Unsung Bassists, Part Two

Our look at unsung bassists continues with Tommy Williams, who mostly played with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet and is not to be confused with the more recent jazz bassist Thomas Williams or Tommy Williams, the rock guy.

2. Tommy Williams – I’d been heavily involved with jazz – reading about it, listening to it, playing it – for about 25 years before I first came across the bass playing of Tommy Williams and I won’t soon forget it. About twelve years ago, I was hanging out with my good friend John Sumner – a terrific drummer and serious jazz record collector – at his apartment. We were listening to records and talking music as usual and he put on an older Art Farmer LP I didn’t know, a quartet date from around the late-’50s or so. The pianist sounded just like Tommy Flanagan (and it was) but the bassist and drummer didn’t sound familiar, I couldn’t place them. Then on came a track with the bass playing the melody to an old standard I also didn’t know (“So Beats My Heart For You”) and my ears perked right up, this kind of thing wasn’t too commonplace back then. The mystery bassist sounded just great, he got the melody to sing (not easy on the plucked bass) with a long, rounded tone and very articulate, smooth phrasing. It was the kind of thing I’d heard from Oscar Pettiford, Red Mitchell and Paul Chambers, but this guy sounded different. I gave up, had no idea, so I finally asked in desperation, “Who the hell is the bass player?!?”

“Tommy Williams” answered Sumner, handing me over the album jacket. Tommy Williams? I was a bit dumbfounded, how could I have not heard somebody who played this well before now, or even know the name? The album was simply called Art, on the Argo label from 1960, with Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. Williams took a solo later on “So Beats” which just knocked me out, his phrasing very horn-like and nimble, his fluent melodic lines swinging through the chord changes with great nuance and expression. His rhythm playing on the rest of this wonderful record was also right on the money, he was sensitive but also had a big, even sound, played graceful bass lines in all registers with a springy, loping beat.

Although I was shocked at never having heard of Tommy Williams, it was understandable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, his career took place during a very crowded period of jazz activity/recording and was very brief, for reasons to be seen later. And secondly, most of his recordings were done with (or based around) the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet and almost all of these had been out of print for years and remained so, even in the first few years of CD reissuing.

Even with Google, biographical information on Williams is sketchy; he was born sometime around 1934 in Brooklyn, N.Y., growing up and remaining there all his life. His first known recording was with the obscure veteran New York pianist Gene Rodgers, whose main claim to fame was being the pianist on the famous 1939 recording of “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins. Williams and drummer Ben Riley joined Rodgers on his 1958 trio record Jazz Comes To the Astor on Emarcy, which I’ve never heard, or even seen in print. Williams spent 1959 playing in the trio accompanying singer Carmen McRae, as well as playing in Billy Taylor’s piano trio with Dave Bailey on drums. Williams and Riley appear on Taylor’s Riverside album Billy Taylor with Four Flutes, recorded in July, 1959.

Art Farmer and Benny Golson formed The Jazztet, a hard-bop sextet with a front line of trumpet, trombone, tenor saxophone and a piano-bass-drums rhythm section, in 1959. It was one of the more gentle and thoughtful of hard-bop groups, as you might expect from the lyrical and intelligent tendencies of the co-leaders; it was also a showcase for Golson’s great gifts as both a composer and arranger. Golson and the group’s original trombonist, Curtis Fuller*, had done a lot of playing and recording together, the Jazztet was born out of this rapport and from Farmer’s great 1958 album Modern Art, featuring Golson and Bill Evans. The band’s first rhythm section had a very young McCoy Tyner on piano, Addison Farmer** (Art’s identical twin) on bass, and Dave Bailey on drums, soon replaced by Lex Humphries. They had a contract with Chicago-based Argo Records and their debut album Meet the Jazztet, with Golson’s grooving “Killer Joe”, met with some critical acclaim and good sales. Here was a swinging new band with good soloists playing a fresh and interesting repertoire. It was a competitive, crowded field though and it was hard to keep the band working steadily at first, it meant going on the road and not making a lot of money. For these reasons Addison left in 1960, he had other work and recording commitments. In fact, the whole rhythm section turned over, as Tyner soon accepted an offer to join John Coltrane and Humphries tired of the road. Cedar Walton took Tyner’s place and Tootie Heath replaced Humphries. Farmer and Golson hired Tommy Williams, who they’d heard with Carmen McRae, to play bass in late August of 1960.

