Sunday, November 27, 2011

Buster Williams Remembers Mary Lou Williams… and a Wild Week In KC

Plastic Sax rarely features non-original work, but I jumped at the opportunity to present new insights into the career of the legendary Mary Lou Williams from jazz great Buster Williams. Frank R. Hayde conducted the following phone interview with Williams in March. Aside from the links I've added to the transcript, it appears almost precisely as Hayde presented it to me.

Frank R. Hayde: Buster Williams, thanks for taking the time to share some of your memories of Mary Lou Williams, who, as you know, is not only one of the towering figures of Kansas City jazz but someone who literally personifies the entire history of jazz, having both played in and influenced each of the major eras of the music. In the early 1970’s, long after she helped pioneer Kansas City swing with the Andy Kirk Orchestra, Mary Lou Williams was making a comeback, working primarily in the piano trio format. Along the way she established a reputation among bass players as a strict taskmaster with extremely high standards. During one yearlong engagement at the Hickory House, she went through 18 bass players and even fired Richard Davis! Then she found Buster Williams and you became her favorite bassist. What was it about your playing that not only satisfied her, but also actually inspired her?

Buster Williams: In about 1969 I had just moved back to New York from L.A.. Bob Cranshaw was playing an engagement with Mary Lou at the Knickerbocker and Bob had to go do something else. I was friends with Bob and he turned me on to that gig. From the first night- the first set, we hit it off. Whatever I was doing she liked and our musical relationship went on from there up until the time she passed away, when I played at her funeral. When we played Mary Lou’s Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral it was a historic occasion and it got two full pages of pictures and reviews in the New York Times.

Mary Lou Williams was a great teacher. That’s the beautiful thing about this music… Anytime you play with a didactic person, and by that I mean someone who is a master at what they do, you learn from them directly and indirectly about music and life. There’s no way to study under a real master in this music and just learn music. To be connected with this person you learn all about life because it’s all interconnected. Later she took a teaching gig at Duke University and from that time on we didn’t tour that much anymore. I was doing a lot of other gigs during that time as well. We did play her inaugural concert at Duke with Roy Haynes on drums. To be on the bandstand with the two of them was heaven-sent. I’m sorry that concert wasn’t recorded. It was fantastic.

Frank R. Hayde: Speaking of fantastic, let’s talk about the 1975 recording Free Spirits with Mickey Roker on drums. It’s a magnificent album and the chemistry between the three of you is awe-inspiring. What was going on during that session that produced such a remarkable record?

Buster Williams: I’ve been taught that whenever I have an opportunity to have my instrument in my hand, it’s a golden moment and a moment to cherish. Whenever you’re making a record or appearing live your life is in that moment and that moment is what counts more than anything else. All these are cherished moments for me. I don’t mean to sound elusive. Whenever I played with Mary Lou it was a cherished moment because I was always learning. She was never at a loss for interesting things to say. I used to like to watch her when she played because every now and then she would look up at me with such a big smile. It was like a big smile of saying “I’m so happy to be doing this,” and also a smile of acceptance of what I was playing. So whatever happened on that record date was no different than what always happened when I was playing with her… And also Mickey Roker. I love Mickey Roker! He’s one of my dearest friends and from the first moment we ever played together it was an incomparable groove. When I was playing with Benny Golson in Philly, Mickey came in and introduced himself. We struck up friendship right then. The very next day we went to a pool hall and played pool all day then he took me to his home and he and his wife fixed me dinner. And our friendship goes on to this day.

Frank R. Hayde: Did Mary Lou ever talk about her years in Kansas City and the scene that she helped develop in KC back in the 20’s and 30’s?

Buster Williams: I’m a lover of jazz stories. I can sit at the feet of the masters and listen to stories all day long. Mary was never at a loss for new stories that I had never heard before. The thing you have to remember, though, is Mary used to run a lot of information together. She’d be talking about one thing and all of a sudden she’d be talking about another thing. She talked a lot about her days in Kansas City with the Andy Kirk Orchestra but that would flow right into her talking about the days when her house was the gathering place for people like Bud Powell and Dizzy and Monk. It all flowed together. There was no moment in her life that wasn’t connected to what just happened and what’s going to happen and you can hear that in her music too.

Frank R. Hayde: After more than 30 years as one of the most sought after sidemen, you started leading your own bands in the early 90’s. One musician who appears on several Buster Williams recordings is Geri Allen, who played Mary Lou Williams in the Robert Altman film Kansas City. How did you and Geri become acquainted and how has the spirit of Mary Lou Williams affected your collaboration?

I first got wind of Geri when she was playing with Wayne Shorter. I was impressed with what I heard. I spoke with Wayne one day and he was talking about Geri’s potential and that she was someone to keep an eye on. Shortly after that I had an opportunity to take a band to Europe. I took Geri and Al Foster and Robin Eubanks. Geri was a little nervous, she was just coming on the scene but she was such a bright talent.

Later, Peter O’Brien, who was a priest, and also Mary Lou’s manager, approached Geri about doing the Zodiac Suite, which I had performed many times with Mary Lou. We made the record Zodiac Suite: Revisited and Geri also appears on my record Houdini with Lenny White on drums. She was the most likely candidate to carry on the legacy of Mary Lou.

