Drummer Tony Williams: “Good Musicians Copy”
~ 09 April 2009 ~
Tony Williams, NYC 1965. Photograph by Francis Wolff.
Tony Williams, arguably one of the most influential and revolutionary drummers of the 20th century, clearly understood a concept that I tried to demystify, and probably fell short of demystifying, nearly 6 years ago. Published in June 2003, “Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal” was an attempt to describe the idea of becoming a better designer by dissecting, analyzing, and “copying” the works of other designers. (Sorry, you’ll have to Google that article — it’s painful to link up at this point given its age…)
It was during our recent flight to Rome that I stumbled on the following, nestled toward the end of a very thorough article by John Ephland for Traps magazine (Spring 2009 issue). The text is formed from an interview with Tony Williams in October 1988. Check out how Tony explains it:
If you’re going to pick just one style of playing and you can only play that way, that’s what you want to do … I don’t discourage that. But I think that drumming is more important than style. When I’ve given lessons or clinics, I try to emphasize that learning how to play the drums is more important than having your own style. Really knowing what the drums can do and the scope and range of the instrument is more important.
He continues, explaining how he “set about religiously” to play other drummers’ style in an attempt to understand the scope and range of his instrument:
You know the reason I play the way I do is because, when I first started playing, all I ever wanted to do was to sound like Max Roach, was to sound like Art Blakey, was to sound like Philly Joe Jones, was to sound like Louis Hayes, was to sound like Jimmy Cobb, was to sound like Roy Haynes. I really wanted to figure out why they sounded the way they did. I wasn’t interested in my own style. So I set about playing like these guys religiously, and playing their style because it was just such a wonderful, magical experience. It was just a marvelous, wonderful feeling that I got when I heard these people and then I developed a way to sound like them, and to go about it. I mean, it was exciting to me to figure out how he did that.
Tony beat me to it by 15 years, but that’s precisely the point I was hoping to make in my original article — you become a good designer by familiarizing yourself with the methods and techniques used by those who are already good designers. Such is the advice Tony would give to emerging drummers:
I get guys coming up to me — they just got a drum set; they’ve been playing maybe four years — and they want their own style. They want to be expressive. I say, ‘Well, then, if you want to be expressive, you’ve got to find out what the instrument will do. And to do that, you’ve got to go back and find out and get an idea of what’s already been done.’
And to cap it all off, Tony’s remarks conclude with this appropriate summary:
That’s what the instrument’s all about. It’s the instrument that’s more important. The quality and magic of the instrument are more important than you are.
That’s what design is all about. It’s the instrument of design that’s more important. The quality and magic of what design can do are more important than you are.
Tony Williams died in 1997. I owe him a posthumous thank you for saying something far better than I could.
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