This would mark the beginning of a very busy few months for Tommy Williams. The Jazztet (with Tom McIntosh now on trombone) would record their second album, Big City Sounds, on September 16 and 19. Williams would announce himself to the jazz world as a bassist to be reckoned with on this record, particularly with his performance on Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly”, which features the rhythm section as soloists. His bass lines here are very muscular and he takes a tremendous solo, with more content in one chorus than most bassists would play in a week. He’s all over the bass with very melodic phrases interspersed with an astonishing range of complex rhythmic ideas – double-time, implied double-time, triplets, interpolations off the triplet, syncopated phrases across bar lines – all with a great variety of articulations – slides, smears, pull-offs. He gets your attention right away, but none of this sounds forced or like showing off, but rather is organically musical, making you wish he’d been given another chorus.

It was this kind of eloquence that led Benny Golson to say, “I hated to follow bass solos after Tom joined the band, because he could put horn players to shame.” Tommy’s style was not as set or stylized as that of Paul Chambers, the only contemporary bassist in hard-bop who compared with Williams as a soloist at that time. Tommy’s phrasing is not as rubato or boppish as Paul’s, and he didn’t anticipate (or deliberately delay) playing on chord changes as much, nor did he solo using the bow. His harmonic thinking is not as chromatic as Paul’s, either while soloing or walking. Williams’ overall approach is more varied than that of Chambers though, he uses more registers of the bass and is more polyrhythmic, more abstract, yet very melodic.

The Jazztet’s new rhythm section is very cohesive and swinging throughout – Walton and Heath had played together with J.J. Johnson’s Quintet-Sextet in 1959-60 and Williams dovetails with them beautifully. They’re sensitive on ballads, very smooth and relaxed on medium tempos and simply burn on fast tempos, there’s no fat here, no flies on these guys.

Farmer and Golson each had contracts with Argo to record their own albums as leaders, separate from the Jazztet. On September 21-23, Farmer took Williams, Albert Heath and Tommy Flanagan into the Nola studios to record the aforementioned Art, surely one of the best records he’d ever make. Farmer conceived of it as a very intimate session, saying, “I wanted it to sound as if I were just sitting and talking to someone with the horn, talking to just one person” and this may account or his choice of the very sensitive Flanagan on piano. He succeeds brilliantly, though it’s certainly not all ballads by any means; two of the eight tracks are fast, four medium-tempo. Apart from “So Beats”, the highlights are Golson’s gorgeous “Out of the Past” and “Goodbye Old Girl” from the show “Damn Yankees”. “Past” has a beautiful melody over a gorgeous and complex chord sequence, Tommy Williams follows strong solos on it by Farmer and Flanagan with a deft one of his own. As for the achingly beautiful ballad “Goodbye Old Girl”, very few people attempted this after Farmer’s version, he simply owns it.

It didn’t take long for jazz players to take notice of Williams, he soon began to get calls to record outside the Jazztet. He turns up on a reunion album of the celebrated J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding two-trombone quintet, The Great Kai & J.J. on Impulse!, recorded in November, 1960. Tommy plays on seven of the eleven tracks in a rhythm section with Bill Evans on piano and Art Taylor on drums. (The other four tracks have Evans with Paul Chambers on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, an early incarnation of the section on Oliver Nelson’s famous Blues and the Abstract Truth from 1961.) It’s a very good but tightly arranged date, with short tracks mostly featuring the trombones and Evans. Williams acquits himself well though, shows himself to be a quick study, a poised, incisive, smart player in fast company, there’s no choosing between the two terrific rhythm sections. The liner notes were written by the fine pianist Dick Katz, who had been Tommy’s band-mate with Carmen McRae in 1959. Here is part of his commentary on Williams: “Bassist Tommy Williams is relatively new to the recording scene….It is my conviction that Tommy is almost without peer among the newer bass players. He plays with great sensitivity, finesse and authority. Currently featured with the Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet, the reader is advised to remember his name.” 

In December of ’60, Tommy was also hired to play on trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s Smooth As the Wind, a record with strings, six brass and a rhythm section, with arrangements by Tadd Dameron and Benny Golson, completed in March of 1961. It didn’t feature Williams in any way, but being asked to take part in such an ambitious project was further evidence of his growing reputation.

Williams was involved in Golson’s first Argo record as a leader, which also took place in the Nola studios, beginning with two sessions in December 1960 and finishing with a session in April of ’61. It was called Take a Number From 1 To 10 and was a complex concept album, though there was no gimmick involved. The idea was to present 10 pieces, starting with solo saxophone (“You’re My Thrill”) and adding one instrument on each of the succeeding tracks. Williams is added on track two, Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”. Here’s a direct quote of Golson from the liner notes, about playing in a duo with Williams : “Tommy is one of the few bassists I’d attempt this with. He has a more melodic approach to his instrument than any bassist I’ve known except for Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown…….with Tommy behind you, you really have to be alert in matching his melodic imagination.” Williams doesn’t solo on “Daddy”, but his melodic sense shows in the note choices of his flowing bass lines, and in the interplay of these with Golson, his very musical presence is certainly felt. Tommy does take a half-chorus solo on track three, “The Best Thing For You”, negotiating the song’s tricky chord changes with great finesse.

Tommy is present throughout the rest of the program of standards and originals, as Golson adds (in order) drums, piano, trumpet, trombone, baritone saxophone, French horn, a second trumpet and a third trumpet, finishing with a ten-piece band playing his own “Time”. It’s a tour de force for Golson both as a player and, as more instruments are added, a composer-arranger. This is one of his best records – along with his 1962 Argo quartet record “Free” and his 1957 “The Modern Touch” sextet album on Riverside. For years, these three were the hardest to find, it was criminal.

While all this was going on, the Jazztet also began work on their third album, The Jazztet and John Lewis, in December of 1960. It would be completed in January, 1961 and to me would be their most interesting and best overall record; though I’ll admit I’m biased as a huge John Lewis fan. Golson and Farmer had asked Lewis to write an arrangement for the group, and after listening to them one night at the Village Gate and being thoroughly impressed, Lewis said he’d sooner write a whole album for them. The co-leaders jumped at this, there had long been mutual admiration between them and Lewis, and certainly between Golson and Lewis as composers. In short order Lewis wrote arrangements of six of his compositions including the new “Bel”, written expressly for this record. The others had been done by the Modern Jazz Quartet, but Lewis took great pains to recast these as vehicles for the Jazztet, he had no wish for this to sound like a “Jazztet plays the greatest hits of the MJQ” date. He uses the three horns in an amazing variety of ways to show his works in an entirely new light, and there’s lots of room for blowing, along with some sensitive ensemble work. In particular, “Django” has never sounded quite like this. Normally slow and somber, Lewis transforms it into a fast-tempo cooker, somehow without losing its essence.

The only bass solo is on the earthy yet abstract blues, “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West”, taken at a medium-slow tempo. Williams is the first soloist and while one again wishes he was given more time (just two choruses on this short form), he makes the most of it. He plays a completely convincing blues solo, both melodic and down-home, using some slurs, drop-offs and occasional vibrato, his phrases reflecting the spacious nature of the theme. The rest of the record shows off a different dimension in Tommy’s playing – as it does with the others – namely, expert and intricate ensemble work with great command over a broad range of dynamics, timbre, shifting tempos, textures and rhythmic feels. It’s a tremendous record, surprising to both Lewis fans (and his detractors) and those of the Jazztet.

Williams continued playing and touring with the Jazztet through 1961, they would record a live album at Chicago’s Birdhouse in June. The result was their hardest swinging, most straight-ahead record, the band stretching out more and there’s also a long version of the Monk ballad “Round Midnight”, brilliantly arranged by Golson. Cedar Walton is given a long feature on the fast blues “Farmer’s Market”, he’s just dazzling and the rhythm section throughout is very fiery and popping.

Walton and Heath would leave shortly after this; Cedar to join Art Blakey and Tootie to freelance in New York. Harold Mabern was the new pianist and Roy McCurdy came on board to play drums. In October of 1961, Farmer would use this new rhythm on his second quartet album for Argo, Perception. It’s of the same general quality as the earlier Art, though a little more upbeat in nature and featuring more jazz originals – two by Farmer (“Ponsu” and “Kayin'”), one by Tom McIntosh (“The Day After”) and one by Ray Bryant (“Tonk”).

