Tony Williams; Innovative Jazz Drummer, Fusion Pioneer


Tony Williams, the ingenious, innovative jazz drummer and composer who sprang to renown as a 17-year-old prodigy with the Miles Davis Quintet and was on the cutting edge of jazz-rock fusion, has died. He was 51.

Williams died Sunday in Daly City, Calif., near San Francisco, of a heart attack. He had been recovering from gall bladder surgery performed Friday at Seton Medical Center, said his publicist, Kirk Tanksley.

Brought up in Boston, Williams began playing drums when he was 8 and was invited to join Davis in 1963. He stayed with the group--Davis, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter--until 1968. After Davis’ death, Williams won his only Grammy for a 1995 reunion recording with the others titled “The Tribute to Miles Davis.”

With guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young, Williams in 1969 formed what many consider the first jazz-rock fusion group, “Lifetime.” But he was stung by criticism of the group’s innovative record, “Once in a Lifetime,” as a retreat from pure jazz, and went into hiatus for a few years. He emerged later to work with Hancock’s band V.S.O.P. He also had played with Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane.

Williams earned his place in jazz history as a composer as well as drummer. Trained only by observing other drummers, he moved from New York to the Bay Area in the mid-1970s and studied composing at UC Berkeley.


“I like learning,” Williams told The Times in 1990. “Taking a lesson in, having it graded, finding out what I did right, and wrong, I’d come away from that feeling happy.”

Working at the keyboard with his trademark cigar, he composed in rock, jazz and avant garde rhythms. But in 1985, he returned to the basics, forming his own traditional jazz quintet that played his compositions.

“I get a charge out of playing my original material,” Williams said. “Maybe it’s out of my own insecurity or fear, but I want to play music I want to play and that I want people to hear me play. This is the Tony Williams Quintet that plays the music of Tony Williams. I’m proud of that, you bet. I hope the hard work shows.”

Williams downplayed widespread recognition of his inventive use of melody and counter-rhythm, explaining: “I am going for things that I haven’t heard before, and yet I want in certain ways to have the band sound traditional. I am not trying to do what people would think would be ‘new’ with a capital N. I don’t put that kind of pressure on myself. I’m looking more for quality.”

The late Times jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather evaluated Williams’ efforts simply in 1993: “Tony Williams the drummer has been a major figure in jazz for 30 years. Williams the composer deserves comparable recognition.”

Among Williams’ albums are “Believe It,” “Joy of Flying,” “Million Dollar Legs” and “Native Heart.”