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Ambler, PA — On Sunday, June 1, at 7 p.m., St. John’s Lutheran Church, 24 N. Ridge Ave., Ambler, will host a very special Jazz Vespers called “Thank God for Jazz: A Tribute to Tony Williams.” Bass great Tyrone Brown and WRTI Radio’s Bob Perkins will be on hand to honor Williams, who will be jamming with Jim Holton on piano, Cindy LeBlanc on flute, Hideo Morris on vibes, Justin Sekelewski on bass, and Adam Pfannenstiel on drums, with artists like Mike Boone, Barbara Walker and Tony Jones dropping in to add to the musical festivities.
“Tony’s more than just a great jazz man. Everyone who knows him says so. In his 83 years, Tony Williams has done it all: toured, taught, coached, mentored and raised a strong family,” says jazz headliner Jim Holton, a minister of music at St. John’s. “It’s our great honor to host him, to jam with him. He’s been able to balance his music and his family life, which he’s expanded to include the hundreds of children whose lives he has touched. In fact, his namesake “Tony Williams Scholarship Jazz Festival,” which marks its 24th year this August, is a testament to the success of that balancing act.”
Williams was born in Chattanooga, TN, and he grew up in Abington. After college and a stint in the 75th Army Band, he came home, got his masters in education at Temple and went to work as a teacher and coach, finally becoming a vice principal in the Philadelphia schools. At the same time, he played all the local jazz venues with great Philadelphians like Bootsie Barnes, Mickey Roker, and Grover Washington, Jr. When other jazzmen came to town – think “Cannonball” Adderley, Wild Bill Davis, Butch Ballard, Jimmy McGriff – Tony was in demand.
In his early days, however, the “allure of the tour” that captures many jazz musicians never won Tony. On-the-road and foreign touring would have to wait.
In his words, “I used to hear people say, ‘You can’t make it unless you go away from your home.’ Well, I broke that tradition. I had a family and I felt they needed structure. I’ve had a chance to do my music, and the people have been gloriously nice and supportive.”
Philadelphia offered Williams a different kind of opportunity. In 1978 he and some fellow teachers, including Tommy Grice, put together the non-profit Mt. Airy Cultural Center (MACC) to keep jazz alive by teaching youngsters the basics of jazz theory, as well as individual and group play. “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,” says Williams, who also made sure that the parents of his students got involved in the process.
“Pieces of a Dream” and “Stenton Diner Teenage Jazz Band” are just a couple of the groups that were nurtured by MACC, and hundreds of students have gone through the program, some of them eventually becoming professional musicians. Underlying the educational opportunities of these students since 1990 are the proceeds from the “Tony Williams Scholarship Jazz Festival,” which brings together students and nationally known jazz artists for four days of workshops and jammin’.
To quote Bob Perkins “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. 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 …
St. John’s is located at 24 N. Ridge Ave., Ambler. Admission is free, and everyone is welcome. A free will offering will be accepted. Free parking is available behind Ambler Savings Bank. For more information call 215-646-2451 or visit www.stjohnsambler.org.