Tony Williams (drummer)

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Tony Williams
A black-and-white photo of Williams seated
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 in the band of trumpeter Miles Davis and pioneered jazz fusion alongside pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Wayne Shorter in the so-called Second great quintet.[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[edit]

Tony Williams in Half Moon Bay, California, 1986.

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

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."[7] 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 leader for Blue Note label, Life Time (1964) and Spring (1965). He also recorded as a sideman for the label including, in 1964, Out to Lunch! with Eric Dolphy and Point of Departure with Andrew Hill.

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

Their first album was Emergency!. After the departures of McLaughlin and bassist Jack Bruce, who had joined the group for its second album, and several more releases, Lifetime disbanded. In 1975, Williams put together a band he called "The New Tony Williams Lifetime", featuring bassist Tony Newton, pianist Alan Pasqua, and English guitarist Allan Holdsworth, which recorded two albums for Columbia Records, Believe It and Million Dollar Legs.[citation needed]

In mid-1976, Williams was a part of a reunion with his colleagues from the Miles Davis band: keyboardist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Davis was in the midst of a six-year hiatus and was "replaced" by Freddie Hubbard. The record was later released as V.S.O.P. The group toured for several years and a series of live albums were released under the name "V.S.O.P." or "V.S.O.P.: The Quintet".[8]

In 1979, Williams, McLaughlin and bassist Jaco Pastorius united for a one-time performance at the Havana Jazz Festival. 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. It opens with a powerful drum improvisation by Williams, followed by McLaughlin's "Dark Prince" and Pastorius' "Continuum", Williams's original composition "Para Oriente" and McLaughlin's "Are You the One?" Williams and Pastorius had also played together on the Herbie Hancock track "Good Question" from his 1978 album Sunlight. With the group Fuse One, Williams released an album in 1980.[9]

In 1985, he returned to Blue Note and the result was a series of recordings for the label beginning with Foreign Intrigue, which featured the playing of pianist Mulgrew Miller and trumpeter Wallace Roney. Later that year he formed a quintet with Miller, Roney, saxophonist Bill Pierce, and bassist Charnett Moffett (later Ira Coleman). This band played Williams's compositions almost exclusively. Williams also played drums for 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).[citation needed] He played on the songs "FFF", "Rise" (a modest hit), and "Home". Bass guitarist Bill Laswell co-wrote those three songs with Lydon. The other drummer on that album was Ginger Baker.

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. Williams was 51 years old.[10][11]

Personal life[edit]

Williams lived and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area until his death from a heart attack following routine gallbladder surgery.[12][13] One of his final recordings was The Last Wave by the trio known as Arcana, a release organized by Bill Laswell.[14]


As leader/co-leader[edit]


Posthumous releases

  • Live at The Village Gate (Hi Hat, 2017) – live recorded in 1976
  • Live Tokyo 1978 (Hi Hat, 2018) – live recorded in 1978

As group[edit]

As sideman[edit]

With Chet Baker

With Ron Carter

  • Third Plane (Milestone, 1978)
  • 1 + 3 (JVC, 1979) – live recorded in 1978
  • Parade (Milestone, 1980) – recorded in 1979
  • Carnaval (Galaxy, 1983) – live recorded in 1978
  • Etudes (Elektra/Musician, 1983) – recorded in 1982

With Miles Davis

With Tommy Flanagan

With Herbie Hancock

With Jackie McLean

With Grachan Moncur III

With Sonny Rollins

With McCoy Tyner

With others


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


External links[edit]