Tag Archives: Drums

For Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, a Jazziz Article/Celebration from 2012, a Long Interview with jazz.com from April 2009, a Mid-Sized Article for Downbeat from 2005, and the Interview Conducted For the Downbeat article

For master drummer-bandleader-pianist-composer Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, I’m posting three separate pieces — at the bottom is a mid-sized article for Downbeat in 2005 on the occasion of his Readers Poll victory for “Best Drummer”; above it is an exhaustive Q&A interview that appeared in 2009 on the now-defunct and much missed http://www.jazz.com website (it contains a lot of information about his formative years in Chicago); above that is a piece for Jazziz in 2012  in responsed to his NEA Jazz Masters Award that year that is primarily focused on appreciation-testimonies from 6 colleagues and friends from different generations.


Jack DeJohnette (Jazziz Article, 2012):

Calls of “Happy Birthday” rang out from the sardine-packed house at Manhattan’s Blue Note as Jack DeJohnette positioned himself at the drumkit for the first of two sold-out sets on January 8th. Rather than inform his fans that their salutations were premature (he turns 70 on August 9th), DeJohnette opted for inclusion: “Say it as many times as you like.”

Two days hence, uptown at the Rose Theater, DeJohnette would receive an 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Award. But on this evening, the iconic drumman-pianist-composer was celebrating that honorific—and a new self-released CD, Sound Travels [Golden Beams]—with his working quintet of the past two years (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; David Fiuczynski, double-neck electric guitar; George Colligan, piano and keyboards; Jerome Harris, electric bass) augmented by saxophonist Tim Ries and percussionist Luisito Quintero. Reacting to Quintero’s imaginative postulations of the beat, DeJohnette uncorked a symphonic array of organic grooves that touched on swing, salsa, tango, calypso, funk, drum-bass, Indian, and open rubato feels. The unit cohered from the jump, listened closely, self-orchestrated instantly, shifting on a dime from one feel to the next while reimagining such DeJohnette standbys as “One For Eric” and “Tango Africaine” and fleshing out new jewels from  Sound Travels.

Centered around DeJohnette’s intense simpatico with Quintero, a steady partner since his clave-centric Latin Project from 2005, Sound Travels is a succinct, interactive date on which DeJohnette—who plays piano on all but one track, joined by Esperanza Spalding on bass—distills a lifetime’s assimilation of musical dialects, while embracing experiences on a cohort of more recent projects. Bruce Hornsby, who partnered with DeJohnette and Christian McBride on the 2007 instrumental date Camp Meeting, contributes lyrics and vocals on “Dirty Old Ground,” a 7/4 line that DeJohnette describes as “Levon Helm and the Band meets New Orleans.” On “Luisito Serena Salsa,” Spalding’s elegant vocalese, a spare solo by guitarist Lionel Loueke, and a clarion wrap-up by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire transpire over the DeJohnette-Quintero connection.

Sound Travels took shape while DeJohnette and his wife, Lydia, were in England last summer. “She’d been thinking we should plan something special for my 70th year,” he relates, noting his participation in the 70th birthday celebrations of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. “Then the NEA called.” They approached jazz impresario Chuck Mitchell to work with them on “a record that encapsulates my musical taste,” with “a focus on groove and beautiful melodies.” Mitchell assented, requesting only that DeJohnette play piano. Based in Nice during the Keith Jarrett Trio’s annual summer tour of Europe, DeJohnette took advantage of off-days to write the tunes on a Korg M3, playing the pieces over the phone to album producer Robert Sadin.

Like DeJohnette’s entire oeuvre, Sound Travels embodies, as DeJohnette puts it, “the spirit of playing with Miles Davis, the Gateway Trio, and Keith Jarrett—open, prepared for the unexpected, and willing to follow that where it takes us. It’s easy to say ‘come up with something different,’ but the challenge is to come up with something that’s different and also makes sense and communicates.”

Asked to self-assess his accomplishment, DeJohnette focused on collective imperatives. “I’ve always come to the table with an intention to help—to add my creative input and make someone else’s music be the best they want it to be. I do this with love and passion. I was thrilled and touched to be recognized as a ‘jazz master’ for what I love to do, to be in the category of those who laid groundwork for me to build my music vocabulary on. But I hope that I am doing something to inspire the younger players, too. It’s important to have that exchange. It keeps everybody connected. You’re learning on both sides.”



I see Jack as a natural extension of Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, a perfect combination of the two—of course, with his own sound and style. You can hear Roy’s influence in the crispness of his touch and articulation; you can hear Elvin’s influence in the elasticity of his beat. I fell in love with Jack’s drumming when I heard him playing with Charles Lloyd on Forest Flower. That’s what I wanted to play like, so I spent a lot of time with his jazz style. I appreciate all of his recordings, but one of the more inspirational things for me is the way he plays standards with Keith Jarrett. I always keep one of those CDs in my car; sometimes, in my brain, I’m still trying to get to that.

Jack and Lydia have been like my second family. When I was 18 and able to drive, he invited me to his house in upstate New York, and I’d spend weekends, leaving Monday at 6 a.m. to make a 10 a.m. class at Berklee. I was a jazzhead, closed in my personality and playing, and they helped open me up. They were listening to all kinds of things—reggae, music from Africa and New Orleans, ECM style music. Jack calls his music multidirectional, which I think is a more accurate description than jazz—he let me know that you define who you are. Sometimes he’d play piano and I’d play drums; once he told me I didn’t have to repeat he rhythm he played, but could complement it with my own idea. Jack understands the importance of passing on his knowledge more than anyone else I’ve encountered. He made himself available for me and other younger people, which is a lot of work. The older I get, the more I recognize how special that is.


Jack seeks out eclecticism in players who are proverbial diamonds in the rough, and nurtures and hones them to fit his purposes as a bandleader, like a musical chef, using a jigger of this, a pinch of that. Then he lets the dogs loose. His philosophy is that if you have to make too many statements and judgments and modifications, then obviously you’ve hired the wrong people. He expects nothing other than experimentation, people walking the tightrope, having open ears and being responsive to what’s going on around them. Playing with him is like playing with an octopus, a multi-tentacled drummer-percussionist. You get so caught up in the vortex of what he’s doing that you have to slap yourself back into the moment. You just can’t believe you’re that secure. He’ll do what he calls ‘elastic time,’ playing cycles within the cycles, like a metrical embodiment inside this rhythmic rush.

When I played with him, he was very open to the experiments we were doing with the M-BASE Collective. His band was the best laboratory for me. Gary Thomas or I would make what we thought was a mis-step, but Jack would say, ‘That was some bad shit; keep that in there.’ That let me know he was listening, and I had license to stretch. He embodies the spirit of somebody who wants to know about everything; he’s probably the most curious person I’ve ever met. We’d be out on the road for six to eight weeks, and he’d carry a suitcase filled with hardcover books and cassettes. He’s always checking out different languages and cultures and folklore. It was like a furthering of my academic education, on-the-job training with somebody who was a professor of life and information.


Jack sums up everything for me about jazz drumming—or just drumming in general. He can play audacious rock-and-roll; and he can play great open, free music; he can swing like mad; and when he feels like it, he WILL just lay down a beautiful time feel—there’s nothing that sounds and feels quite like that. To play with him is challenging and very abstract sometimes, but it always feels great, because he comes from how it feels and how it sounds, and not so much worried about WHAT he’s doing. When we recorded together in the ‘70s, his pieces were often very loose, but he also wrote very pretty songs that he liked to play on the piano, which became structured, with dense harmonic material, like things that I or someone like Ralph Towner was writing. I think we got along so well because we both liked to listen to everything. That’s why he can fit into any situation—he’s able to respond and get into what the music calls for, rather than just superimpose his thing on the music. Jack is very accepting. You don’t have to be the most killing musician, but if he hears something in your playing that he likes, he’ll play with you and make something out of it. I was a totally green kid when he found me, but he was open and brought me along into his little world.


In 1967, when I was still living in London, Jack was in town with Charles Lloyd. At the time, young musicians were using Ronnie Scott’s old place to do late night sessions, and I was there playing at 2 in the morning, my eyes closed, when suddenly I heard a change on the drums. It was Jack. It felt so easy, comfortable and familiar. We did a lot of playing together that month, and we’ve enjoyed it ever since. Both of us had listened to and practiced with similar records—Coltrane’s Crescent and “Chasin’ the Trane,” We were working on the same ideas—the fast tempos, the relaxed, beautiful grooves that Elvin and Jimmy Garrison would set up. Perhaps that’s one reason why we hit it off so quickly, Jack brought his own set of parameters to the table. His understanding of harmony and melody helps him assimilate new music; I’ve seen him learn complex songs so quickly on recording sessions because he can recognize the form and changes right away.

When I came to New York in the summer of 1968 to start working with Miles, Jack and Lydia accommodated me at their small apartment in Manhattan, and introduced me to all kinds of people, which gave me a chance to get a foothold. He gave me a big opening in 1990, when he asked me to be part of the Parallel Realities tour with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, which was a turning point in my career. We grew up in a time where we were inclusive about music, and both of us have stayed that way. We don’t consider categories to be limiting. Music is music, and we can use any aspect of it that feels creative.


When you go to various drum festivals, Jack is the one drummer who brings something different every time, who isn’t afraid to have another drumset on stage and make music instead of a drum battle. He’s willing to play less for the sake of the music. Jack definitely has amazing technique, but he didn’t bog himself himself down with trying to be technically efficient. He’s not a classically-trained drummer, who uses a lot of finger technique, a lot of wrist, minimal arm movements. Early on, the way he held his sticks was unorthodox; I always wondered, “How is he playing that way?” But that’s how he taught himself. His musicality behind the piano and other melodic instruments helped him hear things that he forced out at the drumset. Drummers were always taught that in playing swing you need a washy cymbal, a loud cymbal that drives the band. Jack’s approach is closer to African music, where the cymbal is very dry, so it functions with the drums more like a unit. It’s like a mix between the rumbles of Elvin Jones and the clarity and back-and-forth skip from snare-to-bass drum of Roy Haynes, but more relaxed.

When you try to mimic drummers, you have to get into the body style, try to feel them as a person. When I try to pull off a little Jack, I notice that I have to become almost like a child. Which proves the innocence that you hear within his playing. He’s playing from a space that Herbie and them call ‘Why not?’—there is no right or wrong in music, and you can do anything you want. You can be supremely technical, or you can just be you.


Playing with Jack is always an adventure. It’s always fresh. I love playing with him. There is this element called swing, which is undefinable, in some ways a lost art. Jack would refer to it as “lock”—when a bass player and drummer have a lock. It requires a total surrendering of whatever you think you are or whatever you think is going on, and you’re just there with a pulse of some kind—and when it’s swinging, the hair on the back of your neck comes up. He’s one of the few drummers that I can do that with forever and ever. There’s never a question about where Jack is when he’s playing. He’s always present. So many interesting nuances come out of that. He doesn’t trot out what he knows. He’s just there with the music, and he uses his array of drums and cymbals in a unique, intuitive way that’s always musical. He’s always adding something, playing the harmony. It’s amazing how he can bring a ballad to life with one little sound, You’re like ‘how the hell did that happen? How did he know?’ I don’t even think he knew. He was just responding. But it was absolutely perfect. You can’t learn that. You have to forget about yourself altogether. You have to be totally committed to the music. Can’t be about anything else.


The piano is Jack DeJohnette’s oldest musical friend, but it’s been a while since he played it as much as he does on Sound Travels—he bookends the recital with two unaccompanied improvisations, uses it to dialogue with Bobby McFerrin and Quintero on “Oneness” (from the 1996 ECM date of that title), and both coheres and blends into the flow throughout.

DeJohnette began taking lessons at five from a private piano teacher, got more serious in mid-teens, and was working with a trio around Chicago’s South Side by the end of high school. He cites Ahmad Jamal’s famous Live At the Pershing: But Not For Me as a seminal influence, both for Jamal’s orchestrative approach to the piano, but also for Vernell Fournier’s brushwork. He also dug Erroll Garner, Wynton Kelly, and local pianists Jodie Christian, Billy Wallace, and Muhal Richard Abrams; as the ‘60s progressed, he also got into Herbie Hancock, a neighborhood friend from teen years.

“I had a trio [Scotty Holt on bass; Harold Jones, Steve McCall, or Arthur McKinney on drums] that played tunes like ‘Empyrean Isles’ and ‘One Finger Snap,’ and the pieces off of But Not For Me,” he says. “I did standards and originals, and learned how to interact with a rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist. The piano is a percussion instrument as well as a melodic instrument. It’s like an orchestra, and I can translate that to my drumming—the way I tune the instrument, the way I hear cymbals.”

On Sound Travels, DeJohnette observes, “I’m using the piano to be of the fullest service to the music, not to show off what I can do. I’m not in competition with all the great piano players I play with. I don’t get to play it as much as I’d like. In the future, I’d like to study and get some more knowledge and theory and harmony—get that done.”


In Conversation with Jack deJohnette  (April 18, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com

“I’ve always been curious about mixing different things, like an alchemist,” Jack DeJohnette told me several years ago. “Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

At 67, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer, most recently on the CD Music, We Are [Kindred Rhythm], as pianist Danilo Perez, and bassist John Patitucci title their equilateral triangle-oriented trio, which performed in April at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Seated before a gigantic drum assemblage that incorporated an electronic sampler and his own customized bells, and also playing melodica, DeJohnette propelled the flow with an assortment of driving grooves and precisely calibrated timbres, engaging in extended call-and-response with Perez.

This endeavor was an extension of a 2005 quartet project, with Jerome Harris on guitar, for which DeJohnette had composed Andalusian-influenced music “that needed guitar and six-string banjo,” Over the last several years, DeJohnette has focused on other hybrids informed by various flavors of the Afro-Iberian diaspora—several concerts with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, and a unit called the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove. Other DeJohnette offerings over that period include collaborations with the Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba, the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, and Ghanaian griot Foday Musa Suso; improvised electronica with son-in-law Ben Surman, and brother-in-law John Surman; and a group called Trio Beyond, on which guitar hero John Scofield, organist Larry Goldings, and DeJohnette reimagine the travel-the-spaceways musical production of Tony Williams and Larry Young in the cusp-of-the-‘70s group Lifetime.

Indeed, like Chick Corea, his 1969-70 partner with Miles Davis, DeJohnette in his golden years seems to grow ever more hungry for new sounds, which he assimilates, digests, and incorporates into his next step, which always appears to be imminent.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflected in 2005. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.”


TP: We were speaking how you handle this group. Have you been playing at all since 2005, when you did the Birdland gig that inaugurated this band?

JDJ: We played for the first time as a trio in Panama, the Panama Jazz Festival.

TP: Right. At Birdland, Jerome Harris was playing guitar.

JDJ: We’d played as a group with Jerome in Europe. So we had the experience of playing the three of us together. This kind of thing, with the grooves we get, was happening, and we wanted to get more into it as a trio. So we talked about it, and put aside some time, and last February everybody came up, and we recorded in RS Studios in the Catskills, which is not far from my house. We spent three days there. Of course, we had a great producer, Mirav Ozeri, who we asked to come and film the process. She did a great job—the interviewing, and asked great questions, the editing, and putting it together. We worked together on that.

TP: That’s the DVD that comes in the package.

JDJ: Yes. I think Danilo and John both talk about when how we all play together, the music has a level of quality, and also a risk-taking thing. They feel like they can take off and do different things that they don’t do in other situations than with me, because I’ve kind of got their backs. They have mine, too! So we support each other. But grooves! All of us like to groove as well as play abstractly. So even when you play abstract, there is some kind of connection. There is some kind of groove even you can’t kind of 1-2-3-4. There is some melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic connection.

TP: There’s also a lot of color.

JDJ: Absolutely.

TP: You don’t usually hear Danilo playing synth-keyboard.

JDJ: Yes. Then I have an electronic percussion unit incorporated into my set. So we’re not the average jazz trio. We use the colors, which is a good term. We use the percussion…

TP: John Patitucci also uses the six-string electric bass. A few years ago, you told me that you’d written some music with an Andalusian-Spanish sound, and you were hearing John and Danilo’s sound with that. Is that the base on which the next…

JDJ: No. It’s taken on its own identity. It spotlights everybody, without overshadowing. There’s plenty of room, even when it’s busy. So there’s lots of space, and each night the music is totally different, so we take different approaches to it, and we’re not afraid to follow where it might go, and we have a great time! The other thing about the group is that it connects with its audience, in the sense that we can connect with each other facially, and also our audience. So there’s this rapport that connects the audience. Danilo is very outgoing, John is very visual, there’s a lot of smiles and stuff going on between us. So it’s like an intimate thing that’s shared, and it comes back from the audience.

TP: You played on Danilo’s first record. Is that where you and he met? Did you know him before?

JDJ: I knew of him, but that was the first time we played. That was the first time I heard him. He had his own voice. He was doing something different. There are quite a few Latin pianists who have incorporated the Latin aspect to jazz—Gonzalo, Michel Camilo, and some others. But Danilo is unique. He has a sense of drama, orchestration—very orchestral. Both he and John have grown tremendously in that sense from being with Wayne Shorter. I think that translates into this situation, with this trio, where it comes out in a more accessible way—I feel that anyway. We immediately got a rapport, but I think it took Danilo some time to get used to how to play with me.

TP: How do you mean that?

JDJ: Well, rhythmically, dynamically, the colors and all of that. But it inspired him, in a way, to develop certain things. Certain things that he’s playing now came about when we were touring with Jerome in Europe, this way of… This sort of multi-directional pulling, with John playing in one direction, I’m playing in another one, and Danilo pulling two or three ways, but we all know where are with it, and then we all of a sudden come back together and hit a point.

TP: Compression-and-release.

JDJ: Yeah. It’s like breathing. It’s fun. The music should have dynamics. If it stays on one thing all the time, it’s boring.

TP: I seem to recall you remarking that you first played with John in ‘96 or ‘97.

JDJ: The first time we played together was with Eugene Pow, a Chinese guitarist from Hong Kong. Nice guitarist. I was familiar with John through his work with Chick Corea, so I was excited to get the opportunity to play with him. I said to him, “Hey, man, you and Danilo sound good together; you guys have to meet each other.” I told Danilo that, too. And both of them, fortunately, did join Wayne.

TP: Before that, they played with Roy Haynes.

JDJ: Yes, they did. And again, that in situation, they played totally different. Roy likes to play traditional stuff.

TP: In 2005, when this group launched, you were in the middle of presenting a lot of different projects. The Golden Beams label was new. You had a Latin Quartet, with Don Byron, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Edsel Gomez… I’d like to ask the present status of these projects. There was the duo with Foday Suso. There was the Brass Project with your brother-in-law, John Surman, and the remix thing with your son-in-law, Ben Surman. Last November, you did a month with a group of…was it African musicians?

JDJ: Yes. I actually did it at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. That actually came about through Dave Liebman. Apparently, for his sixtieth birthday, Dave went with the saxophone player Jean-Jacques Quesada to Mauritani, just to hang out. When they got there, they were in a car, and the guy was playing this music of Dimi Mint Abbar. She’s like a griot there. Mauritania is a small country. It has 3 million people maybe. It has a city, but most of the time it’s a desert, it’s very hot, no electricity… At any rate, he met Dimi, and wanted to bring her back. She had performed in France before, but next time they tried to bring her back she refused, but then this time she decided to come. Unfortunately, Dave had another commitment that he had to fulfill, so he couldn’t do it, and he asked me to come in. So she brought five of her musicians. She had a son and a daughter who are singers, and an electric guitar player, and a bassist and percussionist. Rick Margitza played and filled in for Dave and Jean-Jacques. She’s amazing. She’s like a goddess there. This soulful African-Moroccan-sort of Mali-ish… She’s got a lot of things. She’s powerful, man. She’s got a spirit about her. So we played her music, and I did some duos with the drummer. We played for three nights there at the museum.

TP: That’s great to hear about. I was thinking of a month-long tour in Europe last November that’s on your website.

JDJ: This performance with Dimi Mint Abbar happened in March. The project you’re talking about has been ongoing for the last couple of years. It first started out with Mino in it, Jerome Harris, a couple of British horn players, Brian Waller on trumpet and Jason Yarde on saxophones. Both of these guys worked with Andrew Hill before he died, in his big band and small groups—Nasheet Waits was in some of those bands. Anyway, it was with Sibongile Khumalo. She’s from South Africa, from Johannesburg, and she’s amazing. I heard her in London. We have a booking agent who works there, John Cummings, with Serious Production, who does a lot with the younger musicians of Britain, and world musicians, too, from other places. So I heard Sibongile at the London Jazz Festival, and when I heard her I thought, “Oh, man, I want to play with her.” She’s amazing. She has this classically trained voice, but she uses another voice when she improvises, sings pop tunes. She is an improviser. Amazing. It’s like playing with a horn. It reminds me a little bit of playing with Betty Carter. Betty was like a horn. She’s very much into dynamics. She’d written some pieces. That first band had Danilo in it, but the second time, last November, we took Billy Childs on piano, and it was fabulous. As far as keeping that going, I’d like to do it at some point. It’s a matter of making it financially worthwhile, especially in America, because she’s going to have to come all the way from South Africa, which is a long trip, and these guys would have to come from England. But musically, it was great. Phenomenal.

We hope to continue the trio as soon as we get a real clear window on everybody’s availability. Of course, I’m still doing the stuff with Keith Jarrett, and I’m working on a next project, which is kind of looking back and moving forward at the same time, doing some of my music from earlier CDs—music from the Fifth World, some from Special Edition. It would be Jerome Harris, David Fiuczinski on guitar… In the horn section, I’d have Don Byron here, but if I go to Europe I’d have Jason and Byron. Also here I was thinking about adding someone who plays piano and keyboards.

TP: Three years ago, you said you were less interested in leading bands.

JDJ: That’s changed. I want to play some more of my music. That’s something I feel the need to do. Also, I want to write some new music. It’s fun playing my music! That’s the other part of it. I haven’t been writing prolifically for a while, so that’s coming back. The juices are flowing for that.

TP: In the ‘90s, you were doing a lot of sideman work in addition to being a leader. You were sideman-for-hire on a lot of one-off dates. That’s not so much in the picture these days, is it.

JDJ: Well, I think economics plays a big part in that now. A lot of people, for better or for worse, have their own labels, and they’re struggling with that.

TP: As are you.

JDJ: Yes. Well, Golden Beams is actually doing ok. This release is really… We knew it was going to be pretty strong. I hope to follow it up with some more.

TP: This group?

JDJ: Yes, but also a group led by me. Hopefully, we’ll do some more things with the Music, We Are Trio.

TP: As you expressed it to me, the idea of Golden Beams was to do projects that were financially feasible, i.e., the various duos with Suso and Frisell, and your New Age record, which you received a Grammy nomination for. I’m sure you’ve sold a ton of units…

JDJ: No, not yet. But it’s definitely helped the profile of the label. Hopefully, that will pick up.

TP: But one thing that occurred to me in observing how John and Danilo interact with you was what sort of people are best-suited to play with you. You’re a very dynamic, assertive, strong player, apart from everything else. You’re a force. What sort of people are you looking for to play with?

JDJ: I’m looking for people like Dave Fiuczynski, Jerome Harris, people who are not afraid to take chances and are very comfortable on their instruments and comfortable with taking chances, and like to interact. Because I always need…I provide a base for musicians who have those abilities to experiment and find out what they don’t know about themselves. That’s the kind of musician I like to play with. And those who have their own voice, too. For me, that’s stimulating, and it gets my juices flowing. Then, certain music in certain circumstances that will create musical soundscapes, environments. I experiment with different things. Type of colors, different types of concepts.

TP: I’d like to ask you about your drumming, aspects of your personality on the drumkit. When drummers talk about you, they talk about your timbre, what they call your “dry” snare sound that’s your trademark. Could you talk a bit about the process by which you conceptualized a sound on the drumkit, how your identity developed, how it’s evolved over the years. It could be very specific or very broad. Any way you’d want to respond.

JDJ: Having played piano first, I think of myself more as a colorist. I’m a drummer, of course, and I create rhythm, but the drumset is an orchestra, and I tune each drum to different pitches. In the process, I design my own drum heads along with Roy Burns, who helped develop my signature drum head. But touch, tone, and cymbals—those are some of my signatures. And I develop my own cymbals also, and the bells you saw that were there. So I’m always searching for ways to enhance the color. One of the things I like to develop, and I’m still working on it, is touch. No matter how light or how strong I’m playing, there’s a touch, a lightness to it, an uplifting spirit that happens. So the cymbals, again, are like the icing on the cake basically. I hear all kinds of colors and tones. And the sticks… The sticks create these different shades, depending on how I touch the cymbals and the drums themselves. A lot of times lately I play with the snares off, because that gives more of a tribal sound to the drum—you just hear a tom-tom. The snare drum sometimes can overshadow the rest of the band, because it’s got these wire snares underneath, and they just resonate when you put them on. So it gives more clarity when I don’t use the snare drum. But when I do use the snare drum, it’s pretty crisp. I just the hear the instrument as music, as a musical instrument, just like you use the piano or a guitar…

TP: At least this week, you’re using a huge kit.

JDJ: That’s the kit I always use.

TP: How many pieces?

JDJ: An 8-piece kit.

TP: Not including the cymbals.

JDJ: Yeah, I wouldn’t count those as a drumkit.

TP: So it’s drums-and-cymbals.

JDJ: Yes, I’ve been doing that for a while. But the bells are a new addition for the last four or five years.

TP: How did that evolve? In the ‘60s you weren’t using so many components.

JDJ: No. But that came maybe in the ‘70s. Drummers just started adding more drums to the palette. To me, it’s just more colors. There’s just two smaller drums, an 8 and a 10, and I tune them up in bongo range. So it gives me a pretty wide palette of colors in terms of pitches for the drumset. So yeah, I love having those extra colors?

TP: Are beats colors as well as pitches?

JDJ: Yeah, beats can be that, depending on how fast or slow they’re played.

TP: I also wanted to ask you a bit more about your tuning system. How did it develop, and why did it take the shape it did?

JDJ: I try to tune the kit so it’s in a range that doesn’t clash with the bass or the piano. I tune my bass drum up high. As I said before, the two mounted tom-toms on my left, the 8 and the 10, are in the bongo range, which is a higher range. So if I want to make a point, make an exclamation, I can go to that, instead of a lower tom-tom. It gives me a comfortable range that can work with most any genre of music. Sometimes I tune to chords. Like, when I worked with Dimi Mint Abbar, I actually had tuned to a G dominant VII scale, so that it would be tuned… Because they sing in the same key all the time. So I’ll change the tuning for that. Other times, depending on what the music is and what the harmonies are, I’ll change the tuning again to work with the situation. Otherwise, I keep it in a general range.

TP: How much piano do you practice these days? Do you always keep up on your keyboards?

JDJ: Not enough. I haven’t been doing that enough. Although with this group, I’m playing melodica, which gets me back into keys. I plan to be doing more of that in terms of writing, for writing new compositions, and I use the piano to write.

TP: Now, piano is sort of your oldest musical friend.

JDJ: It is. It’s still my friend.

TP: Your bio states that you started playing it at 5?

JDJ: Around 5, yes.

TP: What were the circumstances? You had a piano at home?

JDJ: I had a piano teacher come by.

TP: You had a facility for it?

JDJ: Well, I had a piano.

TP: Well, some people might have a piano and not develop their facility.

JDJ: I didn’t get more serious about it until I was a teenager.

TP: I’d like to talk a bit about your roots in Chicago, and discuss some of the information that’s on your site, which I can link to. There’s a photo of you as a little kid with a toy saxophone. Can you tell me where that picture is from?

JDJ: That was at the Pershing. That’s the famous Pershing where Ahmad Jamal did “But Not For Me,” Live at the Pershing. The guy holding the microphone is T-Bone Walker, who was playing. My uncle, Roy Hill, loved jazz, and he liked to go out to clubs and cabarets, and I used to listen to all of these records when I was around that age. I believe I was 7 or 8, and this was one of these little plastic saxophones with cellophane in it, where you sing through it. I was playing…I forget who the artist was, but I was playing this melody [SINGS IT], and the band came in right on it! They knew it. I remember being scared to death. I’m 7 years old. “How the hell did they know that?!” I knew the solo, and I was playing this solo, so now I think back, and they must have thought, “Look at this kid, he’s 7 years old, and he’s playing—he’s listening to the record.” So that’s what that was. I sat in with the band. That was phenomenal.

TP: Getting that feedback from grownups.

JDJ: Wow. They must have been like, “Wow, this kid is 7 years old and he knows this stuff.”

TP: You also wrote on the site that your mother is the author of “Stormy Monday.”

JDJ: So she says. She sold the tune for 50 bucks, or whatever it was. In those days, people did do that. The jazz musicians used to do that. “Hey, man, give me some tunes. Give me five tunes.” Then they’d put their name on them.

TP: Was she involved in music at all?

JDJ: No, she wrote poetry. My father had nothing whatsoever to do with music. Not at all.

TP: So your uncle was the inspiration.

JDJ: My uncle. And my mother wrote songs and poetry, and I used to put tunes to her words. She had music and she liked music.

TP: At what point did it seem to you that music would be what you were going to do?

JDJ: When I was a teenager. About 16.

TP: What was making you think that?

JDJ: I was naturally drawn to it. I knew I had abilities, natural abilities. At the time, I was working as a pianist, and then I got into drums, and I started working on both instruments. Then I knew… It was something I was really good at it, and I enjoyed it, and I had a passion for it, and I said, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”

TP: As a pianist, were you playing in the Ahmad Jamal style? Were you emulating him primarily?

JDJ: When I started, he was one of my first influences. I liked Erroll Garner. He was amazing. I wish people would reissue some of Erroll Garner’s stuff so we can hear how phenomenal this guy was. There were some Chicago pianists, too. There was Jodie Christian, a legend who’s still around. Billy Wallace.

TP: He played with Max Roach for a while in the latter ‘50s.

JDJ: Yes, he did. Then Muhal Richard Abrams was a great influence on me, not only musically, but as a male role model. I liked Wynton Kelly a lot.

TP: Did you know Andrew Hill in Chicago?

JDJ: Yes, I knew Andrew. I knew Chris Anderson, too.

TP: Did you know Herbie Hancock in Chicago?

JDJ: Yeah, I knew Herbie. Herbie lived down the street from me. But Herbie was definitely an influence, especially when the Empyrean Isles record came out. I had a trio which used to play tunes off of that, like “One Finger Snap” and “Empyrean Isles.”

TP: Stylistically, what sorts of things were you interested in presenting in your piano trio?

JDJ: I did standards and originals, things like that. Interacted with the rhythm section, learned how to use the rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist, and I’ll play a melodica in front of a rhythm section also. It gave me insights into how to be a better drummer—and listener also.

TP: Was your trio Scott Holt and Steve McCall?

JDJ: Yeah, actually it was. That was one of them. Then I had another drummer with Scotty, Arthur McKinney. Then actually, Harold Jones played with me and Scotty also. You know Harold, right?

TP: He played with Ellington.

JDJ: Yes, but he also was the drummer on Eddie Harris’ Exodus To Jazz, and he worked with Eddie. In fact, I filled in for Harold because he was a teacher at Roosevelt in Chicago, and he had some graduation stuff to do. I went on the road with him. The first time I went on the road was with Eddie Harris. I went to Kansas City, and then played Pep’s in Philadelphia. It was interesting, too. When I went to Kansas City with Eddie, we played a double bill opposite an organ trio led by Eddie Chamblee, and Aretha Franklin was on the bill. She had just made her first record for Columbia Records, and she was there with her mother.

TP: Eddie Chamblee was a tenor player. One of Dinah Washington’s husbands.

JDJ: He could have been. Anyway, we were in this club for a week. It was a famous club, one of the last clubs in Kansas City. Count Basie had played there. And the hotel was down the street from it. I remember it very well, because they wanted Eddie’s band to play for her—she came with no band. So Eddie said, “Well, yeah. Cough up some more bread.” The guy didn’t want to cough up what he had. Some Eddie Chamblee, the drummer, and the organ player wound up playing with Aretha. She was doing, “Yeah, by the railroad tracks…” — she was playing piano for herself. It was interesting. We talked. At the time she said, “I might get a band together; maybe I’ll call you.” But she never did!

TP: So you were on the fence during those years between piano and drums, and as you’ve put it, Eddie Harris steered towards concentrating on drums.

JDJ: He thought I was a natural drummer, and he thought I’d be more successful at it—and as it turned out he was right. When I came to New York in ‘64 or ‘65, I went up to Minton’s, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I sat in with him. John Patton was there, he heard me play, and he said, “Hey, man, you got a set of drums.” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, you got a gig.” That’s when I decided, “Ok, I’m going to make drums be my main instrument.”

TP: What brought you to New York?

JDJ: Of course! It was the mecca.

TP: Of course. But a lot of great musicians from Chicago stayed in Chicago.

JDJ: I exhausted every other avenue of places to play. At that time, disco was coming in, so a lot of good places to play jazz were drying up. So I just said, “Ok, let me out of here.” Of course, some of it dried up here. I just caught Minton’s before it closed, and Birdland was still going. A few years later, it closed. I got a chance to hear Al Grey and Billy Mitchell at Birdland, so I sat in with them on piano and then on drums.

TP: Also regarding Chicago, you mentioned Muhal as an influence, Steve McCall was one of your drummers, and you knew a lot of people in the AACM. Can you speak to what your level of involvement was with those musicians? Were you sort of on the outskirts of it, occasionally doing a gig…

JDJ: No-no, I was right in it. I was right in it. I was there when Muhal formed…he got a charter to form it. I was there when the whole thing started, and he found the building. We had the AACM Orchestra. Out of that orchestra… First of all, Roscoe Mitchell and I were close friends. We went to college together. Malachi Favors went there, Joseph Jarman was there, another guy named James Willis. We used to actually go… Joseph said I broke up his marriage because I convinced him to have whole concerts in the attic of his house. I guess his wife didn’t like jazz that much. But we used to charge some money and put on concerts up there. But Joseph and Roscoe and Malachi would play together. Roscoe and I used to play at each other’s house every day. I’d go to his house, or he’d come to my house, and we’d play for hours—just improvising. So that was the freer aspect. But when I say “free”… I mean, these guys were serious composers as well as playing improvised music. They were coming at it in another direction.

TP: They were very involved in structures and incorporating a broad range of vocabulary and ideas.

JDJ: Oh yeah. But at the time, we also were involved in creating structures for improvisation—just go up and play.

TP: You’ve also related a certain time when Coltrane came to Chicago and you were able to sit in.

JDJ: Yes. I’d been coming almost every night to see him at McKie Fitzhugh’s, on Cottage Grove. Elvin didn’t return for the last set. I was there. The place was packed. People were outside; there were lines outside. I’d played some of the jam sessions on Monday night, and McKie said to John, “Man, we need to play the last set. Let Jack come up; he’s a good drummer.” John said, “Ok,” and I went up and played three tunes with McCoy and Jimmy. It was one of the highlights of my career. It was fantastic.

TP: Had you ever dealt with that sort of energy on a bandstand before?

JDJ: No. It was the first time for that.

TP: Was it a transformative moment for you?

JDJ: Absolutely. John was a very spiritual guy, but he was also very magnetic. So I understood why Elvin had to play the way he played. Because whatever you could throw at John, John was like a sponge—he absorbed it. So I realized on an energetic level how amazing John Coltrane was. So I’m happy that I was developed enough as a good drummer to hold my own in that, playing those songs. Later on, around 1966, I had the opportunity to go back to Chicago with John at the Plugged Nickel, when he had the new band with Alice and Rashied and Pharaoh and Jimmy. That was even more phenomenal, because we had two drummers, two saxophone players. I remember one night, Roscoe came and sat in. So musically, mentally, and spiritually, it was one of the most challenging gigs I ever did.

TP: It’s interesting, because of all the really major AACM musicians of your generation—Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith—you’re the only one who went to New York at the time.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Which is apropos of nothing. But as a speculative question: What do you think would have happened had all those people gone to New York in the mid ‘60s? Would they have been influenced in different directions? Would history have taken a different course?

JDJ: Maybe. I don’t know. But it might have been possible, considering the climate in New York. By the way, in New York I worked with Sun Ra at the Vanguard and up in Harlem.

TP: You spoke a bit about first establishing yourself in New York—you sat in at Minton’s, John Patton offered you a gig. In 1965 and 1966, you recorded with Jackie McLean, and then in 1966 you go out with Charles Lloyd, which brings you onto another level of visibility. But what scenes did you become part of after moving to New York?

JDJ: Well, I moved to the Lower East Side, as they had been renovating buildings, and that’s where a lot of the musicians were. They had just opened up a jazz club around the corner, on East Third Street, called Slugs, which was a bar, a pretty good club with sawdust on the floor, smoky. I started freelancing. I did various gigs. I worked with John Patton, and Freddie Hubbard called me to do one of those boat ride things out on the Hudson. I also hooked up with Charles Tolliver. The musicians around at the time were Henry Grimes, Cecil McBee lived on 10th Street… It was definitely an East Village thing. Herbie Lewis had a loft, and we used to go over to his house and play night and day. Charles Tolliver was very influential; we became close friends and musical constituents. Charles was playing with Jackie McLean, and Jackie had been away, and then he came back to the city. He said, “When Jackie comes back, yeah, man, you got to be his drummer; you’re going to get a call from Jackie.” I’d gone to sessions, the Blue Coronet, and played with musicians like Charles Davis and Pat Patrick, who is the father of Deval Patrick. I knew Deval when he was a little guy. He probably doesn’t even remember me…

Anyway, it was great, man! There was just music happening everywhere, and I just lived, breathed, and slept music in that period. But I was freelancing. I think I worked some with Betty Carter, with John Hicks and Cecil McBee. I remember we played a concert at Harout’s, and then I played a concert with Charles Tolliver and Gary Bartz and Hicks and Cecil McBee.

I heard Charles Lloyd when he had Gabor Szabo and Ron Carter…was it Pete LaRoca on drums… But anyway, somehow Charles was looking for a drummer, and he called me. Then I was playing with Charles, and Reggie Workman was playing bass, and Gabor was playing, and Gabor was getting ready to leave, and we wanted to get another bassist. Since I’d worked with Cecil with Jackie McLean, I recommended him. He asked me about pianists, and I’d heard Keith Jarrett with Art Blakey. So that became the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

Let me backtrack to Jackie. We did do some gigs, and we did the Jacknife album, with Lee Morgan, and Demon’s Dance. Anyway, we played in Connecticut, we played the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. The band had Larry Ridley on bass, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Tolliver, and myself. It was a pretty exciting band.

TP: Being in New York, you’re all of a sudden in first-hand contact with all the drummers you’d been checking out on records for years and seen occasionally in Chicago. There was Tony. Through Charles you probably got to meet Max Roach. You got to know Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. You’ve mentioned that you liked Arthur Taylor a lot, though he was probably in Europe by then…

JDJ: No, he was here when I got here. You could see him at the Five Spot. I got a chance to go to the Five Spot before it closed, where I saw Roy Haynes. At that time, groups used to go in and play for two weeks or a month, so they could really get tight. Coltrane worked there with Monk, and then Johnny Griffin, and then Roy Haynes was there with Wayne, and pianists like Albert Dailey, and Tolliver. I used to see A.T. there. Like I said, New York was a mecca of a lot of creative music. We can talk about the electric movement later.

TP: When you were accumulating drum vocabulary and making the decision that drums would be your main performance instrument, were you a drummer who was someone who deeply analyzed and emulated what other drummers did, or were the kind of guy who would hear what people were doing and tailor your approach to incorporate this, eliminate that…

JDJ: More of the second. I adjusted what I played to what the musical situation was. You can hear… I had influences. I had Elvin, or I had Tony, Roy, Max, and all those, but I also knew very consciously that I had to develop my own voice. So I took what I liked from the other drummers, and tried to turn it around into Jack DeJohnette, and basically had the good fortune to be in situations… The best situation is where musicians are taking risks and trying different things. I had a chance to experiment. And through those musical associations, I developed my own voice and my own concept around utilizing drums as an integral part of the ensemble as well as solos. I’m not an analytical player. I’m more an intuitive player, really.

TP: But your playing is so precise. There has to be some sort of analytical component to your personality.

JDJ: Well, yeah. But the process is… That sort of happens in the instant that I’m creating something. I’m not sitting down and saying, “Well, I did so-and-so and so-and-so.” I just take it in.

TP: Were you a big practicer?

JDJ: Oh, yeah. But I tailor-made my practices, to have the speed and the touch and the dexterity, playing time, different kinds of feels. I practiced a lot, to the point where I could…you know, with a tune-up at home, playing around, I’m ready to go. But I didn’t study a lot of drum books and all that kind of stuff, but I practiced rudiments and did a lot of listening—listened to the different drummers and listened to things I liked, and the feels that I like. I listened to a lot of the Blue Note records. I took some of that, and became one of the drummers that was called a lot for gigs. Fortunately, it’s kept me working all of these years.

TP: You always seem to have had the ability to generate a lot of velocity and energy without playing loud.

JDJ: Yes. That’s something I constantly worked on. The drum by nature is a dominant instrument, and it’s very easy to overpower a band. But having a lot of experience of playing with Keith… If you look at my history, I’ve done a lot of things with piano trios. So I learned a lot about dynamics, but playing with singers, like Betty and Abbey Lincoln, and playing with singers in Chicago. I learned how to support people. As well as being a leader, you also have to learn how to support and encourage, without obscuring the other musicians in the ensemble.

TP: You joined Miles Davis in 1969, and you played with him for two years—‘69, ‘70, and ‘71.

JDJ: Well, ‘70. I came back in ‘71 to play one or two gigs with him.

TP: Did playing with Miles affect the way you thought about playing drums?

JDJ: Well, before I played with Miles, the way drums are played, especially when Tony joined the band, yeah, that changed… It changed before I joined him, really. So I was already set up for that, between Elvin and Tony. Miles and Jackie McLean both had similar taste in drummers. Jackie always said to me, “Miles is going to hire you, because Tony was with me before Miles hired him, and we have the same taste in drummer.” Sure enough, one night I was in Slugs, and Miles came in to hear me. He’d heard about me, so he came.

Yeah, it was great to play with Miles, because Miles loved the drum. Everything came from the drums. He liked boxing, he was a big boxing fan, and he saw drums in jazz as having similar aspects. The drums and the horn player have to set each other up. He would talk about that, they had to set up. “Ok, now you’ve got to set this way…” If you play a phrase, you have to know how to set a guy up. The same thing with boxing. You set a guy up, you feint with a left hook and then catch him with an overhand or uppercut right. It’s in the rhythm.

TP: Did you box yourself?

JDJ: No. I love boxing, though. I have punched a bag a bit, but I didn’t want to get into it.

TP: You have to keep your hands safe.

JDJ: Yeah. No-no, I don’t want to mess with that. But I’m big boxing fan. I love boxing. But I love the art of it, not the… When guys are evenly matched, I like that. There’s a good match coming up, actually, with Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton. Coming up on May 2nd. If you wait a week, you can watch it on HBO.

TP: Correct me if I’m wrong here. But the way Keith Jarrett put it, it seemed to him that you helped Miles—and Keith as well—move into the new area of music that he wanted to explore, in bringing contemporary dance rhythms into the mix, and that he was not happy when you left. He wanted you to stay, and Keith felt that things in Miles’ music got more chaotic once you left the band. I think I’m paraphrasing it correctly.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Can you speak to what you consider to have been your impact on the direction of Miles’ music? That would also extrapolate into having an impact on the direction of creative improvised music in general.

JDJ: One of the things Miles was trying… I think Miles was at the pinnacle when he did those Cellar Door sessions, and I’m glad that they released the different nights.

TP: You mean the nights John McLaughlin wasn’t present for.

JDJ: Yeah. Because you can hear the development of it. Each night it was different. But Miles liked it because I knew how to anchor. I could be as abstract as I’d want to be, but I knew how to lay out a groove, and Miles loved to play with the grooves I laid down. So I had the technique and imagination that he wanted, but he also wanted something that was going to be rock-steady. One of the reasons I left is because the music was getting more restricted and more predictable. I left, because I wanted to keep doing freer, exploratory things. But that’s what Keith and I brought to that. Keith, like myself, can lay down and get in a groove and just sit with it, and that’s what Miles loved, was the ability to sit with that. Keith and I both had played at the Fillmore with Bill Graham. We had that done that circuit with Charles Lloyd before. So we’d already experienced that. Miles came after that, and he went out to the Fillmore. So you get the Fillmore recordings as well. So it was done twice, with two interesting bands. The Charles Lloyd Quartet was a crossover band even before Miles decided to move and more in an electric direction.

TP: there’s a difference in a music as nuanced as jazz between playing in an arena or theater and projecting those kinds of ideas and energies vis-a-vis doing it in a club. With Charles Lloyd, you really developed a way of projecting those qualities on a large scale.

JDJ: Yes. That group could have been really huge. But it reached its pinnacle, and we moved on from there. Charles is doing ok now. He made a comeback. I heard him a few years ago in Turkey doing something with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. And his group now with Jason Moran is nice.

TP: What’s also interesting is that you were so known for your deep grooves and energy, and then as the ‘70s progressed, a lot of your activity—though by no means exclusively—was with European musicians on ECM, and you became an influence on a European sound through people like Jon Christensen and people who were influenced by him. What kind of transition was that for you? Was it a natural evolution? A different side of your personality that was waiting to come out?

