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Williams, Tony

Tony Williams

Drummer, composer

Miles Davis Offered an Invitation

Therapy Revitalized Career

Emphasis on Rock Rhythms

Selected discography

Sources

I wouldnt change anything that Ive done, because its 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.

Miles Davis Offered an Invitation

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 Daviss 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 Williamss 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. Its 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.

For the Record

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.

Therapy Revitalized Career

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, Williamss 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 Williamss 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 Williamss 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

Emphasis on Rock Rhythms

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 tumultuousapproach to jazz drumming. Perhaps more than any drummer over the past 30 years, wrote Ephland, summarizing the jazzmans impact, Tony Williams has epitomized that incessant drive towards newness of expression on his chosen instrument, the drums.

Selected discography

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 Bums 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.

Cookinat 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; Dont 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 Cant 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).

Sources

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.

Marjorie Burgess

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Williams, Tony

Tony Williams

1945-1997

Jazz drummer, bandleader, composer

An endlessly inventive drummer, bandleader, and composer, Tony Williams was a major force behind the expansion of jazz from its acoustic origins to the vast new territory of electronic "jazz fusion." In 1963, while still a teenager, Williams joined the single most influential group in jazz history: the Miles Davis Quintet. After leaving Davis at the end of 1968, Williams went on to form his own groups and to pursue his own experiments in sound, often incorporating the rhythms and textures of rock music. Fusion, as these experiments came to be called, was an attempt to unite, or fuse, traditional jazz with other musical styles. The fusion movement would dominate jazz for the rest of the century, and Davis and Williams were its founders.

Born Anthony Williams in Chicago on December 12, 1945, Williams moved with his parents to Boston at the age of two. His father, the saxophonist Tillmon Williams, often brought him along when playing the jazz clubs in and around the city. It was while sitting in the audience of these clubs that Williams first felt an irresistible pull toward the drums. As he told an interviewer, Down Beat magazine's John Ephland, many years later, "I would … just watch the drummer. And I'd look at the drummer doin' what he did, and I remember the feeling I had, which was, ‘If he can do that, I know I can do that.’" Soon Williams had convinced his father and his father's bandmates to let him take over the drums for a few minutes per night. These were his first public performances. He was nine years old. Two years later he was playing in clubs without his father.

Neither his father nor his mother was entirely comfortable with the idea that their young son, then known still as Anthony, was headed toward a career in music. Both wanted him to spend more time on schoolwork. But when the saxophonist Jackie McLean offered Williams, then age sixteen, a chance to play in New York City, the center of the jazz world, Williams's mother gave her blessing. As Williams recalled to Down Beat's Ephland, "When [McLean] asked me, I said, ‘Yeah sure, I'd love to, but you'll have to ask my mom.’ He came over, and said he would look out for me…. I lived in his house in New York for a couple of months…. My mom's involvement and Jackie's kindness to my family really helped."

Williams's formal schooling ended early. With regard to music, however, he eagerly sought out teachers from a wide variety of musical traditions. These included teachers affiliated with two of the best music schools in the country, Berklee in Boston and Juilliard in New York City. His desire to learn and improve never weakened. Nearly two decades after he first erupted onto the New York jazz scene, for example, he was studying classical composition at the University of California, Berkeley. It is clear, however, that his most influential teachers were the musicians with whom he played, particularly McLean, a multitalented saxophonist named Sam Rivers, and Davis.

Williams first encountered Davis at a club in Boston around 1960. It is a measure of the teenage drummer's self-confidence that he pursued the much older and notoriously short-tempered bandleader backstage to ask if he could sit in with the quintet. Davis told him to go back to the audience and listen. Williams's reputation was growing, however, and the two met again several years later at a club in New York City. This time Davis was the one in the audience, and Williams was on stage with McLean's band. Less than two months later Williams, then seventeen years old, joined the Davis quintet. The lineup thus formed—Davis on trumpet, Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, Herbie Hancock on piano, and Wayne Shorter on saxophone—is familiar to every jazz fan. Before Williams left the group in the winter of 1968-69, he had contributed to more than eight highly successful and influential albums, including My Funny Valentine (1964), Miles Smiles (1966), Nefertiti (1967), and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968).