Tommy Williams left The Jazztet late in 1961 to accept an offer from Stan Getz, his place would be taken by Herbie Lewis. The sextet would go on to make two more albums for Mercury (Here and Now and Another Git Together) in 1962, before disbanding.

Williams joined Getz during the height of his bossa nova period in 1962. It was a step up for Tommy both in terms of exposure and pay, though musically it would provide less of an opportunity for self-expression. He adapted well to the new repertoire and rhythmic idiom of Brazilian music, and his work here would be a model for later bassists in playing this music. Generally, he plays very simply – mostly fat, round half-notes without any skips or adornments, which is what this style requires. Tommy would appear on two of Getz’s Verve bossa nova albums, starting with Big Band Bossa Nova, the follow-up to the very successful Jazz Samba. Recorded in May of 1962, it featured impressionistic arrangements by Gary McFarland, with Getz, Bob Brookmeyer and Jim Hall as the main soloists. He was also on Jazz Samba Encore! featuring guitarist Luis Bonfa, done in February, 1963. Tommy was incorrectly listed as the bassist on Getz/Gilberto, the bassist is actually the Brazilian Sebastillo Neto. It’s a shame Williams didn’t record any conventional jazz albums during his stay with Getz, which might have showcased both his abilities as a soloist and a swinging rhythm section player more. Getz and Verve were riding the wave of the bossa nova craze though, which was laying the proverbial golden egg.

It’s not clear when Williams left Getz, but Encore! would mark his last appearance on records and shortly thereafter he disappears from view altogether. His career simply stops, but not for the usual reasons of drug abuse, sudden illness or premature death. Tommy Williams simply retired from the big-time jazz world, perhaps tiring of its rigors and wanting to settle down. The jazz life in those times was a tough one, it meant a lot of time on the road, not much money or security, the pitfalls of alcohol or drug addiction. Tommy and his wife began raising a family in Brooklyn. At any rate, he retired from playing and the Williams family’s gain was jazz’s loss. Williams worked for many yearsi n the hardware department of a local Sears department store. He passed away suddenly but peacefully at home in 1993, he was just 59.

Tommy was still young when he withdrew (my best guess would be in his early-30s at the latest) and there’s no doubt he would have gone on to become one of the greatest bassists in jazz. In his short career, he’d already established himself as such in just four years, especially with his amazingly concentrated string of eight excellent records between September, 1960 and October, 1961. In terms of quality (and with the possible exception of Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter and a few others), it’s as good a one-year recording run by a bassist as there is in jazz history; unfortunately a lot of these records were impossible to find for many years. It’s also a pity that Williams didn’t spend more time playing or recording with a quartet or a piano trio, these would have afforded him more opportunities where his greatest gifts lay, as a soloist. Although Benny Golson and others clearly admired his playing, there was only so much room in a sextet. The three horns took precedence and Cedar Walton was no slouch either, he had to be given solo room. Williams certainly made the most of the solo space he was given, I just wish there had been more of it and I say this as a bassist who generally thinks bass solos are overrated.

There’s no one quite like Tommy Williams in the whole history of jazz bass playing. He’s unique; exceptional but now almost completely unknown and forgotten.

Notes. * The Jazztet had so many personnel changes (Grachan Monchur III was its third trombonist and Duke Pearson played piano briefly between Tyner and Walton) because of both ego and economic issues. Outside pressure was brought to bear on the leaders to change the name of the group from The Jazztet to the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet. Both Curtis Fuller and Dave Bailey objected to this and left; originally the group was to be more of a cooperative. Fuller and the co-leaders remained on friendly terms though, Golson would use Fuller on his own albums and Fuller would be the trombonist when the Jazztet had its successful reunion beginning in 1982. It’s hard to imagine today, but back when there actually was a jazz business, such matters of billing had importance and even influenced hiring decisions. For example, Cannonball Adderley wanted to hire piano star Phineas Newborn Jr. to join his quintet around 1960, but Newborn wanted billing. Cannonball already had an agreement giving his brother Nat billing though, and he felt giving Newborn billing too would be disrespectful to the band’s bassist and drummer, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. He didn’t want to leave them out, so the whole idea of hiring Newborn was scrapped. As to economics, the Jazztet’s music and co-leaders were less aggressive and crowd-pleasing than other hard-bop bands led by such extroverts as Adderley, Art Blakey or Horace Silver and this made it harder for the band to earn the kind of money it needed to stay together for long-term success.