JDJ: I think it was… Manfred Eicher had this vision; he’s a visionary producer. His deal was that you could be successful recording artistic music, whether it be jazz or classical music (he was a classical music producer at Deutsche Gramophone before he started his label). He had a vision about sound and recording not just being a session, but a production, like in a movie sense. He encouraged me to be more artistic, but through packaging and promotion, ECM has been one of the most successful independent labels in the world…

TP: You were on so many sessions in the ‘70s that their interpretation of your sound on the drums became a sort of signature for the label, it seems to me, at least initially.

JDJ: Those recordings with Miles… Manfred was very interested in getting those musicians, like myself, Gary Peacock, and Keith, and extended that kind of creativity. He really heard the nuances in my touch, my cymbals—he had another kind of sensitivity about that. From being a classical music composer, he paid attention to detail. So he brought out my cymbal work, and encouraged that. He always took great care for the sound of all the instruments, really. But as a consequence, I got a chance to play with a lot of European musicians, and get this sort of cultural exchange, musical exchange. It’s been very valuable, even to this day.

TP: Talk about the ways in which it’s valuable.

JDJ: Well, it’s left a legacy of recordings that I did there, that are still relevant, still important recordings and…

TP: Did the experience refine your sense of playing the drumkit? Sometimes there’s a feedback loop with your production. As a musician or as a writer, you produce something, you see it, it might have some residual impact on what you do the next time, and you build on things incrementally. I’m wondering if the process of making those ECM records then had any sort of impact on your conception both of the drumkit and yourself as a musician, a composer or pianist. I’d also like to talk a bit about the evolution of your identity as a leader.

JDJ: I would say in that sense, yes, hearing the drums and hearing the production definitely fine-tuned my ears to what I was doing, how I was doing it. I guess on a subconscious level it became more refined, not only by the sound quality, but what the musicians…the music that we were doing. People like John Surman and Jan Garbarek and, of course, the trio, plus Abercrombie and the Gateway Trio—those kinds of things. Then my records as a leader, Special Edition, Directions, and New Directions. So it was a place to build upon refining. The combination of making recordings and touring, making music, touring-touring-touring, playing for audiences, adjusting to different acoustic circumstances, all that works… To learn how to play the drums in concert halls. You really have to adjust your playing and make some adjustments to the drums so that they don’t ring a lot. Because concert halls can tend to be very reverberating places, even with audiences in them, depending on what materials they’re made of, what type of walls and so on. So that also had an effect on me. I took consciously the idea of playing music in concert halls and bigger halls like that, learning how to adjust my playing. You asked me about being able to play intensely without overpowering the musicians—that’s something I worked on and developed to a fine craft.

TP: Your earliest bands had guitar, saxophone, with a kind of jazz-rock vibe, and as the decade progressed, it changes tonally—Lester Bowie was playing with you, and it became more abstract… I’d like to talk about why different groups took the tonal identity they did? Do you hear possibilities maybe a few years ahead and work towards them? Do you react to circumstances and respond to that with different personnel? I’m just trying to get to why different bands take on the personalities they take on.

JDJ: Well, they take on that personality because of the personalities. The first Special Edition album I did with Arthur Blythe, David Murray and Peter Warren—I consciously hired those guys because they were the new guys on the scene, and they had individual voices, and their styles were so the opposite of each other that they complemented really well. So those personalities came across.

TP: I seem to remember a concert at the Public Theater that Julius Hemphill played.

JDJ: He filled in a couple of times. Hemphill was amazing, man. I miss him. This guy was a great composer and arranger. He arranged some 16-piece orchestra things for me, for some of my compositions, which when I go to universities and do orchestras, I take these charts. He really did a beautiful job. But the various groups, I’ve had Chico Freeman, had John Purcell, had Howard Johnson. Then later on, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas and Mick Goodrick, who was phenomenal.

TP: A very different sound with that band.

JDJ: Well, those were younger guys, and we got to electronics, using electronic keyboards and sequencers—experimenting with sound and colors. We did a few albums. We did Irresistible Forces, then Audio-Visual Scapes, Extra Special Edition. I had Marvin Sewell replace one of the horn players, and then Michael Cain came along, and we had a long, very beautiful association.

TP: It’s interesting how you’ve stayed on top of technology and incorporated new rhythmic developments into what you do. You always seem to be assimilating new information and enveloping it into your production. An interesting process.

JDJ: Yes. We can talk about that on my label, Golden Beams, on which we’ve got Foday Suso, and then had Ben Surman, my son-in-law, to remix some of the stuff. We had the DeJohnette Golden Beams Collected, which are remixes and re-remixes. Ben is just light years ahead of anybody else I’ve heard in terms of knowing how to remix. He’s a great sound engineer, and he took material that was recorded and totally reinvented it. We also have the group called Ripple Effect, which has his father, John, me, Jerome Harris, and Marlui Miranda from Brazil. We’re going to be doing some gigs in the fall. So that’s a combination of acoustic jazz, world music, and remixes, and doing improvisations on the fly, too.

TP: When did the world music element start to become a serious part of your palette?

JDJ: Well, world music has always been there since the ‘60s. I was into the Beatles, I was into Ravi Shankar, I was into listening to the Nonesuch and Folkways records. Hamzel Al-Bin(?). I was listening to that.

TP: Did you listen to Afro-Cuban music when you got to New York? On the Lower East Side…

JDJ: There was a lot of it going on. But I didn’t get into it til later, when I went to Africa and started doing things with African musicians. So that came a little later. But the Afro-Cuban thing, I really got into it, like Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez. I love the grooves with the son and the salsa and the merengue. That’s what I like about playing with Danilo…or also Gonzalo…but Danilo and John. Because John understands the clave rhythm. So we go into those feels, but we extend them. Because I like to dance. We like to move. That’s why when we play the grooves, the grooves have such an insatiable tinge to them.

TP: Danilo himself has taught a lot of musicians younger than he a lot about rhythm, showing them ways to phrase music in new directions.

JDJ: He’s a great teacher.

TP: But you’ve told me that you more take those ideas and beats more by osmosis than through an analytical process.

JDJ: Well, I guess it goes into my creative conscious brain and comes back. Because I do things which, independence-wise on the drumset, influence Danilo. Danilo says, “Man, you were doing that.” I said, “Well, because you were doing this-and-this-and-this in your left hand, so it set me off to do this.” In other words, we’re feeding each other creatively. I guess in an analytical sense, we’ll discuss it, we’ll talk about it afterwards, or sing what we did. So in that sense, the process is looked at and talked about and commented on. “Oh, man, that was a great hit, but let’s try this and this.” So we build on it in terms of the interaction musically and the interaction of talking about it. It doesn’t get intellectual. It identifies a specific thing that…

TP: Well, it is intellectual, but it’s intellectual because of the nature of what it is, not out of some intention you place upon it.

JDJ: Well, yes.

TP: Perhaps I can make a summational statement. Throughout your career as a professional musician, which spans about fifty years, you’ve been able to pull off this rare trick of being able to function as a creative musician, to incorporate all of this new information, but also be a highly visible, commercially pretty successful guy. You can fill the Blue Note for a week, you can fill larger venues, and command large fees as a sideman on arena tours by dint of your identity. So you’ve been able to balance these two very crucial aspects of a satisfactory career as an improviser, both to be creative and to be commercially successful, and live the way you want to live. Presumably you like the lifestyle in Woodstock…

JDJ: Oh, I love it.

TP: Has it ever been a difficult proposition for you to stay on that aesthetic course?

JDJ: No, I chose to do that. I consciously chose to do that. Because that’s what I love to do. It’s my passion. So I continue doing that. Now, with the climate today, the way it is, I expect there will be some challenges in the years to come. But I’m trying to stay positive that somehow the music and the environment will change to a more favorable and more balanced and more caring society. But we will see. That remains. There are a lot of challenges ahead.

TP: But with your own label, you’ve also made the transition to being an entrepreneur, as many musicians have done, and you seem to have put together a pretty good business model.

JDJ: Well, the business model is the result of my wife, Lydia, and her ability to… She’s a better business person than I. I’m very grateful to her, and also for her ability to pick the right people to run the label. Jane Chun and Doug Yoel from Now-Forward Music have been great as label manager. Jane is now a co-manager as well. So we’ve all developed and created a business situation which we feel very good about. We’re still learning how to make it be more successful, and I plan to work towards attaining that goal.

TP: Could you give me a couple of minutes to talk about the Creative Music Studio and your experiences with it? Were you pretty involved in it in the ‘70s?

JDJ: Well, yeah. I mean, of course, because I had a name, and so it drew students to it. That’s one of the good things that came out of it. Sometimes it was kind of loosely put together. But it brought together some very interesting musicians. People like Cecil Taylor came up and did concerts, and we had people like Aïyb Dieng, Trilok Gurtu, Colin Walcott…

TP: Did that influence your own absorption of world music and beats and grooves from different cultures?

JDJ: Well, yeah. Oregon, which was on the label. Oregon still is quite a world music cooperative group. It was up near Woodstock, and Karl Berger and his wife had this idea for a school, and a lot of people came from all over the world. Since then, a student has written a book about it. It was really very interesting. I think it set up an environment to bring a lot of musicians together from different parts of the world, to work together and also pass on their knowledge to students. It’s become sort of a cult icon, you know, or a cultural situation that people look back on like something special. There were times when they were struggling financially, so my wife, Lydia, and a group of other people put together a benefit concert, which I think came out as a DVD, a Creative Music Festival with Braxton, Chick, Colin Walcott, me and John Abercrombie, Miroslav Vitous, Lee Konitz.


JDJ: Chicago used to be a very stimulating musical place. In fact, people who were going to New York would come up from St. Louis, or Indiana (like Freddie), would come to Chicago, and then go to New York. There was a lot of music happening. It was a music town. There’s still a lot of music there. Joe Segal is doing his Jazz Showcase.

TP: But it seems that Chicago had a certain musical personality of its own apart from New York. It didn’t seem to rely so much on New York for musical models.

JDJ: Well, yeah. First of all, you’ve got to talk about the environment and the city’s rhythm. Chicago rhythm, Midwest rhythm is more laid back than New York. So you had more spaces, it’s more laid-out. But it doesn’t mean that the musicians who came out of there were all necessarily laid-back. Johnny Griffin, Herbie, me, Ahmad Jamal, to name a few. Ira Sullivan, who spent a lot of time there. Ira was a pretty phenomenal guy. I played with him when I was a youngster, then I went back to the Showcase and played with him. In fact, I have recordings of the Showcase with him and Von, with Jodie Christian. In fact, now that I think about it, those are historic recordings, because Jodie now has MS and it’s hard for him to play. He doesn’t go out much. But I have these recordings of Ira and Von—we’re doing standard tunes.

Now, we should talk about Wilbur Campbell, because he’s one of the legends of Chicago.

TP: Four years ago, you mentioned that he influenced you greatly, and Miles made the comment about you falling up the stairs.

JDJ: Right. Wilbur was that kind of drummer. I mean, he was a swing drummer. He played bebop really, really well, and he played marimbas—he knew harmony. Wilbur was an influence on me, in what they call…Danilo calls it “the washing machine.” Don Byron calls it this swirly, rolly kind of thing that’s not necessarily metric, but it’s really very abstract. Wilbur was the first cat I ever heard play that way in Chicago. He’d play some fours, he’d play this concept and you didn’t know whether he was going to get out of it.

TP: People say that Ike Day played like that.

JDJ: I never heard him, and there’s no recordings of him playing full-out.

TP: That stacked-rhythms approach seems to be the way he approached it, though.

JDJ: Fortunately, there are recordings on Delmark with Wilbur on them. There was another drummer named Dorel Anderson, who’s on Live at the Birdhouse. But Wilbur was special. Wilbur was like the Edgar Bateman of Chicago. Edgar’s another one who was a really unusual drummer. The same with Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith. Had some totally different stuff happening. So Wilbur I’d say was a real big influence on me in the sense of what you could play, how you could stretch 4 bars or 8 bars. I’d advise anyone to listen to those Delmark records by Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

Then there was another great guy from Chicago, who if he’d left Sun Ra might have given John Coltrane some problems, was John Gilmore. Gilmore had that ability, if he’d been in another situation and not stayed with Sun Ra, and been pushed and taken on being a leader… He obviously didn’t want to be a leader, because he stayed.

TP: It didn’t seem to be his personality.

JDJ: No. But he had something special..

TP: Then there was Wilbur Ware, another one-of-a-kind…

JDJ: Yes. Then the other bassist was Raphael Garrett, who had this unique way of playing rhythmically—and soulful. He was great. He moved to Seattle later, and he started making flutes and playing the bass.


Jack DeJohnette (Downbeat Readers Poll 2005 Article):

“I’ve got just one more project to tell you about,” says Jack DeJohnette, capping a conversation about the staggeringly diverse activity of his seventh decade.

At 63, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer. He intends to document as many projects as possible on his imprint label, Golden Beams, which he launched in early 2005 with Music In The Key Of Om, a solo drums, cymbals and tuned bells recital intended, in DeJohnette’s words, “to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and get rid of stress.” In short order, he released Music From The Hearts Of The Masters, a set of improvisations with kora virtuoso and griot singer Foday Musa Suso. He followed up in October with Hybrids, on which sound engineer Ben Surman, DeJohnette’s son-in-law, layers Techno, Reggae and African grooves onto four Suso-DeJohnette tracks and three tracks by Brazilian singer Martui Miranda.

“Foday and I mix Africa with the African-American jazz sensibility,” DeJohnette says. “It’s light and buoyant, not weighty. We’re interested in breaking out of the groove while still respecting it. We inspire each other, and our chemistry grows every time we get together. Foday gets free, and starts flying; a lot of traditional kora players would have no idea what he is doing. He has his own technique, which borders on jazz improvisation.

“Ben kept the integrity of the original tracks and made new stories out of them. Hybrids moves us into areas like remixes, special club mixes, and outlets like electronica. But where a lot of remixes are looped and repetitive, these are soundscapes that tell stories and change in surprising ways, with a great balance between acoustic and electronica. I think it raised the bar of artistic meaning.”

To raise the bar or push the envelope—choose your cliche—is the mantra of Golden Beams, which has in the pipeline a 2001 duo concert with guitarist Bill Frisell and a percussion discussion with Don Alias. These are the latest in a distinguished line of DeJohnette duos that include Ruta and Daita [ECM], a now-classic 1971 encounter with Keith Jarrett; Zebra, a 1985 worldbeat dialogue with Lester Bowie; and Invisible Nature [ECM], a hair-raising 2002 virtual concert with DeJohnette’s brother-in-law, John Surman, the English baritone and soprano saxophone master.

“You’re exposed in the one-on-one setting, and you hear differently,” DeJohnette says of his fondness for the format. “As with John, Bill and I used electronics—pre-recorded ambient things and my Roland Hand-Sonic percussion module—to get a bigger sound. Even though it’s two people, you’re still an orchestra.”

Recording duos is an efficient way for DeJohnette “get the label off the ground with projects that are doable both artistically and financially.” However, he emphasizes, “the label is meant to document new directions—although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path. I’ve always been curious about doing different things, like an alchemist. Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

Speaking of hybrids, DeJohnette recently has focused on grafting various Afro-Hispanic strains. As an example, he cites a quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris, who first convened in January 2005 at Manhattan’s Birdland, and will tour for a November fortnight. “I wrote some Andalusian-influenced music that needed guitar and 6-string banjo, which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting,” he relates. “We’ll record the live gigs and see what comes out.”

A member of DeJohnette’s late ‘90s ensemble with Alias and keyboardist Michael Cain, Harris, who will triangulate DeJohnette’s 2006 performances with Suso, performed on two DeJohnette concerts this year with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, an association which DeJohnette plans to nurture. Also to be released on Golden Beams is the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove.

Uniting DeJohnette’s flights of fancy is a “universal one” concept that he began to codify while playing drums with Miles Davis between 1969 and 1971. He draws beats from African, Afro-Cuban, Indian, aboriginal, and Near Eastern sources, processes them from the perspective of his own deep roots in jazz and funk, and incorporates them within the flow of his compositions and improvisations. He emphasizes that he doesn’t study the metric systems in a systematic manner. “I can certainly analyze, but I pick things up almost through osmosis, from listening, from the feeling,” DeJohnette says. “I tune the drums to different pitches of the intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, maybe a chord—so that whenever I’m accompanying or soloing I can build a motif or a melody.”

DeJohnette recontextualizes more familiar territory—specifically cusp-of-the-‘70s fusion a la Tony Williams, Larry Young, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis—on a forthcoming recording by Trio Beyond, a partnership with John Scofield and Larry Goldings that formed during a week at Yoshi’s in February 2004. For an-depth look at how DeJohnette found fresh solutions to merging populist and esoteric vocabularies back in the day, hear the crisply executed machine gun shuffles, polyrhythms, and rubato sound-painting that he contributes to a series of never-issued performances by Miles’ blues-fueled, psychedelic jukejoint band with Gary Bartz, Michael Henderson, and Keith Jarrett on The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970. DeJohnette and Jarrett play with uncanny intuition and sensitivity, as they have done for the ensuing 35 years, not least during a 22-year association in Jarrett’s acoustic trio with Gary Peacock.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflects. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.

“The ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected keeps Keith’s trio interesting. Usually we just sit down and see what happens. That’s the whole idea of improvisation—always be prepared to play what you don’t know.”


Jack DeJohnette (Sept. 27, 2005) — Downbeat Readers Poll:

TP: Let’s talk about why you formed the new label.

JACK: I’m involved in lots of musical projects. One specifically that I’ve been involved with, and it just turns out that it comes up that way, is duo projects, which consequently I’ve done some duo projects for a number of years with John Surman. Over 15 years, we’ve done 2 CDs — well, three. Two duet records, and one bigger…

TP: One is London Brass from 2003, and the second duo was from 2000, Mysterium.

JACK: Right. At any rate, then I did a duet project with…a concert with Bill Frisell, which we’ll get into later. And Foday Musa Suso.

TP: I’ve just been watching the promotional DVD for that from Montreal 2003. Very inspiring.

JACK: Thank you. Foday is very inspiring and a very innovative kora player and griot and singer. I first became aware of him with Herbie’s duo project with him in 1984, on a record called The Village. Over a period of time, I’ve followed Foday’s development. He had his own group, the Mandingo Griot Society, and did some things on Bill Laswell’s label, Axiom. I always wanted to hook up with him, and the opportunity came when we met in London. He had this idea of just doing kora and jazz drums. He didn’t want to sing, because he really wanted to put the kora as a lead instrument. That in itself is unusual, but then with me he came up here to the house a few years ago, and we spent four days, I think—a couple of days jamming, and then went in the studio. In two days, we had all this material. Right away, we had this rapport like we’d been playing together for a few lifetimes. Since then we’ve done a European tour, and we did some playing at Joe’s Pub, and we’re going to be doing a tour next year. But at any rate, the art of the duo—there’s that project, the Hearts of the Masters. Then I have a little project that will be coming out sometime next year which is with percussionist Don Alias and myself.

TP: You did a video with him as well.

JACK: Yes. That’s called Talking Drummers. That has a forward by Dave Holland and Michael Brecker. It’s on Homespun. But we’re going to tie in these…

TP: How do you see this label vis-a-vis the other recording projects that you do? Is this for special things that might not otherwise find an outlet? For particular areas of your activity?

JACK: It’s doing projects—closer to your first point. Closer to projects that are artistically doable and financially doable. That’s why we’re doing smaller projects, just to get the label off the ground. But it’s also a unique thing, doing projects that are just different… Or different in some ways to me, although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path and doing interesting and different things. But I like to do things that captivate the listeners and inspire them, as well as other musicians.

TP: It seems to me that these projects take you in a different space than your jazz projects — to use the term broadly. Just these few. It’s not the way you play with the Keith Jarrett Trio or the way you played with Special Edition or with Danilo and John Patitucci. It’s a different orientation towards the beat and the groove and so on. It seems so to me, though it may be a superficial impression.

JACK: Well, the Foday duo is definitely interested in the groove, but also breaking out of it while still respecting the groove at the same time.

TP: That’s sort of what you did with Miles, too, isn’t it.

JACK: Mmm-hmm.

TP: You make that comment on the DVD.

JACK: Yes, it’s a similar thing. It’s a way of honoring tradition but also moving out of the tradition to something totally new and different.

TP: That’s really been your focus since you emerged on the scene, from the records with Jackie McLean and Charles Lloyd, and Miles, of course… You’ve been able to find spaces in which to apply that notion throughout your career. It’s either luck or circumstance, but something tells me it’s not just luck.

JACK: No. [LAUGHS] It’s just always interesting… I’ve always been curious. Curious about doing different things. Like an alchemist trying different things. The music seems to be… Different genres of music seem to be cross-pollinating more now than they have been before. I mean, they always have been, but I think the rate of that is speeded up now.

TP: Do you think there are more people oriented to that now?

JACK: Yeah, I think so. I think that it isn’t jazz musicians. It’s much broader than that. I think a jazz sensibility… For instance, what Foday and I bring to this music is the African and the African-American jazz sensibility. You know what I mean? I think it’s stated in a clear way between us. It’s not straight-ahead, but it has elements of funk in it and grooves in it. But it’s light. It’s not weighty. It’s buoyant.

TP: You get that counting and not-counting thing at the same time. The groove is so stated, but he also talks about how when he’s in Africa he doesn’t count. And somehow, the two of you are able to able to access both qualities.

JACK: Right. He trusts me. He knows that I’ll come up with something and play something. If he plays something, I’ll find something to play with it. And when we improvise, man, I tell you, when we played at Joe’s Pub… Foday surpasses himself and we both kind of inspire each other. I mean, he comes up with things that he really gets free, and he just starts flying. I’ll tell you, some of that stuff a lot of the traditional kora players would have no idea of what he is doing. But he’s got his own technique, and it borders on jazz improvisation.  So the chemistry between he and I grows tremendously every time we get together. The beautiful thing about it is we don’t have to go into deep discussions about it. We can get right to the core of it.

TP: You’ve utilized African beats, you’ve utilized Afro-Cuban beats, you’ve utilized Indian beats, you’ve utilized beats from all over the world within the flow of your compositions and your groups. Have you studied those beats and metric systems in a systematic manner, or do you kind of improvise-learn them, pick things up and react intuitively?

JACK: Exactly. The second statement is more accurate.

TP: Sorry to give you these multiple choice questions.

JACK: No, it is more like that. I pick these things up almost through osmosis, from listening to the music, not by trying to analyze it. I can do that, but it’s the feeling of it. What does that feel like? I use my jazz sensibility or broad perspective of jazz sensibility and apply it to a composition or an improvisation.

TP: Another project, which you’ll be touring with in November, is the band with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris. How did that one come together?

JACK: Well, Danilo, as you know, is one of the premier Latin artists who has really made a stamp from the Latin American expression on the jazz scene. He hasn’t been afraid to use his roots to expand the jazz horizons or capabilities of music. But he’s also able to stay in tune with the tradition and move outside of it. Jerome has played with Danilo and I, and the trio, and basically Danilo… So we have a rapport with Jerome and Danilo. Then I had this idea. I’d written some Spanish-influenced music, or Andalusian music, and I wanted to have guitar and 6-string banjo, and Jerome plays guitar and he plays a few other string instruments, and he got a 6-string banjo. So I wrote this music which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting. Then John Patitucci, who is really well-versed in Afro-Cuban music and funk music, and is very broad, as well as having a really great feel and is a joy to play with… I wanted to do this with this quartet, with this group, because I felt the chemistry would come out and generate the vision I had for the music. We did a week at Birdland last January, and that was so good.

TP: How did the music evolve over the week? It’s such an interactive trio, and I suppose John and Danilo after four years with Wayne Shorter have the notion of exploding form in their bones!

JACK: Yeah, there’s a natural affinity we have. Each night got better and better actually. So now we’re going to be going for two weeks, playing pretty much every night. We’ll record the live gigs and we’ll see what comes out.

TP: Now you have the flexibility because of the label, should…

JACK: Yes, I have that. Whether it’s become a case of bigger projects… A case in point. There’s this cooperative project that I have with John Scofield and Larry Goldings, which we call Trio Beyond. Originally it was to celebrate Tony Williams, but we decided that Trio Beyond would… You know, I don’t want to be stuck with it having to be just Tony. But it was a good launching pad, because we all had an affinity and love for Tony, who was a great master drummer and composer…

TP: Did it start as revisiting and reinterpreting the Lifetime repertoire?

JACK: Yes, it did.

TP: How did it evolve?

JACK: It came together because the wonderful Montreal Jazz Festival every year has an artist-in-residency, and a couple of years ago I was called for an artist-in-residency — actually the first percussionist to be called for it.

TP: Was that 2003, where the Foday Musa Suso performance DVD comes from?

JACK: Yes. So I did four nights there with different groups. One with Herbie, Dave and myself, another with Foday and myself. I actually wanted to have John and Larry, but they were busy! But everybody got so excited about the idea of it that I said, “Okay, let’s go into a club.” So in February 2004 we played a week at Yoshi’s, and the place was sold out every night. The music evolved and evolved, and got better and better. Then last fall we did a European tour, and that was amazing, just playing this music all the time. By the way, we’re not just playing Tony’s music. We’re playing Wayne’s music, Miles music, some of Larry Young’s music, and John McLaughlin’s music, and some of our own music as well, our own originals. So it’s pretty broad. But on that tour, we made a recording in Europe, and we hope to put it out next year, and we’re going to do the summer festivals in late June-July.

TP: It’s interesting, because that’s a project that takes you back not to your earliest roots, but to your first mature professional roots.

JACK: Oh, yeah.

TP: How does that feel from this perspective, 30 years later? You never really left it, but that’s a particular time and space you’re articulating there.

JACK: Yeah, except that the space we’re articulating is in the present, not in the past. So that’s the difference. So I’m looking at it from fresh eyes. I’m not looking at it from looking back.

TP: But let’s look at how the fresh eyes differ from looking back. I’m assuming you’ve probably spent some time listening to the Cellar Door recordings, as you gave some public commentary on it. How has Jack DeJohnette of 2005 evolved from the player of 1970-71?

JACK: Well, from there to now I guess I’m more refined to some degree, on the one hand, and much looser in another way. I’m having more fun with the music.

TP: More fun?

JACK: Yeah, more fun. I had fun with it then. But it’s being older. I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open. So it’s more joyful to me, playing music.

TP: That’s a wonderful thing. Has that been a continuous process? Have there been ebbs and flows with your enjoyment with music? Has there ever been a time when music wasn’t fun for you?

JACK: Not too much. But there were times when it was better than others. which is natural in the course of life, to have these ebbs and flows.

TP: What makes it more enjoyable now? Is it that you have more freedom to do whatever you want?

JACK: Yeah. Also, the kinds of things… Yes, that’s a good answer for it.

TP: May I quote myself, then? “I have more freedom to do whatever I want.” Was Tony Williams a very inspiring figure for you when you were a young guy? You’re actually older than him.

JACK: Yes, but we’re still contemporaries, about a three year difference. But yes, he was very inspirational.

TP: When did you first see him play?

JACK: I saw him in Chicago right after 7 Steps to Heaven came out. The things he was doing — his touch, his concept, it all was different. And his drive, the way he could drive the band was different. Also some of his sideman recordings and also some of his leader recordings — his compositions were happening. I saw the Lifetime band when they did their first gig at Count Basie’s in Harlem, and that was really incredible, to see the band playing that material live. It was fantastic.

TP: Who were the people you were paying attention to before Tony? I gather you weren’t fully decided that you were going to be a drummer until fairly late.

JACK: Yes. Well, I had at some point played both of them, and then I decided to make drums the main instrument. I was listening to Elvin and Roy Haynes actually, who is still one of my favorites, who is still, I’m happy to say, going strong in his eighties, getting more attention than ever — and deservedly so. Philly Joe Jones. Art Taylor was a guy I really liked, although I never tried to imitate him, but I loved what he did on a lot of those Blue Note and Prestige records.

TP: Any local drummers?

JACK: There was a drummer in Chicago named Art McKinney who was an influence on me. Vernell Fournier was also a big influence when I started playing drums as far as brushwork was concerned. And Wilbur Campbell. Wilbur was one of my mentors. I used to hang out and watch him play all the time coming up. Wilbur had this way of playing, filling up when he took solos; it felt like somebody was cleaning out a closet and everything was falling out all over the room. That’s one of the things that kind of inspired my concept when playing the drums. I remember Miles said to me that my way of drumming reminded him of a drunk falling upstairs. Up stairs. Not down.

TP: In some of your own publicity, you very much emphasize that you never put music into categories and are fascinated by diversity. It seems so characteristic of so many musicians who came out of Chicago, particularly during that post-war period up through the ’60s. Any speculations on why that is?

JACK: Well, I don’t know. I can speak only for myself. I was just drawn to all kinds of music as a kid. I listened on the shortwave radio we had to music coming from Europe. I didn’t know what it was, but I used to listen to County-and-Western music, Grand Ole Opry, gospel music, I listened to soul music… I was curious about it. I just never put it in the category. Of course, I was listening to jazz when I was 4 or 5 years old.

TP: Was the scene in Chicago conducive to nurturing that sort of attitude?

JACK: Yeah, it was pretty broad. There were all kinds of people. We had the AACM, and then you had the regular gigs that you did, and the outlet of the AACM… In fact, I was in Chicago for the Jazz Festival there, and the AACM Orchestra was there, which had a big group of musicians — three drummers, two bass players, singers, woodwinds, brass. Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman were there as guest soloists. I was in it at the beginning, with Muhal Richard Abrams, who was also a great mentor to me and still is… He got the idea to create a viable outlet for musicians who were thinking differently and wanted to create a different language. That’s what came out of that, musicians who totally knew the tradition, but wanted to find another language to express their creative views. This was perfect for that. So Joseph, Malachi Favors, Roscoe, Henry Threadgill, Braxton, all those people were around then, and it was a very exciting time.

TP: Do you see yourself as in the same line of sensibility as those people? Do you see yourself as an AACM musician? Or did you go past it, in a way?

JACK: I think that’s all just part of who I am, part of my experience. I also was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in Chicago, and also very often played with him in New York. It’s very broad. You could say I’m a potpourri of all of that.

TP: Eddie Harris was the one who convinced you to stick with drums and make it your main focus?

JACK: Yes, he suggested it. Then it was later that I decided to do that. He thought I played good piano, but he said I was a natural drummer, and that if I would stick with it, I would be more successful.

TP: He was a smart guy, wasn’t he, Eddie Harris.

JACK: Oh, he was a genius. Great guy. He played all the instruments. That’s what he said. “I play all the instruments, but I had to make saxophone my main instrument.” He had to do the same thing for himself. You have to decide.

TP: Let me ask about a few other collaborative projects. One is the Ivey-Divey record, which had a lot of acclaim, although I gather you’re not playing that gig any more.

JACK: But that doesn’t mean that if something comes up and I’m available, I won’t go out and do it.

TP: What was that project like for you?

JACK: Don and I are good friends. I love Don. He lives nearby. When we were talking about coming from that lineage, Don is extremely broad, and he has a penchant for investigating all kinds of genres of music and juxtaposing his spin on it, which is very interesting. He talked to me about this project in the sense of a great jazz trio, which was an original recording with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich and Lester Young. He wanted to do something based on that, without a bass — although he did add a bass, Lonnie Plaxico, on a couple of tracks, and Ralph Alessi on a couple of tracks. But the primary premise was to do some of those songs that they did, but do them in the present. I think one of the reasons that came off so great is that Jason had planned to listen to that recording, but he never got around to it. Well, I think he listened to it afterwards. But it was good, because then he wasn’t pre-frontloaded about how to approach this concept. So when he got there he was fresh, and approached it with a fresh concept — his concept. As a result, it was a surprising feeling that took over the music, and it was received really enthusiastically by the critics and by the public.

TP: Now, you knew that Prez-Nat Cole-Buddy Rich record.

JACK: Yes.

TP: What was it like for you to deal with material that’s iconic? But I suppose it’s old hat for you to find fresh ways to deal with received information.

JACK: Yeah, but there are some nods to the way the drums were played in the period. Like, in the introduction, the solo I played on I Want To Be Happy, you hear that nod to that type of playing, the 4/4 on the bass drum, and playing the solo on the snare exclusively. So you’ve got to move in and out of it as the music calls for it. You have to be there right in the present with that music, and not try to duplicate what it came off before. Sort of somehow it’s going to come out anyway, the past, the present and the future, all in that instant.

TP: And you’re still touring with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, so I suppose that’s another major part of your activity, at least for when the band is touring.

JACK: Yes, it is.

TP: It’s scheduled for later this year and 2006, too.

JACK: There are some things scheduled for that. I’m going to be touring with Foday in the fall of next year — October. The duo now has actually become a trio, with Jerome on bass.

TP: Do you know Jerome from Sonny Rollins?

JACK: Yes, actually through Sonny and through him playing with a lot of other musicians around New York. He’s such a versatile player and creative musician that he’s in demand all the time, and I’m fortunate to get him in quite a few of my projects. I also have a Latin project which involves Jerome and Don Byron and Giovanni Hidalgo, Edsel Gomez, and Luisito Quintero. I’ve recorded that band professionally, and I just haven’t… It’s great. I have an abundance of projects. We have another one, but before I get to that, in regards to Jerome: He just is so supportive and great as a person. He adds so much to the music. So it’s always a pleasure to work with him.

TP: Does the Latin Project have a different book than your quartet with Danilo and John Patitucci?

JACK: The Latin Project involves music written by Don, Jerome, Edsel and myself.

TP: So it’s a more cooperative band?

JACK: In a sense. I mean, it’s my band, my project.

TP: Are you concerned with playing idiomatically on that band, in other words, with not breaking clave, or are you bringing your typical expansive approach to that music?

JACK: We’re doing both things. Somebody’s always holding it together. There are grooves going in there. What breaks that is when I’m soloing behind anybody else, or if Giovanni is soloing he’ll break out of just playing steady rhythms and get abstract. I’ve noticed that… We did 8 dates for Artist Presenters concerts earlier this year, and as the band progressed, the percussionists got looser. So we do work off of the clave, but a lot of the music is written as Latin, but no straight-ahead swing stuff. It’s more or less in the Latin vein, but the way we treat it is very different.

TP: Again, we have the serious deep groove and then the elaboration of that groove. It occurs to me that you’ve played with Keith Jarrett now for about forty years.

JACK: No, it’s about thirty.

TP: With Charles Lloyd…

JACK: It’s about 30 years. A little over 30.

TP: Miles at the Cellar Door was in ’70, and you played with Charles Lloyd before that.

JACK: That was the late ’60s.

TP: So 36-37 years. It’s in my mind because I’ve just been listening to the Cellar Door recordings, particularly the ones before John McLaughlin joined in, and checking out the interplay between you when he was playing those keyboards and how open and intuitive it was, and how imaginative it was. I’m wondering how the relationship has evolved and your mutual impact on each other. I don’t know if there’s anything to say about it…

JACK: Well, there’s not a lot to say about it except that you hear it in the music. It’s a trust of each other. It’s a continuation of… I guess it’s experience that we bring together… Also with Gary, too. But the experience that we bring to the music, no matter what it is we’re playing, and the ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected, that keeps it interesting for Keith and I and Gary to play together. We don’t have to talk a lot about the music. Maybe for tunes or about an arrangement for a piece. But most of it is we sit down and see what happens. That’s always the way it’s been?

TP: Is that what you like to have in all your projects, a sit down and see what happens kind of thing? After due preparation, of course.

JACK: Yes. Absolutely. Well, that’s the whole idea of improvisation, to be prepared to play the unexpected. Always be prepared to play what you don’t know.

TP: It sounds like you’ve really been able to move yourself towards a one-sound concept, bringing everything you know into all the projects you’re doing. It’s a very nice position to be in.

JACK:  I’ve got a few other projects I want to tell you about. There’s a project which is coming out next month which involves remixes.

TP: I just listened to it this morning, before this conversation.

JACK: Good. My son-in-law, who is Ben Surman, who is a good musician and technical sound-engineer and a great remixer… We wanted to work together, and we decided to do a project called The Ripple Effect—and of course, the title of the CD is Hybrid. Ben and my daughter, Minya, on our website who does some of the covers, came up with it. But the idea for this, as Ben puts it on the back, is to take previously recorded tracks – duo tracks I might add (I call this the Art of the Duo series) – and to be able to keep the integrity of the original tracks but make new stories out of them. This is what Ben has done so incredibly well. He’s taken four tracks from Foday and I from The Hearts of the Masters, and remixed those, and three tracks from a very gifted and talented Brazilian singer and musician, Martui Miranda, So those have been remixed. And we have one track that Ben and I did together. I’m real excited about the results of that. This is moving into different areas, when you talk about remixes, special mixes for clubs, and different outlets, like electronica. But Ben’s ability to remix in such a way that it’s not like a lot of remixes, where you put on a loop and it’s repetitive, it runs on for a long time. These are soundscapes that tell stories, and they change in surprising ways, and there’s a great balance between acoustic and electronica, and I think it raised the bar of artistic meanings.

TP: Do you listen to much electronica? Have you been?

JACK: I’ve listened to some, yeah. Some chill music. I don’t listen a whole lot, but there and then. Will Calhoun comes up and he’ll keep up to date on what’s happening.

TP: There’s also the meditation record.

JACK: Yes, the meditation is the first of these Golden Beams. Again, that’s something I did for my wife Lydia. She does healing work.

TP: So this was her commission for you.

JACK: Well, yeah. I wanted to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and just get rid of stress.

TP: Do you use it for yourself?

JACK: Yes. When I’m on the road, I use it. It grounds me and soothes me. A lot of people do that. It turned out that I passed it out to friends and people said, “Oh, this is nice,” and I thought, “Well, maybe I should put this out.” The person who took the cover photograph liked it so much, he used it for yoga. People use it for healing work, to ground people. So it’s taken on a life of its own.

TP: It might be the most personal of all the records, then, if you’re using it to relax like that. Are you spending much time on the road now?

JACK: Yes, I’ve been on the road a lot. But before we get to that, I’ve got six weeks off, which I have a lot of work I have to do. Actually, another project that’s coming out by the end of January next year is a project that Bill Frisell and I did. While I was out with Keith at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle in 2001, he and I did a concert together.

TP: You’ve done a couple of records with him on other people’s projects, right?

JACK: Yes. And I did something with Tim Ries as well. Anyway, now I have to get this together by the end of next month. That will come out next year on Golden Beams, because there’s a quick window to get it in there and get it out. The label is allowing that to happen.

TP: So it just doesn’t stop for you, does it.

JACK: No, it’s great stuff. It’s just a lot of work for all of us.

TP: A musician these days has to be an entrepreneur, I suppose. You have play, you have to practice, you have to set up the gigs, you have to set up the technology, and you have to find people help you who know what they’re doing.

JACK: Koch Music will be our distributor here in the States, and in the next couple of months we’ll have European distribution. So we’re moving slowly. One other thing about the label which I think is important to mention. You’ll notice that within a span of a year, maybe 18 months into next year, there’s a lot of releases being released on this label. Normally, an artist wouldn’t do that. But the different CDs I’m doing seem to fit different areas. So we feel strongly that they don’t conflict. The electronica is one thing, the Hearts of the Masters is another, the duo with Frisell is another, the project with Don Alias will be another. The DVD with Don is about the making of that. It’s called Talking Drummers, but the CD will be called Welcome Blessing. We’re going to put that out a little later.

TP: Why do duos appeal to you so much?

JACK: They just seem to pop up that way! It’s a one-on-one, so therefore, you’re really exposed in that setting. You hear in a different way when it’s just two people playing. Like, with Bill, there’s some electronic stuff that we use that enables us to get a bigger sound, the same as it was with John Surman in the live performance, where we have pre-recorded ambient things, and I have my Roland (?)-sonic percussion module. So it gives you… Even though there’s two of you, you’re still an orchestra.

TP: I have many more things I can ask you, but not enough room to print it. We’ve covered your projects, which is what this is about.

JACK: Oh, one more project. This one is a Spanish project with Chano Dominguez. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while. I first heard him in Cuba at the Free Jazz Festival, and Danilo Perez introduced me to him. This year I was able to do something with him, Jerome Harris, Luisito Quintero, and a flamenco singer named Blas Cordoba who sings with Chano. We did a few dates in Europe this year – one in Germany, one in Italy. We’re doing some of Chano’s pieces and some of mine, and I’m looking forward to hearing some more of that. Hopefully, I can bring Chano over to do some things in the States. So that’s another project I’d like to pursue in the future.

I’m also may be doing a project with Nigel Kennedy which may feature Herbie and Ron Carter. I’m also producing a project with Igor Butman, tentatively next year…

TP: Will that be a straight-ahead jazz project?

JACK: Yes. It’s a project of his arrangements of a Russian cartoon that was famous, and the music for that. He’s got somebody interested in seeing him record that music. Also, next January I’m going to be doing something with Chick Corea, John Patitucci, myself and a couple of guest artists. We’re going to go to (?).

TP: We need a book here, or at least a full website.

JACK: Well, that we’ve got.

TP: On your website, you make reference to your melodic concept of the drums, but you don’t elaborate on what the melodic concept of the drums is. How do you mean it?

JACK: First of all, tuning the drums, tuning them to different pitches of the intervals. In other words, fourths, fifths, thirds, or a chord maybe. It depends. But they’re tuned so that whenever I’m accompanying someone or playing a solo, I can build a motif or a melody that I can follow and somebody who’s listening can follow, so there’s always music happening on the drumset.


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Filed under Chicago, DownBeat, Drummer, Jack DeJohnette, Jazz.com, Jazziz

For Dafnis Prieto’s 42nd Birthday, A Jazziz Article from 2012, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and an Interview conducted for a 2013 Jazz Times article on Musical Education in Cuba, and a 2001 Interview for a Short DownBeat piece




Jazziz, 2012 Feature

Late last September, not long after Dafnis Prieto was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation — to be distributed at quarterly intervals over the next five years — the virtuoso drummer discussed how he intended to deploy the funds. Tops on Prieto’s to-do list was to issue a recording a year on his imprint, Dafnison. The first of those recordings would be by the Proverb Trio, in which, for several years, Prieto, keyboardist Jason Lindner and vocalist Carl “Kokayi” Walker have conjured tabula rasa improvisations that, as Prieto says, “create a sense of compositional music.”

Eleven months later, not long after two sold-out nights at the Jazz Standard to support the just-issued, eponymously titled CD, the 38-year-old Cuban expatriate compared the “nothing preconceived” imperative that drives his newest project to the carefully roadmapped compositions he presents with his sextet, (documented on the 2008 date Taking the Soul for a Walk) and his Si O Si Quartet (which recorded Live at the Jazz Standard in 2009). “When Proverb Trio does a concert, I don’t know what’s going to happen, whereas with the other bands, a certain amount of what we’re going to do is written,” Prieto says. “There I want to [i]write[i] and interpret music separately from playing standards or anything else that’s been done”

In the Proverb Trio, Prieto says, the interpretative flow emanates from a mutual “chemistry and empathy” that “lets us be the way we want, express anything we want, fully accept who we are. It’s more about listening and reacting to the sounds than playing jazz or any other style that involves a lot of improvisation. Any path could be the path we develop. It’s the joyful journey of the real unpredictable. To behave that way is a basic element of life. Otherwise we become a computer which only reacts to whatever it is designed to react to.”

The opening invention on night two at the Jazz Standard reasonably represented how this aesthetic could operate in real time. Lindner, stage left, began the sonic conversation with musique concrete chords from his synthesizers, to which jockey-framed Prieto — in a lime-green, short-sleeved guayabera, chin uptilted — deployed his mallets, uncorking rolling, wave-like tom-tom beats. Lindner, the brim of his black cap almost perpendicular to the keyboard, stated a percussive response. Kokayi — burly, full-bearded, skull-shaved — shifted weight from foot to foot like a pendulum, then declaimed about texting and tweeting in a sweet tenor not unlike Sting’s. The discourse transpired within the rhythm, which Prieto had morphed into a clave with a mallet on a small bell-like cymbal while executing a counter-rhythm on the snare drum with a stick.

The performance proceeded along principles similar to those followed on the 12 pieces comprising Proverb Trio, for which Prieto juxtaposed edited-down open jams from the first portion of the sessions with shorter, more focused tracks from the second half. Each tune sounds structured, but certain giveaways — Kokayi’s abstract permutations of lines like “I got a little bit … got a little bit … little bit to say”; Lindner’s intuitive voicings; Prieto’s polyrhythmic refractions of rhythms drawn from hip-hop, funk, and the folkloric rituals of Cuba, Brazil, India and parts of Africa — bear out the extemporaneous back story.

From start to finish, Prieto showcases his extraordinary control of the drumset — the micronic precision of his subdivisions, his ability to play at different tempos with different limbs simultaneously, his refusal to sacrifice orchestration for technique. But he regards the Proverb Trio’s primary achievement as conceptual. “Most people think of ‘spontaneous composition’ as music that’s hard to connect to,” Prieto says. “It can be very introverted or follow a specific style, like Ornette Coleman or the latest period of John Coltrane. The musicians enjoy it, but not the audience. We are creating a fresh strategy, a new sound that people can enjoy.”

That strategy, Prieto notes, gestated in 1996, shortly after he graduated from Havana’s National School of Music, when Kokayi traveled to Cuba with Steve Coleman for a large-ensemble project. “I was impressed by how he incorporated hip-hop freestyling with Steve’s music, improvising with words and using a lot of rhythmic elements outside the regular beat we’re used to hearing in the hip-hop style,” Prieto says of Kokayi. After Prieto emigrated to New York City in 1999, he and Kokayi worked together on several Coleman ventures, including a 2004 engagement in Saalfelden, Austria, where they were invited to do a separate duo performance. “We learned to listen to each other on that gig,” Kokayi says. Prieto adds, “That was the birth of it —trying to interact with as much freedom and sincerity as possible.”

