The many lives of Buster Williams

Volume 120, No. 2February, 2020

Peter Zimmerman

Photo of Buster Williams by Gus Philippas


Back in 1989, Buster Williams formed the first incarnation of his Something More quartet. Last year, he released the group’s ninth recording, called “Audacity.” It was a decade in the making and the bassist’s 16th overall as the leader, over a career spanning some six decades. The current group features saxman Steve Wilson, pianist George Colligan and drummer Lenny White. “You’ve got to have audacity to do what we do, to even want to do what we do, to even imagine that it’s all going to work,” Buster explains. “At this moment in time, audacity is the description of my life.” On a personal note, a mutual friend who plays the mbira tells me that Buster has always been very encouraging about her musical efforts, telling her to “be audacious – have audacity!”

Williams, a member of Local 802 for over 30 years, also performs with the Masters Quartet, which consists of Dave Liebman, Steve Kuhn and Billy Hart. In 2015, he recorded a tribute to McCoy Tyner (“Heads of State”) in a band composed of Gary Bartz, Larry Willis and Al Foster. Over the past decade, he has also found time to play on sessions led by the drummer Willie Jones III (“My Point Is…”), saxophonist/clarinetist Jeff Lederer (“Sunwatcher”) and guitarist Jaiman Crunk (“Encounters”), and worked with well-known jazz vets David “Fathead” Newman, Roger Kellaway and Wallace Roney, as well as lesser-known artists such as Meeco, Mary Stallings, Clifford Lamb and Thought Gang. He has even jammed with the London Symphony Orchestra. During this period, some of his earlier work – with Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Stan Getz and Woody Shaw – has been reissued.

Buster’s bass can be heard on four film scores, including Simone Signoret’s “Les Choix des Armes,” others by David Lynch and Spike Lee, and “McKenna’s Gold,” starring Gregory Peck. He has appeared with Branford Marsalis on “The Tonight Show” (the band covered five of his compositions) and did a cameo with Joe Williams on “Sesame Street.” He has even graced a few jingles for Prudential, Budweiser, Old Spice and Alpo Dog Food.

Born in 1942 in Camden, New Jersey, Charles Anthony Williams, Jr. started out on piano and drums before learning how to play bass from his father. Buster’s father was a tough taskmaster and Buster recalls many nights going to bed in excruciating pain, his fingers bleeding from so much practice. He was first inspired to take up the instrument at age 13, after hearing Oscar Pettiford’s rendition of “Stardust.” He especially liked Pettiford’s physical approach, the way his fingers struck the strings.   “The notes were unbelievable,” Buster says, “but that squeak – it was just so personal. It was like a psychic event for me.”

Buster scored his first paying gig in junior high playing in a band led by a saxophonist named Louis Judge; it paid “a nickel a night” (which was $5). At the same time, he studied composition and theory at Philadelphia’s Combs College of Music, as did, briefly, a young John Coltrane. (Sixty years later, Williams is now a professor at both the New School and the Manhattan School of Music.)

In 1959, he got his first “real” job with Jimmy Heath, a native of Philly, which is just across the Delaware River from Camden. The following year, Buster toured the country as a member of the Sonny Stitt/Gene “Jug” Ammons quintet, with whom Buster made his first two LPs. He spent most of the 1960s backing singers, including five years with “Fancy Miss Nancy” Wilson, yielding four albums. Over the ensuing years, he has backed at least 17 other vocalists, such as Carmen McRae, Bobby McFerrin, Etta Jones, Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Horn; check out his beautiful work on the latter’s “You Won’t Forget Me,” from 1991.

In 1967, Buster spent five weeks with the Miles Davis Quintet, subbing for Ron Carter, but he quit because the pay was too low, a decision he later regretted. The band also included his future bandmates Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and the drummer Tony Williams. One cut survives from Buster’s time with Miles, an alternate take of “Limbo,” which wasn’t released until 30 years later, on a six-CD box set of the trumpeters’ Columbia recordings from 1965 to 1968. (Ron Carter plays on the version that appears on “Sorcerer.”)

In 1969, after spending a few years with the Jazz Crusaders, he joined Hancock’s pioneering fusion Mwandishi Sextet. Herbie took the name Mwandishi, which means “author” in Swahili, while Buster was called Mchezaji, meaning “player.” This was the beginning of a lifelong collaboration and friendship with Herbie and Wayne, both of whom he introduced to Nichiren Buddhism, the practice created by a Japanese priest named Nichiren who lived during the 13th century.

