Local jazz legend dies at 92


Tony Williams, an accomplished alto saxophone player who was revered in the Philadelphia music community and shared his expertise as a school teacher and founder of the Mt. Airy Cultural Center, died Nov. 11 of age-related diseases at the age of 92. He was a longtime resident of Germantown.

Williams performed and recorded with many notable artists, including Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Harold Melvin, Etta James, The O’Jays, Terell Stafford, Grover Washington Jr. and Wynton Marsalis. Williams received numerous awards and The Tony Williams Scholarship Jazz Festival, which takes place every Labor Day weekend, was named in his honor. 

“If people like Tony weren’t around, I don’t know where jazz would be,” said longtime jazz radio host Bob Perkins in an earlier interview. “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,” Perkins continued. “That’s magnificent.”

A graduate of Abington High School, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree from Central State University in Ohio and a master’s degree in education from Temple University. He worked in the Philadelphia School District for more than 30 years and spent most of his teaching career at three schools: Barratt Jr. High School in South Philadelphia, Ada Lewis Middle School in Germantown and AMY Northwest Middle School in Roxborough.

I had the good fortune to interview Williams in June of 2015 after he was presented with the Second Annual Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Ovation Award in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center. Williams was one of 10 music teacher finalists nominated by current and former students. 

Williams, who always impressed interviewers with his humility, told me, “I owe so much to the many wonderful mentors and educators I had along the way, so I always knew I had to give back, which is easy for me because I love kids. I always tell my students that it's great to make music, but you must also get a good education because only a small percentage of musicians can raise a family and pay their bills on playing music alone.” 

Williams’ student Mark Mitchell had nominated him for the teaching award, and wrote glowingly of the mentor he met in 1976, when he took saxophone lessons from Williams at Ada H. Lewis Middle School in East Germantown. Mitchell wrote, “Knowing Anthony Williams has changed my life over the course of nearly four decades.”

Mitchell's essay explained that Williams introduced him to new techniques of playing saxophone, live performances in front of an audience and jazz music in programs at the Mt. Airy Cultural Center, but it was more than music lessons that had a profound impact on the young student. Williams “inspired me to see the importance and desire to give back through volunteerism, he showed me examples of leadership, and he always said that he uses music as the vehicle to unlock a young person’s potential.” wrote Mitchell, who went on to follow Williams' example, teaching and volunteering with young people.

In our interview, Williams told me that remaining in Philadelphia had been important to his career as a teacher and musician. 

“People often say that you have to leave your hometown and tour if you want to make a living as a musician, but Philadelphia has always been good to me,” he said. “The audiences and venues and fellow musicians have always been so supportive and encouraging, and I am very grateful to them. And music is therapeutic. I can't imagine what I would have done with my life if I did not have jazz.”

Williams married Gloria Thurman in 1955. They had two sons, Greg and Glenn,  and a daughter, Antoinette. Thurman died in 2012. In addition to his children, Williams is survived by five grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and other relatives. Funeral services were held Nov. 20.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com