Sporadic work ensued, sometimes with Coleman or Henry Threadgill, himself a Prieto fan and employer, as were, during the early 2000s, Andrew Hill, Eddie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Brian Lynch and Claudia Acuña. To have a wider range of sounds to draw upon, Prieto decided to recruit a permanent third member. In 2010 he started calling Lindner, with whom he’d previously played in Acuña’s band, in Lindner’s big band at Smalls, and in his own Absolute Quintet (the latter group documented in 2006 on Absolute Quintet).

Lindner says that the Proverb Trio offers “the thrill and challenge of getting to play everything I’ve ever learned in my life — and everything I’ve never learned in my life.” He credits Prieto for being “completely open to letting things come to him. He’s probably evolved a lot as a person to decide to have a group like this, where every night he’s making it known that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Kokayi’s view, that spontaneity emanates from a “hive mindset” through which the band establishes a shifting narrative that draws on their “collective memory,” accumulated from “conversations we’ve had during travels, what we said over lunch or in the dressing room or on the phone.” He continues: “We don’t live within the confines of the paradigm of what is supposed to be jazz music. We all have this lexicon of music language, and we’re a sum total of our experiences. I don’t just listen to hip-hop. I listen to punk and rock, and I’m heavy into go-go. Jason listens to a huge bunch of stuff. Dafnis can play a rumba, a son, a guaguanco with the best of them. When he’s with Si o Si, he’s not bringing the funk and the hip-hop; he’s ‘Let me play the shit out of this Cuban music.’ But with us, he let’s go of everything and leaves his influences out.

“Dafnis has the biggest name right now. But he isn’t arrogant, like ‘This is the me show.’ It’s an equally distributed thing. Anybody can lead at any time. Anybody can set the rhythm. When everybody is allowed to contribute, you get what you have now, which is a big-assed pot of sounds and people being able to freely give of themselves and receive the messages and share information all at the same time, without pulling down trousers and see who got the biggest penis.”


Last September, Prieto mentioned that, with the MacArthur funds, he hoped to publish a book, in the works for several years, about his “personal relationship and love for the drums, the passion that I have felt since I was little.” The experience began when Prieto, who is of Spanish descent, was a 7-year-old guitar student at a music school in the predominantly black, working-class Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. When his teacher decided to organize a combo to play traditional Cuban music, Prieto opted to play bongos.

“I’d seen the bongos, and they felt natural to me,” Prieto recalled, noting that he’d frequently observed rumberos and parading carnivalistas on the streets around his house. “One day, the person who was playing the clave and singing didn’t show up for the performance, so I ended up playing the bongos with my hands and singing the clave with my mouth. The teacher told my mom she had to put me in percussion.”

At 10, he enrolled as a percussion student in the Santa Clara conservatory. At 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music, where he taught himself to play the drum set, conjuring home-grown methodologies (for example, enhancing independence by playing études from a snare drum book with his left hand while adding a clave or cascara or cowbell pattern with his right). In the course of teaching over the past decade, whether at NYU or at various clinics and master classes, he began to reflect upon and codify these practices.

“Before I started playing the drums, music for me was sound,” Prieto says. “I walked around the streets in Cuba and related to everything around me — the music, my friends, the way they talk, nature, buildings. What I am trying to re-create is somehow the way I grew up — very intuitive, very innocent, feeling the music [as though for the] first time [], as well as playing it. I was playing the rhythm of the clave; I didn’t know there was a clave rhythm. The name itself wasn’t relevant. For me, it was the content and the meaning.

“I look for different sounds in the drums, and develop a technique to get it. Sometimes I try to make drumming an inner step into the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas. Rather than melody or rhythm, I think of visual art, form or a structure or visual illusions. I might want to re-create an idea of thunder while I’m playing a rhythmical structure, and insert different combinations to transmute and transform that idea into sound.”

Prieto began conceptualizing those ideas during his late teens and early 20s, on tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. He further exercised his imagination on late-’90s gigs in Havana with Columna B, an experimental quartet that springboarded from Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s dense, plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ’80s, Coleman’s odd-metered structures and the jagged tumbaos of timba. As his horizons expanded, he felt increasingly stifled. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, moving first to Barcelona and then to New York City.

“The alternative scene in Cuba was very small,” he says. “I was listening to Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and Monk and Indian music, and connecting on a deep level. When I got to New York, I felt like a fish in different waters — and I liked those waters and finding myself within those waters.”

Liberated from quotidian concerns by the MacArthur funds, free “to not have to accept gigs, to give more attention to what I really want, which is to be as sincere as possible within what I do,” Prieto intends to continue the process of self-discovery. Toward that end, he’s privileging self-development — “as an individual, a player, and a musician” — over composing new music for his groups. But he’s leave all options open.

“It’s like having two babies,” he says. “One appeals more to you one day, the next day the other kid does something you like. I’m always carrying with me my tools and strategies, the visions that I had before, and I’m always open to new ones. I am trying to be as sincere as possible, to play what I really feel the music needs. If I’m in a band that needs a specific music content, that’s fine, even though I’ll always be trying to develop my own voice within that.

“I don’t take styles for granted. To be myself touches those styles, or might resemble those styles, but it’s no longer those styles. I don’t live like the Funkadelics or Sly and the Family Stone or James Brown. How can I play the same as somebody else if I’m not them?”


“I really never see myself as a Cuban player,” Dafnis Prieto says. “I see myself the same way I hear my voice. It doesn’t matter what language I speak, it’s going to be the same sound.” Still, he adds, the rhythms and sounds of Cuba are inside him, both via osmosis and close listening to predecessors and peers, several of whom he discusses here.

Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”) — “He was one of the first drummers I saw and heard live in my hometown of Santa Clara, particularly with a big band named Orquesta de Música Moderna. He’s an extremely musical drummer. He’s played with Chucho Valdés since 2006.”

José Luis “Changuito” Quintana — “His great sense of innovation and knowledge of the tradition always inspired me. He is the main person who created the rhythmic structures of the congas and drums and timbales in the songo style. I got to record with Changuito and Tata Güines on a big-band record by pianist Hilario Duran.”

Giraldo Piloto — “When I heard Piloto the first time, he was playing with NG La Banda. Then he started doing arrangements — which are unbelievable — and his own compositions, and created a great dance band called Klimax. He has done what I consider to be part of my dream: establish a band with a sound that is yours.”

Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez — “In Cuba, I saw El Negro a few times with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I like his subtle, fluid, relaxed, interactive playing. And his independence. He can play the clave with the left foot while playing something else with his other limbs. He’s incorporated a lot of Cuban traditional patterns into the drum set. I didn’t meet him until I came to the States, and he was very welcoming. He loaned me a set of drums, which I’ll never forget. I consider him a friend.”

Ernesto Simpson — “Ernesto’s musicality, his touch and beauty and tastefulness, always amazes me. He knows how to move from one style to another in a subtle, integrated way, and always plays from the heart. He’s a fluid, natural player with great talent, ears, technique and maturity.”


Downbeat, 2011 Feature


The penultimate track of Dafnis Prieto’s first self-released recording, Taking The Soul For A Walk, titled “You’ll Never Say Yes,” is a rubato, ostinato miniature with a beautiful line and a floating, ambiguous feel. Prieto—who immaculately directs and entextures the flow from the trapset—described it at the time as reminiscent “of the old Paul Motian-Keith Jarrett approach of open sound.”

“It reflects the emotion of frustration I feel of always trying to break the wall,” Prieto said in 2008. “It’s not specifically related to the music business—it could be a personal thing also. I’m trying to show people what I’m doing and I have inside myself the thought that they will never recognize it—they will never say yes.”

He was reminded of this remark three years later, a week after the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship named Prieto one of 22 “genius” awardees of their annual, no-strings-attached $500,000 gift.

“I’m honored and happy to have been selected,” he responded in the living room-practice den of his Washington Heights one-bedroom. “But I want to work, and it’s hard for me to feel like the MacArthur is going to be the answer.” Legs akimbo, Prieto sat on a small sofa in his living room-practice den, which held an upright piano, an electronic drumkit, a Macintosh desktop with a huge screen, and various artwork, artifacts, small instruments, books and CDs. He’d performed the night before, and his drums, still packed, were on the floor.

“I will feel much better when I see that presenters notice what I’m doing, and start to open their doors for my music,” he continued. “But why do I have to wait for a MacArthur to get attention when I’ve been doing as much as some people they’re already booking? Sometimes it seems the only way to get to those places is if somebody is behind you with a very recognized name, maybe George Wein or some guy who looks like a padrino.”

In point of fact, on the previous evening, Wein had witnessed Prieto’s first New York concert since the MacArthur announcement—a mindboggling scratch-improvised duo encounter with tabla player Pandit Samar Saha, out of Benares, India, a master practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental forms.

For the first forty minutes, a packed house at the Cornelia Street Café saw the protagonists trade solos of gradually increasing length. Navigating a drumkit setup that includes a frying pan amongst the cymbals and a conveniently positioned pair of orange jam-blocks, Prieto, keeping a clave metronome on the hi-hat, developed polyrhythmic designs with a “melodic” connotation reminiscent of a Cuban Max Roach. Saha established his own terms of engagement, then Prieto, deploying brushes, alternated swish and stutter patterns. Saha emulated them with the right hand on his dayan drum, punctuating with the left on the bayan. Prieto established another clave, displaced it with surging, wave-like embellishments. Saha rendered the patterns with his own ideas and subdivisions as Prieto kept the pulse; he withdrew as Prieto postulated a rumba, establishing and sustaining three independent lines. The mind-reading continued over a sequence of exchanges—Prieto, barely moving a muscle above his elbows, soloed at length on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, crisply executing intricate figures; Saha turned the bayan on its side, extracting a rich tapestry of rhythm-timbre from its metal skin; Prieto’s riposte seemed to elicit all the colors of the kit before he stated a tumultuous cumbia over which Saha improvised.

Neither drummer seemed to have broken a sweat, but they decided to take a breath. “This is a pretty interesting fusion you’re hearing,” Prieto remarked, as he picked up two super-sized mallets. “Now we’re going to get a little bit wild.” Positioned over the drums like a jockey steering a thoroughbred, he unleashed a volcanic wall of sound, then set up juxtapositions between rolling thunder and whisper, playing soft with the left hand, loud with the right, and vice-versa. Mixing percussive hand chops with skin-to-skin rubs, Sala transformed his drums into animistic sound containers. Prieto responded with long cymbal washes, complemented by feathered bass drum beats; using his tuning fork as a mallet, Saha explored further overtone combinations. Then they stopped.

Over the past decade-plus, Prieto has made it his business to investigate the correspondences and distinctions between the drum languages of India and his native Cuba, where he lived until 1998, when he was 24. Indeed, as we spoke, he was preparing for a November to mid-December residency at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Mumbai.

Questioned on the subject, Prieto answered, “Right now, it’s harder to separate things in my brain than to put them together.” Then he gave it a shot.

“One general similarity is that each culture contains a very wide possibility for improvisation,” he began. “One difference is that we work a lot with intuition, while they are really conscious of the mathematical, scientific aspect of rhythm—where the note is played inside of a bar or inside of a certain length. In Cuban music, each instrument plays an intricate melodic line. The pulse is there, but the beat doesn’t need to be heard. In most Indian music, the solos are very sophisticated, but without that intricacy in the melodic lines between the instruments; the connection between the three is in relationship with the beat.”

During the performance, Prieto continued, he’d “mixed everything,” sometimes manipulating folkloric Cuban rhythms—played “in the most personal way I could play them”—with tihais, a North Indian technique that involves three verbatim repetitions of a structure and landing the first beat.

“I never see myself as a Cuban player, or Latin player, or Swing player, or Fusion player,” he said. “My voice is not anybody else’s voice, and it doesn’t matter which language I speak—it’s going to be the same sound. My idea of soloing is the freedom of the possibility to play anything you want, manipulating the sounds you’re able to execute while developing your ideas thematically. Those are the two basic elements of improvising—creating something in the moment, while being simultaneously aware that you’re creating a bigger compositional structure. I like the idea of trying to do more with less—using one single phrase or rhythm for the structure and getting many different meanings out of that same idea.

“We all manipulate sounds, and we have the right to feel a relationship with those sounds. Sometimes, I look for a sound in the drums and that gives me the technique to play it. Sometimes I see myself doing something I haven’t seen before, and it gives me the specific sound I want to play. I’m not necessarily thinking in melody or in rhythm—sometimes it’s visual art, form, or a structure, or developing some philosophical or conceptual ideas about objects, or even visual illusions. Any information I see that’s interesting, that I feel comfortable with and connected to, I will transmute and transform into sound.”

Prieto’s heritage-meets-modernity aesthetic took shape during formative years in the predominantly black Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. Himself of Spanish descent, he internalized the language of rumba from carnival musicians on the streets outside his home, and received formal instruction on bongos and congas at 7. At 10, he entered the local conservatory to study classical percussion, teaching himself to play trapset on the side; at 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music in Havana.

Through his four years at ENM, Prieto absorbed the idiosyncracies of Cuba’s state-of-the-art percussionists and drummers—trapsetter Enrique Pla from Irakere, congueros Tata Guines, Changuito, and Miguel “Anga” Diaz. He freelanced, playing post-timba “Latin-Cuban Jazz” in units with Irakere trumpeter Julio Padron and pianist Roberto Carcasses, as well as pianist Ramon Valle’s Keith Jarrett-centric trio. He made his first trip to Europe with a Pan-American oriented ensemble led by Chilean pianist-guitarist Carlos Maza, who drew deeply on Brazilian visionaries Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal, invoking imperatives of playing feelings, telling stories with sounds and beats. Further stimulation arrived in 1996 when Steve Coleman bivouacked in Cuba to do fieldwork on a recording project, bringing information on South Indian music and ways to render astrological and numerological principles in notes and tones.

Soon thereafter, Prieto joined the road warrior rank-and-file with Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana ensemble. He also workshopped with the experimental band Columna-B, with Carcasses, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and bassist Descemer Bueno (best known for his involvement in pan-Caribbean hip-hop band Yerba Buena), which refracted Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ‘80s and Coleman’s odd-metered structures, augmenting the mix with jagged tumbaos, and elements drawn from Hip-Hop, Funk and the Euro-Classical canon (Enclave [Mas, 1998] documents an unbridled recital).

As his conceptual horizons expanded, Prieto felt increasingly stifled. “There were only a few musicians I felt the empathy to play with,” he recalled. “I was treated like a crazy guy; some people felt I wasn’t representing their idea of how to play the tradition. But the way we see tradition sometimes is just a premeditated idea of what it really is. Don’t get me wrong. Since I was little, I played dance music and popular music—which is the same thing in Cuba. I love a lot of dance bands from Cuba. Once in a while I like the experience of playing drums with Los Van Van. But after I got into jazz and into more avant-garde or contemporary music, the idea of playing music for dancers was already washed out.”

On tour with Bunnett in 1999, Prieto, by then a Barcelona resident, moved to New York City on his work visa. Soon thereafter, he took an engagement with singer Xiomara Laugart on which trumpeter Brian Lynch—with whom he’d played the previous year at Stanford University, while in residence via an arts grant to attend a master class with Billy Higgins and Albert Heath—was present.

“Just from that gig, I thought this guy has more happening in terms of playing Afro-Caribbean music with a real jazz sensibility than just about anyone I’d heard,” Lynch recalled. “He had the chops, the finesse, the dynamics, the reactivity, the feel, the swing. It was like, ‘Oh, this is the cat.’ There wasn’t a doubt about it.”

Others felt similarly. Springboarding off a weekly hit with Lynch, and gigs with Coleman and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid ensemble, Prieto quickly became one of New York’s busiest sideman, accumulating a c.v. that, by 2002, cited consequential engagements with a diverse cohort of challenging leaders—Eddie Palmieri, Andrew Hill, the Fort Apache Band with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, David Samuels and the Caribbean Jazz Project, D.D. Jackson, Michel Camilo, and Peter Apfelbaum—as well as a trio with John Benitez and Luis Perdomo, and numerous ad hoc gigs at downtown musician hangs like the Zinc Bar and the Jazz Gallery, where he also played his first American gigs as a bandleader.

“New York is a functional place,” Prieto said. “You get to meet a lot of people, most importantly—if they are interested—the people that you really want to meet. In order to play with Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, to connect with them and experience their music one-to-one, you most probably will have to be here. Steve’s approach to rhythm will challenge any drummer who wants to do it right to develop skills of coordination and independence. With Henry’s music, I learned that each tune should be developed as much as possible in the diversity of sounds, that each should have its own character with different structures and instrumentations. I had an opportunity to exercise my imagination, to represent the music, like acting. You have to own the character and the intention, and put your own voice on it.”

As he soaked up information, Prieto began to refine his instrumental voice as well, mining Cuban raw materials in a systematic, meticulous manner. “I started looking at everything that came from my country as an observer,” he said. “Now I have an enormous amount of different sounds at my disposal. Sometimes I play things that represent or imitate the sound of the congas, or the batas, or timbal, or bongos or maraccas—or from inside myself.” He trained himself to make the instrument an extension of his brain—he speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time. “I’ve heard that idea of intricacy of lines—having one theme in the bottom that becomes the top theme later on—in ancient African music and also in the Baroque,” he says.

He called on all of these attributes in guiding his sextet and quartet through cohesive suites of music on, respectively, Taking the Soul For a Walk and Live at the Jazz Standard, both on his imprint, Dafnison. “The rhythm is usually really important and strong, and he guides the band on the drums,” said Manuel Valera, who played piano on both dates. The compositions have very strong melodies, with no frivolous notes. Each has its own character, and is fun to play over. It’s definitely rooted in Cuban music, but less like the Latin Jazz tradition, and more compositional, with rhythms from Cuba that people don’t really use here. The group orchestrations are unconventional, and he has an interesting approach to orchestrating his compositions on the drums, certain grooves and colors that are perfect with whatever the tune is calling for.”

With the MacArthur funds, Prieto intends to record the Proverb Trio, a collective improv project with Jason Lindner on keyboards and vocalist Kokayi freestyling on trans-Yoruban chant, hip-hop, contemporary R&B, and jazz.

“It would be almost impossible to make music this way with other musicians,” Prieto said. “We completely accept each other; I feel open to express anything I want, and so do they. We are not trying to do anything. We are just doing it.”

Inevitably, he continued, that expression will reference Cuban roots. “This is not clothes that I put on and take off,” he said. “This is the way it is. It’s the resonance of a specific attitude and a specific meaning that I’ve captured from when I was a child until now, and is still inside me. Like talking. Certain words mean something specific. It’s the same thing in rhythm.”

Prieto added that the MacArthur provides him funds to publish a method book—in English—that “explains some of the things I did in order to develop independence and conceptualize my ideas. It’s about my passion for the drums. It’s analytical, it’s instructional; in a way, it’s poetical. It’s a result of all my teaching experiences in clinics and things like that, and my experience of teaching in NYU for six years, which helped me organize information that I already knew intuitively. Somehow, it reflects all these things.”

But above all else, he reiterated, “I want to keep playing my own music as much as possible. I’ve already played a lot of other people’s music, and I’ll keep playing with people like Eddie Palmieri and Jerry Gonzalez because they’re still open, and make me feel challenged and encouraged. But I am not the kind of musician who only assumes that music is a job, and I have to do anything to get money. When I play music I don’t like, I go home and I don’t feel good.”


Downbeat, 2009 Blindfold Test:

1. E.J. Strickland, “Asante (for the Tribes of Ghana)” (from IN THIS DAY, StrickMusik, 2009) (E.J. Strickland, drums, composer; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass)

This is a very light groove. It’s nice to hear a 6/8 pattern really light. I don’t know what to say about a piece like this. I can’t really recognize the album. Maybe that’s Luis Perdomo. I haven’t heard Luis in a long time. It is Luis? It’s not his record? It might be David Sanchez’ record? Miguel? Not David or Miguel? Then I can’t recognize it. I like the tune, but it’s very simple. It has the specific idea of what you hear the horns doing against thing, but there’s not really a B-section or any kind of sophisticated compositional elements in it, at least from what I heard of the tune itself in the beginning. Sometimes this kind of tune sounds to me like an excuse to improvise. The tune itself is not really that developed in how many things you can do on a compositional level when you write the tune. I have to say that a lot of alto players are very influenced by the M-BASE—Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and things like that. The drumming and the percussion is really supporting the tune itself. See, the tune is a vamp; it’s a redundant melody. Which is fine. It gives this effect… It’s kind of tender. I can’t recognize the drummer or the two sax players. I liked it. It has a lot of improvisation, really nice trading by the two horns. Somehow it’s a very settled or normal kind of tune. I liked it. More than a band itself, it sounded to me like a record date. For me, it’s a difference; a record date and a band. I don’t want to insult the band, if it is a band, but it sounded like a record date more than a band. 3½ stars.

2. Gerald Cleaver, “Isobel” (from Yaron Herman, MUSE, Sunnyside, 2009) (Herman, piano, composer; Matt Brewer, bass; Cleaver, drums)

Very groovy, the drummer and the bass player. The bass player sounds great—a very nice sound. I like the bass player. Is that Jason Moran on piano? Then it could be Jean-Michel Pilc maybe. Whoever it is, the pianist is very together. I don’t know. I was trying to get the… The tuning of the drumset itself, I don’t know if he uses… Maybe there is solo drums here. Oh, the tuning the bass drum, the skin is loose. Besides… I haven’t really heard…I don’t remember any guy who plays this style that uses this kind of drumming. There is a guy named Keith Carlock who plays this kind of bass drum, but he plays a different style. It’s a very rhythmic line there, the piano. The trio sounds very together. I couldn’t recognize the drummer, though. He sounded great, very groovy, very supportive of the tune itself. Strong. 4 stars.

3. Arturo Stable, “Call” (from CALL, Origen, 2009) (Stable, percussion, composition; Francisco Mela, drums; Javier Vercher, tenor saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, piano; Edward Perez, bass)

It’s a blues form on top of a bata rhythm. They’re putting a 7/4 pattern on top of the 6/8—the bass line he has. I like the fact that it’s evident to have the batas…the elements that they’re using in the tune itself are very evident, have this open sound, this loose sound with the drummer on top of the batas, kind of an avant-garde sound in the soloing—but not in the tune. The soloing goes more into that mode of freedom principle; it reached a freedom of playing it on top of the batas and stuff. I couldn’t say who… The only guy who comes to mind is David Sanchez, but the saxophonist doesn’t sound like David. I mean, it sounds like a Coltrane tune. I like the fact of that tension of contradiction that comes from having a really steady rhythm in the batas and having the drums filled with more free adventures sonically on top of it, following the improvisation of the tenor, which in this case is the only one soloing. It comes through very natural, so I liked it. 3½ stars.

4. Bill Stewart, “Incandescence” (from INCANDESCENCE, Pirouet, 2008) (Stewart, drums, composer; Kevin Hays, piano; Larry Goldings, Hammond organ)

That must be Brian Blade? It isn’t? I like the fact of the emptiness of space. That emptiness of space lets me think that they’re doing that as accompaniment to a solo which is not there. It sounds like they’re doing the backup soloing for somebody else, but it’s not there. The effect is nice. I like the effect of somehow not having all the information in there at once. The drummer sounds very fluid to me. He sounds open and groove at the same time, which are two boundaries that sometimes it’s very hard for a drummer to get together. I can think of Nasheet maybe. No? I don’t know. I liked it. 4 stars. [AFTER] Bill is a great drummer. Sometimes the kind of sound… That’s why I got it confused with Brian Blade. The sound of the drums, sometimes it can be… Just the style is different, because Brian, for my taste, uses more surprise in his playing. For doing really little of something, going all the way to the maximum of the expression of the sound of the drums, that’s Brian Blade. I always have the tendency to see that from him. But the two of them have a very distinctive sound when they play the cymbals and the toms. Obviously, they know the tradition and the jazz sound of drums very well, and they have it incorporated in their playing.

5. Nasheet Waits, “Bowie” (from Dave Douglas, SPIRIT MOVES, Greenleaf, 2009) (Douglas, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone, Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Nasheet Waits, drums)

That’s Dave Douglas’ stuff, the brass and drumset thing. So that’s Nasheet playing drums. I like Nasheet’s drumming. He’s always looking for the polyrhythmic thing, like playing the bass drum and the snare at the same time, which are things that a normal drummer will think of in a more melodic way—which is great. Using two sounds at the same time, like the bass drum and the snare drum, things like that. It’s very compositional. Everything was arranged until now, when the trombone solo comes over the swing. I like the experimental thing with the tuba. It reminds me of when I worked with Henry Threadgill, who had done this for a long time already—working with a lot of horns. It reminds me of European music. It reminds me of parade music in a more open way. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of sound connected to music that you see in the parks in Europe right now, this kind of experimental sound. It sounds very European to me. It’s cool. They used actually a few things reminiscent of some other tunes. 4 stars.

6. Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, “Free Latin” (from ITALUBA, Pimienta, 2004) (Hernandez, drums, composer; Ivan Bridon Napoles, keyboards; Daniel Martinez Izquierdo, bass; Amik Guerra, trumpet)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s El Negro’s stuff. That’s Negro. I don’t know which album this is, but that’s El Negro. The drum sounds big! Sounds like a Cuban band to me! Negro is a very strong player. He has this quality of having a big sound. Well, he uses big drums, so it sounds big. The tune itself reminds me of the sound of jazz music that was happening in Cuba in the late ‘80s, this influence from Chick Corea, the Gonzalo thing using the keyboards, having the same pulse but incorporating a lot of different things with the bass and the drums in different places than the melody line, and sometimes joining them together and stuff like that. It’s a rhythmic approach more than melodically. Then he has a vamp at the end, and goes to the last part of the thing. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Horacio for a while, he’s a good friend, but I met the others about two years ago at the Northsea Jazz Festival.

7. Tyshawn Sorey, “Somewhere Between Dreaming and Sleeping” (from John Escreet, CONSEQUENCES, Posi-Tone, 2008) (Escreet, piano; David Binney, alto saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Matt Brewer, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums)

I love that drummer. Very sensitive, but he’s very swinging. Let me see if I can get it. Sounds like Tain to me. It’s not? [AFTER] I liked the piece. I liked how it unfolded, the different sections in it, and the surprise factor. I really liked the drummer. I don’t know if it’s Tyshawn or Marcus, but I think it could be one of them. There is a big difference between the two of them, but it’s really hard in context, but sometimes one specific kind of music will make you feel a certain way and you’ll become more aggressive, and then it becomes confusing to identify who it is by the sound. It’s Tyshawn? I really like him, his inner sound. That’s why I got confused about Tain, who gets a powerful, aggressive sound on the drums on the drums as well? Was that Tyshawn’s record? No? Vijay’s. No? Greg Osby? No? Wow. Then I don’t know. 4½ stars.

8. Eric Harland, “Treachery” (from THE MONTEREY QUARTET: LIVE AT THE 2007 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL, Concord, 2009) (Harland, drums, composer; Dave Holland, bass; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone)

I recognize this. It sounds like Chris Potter, and by the playing, I think it’s the band with Dave Holland, Gonzalo and Eric Harland. I really like it. Eric Harland is one of my favorite young drummers. I like the way he interacts with the music, besides the fact of how much he can play or not the drums. What is happening at the moment in the music, the way he actually interacts with the music, I really like that. You have to use different textures and techniques to make that happen, but… He’s a very open player. He can be a very open player, he can be very straight. He’s very versatile. An exciting drummer. I like Gonzalo here, but for my taste, Gonzalo has been getting a little bit too conceptualized in his own music. It’s a very recognizable sound, the sound of Gonzalo, the sound of Chris, and… I like the band. It’s a challenging idea. Sometimes it doesn’t really work when you put those kinds of characters together. But Dave is a really strong bass player. I think the four of them blend well. 4½ stars.

Lately, I always want more from Gonzalo in his playing. I want more digging in the piano, digging in ideas. It’s not necessarily the chops, but the ideas itself, on an emotional level. Nothing against what he’s doing now, but lately I think his playing is more in the context of conceptualized things and ideas. Obviously, he plays great piano, but for some reason… Like, Chris Potter right now is expressing himself, he’s putting it out. Sometimes Gonzalo gives me this… I miss the old Gonzalo sometimes.

9. Marcus Gilmore, “Smoke Stack” (from Vijay Iyer, HISTORICITY, ACT, 2009) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Gilmore, drums; Andrew Hill, composer)

That’s very Monk-influenced playing. I liked it. I liked the involvement of the piece. The involvement of the three of them playing is very nice—it’s a nice trio. I don’t know if it’s Vijay or Jason Moran. It’s hard to tell. They have sometimes a mutual place. But I don’t know. Maybe the drummer was Marcus Gilmore, but the sound of it…it’s hard to… He’s a very versatile player as well. He’s very supportive of the tune itself. I really like his drumming; it’s really good. I liked the piece. So it’s probably Vijay’s record. 4 stars. I liked it. This is a very involved tune, and the drummer really has to be on top of it in order to make it happen. Not so much the virtuosity of what you play, but the meaning of what you’re doing there. That’s the nice thing when you hear a trio working together, because there’s only three elements, and it’s very easy to identify what they’re doing and what they mean. It came out nice here.

10. Antonio Sanchez, “Fat Cat” (from DECLARATION, Sunnyside, 2009) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone, composer; Edward Simon, piano; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Chris Komer, french horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone)

I cannot recognize the band or the players in this case. I like it. It sounds kind of evident to me, the sound of the tune. Evident. Something that you’ve heard before, something that is not really personalized that much. I mean, the tune is good. But this is my personal thing. I couldn’t really get who was the drummer, or the percussion player. 3½ stars.

11. Steve Gadd, “Matrix” (from Chick Corea, SUPER TRIO, Mad Hatter, 2006) (Corea, piano, composer; Christian McBride, bass; Gadd, drums)

[at 9:30] Sounds like Steve Gadd! It’s not the regular sound of the drums that he’d normally use. Normally, I don’t recognize him doing it in this context. This is a very open set for him. For what I’m used to from him, it’s a more precise sound. The bass player is killing! Is it Miroslav Vitous? It’s Christian McBride! Who is the piano player? That’s a trio with Chick and… At first, I thought it was the old trio with Chick and Miroslav and Roy Haynes. But then I realized it wasn’t Roy at all. I like that they’re going through different phases in one piece. Because the piece has changed like five different times already. It seems more like a jam than a tune itself. The drummer just grabs whatever is there, and having a piano player like Chick, who is a very leading voice, helps to organize it. That’s the convenient thing about having the leader play a harmonic and melodic instrument. It’s hard for me when I have to do it myself on the drums. 4 stars.



Dafnis Prieto on Cuba Educational System, Jazz Times (May 14, 2013):
DP: There are different ages that we start in the school. I believe actually 7 years old is when you start in the school with violin and piano. Those two instruments are fundamental to start at that age in the school. I started school when I was 10, which is most of the other instruments… I started at 10, and pretty much I would say 90% of it is related to Russian or Eastern European classical training.

TP: On violin and piano, you mean.

DP: Violin and piano, and every other instrument as well. There are some French influences as well in terms of the program when we’re talking about saxophone and horns and things like that. But pretty much all the education that we get there is classical training, and because of the circumstances after the ‘60s we became somehow in relation with Russia politically, and that affected actually the educational aspect. We got a lot of influence, and teachers that were coming to actually work and teach in the schools of Cuba. So we got people from Russia and the Eastern European Socialist countries.

TP: May I ask… You went initially to a local school, and I think you were also able to study percussion there.

DP: Well, here’s the thing. Also there is something that the translation to English would be House of Culture, which in Spanish is casa de la cultura. That I started when I was 6 or 7 years old. That is a completely paid program, subsidized by the state. I was around 7 years old. What I did there, I was interested at the time to play guitar. I was playing acoustic guitar. I learned a few Cuban songs from the Cuban tradition, like guaracha, guajira, son montuno, things like that, those kinds of styles. After that, then we got into the more classical-oriented thing. But still, both of the programs were integrated into that early stage. I was like 7.

TP: So you were doing two separate program?

DP: Well, it was integrated. It was part of the same thing. That is something very interesting that I always saw from my early ages in music in Cuba, is that I always integrated kind of everything instead of putting on, playing a Russian composer, …(?)… and the whole thing… I mean, there is an attitude behind the music, etc., etc., but in terms of the program itself, in the House of Music, that was part of it. It wasn’t like “this is classical music and this is Cuban music.” In the same class, you had both.

Then, when I went later on to a school of fine arts in Santa Clara when I was 10, we had specific classes for different things.

TP: Did you move from a local school to a regional school to then the national school?

DP: Exactly. The House of Music that I first went to is not really a school… I mean, it is a school, but it doesn’t really have that many students. We were 6 or 7 students in one class, almost the same age, everybody. This is actually the reason I became a percussionist. It was because we were saying we wanted to have a Cuban band for certain activities, that were going to happen as cultural events in the town. Then everybody decided to play the other instruments, so everyone chose, and I chose to play the bongos, since I was already somehow exposed a lot to a lot of percussion because I was living in a neighborhood where there were a lot of rumba and things like that. Therefore, I did the bongos, and that was how I became a percussionist.

TP: Are these schools also used to track kids? In other words, you displayed a lot of ability right away. Were you then tracked the way athletes are here or in Cuba, as a musician? Were you being identified as someone who was going to continue along this path.

DP: Yes, in a way. But that didn’t necessarily mean… I mean, somebody recommended you. A teacher at that time recommended you to the next level, which is the School of Fine Arts. But that didn’t necessarily happen. I kind of made my own connection, in terms of, you know, the teacher told my mom that had a special aptitude, and I seemed to enjoy it very much, etc., and therefore my mom went to the school and asked for when the admissions were and things like that, so I did a whole process of it. I actually did on the side…I kind of got a tutor or something like that, to prepare me for that examination which I need to go into the fine arts.

TP: When you went to the school in Santa Clara, was it more of the same, but more advanced?

DP: Not really. Percussion in itself, I didn’t know anything about…

TP: Oh, you went to Santa Clara as a percussionist.

DP: Yes, that’s what I did. Drumset in itself, I’m completely self-taught. What I did specifically, when we got into the school I started doing the technique. I did actually one of the most important technique books from an American percussionist by the name George Lawrence Stone. He did this magnificent stick control book, a very famous stick control book. Anyway, we had some material. We had a lot of material from Russia also. We had a book called Polansky(?), and we had so many other things. So we had both information somehow…

For me, the special thing… Maybe this is going a little bit ahead. But the most wonderful thing that I found about how Cuban musicians come to be very powerful is because of the combination of the technique that the Russian and Eastern European countries brought into Cuba together with the culture that we already have musically. Which doesn’t take away the technique. It has its own technique. But it’s just different. So I think the most fundamental thing that happened in education in Cuba is that we have the culture, which is very strong, with the technique aspect of those things. Musically, too. So I think that marriage of culture and technique, plus the culture of the Russian and East European.

TP: What is it about the Russian pedagogy for percussion that’s particularly distinctive?

DP: Well, it gives you a very elegant and functional technique, control of the instrument… For example, I did… They started focusing in the beginning with the snare, just the snare. You spend a lot of time on the pad, getting control of your hands. So then you go to the snare, and you do all these classical pieces on the snare. Then they introduce you to a set of percussion, which can include timbales, bongos, bells, and things like that, just like a classical set, and you play different pieces, the classical things and from Cuban composers as well on those kind of sets—and I did play those, too. Then after that you go the tympany. So you start developing little by little, and by the end of the four years, you know how to play very decent a snare tympany, set of percussion… Not necessarily a drumset, but I did a drumset, and I wrote some stuff actually for drumset as well. But the drumset itself wasn’t taught at the school. It was there physically, but there wasn’t really a teacher. Some of the teachers played, but they weren’t really teaching you; you’d just hear it. I don’t know why.

TP: I recall you told me that you developed your own techniques on the drumset. Were they also teaching you theory?

DP: Yes. Theory of music was very important, too, because that’s what’s brought from the academic style… And we had solfegge. We had the harmony. We had counterpoint. And we have history of European music and history of Cuban music, and Latin American music, too.

TP: Were you also being taught the liberal arts or sciences?

DP: We did. From 10 to 14, we had chemistry and we had biology. Also, in music, we also had to take complementary piano lessons, which included mostly classical music.

TP: You’re 38 now. So you’re doing this from 1985 to 1989. That coincides with the last years of the Soviet Union, and the Empire, and the economic impact on Cuba was considerable.

DP: Yes.

TP: Was education politicized in any way? As you describe it, it doesn’t sound like a particularly ideological education.

DP: Well, inside of it, we also had somehow philosophical classes. We learned about Lenin…

TP: Marxism-Leninism and aesthetics.

DP: Yes, and also in literature, classes of literature. We were exposed to Eastern European writers and that new wave of belief.

TP: For instance, was the folkloric music of music looked favorably upon, or was anyone talking about jazz during those 10-14 years?

DP: Yes. I was very captivated by the Orquesta de Musica Moderna. It was kind of a jazz band that played Herbie Hancock’s music and some Maynard Ferguson music. It wasn’t like a big band in itself. It was actually like an orquesta, which means it has…almost the Irakere size, but I think it had more horns. I don’t remember the specific amount of horns, but it had a drummer, a percussionist, an electric bass player. By my time, I think that idea of restriction in terms of listening to jazz music specifically, or the Beatles, or that thing, it was already gone.

TP: Paquito described there being a certain party line during the ‘60s about jazz being unacceptable.

DP: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stories about it.

TP: At 14, then you go to the national school, La ENA. Talk about the continuities of the pedagogy and how it was different?

DP: Then the next step was for me to go to Havana, and the whole thing got a little bit wider. There I was introduced to… Actually, there was a class in percussion. It was about Cuban percussion. So we learned the patterns of the congas and the batas, and a more Cuban thing also. I will say that it wasn’t enough. I would love if there would have been more, actually.

TP: More percussion instruction.

DP: Yeah. I would have liked… Coming from Cuba at that moment, it wasn’t really that much of a pedagogy in the school of our tradition. It was still oriented… But I was more free, and I played whatever I want. I’m just telling you what the system was giving you in that way.

TP: What was the attitude towards playing outside of school, and towards artistic freedom, for that matter?

DP: At the moment that I was there, as long as it doesn’t affect the school, you’re good. They’re serious. The whole thing is that most of the people who get into the music school, they had their own experience…but most of the people who come there, it’s because they really want it and they really express a talent. Teachers don’t want to be wasting their time in that way. If you’re there, it’s because you mean it. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be here. You’re not paying, so what is the big deal? This is about being…

But yeah, it wasn’t a big deal at that moment. Actually, that’s the way I made my way through into becoming a professional musician, because what I basically did was everything that… Mostly everything I’m doing now is what I did on the side of the school, as a consequence as well of… I took advantage of what was given to me.

TP: So the school gave you the tools to experiment and find what your voice actually was.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did you graduate?

DP: I did graduate from the National School of Music. I had to do a presentation of… You select a program and you do a presentation. I played something on the tympany called “Molto Perpetuo,” and I have no idea who wrote it now—I’ve completely lost track. I played “The Venice Carnival” on the xylophone. I played a piece on the snare called “The Train.” And I played a piece that I wrote for drums, four horns, and a bass player. I actually got the music from one of the bags that I found in my house in Cuba; I found some of the charts of that music. So yes, that was the program that I did on my recital. Five things.

The drummer in Orquesta Musica Moderna was one of my big influences at the time, my first influence of seeing somebody playing the actual drums in front of me. His name is El Peje, who is one of the drummers who used to play with Chucho. Through them I started hearing more than just Cuban music, but American or any other kind of music played in front of me. So I used to follow them a lot, just to hear. They sounded good.

TP: You seem to have balanced your time… there’s an element of the conservatory musician in you and an element of the street musician in you, just using the words roughly.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did a new type of Cuban musician start to emerge in the ‘80s because of the development of education in the conservatory?

DP: Yes, I think so. See, the thing is, you either receive an education from your house or from your very close related family, or you go to what the system offers you, which is to go to these kind of places. There are a lot of musicians who are I guess self-taught, in a way, in Cuba, that they didn’t go to a conservatory. But in my case, going to the conservatory was the way for me to develop myself as a musician. Everybody was looking for that, because that was a very good system. So I think yes, the generation that came after Paquito and after all those guys… That was even including… Well, Gonzalo is 12 years older than me, and El Negro as well. That generation I think also took a lot of… I think Gonzalo would be…

To tell you the truth, I didn’t get really good results when I got into the school. Not at the beginning. For some reason, I don’t know…

TP: Are the people who come out as jazz musicians somewhat misfits in the conservatory system?

DP: I wasn’t sure what got them… There seem to be a few stories of people… I heard also a story about Anga, that he had a problem… I don’t know if he got fired or he got a problem with something, because they said he didn’t have an attitude to play percussion. [LAUGHS] So it goes from the very subtle and naive to the most sublime and ridiculous.

TP: What are musicians being trained for in Cuba? What purpose are they seen as serving?

DP: The purpose is to really be good at playing… Eventually, we play Cuban music, or you will become whatever. But it is focused on classical music. It is classical training. That’s for sure.

TP: Has that changed? Is jazz in the curriculum now?

DP: At this moment, there is something open in the schools that they teach, like, jazz harmony or jazz history or whatever it might be, related to any other kind of culture that is not classical or, in a small degree somehow… Maybe more now they do teach Cuban music maybe. I think so. There are a lot of summer camps and things that happen also. Now there is more than when I was at the school.

TP: There are also these cultural exchange programs, like Jazz from Lincoln Center going over. Or Steve Coleman, for that matter.

DP: The story of Wynton or Steve or all those guys going now…it’s very different from the story that Paquito is saying. It’s not that they did it on purpose. That something has changed. Time goes by and things develop, and hopefully develop for the good. And in that case, it did develop for the good, because we opened up ourself to those…

TP: Can you describe to me… Around 1990 or so, things started opening up for Cuban musicians to start to travel, which you were able to do later on. Can you say something about the history of how that worked, what you had to do to go out on the road and the live elsewhere? What they asked of you, what sort of bureaucracy you had to go through to do it?

DP: Yeah, it was… For most of the people, there was a system created where you actually become an employee of… You have a salary a month for being part of a band or for teaching or for anything. You have a salary. You have different entities that represent music and culture. So through them, they organize tours and things like that, and that’s the way a lot of people traveled outside of Cuba when they started opening it up. I never was really part of any institution there, after I finished my school studies. I was completely independent since then. I was somehow playing with some musicians who were part of this orchestra, especially ….(?—28:56)…. and this organization, and I came to know the director. Then whenever I had a trip, I arranged it through him. For most of the people, when you’re going outside the system, you’re going with a very specific salary. I am not really sure what the salary was, because I didn’t experience it myself. But they had a very specific salary. There were some people traveling with them who were part of making security for them and making sure…

TP: That they don’t defect.

DP: Both. Yes, that they don’t defect, and they’re being their road manager and their management, period. I don’t know the amount of people that… But that was the way they did it. I didn’t do it that way. But it did exist, and some of my friends did it.

TP: Let me get to some more general questions. You touched on this earlier, but the ways in which your experience in the Cuban educational shaped your attitude towards music, helped you move in the directions you’ve moved in. I don’t know what you would have done had you not been in the system. You were self-taught. I’m sure you would have been a musician. But have you been shaped by that experience?

DP: Oh, yeah. I got to know classical music, which is a very fundamental… This is the music that came before. If we have to put a tradition on the podium, that is part of our tradition, in a way. The music in the world. Not in Cuba itself, but in the world. I got to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach…from Bach to Schoenberg.

TP: Would this be one reason why you were so open to someone like Henry or Andrew Hill…

DP: When I was in the National School of Music, I heard a few things of Andrew, but I heard Henry’s music much later on. I was already… I hadn’t heard Henry’s music when I was in the school, but I heard it maybe 17 years ago, something like that.

TP: That’s around when you met Steve.

DP: Exactly. Kind of the first person that I met from outside who was doing something, where we created a link, and we interchange ideas, and we actually played together… We were having the band Columna B. Steve came to Cuba, and he jammed with us, and I got to know his music. But then through that…then I came to Canada, and I heard Henry’s music, my searching for …(?—33:26)….

TP: Do you think the conservatory experience enhanced your ability to play the folkloric music?

DP: Not necessarily at the period I was in. Maybe now, when… I have a feeling that now, somehow, our popular tradition (I like to call it popular tradition more than anything else, which includes all the percussion…Cuban instruments, coming from our African heritage) is more integrated now into the system. But at the moment when I was there, it wasn’t integrated into the system.

TP: Why do you think that is?

DP: I don’t know. I think there was somehow a misleading perception about differentiating too much between the two of them. I think now everything has become more integrated, in a way, and the system has accepted more Cuban music as something that could be taught and something that could be part of our academic system. Before it was more of people who were on the street, and musicians self-taught, differing approaches… There have been musicians, earlier musicians who were trained on those European terms, as we know…

TP: Well, Cachao was one of them…

DP: Well, Ignacio Cervantes or Manuel Saumell, which were early Cuban composers. Those are the ones who created a nationalistic Cuban music in the period of nationalism. But it wasn’t… I don’t believe at that time, and I’m talking about the beginning of the 1900s, or actually… Anyway, there were people who had their own thing. But I don’t believe it was a music academy. I don’t know if there was a music academy at that moment in Havana.

TP: Also, being in the conservatory, you developed the techniques of composition and so on.

