On July 10, 1996, two weeks after his fortieth birthday, drummer Joey Baron joined me on WKCR for a Musician’s Show, presenting tracks by drummers who, in the totality of their sounds, comprised his personal influence tree. They included Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Grady Tate and Ed Thigpen, Max Roach and Paul Motian, Donald Bailey and Roy Haynes. A bit past the midway p0int, Baron—though he’d played consequentially with Carmen McRae, Stan Getz, and Jim Hall, and had subbed for Mel Lewis with the Monday night Village Vanguard Orchestra, he was by then best known for propelling the non-traditional units of Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, and John Zorn—started speaking about Billy Higgins (1936-2001), a universally beloved figure, and perhaps the hardest-swinging drummer who ever lived.
“He a supreme master of time,” Baron said. “He can make time live and breathe. He’s got a real patience in his playing. He’s got a very unique, identifiable sound and style. One main characteristic is that you’ll never hear Billy bash. That’s part of his sound. I’m sure he’s listened to people who crash and bash and all that stuff, but in his own playing he can extract what he likes about that stuff and channel it through his own style. Beautiful touch. It took me a while to appreciate what he did. When you come from being first wowed by somebody like Buddy Rich, all you focus on is what they’re playing in their solo, and you don’t think too much about the subtler things. But the longer I spent playing and listening to more music I was exposed to, I really got to appreciate just what it is that Billy does.”
Although Baron might object to my so characterizing him, I took this as self-description. Like Higgins, who swung with equal panache navigating the open spaces with Ornette Coleman and Charles Lloyd or a bebop date with Cedar Walton and Barry Harris, Baron is beyond category, a shamanistic musician who retains his sound in any context. He turns 56 today (1955 is a good jazz vintage, including Mulgrew Miller, David Murray, Gerry Hemingway, Santi Debriano, and, dare I say, this writer). To observe the occasion, I’ll share a feature piece that I wrote about him in 2001 for Jazziz.
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Sipping a blueberry yogurt shake, Joey Baron stands in the hallway of his West Side highrise taking in a Manhattan cityscape of diorama-like clarity. To his left, toy-sized ferries dart towards the dock at Weehawken through north-south Hudson River traffic. Northbound jets whiz toward LaGuardia Airport up above, while on the ground cars clog the immediately surrounding streets, which overhang the deserted Eleventh Avenue railroad tracks that a century ago were New York’s lifeblood.
The image is peculiarly apropos; Baron understands how the various epochs of jazz music dealt with motion and velocity, and navigates them along personal pathways that are idiomatic, functional and fresh. Over the past decade resolute futurists like John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne and Dave Douglas have marched to his animating pulse. Brian Eno called him for guest appearances on mid-‘90s sessions by David Bowie and Laurie Anderson. In 1991, Baron organized the starkly-configured trio Baron Down (trombone-tenor sax-drums), a Punk-to-R&B unit which worked steadily for most of the decade. Hardcore jazz was the passion of Baron’s earlier career, and several recent projects — to wit, “Soul On Soul,” Douglas’ far-flung homage to Mary Lou Williams, and “Chasin’ The Gypsy,” James Carter’s idiomatic paean to Django Reinhardt — showcase his penchant for sustaining an ebullient, dancing beat while detailing ensemble flow with exquisitely calibrated trapset timbre.
We’ll Soon Find Out, the recent recording by Down Home, a Baron-led all-star quartet comprising Frisell, bass icon Ron Carter and big-sound alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who in the normal course of events would not be sharing a stage, denotes the respect Baron commands throughout the jazz community. It follows an eponymous 1997 Rhythm-and-Blues-inflected session marked by clever melodies and propulsive, off-kilter beats performed with a by-the-numbers quality denoting first-time-out studio stiffness. Round two is another story altogether. Under Baron’s gentle conjuration, Down Home finds its pocket, coalescing as a fluid unit, playing Baron’s subtle originals with finesse and funk, oozing vernacular grit but never dumbing down.
“Joey had a very clear conception,” Frisell remarks. “He wanted to focus on aspects in each of our playing. He’s listened closely to Ron Carter all these years, and he centered a lot of the music around the feel of the grooves of Ron Carter’s basslines. He wanted to bring out a rhythmic quality in my playing. That’s cool, because people usually think of me as playing noise or atmospheric, floaty stuff.”
Transitioning to the small bedroom in Baron’s apartment that serves as his office-studio, the jockey-framed drummer sits legs akimbo in a chair placed between a barebones drumkit and an upright Yamaha piano. To his left, tacked to the wall, is a weathered sheet of paper with a list of drummers “to pay attention to,” among them Donald Bailey (“he really knows about being creative”), Han Bennink (“absolutely fearless, bordering on the absurd”), Billy Hart (“his expression and touch; he’s able to take everything he has and make music with it”), Ricky Wellman (“his groove is very profound”), Milford Graves (“just earth — the energy, the commitment”), Ikue Mori (“when I get down on myself for everything that I can’t do and don’t know, I think about what she does with what she does know; she brings me out of any tendency to not listen to different kinds of music”) and David Garibaldi and Ed Blackwell (“the conversation between the limbs”). Towards the door are two bookcases chock-a-block with tapes and LPs; two shelves contain books on magic, with an emphasis on coin and card tricks.
As I peruse the book spines, Baron mentions that as a kid in Richmond, Virginia, before he took up drumming, he aspired to be a magician, and retains an informed interest. I pounce, asking whether he connects the aesthetic of magic and music-making. “Only in the sense that you shouldn’t make your audience feel like idiots, which is very easy to do in magic,” he responds. “A great magician will make someone feel welcome and included. They know when to reveal the card that’s been selected or when to end the solo. They know how much is enough.”
