Artists You Should Know: Drummer Tony Williams

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imagesDrummer Tony Williams (1945-1997) isn’t exactly a household name; probably only jazz fans of Miles Davis‘s quintet from the 1960’s know about him. He joined Miles’s group at the age of 16, and Miles always held him in high esteem. So did Herbie Hancock, who learned a lot from him. In his autobiography, Possibilities, Herbie praised Tony Williams for his musical inventiveness, openness, and curiosity about all forms of music, especially avant-garde classical music. Williams also recorded some incredible early jazz/rock fusion with John McLaughlin and others with the group The Tony Williams Lifetime. He was a true genius.

I only interviewed Tony Williams once on KCRW in the late 1980s, and always regretted not having had a second opportunity. At that interview, Williams walked into master control in a bad and feisty mood. Apparently a former staff person had insulted him (perhaps a case of racial profiling) in the hallway, and he was furious. I had to calm him down. Knowing his music as well as I did, I was able to defuse his anger. He did later return to the station on another program, but the host made an unintended faux pas and Williams did not have a great interview experience. Alas, when I tried to get him to revisit after that, he said he would never come back again.

He died early, at just 52 years of age. I recommend Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel (1965) to get a glimpse of Williams’s precocious genius. I also loved his album Angel Street. Along with Elvin Jones, he was one of jazz’s greatest drummers and anybody who loves jazz music should remember that. Here’s an early clip of young Williams playing with Miles: