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Tony Williams, saxophonist who mentored generations of Philly jazz talent, has died at 92

Saxophonist Tony Williams, pictured with his trio in Philadelphia on April 22, 2016.
David Swift Photography
Saxophonist Tony Williams, pictured with his trio in Philadelphia on April 22, 2016.

Tony Williams, a saxophonist and educator who mentored generations of young Philadelphia jazz musicians, died on Nov. 11 in Wilmington, Delaware, where he’d been living with his son Greg Williams. He was 92. His death, following a long illness, was confirmed by his daughter, Antoinette Williams.

For decades Williams could be found presiding over a Monday night jam session somewhere in Philly. His most recent weekly home was Germantown’s La Rose Jazz Club, where his warm and soulful alto sound set a welcoming tone, while his quiet virtuosity offered both challenge and encouragement. Even more than his torch-bearing straight-ahead playing, Williams was best known as a vital educator who guided countless local musicians through their earliest experiences in jazz and the music business.

“Without Tony Williams, there are a slew of us who wouldn’t be playing this music,” pianist Orrin Evans, who frequented Williams’ Saturday classes at Allens Lane Art Center, tells WRTI. “He’s always been a great mentor. He never minced words with me, but he always came with good advice and support.”

Though short in stature, Williams cast a long shadow over the city’s jazz community. He was one of those local legends (along with fellow saxophonists Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna, among others) whose fame never reached much farther than the city limits but whose local influence was immeasurable. On the bandstand he played with a joyful eloquence, precise in technique yet vivid in spirit.

Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel took to Facebook following the announcement of Williams’ passing and recalled his early experiences at Monday night jam sessions then at the Blue Note club. “Because of his warmth of spirit and encouragement I fell in love with jazz and the community of people around it,” he wrote.

Born Anthony Williams in Chattanooga, Tenn. on July 2, 1931, he began playing at age 10, two years after receiving his first saxophone. (As he often recalled, his fingers were too short until then.) He moved to the Philadelphia area while in junior high school and befriended pianist Eddie Green while they were students at Abington High School. Williams recalled the pair practicing together on breaks during their part-time job washing dishes at a local hospital. They co-founded a band called the Jolly Rompers before Williams left to attend college on a track scholarship at Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University) and Central State University in Ohio.

After graduation, Williams played in the 75th Army Band at Fort Belvoir, Va. before returning to Philly to earn his masters in education from Temple University. In the early part of his career, he balanced teaching with the road, but ultimately education won out. He continued to perform locally throughout his life, ultimately releasing two albums of his own, Thank God for Jazz and Homecoming, and contributing to the Philly Soul sound through his session work for Philadelphia International Records.

Tony Williams performing in 1999.
Lester Hinton
Tony Williams performing in 1999.

Williams spent his career in the Philadelphia public school system, beginning at Barratt Junior High in South Philly, where he introduced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the occasion of the civil rights leader’s visit. He went on to stints at Ada H. Lewis Middle School in Germantown and AMY 6 Middle School in Roxborough, teaching physical education and coaching as well as initiating music programs. He also served as vice principal at Ada H. Lewis.

In parallel he launched his own educational program, working with students after school and on weekends at home and in local facilities. He launched a number of local youth bands in order to showcase fledgling talent, including the Stenton Diner Teenage Jazz Band, a large ensemble that rehearsed at the now-defunct Mount Airy eatery. Those efforts evolved into the Mount Airy Cultural Center, a free program that he ran in his neighborhood for over 35 years.

Among the students he inspired were then-teenagers Curtis Harmon, Cedric Napoleon and James Lloyd, who met in Williams’ jazz band at Ada H. Lewis Middle School and went on to form Pieces of a Dream, the contemporary jazz/R&B band now approaching its 50th anniversary.

“Tony Williams loved working with kids, and he had a tremendous impact,” Harmon tells WRTI. “He wanted to produce well-rounded musicians out of his bands, and worked to nurture the talents that we had so that we could be the best versions of ourselves.”

Speaking with WRTI in 2013, Williams said: “I get a great kick out of seeing kids start off with squeaky sounds and then you look around in a couple of years… and they’re playing in concerts and playing for festivals.”

Tony Williams, David "Fathead" Newman and Grover Washington, Jr. performing at the Annual Tony Williams Scholarship Festival on Dec. 17, 1999.
Lester Hinton
Tony Williams, David "Fathead" Newman and Grover Washington, Jr. performing at the Annual Tony Williams Scholarship Festival on Dec. 17, 1999.

For more than two decades, the MACC produced the Tony Williams Jazz Scholarship Festival, an annual performance that hosted local and national musicians to raise money to fund scholarships for the center’s students.

The festival was often hosted by Williams’ lifelong friend Bill Cosby. Williams was a member of the Shirley Scott-led house band for Cosby’s short-lived revival of the game show You Bet Your Life from 1992-93, and stood by the comedian even as he faced trial for multiple sexual assault allegations. On the eve of Cosby’s 2018 retrial, he made his first public appearance since the original 2015 trial at La Rose during a concert hosted by Williams, playing drums with the house band.

Antoinette Williams survives her father along with her brothers, Greg and Glenn. “If I had to identify my father with somebody in the Bible it would be David,” she says. “David played the horn too, and even though my father was only five foot, he could slay giants.”

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.