** Addison Farmer could easily have made this list of unsung bassists on his own, so I wanted to comment further on him. As twins, he and Art were very close, almost inseparable musically for much of their careers. To an extent, Addison was in Art’s shadow mainly because he played a background instrument like the bass in a very unobtrusive way. Addison was rock-solid and very well-trained, studying with the great Fred Zimmermann of the NY Philharmonic and also at the Manhattan and Julliard Schools of Music. He did not have the soloist dimension in his playing that Tommy Williams did, but was a strong, fundamentally sound bassist, a very good group player and all-around musician. He played on eight of his brother’s albums and also recorded a lot for Prestige and other labels around New York in the ’50s with leaders such as Mose Allison, Gigi Gryce, Teddy Charles and others. He died very suddenly from a massive brain aneurysm on February 20, 1963. He was only 34 and Art was devastated, never fully got over the blow, saying his brother’s death was like “having a limb amputated.” I always assumed that Tommy Williams replaced Farmer with the Jazztet after Addison’s death, but no, it was a rare instance of Addison striking out on his own, out from his brother’s shadow, allowing Tommy Williams to step briefly into the spotlight.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Unsung Bassists, Part Two

  1. My older brother Craig notified me of this article and I had to check it out. I then shared it with my mom and did some fact checking. I am his younger son Jason. A few things should be cleared up about why my dad left the biz. I’d be glad to help you out with that. I also have a few pics that you may not have. You wrote a wonderful and informative piece about dad. With this, talking to mom and going through pictures I’ve learned so much about a part of his life he didn’t talk about. If you’d like more info about him I’m sure we can make it happen. He passed peacefully and unexpectedly at home, in Brooklyn in 1991

  2. Thank you so much for writing such a thorough piece on Tommy Williams. I’ve been searching for information on his life and his complete discography for more than two years. This was very informative. I hope that his son, Jason Williams, can add even more information and possibly post some photos (I have found only one photo of him so far.).

  3. Hello, Steve!

    My name is Neal Miner I am a jazz bass player living in New York City. Thank you SO much for doing this research and posting this very informative and much-needed article about the great Tommy Williams! He is definitely one of my favorites and has always been very inspiring to listen to. For years I have been turning bass students on to him and even making them learn some of his bass lines. I’m curious as to where you found all of this information as I too have been trying for so long to find out more and always seem to come up with nothing. A couple of things that you didn’t mention that I’d like to add if you don’t mind. From reading liner notes I read that he started on guitar, piano and saxophone which makes me understand why he is such a well-rounded bassist with his understanding of harmony, voice leading and obviously soloing. He truly understands the role of the bass and plays his role with such energy, love and support. I personally feel of his contemporaries he is most akin to Sam Jones with his accompanying, sound and even soloing as well. I even hear a little bit of the expressive, playful and horn-like qualities of Red Mitchell in his playing too which I feel at that time was rare in bass playing. In the end he is definitely a unique voice on the bass and should be a household name.

    Just today I put out a Facebook post asking if anybody knew about Tommy Williams and if there were any photographs of him. Not even an hour later I was gratefully sent two photographs and a link to your wonderful article. I have been looking for information/photographs of Tommy Williams literally for 20+ years. I have even gone as far as writing letters to Benny Golson and Tootie Heath to ask about Tommy. Unfortunately I never heard back from either of them. I assumed that there may have been some reason for this but how was I to know.

    One time on the jazz cruise Monty Alexander told me that Tommy was Ray Brown’s favorite young bass player. Monty also said that he and a couple of other musicians actually went to the Sears store in Brooklyn where he worked and tried to convince him to come back to music but unfortunately they were unsuccessful. Monty absolutely loved Tommy’s playing and spoke so highly of him!

    I too hope that Jason can share some more photos and information on his father.

    Well, thanks again for doing all this and I look forward to reading more of your great articles and research.

    Take good care!
    Neal

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