Tony Williams: drummer, composer, bandleader

Anthony Tillmon Williams: born Dec. 12, 1945 in Chicago; died Feb. 23, 1997 in Daly City, CA

  • Began drum studies with Alan Dawson in Boston at age 10.
  • At 16, Williams was brought to New York by Jackie McLean after McLean heard him play at Connolly’s, a Boston jazz club.
  • At 17, he became a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, joining pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter in one of jazz’s immortal rhythm sections.
  • Formed the fusion band Lifetime with John McLaughlin and Larry Young in 1969, and later joined the Davis alumni band V.S.O.P.
  • Formed quintet in 1986 with trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Bill Pierce, pianist Mulgrew Miller and bassist Ira Coleman, which played together for six years.
  • Williams was voted the top drummer in jazz by the readers of Down Beat magazine in 1979.
  • Williams died at age 51 from complications after minor surgery.
Tony Williams

Tony Williams (Promotional photo)

Bob Blumenthal on Tony Williams

Among his many achievements, Tony Williams was the most talented prodigy in jazz history, beginning private studies at age 10 with drum legend Alan Dawson and making his initial forays into free improvisation while barely a teenager with Sam Rivers’ Boston Improvisational Ensemble. At 17, Williams broke into two charmed circles— Blue Note Records and the Miles Davis Quintet —where he would redefine the role of the drums through the remainder of the ’60s.

After five years with Davis, Williams formed Lifetime, one of the first and — especially in its original trio incarnation with John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young —arguably the best of the jazz/rock “fusion” bands.

Even with his premature passing, Williams’ legacy of innovation on his instrument, and the inspired empathy he displayed in several classic bands, ensure that he will be considered among the very greatest jazz figures of the past 40 years on any instrument.