name a few.

If you ask me to sum up not just our musical association, but all the time we spent together, I would have to say “We had a great time.” All that touring, all that time on the bandstand, it was awesome! We never missed a beat!

For Cedar Walton:

1) Interview with Cedar Walton (2010)

2) Interview with David Williams

3) Interview with David Hazeltine

4) Cedar’s Blues (essay)