Jazz Drummer Tony Williams: A Lifetime of Risky Riffs

“Every time I go on stage to play, I’m risking,” declared jazz drummer/bandleader Tony Williams. “That’s part of my job and part of my makeup. That’s what I do best and it’s part of the way I play.

“I recently got into the stock market and it’s a hobby now. The stocks that I’m most interested are the riskier ones, the growth stocks. I told the stockbroker, ‘Yo! I’m used to risk. I do it every night.’ ”

Williams, 43, first attracted widespread attention for musical risk-taking 25 years ago as the rhythmic anchor of Miles Davis’ classic quintet. Now he’s come full circle as the leader of a quintet (appearing through Saturday at Catalina’s) that satisfies Williams’ desire for a regular working group and some other musical objectives.

“One of the main ideas was for me to use this opportunity to exercise my writing ability,” Williams related by phone from his home north of San Francisco. “I had never had a band like this before, so I figured it was about time that I put my stamp on this kind of classical jazz quintet. I’m very happy with the band because it’s my concept of this type of music.”

Born in Chicago and raised in Boston, Williams played around the latter city with saxophonist Sam Rivers and recorded with Jackie McLean in New York by the time he was 16. He joined Davis in 1963 and was immediately hailed as a gifted, innovative drummer within a band that is still heralded as one of the bellwethers of modern jazz. Many younger jazz artists--including Wynton Marsalis--used the style developed by the Davis quintet as the foundation of their sound.


Williams surprised many people when he left Davis’ group in 1969, but his first venture as a band leader was another milestone: the Tony Williams Lifetime--featuring guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young--explosively ushered jazz into the era of electronic improvisation.

“I left Miles’ band because I thought it was important to start making the mistakes I was bound to make and be young enough to bounce back,” Williams explained.

The high-voltage unit won critical acclaim but not commercial acceptance, although McLaughlin did when he expanded on that blueprint after leaving Lifetime in 1971 to form the pace-setting fusion group the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

After releasing “The Art of Flying” for Columbia in 1979, Williams took a break from leading his own band. He kept busy with recording sessions and live appearances, most visibly in all-star groups that reunited him with some or all of his old Davis quintet cohorts.

By 1985, Williams was ready to take his first stab at leading and writing for a band working within the classic jazz tradition. Contacts in New York led him to pianist Mulgrew Miller and trumpeter Wallace Roney. Bassist Ira Coleman and saxophonist Don Bradon, the latter filling in while Williams regular Billy Pierce recovers from a shattered kneecap, round out the lineup for the dates at Catalina’s.

William’s group has recorded three albums for Blue Note--"Foreign Intrigue,” “Civilization” and “Angel Street"--and is scheduled to start recording its fourth album for the label next month. Even with the band working regularly and early self-doubts about his writing ability in this style resolved, Williams still hasn’t reined in his commitment to risk taking.

“I think that element of risk is part of the (jazz) spirit and life style,” he said. “When you play music, you’re not only risking yourself as a soloist but you’re risking being vulnerable to people.

“At Catalina’s, I know there are going to be people who are going to say, ‘How good is this guy?’ You have to deal with those kinds of feelings every night.”

Does Williams still feel the need to prove himself to people, even after 25 years in the spotlight?

“Yeah, I do, and it’s always been like that,” he replied. “The older I get, the less I mind it, but I don’t need to not feel that way. Those kinds of feelings keep me on my toes.”