by Sally Cohen
With total joy and appreciation, the warm, caring musical legend Anthony (Tony) Williams, of Mt. Airy, was surprised beyond belief when he was presented with the Second Annual Philadelphia Youth Orchestra (PYO) Ovation Award in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center on Sunday, May 31. Just after receiving the award, Williams, 83, beamed and said, “Of all the honors I have received, this captures me the most. I am so amazed to be the one chosen among so many outstanding people standing around me.”
Williams was one of 10 music teacher finalists nominated by current and former students. In all, 60 essay nominations were submitted in response to this question “How has my music teacher changed my life?” For Williams’ nominator, Mark Mitchell of Wilmington, DE, it was an easy essay to write.
In it, he said, “Knowing Anthony Williams has changed my life over the course of nearly four decades.” The pair first met in 1976, when Mitchell took saxophone lessons from Williams at Ada H. Lewis Middle School in East Germantown, but it was more than those music lessons that inspired the young student.
Mitchell’s essay explained that Williams not only introduced him to new techniques of playing saxophone, live performances in front of an audience and jazz music at the Mt. Airy Cultural Center that Williams founded, but he also “inspired me to see the importance and desire to give back through volunteerism, he showed me examples of leadership, and he always stated that he uses music as the vehicle to unlock a young person’s potential.” Today, Mitchell follows in Williams’ footsteps. Like his mentor, he teaches, volunteers and helps young people, as well.
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, he can 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, then a 94-year-old lifelong jazz fan. “He’s one of the best.” Tony’s playing style has been compared to John Coltrane’s and Stanley Turrentine’s.
The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra’s Ovation Award for Inspiration and Outstanding Leadership in Music Education was created to honor music teachers in the Delaware Valley who not only teach but also help build character and confidence for a lifetime. It was presented and endowed by the H.E.L.P Foundation and sponsored by Jacobs Music Company, J.W. Pepper, and WRTI-FM.
A blue-ribbon panel of music experts from local universities and institutions chose the 10 finalists. The presentation took place at the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra’s 75th Anniversary Festival Concert at Verizon Hall, an event that showcased the talent of the organization’s young students.
A graduate of Abington High School and Tennessee State University, Williams worked in the Philadelphia School District for over 25 years and spent most of his teaching career at three schools: Barratt Junior High School, Ada Lewis Middle School and AMY Northwest Middle School.
He is the founder and the director of the Mt. Airy Cultural Center and has performed and/or recorded with many notable artists, including Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, The O’Jays, Terell Stafford, Grover Washington Jr. and Wynton Marsalis. Tony has received hundreds of distinguished awards and honors and has a jazz festival named after him, The Tony Williams Scholarship Jazz Festival.
Founded in 1939, The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra (PYO) organization, under the leadership of Louis Scaglione, affords its students opportunities to perform with the most talented professional musicians in the area. Under the guidance of a prestigious faculty that includes members of The Philadelphia Orchestra, students grow as individuals and are provided with an impressive college preparatory credential.