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“It was a real education for me to play with some of the legends of Indianapolis’ jazz scene,” recalls drummer Tony Williams. They were playing “heavy duty stuff where I had to listen.” “I started off in the back scared that I would make a mistake. Eventually I got braver, they saw I could keep time, and I was out in front.” Jimmy Coe, Pookie Johnson, and David Baker were some of the greats Williams got a chance to play alongside. Baker “would come up on Fridays. We’d do something like ‘Mister Magic’ that would give me an opportunity to shine too.”
Interviewed at his apartment on Indianapolis' Indiana Avenue, the street where jazz history was made in the 1940’s and 50’s, Williams recalls how he got started as a musician. Although he’s since studied music at IUPUI, he had no formal training. “I would go to a concert and see, like Earth, Wind & Fire, and see how much the percussionist or the bass player was having fun. I would start saving money and would pick up different instruments.”
In 1988, keyboard player and poet Carl Hines invited him to join a weekly open-stage jam session. Williams was already a familiar face in music venues over the previous decade. “I used to deejay in different clubs with my foster brother Craig King. They would see me out on the dance floor when I wasn’t deejaying.” Williams has never stopped dancing. (He describes his moves, honed as a child in front of the TV watching “Soul Train,” as “like Michael Jackson sitting down.”)
At age 53, Williams appears to have the energy and zeal of several people combined. And unlike him, those people probably don’t have a spinal cord injury that has disabled them since adolescence. “I found out I have to be twice as strong as the temporarily able-bodied.” (“We call y’all T.A.B.’s,” he tells me with amusement.)
Williams has played with wheelchair basketball teams for 35 years, including the Chicago Pacemakers, the Indiana Olympians, and the RHI (Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana) Pacers, which he helped to found.
Not only a musician and athlete, this multi-faceted man is a poet, writer, and award-winning speaker. Williams has published four books of his poems. “When I started playing music, I found my voice in poetry.” “I started writing faith-based poems, poems about the streets, about what I’ve been through, and about being in love,” he explains. For Williams, music and poetry are inseparable. “In 1998 I started playing with spoken word artists and African drummers, and I’ve been playing with them ever since.” “I love to be able to recite and play [he drums or other musicians lay down a beat he provides] because then you can put more emphasis on the words that you want the listener to hear, to really get into their spirit, their being.” Williams writes his poems first, but brings new life to them on stage. “You’re not going to perform it the way you wrote it. That’s one thing I got from the older poets: I can do anything.”
It had been mentor James Depp who introduced Williams to open mic poetry at the Midtown Writers Group’s weekly Kafe Kuumba (which is, amazingly, still going after 22 years). “J.R. [Depp] taught me to read other people’s poetry so that I could have a broader view of what poetry was.” J.R. and Williams are both members of Urban Vibes, a poetry/drum troupe that has become “like family.” An only child who never knew his father, Williams lost his mother Mattie Mae Handy in 2007 and his foster brother in January of 2010.
But Williams was no stranger to loss. At the age of 15, a sniper in a gang on Chicago’s West Side shot him in the back. Williams describes the incident in his autobiography, Peace in My Dreams. On March 27, 1973 he heard a popping sound and then “I was falling for what seemed like an eternity. It was as if I had stepped out of my body and was watching everything in super slow motion. I could see the concrete with me laying on it feeling nothing from my chest down. ‘My legs, what’s wrong with my legs,’ I thought.”His book tells the story of his excruciating recovery process and beyond, helping the reader understand in detail what it’s like to acquire and live with a spinal cord injury.
As a child, Williams says he got in trouble in school and didn’t apply himself. But not long before the shooting occurred, he had discovered his talent as a basketball player and become serious about developing it. He had resolved to end his gang participation. His intention to change the direction of his life came too late.
Unable to return to his home with its flight of 22 steps, Williams was befriended by respiratory therapist Donald Ballinger. He provided Williams a room in his elevator-accessible apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Ballinger worked with Williams and his fellow rehab patient Craig King to teach them wheelchair basketball skills. His acts of generosity were numerous, including helping Williams get his high school equivalency diploma. This good fortune was not to last. “My mom gave permission to Mr. Donald Ballinger to become my legal guardian because he was going to take me to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater on an athletic scholarship for wheelchair sports. That’s where I was supposed to be on January 25th, 1977.”
Instead, Ballinger was shot and killed by a robber outside his building. “He died on the operating table of the hospital where he worked,” Williams recounts.
Williams and foster brother King vowed to leave Chicago and its violence behind. They moved to Indianapolis where their former guardian’s sister lived. So instead of going to college, Williams found himself without family or possessions, victim of a snowstorm that kept him holed up for months. Where he lived, he had to lift himself physically up and down 15 steps, with one wheelchair at the bottom and one at the top. “Those were soul searching times for me.”
Williams offers his story to help young people learn from the tragedy he experienced. “I want you to think first about your choices,” he tells them. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. I’m still in pain all the time, every waking hour.” He’s talked to students in almost every school in Indianapolis, showing them his scars and ready to answer any question. “People tell me I came to their school when they were in 6th grade and now they have [their own] kids. ‘You need to go to their school and tell them what you told us,’ they say. ‘They need you bad’.”
His message is cautionary, yet hopeful and positive; he tells kids how important music can be in their lives, describing the rewards of learning to play an instrument. Williams reaches audiences from “elementary to penitentiary,” he says with a smile. An advocate for better transportation and housing for people with disabilities, he is also a resource for patients with spinal cord injuries and their families.
Williams’ extensive public service and initiatives with youth are too numerous to begin to list here, as are the awards he’s received in recognition of them. (The photo shows him receiving Indiana's Jefferson Award for Public Service.) He has also been the subject of much media attention. “I met a lot of people that I probably never would have met, from Michael Jordan to Tony Bennett.”
Most important and enjoyable to Tony Williams is his time with children. “Kids will see me at the grocery store and they want to know, ‘Why are you sitting in that chair? What’s wrong with you?’ I’ll start up a conversation and I might do a wheelie for them. I’ll tell them ‘I got shot, I was in a gang. I’m your example of what not to do'."
"They’ve learned not to be afraid of somebody that looks different than them. You’ve planted the seed of positivity. Once you break down that barrier of fear, you have a friend for life.”
Peace in My Dreams by E. Tony Williams (Williams’ autobiography) includes a reprinting of his poetry anthology Pieces of My Dreams. The book can be ordered from Popular Truth Publishing, 2511 East 46th Street, Suite L3, Indianapolis IN 46205. Send a check made out to the publisher for $14.95 plus 6% shipping. Contact the publisher by e-mail.
(photo by James Depp)
(photo by James Depp)