The following is an excerpt from a recent article I wrote for All About Jazz:
By now, it’s an irrefutable fact that drummer Tony Williams was the youngest preeminent figure within the avant-garde movement of the mid-’60s. Every jazz fan seems to know the events that led to his international fame: after intriguing trumpeter Miles Davis with his cutting-edge approach to drumming, he was hired and added to the groundbreaking “Second Great Quintet” at the ripe age of 17. During this significant stint, Williams altered the trajectory of Davis’ music, solidified himself as a drum wunderkind, and broadened his skill set to successfully branch out from jazz into rock-oriented genres such as fusion.
The details above have already been fossilized in jazz history, but what about his lesser-known early years, before breaking tradition with Miles Davis?
After a partnership with Sam Rivers at age 13, Williams was hired by Jackie McLean at age 16 and eventually recorded on his 1963 album One Step Beyond (Blue Note, 1963)—an adventurous effort that firmly established Williams as a sought-after session drummer for Blue Note Records. As word of his virtuosity spread, Williams eventually landed sessions with some of the leading musicians in post-bop and the avant-garde whose albums have since reached legendary status. Williams left an indelible mark on Eric Dolphy‘s Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964), Andrew Hill‘s Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964), and Sam Rivers‘ Fuchsia Swing Song (Blue Note, 1964) to name a few.
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