Eager to pursue his own vision of a fusion of jazz and popular music, Williams formed his own ensemble, the Tony Williams Lifetime, with Larry Young on organ and John McLaughlin on guitar. Heavily influenced by the pounding rhythms and electric guitars of rock music, Lifetime's albums are recognized today as major milestones. At the time, however, they were commercial failures. While Williams's technique on the drums was recognized by critics as almost always superb, the sounds he produced often intimidated even serious jazz fans. Lifetime's music was loud, even harsh, and it demanded repeated listens and careful concentration. "This is not the kind of music you listen to while playing bridge," a review of the 1970 album Turn It Over noted in downbeat.com. Williams expected the patience and full attention of fans. When these were not forthcoming, the frustration was hard to bear, and he left the world of professional jazz for several years. By the mid-1970s, however, the situation had improved dramatically, particularly after Williams joined a new group, VSOP, which emerged to critical acclaim in 1976. With Williams, Hancock, Carter, and, at times, Shorter and Freddie Hubbard, VSOP was essentially a reunion of the Davis quintet. The group toured frequently and recorded several major albums, all highly regarded, as were those Williams created as part of the Great Jazz Trio, with Carter and the pianist Hank Jones, about the same time.

While his work with VSOP and the Great Jazz Trio suggested that Williams was returning to his roots in traditional jazz, he did so always with a fresh perspective. It was at precisely this period, for example, that he began studying classical music, particularly classical composition, in earnest. That training is evident in his contributions to Hancock's Oscar-winning soundtrack for the 1986 film Round Midnight. In 1994 he reunited once again with Carter, Hancock, and Shorter to record, with trumpeter Wallace Roney, A Tribute to Miles, which won a Grammy award as the year's best jazz instrumental performance. His last album, Wilderness, again drew on the patterns and rhythms of classical music. From acoustic jazz to electronic fusion, back to acoustic jazz, and on to classical music, Tony Williams never stopped learning or experimenting in his quest for new sounds and new experiences. He died of a sudden heart attack near his home in California on February 23, 1997, at the age of fifty-one.

At a Glance …

Born Anthony Williams on December 12, 1945, in Chicago, IL; died February 23, 1997, in Daly City, CA; son of Tillmon Williams (a saxophonist) and Alyse Janez; married; wife's name, Colleen. Education: Studied with teachers affiliated with Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, Juilliard School of Music, New York, NY, and University of California, Berkeley.

Career: Miles Davis Quintet, drummer, 1963-68; performed with the Tony Williams Lifetime, 1969-72(?), VSOP, 1976-77(?), and the Great Jazz Trio, late 1970s; contributed to Herbie Hancock's Oscar-winning soundtrack for the film Round Midnight, 1986; performed extensively as a soloist, and performed and recorded with such renowned instrumentalists as Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Eric Dolphy, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Carlos Santana.

Awards: Grammy Award (with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Wallace Roney), best jazz instrumental, 1994, for A Tribute to Miles; elected to Down Beat magazine's Hall of Fame, 1997.

Selected discography

Albums, solo/bandleader

Life Time, Blue Note, 1964.

Spring, Blue Note, 1965.

The Joy of Flying, Columbia, 1979.

Native Heart, Capitol, 1990.

Wilderness, Ark 21, 1996.

Albums with Miles Davis Quintet

Seven Steps to Heaven, Columbia, 1963.

My Funny Valentine, Columbia, 1964.

Live at the Plugged Nickel, Columbia, 1965.

Miles Smiles, Columbia, 1966.

E.S.P., Columbia, 1967.

Sorcerer, Columbia, 1967.

Nefertiti, Columbia, 1967.

Filles de Kilimanjaro, Columbia, 1968.

Albums with Tony Williams Lifetime

Emergency!, Polydor, 1969.

Turn It Over, Polydor, 1970.

Ego, Polydor, 1971.

Albums with VSOP

Quintet, Columbia, 1977.

Third Plane, Milestone, 1977.

Album with Great Jazz Trio

New Wine in Old Bottles, Inner City, 1978.

Album with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Wallace Roney

A Tribute to Miles, Qwest/Wea, 1994.

Sources

Periodicals

Down Beat, May 1, 1989.

Independent (London), February 26, 1997.

New York Times, February 26, 1997.

Online

"Tony Williams," All About Jazz,http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/musician.php?id_11412 (accessed February 19, 2008).

"Tony Williams: Turn It Over," Down Beat, http://downbeat.com/default.asp?sect_reviews&subsect_review_detail&rid_84 (accessed February 19, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler

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"Williams, Tony." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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