Tony Williams (drummer)

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

Tony Williams
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.
GenresJazz, post-bop, jazz fusion
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, producer and bandleader
Years active1961–1997
Associated actsMiles Davis, The Tony Williams Lifetime, Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean, Alan Dawson, V.S.O.P., Public Image Ltd.

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

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.[4]

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."[5] 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.

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 and 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".

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' 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.[6]

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' 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). 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.

Personal life

Williams lived and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area until his death from a heart attack following routine gall bladder surgery.[7][8] One of his final recordings was The Last Wave by the trio known as Arcana, a release organized by Bill Laswell.[9]


As leader

  • 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) - also released as The Collection (Columbia) with Believe It as one CD [1992]
  • 1976: Live at The Village Gate((Hi Hat) [2017]
  • 1978: Live Tokyo 1978((Hi Hat) [2018]
  • 1979: The Joy of Flying (Columbia)
  • 1980: Play or Die (P.S. Productions) – with Tom Grant and Patrick O'Hearn[10]
  • 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]
  • 1992: Tokyo Live (Blue Note) [1993] - as two CD
  • 1995: Wilderness (Ark 21) [1996]
  • 1996: Young at Heart (Columbia)

As The Great Jazz Trio

As Trio of Doom

As Arcana

As sideman

With Geri Allen

With Chet Baker

With George Cables

With Ron Carter

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

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 (Flying Disk, 1977)

With Allan Holdsworth

With Charles Lloyd

With Michael Mantler

  • Movies (1977)

With Ray Manzarek

With Branford Marsalis

  • Renaissance (Columbia, 1987)

With Wynton Marsalis

With John McLaughlin

With Jackie McLean

With Marcus Miller

  • The Sun Don't Lie (1990–92)

With Mulgrew Miller

With Grachan Moncur III

With Yoko Ono

With Michel Petrucciani

  • Marvellous (Dreyfus, 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

With Carlos Santana

With Travis Shook

  • Travis Shook (1993)

With Wayne Shorter

With McCoy Tyner

With Weather Report


  • Colin_Larkin (ed.) (1992) The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 1st ed., pg. 2699; ISBN 1-882267-04-4 .
  • Thom Holmes (2006) American Popular Music: Jazz, pg. 216; ISBN 0-8160-6928-X


  1. Yanow, Scott. "Profile". Retrieved June 28, 2017.
  2. "Modern Drummer's Readers Poll Archive, 1979–2014". Modern Drummer. Retrieved August 10, 2015.
  3. "Tony Williams Interview 1995". Retrieved March 27, 2012.
  4. Don, Snowden (August 17, 1989). "Jazz Drummer Tony Williams: A Lifetime of Risky Riffs". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
  5. Miles The Autobiography, Picador, 1989, p. 254.
  6. "Allmusic Fuse One Discography". Retrieved June 28, 2017.
  7. OLIVER, MYRNA (February 26, 1997). "Tony Williams; Innovative Jazz Drummer, Fusion Pioneer". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  8. 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.
  9. "Arcana: The Last Wave - JazzTimes". JazzTimes. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  10. "Tony Williams* - Play or Die (Vinyl, LP, Album)". Retrieved June 28, 2017.
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