DP: The thing is that music is how we get to organize sound, and we learn in the schools how to organize and appreciate sound, and that becomes a form of knowledge that is very necessary in order to be conscious and have different ways, different paths, and different alternatives, and different strategies of how to make music. That’s what it is, and that’s why the academic world… As I said before, in my experience, it really was significant, because I wasn’t coming from a musician family. So I had to go and get other studies in order to do what I really want to do.

TP: There’s certainly that tradition of families bringing forth several generations of musicians.

DP: A lot of people came from it. That’s a completely different thing, even though they went to the school and it was completely different.

As time goes, you see a journey of how that system kind of changed. At the beginning, it seemed to be very rigid, and at the end everything got somehow integrated. That’s how I see the whole picture.




Dafnis Prieto (5-19-01):

TP: You’re 26, born in 1974. Where in Cuba?

PRIETO: In Santa Clara, right in the middle of the island.

TP: Is there a drumming tradition from there?

PRIETO: Not really. It’s good, you know, the drumming in Cuba, in the whole place. But it’s not really specifically a heavy point in that place, no. Not really.

TP: Tell me about your early years in music, and how you found your affinity for the drums and developed as a musician.

PRIETO: I started young, like at the age of 8 or something like this, to start playing guitar. But then I changed I think when I was 9. We had a children’s band, like Cuban music, and nobody wanted to play the bongos. So I said, “Okay, I’ll play the bongos.” Then it became a strange situation, because I started doing… In one concert that we had, the guy that played the claves didn’t show up, so I started doing the claves with my voice. [REPLICATES THE SOUND] I made the clave sound. Then I started playing bongos. Then the director of the band looked at me, and he said to my Mom, “You have to put this guy in the school now.” Even when I came into the school I was in guitar and percussion, but my mind was like percussion-percussion-percussion.

TP: So when you were 9 or 10 years old, your musical talent was discovered, and then you were sent… How does the schooling work?

PRIETO: At 10 years old I started to go to a school in Santa Clara, for four years. They call it a FEVA school, like for education. I did four years there. . In this school you just learn classical music.

TP: By vocational school, they teach a number of trades, including music.

PRIETO: Definitely. Half the day you do music, half the day you do the other part of the studies.

TP: Was it a school for the region or for the city of Santa Clara?

PRIETO: In the city of Santa Clara.

TP: How big is Santa Clara?

PRIETO: It’s not that big. I don’t know.

TP: Did you learn classical music and Cuban music…

PRIETO: Well, the thing with the Cuban music… I don’t know if at some point Cuban people need to have this in the school, because you’ve got so much on the street… Just washing your face in the morning, and you hear the neighbors and stuff, and then at the same time you’re in the school and you see people playing. It’s easy. If you are interested, it’s easy to get that kind of knowledge from the street. But they don’t teach that much Cuban music at the beginning, in those four years. After that I did ENA (Escuela Nacional De Artes), which is the national school in Havana.

TP: That’s the high school that the most talented musicians on the island go to when they’re that age.

PRIETO: Yes. You have to do an examination after you finish the four years. For example, in my case in Santa Clara, after I finished I did an exam, and I was 14-15 years old, and then I went to Havana for four more years.

TP: You were playing drums at ENA?

PRIETO: Drums.

TP: Was it developing yourself on hand drums, orchestral percussion, trap drums?

PRIETO: In the beginning at the school, I started learning the classical stuff. . Then I started playing more congas and percussion during the first four years in Santa Clara. Then I started really playing the trapset at the end, during the fourth year, before I went to Havana.

TP: I gather around 1990 records started becoming more available — Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, Irakere. People were able to get these more than they had ten years before.


TP: And did you listen to this stuff?

PRIETO: Yes, I listened.

TP: Were these the records that influenced you, gave you ideas or models to follow?

PRIETO: Well, there are records from Emiliano Salvador, like “Nueva Vision.” I really liked that stuff… There was a generation that did the Revolutionary part in the music in Cuba. That band included Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez… They were called La Nuevo (?). The band was really good musicians. Emiliano was in that band, and a really good bass player who played with Pablo Milanes. Many musicians in that period that did the classics of the Revolution… It was a consequence also of the Revolution. They sing, and some of the songs are revolutionary songs. Singing about revolution and freedom and these kinds of things.

TP: The bands in the ’60s..

PRIETO: Yes. The ’70s actually was the more developed stuff.

TP: You’re listening to Emiliano Salvador, and his records are an ingenious synthesis of modern jazz harmony, like Woody Shaw, with very advanced Cuban rhythms and playing polymeters and all this stuff. Then you’re saying that you went back from that and listened to older records by the people he was playing with?

PRIETO: I’m just saying at that at the same time, in that period, like in the ’70s, then there was this new…the same people… The contemporaries of Emiliano Salvador. They did a band together that was including Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez, (?), and the music was happening.

TP: Were there any drummers in particular who influenced you?

PRIETO: Actually I listened a lot to Los Van Van. In the beginning I went for that kind of thing, like the root part. Because I started playing percussion, I started listening to more Rhumba than the other things. So the Rhumba is the street stuff. So I start listening to this, and then in Havana I start listening to Coltrane and all this jazz thing. But from Cuba, Changuito, Tata Guines, also Enrique Pla who is the drummer from Irakere.

TP: Then Ignacio Berroa had left Cuba, I guess.

PRIETO: Right. Well, I didn’t hear much of Ignacio Berroa. I just met him like four years ago. Maybe I heard him on some record that I didn’t know he was playing on, because in Cuba the kind of information I got in that time was from underground tapes. It didn’t have credit.

TP: So by the time you were in Havana and studying classical music, you had the street music just from living in Cuba and paying attention. That was a given. Then you were able to develop your techniques and get a universal sense of approaches to drums while you were in the high school.

PRIETO: Yes. I started at 15 years old to play trapset.

TP: Around this time is when the Timba style starts to become popular. Can you speak to how that affected the way you think about music? In other words, from Son and Rhumba the songo rhythm evolved, and from that feeling comes the virtuosic Timba style. Were you playing all of it? Were there functions for you to play the whole timeline of the music?

PRIETO: Definitely. The thing is that the Timba includes… The thing with the rhythms is sometimes that it’s not a rhythm that you’re playing. It’s a rhythm that you’re feeling. This is kind of an abstract thing, kind of philosophy shit! But I’ve talked to some drummers about this. Because sometimes we’re feeling so many things, and we’re playing short stuff…

TP: You mean you’re editing yourself to suit the function of the music?

PRIETO: Not really, no-no. It’s that sometimes you don’t play what you are feeling. You are just playing the essence. So in those terms I am talking about the Timba thing. For me, the Timba is the consequence of all these things together. It’s a feeling. It’s the same thing as the Songo. The Songo, after a while, became like categorizing, and they put it in the books, like “Songo number 21,” that kind of thing. But when Changuito started playing Songo, he just started playing what he was feeling inside. So it’s kind of the same feel. Changuito is a Rumba guy also.

TP: So it all comes out of Rumba.

PRIETO: Well, the Rumba is really deep stuff. And the Timba is including the Rumba inside it anyway.

TP: So you go to the high school, then you’re 18-19, and it’s 1993-94. Apart from going to school are you playing in bands?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. When I was 15 and started in school, I started playing… Well, I played in a band by Julio Padron, the trumpet player. He was playing with Irakere for a while. That was a kind of Latin Jazz group.

TP: Does “Latin Jazz” mean something different to you than “Rumba”?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. The instrumentation is different, and harmonically and everything you can really go wide-open. The Rumba mostly is congas and singing and claves and stuff. You can put something on top. Some people have done that.

TP: Some Latin musicians say that Clave is much freer in Cuba than in other areas? Can you comment on that?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. Well, the same thing I was talking to you about the Songo. It’s a feel. In Cuba, when you play the clave, we are not thinking on 3-2, 2-3 or how many beats, or even the people in Rumba don’t know how to explain it. It’s a feel. They trust the music first of all, because they feel it. It’s not because of their knowledge.

TP: So it’s more of an art and less of a science in Cuba.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, I think that the science is a consequence of other things actually. But people here at the end, to analyze the clave, they put it a second away, so people are starting to classify the clave like in 2-3, 3-2, and all these kind of things. But in Cuba, as soon as a guy gets a clave, they don’t know where… It’s just they go. The music, it goes. That’s what these people mean when they say it’s more free.

TP: also in the early ’90s, ’93-’94-’95, a lot of the younger generation of American musicians starts coming to Cuba. When do you start interacting with American jazz musicians?

PRIETO: In Havana at the jazz festivals.

TP: Do you remember when?

PRIETO: Actually I don’t have my curriculum in front of me. I don’t remember that much.

TP: Around ’94-’95?

PRIETO: Yes, I think so. Around ’94-’95 I started playing at the jazz festival. Then I saw great musicians. Airto Moreira; I was fascinated with his playing. Chico Freeman. Dizzy Gillespie I saw earlier. Not that much, but some.

TP: When did it start to be in your mind that you would like to come to New York and play with jazz musicians? How did that develop?

PRIETO: In 1994 New York wasn’t in my way of living or in my way of thinking to do. But I saw those guys, and I really wanted to do something like this. But I didn’t expect…

TP: Because of the politics.

PRIETO: Well, at some point… I didn’t have the politics in my mind. Actually, I came to New York twice before I decided to stay here; the first two times I didn’t feel comfortable. The first time I came with Jane Bunnett, and the second time with Columna-B, which Yosvany played in and Roberto Carcasses.

TP: So you were playing with Yosvany at this time, and Julio Padron.

PRIETO: Yes. That was out of the school, although we practiced in the school in the nighttime.

TP: What were you practicing?

PRIETO: In that period, I started listening more to Coltrane-Elvin Jones’ stuff, more Tony Williams’ stuff, and I really liked it, and I started to go to this position(?) at some point.

TP: What are the complications for someone whose first language is clave to adapt to a 4/4 feeling. There are confluences, Elvin Jones has a triplet feeling. But are there complexities to play swing properly?

PRIETO: Yes, there are. At some point, it’s a different… It’s an attitude thing. When you’re playing different kinds of music, in your mind you have to accept different attitudes at some point. Mostly when you’re a drummer, because you have to keep the strong rhythm part, and it’s… It gets different at some point when you’re playing jazz and when you’re playing clave, definitely! The clave stuff and the rhythmically Cuban stuff is really complex. The jazz could be as complex as these kind of things. It depends who plays. The things that Charlie Parker and Max Roach and all those guys did… They did some research.

TP: Well, Max Roach spent time in Haiti.

PRIETO: Yes, I know. Those guys were doing music 24 hours a day.

TP: By the way, did you play also in santeria functions? Can you talk about the spiritual aspect of Rumba and drumming in Cuba?

PRIETO: Well, the difference between the Rumba thing and the other thing is that the Rumba you can get on the street. You don’t have to be part of the Santeria stuff, even though most of the Rumberos are part of it. But I didn’t have that much contact in Cuba with the Santeria stuff. When I was living there I started playing with different cats, but doing a mix of stuff, like I was doing with Jane, with Pancho Quinto and Lucumi(?) and Pedrito and all those guys that play the Santeria stuff. But I just started playing it consciously when I left Cuba actually.

TP: When did you move here?

PRIETO: I came here in October ’99. How I got here is a story. I was staying in Barcelona. I started to go out of Cuba, because my wife was in Barcelona at that time; I was touring Europe with Columna-B, and I decided to stay in Barcelona. That’s a real avant-garde Latin and jazz band.

TP: So you were touring in Spain with that band, and you’d been here earlier as well. You get to Barcelona and what happens?

PRIETO: It was getting really boring for me. So I came to Canada to do a tour with Jane. I was doing a tour with her in Europe, Canada and the United States. Then at the end of that tour I was trying to decide to go to Spain again, because I was supposed to go back, but I got some visa problem. I wasn’t able to go back to Spain in that period. Actually, Spain is part of the G-7, and they denied my visa to go to the Northsea Jazz Festival. So I couldn’t go back to Europe. It was a really fucked-up situation.

TP: So Spain has passport restrictions on Cuban citizens also?

PRIETO: No. The thing is, I left Spain without having a residency. It took so long that I had to leave! So I left without any legal paper in Spain. So they didn’t let me go back that year. Then I decided to come here, because I didn’t want to stay in Toronto, in Canada. So I decided to come here with my heart! [LAUGHS] So after I came here, I started feeling really good. It was completely different than before. Maybe it was my difference. But I started seeing everything in a different way. For me before it was all too aggressive.

TP: In Cuba did you listen to the great Salsa bands from New York, or the Fort Apache Band or bands like this, and did they have anything to do with the way you thought about music?

PRIETO: I didn’t hear the Fort Apache stuff, believe it or not, until a week before I had to play with them! I’d heard the name, Fort Apache, and I had met Jerry a couple of years before that. But I didn’t hear the records.

TP: From your perspective as a Cuban and from the first generation that had freedom in some degree to travel, what do you think of the way Latin music has developed in New York in the last 15-20 years?

PRIETO: I think it’s really nice. I really love the stuff that all those guys in the ’70s did — Hector Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri, Mario Rivera. I think they made some innovations, mostly harmonic. They have more knowledge in some points because they have lived here. So they started mixing the harmony stuff with the Cuban thing in the… You know, the same thing at some point as Benny More in Cuba. He did a big band with Perez Prado. But I think it was really developed for those guys. I really like what they did musically. It was fresh in that period. And if you listen now, it’s great. When I hear Hector Lavoe, Mario Rivera, all those guys, man, I say, “Fuck!” It was nice arrangements. And you didn’t miss the Latin part. They were doing that approach to the jazz stuff. It was interesting.

TP: So from the mid-’90s on you were hearing a lot of bands around the world.

PRIETO: Yes. But there’s one part we’re missing. I met a guy named Carlos Maza at the school. He’s from Chile. He had really different ideas. He was listening to the more avant-garde stuff, like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. I really enjoyed those kinds of things, and I started hearing different kinds of drummers with more freedom.

TP: Yosvany sounds very comfortable with avant-garde music also. It seems it must be because of the level training you get, being in the conservatory and learning so much music. Do you think that intensive training may differentiate you from other musicians in Latin America?

PRIETO: Definitely. Because you do four years at the school, and you have time to practice if you want. If you want to practice, you practice. My friends have a really high level musically, but they do not like the avant-garde stuff or they are not interested in that kind of thing, and they keep going in maybe the Salsa stuff or jazz in the Latin way. So there are differences in taste.

TP: But you became interested in Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, and playing feelings, and the science of sound.

PRIETO: Yes. I really like that approach.

TP: Do you have an abstract turn of mind? Sometimes there are correlations between musicians who think like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti with physics and mathematics and so on, and I wonder if you have a bent towards that.

PRIETO: Actually I work with that. I have been doing some research with Steve Coleman also about all these things. We’ve been doing some work on South Indian stuff. Working with him, this kind of approach numerically and philosophically also… We were doing some work with the relationship between the Moon and the Sun and that approach to music.

TP: You mean how music relates to the angles and gravitational pulls of the universe.


TP: Did you meet Steve in Cuba?

PRIETO: I met Steve in Cuba.

TP: Were you part of his big project?

PRIETO: Not at the beginning, no. I just played with him a year ago.

TP: Has he been an influence on you?

PRIETO: Yes. Big. I was really interested in the odd-metered stuff, and he is one of the more developed guys on that kind of thing. He started playing me records that he’d heard a lot, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, different, and I liked them.

TP: Probably Von Freeman, too.

PRIETO: I met Von Freeman. We played together in Chicago with Steve Coleman actually. He’s really great. He did a nice duet with a mrdingam player. It gets a similar sound to the tablas, but it’s kind of the bata. In a way it’s like a sitting drum.

TP: A lot of Latin musicians in New York heard Steve Coleman’s record with Cuban musicians and didn’t like it because it wasn’t idiomatic enough. They felt he took liberties. But you had no such feeling.

PRIETO: Right.

TP: But you know what I’m talking about.

PRIETO: I know what you’re talking about. I’m still hearing that, but I liked it. I think everything you do that somebody can learn from, it’s good to have had it. [LAUGHS] Nothing is perfect in this life, and maybe the people who talk about those things, they don’t do that much.

TP: When did you start composing music?

PRIETO: I started composing music when I started doing the thing with Columna-B in ’96 or ’98, something like this. I did a piece, and then we did some arrangements together with the band. But now I’m really interested in composing.

TP: Tell me about the musicians you started to form alliances with in New York. John Benitez is crucial, Luis Perdomo seems crucial…

PRIETO: Brian Lynch.

TP: Talk about how you started making your inroads. I guess the first time I heard your name was with Brian.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, after I’d been here for about a month, I went to Brian’s gig at the Cherokee-Phoenix, and it was good. Antonio Sanchez was playing drums then. I met Brian the year before that, when we did a concert at Stanford University with Conrad Herwig. When I saw him here, I sat in, and I said, “Man, if you need a drummer…” The next week Antonio couldn’t make the gig, so I did it.. And I started doing that gig for something like two months.

TP: Was it different music than you’d played?

PRIETO: Yes. Brian’s compositions has a specific kind of tone, like more Palmieri stuff, that kind of influence that he has. And I didn’t play that kind of stuff before so much. At some point, it could be really Latin — the way of forming the melodies and the harmony. I really liked doing that gig, and I still do it. We’re doing a concert June 16th at the Jazz Gallery.

TP: One thing I’m trying to get is how forward-looking musicians from Latin America are converging in New York, and what sort of music is evolving from it. Every time I hear one of you guys it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.

PRIETO: As I said before, I think my main influences musically since I started playing music (I can tell you right now from the bottom to now): I started listening to the Rumba thing, Changuito with Los Van Van, Tata Guines doing other stuff; some of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s stuff…

TP: The things he did with his quartet.

PRIETO: Yes. Some tunes I didn’t understand that much about in that period. But I saw what’s interesting. I liked all the time things that I didn’t understand, so I have to work on that. So Gonzalo’s things, Irakere, Chucho, the whole thing. Then on the other side, as I said, I met Carlos Maza, and I started to hear Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti…

TP: So meeting him helped you get a pan-hemispheric attitude.

PRIETO: Yes. When I met Carlos Maza I started to hear all this avant-garde stuff, and different things, more South American stuff, like Joropo, Venezuelano(?) and Querqua(?), and… All these rhythms. Different things. Ornette Coleman. I was also listening to Coltrane. All those guys. I played with Carlos Maza for four years; he plays piano and guitar also.

TP: Did the music sound like Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto?

PRIETO: At some point, yes. He used that approach. Then I played with this piano player in Cuba also named Ramon Valle. In some points he has an approach playing in a Cuban feel and in the jazz stuff, an approach like Keith Jarrett, not that much classic, and at the same time more… This approach, the way of playing. I did a trio record with him at Egrem. I think we did that record with PM Records, Pablo Milanes’s record company, when he had it. He doesn’t have it any more.

TP: Ramon Valle, Columna-B, Yosvany, and Roberto Carcasses. What is Roberto’s sound like?

PRIETO: He’s a great piano player. He’s a great musician also. He does arrangements and he’s really good.

TP: Then you’re here and playing with Brian Lynch, John Benitez…

PRIETO: I played with Yosvany Terry’s quartet also. Eventually I did this stuff with Andrew Hill. That was a great experience. I came in after Nasheet Waits, and I did a big band with him at the Jazz Standard. We played for three nights there, and then on June 14th I’m doing a concert with him in Philadelphia with the sextet. His music is really fluid. One of the first things that I asked him, on one tune, “What kind of feeling should I put here?” And then his answer was, “that’s the reason you’re here, to show me the feel.” [LAUGHS]

TP: He speaks in code, too.

PRIETO: Yes. I like that code!

TP: Then you started playing with Henry Threadgill.

PRIETO: Yes. That was before. Actually, Andrew Hill came to Henry Threadgill’s performance at the Knitting Factory where I was playing.

TP: How did this happen?

PRIETO: Steve Coleman called Henry and told him he had to check out the Columna-B band. We came here and did a performance at the Knitting Factory and also… The day I met Henry, he came down to the Zinc Bar to the Columna B concert. He really liked the way I was doing stuff. Then I left for Cuba, and when I was staying in Barcelona I received a call from a friend saying that Henry Threadgill was looking for me to invite me to play here in New York. At that time I couldn’t leave Barcelona because of the papers. Then one the first things that helped me decide to stay here was, “Dafnis, if you want to do that kind of music, you should stay here!”

A year before I met Henry, I heard one of his records at a friend’s house in Canada, and I said, “Man, who is this guy?!” He was doing some crazy shit rhythmically and harmonically, like Henry’s stuff. I really liked it. I really feel sensitive with those kind of things. Then I met him.. I think it’s a really sensitive music. It contains so many specific things. I really feel comfortable with that kind of idiomatic musical language. I don’t know how to describe it technically. But definitely he has his own way of harmonizing things and for orchestrating the stuff. He writes out the whole orchestration. If you put a harmonic chord, like five notes, he probably will give one note to each member of the band. I mean, his own particular way of doing that.

TP: Did this influence the way you write? Henry sounded so comfortable playing your music.

PRIETO: I don’t do that much this approach. I’m trying to get in touch with myself, trying to be sincere with myself. But I definitely have influence from Henry and from Andrew also.

TP: That brings me to this question of how being in New York and interacting with the cream of musicians from around the world on a regular basis is affecting your path.

PRIETO: New York has a really high level of musicians. The people who come here have in some way this feeling that they can do something. That makes it a kind of challenge musically, because you can see formidable shit, really nice stuff, and a really high level of people playing.

TP: When you’re playing Latin or pan-diasporic music… You’re from Cuba, John Benitez is from Puerto Rico, Luis Perdomo is from Venezuela, Carlos Maza is from Chile. Each country has a specific folk tradition, then they have a specific way of playing salsa or clave. But here people are coming together. There’s someone like Edsel Gomez or Ed Simon or David Sanchez, El Negro, all these different people. First, you keep your own identity and your own path. That’s always going to be with you. There’s a set of influences and experiences that you’ve had. I guess this is another one that you’re responding to. But there’s a sound to the music that all of you are doing that seems very New York in some way. I’m wondering if you could give me your impression is of what that quality is that is New York in what you’re doing.

PRIETO: I was talking to Yosvany about this actually. I was saying to him that I’m happy to be here, because I feel we have a generational thing happening now musically. Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez. At some point, we are this generation that has, as I said before, knowledge about different cultures. It’s not about just Latin things. When you go to a concert, we are not just playing Latin stuff. We are mixing all the things we know and putting it in one language — music. If it’s Latin rhythm, we’re doing a Latin rhythm, but we can do it in the jazz style, in the swing shit, and also be free like Andrew Hill could be. It could be as wide open harmonically as Henry can do. You know what I mean? All these influences that I feel are with me personally, but at the same time, because I’m playing with them, we’re sharing the same thing. So I was talking to Yosvany about this generation that is coming now, between 25 to 35…

TP: Like Gonzalo and Danilo Perez on the front of it, down to you guys.

PRIETO: Well, I don’t know if I want to say that. I don’t know Danilo that much. I can’t say anything about him. Danilo doesn’t live here either. I haven’t got the chance to play with him.

But I think it’s a generation that has many questions to ask and many answers to respond at the same time. This is really fun. I get together with Yosvany to do some research, the same thing I do with Steve Coleman and with Miguel Zenon. We get together in my house and hear some music together and analyze it. I enjoy that part.

TP: So you’re able not just to play, but to get together and think as one. And in Cuba, you might have an opportunity to do it because people come to the school from all over Latin America, but it would be a different context. Have you been back to Cuba since you moved here?

PRIETO: No, I haven’t. I have a (?). It’s a permit you get here in the United States to travel out of the United States. So I may go this year to Cuba to visit my family.

TP: I gather that the situation in Cuba started changing in the early ’90s, and they started allowing musicians to travel out of the country and not give back all the money that they made, or to keep a good chunk of it.

PRIETO: In Cuba, when you become a professional musician, you have to become part of the Impresa…

TP: The union?

PRIETO: Well, it’s not a union thing. They have different ones. They control you definitely!

TP: They tell you where to play?

PRIETO: They’re supposed to. But sometimes it gets so disorganized that they don’t even do that! For example, all these musicians are part of the “Impresa” thing. I don’t know to describe “impresa.” A company.

TP: Like a guild maybe.

PRIETO: Something like that. So you’re part of that. And through this company you can make your papers to go out of the country. So sometimes you have to give them part of the money or a benefit or that kind of thing. Most of the travel that I did through that company, one of them, I did it because I was a friend of the director of that company. At some point, he helped me out. But I wasn’t part of the company. I don’t know for what reason, but I’ve always been kind of a revolutionary in that sense!

TP: You mean being a sort of free agent within the structure?

PRIETO: Yes, I like the freedom shit. I like to be freelance.

TP: Does that make it hard to function in Cuba?

PRIETO: Yes, it really makes it hard! Well, you know. In Cuba, Jazz doesn’t have much support. The only thing that happens in Cuba with jazz is a couple of concerts a year, and that’s mostly the same thing — Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo. When we were there, we tried to make some stuff. We did some. But we want to do more.

TP: So part of being here is being able to express yourself, even beyond the politics. Although there were the jazz festivals, and you could meet Roy Hargrove or Steve Coleman, and they could meet you. And tell me about some of the venues in New York. It seems the two primary ones have been the Jazz Gallery and the Zinc Bar.

PRIETO: The first things I started to do was at the Zinc Bar. Then at the Jazz Gallery we did many things with Yosvany.

TP: It seems you’ve developed an audience, and it’s a very international audience on just Latin. It’s interesting to hear a young, hip audience come out to hear some jazz of any sort, and you’ve drawn a lot of people.

PRIETO: Well, as I say, maybe they identify something with themselves about this music. That’s one of the reasons I think this is happening about this. At least myself, I am not interested in doing just Latin music or Jazz. I don’t even want to categorize the music that I play.

TP: So you’re a musician of the world, and there are a lot of musicians like you now.

PRIETO: Yes. The contact with the other side of the world is getting easier. The influences culturally. You can now get how many books you want about India or how many books you want about Greece or Asia, and you can start by your own. I like the studies that people do because they want to do it, and they do it on their own. They don’t go into school and do this and that because the professors told you to. I like the research that you’re really interested in, and you get the opportunity to do research on your own. You navigate with your own luck.

TP: And also, you can hear any music you want. Are you mostly listening to music from India and Egypt, rhythms of the world — folkloric music. [Yes.] Classical music?

PRIETO: I love classical music. That was my training for eight years. I couldn’t leave it.

TP: You left school at 18, didn’t go to the conservatory. The training must be good for you as a composer, knowing the harmony..

PRIETO: Yeah, definitely. And the way of writing and all this stuff. So you make the sections clear in your mind. I think the classical training… I was talking to Clarence Penn, and I said, “Man, I feel good because I have the classical training, and now I can appreciate different things.” I think it gives you a really good basic knowledge of the music. Even if the music that I sometimes am trying to reach now is…it gets in a different way… Like, the Indian stuff has different melodies, different scales, different rhythmic patterns. Different culture.

I said also about my influence of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Doug Hammond. The first time I heard Elvin was really inspiring for me, because it was really powerful rhythm and at the same time it could get free. But there was a real rhythmic thing going on that I enjoyed from him, the stuff he did mostly with Coltrane. With Tony Williams, he’s a really technically developed drummer in a musical way. He’s a very musical drummer, and he can do melodies on the drums. I’m really influenced by him also.

TP: You did a solo the other night where you sounded like about four drummers. I was trying to figure out what instrument you were striking. It sounded like you had three hands. What was interesting was that you had the timbre. Usually when drummers try to do that, they get the rhythm but not the timbre.

PRIETO: It’s good you talk about this. I’ve always been interested in European Baroque music, because it has the same melodies repeating in different places. At some point I like to do that in my drumming, doing the same phrase in different places, and explaining this phrase in different ways. That kind of thing.

TP: Is your family musical?

PRIETO: No. My mother works in an office, and my father is an elevator engineer. They like music, but they are not musicians at all.

TP: They are hard-working people.

PRIETO: Yes, people from the people. From the Bushmen. I played with Essiet at the Zinc Bar a few weeks ago, and he called his family the Bushmen.

TP: You look like you’re from a Creole background.

PRIETO: Yes. But the neighborhood I was born in at some point you could call a Black neighborhood. I grew up in that kind of situation.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Cuba, Dafnis Prieto, Drummer

For Terri Lyne Carrington’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2011

To acknowledge the birthday of the estimable drummer-producer Teri Lyne Carrington, a force on the scene since her late teens, here’s a feature article that I was given the opportunity to write about her for Jazziz  magazine in 2011. (Her inclusivity and incisive taste come through in this excellent Jazz Times “Before and After” with  Larry Applebaum.)

* * *

When Terri Lyne Carrington was 17, about to matriculate at Berklee School of Music as a full-time student, her fellow Bostonian, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, intoned the now-famous aphorism, “all politics is local.” Without implying any direct influence, one might say that Carrington—now a 45-year-old tenured Berklee professor, long-standing master drummer, and respected producer—operates by the imperative that “all music is social.”

That principle applies to Carrington’s new release, The Mosaic Project, her fifth as a leader, and fourth on which she coalesces, as she states on a promotional video on her website, “a lot of different textures and colors and pieces to make a whole picture.” There are 13 genre-spanning selections, including her arrangements of songs by Irving Berlin, Al Green, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Nona Hendryx, and the Beatles, and originals that refract the Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and M-Base schools of hardcore jazz and fusion. To perform them, Carrington assembled nine singers whom she’s either worked with or produced (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carrington, Hendryx, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato, Dianne Reeves, Patricia Romania, Esperanza Spalding, and Cassandra Wilson), and an ace ensemble including, in various configurations, Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, and Helen Sung on piano and keyboards, Spalding on bass, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Tineke Postma on alto saxophone, Anat Cohen on clarinets, and Sheila E. on percussion. She propels the proceedings with a global array of beats, navigating each flavor with idiomatic authority and a point of view, unfolding an intricate metric web in whatever direction the music suggests.

With so many moving parts in play, the outcome could well have been disjointed, or by-the-numbers stiff. Instead, Carrington creates a cohesive suite—the flow is relaxed and kinetic, the soloing is intense and probing, the ensemble breathes as one. “Terri has a broad, clear voice, and knows how to state her intentions so people understand,” says Reeves, who met Carrington when the drummer was a 10-year-old prodigy. “If she’d painted this picture with somebody else on drums, it would still be uniquely Terri Lyne Carrington’s music.”

“Terri is a connector,” Allen says of the way Carrington’s calm demeanor inspired the tight-yet-loose chemistry. “She knows how to pull together the right combination of people and energies and give them a sense of freedom within the context of her projects. This setting felt like home, a family thing where nobody’s sitting with their arms folded, waiting for you to prove you deserve to be here.”

Notions of family, both biological and musical, deeply inform Mosaic Project and two prior Carrington recordings from the aughts. On 2001’s all-instrumental Jazz is A Spirit [ACT], she convened several first-call peers, as well as Herbie Hancock, her frequent employer, and the voice of drum icon Jo Jones circa 1984, with a year to live, telling Carrington, “As long as I’m here, you run into any problems, call me—because of your grandfather, because of your father, and because of you.” She explicitly acknowledged bloodlines on the 2008 session More To Say (Real Life Story: Next Gen), a creative take on the funky side of smooth jazz (with brief blasts of Afro-Carribean and hip-hop). On that album she plays the contemporary grooves with an attitude that recalls the function that her grandfather, drummer Matt Carrington, fulfilled when jazz was swing, and swing was dance music. He died a few months before her birth, and his drums became her first kit.

On the aforementioned projects, Carrington, like many prominent sister musicians accustomed to being the only woman on the bandstand, recruited almost exclusively male associates to convey her vision. But on Mosaic Project, Carrington makes a firm statement on what it means to be a female jazz musician in the 21st century.

“People always tried to put me in situations with women, but it never felt comfortable or natural,” Carrington said. Influenced by recent engagements with Spalding (she performs on her 2010 release Chamber Music Society), and with Allen (they’ve shared numerous bandstands since the ‘80s, most recently in Postma’s quartet), her feelings shifted. “For me, Esperanza completed a circle,” she continued. “Nothing against other female bass players, but I felt like-minded with her, as I do with Tineke and other female horn players I’ve met recently. I won’t think twice about accepting a gig with them or calling them for a gig, because I like the way they play.”

Carrington provided detailed charts, each catering to the idiosyncracies of the vocal and instrumental soloists. She conveyed the nuances not only through in-studio instructions, but by sending to each participant an MP3 demo containing horn parts, basslines, chord changes, harmonic voicings, even her own interpretation of the lyrics in the style of each singer. “I composed every note you hear, other than the solos,” Carrington says, noting that she wrote nightly last spring after putting her three-year-old son to bed.

Sometimes, Carrington loosened the reins, instructing the players to do “something more personal” by focusing on the chords and not the written voicings. That flexible perspective and attitude of trust was crucial in actualizing her “jazz means no-category” aesthetic. “Terri doesn’t play drums like a groove machine that I need to lock into with a bass part,” Spalding said. “To me, she plays drums sort of like a piano. Each register and drum of the kit is like its own instrument that you could say she’s orchestrating, as though each drum has a voice. Playing bass, I have to be solid keeping the time in a specific place, but stay on my toes and be ready to dance with this orchestrated, multi-faceted momentum she’s creating. She’s so diverse—in her playing, you hear all the styles of music she’s mastered.”

In Allen’s view, Carrington’s encyclopedic knowledge of drum history bedrocks her cool boldness. “Terri has the foundation together, and she’s always felt confident to push ahead and mix, in a seamless way, the root with the future,” she says. “She understands drumming from the perspective of different world musics. She understands technology. She understands the pulse of what’s happening today.”

“I’m a jazz musician who is influenced by many other things,” Carrington said. “I try to mesh them together in my presentation, but jazz is still going to come out.” In this regard, she mentioned her father, Sonny Carrington, a professional saxophonist who went 9-to-5 to raise his family. “When I was doing TV shows in the ‘90s (she was house drummer on the Arsenio Hall Show and Vibe, hosted by Sinbad), I was playing very little jazz jazz, and I told my father I didn’t want to put the word ‘jazz’ in front of my name, like ‘jazz drummer’ or ‘jazz musician.’ He said, ‘You can’t run away from who you are.’ It stuck.

“I grew up listening to his music, jazz-based stuff that felt good—Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Hank Crawford. That swing conception is my root. Then I allow all my experiences as a child, teenager, young adult, and now adult, to seep in. Obviously, classic jazz is not of our generation—though I’m not putting down people who live more in the past, because they’re keeping that alive. It goes back to art for art’s sake or art for social consciousness. If you want to be socially aware through your art and tell people how you feel about life in general, what you’re doing has to reflect who you are, and current music is important. With instrumental music, it’s challenging for the listener to really know your intent. That’s why vocal music has always been so important to me—the message gets out to the listener.”


Carrington remarked that she predicates her musical affiliations on “who I can connect with without thinking too hard,” and that playing with women “doesn’t feel particularly different” than with men.” Indeed, as she states in the publicity materials, the whole point of The Mosaic Project is that “you don’t hear gender.”

Reeves concurred, stating that she felt only “the vibration of creativity.” Yet she also states that on her album, That Day, a Carrington-supervised opus from 1997, “it was exciting to have a woman’s voice” in the producer’s chair. “As an artist, you want the producer to respect you for what you do—your ideas, your ability,” Reeves said. “I’ve known Terri so long, I knew I was in capable hands; she allowed me to feel I could be vulnerable—that I could stretch. She hears everything, she has strong opinions, and she came up with specific ideas that she knew would appeal to me. She knows how to do that with other people, too.”

Spalding opined that gender plays a subtle role in musical production, parsing the Mosaic Project experience through a music-mirrors-life approach. “Working with all these women, for the first time I experienced what most men always experience,” she stated. She noted that women are raised by similar codes, encounter similar “social stigmas and social habits,” and that, since music “is an extension of our identities and personalities,” these affinities “can’t help but seep into the way we choose to interact with music as it passes by us in real time—maybe we’re communicating a little closer to the same language. Sometimes I feel it in a subtle, sort of unconscious way, but as soon as I try to identify something, it’s gone.”

For Carrington, that “something” is the female predisposition to be “a little more in tune from a compassionate perspective, a serving perspective, a ‘let me make this bed for you’ perspective, whereas a guy more naturally just steps in. I like both things, and both are happening in most women. The best male players have it, too. But a woman’s nature, I think, is to hold back for a second, assess the situation quickly, and be supportive. That nurturing quality—without trying to—makes the music feel more beautiful. Sometimes I have to work at not doing that too much, so everything doesn’t sound too polite.”

She observes such reticence among the young women who study with her at Berklee. “I think it’s less natural for women to hit things,” she said. “Even though we’re making music, it’s still a somewhat aggressive action that a lot of women—not all—don’t gravitate to. The majority are still a bit apologetic. When kids play catch, say, a girl’s instinct is to throw or pass the ball. A guy’s instinct is to grab the ball and hold onto it.”

It was hard to imagine that this had ever been an issue for a musician who spent consequential time on bandstands with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Danilo Perez, following postgraduate New York associations in the ‘80s with such high-pedigree jazzmen as Clark Terry, Frank Foster, James Moody, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Lester Bowie, Stan Getz, and Mulgrew Miller, not to mention M-Base innovators like Greg Osby and Gary Thomas.

“No, I think it has been,” Carrington responded, recalling past engagements at the Village Vanguard when she “wanted to put my best foot forward” before her drummer peers in the crowd, “to show off and say, ‘Yeah, I’m bad; I can play.’” Often, she added, “I couldn’t get past a hurdle to do that ownership thing. I wanted to stand out more, but I couldn’t make myself do it if it didn’t come naturally at that moment.”

It seemed that this response might pertain more to the demands of apprenticeship than some inherently female characteristic. “That’s true,” she said. “But I felt a lot of the younger drummers were more willing to step all over the music. To me, that’s a male quality. Some people perceived that as overplaying or being inappropriate, whereas many people felt I was always appropriate, didn’t overplay. As I got older and more seasoned, and played with peers or younger people, I became more confident and comfortable with myself. I know that I’m naturally about serving the music and fitting in, so I don’t mind saying, if necessary, ‘We’re going over here for a minute, and we’re doing this.’ I’m always going to be appropriate. But now I see being appropriate differently.

“My father told me, ‘You never give anybody a show.’ He felt I could. But that’s not what I do. I like playing through everybody’s solos, and bringing something to it. I’ve started realizing that this can be captivating in itself. People tell me they couldn’t take their eyes off me, and I hadn’t taken a drum solo. So I allow myself to be featured without featuring myself. I know that when I get deep inside the music, it can be a force, a magnetism, that draws people in.”

Few drummers could conjure as much contextually appropriate dazzle as did Carrington in November with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci during a Philadelphia concert exploring the repertoire of Perez’ landmark 1996 date, Panamonk, on which she and Jeff Watts split drum duties. Earlier in the month, after several gigs in Spain with Perez and Patitucci in the Wayne Shorter Quartet—she recommended them to Shorter at the end of the ‘90s—as a sub for Brian Blade, Shorter told Carrington it was as though she “had never really left the group—I was like the fifth member all that time.” He backed the words by asking her to join the group in Brazil in June.

Still, Carrington’s 2011 itinerary includes numerous encounters with women, including various Mosaic Project offshoots, tours with Spalding’s trio, a collaborative Carrington-Allen-Spalding trio, and hoped-for follow-ups to a program of young girls’ songs that debuted at the Kennedy Center last October on which Allen and Rushen played Steinway Grands. Over the summer, she’ll play drums and serve as music director for a tour called “Sing the Truth,” on which Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, and Lizz Wright will interpret songs written by African-American women from Bessie Smith to Lauryn Hill.

“I might want to do a Joni Mitchell song, even though she’s not African-American, because she’s such a strong songwriter,” Carrington says of the latter endeavor. “It doesn’t have to be just writers either—it could be a Mahalia Jackson song.” She expounds on her ecumenical tastes, referencing Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, neo-soul, “organic rock with a blues orientation” a la the Allman Brothers, and drummers “who aren’t mechanical” like Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. “From TV, I developed respect for all the genres, because I had to sound as close as possible to people who specialize without imitating them. You focus, come on strong and make the point, because you have less than a minute. There’s no room for error.

“I’ve always put my heart into whatever I do,” she continues. “One of my favorite gigs ever was with Bill Withers when he came out of retirement to do a party. If I was just about playing the drums, then playing with Wayne or Herbie would be much more satisfying than playing with Bill Withers. For me it’s about making music and being creative.”

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Filed under Drummer, Jazziz, Terri Lyne Carrington

For Steve Gadd’s 70th Birthday, a Jazziz Profile From 2013

A day late for master drummer Steve Gadd’s birthday, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature that I had the opportunity to write last year for Jazziz magazine, framed around the release of Gadditude.

* * * *

The only drum solo on Gadditude [BFM], Steve Gadd’s first studio leader date in a quarter-century, occurs at the six-minute mark of the album-opener, “Africa,” a smoky modal number. Actually, Gadd doesn’t so much solo as emerge from the ensemble in dialogue with Larry Goldings’ percussive vamp on Hammond B-3, intensifying, but barely embellishing, the crisp, swirling 7/4 groove that has heretofore propelled the flow. For the remainder of the session, Gadd draws from his exhaustive lexicon of bespoke beats—New Orleans march figures, tangos, shuffles, waltzes, straight-eighth feels, and a soupçon of 4/4 swing—to personalize nine songs either composed or selected by Goldings, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Michael Landau, his bandmates over the past decade behind singer-songwriter James Taylor.

“I didn’t do it intentionally or think about it beforehand,” Gadd said of animating of own session by assuming a supportive role, as has famously been his default basis of operations since he became a fixture in the New York City studios in 1972. “I think a drummer’s goal is to allow other people to sound their best, to have space to shine and create. Some situations favor an energetic approach, interacting more with the solos. Other times, people are playing over the groove, and it’s better to stay out of the way—use those notes when it’s your chance to solo, rather than behind them. For me, the better solos happen when the groove gets strong and the intensity is where it should be. Then it feels natural. In the studio, it would have felt forced. I thought it was better to let it just be what it was.”

It was noted that, as producer, Gadd made an executive decision not to position the drums prominently in the final mix.

“I want the mixes to sound dynamic and balanced, so you can feel our intent, not to get everything so in your face that it highlights what I’m doing,” he responded. “If I’m playing soft, I’d rather you hear it soft and place everything around it. Then the music is speaking, not just one instrument.”

Gadd has actualized these aesthetic principles with extraordinary consistency on the 750 sessions—some 230 of them during the ‘70s—listed on his web discography. During that decade, His ingenious figures stamped hits by such pop icons as Paul Simon (“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” from Still Crazy After All These Years) and Steely Dan (Aja). His inexorable pocket was integral to the feel of Stuff, the funk super-group with keyboardist Richard Tee and guitarists Cornell Dupree or Eric Gale, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan era with Stuff It and dozens of backup dates, not to mention Simon’s quasi-autobiographical film One Trick Pony, in which all play consequential roles. His explosive straight-ahead skills came through with a succession of high-profile jazz and fusion groups—Steps with Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri, Chick Corea (The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart), the Brecker Brothers (Don’t Stop The Music), and several dozen CTI dates.

During the ‘80s, Gadd, already a key influence for a generation of aspirants, performed on over 150 recordings. He toured extensively, both as a high-profile sideman and as leader of the Gadd Gang, with Dupree, Tee, and acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez. During the ‘90s, he developed new relationships with James Taylor and Eric Clapton, and spent consequential bandstand time in a short-lived, gloriously creative trio with the French pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Anthony Jackson.

“I admire musicians who constantly try to raise the bar for themselves,” Gadd states, in a piece of self-description that is manifested by his production of and participation in If You Believe, his second eclectic, erudite collaboration with marimbist Mika Stoltzman; an as-yet untitled encounter with conguero Pedrito Martinez that is scheduled for a late 2013 release; and the third recording in three years by the Gaddabouts, a Gadd-directed backup band for singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Less omnipresent in the studios than before, he recently augmented his c.v. on dates with Eric Clapton (Old Sock), Italian pop singer Pino Daniele (La Grande Madre), and Kate Bush (50 Words For Snow). As we spoke, Gadd was preparing for shows in Japan and California with Quartette Humaine, titled for an acoustic Bob James-David Sanborn CD that the protagonists had supported on the road for much of June and July, and by the Steve Gadd Band, booked for post-Gadditude appearances in Korea, Japan, and California.

“I don’t think of it as my band,” Gadd said of his latest leader endeavor. “Of course I put it together, and I’m in a position to make suggestions and some final decisions. But it’s always a group. People brought in tunes, and I picked the ones that I liked best and thought we could have fun playing. Then we worked them out by trial-and-error.”

Gadd’s assertion to the contrary, he has, as Goldings notes, “a very convincing way of putting his own spin on something.” As an example, Goldings mentioned the leader’s treatment of Keith Jarrett’s “Country,” a ballad first recorded by Jarrett’s “European Quartet” in 1978. “Steve likes to experiment with time signatures and feels, and after a day of playing sort of as-is, in 4/4, he suggested we try it in three,” Goldings said. “He didn’t know the song, wasn’t tied down to it, and wanted to do something different.” Goldings described another Gaddian volte face, at a 2008 recording date for James Taylor’s Covers. “One song we’d played for years had an iconic drumbeat, a heavy tom-tom thing, and we listened back to the live version. But when we started going for takes, Steve immediately went for his brushes, almost the opposite thing, done beautifully, in this understated way. Nobody said a thing. It just worked.

