Jimmy Madison: Tony Williams – Jazz vs Rock


Jimmy Madison

SKF NOTE: My interview with Jimmy Madison appears in the October 1982 Modern Drummer. What some MD readers perceived as Jimmy’s put down of Tony Williams‘s playing is, perhaps, the most remembered part of this interview.

I wonder if Jimmy’s remarks seem controversial thirty-four years later. I’m including here, for perspective, Jimmy’s comments on Tony’s great influence on Jimmy’s playing. Our interview then moved to the topic of studio drumming, of playing on muffled, dead sounding studio drumsets. And then — because I was horrified the first time, in the mid-70s, when I replaced the Remo white-coated Ambassador heads on my 8×12 and 14×14 Gretsch toms with Black Dot CS heads. I felt as if I was playing drums for the first time. Those heads were miserable.

Since Jimmy and I had just been talking about Tony Williams, and then about the impossibility of a drummer trying to get an open sound out of dead drums, I asked Jimmy Madison why he thought Tony would choose — of all the drumheads available – Black Dot CS heads. My thinking was, “Why would anyone wanted to make it harder to play drums?”

Jimmy Madison: So, my whole concept of where time is and how to play with it changed from hearing both Tony [Williams] and Elvin [Jones].

Scott K Fish: What did you like about Tony’s playing?

JM: The first thing I remember hearing him on that knocked me out was the fast version of All Blues — which is on MilesFour and More album. As a matter of fact it was about the second time I ever got stoned on grass.

I was sitting over at this other guy’s house and he put on Four and More. He had big speakers and a really good [stereo] system. When Tony played All Blues, the time felt to me like Tony was floating out in space and the pulses of time were stars. And the stars were coming along in a line under him, and as each one came along, he was just kind of skipping along — like pushing the stars along.

I don’t know how else to explain it.


Tony Williams

[SKF NOTE: My conversation with Jimmy Madison then moved to studio drumming, dead studio sounding drums. Jimmy spoke of how playing low-tuned, muffled drums requires a technique different from playing open drums. 

Jimmy described a studio date where he arrived with just his drumsticks because he thought it was a jingle date. Instead it was a jazz album date. “They’ve got this rock n’ roll drumset with big thick cymbals,” Madison said. He told himself, “We’re going to have to do this thing.” So he “took the tape off and tuned [the drumset] up. They tried to EQ the cymbals as best they could. Actually, the sound is not too bad.”

Our interview picks up from there. And this is where Jimmy Madison made his observations about Tony Williams which caused a bit of stir among some Modern Drummer readers.]

SKF: How did it feel playing on that [drum]set?

JM: Terrible. Horrible.

SKF: Can you compensate for that?

JM: Sure. That’s where experience comes in. After twenty-odd years playing, I can play anything, on any kind of drumset, and make it sound reasonably good. Even if it feels horrible to me.

I’d have to compensate my technique. There’s no sense trying to make a ringy sound when there’s no ring to  be had.

I couldn’t imagine anybody forcing me to play on a set that I thought sounded and felt terrible. I would say, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you trying to get me to play a jazz sound on a drumset like that? There’s no sensitivty in those drums. You can’t really play musical on those drums because there is no overtones.”

SKF: Why do you think drummers like Tony Williams are using, like, Black Dot drumheads?

JM: Yeah, but look where he’s coming from. He did come from a jazz tradition. But for the last ten-odd years…. Well, for several years he was trying to be a rock ‘n roll player. He was really trying to deny his roots and say, “I’m a rock ‘n roll player.” Which is impossible. You can’t deny your roots. It shows up somewhere.

So, Tony plays very jazzy rock ‘n roll. But he’s really been trying to be a rock ‘n roll player.

Well, now all of those years of playing with big heavy sticks on big heavy drums with big fat heads and cymbals — his technique has gone to hell. His original technique. He’s got lots of chops now. In fact, he’s probably got more chops than he did before, from playing those big sticks on those big cymbals.

But if you put him on a set of drums like he use to play back on those Miles Davis records, he would probably sound pretty strange. Because those drums are so sensitive. He was playing with small sticks. If he’d play those baseball bats on that old set it would sound terrible. If he play the small sticks he wouldn’t have any control. It would be like trying to play with two straws.

He [Tony] would have to sit down and woodshed with those sticks on those cymbals — for weeks or months, probably — to get anywhere near the technique he use to have back in the old days.


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1 Response to Jimmy Madison: Tony Williams – Jazz vs Rock

  1. Jimmy is not wrong on Tony’s technique change due to drum size, stick and head preference. However; I don’t hear it as his technique ‘going to hell’, it was just a different feel that moved from swing to more straight at that time. Tony wasn’t ‘trying to play Rock’…he was playing it! And, IMHO with technique that was lightyears ahead of any other Rock drummer around. Now Jimmy said this in 1982, I doubt very much that he felt Tony wasn’t swinging again once he went and formed his Quintet. And Tony still played those heads and 2b size drum sticks. It wasn’t wrong or bad to my hears…just a different perspective.

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