Frank R. Hayde: You have one of the most impressive discographies in all of jazz. The short list of artists you’ve played with includes Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Chet Baker, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, Lee Konitz, Freddie Hubbard and James Brown. Aside from what you’ve already mentioned, what was significant about your time with Mary Lou Williams?

Buster Williams: Mary Lou Williams told me she really liked the way that I composed. She pointed out the significant differences in the way I composed that made it uniquely me. I hadn’t looked at it that way until she pointed these things out. On the record My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me, Mary recorded one of my songs called "Prism." In order for her to play the song the way she wanted, she had me play the melody on the piano. We sat down at two pianos and I played the melody while she was free to use her two hands to play the other stuff that she wanted to play. On the record, this came to be titled "Prelude to Prism." The things that she pointed out to me about my writing, I really cherish. The fact that she took the time to show me how to enhance what I was doing in the direction I was going and how to enhance the uniqueness she saw in what I was doing- I can’t thank her enough for that.

The great fortune that I’ve had in my career is an accumulation of information. When I mentioned that Mary spoke in a way that was indicative of moments being connected together, the past connected to the present connected to the future, I look at things that same way, and Mary Lou was one of the first great artists that I had the immense good fortune to learn from.

Of course, many people thought that I was Mary’s son. We heard that a lot. Sometimes she would say, “Yes, Buster's like my son.” We did have that kind of fondness. I miss her. She would really have a lot to say about the scene today and she would really be making a difference in the scene today.

Frank R. Hayde: Finally, I heard you were abandoned in KC for a week back in the 60’s. Could you tell us about it?

Buster Williams: That was some week! In 1961 I was playing with Gene Ammons and Sony Stitt. George Brown- “Dude” we called him- was the drummer and John Houston was on piano. We were in KC playing a club for two weeks. I don’t remember the name of the club, but it was owned by two brothers who were connected to the Mafia, and one was named Charlie.

At the end of the two weeks, Gene Ammons called a meeting on our last night- Saturday night. We were all supposed to be getting paid. The meeting was about the fact that there was no money. Gene had used up all the money supporting his needs. So we agreed that he would go on to Chicago and send us the money for us to come up there and open at our 16-week engagement there on Tuesday. Well, I’m young and dumb and full of high spirits and trusting and of course Gene went on to Chicago, and come Tuesday, when we were supposed to already be there opening up, we still haven’t received any money. We called the club in Chicago that evening and wouldn’t you know it, in the background when someone answered the phone, we heard Gene Ammons playing.

We realized we weren’t getting paid. We went to the club owner in KC and explained our plight- that we were stranded. He said, “Well, Al Hibbler is coming with only a piano player, John Malachi. He needs a bass player and drummer so Buster, you and Dude can play with Al Hibbler, and John, you can play intermission piano.” So now we could work and get our money for our transportation back home.

Al Hibbler was a real character. He loved to show you how much he could do even though he was blind. One night he and the club owner got drunk together after the gig in the wee hours of the morning and the club owner fell asleep. The next day the club owner wakes up and he’s been robbed! He calls the police and they come and they speak with Al Hibbler. Back then we had two-dollar bills. The night before, Al Hibbler was telling the club owner how he could distinguish between a one-dollar bill and a two-dollar bill and a five and a ten and so on… so he took all the two-dollar bills out of the cash register. It was sort of like a bet. He did this to prove it to him. He took about 80 two-dollar bills! Al tells them what happened and the club owner drops the charges.

One night we get off the gig and went to the coffee shop in the hotel, which was on the same block as the club. The place is packed. Somebody comes in off the street, takes out a gun and fires the gun in the air. Pandemonium erupts! There were two doors - one that went to the street and one that went into the hotel lobby. Nobody was going toward the door to the street because the guy with the gun is standing there. So there’s a bottleneck at the door going into the hotel lobby. Chairs are all turned upside-down; people’s feet are caught in chairs… We were trying to get out and also protect Al but Al gets out that door before everyone else! His room is straight down the hall. We finally get through the bottleneck and run down to his room and he’s standing there in the dark out of breath and laughing at us because he got out before we did!

Al was a great singer, a great entertainer. He liked to meet the women… He usually took advantage of being blind by just feeling all over, and they would stand there and let him do it because that was how he could see. He really knew how to use it!

It was a most entertaining week. I have fond memories of Kansas City. In those days there were two separate unions, the black union and the white union. I remember going to the black union and hearing some astounding young musicians and sitting in with them. You could see and experience first-hand the legacy of Kansas City being carried on. That same week, Gene Ammons got arrested and spent the next few years in jail. I eventually collected the money he owed me and when he got out of jail he called me and we made the record The Boss is Back.

The last time I was in KC I played at the Gem Theater with Jimmy Cobb’s band. I rode along that block and the club and hotel are not there anymore. You’d never know they existed.

The preceding interview was conducted Frank R. Hayde, author of The Mafia and the Machine and Italian Gardens: A History of Kansas City Through Its Favorite Restaurant.

(Photo courtesy of Verdiana Williams.)