While continuing to tour with Mwandishi, Williams also became a founding member of Sphere (the Thelonious Monk tribute band) and of the Timeless All-Stars, fronted by Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson. He contributed his talents to four or more albums each with Kenny Barron, Larry Coryell and Benny Golson, and has worked with innumerable other artists, from the pianists Count Basie, Chick Corea, Erroll Garner, Hilton Ruiz and Mary Lou Williams, to horn players Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Eddie Henderson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and on and on  –  the full list at reads like a veritable Who’s Who of Jazz. A documentary of his career by filmmaker Adam Kahan, entitled “Bass to Infinity,” has just been released; the next screening is on Feb. 16 at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in Rockville, Maryland.

Buster made his debut as a leader in 1975 with “Pinnacle,” on which four of the five songs are Williams originals. In 1976, along with Hank Jones and Tony Williams, he earned a Grammy nomination for the Great Jazz Trio’s “Love for Sale,” and his “Crystal Reflections” was awarded five stars in Downbeat.

While any aspiring bassist could play Buster’s gorgeous, turn-of-the-19th-century Hawkes Panormo upright  –  he also plays electric  –  no one can pluck and bow it like him.

“Buster’s sound is immediately identifiable, rich and warm with impeccable timing and melodicism,” says the trombonist Steve Turre, who has worked with him on many projects. “He is a master not only technically but creatively, too, always stretching the envelope, and his deep spirit always brings out the best in us.”

“His sense of time is extraordinary,” according to one of his many bandmates, the pianist Steve Kuhn. “Buster is very special, very talented. Playing with him is like being on a cushion.”

In the words of a friend of mine who once studied with him, he has “the greatest sound in all of jazz.” Indeed, to borrow from the old Mack Gordon song, there will never be another Buster.

On a cold, blustery winter day, I caught up with Buster over a plate of eggs at Jimbo’s Hamburger Palace, located at the foot of Sugar Hill in Harlem. (I took the “A” train to get there!) He had just returned from a tour of Eastern Europe and was sporting a snazzy new black beret.

Our interview begins below.

Photo by Gus Philippas

Peter Zimmerman: You’ve been a practicing Buddhist for almost five decades now. How have your spiritual beliefs affected your music?

Buster Williams: I believe that there’s absolutely nothing in one’s daily life that isn’t part and parcel of the music that he or she plays. Your basic life condition, the emotions that you experience throughout the day, your anger and joy, your hopes, your sufferings and struggles – all of it becomes part of what comes out, when you put your instrument in your hands. You’re not a different person when you’re playing that instrument. And you’re not two people, one who plays the instrument and one who lives the vicissitudes of life. It’s all connected with the music, and the music is connected with your life experiences.

Let’s say you’ve got five different trumpet players. Even though they’re all playing the same instrument, you’re going to hear a different tone quality. Some of it has to do with technique. Some of it has to do with one’s ability, as far as where a musician is at that point in his effort. But the other is the sound that he hears in his head. The sound that you produce on your instrument is ultimately the sound that you hear, not a sound that you’re necessarily trying to emulate or copy.

Because music is not what comes from your head; it’s what comes from your heart. What comes from your head doesn’t necessarily move people, but what comes from your heart definitely does. It took a certain virtuosity for Jimmy Blanton to play what he heard, but he had to hear it first. It took not only a creative mind but a daring one to say, “I’m going to break out of these limitations,” and then this created whole new possibilities.

This music has been created by these creative minds. Sometimes you’re not necessarily the innovator, but because of your creative mind and an openness to what is presented, you latch onto it and then start to develop it in your own way. That’s what gives us these unlimited possibilities. Because of these great people who came before us, the only limitations are the ones that are in our own minds. The heart never believes in limitations.

Peter Zimmerman: I love that album you made with Dexter Gordon called “Generation” with Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins and Freddie Hubbard. Can you tell me about your longtime association with Cedar?

Buster Williams: I don’t remember the first time I played with Cedar, but he was a big influence on me, because Cedar was sort of a no-nonsense kind of guy, straight to the point. He knew what he liked and what he didn’t like: you never had to second-guess Cedar. There was a real joy in playing Cedar’s compositions, because of their individuality. Every time I heard a Cedar composition, I knew it was his, but not because they sounded alike. In fact, they were all totally unique and different! And the hookup of Cedar and Billy Higgins was just amazing. The marriage was Cedar and Billy. They were made for each other. So for me to be put in the middle of that was such a great honor. Because not only was Cedar a master, but Billy Higgins was a master, too. In my career, that’s been my greatest fortune, that I’ve been able to play with these brilliant people, who made me challenge myself and taught me so much.

