Born Anthony Williams, December 12, 1945, in Chicago, IL; son of Tillman Williams. Education: Studied classical composition at the University of California, Berkeley, 1979. Drummer, composer. Played clubs in the Boston area while still a child; at age 12, performed with Art Blakey, at age 13, with Max Roach; at age 15, considered among the best drummers in Boston; gigged with saxophonist Sam Rivers; joined Miles Davis quintet, 1960s; debuted with his own group, Lifetime, in 1969; performed with V.S.O.P., 1970s; has played with Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, and Wynton Marsalis, among others; contributed music and performace to the film 'Round Midnight, Warner Bros., 1986. Addresses: Record company-- Blue Note Records, 810 Seventh Ave., Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10019.
"I wouldn't change anything that I've done, because it's all brought me to where I am," Tony Williams, jazz drummer and composer, told John Ephland in Down Beat. "And where I am is a good place to be." Throughout a turbulent three decades, Williams has drummed with such superstars of jazz as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Wynton Marsalis, among others. The ups and downs of this child prodigy are a stellar, textbook entry in the history of jazz.
Anthony Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 12, 1945. His family moved to Boston when Williams was a toddler. His father, Tillman Williams, introduced Tony to music at the various jazz clubs around Boston, where Tillman played saxophone on the weekends. "I would sit in the audience when I was a kid," Williams recalled to Ephland, "and just watch the drummer." Williams asked his father if he could sit with the band in one of the clubs. He played his first set of drums that night in front of an audience at age nine. As an 11-year-old, he was drumming in the Boston clubs on his own. The next year Williams was performing with Art Blakey, and the following year, with Max Roach. He took private lessons from Alan Dawson, who was a teacher at the Berklee College of Music, but never got on campus. At age 15, he had a reputation as one of the best drummers in Boston. His adolescence was spent gigging with key jazzmen Sam Rivers, Gil Evans, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, and Jackie McLean. McLean discovered Williams in Boston and took the sixteen-year-old to New York to perform. "So Jackie was the reason for me to really get to where I am," Williams recounted to Ephland. "He was the link."
Williams had not been playing with McLean more than a few months when McLean invited Miles Davis, who was in town from California, to hear his band. Williams had met Davis before when he was guesting at a Boston club. He had gone backstage after one of Davis's sets to ask Davis if he could sit in with his band. Musicians around Boston often let the young Williams join them, but Davis was not as casual. Williams told Ephland he was rebuffed at age 14 when he approached Davis. "Miles turned around and said, "Go back, sit down, and listen.'" Their second meeting fared much better in New York. One month later, Williams received a call to join Davis. "Tony Williams erupted onto the jazz scene in 1963, a 17-year-old prodigy with a full-blown, volcanic style of drumming that would blow hard-bop tastiness out the door," wrote Down Beat, describing Williams's debut in California. The Jazz Workshop, a club in San Francisco, waived its liquor license to have the underage Williams perform. The grouping of trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams in the sixties was one of the outstanding jazz quintets in the archives of jazz history.
After recording eight records with Davis, including Nefertiti and In a Silent Way, Williams left Davis and acoustic jazz in December of 1988. The twenty-two-year-old Williams formed his own group, Lifetime, and turned the volume up in his entry to electric jazz-rock fusion with Emergency, Turn It Over, and Ego . "I like it," Williams told Newsweek when he put microphones to his drums to record. "Like hearing a car go by at night or a refrigerator suddenly turned on. It's to us what the sounds of horses and birds were to Beethoven." His fans did not respond, and subsequent recordings bombed. He left his role as a leader from 1972 to 1975. When Williams was motivated to lead again from 1975 to 1976, his albums, like Million Dollar Legs, were pop-oriented. Critics accused him of trying to turn a profit in the more lucrative rock market. He resigned his role as a leader once more from 1976 to 1979.
"I could deal with drums. I could deal music. But my business and personal relations were totally fogged," Williams confessed to Lee Underwood in Down Beat about this period. After entering group therapy in 1976, Williams's outlook improved. A year later, he moved from New York to Marin County, California. The end of the seventies saw his reemergence as drummer extraordinaire. "With the 1979 release of The Joy Of Flying, 33-year-old Tony Williams is back in the arena," raved Down Beat . Ironically, Williams had never left the arena. His record flops were more the result of improper management, poor promotion, and the shortsightedness of critics, than Williams's personal failure.