“I think he has a sound in his head, and he knows how to create it instantaneously. It’s one of the mysterious things about him.”


The facts, anecdotes, and sounds of Gadd’s biography—documented in dozens of articles, some easily available on the Internet, and hundreds of Youtubed videos—are well-known. A native of Rochester, New York, he’s held drumsticks literally since he learned to speak. By age seven, the year he received his first drumset, he was tap-dancing publicly. While Gadd was still in grammar school, his father, a drug salesman, and uncle, a semi-professional drummer who taught him the rudiments, brought him to Sunday matinees at the Ridgecrest Inn, a small club that hosted such best-and-brightests as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Carmen McRae and Gene Krupa as they traversed the northeast circuit.

“You could sit next to the bandstand and watch them play,” he says, recalling the frequent presence of childhood friends Chuck and Gap Mangione. “Sometimes they’d let the kids sit in. When I was in high school, there were organ clubs that booked Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, George Benson, and Hank Marr—you could sit in with them. I loved that music. All this time, I was taking lessons, doing drum corps, playing the high school concert band and stage band.”

In 1963, Gadd enrolled at Manhattan School of Music. After two years, he transferred to Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory. “Eastman had more orchestras and wind ensembles, so I had more playing opportunities,” he recalls. “In Rochester, I started working six nights a week with different bands, so I could support myself through college.” Upon graduation, Gadd, hoping to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, auditioned for and was accepted in the Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he spent the next three years, the final two of them propelling a Woody Herman-Buddy Rich styled big band. “There were great writers, who wrote new arrangements every week for us to sight-read,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have gotten that kind of education anywhere else.”

Understanding this blend of formal education and practical experience offers a window into the deeper levels of Gadd’s ability to elicit maximum results with a minimum of flash, to quickly comprehend the big picture of a track or a song and make it sound like he’s been doing it for years.

“I came to New York having fun with the ability to play different styles of music,” Gadd remarked. “I loved the kind of playing Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette did, but in New York I heard Rick Marotta, who played simple but with a really deep groove. I didn’t understand that kind of simplicity, but it challenged me. So I worked just as hard at playing simple as playing complicated and playing fusion. Different people were typecast as funk drummers, Latin guys, jazz guys. But I didn’t like categories. As long as it was good music, I loved it.”

This was about as far as Gadd would go in the advertisements-for-myself department, but others were glad to comment, among them modern-day drum avatar Eric Harland. Now 35, Harland states that for his senior recital in high school he modeled himself after Elvin Jones and Gadd’s playing on Chick Corea’s extended jazz suite, Three Quartets.

“I feel Steve came a lot out of Elvin, and applied it to fusion,” Harland said. “It isn’t so much about chops but the feel of the drums—solid, like earth.” Harland referenced a video—as of this writing, three versions are on Youtube—of a “drum battle” between Gadd, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta that concluded a 1989 Buddy Rich memorial concert. “Chops-wise, Steve couldn’t compete with Dave and Vinnie,” Harland says. “They get around the drums like water. But when Steve comes in, he lays down a groove that you swear you can hear people start screaming. It was so moving, he didn’t NEED to play anything else. That comes from within, like some samurai king-fu shit, where you break the laws, not with your body but your mind. In his minimalism, you get the same feeling as if you’re watching a drummer do everything humanly possible. That’s what I think amazes us. How did he make THAT feel like I’m listening to Trane playing all the baddest shit, or Tony playing the most incredible things, all over the drums?”

A drum avatar of the previous generation, Jeff Watts, checked out Gadd extensively during his ‘70s high school years, when he aspired to a career in the studios. “He became my favorite drummer for a period,” Watts says. “He struck me as really consistent, and as things unfolded, I got hip to his range, that he had his own way of playing different styles. He didn’t play textbook funk; he evoked Samba though it definitely wasn’t classic Samba. The first time I learned a mozambique, it was Steve Gadd’s interpretation of the mozambique.”

Last September at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, Watts heard Gadd play in Bob James-led band with bassist Will Lee, saxophonist David MacMurray and guitarist Perry Hughes. “On some tunes, he was playing really naked pulse, almost like something a baby would play. These days guys like Chris Dave try to imitate samples, embellishing the pulse a lot, so it was cool to hear him play just quarter-notes, but like it’s the last thing on earth.”

“Steve is all about the time,” says James Genus, fresh from playing bass alongside Gadd nightly while touring with Quartette Humaine. He describes Gadd’s feel as “in the middle or slightly behind the beat, depending what the music calls for. He can play with a click track and make it swing—precise, but not rigid, with a human, natural quality.” Sanborn adds: “At a turnaround or some other point in a tune, he’ll speed it up or slow it down a bit, just to make it breathe. But he never loses the pulse of where the click is.”

“Steve seems into understatement more than ever,” Goldings says, and Gadd agrees. “I probably played busier when I was younger,” he states. “My goal was to give whoever hired me what they wanted, so I’d get called back. I’d try busier fills—sometimes they’d like it, sometimes it was too much. But it wasn’t about ego. It was about trying to make the thing as good as it could be. It’s challenging and fun to not just go up there and play everything you know, but leave some room.”

Retrospecting on their 39-year professional relationship, which began with the 1974 CTI date One, James observes that Gadd “has stayed remarkably true to his approach.” “Steve is a virtuoso player, but he keeps his playing simple,” he says. “To me, the virtuosity comes across more in the fact that he plays every note just in the right place, the right pocket.”

For a present-day example, James cites “Follow Me” on Quartette Humaine, on which Gadd keeps “the freight train rolling through the different time signatures that appear in practically every measure, making the rest of us feel as comfortable as it would have felt in 4/4 time.” For another instance of Gadd’s derring-do, James hearkens back to One, where, confronted with a “fast, bombastic drum part that alternated between 7 and 4, with a lot of hits” on James’ arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” Gadd figured out a way “to keep the freight train intensity flowing” after a couple of hours.

Characteristically, Gadd—who feels that this recording helped cement his New York reputation—credits James for “being a great leader who knew what he wanted.” “An orchestra was overdubbing later, so we had to play with that in mind,” he says. “I had experience with odd time signatures from Eastman, and I tried to figure out a way to subdivide it, to make it feel comfortable.”


James also recalls Gadd’s legerdemain on a “repetitive, modal, atmospheric” number called “The River Returns” on the 1997 record Playin’ Hooky. “He played one of his classic brush beats that seemed to make everybody play better,” James says. “It felt great, but I couldn’t figure it out until I listened to the drum track during post-production and looked at the console needle that shows volume levels. Slowly, imperceptibly, over five minutes, it became louder and more intense. You could have made an amazing graph of its crescendo.”

Gadd’s dynamic control in live performance fascinates Sanborn, who points to the peculiar bandstand sensation of “knowing that Steve is hitting hard, but never feeling that the drums are too loud—in fact, sometimes the opposite. He has an uncanny ability to blend the sound of his drums with the group. He always does that unexpected thing that you never saw coming, always knows where he is and what to do. You never feel he’s showboating.”

“I’m always aware of dynamics and space,” Gadd says. “It’s not fun for me to start out at level-10 and stay there. It affects my endurance. It affects the creativity. Without dynamics, you give up the element of surprise. Starting simply gives you someplace to go—you can explode, then get soft again. Using space can make the notes that you play more interesting.”

When playing live, Gadd adds, he tries “to reach an agreement with the sound guys to keep a balance in the monitors so that other people on the bandstand can hear you when you’re playing soft.” He adds: “When you feel you’re not being heard, the tendency is to play loud, and the music goes right out the window. When guys who can PLAY can hear each other, the magic can take over. The more you trust the sound, the more chances you take, and it can evolve into something a little different every night. Of course, some music is meant to be played hard, at a louder volume, where you can get away with just a strong backbeat. It’s all about communicating, and understanding where you want to go with the music. You can’t give up on it. You’ve got to keep always trying.”

If a musician’s sound mirrors their personality, then Gadd’s results-oriented, team-first philosophy is of a piece with Goldings’ assessment that he is “very down to earth.” “Steve is one of the great joke-tellers, and he puts a fantastic amount of detail and personality into telling them,” Goldings says. “Perhaps that’s consistent with the amount of subtle detail in his playing. He’s also very warm, and sensitive to your moods. I had some personal things happen on the road, and every other day or so he’d ask me how things were going. I really appreciated that he wasn’t afraid of going there. He kind of cuts through the bullshit.”

Indeed, Gadd displayed these qualities with me, when I called him an hour before our scheduled time for a first conversation to ask we could push back the chat to allow me to rush my cat—who I had just come upon with the skin flayed open over his stomach—to the vet. He immediately assured me that he was available all day, and to take my time. “You’ve got to take care of your animals,” he said, noting that he himself “likes to hang out” with his five dogs—two English bulldogs, a 90-pound American bulldog-pitbull mix, a Yorkshire, and a Morky (part Maltese, part-Yorkshire). “Man, I love those guys,” he said.

Concluding our conversation five hours later, Gadd said, “I’d like you to call me and tell me how your cat is.” Is it a stretch to extrapolate this empathetic reflex to Gadd’s bandstand comportment? Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.


In Paul Simon’s excellent film, One Trick Pony, which was released in 1980, Steve Gadd plays Danny Duggin, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, blow-snorting, wisecracking, bad-ass drummer. He’s acting, and acting well, but the character reflects his lived experience.

“Those were the party years,” Gadd says of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Before the shit hit the fan and everyone went over the top with it, we had a ball. We didn’t know you could get addicted to this stuff. When I first started getting high, it was like I was trying to stay awake so I could play with these different people I’d always wanted to play with. Then at some point, it got dark. I went from using so I could work with these people to working to use, and I didn’t even know when it changed. It got more about the drugs than it did about the music.”

Now “in recovery” for about two decades, Gadd opines that his sobriety is apparent in both his playing and his state of mind. “I did things then that I can’t even remember doing,” he says. “The things that I’m doing now are more a part of my life because I feel like I’m there for them. I’m not totally numbed-out.”

Part of the routine that Gadd adopted “after I was in my forties, after I got sober,” is regular exercise. At the beginning, he spent much time in the gym, doing half-resistance and half-cardio, but now, especially when on the road, he concentrates on cardio. “I prefer getting out of the room and jogging rather than going into another small room in the hotel and using machines,” he says. “It’s nice to be outside and get some air. The resistance is important, but I don’t do as much weights now as I used to—if I had time, I would.

“Playing big venues with loud bands is a workout. You have to be in shape. The only way to really be ready for a gig like that, endurance-wise, is to exercise. You can’t practice full-out for 2½ hours. But if you run for 30 or 45 minutes or an hour, it helps you stay fit for that situation. Walking my dogs is also good exercise.”

At 68, Gadd anticipates playing at a high level into his eighties. “You have to realize that your body isn’t made of steel, and you’ve got to eat for fuel, not necessarily just things that taste good,” he says. “That can lengthen your quality of life. It could affect how you play, too. We get old, but the body is pretty resilient. It responds when you take care of it. How you treat people, how you enjoy yourself, how you play music—how you do everything—is all connected.”

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Filed under Article, Bob James, David Sanborn, Eric Harland, Jazziz, Jeff Watts, Larry Goldings, Paul Simon, Steve Gadd

For The 66th Birthday of Drum Master Thurman Barker, a WKCR Interview from 1985

When I started my 23-year run on WKCR in the fall of 1985, I made it my business to try to document the personal histories of many of the AACM musicians I had admired during the ’70s, when I lived in Chicago, and continued to follow after returning to New York City in 1979. One of them was drum-percussion master Thurman Barker, who turns 66 today. It’s been on the internet for 14 years on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

* * *

Thurman Barker
November 18, 1985 – WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1985, 1999 Ted Panken

Q: Thurman is a product of Chicago, Illinois, and a founding member from a very young age of the AACM. It’s there really that the sources of his music are to be found. So I’d like to now start to talk about your early years in the music in Chicago, when you were coming up, even before you became a member of the AACM — how you picked up on the drums and began in music.

TB: Well, I first used to take tap dancing. That was my first exposure to a form of art, you know, was tap dancing. I really got into it. Of course, I’m in grade school now, and I’m taking these tap dancing lessons about three days a week. But during my eighth year in grade school, we used to have these concerts on Fridays. They called them assemblies, you know, the drama department would put on a show or something. This particular afternoon, it was a drummer, and he came up with a full drum set, and it was just him by himself. His name was Roy Robinson, and he left a very big impression on me at that point.

So when I started high school, I started taking private lessons. I studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, under James Dutton, who was head of the percussion department there. I feel I got a very good training, because for the first two years I really didn’t see a drum set. I worked out of these workbooks for harmony and learning the basic notation of music and things like this, and just working on rudiments on the snare drum. So I really didn’t see a drum set until later on.

Q: Were you also working with musicians your age, doing gigs?

TB: Well, sure. But at this time you’ve got to remember, the first couple of years I wasn’t really playing any gigs. But I was very active on the session scene in Chicago. Monday nights were the big nights for sessions. Club De Lisa, which was a very famous night-spot in Chicago, the Coral Club on the South Side, the C.C. Lounge at 66th and Cottage Grove — a lot of these places had sessions every Monday. In any other city, probably it would work the same. You would go down, you’d meet people, you’d get up and you’d play. So I was very active, and I made sure that I got there. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of working; I just wanted to play. Fortunately, the activity was there for it to happen. I got to New York in the fall of 1979. I don’t know if that kind of activity is still going on in Chicago. But at that time it was like a training ground for me.

Q: Let’s narrow down the years we’re speaking of right now.

TB: Oh, it was ’62, ’63, in that period. You had a lot of jazz clubs that were still very big at that time, which the most famous one, where Miles Davis recorded, was the Plugged Nickel . . .

Q: Which was on the North Side.

TB: Which was on the North Side. So I got very active on the session scene. Later on I started jobbing around with people. People would meet you at a session, and they would give you a Saturday night, a party to play or a wedding. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I started working with this saxophone player by the name of John Epps. He was a big local guy in Chicago that did a lot of parties. And that was my first steady employment, I would say, from music, was with this saxophone player. We used to work at a North Side Club in Chicago; I can’t think of the name. I was still young now. I was still in high school, you see, really my sophomore year.

Q: Who were some of the musicians in Chicago who you admired at that time?

TB: Well, Eddie Harris was a big idol of mine. Because my drum teacher used to work with Eddie Harris. His name was Harold Jones, and he was the drummer with Eddie Harris at the time. And Don Patterson, the organist, was around a lot. Of course, Von Freeman was very active. But I didn’t know Von; I knew his brother, George Freeman, who was a guitarist. So during those years I was pretty much working few jobs with George, and I didn’t get to meet Von until later on.

Anyway, so I had my first employment with John Epps, and we had this four- night gig on the North Side. I made $7 a night. And that was a big deal for me. In high school . . .

Q: This was pre-OPEC.

TB: So I had this gig, and my parents, of course, were into it, because they used to have to take me there, and go back home, and three or four hours later come back and pick me up . . . So it was a reassurance, of course, for my parents that I was getting active. Of course, for them they weren’t really concerned about the money I was making, but just the fact that I was getting active at something that they had taken some money to give me music lessons, and they were beginning to see it pay off. One thing led to the other, you know.

Q: You mentioned Eddie Harris. And in 1961, he and Muhal Richard Abrams began to form a rehearsal band that eventually became the core of the Experimental Band, and that became the core of the AACM.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This is a convoluted way of asking how you first encountered the Experimental Band and got into the AACM.

TB: At this time the Experimental Band was functioning. Of course, I didn’t know, but it was functioning. And how I got to meet Muhal was, when I was in high school, one of my best friends turned out to be Muhal’s son, and he knew that I was in the band in high school. And in high school, you know, you hang out together at lunch periods, and talk. Of course, I was a little different, and he wanted to find out what I was always doing after school. I was going home practicing, you know. And he told me that his father had a band rehearsal and was a bandleader, and for me to come down and check it out. So I said, “Wow!”

So of course, I took advantage of it. One Monday night he took me down to the rehearsal. Now, at this particular time the Experimental Band was rehearsing every Monday night at [the Abraham] Lincoln Center in Chicago. Lincoln Center is one of the cultural centers on the South Side. So they were in rehearsal. And that was my first encounter of the AACM.

Q: For people who don’t know, just describe what the Experimental Band was.

TB: The Experimental Band was a band put together of a lot of musicians on the South Side, including Eddie Harris, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell, Delbert Hill . . .

Q: And Muhal, of course.

TB: Muhal, of course! The Experimental Band was a band where musicians could come together and work on their own music. At that time there was a lot of energy among the musicians I just spoke of, Roscoe and Muhal, and they were at the point that they were doing a lot of writing. They were also jobbing around in Chicago and playing gigs and everything with big bands. Morris Ellis was one of the bandleaders around at that time that a lot of us worked with.

But this was a place, though, for everybody to come together and work on some of their original compositions that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to perform. It was run very orderly. Whoever had their composition up would direct it (of course, they would explain it first). Because we’re talking about people who had really gotten up into their music, man. In fact, they had changed the music notation. They used different music notation! At that time, you had a few people who just didn’t like the . . . Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t like it, but they just had their own symbols, you know. So they had to explain this, you see.

And of course, this was very different for me, because I’m a kid. For me, it was something really different and brand-new, you know. And I got such a big charge out of the fact that these people, not only was the music different, but they were serious about it. I mean, they could explain what they had on paper, and they had a feeling about what they were explaining and what they were doing.

Q: So you had musicians of different predispositions coming together in a rather unique situation. . .

TB: It was very unique!

Q: What do you think were some of the forces in Chicago that enabled this? Is it possible for you to say?

TB: Well, yeah. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were equal in terms of coming and discovering new ideas and new concepts of expressing and writing music. It’s funny how it seemed to all happen with everybody at once, you see. The period that I knew of was ’65. That was my first year of visiting the Experimental Band. So I think a lot of it had to do with, well, gee, nobody had any big record contract or nobody had 20 tours looking at him . . .

Q: It took some of the pressure off.

TB: It really did, I think. And the fact that we were all there together, and we were all equal in terms of discovering these new ideas. So there was no interference, I guess.

Q: Also there wasn’t that much work in Chicago at that time, was there?

TB: There wasn’t that much work.

Q: The urban renewal on the South Side.

TB: That’s true.

Q: The organ trios had changed.

TB: A lot of the clubs. . So it did affect the music. So right there at the Lincoln Center we were able to just start sharing these ideas, and it was like school, you know. Because I used to come down to rehearsal, and here was Henry Threadgill, Vandy Harris, Roscoe Mitchell and Delbert Hill, the first time I heard a saxophone quartet. I never even thought of it. Then I came down and hear these guys, four of them in a corner, going over these quartets, and it was just great! It was just something that I hadn’t seen.

But sure, I think a lot of the fact that it was easy for us to come together, there wasn’t a lot of work happening at that time, and it was just the opportune time for us to come together.

Q: Within the rehearsal band, there were different configurations and smaller groups that developed. I know you were playing with Joseph Jarman, and in 1967 you did your first records with Joseph Jarman and Muhal.

TB: That’s right, Joseph Jarman. Song For.

Q: Tell us how you met Joseph, and some of the connections with Joseph and with Muhal.

TB: Well, Joseph was right there in the woodwind section in the Experimental Band. Of course, he had a composition. Of course, by me going to school at the Conservatory, see, I had been introduced to playing mallets, like for tom- toms and tympany, you see. So he had a chart for mallets, you see. So we went through this chart, and he was a little amazed maybe, surprised that I had a touch for playing.

Q: You could play the charts.

TB: Yeah, I could play the charts. I could read.

Q: Your rudiments were very developed.

TB: Yeah, they were pretty developed at that point, that I could read, you see. And he had music; I mean, music for the drums. Of course, I had played all these other gigs with people, and there was no music. I would just go up and play. But here I come down to the Experimental Band, and these guys not only have music for the brass and woodwinds; they’ve got a chart for me. So that was in itself different.

But anyway, after the chart he came over and told me how much he really liked the sound, and what I was into. And I told him that, well, I would like to play some music, I’m not playing with anybody. So he asked me to come down and start rehearsing with his group. So I would get down on a Monday early. At that time in the Experimental Band there was a bassist by the name of Charles Clark. He was a very exceptional player, and he also was in the string section in the Experimental Band. Obviously, Charles had done some playing with Joseph before, because I could see that they knew each other, see. And Fred Anderson, a saxophonist in Chicago, also was in the woodwind section. So when I got to our first rehearsal, well, Fred Anderson was there, Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter who lives in Evanston, and Charles Clark and Joseph and myself.

Q: Was Christopher Gaddy on that also?

TB: And Christopher Gaddy, who was an exceptional keyboard player at the time. But we were all at this rehearsal, and that was the first time that I had got together with some people who were really playing some serious music, and I could see that it was just different. So I really wanted to be a part of that, you know.

Q: Let’s hear “Adam’s Rib” from the first LP on which you participated, Joseph Jarman’s Song For. Say something about the LP.

TB: First of all, I was going to say that after four or five months of getting really active with Joseph and playing some gigs around Chicago and the Experimental Band, the surprising thing came up one day that Joseph said, “Look, we’ve got a record date.”

Q: Had you been gigging? A few jobs here and there?

TB: We had a few gigs here and there. And it’s funny, my only experience with gigs were in clubs. All of a sudden, I look up and we’re playing in a bookstore. So immediately I knew that this music was going to take me in a different place. It was different, and it was exciting, you see. So just to make a long story short, I looked up one day, after I’d known Joseph four or five months I look up, and there I am in a studio making my very first record.

Q: Do you think that Song For is representative of the music that Joseph was doing at the time with the group?

TB: Yes, it is. Because the music that you’re about to hear is the music that we were playing during this period, and this is 1967 in Chicago.

[Music: “Adam’s Rib”; example of TB’S percussion music; Muhal Richard Abrams, “The Bird Song”]

TB: This is the stuff that was going in Chicago during this period.

Q: Programmatic music of all idioms.

TB: That’s true. Of course, during this time, we were doing this in clubs! We didn’t only do concerts at Abraham Lincoln Center.

Q: There were concerts at the University of Chicago campus.

TB: That’s true. There were a lot of concerts. I can remember most Fridays there were concerts at the University of Chicago. Also, the Student Union there used to put on a lot of concerts that the AACM members participated in. So we had some people that liked this music, and supported it, and wanted it to be heard.

Q: Meanwhile, the big band was still functioning.

TB: The Big Band was functioning every Monday. And believe me, no matter what happened, we all made that Monday night available for the Experimental Band. Because hey, that was the time that somebody got their music played, and that was a real serious and big deal then.

Q: Is Levels And Degrees of Light in any way representative of what was going on in the Big Band?

TB: Yes, it is. Because in the Big Band we had people like Henry Threadgill. Well, you know Henry, he’s really into theatre, you see. So for him to use the Big Band and use some recitation and some theatre, and be able to combine it, he definitely was one who would do it — and of course, Muhal. And Joseph was doing a lot of theatrical material. A lot of stuff.

So this was all a brand-new experience for me, and I had never seen it anywhere else. Of course, by the time of this recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees Of Light, my second record, I am really involved musically and, you know, as a group. I really felt I wanted to be a part of this movement here that was happening.

Q: I neglected to ask you about some of your musical influences outside the Chicago music scene? Who were some of the tough drummers who you thought well of?

TB: Well, the first guy that stands out is Cozy Cole. Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me, because in that period Cozy Cole made a solo 45 called “Topsy.” That was the very first drum solo that I memorized, beat for beat and rhythm for rhythm. I mean, I got that down. Because it just had a lot of emotion in it. So Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me at that time.

Also Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer with Cannonball Adderley. And of course, my drum teacher, Harold Jones. During the latter part of the ’60s there was a TV show that used to come on an educational station in Chicago, WTTW, a program that used to come on once a week called “Jazz Casual.” This was my first time actually seeing the music on TV. Of course, Ed Sullivan and all them people were on TV, but the band never really got featured. But here was a TV show that featured music, you see. So I was influenced a lot by, of course, Philly Joe Jones, Roy McCurdy with Cannonball, and Elvin Jones, who was with John Coltrane’s Quartet. I saw the original quartet on this show “Jazz Casual.” The host of the show I think was Ralph Gleason. Anyway, he ran this show once a week, and I saw Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, the pianist Bill Evans.

Now, these people were coming to Chicago, but I could not get in the clubs. There was this one club that they used to play at called McKie’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove, right there by the El. The El train is the elevated train that runs in Chicago, for those who don’t know. But I used to catch there right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I used to pass by this club, and I would see these names in big letters: The John Coltrane Quartet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins. And this was the club.

Q: And cats would be jamming there.

TB: Of course they might be jamming there.

Q: Gene Ammons might be strolling by and give a lesson for out-of-towners.

TB: That’s right!

Q: Were you playing in venues outside the AACM? Were you playing classical music at this time? I know you said you studied at the Conservatory.

TB: Well, mainly it was private training and ensemble classes at that time. At this time, ’66, ’67, ’68, those three years, most of my activity was with the AACM, with Muhal and Joseph Jarman. Those three years most of my activity was that. And we got some gigs!

Q: You went to Detroit, for instance, in 1967 and ran into John Sinclair.

TB: Yeah, exactly. John Sinclair was an organizer in Detroit who used to organize concerts at Wayne State University, and one year, I think it was ’67, he got us a big gig at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. And you know, this is my first big out-of-town gig now. Joseph Jarman, the late Christopher Gaddy, the late Charles Clark, and myself on drums. So this music that we’re hearing on Delmark is a very good representation of the music scene in Chicago.

Q: And you’ve filled us in most thoroughly on things that were happening.

TB: I hope so.

Q: We’ll progress now and move to events that happened later. TB: Sure. As If It Were The Seasons, that was my third album at this time. This was a session that was put together by Joseph Jarman. We have Charles Clark on bass and cello, myself on all kinds of drums, a vocalist named Sherri Scott, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and oboe, a very good flutist who really never got any attention named Joel Brandon, and Fred Anderson is on tenor sax, John Stubblefield, who has a big feature here, is also on tenor sax, and the late John Jackson on trumpet and Lester Lashley on trombone. This composition is written by Joseph Jarman, entitled “Song For Christopher.”

Q: Everything changed in Chicago after 1969, because that’s when Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall and the Art Ensemble left for Europe.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This, of course, would have had its effect on Thurman, who was still a very young musician.

TB: Well, Joseph in ’68 had gotten involved with the Art Ensemble, and they were really into some intensive rehearsals. So boom, there I was, the late Charles Clark had died, the late Christopher Gaddy had died — and these two people were like my brothers; we did everything together. So it was a real lonely period for me, because Joseph now, you could say the quartet had broke up, and Joseph had joined forces with the Art Ensemble . . .

Q: They were lacking a drummer, however. Did the possibility of your performing with them ever come up?

TB: Yes, it did. And it came up at a bad time. And I swear, it’s one of the biggest mistakes that I regret in my life. Because the group had gone to Europe, and you know, they were pioneering some areas. They didn’t have anything really guaranteed, and they had been to Europe for a few years now. We’re talking about the years 1970-’71. So they were in Europe. But at this time, I had gotten involved with theatre, you see. In 1968 I started doing the Broadway production of Hair. Q: As a musician?

TB: As a musician. I got a call, and I was playing percussion, okay, so the Broadway show Hair was in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre — and I looked up, and there I was in theatre now.

Q: With a good union job!

TB: With a good union job! And see, that was a big deal for me. See, my father is a retired union man, so he was very pleased and very happy. So here I was working downtown at the Schubert Theatre at this time, doing Hair. That job lasted two years, from 1968 to 1970.

Q: Naturally, you didn’t want to leave that for the insecurity of roaming Europe.

TB: Well, of course. So what happened was, I get this call in the wee hours of the morning, something like two or three o’clock in the morning, and it’s from overseas — and this was Roscoe Mitchell. And Roscoe Mitchell expressed, “Well, look, T-Bird. . .” That was a nickname that came from Roscoe. He calls me T-Bird, and now it caught on, and everybody calls me that, now, you see. But he gave me that name. And he said, “Look, we’ve been over here working, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot, and we would like for you to join the Art Ensemble.” So of course, the first thing I said was, “Well, look, do you have any gigs?” And Roscoe was really honest. He said, “Well, no, we don’t have any gigs, and we don’t know where our next gig is, but we’re working on some things that we’re pioneering, some new areas.” So I said, “Well, look, I’ve got a gig; I’m doing this show” — and I never knew! Well, I had this full-time job, and I didn’t think I should leave it.

Q: It happened to a lot of musicians in Chicago, what happened to you.

TB: Yeah! So I said, look, I couldn’t make it, but I would like to join them if they got back into town. So Roscoe said, “Okay, I understand.” And the next thing I knew, months and months up the road,they came back.

Q: They came back in ’71.

TB: They came back in ’71, and they had Don Moye.

Q: That was that.

TB: That was that. I kissed that gig goodbye, and that was that.

Q: What else was happening as far as gigs in Chicago after they left for Europe? You were playing with Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]?

TB: I was playing with Kalaparusha, and I was doing a few gigs with Leroy Jenkins now. He was still there, you see, after the Art Ensemble had cut out and everything. So we had these gigs at clubs on the South Side. I’m trying to think of the names of some of these places; it’s been so long. But George Freeman, Leroy Jenkins, myself, and. . .

Q: George Freeman playing the AACM type of music?

TB: Yeah, he was into it. He plays guitar, and that was the first time that I saw guitar into the music.

Q: Was Cosey doing. . .

TB: [Guitarist] Pete Cosey was doing a few things. At this time, Pete along Sherri Scott. . .

Q: Who played with Earth, Wind and Fire . . .

TB: At that time she was rehearsing with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was getting the band off the ground. They were doing a lot of rehearsing.

But mostly in this period I had really gotten involved in theatre. Not saying that the AACM was not functioning. It was still going on. It was just that we were still doing our concert series. . . You know, a lot of people had left, like the Art Ensemble, but at the same time we were recruiting new blood. Like Douglas Ewart, who came in at that time. So we were getting new blood, and the organization was still moving on along with the times.

Q: And the Big Band was still functioning.

TB: And the Big Band was still functioning. And you’ve got to remember, even though we had this concert series happening, we were very, very supported by the community which we lived in and participated in. And I think that was one of the main differences between then and now, was the fact that. . .

Q: In New York City.

TB: Yeah, but . . .

Q: But then in New York City as well. I think New York City is just not that type of town.

TB: It just isn’t that type of town. And at that time in Chicago, we were very well supported by the community. And we used to even go outside and play outside and jam. I don’t know, this was with Muhal, Muhal would bring his clarinet out, and Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Kalaparusha, Charles Clark — We used to take our instruments out there in Jackson Park, which is a large park on the South Side, and just sit out there and play. For me it was like a rehearsal. Maybe for people like Roscoe and maybe Muhal, maybe they were thinking of, “Well, this is a way of getting this new music out to the people.” See, for me at the time, I had a comfortable gig, and I was getting gigs, and I was playing some music, and I was active.

Q: So you were active in theatre throughout the ’70s, is that it?

TB: Most of the ’70s.

Q: What made you decide to return to performing creative music, then? And let’s talk about some of the circumstances that led you to return actively to the scene.

TB: Well, one thing was that after playing in theatre, I had learned a great deal. Number one, I learned how to play with a conductor. I learned how to play in a section. Because in theatre, not only do you have a trap drummer, but you have two or three percussion players. And a lot of my training, and a lot of music that I was studying at that time, I’m having an opportunity to really try out now. But I learned a lot in the pit orchestra. And one of the main things was being able to play in a section.

So after, say, 1975-’76, I started getting back to the AACM, into that music. Because I had gotten all of this training, you see. And for the first time, I felt like I wanted to add something to the music of Muhal and to the music of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe, or whoever was doing something. The music took on a new meaning for me at this time, because I had the years from ’71 to ’75 to really think about all the music that I had performed in the late ’60s with Muhal and everybody. Because at the time I was performing it, I really had on clear idea of this new music, you see.

Q: I can think of an analogy. In the 1950’s, and in the ’60s, for that matter, a lot of musicians after their initial apprenticeships in the Army, and got their rudiments very much together in the Army by playing all the time.

TB: That’s true.

Q: And it sounds like this theatre job performed a similar function for you.

TB: It really did. And I was just able to sort of get a clearer understanding about the music. And keep in mind, I’m still studying, I’m practicing very hard. . . So when I returned in ’75, that was really a very progressive year for the organization, because everyone had really gone out and developed their personal concepts.

Q: George Lewis had hit the scene . . .

TB: George Lewis hit the scene in that year. So it was like a revitalization of everything, you know. And I think especially the Art Ensemble, Muhal, Jenkins, they all had had a taste of getting their music performed and recorded, and gotten a taste of the business, gotten a taste of the music scene outside of Chicago. Because you’ve got to remember, before that time nobody had left Chicago.

Q: And that was a time when musicians from all over the country began converging on New York.

TB: Exactly. Now, I must get in here that during the early Seventies, like ’72 and ’73, there was a collaboration of musicians from St. Louis, like for instance, Oliver Lake. Oliver Lake had formed a new music organization I think called X-BAG . . . I think that’s it; I’m not sure. But I do remember that there was a collaboration with the St. Louis musicians.

Q: I remember Julius Hemphill was coming to Chicago in the ’70s.

TB: Exactly. Julius Hemphill. We’re talking about Oliver Lake, we’re talking about Charles Bobo Shaw, Baikida Carroll. Who else?

Q: Joseph Bowie.

TB: Joseph Bowie, of course. So the AACM members even went to St. Louis. And they produced a concert in collaboration with both groups, and also we did the same thing for X-BAG, and Oliver Lake and Baikida and everybody came from St. Louis to Chicago to participate in a concert series that we did. And that was a real strong thing that happened in ’71 and ’72, or so.

Q: Let’s get back to some music.

TB: I was going to go with some more of my percussion duet record.

[Music from Muhal Richard Abrams, LifeaBlinec, “JoDoTh”]

Q: Now we’re in 1978, and in 1978 Thurman joined Anthony Braxton’s working band.

TB: That’s right.

Q: That was a very tight band.

TB: Yeah, it was. It really began in 1977. Anthony Braxton had come to Chicago, and I guess at that time he had just broke up the quartet that he had with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and George Lewis that was his working band, they’d made some records for Arista. There was an AACM Festival I remember at McCormack Place.

Q: I remember that. Braxton played a gig all on clarinets, with you and Malachi Favors.

TB: He played a gig all on clarinets. And part of that concert was a quartet with Leroy Jenkins on violin, Leonard Jones on bass, Anthony and myself. After that concert, Braxton asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I was just thrilled. I was ready. So that’s the beginning of how that started. We went out. That was the fall of 1977. I remember my very first gig with the quartet out of town was the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival, which was in Philadelphia, I think. And that was my first big out of town gig with the Braxton Quartet. I must say, at that same time Ray Anderson also was very new in the band.

Q: Another Chicagoan.

TB: So Ray Anderson and myself were the new members of the quartet in 1977, and Mark Helias had joined the quartet a few months prior, so he had already played a few gigs. But for Ray Anderson and myself, the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival was our first gig.

Q: How did you like playing with Braxton? What’s the relationship of his music to a drummer, in some sense?

TB: Well, it was really interesting, because Braxton had a way, first of all, of notating his music. He gave me the same part that Ray Anderson had or that Braxton had, see. That was one of the big differences, see. It wasn’t a drum part. It was a part that everybody else had. So now for the time in playing improvised music, I could not only create my own drum part, but I could follow along with all the other instruments to see what they were doing. So it was exciting, it was different. In a way, it was a lot easier for me to adapt to his music, because this was, I would say, my first feeling how jazz and classical music could mix together. This was my first introduction. Because a lot of Braxton’s music had these sounds and compositions that were very close to classical music for me. So for the first time now, with all that training that I watched the percussion players play in the orchestra pits in Chicago, and watching my percussion teacher at the Conservatory. . . For the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the knowledge and strokes, and the finesse and touch on my drum set playing jazz.

Q: Did Braxton produce a lot of new music during that time?

TB: He was writing a lot during this time. And I think the way the band was going. . . I know we used to travel a lot. And he would be so occupied with turning out compositions every day, just for this band . . .

Q: And he’d play them on the stand that night?

TB: He’d play them on the stand that night.

Q: Nice for Braxton, to have a band like that.

TB: It was great for Braxton! I hope he had his ASCAP and all that stuff together. But it was great for me, for everybody, because we were not only playing some new music, but we were working, we were out on the road, and we had an opportunity to perform it that night, and to see how it would go for the first time.

So for me, for the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the percussion concept on traps. All those years with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, I didn’t really know how to. . . I mean, this music was brand-new. I was trying to find my way, you see. One thing about Muhal and Joseph at this time, one thing they did give me, and that was a lot of support. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — I was trying. But they gave me a lot of support. But by the time ’77 came around, I had a pretty clear idea about how I wanted to perform and how I wanted to construct.

Q: You were a mature musician at this time.

TB: Yeah, of course. Now I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played a whole bunch of gigs, and I’ve learned a lot. And believe me, that’s the best training you can get, is right there on the bandstand.

Q: Just playing.

TB: That’s true.

[Music: Braxton Quartet, “W6-4N-R6-AH0”]

TB: That recording was done while the quartet was on tour, so it was a real special time for me. Even though I had recorded with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, it was a very good time for me. Because to record with Anthony Braxton who at that time had risen to be a very popular figure in new music, and number two, he had a record contract at the time, so that was a little different.

Q: And later that year you recorded with Sam Rivers.

TB: That’s right. What happened was that the AACM gave its first concert on New York territory in 1976, right here at Columbia University. We were able to perform our first jazz festival right here in New York. And in the audience, of course, was Mr. Sam Rivers. I had performed with some of the groups and with the Big Band. So Sam was in the audience — and this was in ’76.

A few years later, I get this call right out of the blue. It was Sam Rivers, and he was asking me to come to New York and to make a record. Of course I was floored! I said, “Sure, when are the rehearsals and when can we get together, because I need to learn your music.” He said, “Look, we’ll just rehearse in the studio. But can you be here by this particular date?” I said, “No problem.” So my very first contact with Sam Rivers was in the studio, and we made the record that we are about to hear called Waves on Tomato Records. Of course, I am now very familiar with Sam Rivers in terms off what he’s done, and all the Blue Note records that he appeared on with Andrew Hill and Tony Williams — the early Blue Note dates.

Q: Not to mention that he had used Braxton’s previous bass and drums.

TB: Exactly. Now here I go, I’m beginning to think that I’m in a circle here, because somehow Anthony Braxton’s rhythm section went with Sam Rivers — and we’re speaking of Barry Altschul and Dave Holland. At the time I joined Sam, Dave Holland was still there. This recording features Joe Daley on brass, Dave Holland on bass and cello, and myself on drums and percussion, and Sam Rivers. Like I say, I was really back, because this was my first contact with Dave Holland and Sam, and here I am getting ready to make a record. So it was quite a special event for me.

[Music: S. Rivers, “Surge”]

Q: Thurman, you played a gig this past weekend in Boston with Sam Rivers as guest artist.

TB: Exactly. It was my gig. I was able to get two nights at a club in Boston called Charlie’s Tap, Friday and Saturday, the Thurman Barker Trio featuring Sam Rivers. Anyway, I had an opportunity to be able to join forces with an artist who I was able to learn a lot of music from, and we played a lot of gigs. As a matter of fact, after the Waves record, we went on tour. Contrasts was also done while we were on tour. Sam did spend a lot of time in Boston, studying at the New England Conservatory, and then throughout the ’50s.

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Drummer, Interview, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Thurman Barker, WKCR

For Billy Hart’s Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2007

Billy Hart, known to some as Jabali, is 73 years young today. I’ve appended below the full proceedings of a Blindfold Test he did with me six years. In 2012, Jazz Times gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on the maestro; two years ago, I posted a review of his Steeplechase recording Sixty-Eight and included an excerpt from my liner notes for the 1997 Arabesque date, Oceans of Time.

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Billy Hart Blindfold Test:

1.  Jimmy Cobb, “Green Dolphin Street” (from WEST OF FIFTH, Chesky, 2006) (Hank Jones, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)

It’s somebody like me. I might even say Billy Drummond, who’s younger than me. But somebody that’s like me. It doesn’t seem like it’s Al Foster, and it doesn’t seem like Kenny Washington or someone like that. It’s more like Billy Drummond or that kind of player. It’s just the sound of it. For  me, it would be somebody who heard Tony Williams but also liked Vernell Fournier. Of course I like it, because I understand it. He’s playing in a way I would play. From the left hand, the  piano player sounds like a younger guy. When I say “younger guy” – ha-ha – I’m talking about somebody my age, like Hicks (though I don’t think it was Hicks) or Stanley Cowell (and I don’t think it was him) or Kenny Barron (but I’m sure it wasn’t Kenny Barron). Somebody in that vibe. The bass player had some chops. I’d be curious about who the bass player is. For the moment, I don’t recognize it. It was well done. It didn’t sound like they put a lot of time in it. It was just something that they could do, but it was well done. Everybody could play. When I say “Play,” it means they have a good traditional base, a good foundation. I liked everybody for that. 5 stars. Jimmy Cobb!! I should know Jimmy Cobb. That sounded a little light for Jimmy Cobb for me. Perhaps it’s the way it was miked. But then again, for certain kinds of those things, Jimmy Cobb is an influence. He influenced Tony Williams. Let me hear that again. No, I would have never guessed it was Jimmy Cobb. That’s not what he sounds like to me. A couple of the things that I thought somebody might have heard Tony Williams, now I think it’s the influence Jimmy Cobb had on Tony. I could have guessed Christian. [DRUMS PLAY FOURS] See, that’s obviously a Philly Joe influence which Jimmy Cobb has. But for what I know Jimmy Cobb to do, what I would recognize, I didn’t hear anything that’s… Nor Hank Jones. I would not have recognized him. I thought I would know Hank Jones’ sound. I made 6 records with him. I’m influenced by Jimmy Cobb! As much as I thought I knew Jimmy, I’ve got some more to listen to. Hank is phenomenal. That he can sound that modern. What made me think he was a modern guy is his left hand, and I know from playing with him that he’s got at least four generations of jazz vocabulary in him. He can do that in a tune.

2.  Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, “Water, Water, Water” (from Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, DUO PALINDROME 2002, Vol. 2, Intakt, 2002) (Cyrille, drums, composer; Braxton, alto saxophone)

Is that just one drummer? Yes? Ha! I don’t know who it is, but it’s interesting to talk about it. Somebody who can do what this guy is doing (by the way, of course I like this very much) would be Blackwell. But I’m thinking Blackwell, who is somebody who can do that, but then, a guy who liked Blackwell was a guy named Eddie Moore. After that, it’s a whole host of people, like Don Moye, who would do that. Maybe Andrew Cyrille. The saxophone sounds so familiar, like Roscoe Mitchell. 4 stars.Cyrille is an unsung hero for understanding and being enthusiastic for what I think is really a world music viewpoint, realizing the function of African- and Indian-related musics, before it got to be so academic. He’s one of the heros of that, as were, strangely enough, a lot of avant-garde players. I think of Milford Graves and Don Moye in that vibe also — world music intellects. That’s what I like about Blackwell, of course. I feel that same way about people like Bill Stewart and Jeff Ballard, too. They have a strong interest in and are very enthusiastic about world music, especially in terms of Indian and African traditional musics.

3.   Ari Hoenig, “Anthropology” (from INVERSATIONS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Hoenig, drums, Jean-Michel Pilc, piano; Johannes Weidenmuller, bass)

[FOUR BARS] [LAUGHS] Is that Ari Hoenig? I think of Ari with Kenny Werner and Jean-Michel Pilc. But of course, I know him to be already a huge influence on emerging drummers. He’s not really doing it on this piece, but he’s a guy who I think is approaching this world music, just more academically. He’s figuring it out. Because of that, there are a lot of people who can be influenced by him. What made me laugh is that I know that he, as well as Lewis Nash, likes to play the melodies of bebop tunes on the drums, which is very enjoyable for me. I love hearing drummers do that. Especially them, because they’ve spent time working it out. As a teacher, one of the first things I ask my students to do is to play “Anthropology” on the drums. Any student of mine who heard this would think it was one of my students that I had assigned that project to. Is Pilc playing piano? Man, I should know more about Pilc. It’s one of the contemporary guys that I think is approaching this music in a more academic way. In other words, they weren’t there, but they’ve received what I consider traditional information…what’s a better phrase… Classical music.It’s people like them who make classical music. [How do you mean that?] They’re part of the evolution of the music. That’s all. It’s obvious that they’ve studied the music and have tried to bring it forward, or naturally bring it forward just from their natural understanding of it. Pilc is French, he’s European, so he brings that to it. It’s not going to be James P. Johnson or Horace Silver, but he brings a contemporary… I think of it as a contemporary sound that’s influential in today’s music. 4½ stars. I think the music is important. Is the bassist Moutin? Weidenmuller? That’s interesting. Pilc with KennyWerner’s bass and drummer. That means that Ari and Weidenmuller have become a team.

4.  Herlin Riley, “Need Ja Help” (from CREAM OF THE CRESCENT, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Riley, drums, composer; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Lewis, piano; Reginald Veal, bass)

The first thing I notice is what I would consider an obvious Duke Ellington influence. Now, who besides Duke Ellington would have a Duke Ellington influence, besides everybody… Who that would be, I don’t know yet. Except I can’t think of Duke having a bass player like that. But then that brings up Mingus, too, but I don’t think that’s Mingus either. It’s not Duke, which makes me think it’s someone from the guys who play with Wynton like Herlin Riley and Wycliffe Gordon. Duke is a huge influence on these people. I love Duke Ellington, too. The drums make me think of Sonny Greer, especially that period of time when Sonny Greer was the drummer. It is Herlin and Wycliffe?  Who’s the bass player? Reginald Veal? He’s not playing with them any more, right. It means Ali Jackson could have been the drummer, too, but… Herlin is very recognizable for certain things. First of all, he’s a New Orleans drummer, and for me, all the New Orleans drummers have a special badge. They’re born with another understanding of the original jazz drum language. So Herlin not only is a great example of that, but he’s a great creative drummer, and how he uses his knowledge of the tradition is very inspiring to me. 4½ stars. The pianist was Eric Lewis: If you’d said Eric Reed or Marcus Roberts, I’d have expected, but Eric Lewis could go in there!

5.   Francisco Mela, “Parasuayo” (from MELAO, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mela, drums, voice; George Garzone, tenor saxophone; Nir Felder, electric guitar & effects; Leo Genovese, fender rhodes, keyboard; Peter Slavov, bass)

Hmm, there it is again; the New Orleans tradition of drumming, the funeral march and funeral dirge. Whoops! There’s some contemporary sounds around it. Whoops! So this is like Cuban tradition with contemporary… Oh! I mean, this is the age of academic… I wish I could think of a better word. Now my guess would be somebody like David Sanchez, someone who is interested in or has knowledge of the Cuban tradition or Afro-Caribbean tradition, but is a contemporary player at the same time. It’s the drummer’s record?! That opens it up. I’ve been hearing about this drummer who I haven’t heard play live yet, Francisco Mela. I’ve heard, first of all, he’s from Cuba, but also he’s been playing with Kenny Barron, and to me, to be able to play with Kenny Barron, you have to have a pretty good knowledge of the North American tradition, and if he’s from Cuba, it means he automatically has a knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean tradition. That makes me think he’s extraordinary. Not only that he’s extraordinary, but also if there’s an academic tradition coming out of North America, people like Ari Hoenig, then it’s also coming out of Cuba, because I’m also interested in Dafnis Prieto — who I would have guessed next — for the same reasons. The world is smaller now. You can almost not separate North America from South America any more, because the North Americans study the South American tradition, and obviously, the South Americans study the North American traditions. That’s the way I want to play! It is Mela? I was lucky again. I’d better to listen to him. Because he listens to me. He comes to my gigs. I never heard a Cuban drummer get that far away from the Cuban tradition. I can’t tell who the saxophone player is. George Garzone! Really. I thought I knew Garzone, too. It’s strange, because I picked Sanchez because I like that he plays so lyrically. That’s the reason why I wouldn’t have said Garzone, who I love. 5 stars. I went to one of my favorite Afro-Cuban drummers… When I teach, one of my first assignments, besides that “Anthropology” thing, is to study and learn the second line. Unless you’re from New Orleans, that’s one thing that most of us don’t get naturally. So their assignment is to study the second line. And the way I describe the second line, my rationalization for it is that the second line is the direct translation of African rhythm through the Afro-Caribbean to the invention of the drumset. So by you saying Idris, who is a New Orleans musician, it really sounds like… But that’s what I feel.

6.   Brian Blade, “The Midst of Chaos” (from Edward Simon, UNICITY, CamJazz, 2006) (Simon, piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

So many of these things remind me of the way I would like to play. This could be…it could be… It could be me! But it isn’t, obviously. But obviously, it’s somebody who was influenced a lot by Tony Williams. So it could be any of a number of people between Bill Stewart and Billy Drummond. Whoever the drummer is, I like his touch very much. Whoever this is likes Roy Haynes, too. But so do I. It sounds so familiar; I’m thinking something will give it away. Wow, I really like the drummer. The pianist sounds Chick-influenced to me. Sounds like a great modern piano trio. 5 stars. Brian Blade! Whoa! I thought about Patitucci. I thought about Blade. But Blade is tricky, man. He’s a Louisiana drummer, and for me that’s close enough—he’s like a New Orleans drummer to me. But I think of him as more influenced…more of a… If you could be influenced by Elvin and Tony, I think of him as more influenced by Elvin, but here I heard more of a Tony influence. Again, it reminds me of me, of the way I want to play. Off the record, I have some students who loved him, early on. In fact, they had heard him with his band. I thought, man, this here’s one of the first cats besides Jeff Watts that obviously has put a band together that’s similar to a band that I would put together—if you think of my band with Kikoski and Mark Feldman and Dave Fiuczynski.  I asked him, “Man, what is it about Brian that you like so much?” He said, “It’s the way he influences the music. He influences the music the way you do, Billy.” Here I’m hearing it. I didn’t hear it so much before because I thought of him more as an Elvin influence. But here he sounds like the way I would play—if I could. It’s incredible that he can go that far in different spectrums.  I think of Lewis Nash as being able to go that far. But if you think of the way he plays on Norah Jones’ record or the way he plays Wayne’s music… I mean, I sort of thought I knew him. But this shows a side that I wasn’t that familiar with. I’m obviously extremely impressed with his musicality, as most people are.

7.  Joe Farnsworth, “The Lineup” (from One For All, THE LINEUP, Sharp-9, 2006) (Joe Farnsworth, drums; David Hazeltine, piano, composer; Steve Davis, trombone; Jim Rotondi, trumpet; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; John Webber, bass)

My first thought is somebody’s listened to the Art Blakey band when Freddie and Wayne were on it, and of course, my next thought is One For All—Farnsworth and those guys. Farnsworth is another guy that I think of as academic, but he’s chosen more the Billy Higgins, Philly Joe, Kenny Washington, and — something that I know personally about him — Jimmy Lovelace school of drumming, which of course, for me, is classical music in every sense. I mean, the highest level. It’s pristine. It has a sort of perfection. I mean, how can you talk about Higgins and not talk about perfection? Same thing for me about Jimmy Lovelace, whom most people don’t talk about. It’s Higgins, it’s Philly Joe, which is sort of…well, pristine is the… Poetry in motion. A beautiful touch. I have to love the piece because it reminds me of the music that I’m most familiar with. I grew up on this music. I grew up on Art Blakey. I grew up on Max Roach. I grew up on Philly Joe. I think it’s well-done. But of course, it’s not Art Blakey, as great as it is. And I don’t think it can get any better than they’re doing it unless it was Art Blakey.  4½ stars.    [Do you think it’s imitative?] You didn’t ask that question. [Well, I could.] When I say “academic,” that’s what I mean? Let’s not say imitative. Let’s call it interpretive. If you’ve still got a Count Basie Orchestra, if you’ve still got a Duke Ellington Orchestra, then you’ve got an Art Blakey Orchestra with Philly Joe and Billy Higgins sitting in. But it’s so well done, it’s so enjoyable to listen to, and it brings back fond memories. I know how they feel playing that. I know how I enjoy listening to it.

8.  Jack DeJohnette, “Seven Eleven” (from Chris Potter, UNSPOKEN, Concord, 1997) (Potter, tenor saxophone; John Scofield, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; DeJohnette, drums)

Now, for me, as much as I may not understand this, this is exciting to me. It sounds like a certain area of new music to me. Offhand, I don’t know who it is, but the saxophone player sounds like Chris Potter. So it would be whatever drummers play with him, whether it’s Clarence Penn or Nate Smith or Billy Kilson. It’s hard to say who it sounds like, though. I want to say Bill Stewart, but then, on the other hand, one of the things about Bill Stewart is that he sounds something like Jack DeJohnette to me, so then I hear Jack. Some of it sounds a lot like Jack to me, too. I can’t really hear the bass. But the drummer reminds me of Jack. I think of Jack like I think of Roy Haynes. Even though because he’s my age group, I can hypothesize his influences, but Jack to me sounds like Jack. So if this isn’t Jack, it’s somebody who sounds like Jack. The bass player is Dave Holland? Whoa! I should have known that. But I couldn’t hear that. But the first thing it sounds like to me is when Elvin was playing with John for Atlantic. It has that Atlantic drum sound. Whose record date is it? Chris? Is that Scofield? See, I know those guys! It’s interesting how much Bill Stewart has copped from Jack. Jack used to tell me, “Stewart, he’s a good little drummer.” [Not so easy to cop from Jack.] It sure isn’t. But Jack is Jack. I think I know some of his influences because they’re my influences, too. It’s again Tony and Elvin and Roy Haynes (that’s off the record). But for me, he’s one of the few cats who he is him. I’m sure Baby Dodds had influences. 5 stars. Man, I got a lot of records, a lot of CDs, and I don’t think you’ve played one record that I have. I read a lot of Blindfold Tests, and a lot of guys will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a record I have; oh, yeah, that’s so-and-so, I remember when I heard it.” You haven’t played anything I’ve heard before. Am I listening to the wrong things? You haven’t played one that I’ve heard.

9.  Brad Mehldau, “Granada” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

I like this. I’m just trying to think of who it is. Again, so much of this stuff sounds like me! Isn’t that out? I’m at the age where I think everything sounds like me. Except, of course, that I know it’s not me. It’s the way I would like to play it, the way I would like to do it. In a lot of today’s so-called contemporary jazz, where you see a world music approach, or the influence of more cultures than just the American, then obviously, a lot of this kind of music is prevalent now. As a drummer, or musician, I call it straight-eighth or eighth-note music, or Latin-influenced or whatever. Now, who plays like that? The first thing that came to my mind, strangely enough, was Jeff Ballard. As I said, I can tell that he and Bill Stewart are students of African and Afro-Caribbean music. I can tell that they’re enthusiasts of it. It’s Ballard? That was a lucky guess. I don’t know what made me say it. There must be something that I recognize. I know that a lot of the people he plays with… It’s not even that. It’s him. The way he’s playing really sounds Spanish to me; it sounds like a guy playing a castanet or something. It sounds like he hears it that deeply. I know that he, like Ari Hoenig, seems to be a huge influence on younger drummers today—in a certain area. I know lately he’s been playing with Brad, but it doesn’t sound like Mehldau to me. It’s Mehldau? [LAUGHS] I’m still hearing Jorge Rossy, who was from Spain, play with Mehldau, so I have to hear this group some more. But I didn’t think of Brad when I was listening to the drums. It is Jeff, and he is an influence—4½ stars.

10.  Susie Ibarra, “Trane #1” (from SONGBIRD SUITE, Tzadik, 2002) (Ibarra, drums)

Tell me again that this is not… This can’t be ordinary listening. [No. But it’s somebody you might know.] Again, it’s something that I think I might have played or attempted to play like that. Especially that. It’s a way of choking the cymbal without really grabbing the cymbal; you put your hand on it but take it off real quick. You just place your hand on it for a fraction of a second. And I do that all the time. In fact, I have never heard anybody else do that but me. Unless, of course, that’s not what he’s doing. Now he actually is choking the cymbal, but before he wasn’t. But even all of that… I’d be interested to guess who I’m imitating! Let me listen to this again. You wouldn’t give me a drummer twice, right? [No.] Okay, so it’s not Cyrille. It’s bad, though. Now, this is the closest thing I’ve heard to something that I would try to do. I don’t use that cymbal. Blackwell used to use that cymbal—that you put it on the snare drum. I’ve heard Stewart do that do; he’ll put that gong-like cymbal on the snare drum and hit it, or on the tom-tom and hit it. I have no idea who it is, but I love it. I really like it. Joe Chambers? Who would think like that? Wow! The same guy playing the brushes, too? [Same drummer, yes.] That’s what sort of made me think of Joe Chambers. Whoever that is, is heavy. Not because I would do it, but I just like their mind, whoever it is, and just his ability as a drummer—the brushes, too. It’s funny, I can’t say if he’s young or old. He could be an older guy or he could be a younger guy. 5 stars. Susie Ibarra? Whoa!!! I’m in love with Susie Ibarra. I’ve just never heard her play the brushes like that. I know that she has a certain kind of technical facility that I did hear her do with the brushes, but I’d only her do it before with the sticks. When you talk about modern drummers, a lot of the groundbreaking, just for plain drumming, comes from the so-called avant-garde drummers… When people talk about “contemporary” this or “modern” that, that word for me means the stuff that comes from Milford, Rashied, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, Stu Martin, and then a new breed of that came along about 15-20 years ago with Jim Black and Tom Rainey and Gerald Cleaver, Hemingway. But of those drummers, Susie Ibarra is by far one of my favorite drummers to listen to, not only on the drums, but as a musician, too, some of her compositions. I was very impressed with that.

11.   Victor Lewis, “Suspicion” (from Charles Tolliver, WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Charles Tolliver, trumpet, composer; Victor Lewis, drums)

This is the trumpet player’s record? [Yes.] I have two impressions. The first impression, of course, is that it was some kind of Latin band, and I’m trying to think of that drummer who teaches at the New School… [It’s not Bobby Sanabria.] How’d you know that’s who I meant?  The next thing is the opposite of that, like say, Charles Tolliver. I know Victor Lewis played with him when I heard him at the IAJE. But I didn’t hear any music like this, and great as that music was, I didn’t hear THIS. It took me a minute to recognize him. It’s interesting to hear Victor. People ask me about Victor Lewis, and for years I would say, “If I ever had to recommend a sub for me…” In other words, if they said, “I want you to hire a sub, but I’m not going to tell you what the music is going to be like,” I would say Victor Lewis. Because his musical scope is similar to mine. Anything I would be interested in or try to do, I know Victor could do. Anything somebody would call me for, I think they could call Victor for. Victor is one of my all-time favorite drummers. I remember asking a recording engineer, just for recording clarity, who his favorite drummer was, and he had recorded everybody, and he said Victor Lewis. 5 stars, of course. Off the record, I went to college with Tolliver at Howard, and I never think of Tolliver as having those kind of chops. I know he can play, he’s one of my favorite trumpet players, but for a minute he almost sounded like Freddie! I said, “Who is this who’s picking it up on that level?” Now, I know he loves Freddie, but I didn’t know he could get that close to it. That’s off the record.

12.  Lewis Nash, “Tickle Toe” (from STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, M&I, 2005) (Nash, drums; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass)

All the things you’ve played have been very enjoyable. You know how some people say, “I really didn’t like that at all.” You didn’t play one thing that I didn’t enjoy. I have ideas on this, but they’re so far-fetched… If the drum had no bottom head, I’d say Chico Hamilton or something. But it does have a bottom head. This is off the record, too. Even this sounds like me! Well, I mean, it’s something I would have played in this situation. So it just shows you, whoever I’m influenced by, a lot of other people are, too. He’s playing the form of the tune really well, or so it seems to me. It’s an older style of drumming by a modern guy. You sort of think of Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa, even Sid Catlett, but there’s obviously a more contemporary drummer. He’s playing a calypso beat, which is interesting. It sounds like so many people… His sense of humor reminds me of Frankie Dunlap. There’s something about him that reminds me of Chico Hamilton. It’s somebody with some chops, though. 4 stars. Lewis is a student of the music. I should have been able to catch him. What threw me off is Nelson. Because he sounded so much like a Bags-influenced guy. I kept thinking it was back there, like somebody like Terry Gibbs or someone, and that made me think it might have been Mel Lewis, or even Ben Riley. Brilliant, man. He’s got a wide scope, too.

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Filed under Billy Hart, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazz Times

R.I.P. Chico Hamilton (September 20, 1921-November 25, 2013). Two WKCR Interviews and a DownBeat Blindfold Test

Word comes through Facebook that drummer-composer Chico Hamilton, a master drummer and bandleader, and fresh thinker through more than 75 years as a professional musician, passed away last night at the age of 92. His immense c.v. and accomplishments will be abundantly available for your perusal on the web. During the ’90s I had the privilege of doing two comprehensive shows with Chico, one a Musician’s Show in 1994, the other a five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profiles” show in 1996. Later, I had an opportunity to conduct a Blindfold Test with Chico at his East Side Manhattan apartment. I’ve appended the full transcripts below.

* * *

Chico Hamilton Musician Show, WKCR, July 20, 1994:

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton, “Around The Corner” (1992)]

TP:    We’ll be creating sort of an oral autobiography.  Chico is surrounded by records, of which we won’t get to a fifth.  It covers the Los Angeles scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a variety of people.  The first selection cued up is “Tickletoe,” by the Count Basie, featuring the man who drummed like the wind, Papa Jo Jones, who seems to have been the person who influenced your approach more than anyone else.

CH:    That’s absolutely correct, Ted.  As a matter of fact, Jo… Actually, the first drummer I ever saw was Sonny Greer, and I was very impressed with him.  I was a youngster, about 8 or 9 years old.  But when I started playing, which was I guess 9 or 10 or something like that, and when I was in junior high school, all of a sudden Count Basie’s orchestra came on the scene, at least on the West Coast.  We began to get his records.  Then when I heard Jo Jones… Because Jo completely turned the rhythm aspect of drumming completely around, you know, with the sock cymbal.  As a matter of fact, that last composition that you opened up with, “Around the Corner,” was sort of dedicated to Jo Jones and the Count Basie era because of the sock cymbal, you know.

TP:    Let me turn the conversation to a few things you touched on in those few sentences.  You came up in the Los Angeles area, and when you were ten years old it would have been around…

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you.  It was two weeks before baseball.  How does that grab you?

TP:    Do you care to elaborate on that one?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Well, I started playing in the late Thirties and early Forties, more or less the early Forties.  I guess when I was around 13-14 years old, we had a band, a big 15-piece band.  It was under the leadership of a guy by the name of Al Adams, and the only reason why he was the leader is because he was the oldest.  I think he was about 19 at the time.

TP:    What was the age range?

CH:    The age range was from 14 to about 19.

TP:    From all over Los Angeles or from the neighborhood?

CH:    From the neighborhood and from all over.  We had guys like Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal, Charlie Mingus, myself, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette…

TP:    Now, for those who aren’t familiar with the West Coast, tell us about the neighborhood, as specifically or as generally as you want to, and the circumstances by which you met, some of the factors in your musical education and so forth.

CH:    Well, I don’t know how it was throughout the rest of the country, but in L.A., in the school system, you were required to take music, either Music Appreciation or an instrument or something.  It was in the curriculum.  You had to be involved with music.  Regardless of whether it was junior high school or high school, you had to become involved in music.  And at that time, L.A. wasn’t a very large place.  As a matter of fact, everybody just about knew everybody.  Young guys, young musicians will always be able to get together or find one another, just as they do today.  That’s how it really came about.  Also, we came out of Jefferson High School, which most of us attended.  Buddy and Mingus, of course, were from the Watts area.  But the school actually was the common denominator.

TP:    There was a very prominent teacher at Jefferson High School, I recollect.

CH:    Yes, his name was Samuel Browne, the music teacher there, who virtually, in a sense, encouraged all of us to become good musicians.  At that time also, man, it was an unbelievable amount of… All the bands would come to L.A.  As a matter of fact, they would let the kids out of school, man, when a band would come into town, which they virtually would come in on the train… They would let us go down to the train station to see Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, all the bands.

TP:    Where did they play?

CH:    Well, there were several places, big cabaret dance halls, virtually.  I guess they were called nightclubs, but they were big places.  The Casa Mañana(?), the Palladium, the average dance hall name, but…

TP:    So you’d have a band, a film, a couple of dancing acts and comedians and so forth…

CH:    Well, at that time, most of the bands carried their own show.  For instance, when I joined Count Basie’s band, Jimmy Rushing was singing, I forget the lady singer now…

TP:    Helen Humes?

CH:    Helen Humes.  And the dance team that they had was the Berry Brothers, Coles & Atkins, and Pot, Pan and Skillet.  All of these were fantastic dance acts.  And that would consist of the show, sort of a semi-vaudeville type of show, but the band would be the feature — and they played all over the country.  At the Avedon, which was a ballroom, this is where the bands that came in would play, and we all had an opportunity to hear Lunceford and Basie and Duke.

I consider myself very fortunate, Ted, because I came up during the right time.  Because to be able to hear the originals, the people who invented this particular style of music, this way of playing… You know, I was there.

TP:    I think one thing that’s misunderstood because of the nature of the recording process in the 1920’s and Thirties and early Forties is what the drums sounded like in the big bands and the actual presence of the drums.  If you hear them on records, they sound kind of tinny or in the background, but I’ll bet that’s not what it sounded like when you heard Sonny Greer with Ellington, or Jo Jones or Jimmy Crawford…

CH:    All of these guys, man…the drummer… You know that old phrase about “give the drummer some.”  All of these guys, all of these drummers, all of these great, brilliant musicians, the drummers were determining the styles of the band.  It wasn’t so much what the bandleaders were doing.  Jimmie Lunceford used to conduct with the baton.  Basie, sure, played piano; Duke played piano.  But the actual sound of the rhythm, the feeling, the whole mood that was created by the bands was created by these drummers.

Now, Sonny Greer played a particular style of drumming which was like what we might refer to…your listeners might not understand about playing on the beat, one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four.  He played DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN, DJA-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, CHOO-CHI-TU, that kind of a thing.  Now, the Ellington band swung in that groove.  Whereas with the Basie band, Jo Jones did DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-CHANG, DIT-DA, DIT-DA, and he swung that band with a completely different feeling than what Ellington had.

Strangely and oddly enough, even bands of today, here, what is this, 19…what year is this…?

TP:    1994.

CH:    Here in 1994, a large ensemble still plays with either one of those two grooves, as far as the Jazz aspect is concerned.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?  When you were 15 or 16?

CH:    Well…

TP:    In the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz it says you started out playing clarinet.

CH:    I did.  I started out playing clarinet.  And the reason I started out playing clarinet is because my best friend, Jack Kelso, played clarinet.  So having my best friend play clarinet, I figured, “hey, I’d better…I want to play clarinet.”  But I soon gave it up because it became a little bit difficult, you know… Also my older brother was playing drums.  This was in grade school, so we had to be no more than 8 or 9 years old.  When he… They graduated from grade school in those days, right!  So when he graduated, I figured, well, since he was my brother and plays the drums, I’m going to play the drums.  And I just started.  I had no idea what a drummer did really, but I just said, “Hey, I’m going to do it,” and I just did it.

TP:    You did it on his pair of drums?

CH:    Well, it was the school drums.  The school had the drums.  As a matter of fact, we rented the clarinet for two dollars a week (can you believe that?) from the school.

TP:    That was a lot of money then.

CH:    Oh, tell me about it, man.  Tell me about it.  That’s virtually, in a sense, how I got started.  The more I got into playing and the more I got into the instrument, the more difficult it became, and the more difficult it became, all of a sudden, I realized, “hey, this is it; this is what I’m going to try to do.”  I started reaching out, and everyone helped me.  Everyone.  Everyone I played with.

TP:    How would they do that?  Talk about how musicians would help a young musician coming up, what the scene was like for a young musician in Los Angeles in the Thirties and early Forties.

CH:    Well, in those days, there was a camaraderie, a relationship with musicians.  You know, strangely and oddly enough, as young as I was, people like Jo Jones and Lester Young, people like that, the Charlie Parkers, they weren’t that much older than we were…

TP:    You’re a year younger than Charlie Parker.

CH:    Well, I probably was older than Charlie.  I just mentioned him… But the fact is that Bird influenced me tremendously, when I came out of the service, in California.  He and Howard McGhee virtually introduced me to what the Bebop scene was all about.

But back in the early days we were very much influenced by anyone that we heard, especially the ones with the names that came to the West Coast.  And once the guys came out to the West Coast, it was… Everybody was friendly, everybody was warm.  And we jammed a lot, man.  We jammed all day and all night long!  It was unbelievable, the amount of time we put in the jam sessions.  That’s how we learned to play.  If it wasn’t happening, somebody would pull your coat and say, “Hey, listen, why don’t you try doing this” or “why don’t you try to do that” or “Why do you want to do this?” — that kind of a thing.

TP:    This is the Musician’s Show, and you’ve been listening to Chico Hamilton tell you about coming up there in the Thirties and early Forties as a young drummer.  First on cue is “Tickletoe,” the Basie band with Papa Jo Jones.  It also said in your biography that you studied with Papa Jo while you were in the Service in the first half of the 1940’s.  Tell us about that, and then let’s get to some music.

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you how dumb the Army was. [LAUGHS]  I was already drafted, I was already stationed at Fort McCullough in Alabama, right.  I wasn’t in the band, but I was attached to the band, which means that… They had four other drummers in the band, but none of them could play.  They virtually really… I mean this.  They couldn’t play.  So whenever a show came through, they would send for me, and make… They put me in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Now, I  came into the Service carrying my drum under my arm.  This is the truth, man!  And you know, when they put me in the drum-and-bugle corps, do you know what they did?  They made me play bugle! [LAUGHS]

Anyway, to make a long story short, when Jo Jones… This is why I’m saying how dumb it was.  When Jo Jones and Prez, Lester Young, when they came through there… They were drafted, and they came through the same camp, man.  They would not let them in the band!  Man, it just broke my heart.  They made them… At one time they wouldn’t even allow them to even associate, and come to the band room and things like that.  Well, anyway…

TP:    Well, Lester Young’s bad times in the Army are very well-documented.

CH:    Well, they gave Prez a terrible time, man.  First of all, he was a beautiful human being, man.  He was a tremendously warm, sensitive human being, and so was Jo.  What their contribution to what we call Jazz today, or in the Swing or whatever era…it will never be duplicated.  Because try as you might, there’s no one that could get that sound and get that feeling Jo had or could get playing, and the same thing applied to Prez.  But in the Service, I had a chance to get with Jo quite a bit when he would come off doing the daily Army thing.  We’d get together at night, and we’d jam, we’d play, we’d practice.  We would talk drums constantly, and talk music.  It was priceless.

[Basie, “Tickletoe” (1940); Ellington, “Ring Dem Bells” (1931); Basie “Topsy: (1938); Lunceford, “Tain’t What You Do” (1939); Prez/Shadow Wilson, “Indiana” (1944); Prez/Chico, “Lester Leaps In” (1946); C. Hamilton Trio, “Tickletoe” (1992)]

TP:    We covered quite a bit of ground on that last set of drummers.

CH:    Well, just about.  Music is very broad, Music is very big, Music is very long, and Music is very beautiful…


TP:    The 1946 performance of “Lester Leaps In” featured Chico’s long-time partner, bassist Red Callender.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Red and I did quite a bit of playing together when I was out on the West Coast, when I was out in L.A.  I just want to establish a fact that what the people here in New York, the East Coast people, everything they consider the East Coast Sound, which was a big thing, I guess, in the Fifties or Sixties regarding the East Coast versus the West Coast… How that originated, how that came about, I think it was in the Fifties or early Sixties, there was a club here in New York, Basin Street East, and for the first time I was coming east with my original quintet with the cello, with Fred Katz, Carson Smith, Buddy Collette and Jim Hall.  We were playing opposite (are you ready?) Max Roach’s original quintet with Clifford Brown and I think it was Harold Land, and Richie Powell and George Morrow.  So in order to stir up some…to hip business up, to make it a happening, the publicist started the East Coast versus the West Coast…

TP:    Harold Land, of course, was from the West Coast.

CH:    He was from the West Coast.  But that’s how that East Coast-West Coast thing really got started.

But in the meantime, getting back to Red Callender, Gerry Wiggins, people like that on the West Coast, there was a definite… We had a very definite way of playing, a style, a West Coast style of playing.  It’s just like they had a style, all the Kansas City musicians, the musicians from the Midwest — they had a particular style, a way of playing.  They swung very heavy, right?  Guys on the East Coast, they had their own thing going.  I’m speaking before the Bebop Era came in…

TP:    How would you put into words the Southwest sound?

CH:    Well, the Southwest sound was more… The prime example is Count Basie, the Count Basie Orchestra.  There was a band by the name of Nat Towles and Snookum Russell…

TP:    Now, did those bands come to California?

CH:    No, they didn’t make it to the West Coast.  But this was a Midwest type of band.  Because during the War years, the early part of the Forties, I sort of left the Service for a quick minute [LAUGHS], and went out on the road with Snookum Russell’s band in the Midwest.

TP:    That’s the band J.J. Johnson left Indianapolis with.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    What was that band like?

CH:    It was just a swinging thing.  Just out-and-out swing.  I realize today when I use that terminology, “swing,” that a lot of young people don’t know what I’m talking about.  But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for it.  Because whether you’re playing Rock-and-Roll, whether you’re playing Pop, or whatever you’re playing, it’s got to swing.  In other words, it’s got to have a pulse to it, to make you feel like, hey, snapping your fingers or patting your foot.  That was the one thing that the Swing Bands did do, man.  You couldn’t… It was hard for anyone to keep still when you’d listen to one of those bands.

TP:    Also, in Los Angeles, a lot of the Black community came from the Southwest and the South Central parts of the United States, and subsequently settled there.  So it seems to me a lot of that sound came into the Los Angeles sound in a certain way.  True or false?

CH:    Not necessarily.  Not during those days.  I don’t know… The fact that I was born there… Well, just from my generation up is what I’m familiar with in regards to what music was all about, what Jazz was all about.  And the majority of those guys…

TP:    They were from L.A.

CH:    They were from L.A.  Before then, who knows?  We all came from…

TP:    I was thinking about people coming for jobs in the Navy yards…

CH:    Oh, no.  Well, this was before then.  That started when the War started; people would come there for gigs.  But most musicians, if they came there, man, they came there to play.  Because there was a zillion places to play at that time.

TP:    Let’s talk a bit about the scene in Los Angeles towards the end of the War and the years right after.  A lot of musicians also moved to Los Angeles who lived there for long periods of time, like Lester Young, who we heard you with, or Art Tatum…

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    …and many other people.

CH:    Well, after the Service… I think I got out of the Service around 1945.  But I came back to L.A.  Before I went into the Service, the Swing thing was the thing, the Swing beat — [DA-DANG, DAT-DA-DANG], that was it.  Right?  When I came out of the Service and came back to L.A., I heard and saw for the first time, and just was blown away completely by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, Roy Porter, people like this.  Man, this was a whole, brand-new kind of thing to me, man.  Because I was down South, and I just only knew one way of playing.  And to come back to the West Coast and start hearing Bebop, man, it was just absolutely amazing.

TP:    Were you hearing the records when you were in the Service, as they came out…

CH:    What records?

TP:    Oh, you didn’t get any of those records.  Okay.

CH:    [LAUGHS] Those records didn’t come that far down there!  No, unfortunately we didn’t have that opportunity to hear the records.  But it was really amazing.  As a matter of fact, man, I was fortunate enough to get a job, join a band by the name of Floyd Ray.  In Floyd Ray’s band, there was a piano player by the name of Hampton Hawes, there was a trumpet player by the name of Art Farmer, and his brother, Addison Farmer, played bass.  The tenor players were J.D. King, Bill Moore.  People like this.  It was a big band.  We played for… As well as playing dances and things like that, we played shows at theaters.  We were playing a show, and headlining the show was this little kid from Detroit by the name of Sugar Chile Robinson.  We used to think it was a midget; he was a piano player.  The Emcee of the show, who carried the whole show and the dance team, was the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis, Junior.  Man, we were playing all up and down the West Coast.

We happened to be in Oakland, and this was maybe like on a Friday night… We heard that the Billy Eckstine band was coming to town to play a dance.  And in that band was Art Blakey [PRONOUNCES “Blakeley”], Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons.  I’ll tell you, man, you talk about getting blown away!  I had never in my life heard anybody play like Art Blakey!  Right?  And I was so influenced, carried away by his playing, that the next morning, when we were doing our show, I started trying to play…dropping bombs, as we say, playing Bebop licks on the drums.  And man, I almost got fired, because Sammy Davis’ father told me…he said, “What the hell are you doing?!”

But anyway, that was my first really introduction to playing Bebop music.  Hearing Art Blakey, man, was just… He turned me completely around.  Whereas Jo had set things up in the beginning, he and Sonny Greer, Art Blakey really turned me around.

TP:    He gave you a sense of the feeling.

CH:    Oh, man, did he ever!  Art Blakey was a brilliant, brilliant master percussionist.  He was just an out-and-out hard-swinging drummer.

[D. Gordon/T. Edwards, “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” (1947); Bird, “My Old Flame” (1947); Dexter/Wardell, “The Chase” (1947); Howard McGhee, “Thermodynamics” (1946); Eckstine, “Blowin’ The Blues Away” (1944); Hamp/Mingus, “Mingus Fingers” (1947)]

TP:    …after “Mingus Fingers” we heard the Billy Eckstine band, the tune Chico Hamilton said was the first he ever heard the band do, “Blowin’ The Blues Away.”

CH:    Talk about blowin’ the blues away, man; it really blew me away, man!  That was the band I heard in Oakland, California, I think it must have been in 1945, 1946.  Man, can you imagine hearing a band like that?  It was unbelievable.  Unbelievable.

TP:    That was a radio broadcast, and Art Blakey’s sound really came through well on that one.

CH:    It was fantastic, especially in regards to the fact that they only used maybe a microphone for the reed section and one mike for the brass, and that was it — the rhythm section had to go for itself.  The band was swinging, man.  It was cookin’.  You know?

TP:    And I’m imagine they were playing for dancers as well, so there was a whole ambiance that doesn’t exist today.

CH:    Well, that’s something that… For instance, every band…Count Basie… Basie had that thing that he knew the right groove to make you dance, want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford had that groove that would make you want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford’s rhythm was basically in a two-beat kind of thing.  Basie’s was a 2/4.  Duke Ellington?  Once in a while you felt like dancing to Duke’s music.  But Duke’s music, you listened to it more, in regards to, hey, you just cooled and listened to the amazing arrangements and the brilliant playing of the players.

TP:    It seems to me that Ellington had different sets for different audiences, and he could pull out so many things.

CH:    Well, different strokes for different folks!

TP:    Before that we heard Howard McGhee on a couple of classic Bebop sides, “Thermodynamics,” featuring his virtuosic trumpet from 1947, with Jimmy Bunn on piano, who was present on a lot of these early West Coast dates.

CH:    I knew some of Jimmy’s relatives, as a matter of fact. Jimmy’s cousin was a good friend of brother’s, Bernie Hamilton, the actor.  Jimmy Bunn is still playing.  He’s still in California, and he’s still playing very-very-very good.  He perhaps was one of the most underrated players as far as recognition was concerned.  But at one time, Jimmy Bunn, nobody in L.A., you know…

TP:    He had first call, is what it sounds like.

CH:    Exactly.  If you couldn’t get Jimmy… Then when Hampton Hawes started coming on the scene, Hampton began to get all the calls.  Also in there was Dodo Marmarosa.  Dodo was originally from Pennsylvania someplace, but…

TP:    Pittsburgh, I think.

CH:    Pittsburgh, yeah.  But man, Dodo could play, too.

TP:    And he recorded with many people, including Charlie Parker.

CH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Jimmy Rowles was active in Los Angeles at that time.

CH:    Jimmy Rowles.  My man, Jimmy Rowles!  I haven’t seen Jimmy in quite a while, but last time I heard, he and his daughter were playing together.  His daughter, Stacy, plays trumpet.

TP:    Before “Thermodynamics” we heard “The Chase,” one of the most famous sessions of that time, also for Dial, recorded in 1947, with Jimmy Bunn, Red Callender on bass, and Chuck Thompson, a very active and strong drummer.

CH:    He was a very good drummer.  Very good.  As a matter of fact, Chuck is still playing.  And you mentioned another drummer on the West Coast…

TP:    Roy Porter?

CH:    I don’t think Roy is playing any more.  But before Roy you mentioned…

TP:    On one of these tracks?

CH:    On one of the tracks.

TP:    Well, Roy Porter played with Howard McGhee.  And… Well, I don’t know who that was.

CH:    He played with the Hampton Hawes Trio.

TP:    Oh, Larence Marable.

CH:    Larence, yeah!

TP:    He was very active, and he’s now going out with Charlie Haden’s group amongst others.

CH:    Hey, Larence is a fantastic player.

TP:    He’s someone who had an impact on Billy Higgins when Billy Higgins was coming up in the Los Angeles area.  Before “The Chase” we heard “My Old Flame” by Charlie Parker for Dial; Bird cut many sides for Dial while in Los Angeles.  And we began the set with Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards, another tenor duel called “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” with Jimmy Rowles, Red Callender, and Roy Porter

Again, we have this combination of native Los Angeles musicians, and musicians who settled in Los Angeles from other places, like Teddy Edwards, who came from Jackson, Mississippi to Detroit to Los Angeles, or Howard McGhee, who was from Oklahoma, Detroit, then Southwest bands into Los Angeles.  I’d like to ask Chico for brief portraits of some of your contemporaries.  Let’s begin with Charles Mingus, because you knew Mingus when he was very young.  How old were you when you first met?  Do you remember?

CH:    Well, let me see.  I don’t know, I suppose I was about 10 or 11, something like that — 11 or 12.  As a matter of fact, Charlie Mingus and my wife went to Sunday School together, attended the same church.  Do you believe that?

TP:    Which church was that?

CH:    It was some church in L.A.  I don’t recall the name of it.  Buddy Collette and his family attended that church, and Mingus’ family, and my wife’s family attended the church.  So actually she knew Mingus before I did.  But we were unbelievably young, and unbelievable at that time as young players, as young dudes.  We thought we were… As a matter of fact, some of the joints we played, we’d have to disguise ourselves to look older because of the booze thing.  But Charlie and I came through a lot of wars together as far as playing on the bandstand.  He developed into a very uncanny kind of a musician.  I guess that’s my way of saying how brilliant he was.  It hurts me, the fact that Charlie had to die a pauper.  Because what he contributed to this thing called Jazz and this thing called Music, unfortunately, he really didn’t receive any of the benefits while he was alive.

TP:    Some of the things that he wrote… “The Chill Of Death” which he recorded in 1971, was written, I think, when he was 17 years old!  Do you remember these pieces, or seeing them?  Did you talk about music or his compositions a lot?

CH:    Well, you know, every conversation Charlie and I would have would be off the wall!  I was never surprised at anything he would say or anything he would do…

TP:    Or come up with musically.

CH:    Or come up with musically.  And I guess he might have thought about me the same way.  A funny thing, though, when I came out of the Service, all of these guys, Charlie and Buddy, John Anderson and guys like that, they had gotten re-established again out in L.A. on the famous Central Avenue, and I had to come out… Nobody knew who I was, and I had to sort of establish myself all over again.  I got pretty lucky, because I ended up being the house drummer for Billy Berg’s.

TP:    A famous club where a lot of Jazz history was made.

CH:    All the Jazz, that’s where it was.

TP:    That’s where Bird and Diz came through when Bebop first hit the West Coast.

CH:    Bird and Diz, right.  That’s when I began to play for all the singers, too, at that time.

TP:    What were the chain of events that led to that?  It couldn’t have been just luck.

CH:    Me playing at Billy Berg’s?

TP:    To be the house drummer, especially then, you had to be versatile, be able to basically play anything, read, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  Well, I’d played for him before I went into the Service.  He used to have a club called the Club Capri, before Billy Berg’s.  As a matter of fact, at the Club Capri, this is when I first… Norman Granz used to be like a go-fer for all the guys. [LAUGHS]  You know, he ends up being a zillionaire, an entrepreneur.  But anyway, to make a long story short, at the Club Capri, that’s where Lorenzo Flournoy’s band, Red Mack’s band, Lee and Lester Young… When Prez first left Basie’s band, his brother Lee Young had a small group.  These were all small groups, no bigger than five or six pieces, seven pieces at the most.  Billy Berg’s was the number-one room in Los Angeles at that time.  That was it.  If you played that room, it was fantastic.

The other room that was called the 331 or the 333, I forget…


…of my playing, of my career, I played with this guy named Myers, Old Man Myers.  He kept me on brushes.  He wouldn’t let me play sticks at all, man.  We would go out and play at least three or four nights a week.  Right?  I was lucky enough to make… He’d pay me like maybe 75 cents, I mean, really 75 cents! — we were lucky if we made a dollar.  But I would play brushes constantly.  Constantly.  Every time I’d get ready to pick up the sticks, he said, “Put those sticks down!”  So fortunately, that helped me to develop a stroke that swept me into some of the choicest gigs at that time.

TP:    This conversation evolved from word portraits of some of your associates in Los Angeles at this time.  I’d like to ask you about Dexter Gordon, who was a few years younger than you, but came up around the same time.

CH:    Well, can you imagine… When Dexter was about 10 years old, he was already twelve feet tall.  Then he shrank!  We used to call him Big Stoop, from the character in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates — if anybody remembers that.

Anyway, Dexter and I… You might not believe this, but Dexter Gordon and myself, and a trombone player by the name of James Robertson, we were the only three guys, three people period, to get an A in English in high school.  That was the toughest teacher in the whole entire system.  Her name was Mrs. Smith.  And Dexter and myself and James Robinson got an A in English, man!

As a matter of fact, Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he used to play clarinet, he used to come on the campus… Dexter was like the pied piper.  Dexter would play his horn anywhere, in the hall, in the room, it didn’t matter — all over the school.  And he loved Prez.  He just adored…

TP:    Took apart the solos and…

CH:    Everything was note-for-note.  So that’s how we learned to play, virtually, in a sense, by copying the masters, the people who invented that way of playing.  But Dexter was, again, a brilliant, fantastic, inventive kind of player.  And to be among this kind of talent, you know, you just took it for granted that, hey, he could play, I could play, Ernie Royal could play, you know…

TP:    And you went out and played.

CH:    And we went out and played.

TP:    And then things happened, people heard you, and that’s how…

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    A few words about Red Callender.

CH:    George “Red” Callender.  George was a little older than myself and Mingus and Buddy and Jack Kelso.  But we had a tremendous amount of respect for Red, because Red was the big-time already.  When we got on the L.A. scene before the war, well, Red Callender had been playing with Louis Armstrong and playing with all the big names.  And the fact that he was local, he was in L.A., and we… He was… You know, just to be in his presence was something.  It meant something to us.  We all befriended each other, and we came up this way.

As a matter of fact, at one time Red Callender, myself and a piano player by the name of Dudley Brooks, we were the only three Black musicians that were ever hired by the studios out there; actually put on staff, you know, at Paramount Studios at one time.  Because at one time it was a no-no.  But we got a job… I was playing for… It was equivalent to being the rehearsal player.  I was like the rehearsal drummer.  I used to keep time for people like Marilyn Monroe, Sherrie North, I used to work with all the dance directors out there, keeping time for them while they got their act together.  But it got boring after a while, and I split.

TP:    But the money must have been nice.

CH:    Hey, man, listen.  It was steady.  Right?  To get paid every week?  It was unbelievable, man.  But I don’t know, man, I was always pretty fortunate.  I was able to… I’ve been lucky, blessed, because I’ve been always able to have a gig.

TP:    Well, it seems you’ve been very flexible and adaptable as well, and yet very determined, and with very definite sounds in your mind’s ear.

CH:    Well, I’ve always, first of all, been very proud of my profession.  Like, I’m a professional musician, just like a doctor is a professional or a lawyer is a professional.  I’ve been very, very highly… Well, this is what I do.  In other words, this is the jokes, folks.  And I don’t fluff it off.  I never blow a gig, man.  Whether I sound good or bad or indifferent, man, I’m playing my heart out.  I’m playing the best that I can at that time.  And that’s it.  That’s the way I came up.  And I believe in music.  I believe in what I’m doing.  People are always wondering what I’m going to come up with next.  I have no idea what I’m going to come up with next.  But I know that when the time comes for me to come up with something different, or change, I will change.  I don’t like to get bored.

TP:    Well, you were the envy of hundreds of thousands of men as the drummer with Lena Horne for five or six years.  The listing is ’48 to ’54, approximately.  Is that right?

CH:    No, as a matter of fact, ’47 to ’55, I think it was.  I’ll tell you, playing for Lena was truly an experience.  I give her a tremendous amount of respect and a tremendous amount of credit in regards to her musicianship.  Most people don’t realize what a fantastic musician this woman is.  And through her, and with her, her late husband, Lennie Hayten, and Luther Henderson, I had an opportunity to really learn what music was all about, how to express what you feel and what you think.  Even to this day, man, we’re still friends.  I don’t see her that often.  But as one of the singers that I had a tremendous amount of respect for and that I kept time for, I would put her up at the top of the class.

TP:    Our next selection is by the original Chico Hamilton-Buddy Collette Sextet, recorded for Johnny Otis’ label, Tampa Records, or Dig Records, available through VSOP Replica Editions.

[MUSIC: Chico Hamilton/B. Collette, “It’s You” (1956); Tony Bennett, “Lazy Afternoon” (19  ); Gerry Mulligan, “Frenesi” (1953); Billie Holiday, “Too Marvelous For Words” (1953); C. Hamilton/John Lewis, “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West” (1958); C. Hamilton, “Where Or When” (19  )]

TP:    That was Chico Hamilton singing, from The Three Faces of Chico, the Chico Hamilton Quintet on Warner Brothers.  That’s the group that had Eric Dolphy, one of his four or five recordings with Chico, although of course not prominent on that particular track, Dennis Budimir on cello, Wyatt Ruether(?) and bass and Chico Hamilton on drums.


Let’s begin with the Tony Bennett side and the vocal tracks we heard.

CH:    At one time I played for Tony, I kept time for him, and we became friends.  When I went out on my own, with my own group and everything, I happened to be on the East Coast, as a matter of fact, in Philadelphia, and I got a call from Tony.  He had this idea that he wanted to get all the drummers together.  He had me, Jo Jones, Art Blakey, and I forget who else was on there.  He wanted to record with all of us.  Tony has always been a rhythm man.  He’s always had a fantastic appreciation for drums, for drummers…

TP:    It had Candido, Papa Jo, Billy Exiner, Sabu…

CH:    Billy Exiner was playing with Tony Bennett at that time, and Candido, myself and Jo Jones, right?