Peter Zimmerman: Did you know that when that album was recorded in 1972, Dexter was 50 years old and you were only 30?

Buster Williams: Well, I tell you, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more about how old these people were who I was playing with and realized that they were young, too. When I played with Miles Davis, I must have been 25 or 26, and Miles was in his early forties. But I never thought of it in chronological terms. They were my heroes. So I was able to walk with my heroes, and talk with my heroes. I was able to dwell on the same level with them. I mean, there wasn’t a time that I played with Cedar that I didn’t learn something. When I played with Dexter, or Freddie Hubbard, I learned something every time.

When I first met Dexter, to me he looked like a giant descended from Heaven. And he was so gracious. It was at the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen. I was in Europe for the first time in my life, in 1963, with Sarah Vaughan. We were playing at the Tivoli Gardens. And Dexter was at Montmartre, playing every night. And I went every night! The first time I met Dexter, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was the bassist, and I’m meeting everybody for the first time, and Dexter just embraced me, you know. And he was changing the reed on his saxophone. And he looked at me, and held up one of the reeds, and gave it to me. To this day, I have that reed.

Peter Zimmerman: Was it one he didn’t want?

Buster Williams: Well, of course! He wouldn’t give me a good reed! That’s a rarity – a good reed! So he let me sit in with him that night, and then I came back every night and he had me play with him. I was just so honored, man. But that’s the way these guys were. Their music was their humanity, and their music was their humbleness. They were servants to the music, and from them, I learned the real positioning of things and the attitude that’s best, to be able to constantly advance with this music. The music is the master, and we serve the music. And that’s what I learned from them. I never got the feeling from any of these great people who I played with, that they were above the music.

Peter Zimmerman: Speaking of Dexter, he was famous for quoting other songs. In your version of “Sophisticated Lady,” you quote “Mona Lisa.” What in your opinion is the purpose of quoting?

Buster Williams: Quoting is not necessarily something that you plan to do. Maybe you do it and you like it, so you do it again. But the music that we play comes from 12 basic notes. And I don’t care whether it’s jazz or music from the Himalayas – it’s all these 12 notes. Alterations of these 12 notes, but these 12 notes. And when you’re playing, you’re not reinventing the wheel, necessarily. So, when you play a sequence of notes, you’ve heard these notes somewhere before. For example, “Autumn in New York” and “Moonlight in Vermont.” When you listen to those two songs, you can superimpose one over the other. They’re sort of the same song.

While you’re playing, it’s easy for something that you’ve heard to pop into your mind, and it comes out in your horn, or through your fingers. Many times the audience thinks, “Oh, that’s the song that he’s playing.” They say “I heard you playing ‘Moonlight in Vermont,’” but you were playing a totally different song. But you only played a phrase from “Moonlight in Vermont”! [laughs]

You don’t necessarily want to get into such a habit of quoting that your solo becomes just a collection of quotes. But sometimes it can’t be helped.

Peter Zimmerman: How did you get your sound?

Buster Williams: It really comes from my father’s instruction. He taught me that the most important thing is, first of all, the sound that you get. I mean, what is it that we strive for when we first pick up an instrument? To get some kind of sound. And that sound is very primitive, raw and unsophisticated. But there’s such a great joy when you finally get a sound. So you’re going to  work hard, over a period of time, to get a sound. Then, when you get that sound, now that’s a great revelation, a great accomplishment.

So now you’ve got something to work with. How can I perfect this sound – imbue the sound with sophistication? The bass is very physical. The first sound that you get is just an indication of the possibilities. So then you have to develop your strength, your technique   and your confidence, and you have to develop your daringness and release yourself of inhibitions.

Peter Zimmerman: This reminds me of the song that you recorded with Betty Carter called “Sounds (Movin’ On).”

Buster Williams: Betty wrote some really nice songs and that one was very personal to her, from her own experience and her own heart. She sang the way she felt, and wrote according to the way that she wanted the world to be. Betty could sing both extremely fast and extremely slow – she had the full gamut. But these songs were written from her own experience, and her own heartache or her own joy.

