Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Oscar Peterson

Tony Williams in 1984
Anthony Tillman Williams (1945-1997) in 1984

It’s a story I told before, in a blog dated July 28, 2013. Since it’s been almost six years I will be forgiven for telling it again.

It was sometime in the spring of 1980. I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, living in a studio apartment in a dilapidated brown shingle house south of campus, across from a package store.

I made my dollars as a teaching assistant in the music department and by giving private lessons. When folks called the music department looking for a theory or composition teacher, I was the person to whom they were referred. As a result, I received a lot of calls from prospective students, only a few of whom actually took a lesson.

So I didn’t pay all that much attention when in the spring of 1980 I received such a call from a guy who identified himself as “Anthony”. Anthony told me that he wanted nothing less than the equivalent of an undergraduate music education, from start to finish. I no doubt rolled my eyes while telling him that that would take years. He told me that he was prepared to do whatever it took, including taking lessons twice a week, no small thing considering that he lived about an hour away, in the chi-chi village of San Anselmo in Marin County.

When I asked Anthony why he didn’t just enroll in a program at Cal State Hayward (now known as Cal State East Bay) or San Francisco State, he told that he had to travel a lot for business, and that such a commitment was therefore out of the question. He was articulate, cheerful, and appeared to know what he wanted, so we set up an appointment and I gave him directions.

I knew someone had arrived when I heard an unfamiliar growling sound under my second-story window. I looked out and saw a bright red Ferrari, which was already attracting the attention of the low-life who hung out around the package store across the street. A beautifully dressed guy in his mid-thirties got out of the car, walked across the street to the package store, gave a couple of the winos something and then bounded across the street and up the stairs to my building. (I later found out that he’d given each guy five dollars, with the promise of five more when he returned provided they kept the curious away from his car. Smooth. Very, very smooth.)

So Anthony and I meet; I mapped out a course of study starting with species counterpoint and moving on the tonal harmony, canon and fugue, structural analysis, etc. We had a lesson; he was bright though clearly unschooled, and by the end of the hour we had decided to work together. 

As he was writing me my check, I asked Anthony what he did for a living, and as he handed me the check he said, with complete nonchalance, that he played the drums. I looked down at the check in my hands and finally, through lead-lined vault that was (is) my brain I finally made the connection. The name on the check was Anthony Williams. This was Tony Williams standing in my crap-hole of an apartment, the Tony Williams, who played the drums with the same virtuosity, lyricism, and orchestral color and power with which Vladimir Horowitz played the piano, who went on tour with Miles Davis at the age of 17 and never finished high school, who I had been listening to since I bought and fell in love with Davis’ album “Seven Steps to Heaven” album when I was 15 years old. 


Oscar Emmanuel Peterson (1925-2007)
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson (1925-2007)

We worked together for 7½ years. When he wasn’t touring, doing clinics or making recordings, he took two lessons a week, every week. We became good friends, and he gave me a window into the upper-end of the jazz world that I would never otherwise have had. Some of the stories he told me were as unprintable then as they are now. But finally, to the point. When I once asked Tony if he had ever worked with the pianist Oscar Peterson, he lowered his head with respect, nodded, and told me that no one called him “Oscar” or even “Mr. Peterson.” Rather, he was held in such esteem in the jazz community that he was known simply as “Hercules”.…

Learn more about “Hercules” and my prescribed recording, only on Patreon!

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