Leroy Williams, the consummate drummer who earned an international reputation recording with
the likes of Hank Mobley, Andrew Hill, Charles McPherson, and especially Barry Harris
—with whom he’d performed and recorded for over fifty years–passed away on June 1.
A loving family man and beloved friend, he was 85.
Upon arriving in New York City in the 1960s, his reputation preceded him as one who’d already played in a variety of clubs in his hometown of Chicago. He’d witnessed performances there by such legendary artists as Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and eventually became known as one who’d conversed, over the years, with senior drum colleagues Papa Jo Jones and Art Blakey among others. Such encounters represented decades of musical wisdom that Williams gladly shared with students attending Barry Harris’s weekly jazz workshops. From the late 1970s into the ‘90s, he played with all -star bands at Jazzmobile summer concerts; and served as an instructor at Jazzmobile’s weekly Saturday jazz workshops in Harlem. “Leroy was a good friend and musician mate, who was not only an excellent drummer but wonderful person to work with and be associated with,” said bassist and composer Paul West (former director of Jazzmobile 1969-73).
When not on the road, Williams was a regular at the Columbia University Center for Jazz Studies functions. “He often visited my jazz classes. Once we had a program called [Percussion Discussion], with tap dancers featured along with great drummers,” said Robert O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston professor, Columbia University. “When in a pinch we needed someone to trade eights with Jimmy Slyde, the master tapper, Leroy volunteered. And the two of them lit up the
room: Jimmy drumming with his feet, Leroy tap dancing with his sticks and drum skins!” “You need to see the beat,” the percussionist told a group of students at Columbia University encouraging them to attend “live” music in concerts or clubs.
Leroy Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois on Feb. 3, 1937. His mother was the choir pianist for the family church, pastored by her father. Williams attended DuSable High School, famous for its music program under the direction of legendary Captain Walter H. Dyett, whose pupils included Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, and Charles Davis. Williams did not study with Dyett, but was recommended by him for lessons with the local master percussionist, Oliver Coleman. His first gigs included work with bassist Wilbur Ware, who, in 1967 when Williams arrived in New York, was already there. “Wilbur was very encouraging to me, he helped give me confidence. It was Wilbur who hooked me up with Hank Mobley in New York,” explained Williams. In the summer of 1970 Ware recommended Williams to play with Thelonious Monk, whose regular band had just broken up. “Come on, man,” Wilbur had said, “are you ready?!” With Monk, Williams played a week at the Village Vanguard, a week in Raleigh, and local gigs around Manhattan. “I learned a lot just watching Monk. “He dug my time, but one night, maybe I was trying to show too much technique and he turned to me and said, ‘Leroy, we’ve got all night to play, baby.’ Well, I learned from that to make everything I did play count for something, no extra flash.”
In the 1990s he was a member of the group El Mollenium with guitarist Roni Ben -Hur, pianist Bertha Hope, and bassist Walter Booker. Williams’s powers as a highly musical drummer who could send rainbow of color sounds into the air, and who always swung hard, fast or slow, were well known by such recording and performance colleagues as Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, an Getz, Jimmy Heath, and Ray Bryant, Junior Cook, Charles McPherson, and, of course, Barry Harris.
“Leroy Williams’ placement of the beat allows the other musicians to play in front of it or behind it without losing the flow,” stated the writer Stanley Crouch. Williams was a deeply spiritual player who could light up a room with his smile or sizzling drum kit. Those who knew him would notice him approaching at least a block away, he had this super cool strut, a Chicago-Harlem stroll, a hip flow like a Lou Donaldson solo, he will be missed.
He leaves his loving wife, Jill Williams along with his daughter, Alexis, and…grandchildren.