Tony Williams - Biography

Robert Palmer once wrote that Tony Williams “achieved greatness as a jazz drummer by the time he was 17-years-old” through his work with the Miles Davis quintet. A true child prodigy who was playing in clubs before his teens, Williams burst onto the scene in the early Sixties. His explosive and innovative drumming style proved to be extraordinarily influential.            Anthony Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 12, 1945. The family moved to Boston when he was an infant. His father, Tillmon Williams, a musician who gigged regularly on the weekends, started bringing his very young son to shows. At first, Williams would sit in the audience and watch the drummer. He started playing and by the time he was 9 he was allowed to sit in with band. Williams described his childhood to Ben Sidran for his Talking Jazz program in September 1985: “When I was a child, I had the opportunity to play at night a lot of times with my dad, because he was a musician. That’s how I got into music. And at night, I’d be living this one life, as a child eleven or twelve years old playing with men in their thirties and forties - and I’m in these nightclubs at night - and in the day time, after school, I’m hanging around with my sixth grade friends...and watching American Bandstand.”

Williams took some private lessons from the great Boston drummer Alan Dawson, “my first and only teacher,” as he told Sidran. By fifteen Williams had established a local reputation as one of the best players around, getting work with the likes of Sam Rivers, Gil Evans, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, and Jackie McLean. It was McLean who brought him to New York in late 1962, with his mother’s blessing. As Williams later told John Ephland in Down Beat, "Jackie was the reason for me to really get to where I am. He was the link." Williams made his recording debut on McLean’s Vertigo album (Blue Note) in February 1963. Just a few months later, during which the drummer played on sessions by Herbie Hancock, Kenny Dorham, and Grachan Moncur III, he got a call from Miles Davis, asking if he wanted to join the trumpeter’s quintet. Jumping at the opportunity, Williams joined the band in California, where San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop stopped serving liquor for the engagement so the underage Williams to perform. 

Williams joined the Davis group at a transitional phase. Bassist Ron Carter was already on board when Williams and pianist Hancock joined the quintet that spring. The saxophonist was George Coleman, who would stay until 1964. He was replaced briefly by Williams’ pal from Boston, Sam Rivers, before Wayne Shorter took over the saxophone chair to form the definitive Sixties Miles Davis quintet, without doubt one of the most influential small groups of the era. Even while Williams toured the globe with the Davis band and played on such classic albums as E.S.P. (1965 Columbia), Nefertiti (1967 Columbia), and Filles De Kilimanjaro (1968 Columbia), he never stopped working as a sideman when his schedule permitted. In this capacity, he brought his astounding skills to such important and lasting albums as Dolphy’s Out To Lunch (1964 Blue Note), Andrew Hill’s Point Of Departure (1964 Blue Note), Shorter’s The Soothsayer (1965 Blue Note), Hancock’s Maiden Voyage (1965 Blue Note), and others. He also made his debut as a leader on Lifetime (1964 Blue Note) with a quartet featuring Rivers. 

By the end of 1968, Williams was ready to leave the Davis band and start his own combo. Davis had started adding electric instruments to the group that year under the influence of such rock figures as Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, leading up to Williams’ final recording with Davis on the acclaimed In A Silent Way (Columbia), recorded in February 1969. The still youthful Williams was also listening to Hendrix, but as he told John McDermott some years later, “I also liked Cream and the MC5. My drumming had become more aggressive and that was the direction that I wanted to follow.” The first edition of his new band, The Tony Williams Lifetime, featured organist Larry Young and electric guitarist John McLaughlin. Their first album, Emergency! (1970 Polydor) was quickly recorded that May, only to receive an openly hostile reception in a jazz press which was, in the main, alarmed and dismissive of the jazz-rock scene.

Williams persevered, adding electric bassist Jack Bruce of Cream for the band’s second release, Turn It Over (1970 Polydor). But the group fractured after a 1971 tour of England, as McLaughlin left to play with Miles Davis and Bruce resumed his solo career. Williams continued to record as Lifetime through 1972, when he had the opportunity to use his father on saxophone for his last Polydor release, The Old Bum’s Rush. Stepping back temporarily from the role of bandleader, Williams joined the Stan Getz quartet for a while in 1972, then freelanced around New York. Believe It introduced a new edition of the Tony Williams Lifetime in 1975 with guitarist Allan Holdsworth and keyboardist Alan Pasqua. Alongside pop oriented projects as a leader like Million Dollar Legs (1976 Columbia), Williams was also participating in sessions led by musicians as varied as Hank Jones, Don Cherry, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Michael Mantler, and others. He also recorded and toured as part of the V.S.O.P. group with Shorter, Hancock, Carter and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

Re-energized by new surroundings in northern California, where he began to study classical composition at the University of California at Berkeley, Williams made a big splash with The Joy Of Flying (1979 Columbia), which presented him in a variety of situations including duets with Jan Hammer and Cecil Taylor. He continued to free-lance in the first half of the Eighties. In 1985, he appeared at the Blue Note anniversary concert at Town Hall, worked on the soundtrack for Bertrand Tavernier’s much-acclaimed film Round Midnight, and premiered his own new hard bop oriented ensemble on Foreign Intrigue (Blue Note) featuring trumpeter Wallace Roney and pianist Mulgrew Miller, both of whom had played in recent editions of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Starting with the next album, 1986's Civilization, Billy Pierce, another ex-Messenger, took over the saxophone chair. With a succession of bassists rounding out the band, the quintet remained Williams’ main focus for the next several years, touring steadily and recording a well-received series of Blue Note releases.

Williams’ work as a sideman continued to be determinedly eclectic, including modernistic funk with Bernie Worrell, different styles of jazz with Dianne Reeves, Michel Petrucciani, and Don Pullen, and free improvisation in the Arcana trio with British guitarist Derek Bailey and electric bassist Bill Laswell. Williams recorded his first album as a leader in years at the end of 1995. Wilderness (1996 Ark 21) featured an all-star quintet including tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker and guitarist Pat Metheny along with string arrangements by Williams. The drummer did just three record projects in 1996, Michael Wolff’s 2 AM (Cabana Boy), another Arcana project with Laswell, Arc of the Testimony (Axiom), and his own trio with Mulgrew Miller and bassist Ira Coleman on Young At Heart (Columbia). 

Tony Williams’ unexpected death on February 23, 1997 of a heart attack following gall bladder surgery in Daly City, California, shocked and saddened the music world. He was 51.

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