Tony Williams: The Innovator
by Fred W. Gretsch
Music is, and always has been, an ever-evolving medium. Styles are developed, made popular, changed, and re-developed as something new again. And just as it takes a drummer to propel a band, it often takes a drummer to propel these stylistic changes.
I’m proud to say that many of the drummers who have provided this propulsion over the past decades have done so on Gretsch drums. And while each of those drummers has had his or her own distinctive playing style and sound, the “Great Gretsch Sound” of their drums has been the starting point.
From time to time I’m going to take the opportunity to share with you just a few performances by some of those great Gretsch drummers. I hope they’ll encourage you to do your own exploration to see and hear what made these incredible artists so important to the history of music.
There’s simply no better drummer to start this series with than the great Tony Williams. While not the earliest “Great Gretsch Drummer” (and we’ll get to those earlier drummers in the future), Tony is arguably the single most influential drummer of the 20th century. Initially identified as a “jazz” drummer—mainly because he arrived on the scene as a member of Miles Davis’s legendary 1960s quintet—Tony quickly demonstrated that he was not to be pigeonholed within any style. His playing encompassed elements of jazz, rock, R&B, and Latin music. He combined these with formidable technique and unbridled passion to create dynamic performances that electrified audiences around the world—and sent millions of drummers racing to their practice rooms. Many of today’s greatest drum figures cite Tony Williams as their most important influence.
So check out the following YouTube clips as a starting point for your own exploration into the talent, passion, and undeniable uniqueness that defined Tony Williams:
1. This is a performance by the Miles Davis Quintet at the Stadthalle in Karlsruhe, Germany, in November of 1967. Tony was only twenty-one years old at this time, but he had already become recognized as the drummer to watch on the jazz scene. WATCH.
2. By 1979 Tony was leading his own groups. At this performance in France Tony gets funky –and incredibly dynamic—on a tune called “Wild Life.” WATCH.
3. From the same concert, here’s Tony’s drum solo from “There Comes The Time.” WATCH.
4. For an idea of how Tony drove a band, there’s no better example than this recording made live in New York in 1989 by Tony’s Quartet. This clip is Part 1. WATCH.
5. And here’s Part 2. What it must have been like to be in the audience for this show! WATCH.
6. Here’s another incredible drum solo from Tony, performed at the International Jazz Festival in Berghausen, Austria, in 1989. WATCH.