Tony asked me which one of the tracks would I play on, and some kind of way, the idea of “Lazy Afternoon” came up, and I told him I really would dig playing to see what I could do with the sort of orchestral approach to the way he was singing “Lazy Afternoon.”  And it turned out gorgeous.  It really turned out dynamite.  We were more than pleased.  That’s how that came about.

TP:    That’s from The Beat Of My Heart on Columbia Records.  Now, Billie Holiday spent a lot of time in Los Angeles as well.

CH:    Yes, she did.

TP:    Were you a regular part of her group for a while, or was that just a session?

CH:    No, no, I was part of her group for a while.  I played for Lady in several different groups.  At one time, one group consisted of Hampton Hawes, Wardell Gray, myself and Curtis Counce!

TP:    Lady Day must have had a chance to rest her chops!

CH:    Man, you’re talkin’ about cookin’!  We were swinging.

TP:    Did you play bebop licks under her, or… How was she in that regard?

CH:    Lady kept good time, so all I had to do was swing.  I just played myself, you know.  As a matter of fact, all of us did.  That’s what we did.  She was a tremendous musician as well, and she dug musicians being themselves, players being themselves.  As a matter of fact, that’s how Prez named her Lady, because she was cool that way.  I met her, man, when I was about 14 years old!

TP:    What were the circumstances?

CH:    Well, I went to a jam session over… Lorenzo Flournoy, who was a piano player at that time, who I was playing with at the time.  I was just a kid, man.  I knew Prez, man, and Prez asked me, “Do you want to meet Lady?”  I didn’t believe it was her, man.  She was at the session, right, in the house.  That’s where everybody used to put on a big pot of red beans and rice and things like that, and we would blow all day long, right?  She was sitting on the saxophone case, she and Prez were sitting on this case.  And man, when I came up through the door and I looked at her, I said, “Hey…”  I told a friend of mine, [WHISPERING] “Hey, there she is!  That’s Lady.”  And when we went inside, Prez introduced us.  From then on, from time to time I would see her then.     Then later on, I started playing for her, working for her, doing dates and everything.  At one time, the group was Bobby Tucker and myself…

TP:    He was the pianist.

CH:    He was a pianist, a fantastic pianist.  Bobby was with Eckstine.  He was with B for thirty or forty years almost.  When he left Lady he joined Billy Eckstine.

TP:    And you worked with Billy Eckstine for a minute, too.

CH:    I worked with Billy Eckstine.  Also I played for… Oh, heh-heh, I played with Billy Eckstine, I played with Sammy Davis, I did some things with Danny Kaye, Ella… Oh, yeah, I forgot about Ella Fitzgerald.  And I kept time for Sarah once in a while…

TP:    All singers with different styles, different approaches of playing off the drums.

CH:    Exactly.  Here again, remembering something about Lena Horne:  I was right on the floor behind Lena, and the band was behind me.  It was very unusual, because here’s the singer, the drummer right behind her, and then the band, the orchestra would be right behind me.  It worked.  It worked beautifully.  I really developed a way of playing for her to the extent it wasn’t offensive; I didn’t get in her way.

TP:    Was Billie Holiday a strict rehearser, or was it just get in and hit?

CH:    No, Lady was cool, man.  She was cool.  Every singer I have ever kept time for was very sincere about what they did.  And I’m saying that in a complementary way.  Whether you understand that, or reading in between the lines or whatever… It wasn’t easy playing for singers, man.  It’s not easy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for any drummer that can keep time for a singer.

TP:    Why is that?

CH:    Well, you never know what a singer is going to do.  Because some singers react differently.  They react to what people… They react to the audience.  If they feel as though they’re not getting to the audience, then they’re going to push, or they think…or either they’re going to fluff off something or whatever.  And the first one they’re going to take it out on is going to be the drummer.  “What’s the matter?  Can’t you keep time?”  That sort of thing.

TP:    So we’re talking about temperament now.

CH:    Exactly.  That’s the reason drummers are cool, man.  You know, a drummer sits up… When you start to realize that a drummer has to keep time for people, musicians, people he don’t even like, you hear somebody playing, somebody getting their oobies, they’re not making any music, but they’re just sounding like the teacher’s out of the room, that kind of thing — and you have keep time for that and you have to make it sound like something.  You know?  Because there’s only one drummer.

TP:    Well, sometimes there’s two.

CH:    No, you’ve only got one drummer, man.  One drummer’s keeping time, man.  Also, I’d just like to acknowledge the fact that people in general see conga players, timbales players, bongo players, people playing drums with their hands, and they say, “Hey, this is dynamite; that’s fantastic.”  But there’s nothing, nothing in the world like a drummer sitting down playing on a set of drums, where his left foot is doing something different from his right foot, his left hand is doing something from his right hand, and the hands are doing something different from the foot, the foot is doing something different from the hands, and he’s playing on at least a half-a-dozen drums at the same time.  This is amazing, man.  This is really something.

TP:    You were part of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless groups on the West Coast in the early 1950’s, and that was a different side of your work as well.  Talk about your hookup with him and your contributions to the music as it was developed.

CH:    Well…heh-heh…

TP:    Uh-oh, I stuck my foot in it.

CH:    No.  Well, I believe that it just happened to be four people in the right place at the right time.  That story is… I can go on and say, “Well, I did this or Gerry did that, or Chet did this, Chet did that,” that kind of thing.  No, it just happened that we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we got together… As a matter of fact, we got together at my house for the first rehearsal that we did.  Gerry was out in L.A., and I was out in L.A. at that time.  I was still under the employment of Lena Horne, but I stayed home; I didn’t want to go to Europe that year.  In the meantime, I was playing with Charlie Barnet’s band, and Gerry used to come out and hang out with me every night at the bar. [LAUGHS]  As a matter of fact, he said to me one night, “You know, if I was Charlie Barnet and you played for me like you play for Charlie, I’d fire you!”  Because I used to do some pretty funny things with that band.  Anyway, Charlie didn’t mind.  He was a prince, man.  He was a dynamite dude.

But Gerry and I got together, and we were talking about this and that, and next thing I know, hey, he contacts Chet and Bob Whitlock, and we get together, and we just… Like I said, man, it started happening.  And it happened, from the first time we sat down to play.  I would say everyone contributed, one way or the other; everyone contributed to making the quartet the way it was.  That’s how it came off.  That’s the reason it came off.  It wasn’t just a question of Gerry Mulligan being Gerry… Well, it was a question of Gerry being Gerry, Chet being Chet, me being me, and Bob Whitlock being Bob Whitlock.

That’s putting it simple, man.  Mild.

TP:    Would you like to get complex?  At any rate, the first track we heard featured the genesis of the Chico Hamilton group, the Buddy Collette-Chico Hamilton Sextet, from Tanganyika.  You go back as far with Buddy Collette as you do with Mingus, with Dexter Gordon, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  We go back when we were young dudes, kids more or less, young guys on the scene.  As a matter of fact, the first time I heard Buddy, Buddy had his own band, and he had Mingus playing.  Mingus really started off playing cello with Buddy’s band, and Buddy made him get the bass, because he realized that the cello was a little weak, that kind of thing, trying to play cello like a full-sized bass.  I went out to hear him one night, I went all the way out there to Watts, right — I’d heard about him.  I asked him could I sit in, and I did.  One thing led to another, and the next thing I know we were all playing in all the bands around L.A.  It was interesting.

TP:    How did that band develop a repertoire?  Because eventually, both of you were working toward a really broad tonal palette particularly.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    I mean, along with swing, but it went… Talk a bit about that.

CH:    What we did, virtually, in a sense, we copied every record that we heard by Count Basie and some of the Duke Ellington things and Jimmie Lunceford, but between them, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the bands that we imitated, even down to the solos, note-for-note.  We even played the same solos, that type of thing.  All the licks.  I tried to play all the drum licks that Jo Jones would play, that type of thing.  And eventually, it was very successful, because also, you must remember, we didn’t have… It wasn’t a matter of deciding whether you were going to play Rock-and-Roll, or whether you’re going to play the Blues, Rhythm-and-Blues, or whether you’re going to play Pop, or whether you’re going to play Country, or anything like that.  There was only one kind of music, man, and that was Swing.  So in a sense, it was relatively easy.  Because hey, there was only one way to play.

TP:    We forgot to play some of the sides you backed T-Bone Walker on for Imperial.

CH:    Hey!  He was amazing.

TP:    So we’re going from T-Bone Walker to Tony Bennett to Charlie Barnet’s band to the Gerry Mulligan band…

CH:    Right.

TP:    You really were covering the whole spectrum of Swing music in the Forties and Fifties.

CH:    Well, I’m fortunate.  I’ve been fortunate, man.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been blessed to be able to do that.  Because it was broad.  It was very broad.  That’s what the spectrum was in regards to what Jazz was all about.  Still, even now, what Jazz is all about.

TP:    And we’ll be hearing an aspect which Chico Hamilton is defining in his group, in many ways, the cutting edge, one branch that Jazz is in the process of becoming.

CH:    Well, I could go through a whole great big series of stories about, “Well, I decided to do this, I decided to do that.”  But I don’t know, man… Here, again, about the original quintet with Fred Katz on cello, Buddy Collette on reeds, Jim Hall on guitar and Carson Smith on bass, here again… It’s not a copout, but I feel that it just happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time for that to happen.

TP:    Things were in the air…

CH:    Things were in the air, and it happened.  Because no one knows why it happened.  But it happened, and it worked.


This is the first record that Eric Dolphy ever made.  This is a Billy Strayhorn composition which is one of my favorites.  Most people… A majority, I would say, of Eric Dolphy’s fans and audience don’t realize, or didn’t realize what a tremendous flute player Eric Dolphy was.  And this is my presentation of Eric Dolphy, “Something To Live For”

TP:    From Strings Attached on Warner Brothers.

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton/E. Dolphy, “Something To Live For”; C. Hamilton, “Mandrake”; C. Hamilton, “Taunts of An Indian”; C. Hamilton, “Guitar Willie”]

TP:    A selection of four compositions and performances by various groups under the leadership of Chico Hamilton.  That last was “Guitar Willie,” featuring the late Eric Gale from Headhunters, on Solid State, and my guess is that it was recorded around 1970.  Do you recollect, Chico?  Of course, being a Solid State release from that time, there’s no date, but they have a zip-code.

CH:    Probably around ’68.  Eric used to do a lot of commercials with me when I was knee-deep on Madison Avenue, you know, doing commercials.  That’s music for commercials.  Here again that was sort of unusual, because just to have the bass walking and myself keeping that time, and the horns… Steve Potts was on there, and I think…

TP:    Russ Andrews on tenor.

CH:    Yes, Russ.

TP:    Ray Nance appears elsewhere on this release.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    And Jan Arnett on bass.

CH:    Jan Arnett.  It was a happening.

TP:    Before that a few selections by the current group, Chico Hamilton and Euphoria.  Before that, a very beautiful and affecting piece, “Taunts of An Indian Maiden,” a dedication to your mother.

CH:    I dedicated to it to my mother.  She was an Indian maiden, you know?

TP:    That’s from Arroyo, a 1990 release, with Eric Person, saxophone, Cary DeNegris on electric guitar, and Reggie Washington, one of the better electric bass players around, playing acoustic bass.

CH:    Well, he’s playing electric on that.  He just sounds… That’s how well he plays it.  He’s one of the few fender players that can get the sound of an upright bass.

TP:    Before that we heard “Mandrake,” the group’s arrangement of Eric Dolphy’s composition, one of seven compositions arranged by Chico Hamilton and Euphoria on My Panamanian Friend, the most recent release by the group.

CH:    It’s an interesting thing.  Jeff Caddick was the one who suggested that we do an album of Eric Dolphy’s music.  And the more we got into it, the more we started talking about it, the more I realized and he realized, as much as people talk about Eric Dolphy, nobody plays his music.

TP:    Well, Oliver Lake is one, and a few other people play his music, but not so much.

CH:    Not that many.  Hopefully this will shake them up again.

TP:    The way that you arrange and set up your songs… I think if one held to a stereotyped view of a Jazz musician, and heard you from all these sessions in the Forties and Fifties, to hear the sound of your bands would seem disjunctive.  But it’s obviously not.  You’ve always had a predilection, for one thing, for saxophone players who like to get into the extremities of the instrument, from Eric Dolphy to Charles Lloyd to Arthur Blythe to Steve Potts to your current saxophonist, Eric Person.

CH:    Well, look, to simplify it, that’s what I’m all about.  I’m into sounds, and anybody that sounds different or original (which is pretty difficult) I’m for.  I’m open, as far as all music… First of all, I understand fully that it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I also understand that I’ve been blessed to the extent that I’m able to make music at this stage of the game of my life or my career, as opposed to just playing it.  So that’s what it’s all about.  Music I believe is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  Right?  That’s the name of the game.

TP:    If it’s meant to be… Well, you’re making it happen.

CH:    Hey, that’s what it’s all about.

TP:    A few words about the people in your group.  A few words about how musicians find you and you find musicians.  Eric Person, first of all.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Eric was introduced to me by Arnie Lawrence.  Arnie had heard Eric when he was in St. Louis.  I think he was at Eric’s school.  When Eric came to New York, I think he contacted Arnie, and Arnie in turn contacted me, and that was it.  Right away we hit it off.  I helped him to grow, and he’s grown, needless to say, and developed into one fantastic kind of a player.

TP:    You may not be able to hold on to him.

CH:    Well, it’s not a question of holding on.  He’s supposed to go on to bigger and better things.  That’s what I’m all about, again.  Hey, you come this way, you pass through me.

TP:    He’s currently with Dave Holland’s group and the World Saxophone Quartet as well as Chico Hamilton’s Ensemble.

CH:    Well, this is good, because this gives him an opportunity to play all kinds of ways.  I haven’t heard him with the other groups, but I imagine he plays different with them than he does with me.  Because we play a different kind of music; a different kind of rhythm, let’s put it like that.

TP:    Cary De Negris, the guitarist.

CH:    Cary met me.  Cary called me when he came from Albany, New York, I think.  His potential I heard right away, the first time I heard him play.  He has developed, needless to say, into really some other kind of guitar player.  He is perhaps one of the most fluent players that’s on the scene today, period, regardless of what style or what kind of guitar playing there is to be played.  He’s doing it.

TP:    Finally, Matthew Garrison, the group’s newest member.

CH:    Well, Matthew’s father used to play with me, Jimmy Garrison.  At one time he did dates and things with me.  He was brought to my attention by Cary De Negris, who heard him and said, “Hey, Cheeks, you’ve got to hear this bass player.”  As a matter of fact, man, he’s so prolific, he sounds like a guitar player.  He’s got chops.

TP:    Well, his father had that type of fluency in his sound also.

CH:    Exactly.  So I’m more than pleased, man.  I’m having a ball.  Because hey, we’re making music.

[MUSIC: “Song For Helen” (1992)]


* * *

Chico Hamilton Profile (WKCR) – (1-14-96):

[RECITAL ON “In the Beginning”, Dance To A Different Drummer:  “You know how this all started with me playing, the drums.  I guess I was around 8 years old when my mother took me to see Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life, not only did I see an orchestra, but I saw on this pyramid, the top of the pyramid, on top of the whole band was the one and only Sonny Greer.  I had never seen anything like this in all my life.  Matter of fact, he had so many drums, he had more drums than  a drum store.  But he was really something special.  And that impressed me, the way he played, the way he had control of the band, and the sound he got.  He was also perhaps one of the first percussionists in every sense of the word; not just a drummer, but a percussionist, a man who made sounds.  Everything he touched made a sound, and it blended and it worked with what Duke Ellington had written and played.  Like all kids, it was an impression that stayed with me, and I decided that’s what I wanted to be — another Sonny Greer.”


TP:    Chico, do you remember what year you first heard Sonny Greer?

CH:    I don’t remember what year it was I heard the band, and I wouldn’t even tell you if I did remember!  I was around 8 or 9 years old when I first heard the band.

TP:    So it was probably when Ellington first came out to the West Coast, around ’30-’31.

CH:    It probably was.  You know, one thing about being on the West Coast, all the bands came there, not only Ellington, but Basie, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Dorsey — all the bands eventually came to the West Coast.  A miraculous thing is the fact that the Board of Education system out there, it was compulsory to take music in all the schools in the system, whether you took a music appreciation course or rented an instrument to play or something like that.  Whenever the well-known bands would come to the West Coast, they used to let us out of school to go down to the train station to greet the bands as they came in.  Fundamentally, all the guys from the Royal brothers, Ernie and Marshall Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette, myself, Jack Kelso, Charlie Mingus, all of us…

TP:    Grew up in the same area.

CH:    We grew up in the same area, with the same musical aspect in regards to… Like all kids, we had a band…

TP:    Where exactly in Los Angeles did you grow up?  Was it around Central Avenue, later the real music strip?

CH:    Yeah.  Los Angeles at that time was the East Side and the West Side, and I think Main Street divided L.A. into what was East and what was West.  I was born on the East Side of town and then grew up on the West Side of town.  Central Avenue was the street, our avenue; that was our 52nd Street.  It only consisted of two or three blocks, but within those two or three blocks, man, you had everything…

TP:    You’re talking about the 1930’s, now.

CH:    The late 1930’s and the ’40s.  They presented a big documentary about the jazz on Central Avenue not too long ago.  It’s part of the curriculum at UCLA or one of the schools.  Central Avenue… You had the Dunbar Hotel, and then inside the Dunbar Hotel was the Club Alabam, which was the equivalent to the East Coast Cotton Club — the same type of shows.

TP:    It would have been the equivalent to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, or the Braddock or the Woodside.

CH:    Exactly.  From there, that was the number-one club or joint… That was super big-time, where all the big bands played.  Then right outside of Hollywood, in Culver City, there was a club, which I forget the name of.  They had at least half-a-dozen big, big rooms, big joints where all the bands played, which made it very lucrative for bands to come to the West Coast, from the Palladium to the Ambassador Hotel.  But Central Avenue was the avenue, man.  When I was a kid, I used to burn matches and make a moustache so that I could look old enough to go in these joints.  This is when Duke Ellington’s band with all these guys, Ben Webster, the people who invented this kind of music, who really did it, were on the scene…

TP:    When the bands would come out, the musicians would also circulate after-hours or in other situations, and you would have contact…

CH:    This is what I’m getting ready to say.  After the gigs, we all hung out at a place called Lovejoy’s which was a joint on Vernon and Central, right on the corner, upstairs.  Man, many a night I used to stay in there until 7 and 8 o’clock playing, jamming, and man, I’d have to rush home and go to school… I was in high school, and I’d do everything I could to get the cigarette smoke off of me.  But man, we had a ball; we would have a ball.  This is how I learned to play.  One thing about it, the pros helped us; they helped all the young players.  They would listen to you and you’d get a chance to play with them, and they would advise you, give you some tips on what to do and what not to do.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether that still happens today.  It was really, really different.

When I got drafted and went to the War and came back, it was a different Central Avenue altogether — completely different.  Before I went, all the movie stars and everybody used to hang out on Central.  That was it.  It was just like hanging out on Broadway here in New York at one time.  But when I came back from the War, music had changed completely.  As opposed to the Swing thing, we were into the Bebop.  Miles, Diz, Bird, Erroll Garner — everybody was in Hollywood at that time.

TP:    You got back when?

CH:    Late ’45.

TP:    Right around when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker got into Billy Berg’s.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Did you come from a musical family?

CH:    No.

TP:    Where did the inspiration to play music initially come from.

CH:    That’s a very good question, man.  I don’t know.  I’ve always…music has just… First of all, I’ve never done anything else but play music, or make music, or been into music.  My closest friend at the time, who is still my best friend, Jack Kelso, had a clarinet, and I figured since he had a clarinet that I’m gonna get me one; I want to play because my best friend is playing.  We were both about 7 or 8 years old, something like that at that time, and that’s how it worked out.  To play drums just was a sheer accident, because my older brother was fooling around with the drums in the school orchestra when we were both in grade school, and when he graduated, they didn’t have a drummer, so I just said, “Hey, since he’s my brother, I might as well play.”  And I went in, sat down and started playing.  I had no idea what I was doing.  And the next thing I know, I had the gig, because nobody else wanted to play.  Other than that…

TP:    Did anybody give you lessons outside of school?

CH:    Yes.  A friend of mine… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Oscar Bradley.  Oscar Bradley was on the West Coast; he was the drummer with Les Hite’s orchestra.  I used to hear them play.  They used to rehearse ar a playground near where I lived.  Before I went into the Service, I took some lessons from Lee Young, Prez’ brother.  That was about the size of it.

When I went into the Service, there was a drummer by the name of Billy Exiner, who played with Claude Thornhill.  Billy taught me how to read music.  He’d climb over a mountain, man!  It was two camps then, and one was Black and one was White.

TP:    This was at Fort McCullough.

CH:    Fort McCullough, Alabama, man.

TP:    It’s known infamously in jazz history because of the treatment accorded Lester Young and Papa Jo Jones.

CH:    I was there, man, when that happened.  But Billy Exiner taught me how to read drum music.  Actually, I was more or less self-taught.  Then when I came out of the Service I enrolled in the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill.  That’s when I really got serious about… Well, I was serious about playing, period.  I was blessed because I always was able to hear things.  I used to depend upon my ear as far as music was concerned, for arrangements, cues and things like that.  The fact is that as a teenager, man, I was playing shows, burlesque shows, where you’ve really got to catch all the cues, all the kicks and things like that.

TP:    Tell me more about the gigs you had when you were a teenager.  When did you first play for a sum of money, and how much was it?

CH:    A sum of money?  It was 75 cents; like, a half-dollar and a quarter.  My friend Jack Kelso and I used to play in a neighborhood band led by a man named Myers, who we called Old Man Myers.  He had a family band.  One of his sons played piano, another one played trumpet, another one played trombone.  It was very common during that time for families to have family orchestras.  Most families who were musical had a band…

TP:    Such as Lester Young’s family, Louis Jordan’s family, Oscar Pettiford’s family…

CH:    Exactly.  So it was a very common thing.  Jack was playing alto saxophone by that time, and I played drums, and we joined the band.  We would rehearse and rehearse, and we’d play.  As far as the gigs were concerned, we would drive for half-a-day, it seemed like, outside of L.A. to play a lot of different roadhouses.  We had a kitty, and people would give us money to play certain tunes.  Funny thing, the name wouldn’t be up there.  They wouldn’t say “Myers’ Orchestra”.  They would say “All-Colored Orchestra.”

TP:    Did that mean that they could expect to hear a certain type of music?  Were you expected to play in a certain way.

CH:    That was the feature.  They knew that at least we wouldn’t be Country music or some down-home stuff or whatever.

TP:    What type of things did you play in that orchestra?

CH:    We played just the regular standard music, the old standard tunes like “Stardust.”  No original material.  We just played time whatever was popular on the radio at that time.  It was relatively simple.  As far as I was concerned, I just had to keep time.  He wouldn’t let me use sticks; I always had to use brushes.  I’ll tell you, man, I ended up… Every important job that I got seemingly was due to the fact that I could brush, keep time, and be smooth and cool with it.  Because I spent about 15 years or more just being an accompanist, playing for singers.  But during that time I wanted to play with sticks and he wouldn’t let me.  Every time I’d pick up the sticks he said, “Put them sticks down!”

Jack and I used to come home… Sometimes we’d make a buck-and-a-half.  Riding for about four or five hours, then playing until 2 or 3 in the morning kind of thing.  This was on the weekends, Fridays and Saturday nights.

TP:    And you were 14-15-16 when this was happening.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    At the same time, you were at Jefferson High School, which had one of the most distinguished music programs among Black high schools in the country, and one of the great music teachers, Samuel Browne…

CH:    Well, first of all, Jefferson High School wasn’t a Black high school.  It was a school in the area, on the East Side.  As a matter of fact, man, it was one of the most beautiful schools in the whole state of California.  It was the duplicate of Monticello, Jefferson…

TP:    Built along the lines of Greek Classical Architecture.

CH:    Yes.  And there was no such thing as all-Black.  There were just as many White students as Black students.

TP:    So the community wasn’t as segregated as it later became.

CH:    The community wasn’t segregated at all.  Because it was a deep mixture.  I was born that way.  I grew up that way.  So it didn’t become…well, if you want to refer to what is a ghetto, what is not a ghetto… It didn’t become a reservation, man, until after the War, when the War started.  Because as people progressed financially, they moved to different areas.  In fact, the only ghetto area in L.A. at that time was one called Ball Heights, which consisted of a lot of Yiddish, you know…

TP:    The Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles was the only real enclave based on ethnicity or race.

CH:    Exactly.  And when those people became successful, they moved to Beverly Hills.  They started up Beverly Hills.

TP:    I’d still like you to talk about Samuel    Browne.

CH:    Well, Sam Browne was a very good instructor, a very good teacher.  But I don’t think he dug me and I didn’t dig him.  I didn’t really take music in school.  As a matter of fact, he used to give me hell because I was gigging at night, getting to school sometimes on time, sometimes not on time.  I wasn’t in the school orchestra at that time, with Dexter and Jack and James Nelson and all those guys.  As a matter of fact, I was working with Lorenzo Flournoy working for Billy Berg, at his first place, called the Club Capri.

TP:    This was around ’38 or so?

CH:    ’38, ’39, something like that.  This is before Prez left Basie.  I was big-time, man.  I think we were making about $37 a week, which was a lot of dough.  I had my own car.  I was slick. I was cool.  But I was already playing… The only reason why I joined the school band was to get a sweater, which they gave you, and I could go to the games free.

TP:    That band played a rather challenging repertoire.  According to Art Farmer, who was there in 1945, they played Dizzy Gillespie charts at that early time!

CH:    Well, yeah.  See, that was after my time.

TP:    What was he doing in the late 1930’s?

CH:    They were playing Swing music.  Some Ellington things, Earl Hines kind of things, Horace and Fletcher Henderson, those kind of charts.  But here again, I never did anything with them.  But the band that came out of Jefferson was a band called Al Adams during that period.  We formed that band, which was myself, Dexter, James Nelson, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette, Mingus, Lady Wilcor(?), my brother-in-law James Henry, who was a trombone player, Ernie Royal was in it.  We were all about 15-16-17 years old.  As a matter of fact, when Illinois Jacquet first came to L.A. he joined us, and he was about 16 at that time.  Man, this band, we raised so much hell… If a union band had a gig and it was paying $5 we’d take the gig for $4 We raised so much hell with the union, they made a deal with us, and we got into the union practically for nothin’!  They were so happy…

TP:    Get rid of the competition.

CH:    From then, we were all in union.  I think we paid something like $7 to join; it was ridiculous.  But then we started rehearsing at the union.  One fantastic thing that happened was that all the bands when they’d come in, like Jimmie Lunceford, would rehearse at the union, so we had a chance to hear them…

TP:    So you had a chance to get up close to Jimmy Crawford or Jo Jones…

CH:    Oh, man, I’m trying to tell you… And next thing we know, we were doing everything that they were doing, note-for-note, beat-for-beat.  We would imitate them.  We started playing all the school dances, and we would sound like Jimmie Lunceford, we’d sound like Basie… It was dynamite.  Because from that band, the experience I got playing with big bands, and all of us went on to different things and different areas…

I think I was around 16 years old when I got the call to Lionel Hampton’s first band, that “Flying Home” band.  Man, I lasted about two or three weeks, because I wasn’t ready.  I did get that experience, but I wasn’t quite ready.

TP:    What were you lacking, would you say?

CH:    Well, my reading was bad.  I depended upon my ear at that time, and my sight reading wasn’t… I could play, man. I could swing.  I could keep good time.  But reading the charts, following the charts down. I couldn’t do it too well.  I wasn’t quick enough.  They’d waste a lot of time going over different sections just so I could get it.  That’s the band where “Flying Home” became a famous thing.

But when I got fired out of that band, that turned my whole life around, my whole career.  I really got serious.  I’ll never forget the day that they gave me my notice… A friend of mine…well, he wasn’t a friend, but a big-time dude that knew me who was a player, said, “Listen, kid.  You’re hurt now, but don’t let it get to you.”  It turned my whole life around, man.  I really got serious about what I was doing.  From there I got drafted, and this is when I started doing my number as far as learning.

TP:    In our previous show, you mentioned that in the big bands of the 1930’s, something we can’t hear properly on records is how the drummers shaped the sound of the band, like Jimmy Crawford or Papa Jo Jones or Sonny Greer.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Now, when you were in the Al Adams band, emulating the sounds of those bands, were you emulating the styles of those different drummers.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    So you had reached that level of proficiency.

CH:    Yeah.  I could play, man, and I could always keep good time.  I had some funny kind of ideas as far as my solo ideas were concerned.  I wasn’t a straight up-and-down kind of a player.  I have never been interested in being fast, have chops like the Buddy Rich kind of thing.  There’s nothing wrong with that particular style of drummer, but I’ve never been interested in it.  I’m into sound.  I’m into making sounds or creating sounds or inventing sounds, then taking the sounds and creating a mood.  The supply and then the demand, that type of thing.  But at the time, I could play just like Jimmy Crawford if we were playing a Lunceford type of tune.  If we were playing a Basie type of tune, I was Jo Jones.  It was groovy.  It was cool.

It didn’t get confusing, man, until I came out of the Army.  The first dude I heard… Man, I was in Oakland, California, playing a show, in which one of the acts was the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr.  We were doing 7 and 8 shows a day, that type of thing.  Then we heard Billy Eckstine was going to play a dance that night, a Friday night in Oakland.  Needless to say we couldn’t wait to get off after of the last show…

TP:    This was with a band called Floyd Ray.  A young Art Farmer was in it, Hampton Hawes…

CH:    Yeah, Art, Hamp.  I’ll tell you something funny as hell that happened when we were up there.  I was taking a solo, my big moment, and Mingus came out with a hammer and started hammering on the bandstand while I was playing! [LAUGHS] I got so teed off at him, man…

Anyway, to make a long story short: We heard Eckstine’s band that night.  That’s when he had Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, “Blowing The Blues Away”, and Art Blakey was on drums.  Man, I had never heard anybody play like this before in my whole entire life!  I was just flabbergasted!  Art Blakey turned me completely around.  I had never heard anybody play the Bebop style of drumming.

TP:    How would you describe that in relation to what Jo Jones and Sonny Greer were doing in terms of your perceptions at the time?

CH:    For instance, Swing, you keep a steady beat going on the sock cymbal, which is the side cymbal, or even the top cymbal — DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING.  You keep that going.  DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING, and every once in a while you might do something with your left hand.  But in playing Bop the way Art Blakey played, he kept something going, DING, DI-DI-DING, but meantime, man, he’d dance between his left hand and his right foot.  DE-DUM, DE-DUM, DE-DUM, BOP!!  CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM, CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM.  Just dancing all the way through, keeping time, and the band was hitting… It worked!  I’d never had no idea of this style of playing.  I was just flabbergasted.

So the next morning, back at the theater, first show, I’m playing for Sammy Davis and his uncle and his father, and we’re playing, keeping time, then all of a sudden, I decided I was going to drop one of these bombs — BOP, BOOM!!  I did that, man, and Sammy’s father, his uncle, they stopped, turned around, and said, “What are you doing?!”

TP:    You didn’t do that any more, huh?

CH:    Oh, Ted, it was unbelievable.  After the show, he came up to me and said, “Listen, son, you’re our favorite drummer.  Don’t do that!” [LAUGHS] I’m just reminiscing.  It was funny as hell.  But I’m saying this is the first time I’d been turned around.

TP:    When you heard Art Blakey, had you been to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s club?

CH:    I had just come out of the Army.

TP:    And you went right out on that job?

CH:    I went right out.

TP:    Did you get to see that band during that particular engagement in December ’45 and January ’46.

CH:    No, I didn’t.  But I played with Bird.  After that, during ’45 and ’46, everybody was out on the West Coast.  And I used to jam with Bird all the time.  There was a place on Central Avenue, the Downbeat, Billy Berg’s…

TP:    There was a place called Jack’s Nest.

CH:    Jack’s Nest.

TP:    And the Finale Club in Japan-Town where Howard McGhee had a band.

CH:    Yeah.  Maggie was…all the guys.  It was just a happening.  Roy Porter and Chuck Thompson were the popular drummers around that time in L.A. when I got out.  Roy was a Bebop drummer moreso than Chuck Thompson was.  That’s when Wardell Gray and all those guys… It was a happening.

TP:    There’s a recording from 1946 of you backing Lester Young.  What was it like as you for a drummer to play behind Charlie Parker, purely on the rhythmic level?  That must have really developed your conception of the instrument.

CH:    Charlie was really nice to me.  Well, he was nice to everybody, man.  He was a brilliant man, a brilliant human being.  Not only did he encourage you to play, but he gave everybody a shot, the rhythm people at least, to keep some time for him, just to play, to make a gig.  All I know is hey, man, he was a helluva saxophone player.  It was entirely different from me playing with Prez or playing with guys who swung in regards to this new style of playing.

Howard McGhee helped me quite a bit with getting into Bebop playing and understanding what the concept was all about, and the phrasing.  That was most important thing, how you phrased, in playing this particular style of music, leaving space in the rhythm so you can fill up the holes.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know anybody right now who can explain that.  I can’t. [LAUGHS] It’s a style of playing that the concept came about by Diz, Bird, Monk, people like that.  Strangely and oddly enough, when they left the West Coast, that particular style went East.  It didn’t linger on the West Coast.  Shorty Rogers and all those guys, people like that, they come out of the Kenton area, and Stan Kenton’s band was a Swing band… I don’t know, it just left.  Years later when I came back and started my own thing, the quintet with the cello, flute and guitar, we were the furthest thing in the world from playing Bebop, that particular style.

[MUSIC: Prez-CH, “New Lester Leaps In” (1946); C. Hamilton Trio (Duvivier-Roberts) “Street of Drums”, “Nuttye” (1955); CH-5, “The Morning After” (1956); w/ Billie Holiday, “Too Marvelous For Words” (1956); CH-5, “Gone Lover” (1956)]

CH:    This was the first time in the history of recordings that a drum and a guitar and a bass had been recorded as solo instruments alone, as the featured instruments, as opposed to being in a rhythm section.  Up until that time, the rhythm section, which consisted of piano, guitar, bass, drums, was always just a section — it was never featured.  The fact that we did this… Dick Bock promised to record me because of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet things.  Part of the deal was that each one of us would have an album.  Doing this, it was really something, because nowhere before in this particular form of music, known aa Jazz, had you heard anything like this.  Guitar, bass and drums was very common in Country music and things like that, but not presented as Jazz, solo instruments.

TP:    What were some of the inspirations for the idea?  You mentioned playing in a lot of different situations as a professional drummer, including Chet Atkins, and you undoubtedly heard the Nat Cole Trio and others that used guitar and bass.

CH:    I played with Nat Cole also.  As a matter of fact, Nat played for my wedding.  I can’t BS your listeners and say I had an inspiration.  It just happened.  The fact is, I had an opportunity to make an album, and I just thought of something to be different.  Because the previous albums I’d done with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet became unbelievably big as far as record buyers and record listeners were concerned, a different concept having a trumpet, baritone saxophone, bass and drums.  So I just more or less fell into the same pattern just by having… I was very fortunate, because George Duvivier and myself at that time were working with Lena Horne, and I knew Howard Roberts and liked the way he played, so when the opportunity arose we just did it, and it came off.  It came off beautifully, I thought.  When you stop to consider the fact that this is 1996, it still holds up today as contemporary as far as the sound and feeling are concerned.

TP:    We’ll step back and ask Chico for word portraits of some of the musicians he was associated with and friends with at different points of his career.  I’d like to ask you about Lester Young’s manner as a bandleader, and the kind of relations you had with him.

CH:    Let me tell you something about Prez.  Prez was one of the most sensitive human beings I have ever met or heard of.  He was a very sensitive man.  And he was total, total music, man.  Prez, Eric Dolphy, people like that… He was totally music.  Prez had a tremendous sense of humor for one thing.  Half the time I don’t know whether he was putting me on or putting everybody on or what.  But he was cool.  He was very cool.  Also he was very proper.

TP:    Well-mannered, you mean?

CH:    Well-mannered in regards to being respectful.  Prez was cool, man.

TP:    Did he have a nickname for you?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Yeah, he had one for me… Yeah, he was cool.  In fact, Prez introduced me to Roy Haynes, and Roy and I became friends after that.  But Prez would call everybody “Miss.”  Miss Hamilton, Miss so-and-so; everybody was “Miss” as far as Prez was concerned.  As a matter of fact, the original word “smothertucker” came from Prez, heh-heh.

TP:    He had a house as well in Los Angeles where a number of people would stay?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Any memories of that house?  I gather it was a congregating spot.

CH:    No, no… I recall when I first met Prez, it was one of those days I played hooky from school, and we were all meeting over at Lorenzo Fluornoy’s house, because he was having a session.  We used to put the pots on.  In other words, Lorenzo would cook a great big pot of beans or something like that, and all the musicians in L.A. used to come by his pad.  This particular day I came by there, and the screen door was open, and I looked in and I saw Prez, and I saw this lady that was sitting on Prez’ saxophone case who was Lady!  I told (?), “Hey, man, that’s Lady!”  Sure enough, when I got into the house, he said, “Miss Hamilton, Miss Day.”  That’s when I first met Lady.  She was something else, man; she was really something else, too.

TP:    You mentioned Mingus on the tour up and down the West Coast with Floyd Ray, coming out and banging on the bandstand during one of your solos.  You went way back with him.

CH:    Oh, man, we were almost kids together type of thing.

TP:    You grew up near each other.

CH:    Well, no.  I was in L.A.  He was in what they called Central Gardens, which was between L.A. and Watts.  But my wife and Charlie and Buddy Collette, all went to Sunday School, all went to the same church.

TP:    Do you remember which church?

CH:    No.  I didn’t make it! [LAUGHS] Oh, man, I guess we go back to 12 or 13 years, back when we were youngsters.  People say Charles used to do crazy things, but hey, he was always like that.  He was always a mischievous kid, that kind of thing.  We got along beautifully.  As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of spending some time with him before he passed away…

TP:    You and Mingus and Buddy Collette all knew each other, then, from back when.

CH:    Right.  Buddy had a great influence upon Charlie.  As a matter of fact, Buddy was Charlie’s mentor.  Even up until the time he had got out of Dodge, man, he would always call Buddy.  Every time he had a problem or would run into something, Buddy was his mentor… As a matter of fact, Charlie was playing cello before he played bass, and Buddy talked him into playing bass as opposed to playing a cello.  These guys out in South Los Angeles, they had a band, and we used to jam, and all of a sudden when the main hit came… We all auditioned for one job at the Orpheum Theater, I think it was, to play this show.  Buddy had his band there, and we had our band (the Al Adams Band), and we got the job.  But we needed Buddy and we needed people like that. [LAUGHS] So that’s how we all became one band.  Man, they had a helluva show.  The comedian was Mantan Marlan, and I forget who the big star singer…Ninah Mae McKinney… These were superstars at the time, and we were the pit band.  That’s how we ended up being one very good band.

TP:    In thinking of the types of influences that made the music of the Chico Hamilton Trios and Quintets have a distinctive sound, a lot of the music sounds narrative, like there’s a very specific image in mind, and it would seem influenced in many ways by your exposure to show music and those type of arrangements, film music and things like this.

CH:    I’ll tell you.  The years that I spent as Lena Horne’s accompanist, I was influenced very heavily by Lennie Hayten, her husband.  Between Lennie Hayten and Luther Henderson, my concept as far presentation began to happen, to make things dramatic, make things un-dramatic, whatever…to start creating moods.  I guess the real me started to happen.  I’ve always been a different kind of player.  It was totally impossible for me to try to play like Max Roach, you know, or Art Blakey or Gene Krupa, Jo Jones…

TP:    That was part of the ethos of the time anyway, was for players to develop an individual sound.

CH:    You took a little bit from him, you took a little bit from him, and a little bit from him, and put it all together, and all of a sudden it became you.  That’s what it amounts to.

TP:    By the way, on the liner notes to one of these old LPs, which are an invaluable source of information, you mentioned briefly playing with Jimmy Blanton while the Ellington band was in Los Angeles in 1941, I guess.

CH:    I sure did.  As a matter of fact, I had gone to the movies with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just come home from the movie, and it was about 5 in the afternoon, and when I walked up to the porch door, her mother came out and said, “Forrest, Mr. Ellington… They’ve been calling you all day!”  And I said, “Who…?” — that kind of thing.  Sitting in the car was Herb Jeffries, and he said, “Man, we’ve been waiting on you.  Duke wants you to play.”  Sonny became ill, and they were playing the Casa Mañana out in Culver City.  Here again, man, I was about 19 years old, something like that.  And man, I went out there… We came in through the backstage (because you came in through the back), and the band is playing, and the band was swinging, so man, I just knew they had a drummer up there.  My heart stopped.  I was sort of disappointed, because I really was looking forward to it.  It turned out the band was just hitting, playing its keister off!  I went up there and climbed up, way up on the pyramid type of thing…

TP:    Well, with Jimmy Blanton, sometimes you might not need a drummer…

CH:    Well, at that time, the band set-up was… Sonny Greer was on the top of the band.  The band like a pyramid; it came down in pyramids.  And way down by Duke, by the keyboard, was Jimmy Blanton.  So they were playing, oh, something like “Don’t Get Around Much” or one of those tunes, and man, I just sat down and started playing and started sweeping, and next thing I know, Jimmy Blanton turned around and looked up [LAUGHS], and he says, “Wow!”  Anyway, I stayed on there for a couple of weeks.

TP:    Did you get drafted shortly after that?

CH:    A little later, after I got married.  I was about 21 years old.  But one thing about young players at that time, we had all the records.  Every time a record would come out, man, I had the record, and we would listen to the band.  I knew everything everybody did in the band with the solos.  I could hum or whistle the solos just note-for-note almost.  So this made it really easy in a sense, because I depended upon my ear to play with those bands, to keep the time, because I knew the arrangements.  It wasn’t a question of me reading music, because number-one, man, neither Duke nor Basie, when I joined the bands…there wasn’t one stitch of drum music.  You either knew the charts, or that was it.  So this is how I got around that.

TP:    I think one thing about a lot of the drummers of that period, Art Blakey being a great example, is that he could take a piece of music, and then just know it and transform into his thing.

CH:    Well, you develop that.  That’s something you develop.  For instance, the average arranger, he’d write something for the brass section, the reed section or whatever, and write something for the keyboard and bass, would then say to the drummer, “Hey, you know what to do; you’ve got it.”  Because it was totally impossible for an arranger to write a drum chart, to make it swing.  If it’s a march type of thing, that’s something else.  That’s something different. But to write a Jazz chart and make it swing, you don’t need a drum part.  You give the drummer the first trumpet part.  Because that’s where he’ll make the hits.  He’ll play the same kind of figures that the trumpet players would play, more or less.

TP:    Dexter Gordon is another of your contemporaries from teenage years.  And you mentioned on first hearing the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, it was Jug and Dexter.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    I think in a previous interview you described Dexter as being a kind of pied piper as a youngster, who had his horn out all the time.

CH:    We used to call him Big Stoop. [LAUGHS] Dexter.  Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he constantly had his clarinet in his mouth, all over.  That was it.  He was just clarinet, clarinet, this type of thing.  Man, no one really made the progress that Dexter did.  By the time he left L.A., man, automatically he became a giant.  He became something else, and he gained the respect of all the pros, all the heavyweight players — Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Prez, people like that.  Prez was the master.  They all tried to simulate… As a matter of fact, we even tried to walk like Prez, talk like Prez, even the porkpie hat…

TP:    Hold the horn sideways.

CH:    What a lot of people don’t know is Prez held the horn that way because he had a problem.  Most people thought he was doing that for show, but he wasn’t.  He did that in order keep the pressure off his gums.

TP:    That’s why he didn’t put the mouthpiece all the way in his mouth.

CH:    Right.  And that’s one of the reasons for the sound he got, which was a beautiful sound.  That was the bottom line to it.  It wasn’t a question of him doing that just for show.  That was the only way he could play his horn.

We came up beautifully, let’s put it like that.  As young as we were, we were all total music, too.

TP:    It seems like those musical values were instilled in you right from the beginning of playing music.  If you were going to go out and play in the community, you had to have certain things right.

CH:    Exactly.  Even today, man, you never… Music, first of all, deserves to be played well at all times, regardless of whether it’s two people in the place, or if you’re playing in the men’s room or the lady’s room.  Music deserves to be played well.  I grew up with this understanding.  I believe that music is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  That’s what keeps it going forever and forever and forever.

TP:    Back to Lester Young, let’s go back to Fort McCullough, Alabama, and your recollections of that experience.

CH:    Man, that was a bad time period.  It’s part of my past that I don’t want to… It was devastating.  It was very devastating for the simple reason that I’m in the Service, I’m not in the band, but I’m attached to the band.  I’m a drummer, and in my company they made me the company clerk and made me a bugler.  The Drum Corps master knew that I was a drummer, but he made me play bugles, just to show you what was going on.  And when Prez… Now, they attached me to the band, so I wasn’t in the band, but whenever a show came through there, I had to play the show, because they had three drummers in the band and none of them could play the show.    So when Prez and Jo came through there, man, they had guys in this band that couldn’t even hold their instruments.  I mean this.  And these people wouldn’t let Jo Jones and Lester Young in that band.  It was disgraceful.  It was unbelievable.  I still can’t get over it.  But it’s part of my past.  It’s just like a lot of other things that happened down there. [LAUGHS]  I don’t want to talk about that.

