Born Anthony Tillmon Williams in Chicago in 1945 and raised in Boston, Tony Williams is regarded as one of the most important, inventive, and influential jazz drummers since the 1960s. Regarded as a pioneer of jazz fusion, he launched his career with trumpeter Miles Davis, who was quoted as saying, “A drummer like Tony comes around only once in 30 years.” As Tony told DownBeat magazine’s John Ephland years after his rise to fame, “I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve done, because it’s all brought me to where I am and where I am is a good place to be.” He played with musicians as diverse as jazz legends John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, rock superstars Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen, and the avant-garde classical group the Kronos Quartet.
His family moved to Boston when he was a toddler. His father, Tillmon 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, Tony 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.”
There’s a rich and varied history behind the man. Firstly, he was of African, Portuguese, and Chinese descent which more than likely influenced his unique drumming style. Secondly, he started drumming at an early age and began playing at jam sessions and sitting in on gigs around Boston and in 1959 at just 13 years old.
Unique among drummers, Williams was also a songwriter and considered composition and drumming to be of equal importance. He was also a musical risk-taker and once declared; “Every time I go on stage to play, I’m risking. That’s part of my job and part of my makeup. That’s what I do best and it’s part of the way I play.” Known for his polyrhythmic style, where two or more rhythms are played simultaneously at the same tempo, Tony’s inventive playing helped redefine the role of jazz rhythm.
An article published by Discover Jazz in February 2022 made the following important observation.
Williams is often thought of as a modernistic player, but he spent these early years playing with a wide range of musicians, practicing the fundamentals, and studying the history of jazz. Tony is quoted as saying:
“When I was a kid, I would buy every record I could find with Max Roach on it and then I would play exactly what he played on the record – solos and everything. I also did that with drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes and all the drummers I admired.
People try to get into drums today, and after a year they’re working on their own style. You must first spend a long time doing everything that the great drummers do. Not only do you learn how to play something, but you also learn why it was played.”
Life-Time was the title of the debut album by Tony Williams, recorded in 1964 on the Blue Note label. It featured musicians’ tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Herbie Hancock, and bassists Gary Peacock and Richard Davis. In 1969, he formed a trio called The Tony Williams Lifetime with John McLaughlin on guitar and Larry Young on organ. Lifetime was a pioneering band of the fusion movement, a combination of rock, R&B, and jazz. Their first album, Emergency, rejected by the jazz community at the time of its release, and considered today by many to be a fusion classic. British singer-songwriter Andy Partridge of XTC regarded Emergency his all-time favorite album, and said that hearing it in 1969, at the insistence of a friend, was a vital moment in expanding his musical tastes beyond conventional guitar pop and rock.
Lifetime disbanded in 1975, after which Williams put together a band he called “The New Tony Williams Lifetime,” featuring bassist Tony Newton, pianist Alan Pasqua, and English guitarist Allan Holdsworth. They recorded two albums for Columbia Records, Believe It and Million Dollar Legs. Williams has performed among bands with a wide range of notable musicians mostly within the jazz category including those mentioned above plus jazz and fusion luminaries such as Mulgrew Miller, Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, and Jaco Pastorius, the latter two highly regarded from their stellar jazz-fusion combo Weather Report.
Tony was also no stranger to the elements of music outside of jazz and jazz fusion and in 1978 he toured Japan, billed as the Tony Williams All Stars, for a series of concerts with guitarist Ronnie Montrose, keyboardist Brian Auger, and bassist Mario Cipollina (from Huey Lewis and the News) along with Billy Cobham also on drums.
In an even more eclectic and notable venture into the world of rock and punk, Williams also played drums for the band Public Image Limited, fronted by former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon, on their 1986 release album/cassette/compact disc—the album title varied depending on the format of the recording. He played on the songs “FFF,” “Rise” (which was a modest hit), and “Home.” The other drummer on that album was Ginger Baker, who played in Cream with Jack Bruce, the latter who was also a bass player with the Tony Williams Lifetime.
This is but a brief snapshot of the performer behind the drum kit “raised in Boston” and displaying a widely varying set of musical and rhythmical influences, iterations, and associations. Williams later lived and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area until his death in 1997 at age 51 from a heart attack following a routine gallbladder surgery operation. One of his final recordings was The Last Wave by the trio known as Arcana, a release organized by prolific bass guitarist Bill Laswell.
(by Karl Sharicz – March 2022)