Montreal is a vibrant international center for artistic expression and culture production. Cultural Crossroads is a new interview series on hour.ca that features in depth conversations with Montreal's leading artists and cultural actors, all who of whom are inspiring new and innovative forms of artistic expression and thinking here and around the world.
Williams has a talent for spinning stories of resistance
Centuries-old struggles for equality, social justice and reparation are often intimately, and perhaps best told, through music. Variations in Time: A Jazz Perspective, by DJ Andy Williams, is a new compilation album released this week by Public Transit Records about resistance, highlighting rare tracks spanning multiple genres, from hip-hop to spoken-word to jazz. The album features 13 artists hand-picked by Williams to bring the essence of the great black music to life.
At a time when growing corporate influence reigns over the direction of popular musical currents in North America, Williams offers a compilation that unites various histories of black cultural expression and struggle in North America.
Williams is a long-standing DJ in Montreal and has achieved growing recognition internationally, spinning regularly in Europe and the Caribbean. While his forte is jazz, he’s also a walking musical library. As a musical historian, Williams offers fascinating insights into the history of music in North America and black culture, strongly linking music to socio-political history: from the struggle against slavery to the civil-rights movement to the black power movement.
Andy Williams is also an activist and community organizer with an enduring presence in Montreal communities. He’s worked with both Head & Hands in NDG and the Tyndale St-Georges Community Centre in recent years, organizations that struggle for the empowerment of economically marginalized youth. All the proceeds from the compilation will go to the Tyndale St-Georges centre in Little Burgundy, an organization close to Andy’s heart which provides educational, cultural, social and recreational programs to its members.
As a community organizer, DJ and all-around great guy, Williams spins a kind of liberation music. He sat down recently to speak with Hour about his new compilation and music’s social history for our new Cultural Crossroads interview series.
Hour How does the new album mix tunes and melodies while also exploring music history’s relationship to the broader society and social movements?
Andy Williams I come from a musical tradition of storytelling: When I DJ, I tell stories. Within those stories I make sure it’s dance-floor, covering all different genres from disco to funk to jazz, which is actually my forte and a musical tradition that I place on a big pedestal. Today there is so much music out there that we can’t only look for anthems in pop music. So what I try to do is bring something different to the turntables all the time, and from diverse musical traditions.
Great black music needs its place in society, [especially] as one of our only indigenous musical traditions in Western culture. What’s important is that this musical tradition is an amalgamation of various cultures, from the Congo Square tradition in New Orleans to your Scottish Highlanders to your German brass band to your Creole drummers to your West Indies drummers. All these traditions are what we are about and what we represent today.
Hour Why a compilation album?
Williams There are so many different musical traditions, so why limit yourself to one?
Hour I want to bounce back to the term "indigenous," a term you’ve used to describe jazz music. Could you expand on the use of this term to describe jazz?
Williams Jazz is the genesis of what we have in Western culture, which is a cultural essence that can be indigenous in definition. I like to hear polyrhythmic sounds because my heart is beating in this way. So why should I step back from that? If my heart is beating a certain way and I got feelings for certain things, I am going to go with that.
Jazz is rooted in the call and response: I say something, you say something back. Young folks don’t really have a grasp on this concept. The closest thing is hip-hop because it’s sampling jazz, and if they like it or not, or even if they are hearing that sort of sound, it’s actually there within the music. Subconsciously it’s there, but we have to get it out there and have people know that they are in fact familiar with that sort of sound and musical tradition.
This tradition of music as communication started off in the fields during slavery: a field-holler. If a field nigger was actually calling to his mate, often the message was sent across the field through a drum. Today we are doing the same thing as far as communication through music. So we [...] are keeping these traditions alive.
Although musical institutions have attempted to bring music to a different place, where we have certain assumed structures – circle of fifths, pentatonic scale, 4/4 musical time – what do these terms or structures mean to the common folk? Nothing really. We have to break it down and bring music understanding back to the roots.
I think that often we are searching for authenticity and the authenticity in music isn’t really there, within the sounds of the music. Electro is just synthetic. If you have a drum bringing out an acoustic sound, you will get a lot more from it. A laptop can shut down, a musician can’t.
Hour Can you talk about some of the pieces that you selected for your compilation and the themes that you were trying to bring forward with them?
Williams Bullshit World, by Amiri Baraka, actually dedicated the piece to his daughter, who was involved in an altercation with her boyfriend and was killed. So the violence behind this piece, I was trying to correlate that to the violence that is going on in Little Burgundy. The album is dedicated to Tyndale St-Georges Community Centre, where all the proceeds are going.
Another example from the album is that I took one of my favourite musicians, Thelonious Monk, and did three different tracks with various different artists. Karma and Lotus from Montreal did the track Monk Swing. Clifton Joseph did the track Chant for Monk, which talks about all the elements of jazz, the different styles of Thelonious Monk. Ra-Monk is basically a mixture of Sun Ra and Monk, which brings you a picture of where jazz can travel, from the earth to intergalactic.
Hour What is the importance of Thelonious Monk to music history?
Williams Monk was misunderstood just like many of my people are misunderstood. Monk grew with time, like fine wine. Monk was misrepresented during his early years, now more people understand what he was doing. [Monk didn't play in the classical, Western tradition,] that’s a European style of playing, the classical style of playing. [But] there are no rules in music [...]
Hour Your work is informed by and crosses many generational borders and music traditions. What is the importance of learning music history to you?
Williams My history and learning of music is reminiscent of a certain time period. It starts from the turn of the century until the 1960s. I think that these were valuable time periods within music. I learnt a lot of my history through music.
Today I am not learning a lot through music, not really hearing many people who are giving any knowledge back, as many of the musical messages out there are false messages.
My work is attempting to show people that there are great lengths and strides that we still have to make within our own culture – I am talking about my black culture. Within that culture there is so much work that we have to do. There are people out there that are trying but the work isn’t really on a macro level, it’s at a grassroots level. In this respect, it’s not feasible, in the sense that it’s not accessible to everyone. So how do we get out there and share this musical information? We get it through radio like CKUT in Montreal, like CKLN in Toronto, which are my sources for music. If I had to go to a record store like HMV, I would be totally lost.
It’s important to understand history through music, to look back to the ways that my own culture has grown. Looking back at Vietnam, I could learn a lot about this time through the music that was being produced during this period. Today it’s hard to find that type of music in culture, it’s often so glamorized or contextualized to fit the needs of certain networks, the corporations.
Hour All the proceeds from your latest CD will go to the Tyndale St-Georges Community Centre in Little Burgundy. What were your goals for the new compilation Variations in Time: A Jazz Perspective?
Williams [I'm] hoping that this album can actually show how these songs can bring free-spirited will, and create wellness, create hope, passion and reason in order to achieve growth in the community, and in order to bring forward the idea of self-reliance for the community. I’m hoping that there is some sort of domino effect that is started with this project. [I want] to push the idea that we need to spread the wealth.
Variations in Time: A Jazz Perspective
Compiled by DJs Andy Williams
w/ Amiri Baraka, Clifton Joseph, Avram Fefer Trio, Rainer Wrens, Billy Bang and more
For more info on how to purchase the album, go to Public Transport Recordings: www.ptrmusic.com
All proceeds will be going towards the Tyndale St-Georges Community Centre (www.tyndalestgeorges.ca)
Loss (for Flo) by Avram Fefer Trio, the first track on Variations in Time