by Rick Mattingly
Relaxing in his Knoxville hotel room after his PASIC '83 clinic, Tony Williams reflected on what he hoped he was giving to other drummers. "I would like to be able to give off the same things that inspired me to really love the instrument and love music," he said. "That was one of the things that impressed me when I was a child and saw the people I thought were great. One thing I noticed was that they inspired others. If you can do that, that's a lot."
In a life cut tragically short in February 1997 by a fatal heart attack, Tony Williams inspired countless drummers to strive for excellence and find their own voices, as he had done throughout his remarkable career.
Born in Chicago in 1945, Williams grew up in Boston and began studying with Alan Dawson at age eleven. "Mr. Dawson went out of his way to encourage me, help me and see that I had opportunities to develop my meager skills," Williams said last year when Dawson was elected to the PAS Hall of Fame. "On Saturday nights he would drive one hundred miles out of his way to pick me up in Roxbury, drive to Cambridge to let me perform with his trio and gain valuable experience, and then return me safely home. I was twelve years old."
Williams spent his early years studying the great drummers who had defined the art. "When I was a kid, I would buy every record I could find with Max Roach on it and then I would play exactly what he played on the record - solos and everything," Williams said in Knoxville. "I also did that with drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes and all the drummers I admired. People try to get into drums today, and after a year they're working on their own style. You must first spend a long time doing everything that the great drummers do. Not only do you learn how to play something, but you also learn why it was played."
While in his teens Williams was gigging with saxophonists Sam Rivers and Jackie McLean. When he was seventeen, Williams was hired by trumpeter Miles Davis, becoming part of a quintet that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter. Even in his early performances and recordings with Davis, Williams proved that he had not only mastered the jazz drumming vocabulary of the masters who had preceded him but that he was ready to take jazz drumming to the next level.
Among his stylistic characteristics were the freeing up of the hi-hat from its traditional role of maintaining beats two and four and a more pulse-oriented approach to the ride cymbal, which foreshadowed the use of straight-eighth rock rhythms in jazz. Many consider Williams the first "fusion" drummer.
Williams recorded several albums with Davis that are considered classics, including Four & More, Sorcerer, Nefertiti and In A Silent Way. During the six years he was with Davis, Williams also released two solo albums, Lifetime and Spring, on which he revealed his affinity for the avant-garde style of jazz. During those years Williams also appeared on Hancock's Maiden Voyage and Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch albums.
After leaving Davis, Williams formed the band Lifetime with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young, releasing the album Emergency. Combining the technique and finesse of jazz with the energy and volume of rock, Lifetime paved the way for such bands as McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea's Return to Forever. Lifetime endured through several personnel changes, and on albums such as Believe It and Million Dollar Legs Williams became increasingly involved with rock and funk rhythms. But as with his jazz playing, he was never merely imitative.
"On those first records with Lifetime, I was just trying to do something that no one else had done," Williams said in 1983. "I had been hearing things that other people had done, and I thought, 'Wow, if they can do that, then I can do this.' Also, I didn't want to repeat what I had already done."
Whatever style Williams was playing, he sounded totally convincing. "That comes from an aggressiveness, and a willingness to be a part of the music," he said. "I'm not playing a role. Whatever style I play, I play the style rather than attempt to play. It's two different sounds. You can hear when jazz drummers attempt to play rock, or rock drummers try to play jazz. It's not quite there. You have to really work at that."
In the mid-'70s, Williams returned to his mainstream jazz roots with VSOP, which reunited him with Hancock, Shorter and Carter, along with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Soon after, Williams assembled The Great Jazz trio with Carter and pianist Hank Jones.
During the early '80s, Williams devoted a lot of time to studying composition. The results of that study were revealed on a series of albums on the Blue Note label beginning with Foreign Intrigue in 1985 and continuing with Civilization, Angel Street, Native Heart, The Story of Neptune and Tokyo Live. Williams maintained a working band that featured such "young lions" as trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonists Donald Harrison and Bill Pierce, and bassist Charnett Moffett.
Williams' final album, released just weeks before his death, was titled Wilderness and featured Hancock, saxophonist Michael Brecker, guitarist Pat Metheny and bassist Stanley Clarke, along with a full orchestra. It was his most fully realized statement as a composer.
But it is his drumming that Williams will be best remembered for, and drummers such as Terry Bozzio, Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham, Vinnie Colaiuta, Peter Erskine, David Garibaldi, Steve Jordan, Jim Keltner, Michael Shrieve, Steve Smith, Charlie Watts and Dave Weckl have named Williams as an important influence on their playing.
Williams himself always looked for ways in which he could improve. "I've always been a student," he said in Knoxville. "Learning has always been exciting for me.
"Drummers spend a long time not feeling good on their instruments because of the things they don't want to do. Everyone has prejudices and fears. But anyone with experience knows that if you take a couple of years to study something, several years later you will be very glad that you spent that amount of time improving yourself. Sometimes you don't realize how much good something has done you until years later.
"It seems to me that playing jazz gives a drummer more sensitivity for the drumset and much more of a rounded concept. It's hard to explain that without someone feeling like I'm trying to say that I want them to play jazz. I'm not. I'm saying I want them to play the drums better. It just so happens that if you learned a lot about jazz, practiced it for two or three years and really tried to be good at it, you would become a better drummer."