From the later years of the seventies to the present, Williams has continued to compose, perform, and record with the prestigious jazz quintet V.S.O.P., whose members have included Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis. He has played in trios with Ron Carter and Hank Jones, and gigged with Sonny Rollins. In 1985 he contributed to and performed in the movie 'Round Midnight, by the French director Bertrand Tavernier. The film about jazz players in Paris starred jazz legends Dexter Gordon, Billy Higgins, Herbie Hancock, and John McLaughlin, along with Williams and others. That same year he formed his own quintet, which showcased his writing and production talents in straight-ahead jazz, a format he maintains to date. "Tony Williams has shown himself to be a key figure in the revival of the contemporary jazz mainstream," wrote Josef Woodard in a review of Williams's album Native Heart in 1990. "With his able band, Williams is going after a striking, familiar-but-fresh sound here...," continued Woodard, "but informed by the peregrinations of a different drummer who can go home again."
Once slighted as a sell-out, the unmarried Williams is now viewed as a pioneer in the move from acoustic jazz to electronic funk and fusion. His controversial emphasis on rock rhythms and electric music is heralded as setting the standard for the new sounds in seventies fusion. His studies in classical composition, begun in 1979 with Robert Greenberg at the University of California at Berkeley, have brought Williams back to his traditional jazz roots without foregoing his tumultuous approach to jazz drumming. "Perhaps more than any drummer over the past 30 years," wrote Ephland, summarizing the jazzman's impact, "Tony Williams has epitomized that incessant drive towards newness of expression on his chosen instrument, the drums."
by Marjorie Burgess
Tony Williams's Career
- Selective Works
- Lifetime, Blue Note, 1964.
- Once in a Lifetime, Verve.
- Spring, Blue Note, 1965.
- Emergency, Polydor, 1969.
- Turn It Over, 1970.
- Ego, Polydor, 1971.
- The Old Bum's Rush, Polydor, 1972.
- Believe It, Columbia.
- Million Dollar Legs, Columbia.
- The Joy of Flying, Columbia, 1979.
- Foreign Intrigue, Blue Note, 1986.
- Civilization, Blue Note, 1986.
- Angel Street, Blue Note.
- Native Heart, Blue Note.
- With Herbie Hancock
- My Point of View, Blue Note, 1963.
- Empyrean Isles, Blue Note.
- Maiden Voyage, Blue Note, 1965.
- With Miles Davis
- Seven Steps to Heaven, Columbia, 1963.
- In Europe, Columbia, 1963.
- Four and More, Columbia.
- Heard Round the World, Columbia.
- Live at the Plugged Nickel, Columbia.
- Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel, Columbia.
- My Funny Valentine, Columbia, 1964.
- Miles Smiles, Columbia, 1966.
- E.S.P., Columbia, 1967.
- Sorcerer, Columbia, 1967.
- Nefertiti, Columbia, 1967.
- Miles in the Sky, Columbia, 1968.
- Filles De Kilimanjaro, Columbia, 1968.
- In a Silent Way, Columbia, 1969.
- Water Babies, Columbia, 1978.
- With V.S.O.P.
- Live under the Sky, Columbia.
- Quintet, Columbia, 1977.
- Third Plane, Milestone.
- With Hank Jones and Ron Carter
- Milestones, Inner City.
- New Wine in Old Bottles, Inner City.
- At The Village Vanguard, Inner City.
- Has also recorded albums with Erich Dolphy (Out to Lunch, Blue Note, 1964), Sam Rivers (Fuchsia Swing Song, Blue Note, 1964), Gil Evans (There Comes a Time, RCA/Bluebird), Jackie McLean (One Step Beyond, Blue Note, 1963), Sonny Rollins (Easy Living, Milestone, 1977; Don't Stop The Carnival, Milestone, 1978), Mulgrew Miller (The Countdown, Landmark), Andrew Hill (Point Of Departure, Blue Note), Kenny Dorham (Una Mas, Blue Note), Wayne Shorter (The Soothsayer, Blue Note), Chet Baker (You Can't Go Home Again, A&M Horizon), Carlos Santana (The Swing of Delight, Columbia), and Wynton Marsalis (Wynton Marsalis, Columbia, 1981). Performed on the soundtrack of the film 'Round Midnight (Columbia, 1985).
- Down Beat, June 1979; November 1983; February 1986; June 1986; December 1988; May 1989; July 1990; September 1990.
- Newsweek, February 9, 1970.
- People, July 9, 1990.
- Rolling Stone, August 23, 1979.