The Troy Street Observer

Dec 17, 1962: World, Meet Tony Williams

Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean opened at Connolly’s on December 17 for a week-long engagement, and as was the custom at Connolly’s then, McLean worked as featured soloist with a local rhythm section. Jim Connolly hired a good one: pianist Ray Santisi, bassist John Neves, and drummer Tony Williams.

Photo of Tony WilliamsSantisi and Neves were obvious choices. They’d already been playing together for nine years, starting as the Jazz Workshop Quartet at the Stable and with all subsequent bands that called that venue home. With Jimmy Zitano, they formed the rhythm section that drove the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra.

Both had been branching out as well. Santisi toured earlier in 1962 with Buddy DeFranco, and Neves spent time in 1961 with Maynard Ferguson, and later worked with the small groups of Stan Getz and Gary Burton. Santisi was in his fifth year teaching at Berklee.

Then there was the drummer, Anthony Tillman Williams, all of five days past his 17th birthday (born Dec 12, 1945 in Chicago) when the McLean engagement commenced. There were other drummers available—Alan Dawson, Joe Riddick, Harold Layne—but Williams got the call.

Williams later said he was 9 or 10 when he started playing drums, and he used to accompany his  father, tenor saxophonist Tillman Williams, on jobs. His father took him to the Sunday jam sessions at Wally’s and the Big M when Tony was 12 and 13, and shortly before he turned 14, he was regularly gigging with saxophonist Sam Rivers, in a group with pianist Leroy Fallana and bassist Jimmy Towles. Hal Galper became the pianist, and Henry Grimes and then Phil Morrison the bassist. Williams worked with this group in 1960-61, before he was 16. Their home base was the Mt. Auburn Club 47, in Cambridge. It was probably about this time that Williams studied privately with Alan Dawson for about a year-and-a-half.

Not everyone welcomed this drumming prodigy with open arms. Williams told Down Beat’s Don DeMicheal in 1965 about older musicians who wouldn’t let him sit in, or who would talk club owners out of hiring his group because they were too young. There was an establishment, and Williams wasn’t in it. Maybe, suggested DeMicheal, it was jealousy at work.

In 1962, Williams was still working with the Rivers group, and they were playing everything from straightahead quartet dates to third stream to poetry readings. Williams spent that summer with Rivers, Galper, and Benny Wilson playing on Cape Cod, and, with Morrison and pianist Phil Moore, was on Jazz With Father O’Connor, on WGBH-TV. All Williams wanted to do was play drums. He spent his days practicing instead of going to school, which led to his expulsion in 1962.

And then came Connolly’s. McLean was impressed, and asked Williams to join him in New York. He promised Tony’s mom he’d look out for the teenager, so with her blessing, Williams left Boston. He lived in McLean’s home, and worked with him in a production of The Connection at the Living Theatre. After four or five months with McLean, Williams joined Miles Davis, in May 1963.

When Williams was back in Boston the following January, it was as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, and the venue was Symphony Hall.

One wonders what the established musicians who gave a cold shoulder to the teenager a few years before made of that.

But let’s not forget Jackie Mac’s role in bringing Williams to the attention of the jazz world. Here’s “Saturday and Sunday,” from the One Step Beyond LP, the only album Williams made with McLean as a member of his group. Jackie solos first, Tony solos last, and in between is Grachan Moncur III on trombone.

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2 responses to “Dec 17, 1962: World, Meet Tony Williams”

  1. I was at Connolly’s that night. While they were playing, Jackie kept looking behind him to see where all of this music was coming from. At one point, between tunes, Jackie looked out to that audience and said, “I gotta get this kid to New York!” The rest is history.

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