Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Greenberg Recommends: Tony Williams

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 old 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, a few of whom actually took a lesson or two.

So I didn’t pay all that much attention when I received just such a call of inquiry from a guy who identified himself as “Anthony”. Anthony told me that he wanted not just theory, analysis, and composition lessons, but that he wanted the equivalent of an undergraduate music education, from start to finish. I told 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.

While I don’t recall having done it, I probably rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Sure”, I probably thought. When I asked Anthony why he didn’t just enroll in a degree program at Cal State Hayward or San Francisco, 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, and after a brief bit of conversation gave a couple of the winos something, after which he 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 the steel-reinforced, 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 16 years old.


We worked together for 7½ years, during which Tony did indeed get his defacto “college music degree”. When he wasn’t touring (usually with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter), 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. (It was Tony who told that among his fellow pros, the virtuoso pianist Oscar Peterson – about whom I will write later this week – was held in such god-like awe that he known simply as “Hercules”.)

Death comes for us all, but hopefully later in life; anything earlier is tragic. Tony, bless him, suffered a tragic death. In February 1997 he went into the hospital (Seton Medical Center in Daly City, just south of San Francisco) for routine gall bladder surgery. He was released, and while he was being wheeled to his car to be taken home by his brand-new wife, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was just 51.

Below: a typically amazing Tony Williams solo. He played with a melodic sensibility, power and timbral nuance that were genuinely orchestral in scope and impact.