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Tony Williams (drummer)

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Tony Williams
A black-and-white photo of Williams seated
Williams in 1969
Background information
Birth nameAnthony Tillmon Williams
Born(1945-12-12)December 12, 1945
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
OriginBoston, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedFebruary 23, 1997(1997-02-23) (aged 51)
Daly City, California, U.S.
  • Musician
  • composer
  • producer
  • bandleader
Years active1961–1997

Anthony Tillmon Williams (December 12, 1945 – February 23, 1997)[1] was an American jazz drummer. Williams first gained fame as a member of Miles Davis' "Second Great Quintet," and later pioneered jazz fusion with Davis' group and his own combo, the Tony Williams Lifetime.[2] In 1970, music critic Robert Christgau described him as "probably the best drummer in the world."[3] Williams was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1986.[4]

Life and career

Williams in Half Moon Bay, California, 1986.

Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts.[5] He was of African, Portuguese, and Chinese descent.[5][6] He studied with drummer Alan Dawson at the age of 11, and began playing professionally at the age of 13 with saxophonist Sam Rivers. Saxophonist Jackie McLean hired Williams when he was 16.[5][7]

At 17, Williams gained attention by joining Miles Davis in what was later dubbed Davis's Second Great Quintet. Williams was a vital element of the group, called by Davis in his autobiography "the center that the group's sound revolved around."[8] His playing helped redefine the role of the jazz rhythm section through the use of polyrhythms and metric modulation. Meanwhile, he recorded his first two albums as a leader for the Blue Note label, Life Time (1964) and Spring (1965). He also recorded as a sideman for the label including the classics Out to Lunch! with Eric Dolphy and Point of Departure with Andrew Hill, both in 1964.

In 1969 Williams formed the Tony Williams Lifetime, with John McLaughlin on guitar and Larry Young on organ.[5] Lifetime was a pioneering band of the fusion movement.

Their first album was Emergency!. For the Turn It Over album, the trio were joined by bass guitarist and vocalist Jack Bruce. After several more releases and touring, Lifetime disbanded. In 1975, Williams formed "The New Tony Williams Lifetime", featuring bassist Tony Newton, keyboardist Alan Pasqua and guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who recorded two albums for Columbia Records, Believe It and Million Dollar Legs.

In 1976, Williams reunited with his colleagues from the Miles Davis Quintet- saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter.[5] (Davis himself was in the midst of a six-year hiatus and was "replaced" by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.) [5] A record of their concert was later released as V.S.O.P (“Very Special One-time Performance”), the name under which the group toured and recorded for several years. [5][9]

In 1979, Williams, McLaughlin and bassist Jaco Pastorius united for a performance at the Havana Jazz Festival.[5] This trio came to be known as the Trio of Doom, and a recording of their performance (along with some studio tracks recorded in New York shortly thereafter) was released in 2007. Williams and Pastorius also played together on "Good Question" from the 1978 Herbie Hancock album Sunlight. Williams appears with the group Fuse One on their 1980 album.[10]

In 1985, he returned to Blue Note with the Foreign Intrigue album. Eventually Williams formed his own acoustic quintet with trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Bill Pierce, pianist Mulgrew Miller and bassist Ira Coleman. The quintet played Williams's compositions almost exclusively, recording and touring extensively from 1986 to 1992, culminating in The Story of Neptune album.

Williams guested with the band Public Image Limited, fronted by John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols), on their release Album/Cassette/Compact Disc (1986, the album title varied depending on the format).

On February 20, 1997, Williams checked into Seton Medical Center in Daly City, California, suffering from stomach pain. Three days later, while recuperating from gall bladder surgery, he died of a heart attack. He was 51 years old.[11][12]

Personal life


Williams lived and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area until his death in 1997.[13][14] One of his final recordings was The Last Wave by the trio known as Arcana, a release organized by Bill Laswell.[15]



As leader/co-leader

Recording date Title Label Year released Notes
1964-08 Life Time Blue Note 1965
1965-08 Spring Blue Note 1966
1969-05 Emergency! Verve 1969
1970-07 Turn It Over Verve 1970
Ego Polydor 1971
1972? The Old Bum's Rush Polydor 1972
1975-07 Believe It Columbia 1975
1976-06 Million Dollar Legs Columbia 1976
1976-09 Live at The Village Gate Hi Hat 2017 Live. Bootleg recording.
1978-06 Live Tokyo 1978 Hi Hat 2018 Live. Bootleg recording.
1979 The Joy of Flying Columbia 1978
1980-06 Play or Die with Tom Grant and Patrick O'Hearn P.S. Productions 1980 [16]
1985-05 Foreign Intrigue Blue Note 1985
1986-11 Civilization Blue Note 1987
1988-04 Angel Street Blue Note 1988
1989-09 Native Heart Blue Note 1990
The Story of Neptune Blue Note 1992
1992-03 Tokyo Live Blue Note 1993 [2CD] Live
A Tribute to Miles with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Wallace Roney Qwest/Reprise/Warner Bros. 1994
1995-12 Wilderness Ark 21 1996
1996-09 Young at Heart Columbia 1997


As a member


As sideman



  1. ^ "Tony Williams | Biography & History". AllMusic.
  2. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Profile". AllMusic. Retrieved June 28, 2017.
  3. ^ "Robert Christgau: Consumer Guide (9): Apr. 23, 1970". Robertchristgau.com.
  4. ^ "Modern Drummer's Readers Poll Archive, 1979–2014". Modern Drummer. Retrieved August 10, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h "Tony Williams". Drummerworld.com. Retrieved August 22, 2023.
  6. ^ "Tony Williams Interview 1995". YouTube. Archived from the original on December 28, 2012. Retrieved March 27, 2012.
  7. ^ Don, Snowden (August 17, 1989). "Jazz Drummer Tony Williams: A Lifetime of Risky Riffs". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
  8. ^ Miles The Autobiography, Picador, 1989, p. 254.
  9. ^ Cook, Richard (2008). The Penguin guide to jazz recordings. Brian Morton. London: Penguin Books. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-14-103401-0. OCLC 223804125.
  10. ^ "Fuse One Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved June 28, 2017.
  11. ^ Watrous, Peter (February 26, 1997). "Tony Williams, 51, Drummer Renowned as a Jazz Innovator". The New York Times.
  12. ^ "Max Roach Remembers Tony Williams". May 9, 2019.
  13. ^ Oliver, Myrna (February 26, 1997). "Tony Williams; Innovative Jazz Drummer, Fusion Pioneer". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  14. ^ Watrous, Peter (February 26, 1997). "Tony Williams, 51, Drummer Renowned as a Jazz Innovator". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  15. ^ "Arcana: The Last Wave". Jazztimes.com. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  16. ^ "Tony Williams* – Play or Die (Vinyl, LP, Album)". Discogs.com. 1980. Retrieved June 28, 2017.