Obituary: Tony Williams

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The Independent Online
Jazz musicians tend to regard drummers as a necessary evil. A quintet might be described as consisting of four musicians and a drummer. More good jazz performances have been ruined by loud drummers than they have even by banjo players.

Occasionally the genius comes along who proves the rule - Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams. These men were all drummers whose craftsmanship and instinct for the music transcended those of the horn players and pianists who would normally be more sensitive. Of these perhaps Buddy Rich and Tony Williams stood out as supernaturals.

Williams was an intuitive accompanist whose work in that respect has correctly and often been described as astounding. Like Buddy Rich he was at home at lightning tempos and his accuracy at speed remained without flaw. He eschewed the customary accenting of alternate beats with the hi-hat cymbals and instead rebuilt the whole technique his own way. He largely abandoned conventional playing early on, and considered that it wasn't important for a drummer to keep time, always the first consideration in other branches of jazz. His solo playing was unusually expressive and full of drama.

For no particular reason, good drummers are often small men. Tony Williams certainly was, and yet he was so powerful that he was able to influence and direct the playing of one of the greatest of all jazz figures, the trumpeter Miles Davis.

Anthony Williams, as he was known when he first came to fame, was born in Chicago, but moved with his parents to Boston when he was about two years old. He became a child prodigy of the drums, beginning to play when he was nine. His father, a saxophonist, took him to sit in with the bands at the local jazz clubs, and by the time he was 11 he visited the clubs on his own.

"My father wanted me to play, but my mother didn't go for it. In a way he opposed my being a professional musician. He never tried to discourage me, but he didn't want me to go too far into it that it hurt me in my school studies. I was never there - or I was there but I wasn't doing the work. That was in 1962. I was working with Sam Rivers."

Williams had begun his studies with another drummer, Alan Dawson (who later became the drummer in the Dave Brubeck Quartet and taught at Berklee College of Music), while he was still at junior high school. Williams was hardly into his teens when he began working with Sam Rivers, a radical, potent and severely undervalued jazz musician who played all the saxophones and later, like Williams himself, was to join Miles Davis (by then at Williams's recommendation).

Williams had just turned 17 when he sat in with the alto saxophonist Jackie McLean (yet another Davis alumnus) in Boston. McLean was so impressed that he asked the drummer to join his quintet in New York. It was when McLean's band played a concert in the spring of 1963 that Miles Davis first heard him. Davis recalled the occasion as being rather moving: "I heard this great little 17-year-old drummer who was working with Jackie McLean, named Tony Williams, who just blew my fucking mind he was so bad [i.e. good]. Man, just hearing that little motherfucker made me excited all over again. Trumpet players love to play with great drummers and I could definitely hear right away that this was going to be one of the baddest motherfuckers who had ever played a set of drums. Tony was my first choice."

After confirming his opinion of Williams with Philly Joe Jones, Davis moved swiftly to hire him. The impact on the Davis band was instant, as Davis acknowledged: ". . . the direction the band was moving revolved around Tony".

Williams had many revolutionary ideas and he was inspired by the ground- breaking avant-garde of the saxophonist Ornette Coleman (a musician for whom Davis had rather less respect). He also loved the music of John Coltrane and of those musicians who were prepared to take chances, even if it meant wrong notes or musical disaster. For this reason Williams felt animosity towards Davis's cautious but gifted tenor saxophonist George Coleman, and warfare broke out in the band between them until Coleman, perhaps wisely, decided to stand no more and left.

When Williams had joined, Davis's most innovative and effective rhythm section ever, consisting of the pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and Williams, had come together. It criss-crossed the world with Davis and his brilliant tenor sax player Wayne Shorter over the next four years, as the band played and recorded some of the most potent and influential music of the second half of the century. Albums like Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968) and In a Silent Way (1969) were part of a library of classics built up for Columbia. They also superintended the beginning and the best of electronic music in jazz, as Williams became, along with the composer and bandleader Gil Evans, one of the main authorities on Davis's music.

Williams and Hancock wanted to lead groups of their own, so they left Davis at the end of 1968. "It had been a great learning experience for everyone," said Davis. "Although it was hard for me when they left me, it really was time for all of us to move on. We left each other in a positive place and that's all you can ask for."

Williams formed a trio, Lifetime, with the guitarist John McLaughlin and the organist Larry Young. He began to record for the Blue Note label in an association which was to last until his death. Although it survived for some time, Lifetime was not commercially successful. Williams's penchant at this time was for heavily amplified guitar and rock rhythms. After a couple of years away from jazz, Williams formed another band in 1975, but this too proved not to be durable.

In 1976 Williams, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock came together again in a group which they called VSOP. They reformed sporadically over the years and in between Williams also played and recorded with Sonny Rollins, Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis and bands of his own.

He became more ambitious and began writing for his bands, and by the time he recorded his Neptune suite in 1991 he was becoming a composer of some merit.

Steve Voce

Anthony Williams, drummer and bandleader: born Chicago 12 December 1945; married; died Daly City, California 23 February 1997.