Peter Zimmerman: Your bandmate Steve Kuhn told me that your biggest strength is walking a bass line, but can’t a lot of bassists walk?

Buster Williams: I hope it’s my strength! I mean, ultimately, that’s the bottom line. So when you say that all bass players walk, it’s the way you walk that determines a lot – I daresay your own success.

Peter Zimmerman: Bob Cranshaw once told me that his job as a bassist was to “lock it down.”

Buster Williams: The bass player has a function, and they can do what no one else in the band can do. If the drummer and the bass player don’t do certain things, they won’t get it done. The piano player also has a different function, and if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, then that job doesn’t get done. The strength of a player is how far can you go without sacrificing your function? I tell my students, “If you don’t want to play the root and the fifth, or the third – if you don’t want that to be your function, then don’t be the bass player!” But don’t think that just because you’ve got to play the root or the fifth or the third, that your creativity is stifled. I could say, “I could do so much more if I were six feet tall, and my arm span was at least 15 feet,” you know? That’s not gonna happen. But what you can do with what you have is unlimited. What you do have can either be seen as your asset, or not. And then, what you’re going to produce in life is determined by how you see yourself.

Great things have been done by small people. It’s not about the size of your brain, it’s about how you use it. When we talk about having a big heart, the truth is that nobody wants a big heart, everybody wants a normal-sized heart. But the vastness of that heart differs from one to another, depending on a person’s perception of things and view of his own humanity.

Peter Zimmerman: Can you tell me more about your experience with Nichiren Buddhism?

Buster Williams: My sister Toni introduced my wife Ronnie to it, and we began chanting nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which [in Japanese] means total devotion of mind and body. By chanting this mystic law, we open up the Buddha nature inside of us and align or fuse ourselves with the great Buddha nature of the universe. This allows you to really change your whole perspective and perception and to open up that pie in your life, to accomplish what you want to accomplish. As I said before, there’s no experience in your life that doesn’t affect your music. The truth is, this vast universe is a macrocosm – in other words, it’s unlimited – and human life is the microcosm of this macrocosm. The potential in an individual human being is no less than the potential in the universe itself. Let’s say you’ve got a sweet potato pie. When you take a slice, this is your slice, Peter, and this is my slice. Your life is not a slice of this pie. Your life is this pie.

Peter Zimmerman: You came up during the Civil Rights movement. Do you think we’ve made any progress in terms of race relations since then?

Buster Williams: A lot is better, but then a lot is not so good. It’s interesting that each era presents its own problems. The fact that we’ve had a black president doesn’t change race relations or the way that bigoted people think. A racist is a racist, and a racist society is a racist society, not only because of the people who exist in it, but also the laws that exist. This country was built on a segregation concept, a segregation premise. It’s written into the laws, the way that Wall Street conducts itself, and the way that education is presented. Look at what’s happening with health care. It’s amazing! We have a large group of people in this country who don’t believe in health care for everyone, only for certain people.

Racism extends not only to black people, but to all minorities. I can feel it differently than you, because you don’t look like me. It’s got nothing to do with whether you’re white and I’m black, because I can be just as much of a racist as you. It’s a natural thing, that dogs don’t like cats and cats don’t like dogs, so when we see dogs and cats getting along, we’re all so amazed – isn’t that wonderful! Is that so much different than the human species? Not at all.

Because when you really analyze why it is that we have a problem with one another, it’s like peeling away an onion skin: you never get to the core. In other words, there’s no reason for it, especially in this day and age, other than that it’s been ingrained in you to hate me, and in me to hate you.

This would be a long conversation and we don’t have time to do it today. But you cannot understand a person’s experience – I don’t care what color he is – you can’t understand a person’s experience through encapsulation, you know, in one paragraph. Our experiences are so rich.

I take my Mercedes to a mechanic from the Czech Republic, and sometimes we sit and talk about his experiences, how he escaped when he was 17 years old and what he had to go through. And I’m in awe. He talks about things that I can’t even relate to. So I don’t discount anybody’s experience.

Peter Zimmerman has previously contributed to Allegro with tributes and profiles of Clark Terry, Yusef Lateef, Hugh Masekela, Cedar Walton and Bobby Porcelli. His interview with Buster Williams was excerpted from his forthcoming book “The Jazz Masters: Setting the Record   Straight” (University Press of Mississippi, spring 2021). Peter Zimmerman can be reached at