The 43-year-old Tony Williams is not only the most admired and imitated drummer of his generation but one of a handful of landmark drummers who have helped to reshape and redefine the instrument's role.
The Chicago-born Williams grew up in Boston, where he picked up his first pair of drumsticks at a local nightclub at the age of nine. He had watched the drummer in his father's band and thought, "If he can do that, I can do that." By the time he was 16, he had sat in with the groups of such legendary drummers as Art Blakey and Max Roach, and played a stint with Jackie McLean. When McLean invited Williams to go to New York with him, he was told, "Sure, but you'll have to ask my mom first."
It was in New York that Miles Davis first heard Williams; he was so taken with the young drummer's sound and talent that he immediately arranged for him to record the now classic Seven Steps to Heaven. Says Williams, "There I was, 17 years old and recording with Miles--before we had even played together live!"
From that point on, everything Williams played had an international audience, and he was riding on the crest of one of the most significant leader-band marriages that jazz had ever produced, the legendary Miles Davis Quintet: Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Williams. Each of the eight Columbia albums recorded with this basic personnel has become a jazz classic--the cream of 60s jazz. Williams's explosive yet singing drums added significantly to their vitality and appeal, especially with younger listeners.
When Williams left the group in 1969, just three months after Hancock's departure, the curtain came down on what many consider to be the most significant period of Davis's music making. Says Williams, "It was time for a change. Six years of Miles Davis was enough, believe me. Anytime you're living in someone else's world and you're subject to their decisions and desires, especially as the least-paid member of the band, it's very difficult. Miles was going in a different direction, and I didn't feel that he needed me to go there--he could have gotten any drummer to do what he wanted."
It was at that point that Williams became the unintentional founder of what became known as the fusion movement of the 1970s (although Davis is often credited with its founding). "I was listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix and bands like Cream and the Beatles," he says, "and I really wanted to try an electric band--something really different." Davis had once expressed disgust at a Beatles poster hanging in Williams's apartment (although later Davis himself went electronic), so Williams's approach was to find players of his own generation.
Fusion (called then jazz-rock) was significant because in the 60s many jazz musicians resented the growing popularity of rock music. It took Williams, a musician established enough in jazz to be taken seriously yet young enough to be influenced by the rock scene, to successfully fuse the two styles.
The result was that Williams formed the original Lifetime, with the late organist Larry Young (Khalid Yasin, after his conversion to Islam) and a then-unknown guitarist named John McLaughlin (he later went on to play with Davis, converted to Hinduism, and formed his own fusion band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which included dynamic Williams sound-alike Billy Cobham). Former Cream bassist Jack Bruce joined Lifetime later, before it was disbanded in 1971.
A new Lifetime emerged in the mid-70s, with guitarist Alan Holdsworth, also unknown before his work with Williams. That group's last album--Million Dollar Legs--was overproduced and blatantly commercial, and its failure meant Williams went out on his own as a session player, in great demand in both jazz and rock circles.
More recent is Williams's appearance in 'Round Midnight, playing a New York drummer; his playing can be heard on the Oscar- and Grammy-winning sound track. Williams claims never to have seen the film: "It's just not my kind of movie. There's no chase scenes, gunfights, or alien monsters in it, so why would I want to see it?"
In the last few years, Williams has returned to what purists would call "straight" jazz; he has also returned to Blue Note Records, where he recorded his first two solo albums almost 25 years ago, the first "free," or avant-garde, jazz recordings the label ever made. Williams has once again become a group leader too, of the Tony Williams Quintet, but with a new role--that of exclusive composer, having studied composition privately since the early 80s at the University of California at Berkeley. "I've never had a band like this," says Williams, "a so-called traditional, straight-ahead acoustical group. I had a desire to write some music for this style, and to put my own stamp on that genre with a different look at it--a more full-bodied and explosive attack."
Those who believe, however, that Williams has repented of his earlier ways will be in for a disappointment; rock and Latin rhythms abound in his most recent work, as do polyrhythms and displaced accents. Williams's lightning-fast technique and seemingly boundless energy remain. In an age when Wynton Marsalis is viewed as a major innovator for playing essentially the same music that Williams and his colleagues in the Miles Davis Quintet were playing 25 years ago, it is hardly surprising that Williams's cutting-edge approach would offend unadventuresome ears. "There are people who will tell you that the only good music is pure jazz--whatever that is--with no other influences at all," says Williams. "That's like saying you can only eat Wonder Bread and wear gray suits!"
The Tony Williams Quintet includes Wallace Roney on trumpet, Billy Pierce on sax, Mulgrew Miller on piano, and newcomer bassist Bob Hurst, replacing Charnett Moffett. Material from the group's newest Blue Note release, Angel Street, will be the centerpiece of their appearances tonight through Sunday at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase in the Blackstone Hotel, 636 S. Michigan. Call 427-4300 for show times.