by Lou Mancinelli
To long-time Philadelphia jazz saxophonist, public school teacher and founder of the Mt. Airy Cultural Center (MACC), Tony Williams, 81, jazz is any music, from Brahms to Blind Willie McTell, that strays from the traditional performance of a song through a musician’s use of improvisation. It’s when a musician adds his or her own feel to a song, making it something entirely new.
Williams’ career as an alto saxophonist spans six decades. While he toured at night, three nights a week during the height of his career, throughout Pennsylvania and as far as upstate New York, he balanced a full-time job as a gym and health teacher in Philadelphia schools for more than 25 years, ultimately serving as a vice principal.
“It was no problem,” he said about managing the two. He had a family to support, and the music supplemented his teacher’s income. As a musician, he contracted with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for International Records and recorded with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O’Jays and jazz artists like Bootsie Barnes and Butch Ballard, and he was a member of the Bill Cosby Band.
Bob Perkins, a highly respected jazz radio personality in Philly for decades, was recently quoted as saying, “If people like Tony weren’t around, I don’t know where jazz would be. He’s been a mentor to many people in his lifetime … People would try to steal him, but he has roots here, like Bootsie Barnes. They could have both been international in a heartbeat, but for 100 reasons they stayed local.
“When a musician like Tony can give you a particular song, be it a standard or pop song or jazz tune, and play it 100 times and each time it’s different, without reading a piece of music, that’s magnificent.”
A 2008 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Mt. Airy musician contained this encomium: “Nobody I met all through the years can blow the sax like he can,” said Al Brealand, 94, a lifelong jazz fan. “He’s one of the best.” Tony’s playing style has been compared to John Coltrane’s and Stanley Turrentine’s.
To Williams, jazz is the only truly American art form. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1931, Tony’s cousin, who played with the North Carolina Cotton Pickers, introduced the seven-year-old to the saxophone, inspiring the boy to learn and accompany his cousin to rehearsals. Seeking a change, the family moved to the Willow Grove area, where his great aunt lived, in 1941.
Williams played in the marching band and graduated from Abington High School in 1949. He went to Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University) on a track scholarship and graduated from Central State University in Ohio in 1954. From there he joined the 75th Army Band in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and then on to grad school, where he earned a master’s degree in education from Temple University in 1957.
Meanwhile, Williams played in local venues with many jazz icons such as Donald Staton, Shirley Scott, Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy McGriff, Nat “Cannonball” Adderley, Donald Byrd, Grover Washington Jr. and Gerald Price Jr. Tony also played in the house band for the TV show, “You Bet Your Life,” hosted by old friend Bill Cosby and filmed in the Channel 12 studios. According to Williams, Cosby, a native of Germantown, “was a good drummer … and was a lot of fun to work with.”
In addition to performing, Williams was motivated to be an educator because he wanted to help. He’d seen kids growing up heading down tough paths. “My whole attitude was to see if I could help someone find their way,” he said. “I get great satisfaction out of a kid starting out with nothing, and then he picks up a trombone or a sax, and he plays a song and surprises me.”
Tony started a jazz club at school and in 1978 formed MACC to get more young people playing jazz. Aside from teaching hundreds of students, MACC has produced the Tony Williams Jazz Scholarship Festival, with the mantra “it’s all about the kids,” for 22 years.
This years’ festival, hosted in August, was dedicated to the memory of his wife of 56 years, Gloria, who died in March. The two have three children, and Williams is a grandfather to three. “Life,” said Williams, is what jazz is about. It’s a real experience. It’s individual, but it can be communicated. It’s expressing what one feels. It’s a conversation.”
Williams compared jazz to cooking. Now and again, you add cayenne to your salt and pepper marinade. It’s as if one discovers, learns something new treading through the waters of jazz. Maybe those wandering notes reflect the wandering of humankind.
Williams recorded a CD, “Thank God for Jazz,” in 2006 on BDG Records. A review by Dr. Bilal Corbin on cdbaby.com stated: “Near-perfect technique, inspired phrasing, tastefully executed. An elegant offering from a man whose personal integrity and stolidity infuses this music with confidence and competence.”
And according to Mt. Airy’s Kim Tucker, who promotes local jazz events, “Tony’s playing is very soulful. If you have a problem, you don’t think about it. If you were feeling sad, you don’t any longer. It’s a gift.”
For more information about Tony Williams visit www.tonywilliamssaxman.com.