R.I.P. Tom Williams

Master of The Trumpet and Drums

Sad news recently spread across Facebook of the sudden death August 7th of Baltimore native Tom Williams, trumpeter, drummer, composer, bandleader and educator, apparently the victim of a heart attack at the age of 61. 

As narrated on his website, Williams studied both trumpet and drums from high school through college at Towson State University and joined the renowned Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington, with whom he played the national tour of the Broadway smash Sophisticated Ladies, also touring Japan with the road company. In 1987 he enlisted in the US Army and served eight years as a featured soloist with the “Jazz Ambassadors” and “Army Blues” jazz ensembles. His bio lists numerous awards that he has won, including the 2014 Benny Golson Jazz Master Award, as well as the major jazz artists and bands with whom he has played both on trumpet and drums, plus the venues and festivals where he has appeared.  He is mentioned in the book The Trumpet Kings by Scott Yannow.  As a leader on  trumpet, Tom has recorded two CDs, Introducing Tom Williams and Straight Street on the Criss Cross Jazz™ label. As an educator, Williams served as the Jazz Drum Set instructor at Howard Community College from 2009-2011, and before his death as the Jazz Trumpet instructor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. 

Many tributes were posted on Facebook to Williams, as a great musician and as a humorous and kind person.

Bassist Max Murray: “This cat was so deep, on so many levels—musically, philosophically and intellectually. . . . His sense of humor—sharp as it gets and quick as lightning. Every time I had the privilege to work with him his presence elevated the situation, whether on trumpet or drums.”

Saxophonist Gary Bartz, a Baltimore native: “I remember the night Tommy Williams wore Freddie Hubbard out at The Closet in Baltimore. Freddie stopped by after his gig at Ethel’s Place. Freddie knew Tommy got him that night, and said, ‘Tell that fat MF I’ll be back tomorrow night.’ Tommy said, ‘I’m not coming back!’  I love you, Tommy.” 

Pianist Harry Appelman: “A good friend, great drummer and world-class trumpeter, Tom was kind enough to have me play on his 1995 CD Interplay—one of my first recording experiences—and we worked together on numerous gigs over the years. He was a no BS guy—said what he thought.”

Pianist Darius Scott: “From our first, early musical acquaintance you treated me with kindness. ‘Yeah, man. Keep doin’ what you’re doin!’ With each subsequent encounter your encouragement was always inspiriting and your sense of humor disarming.” 

Drummer Jim Hannah: “[The album, Rumba Club Legacy] was the last thing we [Rumba Club] recorded with Tom Williams. This is just one more example of what a consummate musician he was. . . hilarious, sharp, a true pro, a true friend.” Hannah, like Bartz, saw the encounter between Williams and Freddie Hubbard at The Closet. “So good,” writes Hannah, “he had one of his heroes, Freddie Hubbard, worried.” Hannah also, like others, gives tribute to Williams’ kindness: “One of the kindest, most profound things he did for my family was to rearrange his schedule and manage to play ‘Taps’ at my dad’s burial service. . . . didn’t know he would be there. And it was an unforgettable special moment.”

Saxophonist Lionel Lyles recalls hearing Williams at a jam session one night in DC in 2015. Having known Williams only as a trumpet player, he was surprised to learn that he would be playing drums. “I listen to Tommy swing his ass off (on drums) after playing trumpet for an hour or so,” says Lyles. “It was incredible!” A few years later, he saw Williams and drummer Ralph Peterson on a show at Bohemian Caverns. “Tommy was killin’ as usual on the trumpet. Then Tommy and Ralph (who had recently picked up the trumpet) literally get up and SWITCH! Amazing!”

Trombonist Craig Considine remembers playing a gig with Williams in the mid-1980s in Baltimore’s Mount Washington District, when he was still early in his jazz journey. “I had been playing Trad Jazz at a dive called the Peabody Bookshop every Wednesday. I had learned just enough to be a danger to myself and others. Notorious drummer Ronnie Dawson heard me there and decided I should be thrown into the deep end of the pool. He asked me to play a jazz gig in Mount Washington. In the the foolishness and bravado of youth, I accepted.”

Considine continued: “The moment Tom Williams showed up to the gig, I realized I was over my head. I had heard Tom play many times and was always astounded. Tom was a couple of years younger than me, but decades ahead of me musically, then and now. Ronnie called a tune. I forget what it was. But it was one I knew. We played the head, and Tom took a solo. Took it to outer space and back. Absolutely killed it, as he does.

“My solo was a meandering, meaningless mess. When I finally stumbled to an inconclusive end in the middle of the bridge, Our Hero Tom turned to me and said, “Yeah Man.” That is why I will always love him.”

More about Tom Williams can be found on his website, and at “Remembering Tom Williams: a Tribute to the Hard Bop Trumpeter,” by Scott Yanow, and an interview, “Allyn Johnson & Meet the Artist on the Bandstand w/Tom Williams.

 Fixsen is a BJA board member, newsletter writer and editor, and a semi-professional jazz pianist and vocalist—but mostly a dedicated aficionada of jazz.

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