Steve Williams: Explaining A Drummer's Role
A career sideman to Washington's own, the legendary singer-pianist Shirley Horn, fellow DC- native drummer Steve Williams has been around the proverbial jazz block and is here to tell you a bit about his ride.
Williams has a jovial air that shows he's unmistakably joyous about living life. But there are issues that come to light in this interview, revealing what irks him. For instance - the typecasting and discrimination against drummers by fans, other musicians and the press, and the harsh realities of the record business.
He also reminisces on a bygone era in New York when so many of jazz's elder statesmen were visible on the streets, in the lunch line, and sitting in at the clubs. He recounts countless clubs, joints, and watering holes throughout the Gotham city that have been relegated to historic relics, only to be remembered by the musicians and fans that frequented them.
All About Jazz: You're not originally from Washington D.C., where were you born?
Steve Williams: I was born in Rochester, New York.
AAJ: And how did you make your way to DC?
SW: My father took a job in the Government Printing Office in 1959. We moved to Southeast Washington, I was about two years old.
AAJ: So pretty much you did all your growing up in DC?
SW: Right, I consider myself a Washingtonian.
AAJ: When did you first pick up a pair of drum sticks?
SW: Probably when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I played at my 6th grade graduation. We played Louie, Louie for about a half an hour.
AAJ: That's one of those tunes you can do that on.
SW: Especially when that's the only song the guitarist knows! ( laughter ).
AAJ: Where did you go to high school?
SW: I went to Calvin Coolidge High School for two years and was getting into a lot of trouble. At that point, my parents suggested for me to find an interest. And already music was my interest. I had a band in high school with guys I went to school with. After our first class we would go right back to my house and jam all day long. So my mother looked at Interlochen, the academy for the arts.
AAJ: In Michigan?
SW: Yeah. So I ended up going there my last year of high school...actually my last year and a half of high school. And I graduated there. I was a minor in [classical] percussion. I had to take another - I took metalsmithing actually.
SW: Yeah, because I didn't know how to read music at the time so I couldn't be a music major.
AAJ: After Interlochen...did you go to college there too?
SW: No. I went to the University of Miami but in between, I took a year off. I came back to Washington. I worked at the American Café making sandwiches.
AAJ: Were you gigging at night?
SW: Nope. Not at all. I was not even sure music was gonna be my career. I wanted it to be, but man I came outta high school and I realized there was more to music than I thought. And before the year was up, I realized that I had to go to college for something. And since I went to high school for music, I might as well go to college for it too. So I applied all over. Peabody - rejected. Hartt - rejected. University of Miami - accepted !. So I went where I was accepted. And I was a music education major and a percussion minor.
AAJ: This was legit percussion?
SW: Oh yes!.
AAJ: Even back then, that had to be like the mid 70s...was this around the time when jazz education was becoming "legitimate"?
SW: They had just installed what they called a studio music in jazz degree. And you could study from two guys that would teach you how to play the drum set and others that would teach you how to play vibraphone and the rest. But what happened was my legit percussion teacher, Mr. Wickstrom, suggested to me that I finish studying some legitimate percussion - tympani, snare drum, and take some jazz courses as well.
AAJ: So you spent four years in Miami?
SW: No I spent three years in Miami. My second year I was working' six nights a week with Carmen Lundy.
SW: And getting up at 8 o'clock in the morning for my English class. I realized that I didn't need to be in college anymore. Bobby Watson, as a senior, was teaching the second jazz band.
AAJ: So was Carmen the first vocalist you backed?
SW: She was the first real quality musician , vocalist, singer, pianist. She was an opera student at Miami. She was incredible then and she's incredible now.
AAJ: How long was it between then and your joining Shirley Horn?
SW: Well, I moved...the reason why I was only three years in Miami was because all the musicians that were teaching me and the ones that were my peers, were moving to New York. Curtis Lundy moved to New York. Bobby Watson moved to New York, Carmen moved. So I did what they did. I moved to New York. I didn't know what I was doing at the time. Except I knew that I was getting bored at college. I mean, I learned a lot...really I did.
At the time, New York was a Mecca for jazz. Man, I'm gonna tell you...it was incredible how many musicians - who we all looked up to as heroes - you could see daily and nightly just doing their thing.