TP:    It sounds like the most positive thing that happened there was meeting Billy Exiner and learning how to read music.

CH:    That was the most positive thing that happened to me, along with meeting some guys who became my lifelong friends.  Jimmy Cheatham, for instance, was one of the guys who was in the band.  But other than that… Hey, that was then.  This is now.

TP:    Right.  And in our radio chronology, we’re around 1958 in Chico’s music.  The track we’ll hear features a pianist whose name is unknown to me…

CH:    Freddie Gambrell.

TP:    He, bassist Ben Tucker and Chico form the trio.

CH:    Listen, I met this kid in San Francisco.  He’s blind, and he could play his keister off, as you will hear.  This is very rare for the simple reason I haven’t recorded with piano players that much — period.  I played with Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and I did a lot of things with Nat, but it was different, a big thing where he was singing…

TP:    Studio productions.  But with Art Tatum you played as part of the trio?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk a little bit about playing behind Art Tatum?  Was keeping all you had to do, or did you embellish?  What did Art Tatum want from a drummer?

CH:    Well, you’d just try to realize where he was going all the time.  It was dynamite, it was cool.  It was easy playing with Art, in a sense, because all you had to do was swing, keep good time, and that was it.  It was just an accompanying kind of thing; that was it.

TP:    You just worked with him in Los Angeles?

CH:    Just in L.A.  I think we played maybe the 333… Just joints all over L.A.  Clubs, that is.

[MUSIC: CH w/ F. Gambrell, Ben Tucker, “Lullaby Of The Leaves” (1957); Tony Bennett, “Lazy Afternoon”; CH-5 w/ B. Collette (ts), P. Horn (as), “Take The A-Train” (1958); CH-5, Dolphy-Katz, “Something To Live For” (1958)]

CH:    Beat Of My Heart with Tony Bennett was a dynamite record.  Tony and I talked about that during when I was playing for Tony, keeping time for him, the combination of keeping time and playing with my own group… Matter of fact, I was in Philly, at the Showboat when they decided to do it, and I had to come up to New York.  It came off beautifully.  Jo Jones is on there as well.  It was really something.  Now, Tony has always had a good sense of time.  His phrasing is really very unique.  Besides, I like him.  We’re friends.  We’ve been friends a long time.

TP:    The first track featured pianist Freddie Gambrell, who seems not to have been heard much from since.  That really orchestral piano style.  He’d obviously listened some to Ahmad Jamal at that time…

CH:    I don’t even know if he’d heard of Ahmad Jamal then, because I don’t think Ahmad Jamal was known on the West Coast during that period.  This was just a young kid, man.  He was blind, but he could play his keister off.  Fantastic pianist.  Matter of fact, every time I would be in Frisco, there was an after-hour joint where we used to hang out called Slim’s, and we’d go in there and jam all night long.  The night I came in and heard him, he was sounding so good, I wanted to play with him.  So we sat up and played, and I think we played until 9 or 10 o’clock the next day, he and I and I don’t recall who was playing bass at the time.  But here Dick Bock had given me an opportunity to record again, and I told him about this kid, and it all came about.

TP:    A couple of points you raised.  In talking about singers, you didn’t say “playing drums for”, but “keeping time for.”  Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine for a minute, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole.  What’s the difference between playing for a singer within an instrumental situation?  Why is it different?

CH:    Well, number one, you never know what a singer is going to do.

TP:    Does that mean that a singer who is a skilled improviser will treat the music differently, or something less complimentary than that?

CH:    Well, all respects to singers, because I learned how to play by playing for singers.  It calls upon… You have to have a magic wand and you have to be able to look into the future playing for singers.  Because singers are subject to do things on the spur of the moment.  It all depends on what their mood is all about.  If they get an idea in the middle of a phrase, if they decide they don’t want to phrase that way, it will just change automatically, as opposed to a horn player who is more or less restricted because there is just so much he can do.  In other words, there are only so many keys on the instrument, and he’s only got ten fingers on the horn — or three if it’s a trumpet.  Singers, first of all, have the perfect instrument, which is the human voice, and they do with what and do what with.  And to keep time for them… A lot of singers don’t know how to keep time.  They just sing the way that they feel, as if they were singing in the bathroom or in the shower.  So in order to make it cohesive as a drummer, you have to keep the thing going so that the other players, if it’s a piano and bass accompanying the singer, make some sense out of it, so it gives them some idea of where they are at all times.  Because a lot of times, a lot of singers don’t sing in tune.  They have no idea that they’re not in tune, as well as singing the melody or whatever the composition is or whatever the song is.

Overall, in playing for singers, you learn how to anticipate in regards to what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it.  I played for Lena Horne for eight years, and I only saw her once from the front, and that was when we were in Madison Square Garden.  All the rest of the time, the only thing I saw of her, man, was her keister.  I was right behind her.  I developed a system of watching her neck, and I could tell when she was going to reach for a note or something like that.  Playing for Lena was something else, because you never knew what Lena might decide…you never knew what tempo she was going to do something in.  She could sing, man.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a vocalist and for her musicianship… We’re all musicians.  You don’t have to be a player to be a musician.  In other words, I can’t tell you how to listen.  So everybody’s a musician as far as I’m concerned.

TP:    Tell me about your brief time with Billy Eckstine.  Or how brief was it?

CH:    With B?  I did several shows with B.  That had to be in the late ’40s and then the beginning of the ’50s.  Well, number one, B was a trombone player, a musician, and Mr. Class.  He was cool!  He was one of my favorite singers, him and Johnny Hartman.  B contributed a lot, man, to the contemporary style of not only singing, but phrasing and songs, good songs.  B sang good songs.  Everything he sang became a hit, was automatically a hit… Let’s put it this way.  Everything he recorded became big.

TP:    Well, he was a style-setter.  Like you related the way people would wear Lester Young’s porkpie hat, everyone would try to dress like Billy Eckstine.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    He had a much greater impact than people realize on the generation of people who came up after World War Two.

CH:    Well, just like Sinatra influenced a lot of people, Eckstine influenced a lot of people.  He was very hip.

TP:    What was his manner like with the musicians?  He was always supposed to be totally at one with…

CH:    Oh, man, he was a sideman as far as he was concerned!  He was always one of the guys, one of the dudes.  B was cool.  I mean that in a complimentary sense.

TP:    I can’t remember if I asked you about playing with Lady Day or not.

CH:    Lady?  Playing with Lady was dynamite.

TP:    Now, she was unpredictable, but I’ll bet there was never any question about…

CH:    No, she wasn’t unpredictable as far as keeping time was concerned.  Lady swung.  Her and Ella were good swingers.  They swung.  Their phrasing was different.

TP:    Would she treat material differently from one performance to the next?

CH:    Not so much as Lena would.  Lena would treat material different.  Plus, a majority of Lena’s book, her library, her repertoire was very heavily arranged.  It was really a challenge, because it was very well arranged, and we always worked with 12-to-15 piece orchestras accompanying her, whereas with Lady it was Bobby Tucker and a bass player and myself sometimes, which was cool, which really kept a free, flowing kind of thing going.  With Ella it would be the same thing, small groups.

TP:    So the singer would be more like a horn really in a situation like that.

CH:    Well, they were.  Matter of fact, one of the hippest times I can recall playing with Lady, Wardell Gray was on tenor, Hampton Hawes was on piano, Curtis Counce was on bass, and I was on drums.  And man, we swung a hole in her head!  I’ll tell you, we had a ball.  It was a happening.

TP:    So by the mid-’50s, Chico, you were working behind a lot of singers, pretty steady work…

CH:    That’s the name of the game, man, steady work.  Go ahead.

TP:    I understand.  And you came up during the Depression, when you had to have a job.  That was the first order of business.  But I’d like to talk about the development of the Chico Hamilton group in its various configurations.  Of course you’d known Buddy Collette for a good twenty years by this time.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Fred Katz.

CH:    Fred worked with us with Lena Horne.  Lena was doing a production number called “Frankie and Johnny”, and wherever we went we had to have a string section.  We were here in New York, as a matter of fact, at the Copacabana, and it was during the “Frankie and Johnny” period, which was a huge production number, with singers and things like that.  Fred Katz was the cellist in that group.  We became friendly, playing together every night and that kind of thing.  At that time I had no idea that Fred was a pianist as well.  So to make a long story short, when I left Lena I went back to California — my mother was ill.  Just playing around town, I became very disappointed in some of my old cronies who I used to play with.  I didn’t feel as though they had progressed any.  They were still playing the same old kind of way and the same old kind of things.  I got bored.

I realized that the only way for me to play and keep it halfway interesting, I had to get my own thing started — and so I did.  Originally I was going to use the French horn.  There was a French horn player by the name of John Graas.  I had met Jim Hall, and I knew Carson from the Gerry Mulligan days.  Of course, I knew Buddy from growing up; I needed a triple-threat man to play alto, clarinet, tenor, flute.  So the first rehearsal we had, unfortunately, John Graas had a heart attack, so that was the end of that.  Out of left field I get a call from Fred Katz who said he was playing for a singer named Jana Mason, and would I help them out; they needed somebody to make a couple of things with them out at one of those Hollywood places.  So I said, “yeah,” and I went on out, and I played two nights with them.  One thing led on to another, Fred wanted to know what I was doing, and I told him about my group and about John passing.  He said, “What if I come up to the rehearsal and bring my cello.”  I said, “Yeah!”  So he came over, made the rehearsal… It happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time.  That’s the bottom line to it.

TP:    Is that a sound you had in your mind before forming that group?

CH:    No, at first I had French horn in mind (there’s no similarity, but there is a similarity), using the guitar, bass, drums and the horn.  So it developed, and then it went on and became history.

TP:    When Eric Dolphy joined the band in 1958, he came to you as a player who was well known to musicians in the Los Angeles area, a master, mature, 30-year-old musician, already proficient on flute, bass clarinet and alto sax.  When were you first in touch with Eric Dolphy, in the early part of the ’50s?

CH:    Eric followed Paul Horn.  When Paul left the band, I needed another horn player, and my brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton (he and Eric went to school together), recommended Eric.  I vaguely recalled Eric, but I had spent so much time out of L.A., back and forth, that I didn’t know… In the meantime I had called a very good friend of mine, the composer-arranger Gerald Wilson.  Eric was playing with Gerald at the time, and Gerald recommended him very highly.  So that was it.  Eric came on the band and read everything that we had, and sounded fantastic and played exceedingly well.  That was it.  I took him out and brought him east when we went out on tour.

It’s a funny thing.  Some people didn’t like him at first.

TP:    What was it about him that caused that reaction?

CH:    What caused that reaction was because they didn’t understand his style of playing.  Having heard the previous players in my band, people who had a straight-ahead kind of approach to melodies, Eric shook them up, which was dynamite as far as I was concerned.  I watched him grow.  I watched him grow.  I watched him develop into a tremendous player.  And next thing you know, he had a tremendous following going.  At that time I disbanded up that band in New York, and went back to California.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ Dolphy, “Gongs East (1958),” “Don’s Delight,” “Miss Movement” (1959), CH-5 (1992), “Mandrake”]

CH:    That set on touched on Chico Hamilton’s relationship through music with Eric Dolphy, three tracks, plus “Mandrake” from a recent dedication recording on Soul Note, My Panamanian Friend.  If I’m not mistaken, “Miss Movement” from 1959, was Dolphy’s first recorded composition, on which Chico Hamilton sings as well as swings throughout the recording.   On the liner notes to My Panamanian Friend, Jeff Caddick took down Chico’s recollections of Eric Dolphy, and as Chico mentioned before the music: “Every place we went all over the country, the first thing people would say was, ‘Get rid of him!’  Everybody wanted me to fire him.”  Of course you did not do that.  You told him that you needed the sound that Paul Horn and Buddy Collette provided before him, but on solos he was free to operate.  Has this always been the case with your groups that once the solo comes, it’s totally up to the individual…

CH:    You’re on your own.  You’re strictly on your own.  Any time you play music, well-arranged scores, compositions, etcetera, there has to be a certain amount of freedom of expression.  This is my way of letting players develop into what they want to be musically.  So I put no restrictions on anybody’s solo.  If you want to holler on your horn, it’s all right with me.  It’s cool.  Because at least you’re showing me hat you’re reaching for something.  This only way that you’re going to come into your very own as far as making music.  You have to be allowed, you have to be able to play what you hear, play what you feel.  There’s no problem playing notes that are written and arranged a certain way, a certain time meter, etcetera.  This is what Classical music is all about.  But to be able to have that freedom, that’s it.  This is one of the ways that Eric and all of us, in a sense, helped ourselves develop into what we are as players.

TP:    You mentioned again in the recollections in My Panamanian Friend that the second time this band went around the country, Eric Dolphy was accepted by most everyone who heard him, especially the musicians.  Everyone has a Sonny Stitt anecdote from the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, and so forth, and there’s another one here involving he and Eric Dolphy, with a slightly different resolution than most of the stories you hear.

CH:    Man, let me tell you.  We were in Philadelphia, and in all the clubs in Philadelphia you had to play a 5 o’clock on Monday and Saturday as well as playing at night.  We got in town a couple of days early, and Sonny Stitt was playing.  We were following Sonny Stitt in the club.  So we went to the matinee on a Saturday afternoon.  I think we’d just gotten in that morning.  I had Eric with me.  Eric always carried his horns with me.  We were sitting at the bar, the bandstand was over the bar, and all of a sudden Sonny looks down and sees me, and we speak, we acknowledge each other, and all of a sudden on the mike he says, “Hey, Cheeks, I hear you’ve got a little bad alto player.  Tell him to come up and play something.”  I said to Eric, “Yeah, man, go up and play.”  Sonny Stitt figured he was going to blow him off the bandstand.  So Eric came up, took his horn out, the alto, went up on the bandstand, they did the ensemble, the first chorus, and Sonny Stitt starts playing, plays his thing, does half-a-dozen choruses…

TP:    Played about eight keys…

CH:    Yeah, and things like that.  Then he looked at Eric and says, “You got it.”  Right?  Man, Eric started playing.  Sonny kept looking at me, looking at me, looking at me, looking at Eric: “Where did you get this guy?  Where did you get this guy?”  Eric was something else.  He blew Sonny Stitt off the stand, really.  And that’s saying something.

TP:    In the liner notes to The Three Faces of Chico Hamilton, on which “Miss Movement” appears, there’s a nice quote where you talk about creating an individual environment for each of the tracks with the standard drum kit.  You say, “It’s difficult for a drummer to play anything different than any other average drummer, although each drummer does have his own individual styling.  I use the standard equipment I have with me whenever the quintet takes the stand — two cymbals, sock cymbal, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drums.  I don’t use tympani because I’m not a timpanist; I don’t carry them around.  I work with sticks, mallets and brushes to obtain different sound textures.”  Now, on the 1992 version of “Mandrake” you put a whole different beat and feeling on it than the original with J.C.  Moses on drums.  It was done in a more free-floating time; you use more of a funk beat and so forth.  Talk about analyzing tunes and putting your own stamp on material.

CH:    Well, the fact that Eric Dolphy had done “Mandrake” originally… Well, this album was Jeff Caddick’s idea.  He put the bug in my ear, “Hey, why don’t you do something of Eric Dolphy’s?”  The more I thought about it, I began to realize that it would be dynamite, for the simple reason that people talk about Eric Dolphy, but I haven’t heard any contemporary musician play any of his music.  I’m talking about the contemporary musicians today, the people out here today who are supposed to be reputed Jazz players.  They play Bird, they play Diz, but I haven’t heard them play any Eric Dolphy.  Anyway, to make a long story short, this is why we said, “Yeah, let’s do an album of all Eric’s music.”  Number-one, his music isn’t that easy to play.  Most guys find it problematic structurally.  So in order to put a different twist on it, I just did a different kind of rhythm approach.  As opposed to giving it a straight 4, a Bebop 4, I just put a little Funk thing underneath there, a little Rock beat or whatever you want to call it.  It makes a difference.  As a matter of fact, it was so different that Bonandrini, who owns the record label, didn’t like it at all! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there anything else you’d like to say about Eric Dolphy before we move on with the music?

CH:    Eric Dolphy was perhaps one of the nicest guys, nicest person, really… He was a gentleman, and he was totally dedicated to playing, to music, to his instruments, etcetera, etc., and he was a very nice person — very nice.  He did a lot of things for people that they don’t even know he did for them.  He was very kind to everyone.  I don’t think he had a vicious bone in his body, man.  I’m very proud to have spent some time with him.

TP:    The next band, the next period of Chico Hamilton’s career featured four musicians who made their mark on music.  Charles Lloyd on reeds, who was able to give the triple-threat, and also went to USC, as did Dolphy; Gabor Szabo on guitar; Albert Stinson on bass, who had he not died as young as he did, would undoubtedly have made a big mark; and George Bohannon on trombone (a two-horn front line).  A few words about creating different repertoires, different vocabularies, different environments for new groups of musicians.  Are you tailoring the music to the personalities or are the personalities fitting your music?

CH:    Well, Ted, the bottom line to that is that old colloquial expression about “do with what and do what with.”  That says it all.  Do you understand that?  Or is that too far-fetched…or too unfetched?

TP:    That’s clear, I think.

CH:    That’s what I do.  I don’t know what anyone else does.  I learned that from the one and only Edward Kennedy, Mr. Duke Ellington, because he did it better than anyone in regards to tailoring everything he did around the player.

TP:    Now, Ellington chose very carefully and selectively the people who would play with him, 95 percent of the time, I’d think.

CH:    Yeah, but 95 percent of the time he composed or arranged something, he had a particular player or a particular sound in mind.  He had the player in mind.  He knew the sound, but he had the player, because he knew no other player would play it like the player would play it.

TP:    And that’s why he got them.

CH:    Well, you dig?  That’s the bottom line.  In my case I did the same thing.  I would change up on groups.  After so many… It’s not that you get bored, but you use a sound, you do a sound as long as you can, and go with it, and as long as it keeps that thing happening, then it’s dynamite. When the thing begins to not start happening, when it becomes not music, when you find yourself imitating yourself, when you find, “Hey, I’m so busy trying to be Chico Hamilton that I can’t even play,” you know what I mean, then you change up.  It becomes time to change.  No one did that any better than Miles.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Miles for doing things like that.  And Art constantly had new groups.  Once you find a young player and you help them develop, they’re supposed to move on.  And every time someone moves on, I don’t expect them to play like the previous group or the previous player.  Because here again, everyone’s got their own sound.  They need their own space.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ C. Lloyd and G. Szabo, “Witchcraft”, “People”; w/ Mariano and Richardson, “Manila”, “Conquistadores”, “Jim-Jennie”]

CH:    Man, I’m hearing some of this music for the second time.  I never play it.

TP:    You never play your old music?

CH:    No.  As a matter of fact, people when they come to my house, I play everything else but me, and they say, “Hey, why don’t you play something… We want to hear something of yours.”  But I don’t know.  Only rarely do I play any of my music.

TP:    Getting into talk show territory here, what kind of things do you listen to in relaxing and putting music in your consciousness?

CH:    I listen to all kinds of music.  I listen to Classical music, I listen to Rock-and-Roll, I listen to Country-and-Western, I listen to bad music, I listen to good music.  To me, it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I mean that sincerely.  The hip thing is to listen to something and don’t critique.  Just listen to what it is and what it’s all about, and try to put yourself in maybe the player’s shoes or in his place, and if you can understand what he’s doing, what he’s talking about, what he’s trying to say, that’s really dynamite.

TP:    It seems like in the mid-’60s, when you did this series of recordings for Blue Note, you were listening to Spanish music, the Flamenco sound among other things.  You really start using the properties of the guitar quite a bit.

CH:    First of all, at one I time I was the only guy that used guitar.  Everyone else was using the piano and keyboards and things like that.  From the very beginning, I was the guitar player’s best friend.  I’ve always used guitar.  It’s only within the last 15 or 20 years that other people have used guitars and their usage… I’m an originator, man!

TP:    I’m talking specifically about some the devices of Spanish music…

CH:    Oh, the Latin feeling, man.  It’s part of my life.

TP:    A lot of musicians in the Southwest worked in bands dealing with Mexican music, and I asked you off-mike if that had been part of your experience.

CH:    And what did he say?

TP:    He said, “Chicano music?  I have a little of that blood in me, that’s all.”  But I didn’t say it to them.  I’d like you to be saying it.

CH:    Hey, I don’t speak English; I play conga drum, man.

TP:    Well, last time you were talking of playing trap drums as opposed to hand drums, and the distinctiveness of the trap drum set as an instrument.

CH:    Well, there’s a big difference, man; a tremendous difference.  The fact that a drummer is playing a full set of drums, meaning that he has snare drum that he plays with his hands, he has a bass drum that he plays with his feet, and he has a sock cymbal, a hi-hat cymbal that he plays with foot, with his left foot if it’s right-handed, and you have cymbals that you’re playing on, that means you’ve got all four things going as opposed to a hand drummer, who has his hands.  I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for hand drummers, because man, their hands are their sticks, their implements, their brushes, their mallets.  Whereas a sit-down drummer, playing a regular set, you have to control each one of these separate instruments which completes the set, and to play, to keep some time and to keep a good rhythm pattern going along with a hand drummer, is… It’s more than a notion.  Because hand-drumming, when they play those hand drums, they get set on a beat.  TOCKY-TI-BOOM, TOCKY-TI-BOOM — that’s set.  Well, in order to get in between there and help it to swing, you’ve got to come up with something entirely different.  But that’s got to correlate, it’s got to groove, it’s got to hit that same pocket.  You’ve got to find out where the main pulse is, whether it’s on one or whether it’s on the upbeat or whether it’s on the downbeat.  If it’s on the downbeat, that means that anything that goes down is down, anything that comes up is up.  It’s not easy for the two to really hit it off and to make it happen, but when it does happen it’s dynamite, when a sit-down drummer and conga player and timbales player can really mash.  It’s cool.  And it was a helluva challenge in the beginning to get this sort of groove going.  It turned out so well that Bob Thiele, who was producing these records at the time… That’s the reason we did a whole series of them, which was cool.

TP:    In the ’60s, you had been in New York, then gone back to California when your mother was ill, then you went from being in the studios backing singers on the West Coast to doing a lot of commercials and being part of the New York studio scene, which was a very different deal.  Talk about your parallel activities during the 1960’s, when those records for Blue Note were being issued.

CH:    Well, I was on the road.  I was virtually on the road at the time.  Because in the Impulse days I had the quartet with Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo and Albert Stinson.  That’s mainly the Impulse period.

TP:    Say a few words about each of those musicians and how you recruited them.

CH:    The day that Charles graduated from USC is the day that he joined my band.  I took him on the road.  I took him out of L.A.  He couldn’t wait to get out of L.A.  He wanted to go on the road for the first time in his life.  And Gabor?  We were in Newport when Gabor first heard the group, and he was determined to play with me, play in my group.  As it came about, when I disbanded the cello group and put the word out I was going to form a new group, in some kind of way Gabor found out about it, and next thing I know I get a phone call from him.  Charles helped me to recruit Albert Stinson.  He knew Stinson from playing in Pasadena.  When Stinson first came in the band, he was only 16 years old.  He was a young genius as far as bassists are concerned.  Here again, man, I’m very fortunate.  There happened to be four guys in the right place at the right time.

TP:    A couple of other musicians of note appear in their early years on those recordings, like saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    Sadao’s a big superstar now.  He’s very big over in Japan, and I guess throughout Europe.

TP:    Was he part of your working group?

CH:    Yeah.

TP:    And ditto with Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    You know, there used to be a bar here in New York, one of the hippest bars in the whole entire world.  It was on 48th Street right off of 6th Avenue between 6th and 7th, and it was called Jim and Andy’s.  If you wanted to see or find out where everybody was, you went to Jim and Andy’s, and that’s where we hung out.  As a matter of fact, A&R Studios was right above the bar.  Well, I met Arnie Lawrence at the bar at Jim and Andy’s.  I think Clark Terry introduced us. At that time he and Clark were playing in the Tonight Show band.  One word led on to another, one drink led on to another, and we started hanging out every day.  After my sessions I would hang out there.  It just happened.  I told him, hey, I’m going to start putting something together, and he said he would be interested, and we just started rehearsing and getting it together.  I knew Larry Coryell from the West Coast, and introduced Larry and Arnie both on The Dealer, and the record was a winner.

TP:    Now, in the ’60s your personal style begins to expand vocabulary-wise, and incorporate rhythms from Rock and Funk and Soul Music and Latin Music.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk about the process of assimilating these different sounds in your vocabulary.

CH:    You know, if they keep moving they can’t hit you.

TP:    Is that like “sting like a butterfly, float like a bee”?

CH:    [LAUGHS] I don’t know, man… I could give you a big story, BS you about something, but in all honesty I don’t know why.

TP:    Does it have something to do with playing commercials and studio type things where you had to play a lot of different rhythms?

CH:    No.  I was very fortunate as far as my commercial career was concerned here in New York as a producer and a player, because I composed everything.  In order to be different from my competitors, the only thing different that could be would be the rhythms, not the melodic structure of a commercial.  So the fact that I would come up with different ideas, with different rhythm patterns and use them… Hey, once I played a pattern it was mine, and I just went on to use it to enhance upon it.

TP:    What are two or three patterns that were signature Chico Hamilton patterns in the ’60s?

CH:    Well, we have a thing here on a track we’re going to play called “Guitar Willie,” which I’d say would be a typical Chico Hamilton rhythm pattern type of thing.  It’s difficult for me to say how I play.

TP:    This one features Steve Potts, who was introduced with you, Russ Andrews, Eric Gale.  Ray Nance plays violin on this date, who I guess you must have first met when you hit with Ellington that time.  This one is called The Head Hunters… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: CH w/ Potts & Gale “Guitar Willie,” “Theme For A Woman”; CH live, w/ Mark Cohen, Abercrombie, “Without A Song” (1971); w/ A. Lawrence, Alex Foster, M. Richmond, B. Finnerty “In View” (1973); w/ A. Blythe, “Sweet Dreams” (1972)]

TP:    A long set of music    by Chico Hamilton from the late ’60s and early ’70s, incorporating electronic and contemporary sounds into his drum style, never losing a beat and creating fresh and original sounds and rhythmic figures.

The final set will focus on recent configurations with young musicians getting seasoning with Chico — Eric Person on reeds, Cary De Nigris, guitar, sometimes Kenny Davis on bass and sometimes no bassist.  Let’s talk about the formation of this recent group, which has produced as strong and cohesive and individual a body of music as any group you’ve had.

CH:    First of all, Cary and Eric, I raised them more or less.  They joined me when they were very young, young guys.  I think both were very new to New York at the time.  We’ve been together eight or nine years maybe… So over a period of time we’ve grown to know each other, know each other’s strong points and weak points in regard to music.  They’ve come into their not only as fantastic players, but very good composers and very good professional musicians.

TP:    Considering the quality of the saxophones you’ve employed since the early ’50s with Buddy College, what are you looking for from your reed and woodwind players?

CH:    First of all, if I feel as if they have something to say and I can help them study, it’s dynamite.  Do you understand that?

TP:    If they have a voice and you can help bring that voice out.

CH:    Exactly.  Because in the beginning they’re not fully  developed.  They don’t even know themselves what they want to do, or they have an idea but they don’t know how to go about getting there.  And fortunately, I am able to help them find a direction.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the ability to get around the instrument is a given once a player is with you, i.e., sound, facility, technique, knowledge of theory and so forth.  But is that the quality you’re looking for?  Is that inner voice looking to break out of the shell, so to speak, or to mature and grow?  Is that the main thing for you?

CH:    Well, one of the important things is that they have a desire to want to grow.  They have a story that they want to tell.

TP:    How do you determine that when you first meet someone?

CH:    Well, it’s not easy, but you can tell.  I’m not impressed with somebody who can play his keister off right away, that kind of thing, who can play the instrument extremely well.  It’s how much music comes out of it, which is a big difference as far as I’m concerned.  I’d rather hear a young player try to do something, and if he doesn’t make it, it’s cool — but at least he tries.   Which means he’s going to really stretch and develop into his own person, his own sound.  That’s the only way music can be different, as long as someone plays himself.  Because you never know… Being a young player, just like being a young person, from a teenager to young adulthood, you mature.  And when you have an opportunity to play the way that we play, the way I structure my sound, my music, my arrangements and things like that, I give full opportunity for a player to be himself and play himself.  That’s why over a period of years all these guys eventually become fantastic soloists as well as good players.  They come out of my band and start their own bands, become good bandleaders with an individual sound.  I guess that’s about as close as I can come to it.  That’s close enough for Jazz anyway, right?

The first track on the next set is a soundtrack from a German movie.  The director was Rudolf Tomei(?), and it was my first association with him.  Since then we’ve done several films.  The most fantastic thing about this score and working with this director, he never forgot why he hired me.  Most directors, somewhere down the line, when you record, they become the composer.  But this man let me do what I thought and the way I felt about his film, which was dynamite.  As a matter of fact, the film opens up with a guy on a bicycle going to the park with his baby daughter.  It’s almost self-explanatory when you hear it.

[MUSIC: CH Movie soundtrack, CH, “Sorta New,” “Jeffrey Andrew Caddick,” “Song For Helen,” “Every Time I Smile”]

TP:    Are you always writing new music?  Does this happen whether you’re working or laying off?

CH:    Always.  It goes in spurts, though.  If everything is right and I’m thinking good, and I come up with some ideas, I’ll just concentrate on writing.  Then when it’s time to play, I’ll just play.

TP:    Do you practice a lot?  Are you past practicing at this point?

CH:    No, I practice, man.  I’d better.  There’s too many young players out there, man!  No, I try to practice every day.  As a matter of fact, I get the guilts when I’m at the keyboard, because when I’m at the keyboard something says, “Hey, man, you should be playing your drums.”  And vice-versa, that type of thing.

TP:    What’s your practice regimen?

CH:    There’s a difference between practicing and rehearsing.  I rehearse with the group, but when I practice, I practice within myself and the instrument.  I try to keep my chops, my hands and my facilities very loose so that I can play, and to have the strength to play… I’m a high energy kind of a player, and if you’re not in shape, playing with these young guys who can play… Eric Person is unbelievable, Cary De Nigris is unbelievable, and we’ve got a new little bass player by the name of Kip Reed who’s for real, man.  So I get as much from them as they probably get from me.  As a matter of fact, I probably come out winners as far as the energy aspect of it and the musical thing.  But in practicing, I practice my instrument because I’m still trying to learn how to play it.

TP:    You mentioned Sonny Greer, Jo Jones and Art Blakey as the three major influences in forming your style.  I’m interested in other drummers apart from them who you’ve admired, perhaps been influenced by, perhaps not, and the reasons why.

CH:    Well, who I consider my peers, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, people like this, I marvel at what they do, the things they have to say drumnistically and the way that they play.  It’s fantastic.  For one thing, no two drummers can play alike, no two drummers can sound alike.  It’s the physical aspect; I might have long arms and they might have short arms, and vice-versa.  This is how you approach the instrument.  They each have something different that they’re saying.  Elvin is completely different from Max Roach, his playing, his style, his whole ambiance, his thunder.  It’s dynamite.  It really drives you.  Max is a classic within himself, within the realm of his ability to do the things he does on the instrument.  And Roy Haynes, here again, he’s completely different from Max.  And I’m completely different from all three of them.  Plus the fact, I like anybody, man.  Any young drummer, anybody who strives to play, because I know what it takes to play the instrument.

TP:    Any of the young drummer who’ve particularly impressed you, or don’t you want to name names.

CH:    Yeah, if I can remember them.  Pheeroan akLaff, I’m very impressed with his playing.  There are a lot of them.   It’s just a question of not remembering their names.  I don’t make the scene too much any more.

TP:    A few words about the drums and dance.  There seems to be sort of an ongoing dance between the drummer and his kit.

CH:    That’s what it’s all about.  The tap-dance.  That’s what drumming is all about, really.

TP:    Did you ever play with any tap dancers?

CH:    Did I ever play with any tap dancers!  Quite a few, as a matter of fact.  There was a tremendous dance team by the name of the Berry Brothers, there was a tremendous team named the Nicholas Brothers.  I kept time for them.  I think I played with Baby Lawrence at one time or another.  When you were in the big bands, that’s what you did.   You played for all those dancers.  Most bands when they were on the road, they were with a show.  There was a complete show.  They would have dancers and singers and things like that.  So you had to learn to play for dancers, which is an art within itself.  But laying down taps on one of my records… The last album I did, Dancing To A Different Drummer, I simulate a tap dancer dancing.  I do a brush solo, which is the same kind of thing, same kind of groove.


TP:    Chico Hamilton is a drummer who has gone through almost the full history of the music, and he’s experienced just about everything that a working drummer could, from Swing music to backing singers to tap dancers to studio dates and reading, and continued to pick up on contemporary rhythms and formulating a very distinctive and individual style to them.

CH:    I appreciate it immensely.  The chance to come into a studio like this and get to hear your music played for five hours consecutively is a privilege, in fact.  It don’t happen every day!

[MUSIC: solos, “Tap Drums,” “The Snare Drum”]

* * *

Chico Hamilton Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Charles Mingus, “Mysterious Blues” (from The Complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus, Mosaic, 1960/19__). Charles Mingus (bass, composer); Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Jo Jones, drums)

I don’t know whether that was Roy or not. It wasn’t Sweets. It might have been Roy Eldridge. That’s either a bad recording of Bird or Sonny Stitt. I don’t know. Neither one of them? I don’t know who it is. The drummer could be Denzil Best. It’s hard for me to detect whoever’s sweeping, you know. As a matter of fact, I’ve never heard this before – for one thing. [There are a few people here whom you know very well.] Was the drummer Jo Jones? Okay, that’s Jo sweeping. Is that George Duvivier? [How do you like the whole thing?] For then, it was good. It’s still good now, but it’s a little… It’s nothing I would retain. It’s just some guys blowing, as far I’m concerned. Dig? Today I’m not really into solos. I don’t care what you play in your solo. I’m more interested in the ensemble sound and things like that. So just listening to somebody blow… Hey, I’ve heard them all and I’ve played with half of them, which is cool. But I don’t know who this is. Who in the hell is that? [Charles Mingus is playing bass.] It was Mingus playing bass? See, now, Mingus and I grew up together. But I’ve never really heard him play like this. I’ve heard enough of this. I’d give it 5 stars. First of all, excuse my French, but they weren’t fucking around, man. They were playing! They were playing their hearts out. As far as the performance is concerned, that’s cool. The alto player moved like Sonny Stitt, but I don’t think Sonny was on the scene during that period. [When do you think it was recorded?] Man, it had to be recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. [It was Eric Dolphy.] That was Eric? I thought it was Eric, but I wasn’t sure. Honest to God.

2. Paul Motian Trio, “Dance” (from I Have The Room Above Her, ECM, 2005) (Motian, drums, composer; Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

I’ve never heard this before. Is this Ornette Coleman? Not having heard this before and not knowing who it is – and you want to know what I think of it? It’s a form of an expression… As far as I’m concerned, it takes all kinds of music to make music. If this is where your head is and your heart is and your listening vibes are, then it sounds right. If it’s not, it’s just some guys – as far as I’m concerned – doing whatever they do. Not to say that they’re doing it well. It’s every player for himself. Now, if there’s some form to it, they know the form. They got the secret. But I haven’t been able to pick up the form. [Any thoughts on the performers?] Well, there again, I’m from the school of having a pulse. I don’t get no pulse of whoever this is who’s playing, regardless of his chops. I’ve had it. It just sounds like they’re exercising. It’s difficult for me to give it stars. One of my favorite phrases is “how’s your feelings?’ That’s what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. If that’s the way they felt, dynamite. That’s cool. Far be it from me to say, “Man, they sound like shit.” But in my opinion, I couldn’t listen to this no more than once. I don’t even know what kind of groove they were trying to say. Who were they? The Paul Motian Trio? Lovano ain’t no Mulligan and what’s-his-name ain’t no Bill Evans, so he’s out there by himself as far as I’m concerned.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, #1″ (from Baby Dodds: Talking and Drum Solos, Folkways/Atavistic, 1946/2005) (Baby Dodds, drums)

Well, it has to be some drummer from either the ‘50s or ‘60s, because he’s just playing the straight 4/4 on his bass drum. He’s not playing any syncopation licks. Everything’s on the downbeat. A lot of guys played like that during that period. Who that is, it’s difficult to say. Basically, it’s a Gene Krupa style of playing as far as I’m concerned, from what I heard. But it’s not him. You got me. I don’t know who that is. It’s good, though. It’s a little too straight-up and down for me, but the chops were cool. But like I said, I didn’t feel any syncopation. I didn’t hear any hot licks. Everything was straight up and down. It started off as a march and it stayed a march, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll give him 5 stars. He was doing he was doing. Baby Dodds! Well, I knew it was one of those guys who went way back there. That’s cool. As a matter of fact, on my solo drum album I had 10 tracks, and every last one of them was different – rhythmically different.

4.  Jason Marsalis, “Seven Ay Pocky Way” (from Music In Motion, Basin Street, 1999) (Marsalis, drums; John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Derek Douget, alto saxophone; Jonathan Lefcoski, piano; Peter Harris, bass)

It’s played very well. Having the rhythm, having drummer playing on top like that is dynamite; he’s got his shit going. But I have no idea who it is. I’ve never heard this before. But it’s good. [Do you like to incorporate these kinds of beats in your playing?] Here again, I’ve got the feeling of that New Orleans style of drumming; in other words, you’re dancing, but you’re not swinging. Strutting. But whatever they’re doing, they’re doing the hell out of it. I’ll give it 5 stars, too, man.

5.  Charles Lloyd, “Heaven” (from The Water Is Wide, ECM, 2000) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

That’s Charles Lloyd. I finally got one. How do I know it’s Charles Lloyd? I raised Charles Lloyd. I gave him his first job, man, when he came out of school in L.A. He was at USC. When he graduated, I took him on the road. He was playing alto then. He eventually got to tenor. I don’t know the song. Oh, it’s by Ellington? Did Duke write it or Swee’pea wrote it? Duke wrote it? Okay. The performance? It’s par for the course. How do I mean that? His treatment for this particular composition is dynamite! He couldn’t do it any better. So that’s it. Is the drummer Billy Higgins? I thought quite a bit of his playing. Billy was a good player. He’s doing probably the same thing here that I would do – or I would do the same thing he was doing. There’s only one way to play for this kind of thing, to play on this kind of rhythm. 5 stars. It’s cool.

6.   Chick Webb, “Liza” (from Chick Webb/Ella Fitzgerald: Savoy Ambassadors, 1936-1939, JBM, 1937/1991) (Webb, drums; Bobby Stark, trumpet; Sandy Williams, trombone)

Is this Gene Krupa? No? It’s not Buddy Rich. Either Dave Tough or somebody like that? [It’s not a white drummer.] Cozy Cole. No? Shit, well, I don’t know who it is. The tune is “Liza.” Oh, it’s Chick Webb. Why do I know it’s Chick? Because of the kind of chops he had. Buddy Rich and Gene and all those guys all sort of duplicated Chick. You can’t compare him to Baby Dodds. Baby Dodds was a different kind of player. Chick swung. Baby Dodds didn’t really swing. He was a good timekeeper. But Chick’s pushing this whole band. I’ll give it 5 stars, man. I’ll give it 8 stars! Man played his ass off.

7.   Matthew Garrison, “Unity” (from Shapeshifter, GJP, 2004) (Garrison, electric bass, keyboards, programming; Arto Tuncboyacian, percussion; Jojo Mayer, drums; Jim Beard, keyboards; Sabina Sciubba, vocals; Gregoire Maret, harmonica)

I don’t know what to say about this. Everybody’s got a different groove and different moods going, as far as sounds are concerned, and everybody’s got a concept. I don’t know exactly what they have in mind. But the ensemble playing is, in a sense… There’s a lot of shit going on. I can’t really hear one particular thing. Even with the drum solo, the rhythm solo, it’s either timbales and bongos or cowbell and… It’s cool. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had it, man. I didn’t think much of it, man. Not to say that it isn’t good, because evidently somebody must have liked it. That’s Matt Garrison? The kid? He did a couple of dates with me, man. I didn’t know that was Matt. I’m not in that bag right now. I’m not in that kind of a groove. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t know how to evaluate it.

8. Hamid Drake, “Bindu #1 for Ed Blackwell, from Bindu to Ojas” (from Bindu, Rogueart, 2005) (Drake, drums, frame drums; Daniel Carter, Greg Ward, clarinet; Sabir Mateen, bass clarinet, Ernest Dawkins, tenor saxophone)

See, with something like this, it’s hard to maybe distinguish what the drums sound like, because they all sound the same. It’s one drummer doing all that? Overdubs? Is that a soprano saxophone or a clarinet? Here again, man, you lost me. I don’t know who that is. The rhythm is a typical rhythm. I’m not excited about it. It’s not going to make me say, “Man, what’s this dude doing.” Matter of fact, it’s really just straight up and down. You hear these horns? You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like in the music room, and the teacher walks out of the room, and all the players begin to play.

9. Gerald Wilson, “Jeri” (from In My Time, Mack Avenue, 2005) (Gerald Wilson, composer; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that a West Coast band? It sounds like a West Coast style of arranging and orchestration. Oh, it’s a New York band playing? [Why does it sound like a West Coast band?] First of all, it’s not a Gerald Wilson West Coast sound. No, I don’t think so. But it’s got that West Coast feeling. I don’t think it’s Gerald’s writing. To me, they don’t swing as hard as East Coast ensemble playing. Oh, that’s Gerald? It really didn’t sound like Gerald’s writing to me. Oh, that’s Jon Faddis there. I don’t know who the drummer is. Maybe what I don’t really think is cool is the way the drums were recorded – miked. It’s getting too much of a rickitick type of sound. It didn’t pick up his cymbal playing with the swing of the rhythm section. It would be difficult for me to say… Well, I didn’t think it was Gerald, but once you mentioned it, I heard some things. But the rhythm section didn’t sound like an East Coast rhythm section. I like Lewis Nash’s playing very much. He’s one of the young players that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. I’ll give it 5 stars for the ensemble and all.

10.  Tony Williams, “Crystal Palace” (from Native Heart, Blue Note, 1990) (Williams, drums, composer; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; Mulgrew Miller; Ira Coleman, bass)

When was this recorded? 1990? The drummer is playing his ass off. Rhythm-wise, the pianist is kind of like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Kelly. Is that Philly Joe Jones? It’s the way he’s dancing. Roy Haynes? I’m getting warm. It isn’t Elvin. Elvin is a little more thunderous. This dude is swinging as well as… He’s got nice licks, nice chops. [Does he sound like an original player?] It’s difficult for me to say who is original in this particular style. Because you’ve got half-a-dozen players who play this style. That isn’t Lewis Nash, is it? I don’t know who it is. Tony Williams!? I never even thought about Tony. But like I said, he’s playing his ass off, plus the fact that he’s swinging. My goodness. I dug the shit out of Tony. Matter of fact, he dug me, too. A strange thing. When Tony passed away, I was out of town, and when I came back, picking up my messages, Tony had left a message on my service. 5 stars. In fact, I’ll give Tony 12 stars. Beautiful player.

11.  Don Byron-Jason Moran-Jack DeJohnette, “I’ve Found A New Baby” (from Ivey-Divey, Blue Note, 2004) (Byron, clarinet; Moran, piano; DeJohnette, drums)

Well, for one thing, this turns me off. I just hate to hear a player play 4/4 on the bass drum like that. That means he isn’t really going to be playing any syncopation. Everything is straight up and down on the bass. I don’t know who these guys are. The clarinet player ain’t happening as far as I’m concerned. That was my first instrument. You hear that squeak? Is that “I Found A New Baby”? No stars. What makes you think I don’t like it?! Jack DeJohnette? Oh, shit. I’m surprised that it’s DeJohnette. It didn’t sound like his playing. It didn’t sound like his instrument. He can play his ass off. But it didn’t do anything for me.

12.   Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (from Love Letters, Eighty-Eights/Columbia, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone)

I don’t know who these guys are, but I’ll tell you one thing – they’re together. The rhythm section is happening. The piano player is exceptionally good. So are the drummer and the bass player. As a rhythm section, they’re happening. But I couldn’t tell you who they were right now. I don’t know who the tenor player is, but I’d say he’s a contemporary player, a player of the day, who plays everything. 5 stars. That’s Roy? The master. Dynamite. Very good. I’ll give that 14 stars, and give Roy Haynes another car! I love Roy’s playing. As a matter of fact, Prez introduced me to Roy. We met in L.A. My man.

13.  Max Roach, “Sassy Max (Self Portrait)” (from Survivors, Soul Note, 1983) (Max Roach, drums, composer)

That sounds like some I would probably be doing. I don’t think it’s me! I work with my hands and sticks to get the clave feeling, syncopated rhythms like that. That’s all he’s doing, is working with the snare drum with the stick and his hands, and the bass drum, which is cool. [LIGHTNING PASSAGE] I do things like that. Is it Billy Higgins? I have no idea. Is that Max? Max stealing my thing? [LAUGHS] It’s good. Like I said, it sounded like something I would be doing. Hey, man, there’s only one Max. Max was the first musician I met when I came to New York City in 1947 with Lena Horne. Max Roach was the first musician I met here, and we’ve been friends ever since. I was at the Capitol Theater, and one of Max’s friends was Charlie Drayton, the bass player. He came up to see Charlie, and we were in the dressing room, and me and Max started playing on the chairs. We hit it off. Ever since, we’ve been cool. I’m sorry he’s not doing too well now. But he was original. God bless him. 15 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chico Hamilton, DownBeat, Drummer, Obituary, WKCR