Tony Williams (drummer)

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Tony Williams
A black-and-white photo of Williams seated
Background information
Birth name Anthony Tillmon Williams
Born (1945-12-12)December 12, 1945
Chicago, Illinois, US
Origin Boston, Massachusetts, US
Died February 23, 1997(1997-02-23) (aged 51)
Daly City, California, US
Genres Jazz, post-bop, jazz fusion
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, producer and bandleader
Instruments Drums
Years active 1961–1997
Associated acts Miles Davis, The Tony Williams Lifetime, Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean, Alan Dawson, V.S.O.P., Public Image Ltd.

Anthony Tillmon "Tony" Williams (December 12, 1945 – February 23, 1997) was an American jazz drummer.

Widely regarded as one of the most important and influential jazz drummers in history, Williams first gained fame in the band of trumpeter Miles Davis and was a pioneer of jazz fusion.[1] He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1986.[2]

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.[3] 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.

At 17 Williams found considerable fame with Miles Davis, joining a group that 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."[4] His inventive playing helped redefine the role of the jazz rhythm section through the use of polyrhythms and metric modulation, moving between mathematically related tempos and/or time signatures.

Williams was an integral participant in the early- to mid-1960s avant-garde movement, playing on such classics as Jackie McLean's One Step Beyond, Grachan Moncur III's Evolution and Some Other Stuff, Sam Rivers's Fuchsia Swing Song, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, and Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. His first album as a leader, 1964's Life Time, was also in the avant-garde vein.

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, a combination of rock, R&B, and jazz. Their first album, Emergency!, was largely rejected by the jazz community at the time of its release.[citation needed] His second fusion recording, also on Polydor Records, was Turn It Over, was even more progressive and louder, with the addition of rock bassist and singer Jack Bruce.[citation needed]

After McLaughlin and Bruce's departure, and several more albums, 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.

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 and was highly influential in increasing the popularity of acoustic jazz.[citation needed] The group went on to tour and record for several years, releasing a series of live albums under the name "V.S.O.P." or "V.S.O.P.: The Quintet".

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 was released in 2007. It opens with a powerful drum improvisation by Williams, followed by McLaughlin's "Dark Prince" and Pastorius' "Continuum", Williams' 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 two albums in 1980 and 1982.[5] In 1985, he recorded an album for Blue Note Records entitled 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' compositions almost exclusively (the Lennon–McCartney song "Blackbird", the standard "Poinciana", and the Freddie Hubbard blues "Birdlike" being the exceptions) and toured and recorded throughout the remainder of the 1980s and into the early 1990s. This rhythm section also recorded as a trio.

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). 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.

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


Williams primarily used Gretsch drums, Zildjian cymbals and Remo CS black dot drumheads on the tops and bottoms of his toms, the top head of his snare, and on the batter side of his bass drum. He used coated Ambassador heads on his snare batter when the performance required substantial use of brushes (as in the Tribute to Miles). He also held the distinction of being the first Zildjian artist to have a signature drumstick made for him by the company in 1991 as part of their Artist Series drumsticks and it was in production until 2014. Williams endorsed Drum Workshop drums toward the end of his life.

In his younger days, Williams also used other manufacturers' drums during tours, depending on what was provided. He played a Premier drumset in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1967 when he played with Miles Davis, and Paiste cymbals at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1972 when he played with Stan Getz.


For straight-ahead jazz, Williams primarily played traditional grip. With his more powerful fusion drumming, however, he used matched grip.


As leader[edit]

  • 1964: Life Time (Blue Note)
  • 1965: Spring (Blue Note)
  • 1969: Emergency! (Verve)
  • 1970: Turn It Over (Verve)
  • 1971: Ego (Polydor)
  • 1972: The Old Bum's Rush (Polydor)
  • 1975: Believe It (Columbia)
  • 1976: Million Dollar Legs (Columbia)
  • 1975, 1976 The Collection (Columbia) - Believe It and Million Dollar Legs issued as one CD (1992)
  • 1979: The Joy of Flying (Columbia)
  • 1980: Play or Die (P.S. Productions) – with Tom Grant and Patrick O'Hearn[6]
  • 1985: Foreign Intrigue (Blue Note)
  • 1986: Civilization (Blue Note)
  • 1988: Angel Street (Blue Note)
  • 1989: Native Heart (Blue Note)
  • 1991: The Story of Neptune (Blue Note)
  • 1992: Tokyo Live (Blue Note)
  • 1996: Wilderness (Ark 21)
  • 1996: Young at Heart (Columbia)

As sideman[edit]

With Geri Allen

With Arcana

With Chet Baker

  • You Can't Go Home Again (1972)
  • The Best Thing for You (1977)
  • Chet Baker / Wolfgang Lackerschmid (1979)

With George Cables

With Ron Carter

  • Third Plane (1978)
  • Etudes (1982)

With Stanley Clarke

With Miles Davis

With Eric Dolphy

With Kenny Dorham

With Gil Evans

With Tommy Flanagan

With Hal Galper

With Stan Getz

With Dexter Gordon

  • Round Midnight (1986)

With Herbie Hancock

With Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Wallace Roney

With Jonas Hellborg and the Soldier String Quartet

  • The Word (1991)

With Joe Henderson

With Andrew Hill

With Terumasa Hino

  • May Dance (1977)

With Allan Holdsworth

With Hank Jones

With Charles Lloyd

With Michael Mantler

  • Movies (1977)

With Ray Manzarek

With Branford Marsalis

With Wynton Marsalis

  • Wynton Marsalis (1981)

With John McLaughlin

  • Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist (1978)

With Jackie McLean

With Marcus Miller

  • The Sun Don't Lie (1990–92)

With Mulgrew Miller

With Grachan Moncur III

With Jaco Pastorius and John McLaughlin

With Michel Petrucciani

  • Marvellous (1994)

With Pop Workshop

  • Song For The Pterodactyl (1974)

With Public Image Limited

With Don Pullen

With Sam Rivers

With Sonny Rollins

With Wallace Roney

  • Verses (1987)

With Travis Shook

  • Travis Shook (1993)

With Wayne Shorter

With McCoy Tyner

With Sadao Watanabe & Great Jazz Trio (Hank Jones/Ron Carter)

  • I'm Old Fashioned (East Wind, 1976)

With Weather Report


  1. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Allmusic website". Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  2. ^ "Modern Drummer's Readers Poll Archive, 1979–2014". Modern Drummer. Retrieved 10 August 2015. 
  3. ^ "Tony Williams Interview 1995". Retrieved 27 March 2012. 
  4. ^ Miles The Autobiography, Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Picador, 1989, p. 254.
  5. ^ "Allmusic Fuse One Discography". Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  6. ^ "Tony Williams* - Play or Die (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs". Retrieved 2011-10-31.