Which describes the effect of his music for Down Home. “I wanted to contradict the misconception that I play out, and can’t establish a feeling from a groove,” Baron states. “I’m drawing on all kinds of music, including James Brown and even Messaien, the way his melodies can dart off and take a left turn. Some tunes might have one chord change, but I’ve worked out the rhythmic phrasing of the melody, and how the guitar and bass should comp to get the essence of this feel. I thought about this music, I heard it, I wrote it, then we all played it. It was not an accident.”
Baron’s connoisseurship of the nuances of groove stems from deep roots in the musical culture of the South. Born to a working-class Orthodox Jewish family, the teenage Buddy Rich devotee learned how to make rhythm speak on an array of artisanal gigs with older musicians in Richmond, soaking up information wherever he could find it, from the “Ed Sullivan Show” to unformatted late ‘60s radio — “you might hear Ray Charles, then Charlie Pride, then Buddy Rich, then Miles Davis with the Classic ‘50s Quintet, then a cut from Miles At the Fillmore and Tony Williams’ Emergency.”
“When you’re working class, you’re not analyzing anything from an art standpoint,” Baron states. “Any chance or reason I had to play, I took. I played at a country club that didn’t allow Blacks or Jews with Joe Kennedy [a black, Pittsburgh-born violinist who had recorded with Ahmad Jamal in the ‘50s] and a great guitarist. It was work; we were there to do a gig and play tunes. These guys were very supportive. They wouldn’t give me private lessons or tell me to listen to anyone in particular; all they’d say was, ‘Man, just give me that Eddy Arnold backbeat’ or ‘Just lay in the time,’ stuff like that, common things drummers need to hear so they know what their job is. I got my experience doing the work before me.”
Baron steps to the bookshelf to extract an LP. On the cover is a long shot photograph of some 60 teenage musicians assembled on an auditorium stage. Three black faces are visible, including Baron’s band director, Tuscan Jasper. “I was fortunate to be welcomed into the black community in Richmond,” the drummer continues. “Mr. Jasper took me under his wing, and was wonderful to me; he never put down anything I was excited about. This was the first year of bussing, and I was bussed to Maggie Walker High School, which had been all-black. I spent every day I could in that band room, and Mr. Jasper, who had been in the Army with Wynton Kelly, would play Clifford Brown records for me and say, ‘Did you like that drummer?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you know who that is?’ ‘No.’ ‘That’s a guy named Philly Joe Jones.’”
While earning a GED, Baron skipped senior year to earn a year’s tuition for Berklee, often working with a slightly older pianist named Bill Lohr, who helped further the young aspirant’s aesthetic education. “Bill had 33 Oscar Peterson Trio records; he was not impressed by drum solos and the Buddy Rich school of playing!” Baron jokes. “He pulled my head out of the drum and got me listening to music; he exposed me to people like Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ed Thigpen and Grady Tate, who could play with more finesse in intimate groups. I became aware that you don’t necessarily need to do a blindingly fast single stroke roll to make music with another musician. I began to use the time I’d normally spent practicing technique to sit and listen, without playing, and was able to get more balance between my creative ideas and the chops I’d need to execute them.”
Strapped for cash after 15 months at Berklee, Baron went on the road with Lohr in a lounge group; towards the end of 1975 he received a telegram that Carmen McRae was looking for a drummer and made a beeline for Los Angeles. His first L.A. gig was with Helen Merrill (“Leonard Feather wrote me up as ‘Young, spirited, 19-year-old Joey Baron’ — he was nice”); he joined McRae a few months later. “Not a lot of drummers can accompany a singer,” he stresses. “You have to be sensitive to the lyric and not resort to licks; you have to get intensity at a low volume. One reason I went after playing with Carmen is that it was a context where I could play with that kind of discipline. Carmen always kept things in balance. Her songs were concise, and she didn’t waste a lot of time or notes.”
L.A.’s superb swing-to-bop oriented talent pool welcomed the newcomer with open arms. Cosigned by first-call drummers Frank Severino and Donald Bailey, Baron landed frequent work with the likes of Teddy Edwards, Blue Mitchell, Harold Land, Plas Johnson, Hampton Hawes, Victor Feldman and Chet Baker. He went through the union book, “calling people I’d heard about, telling them I’d just moved to town, and if they ever needed a drummer to rehearse anything, I’d be willing to come and do it. Los Angeles was a looser, more laid-back social scene than New York. There’s something about being able to call Harold Land and say, ‘Hey, Harold, I got your number,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, come on over today; we’re going to look at a few tunes.’ I called Hampton Hawes, and he called me back. I left my beans which I was cooking on my hot plate, put my drums in the car, drove to his house, and played until 6 in the morning. We worked a few gigs at Donte’s.”
Baron describes his ‘70s stance as “total jazz snob.” He studied voraciously. “I put myself on a regimen where for a month I would listen just to Wes Montgomery with Jimmy Cobb, or Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey, not so much to copy the style, but to get it in my head and apply it directly — in some situations with people who were on the records. I went through my stages — and still do — of imitating drummers I love — like Buddy Rich or Tony Williams or Jack de Johnette — and memorizing what they played. But I kept listening until I understood WHY they did a particular thing. Why did Art Blakey hit that cymbal? It was the beginning of the chorus. He played his figure three times because he was signalling to bring the band in from a free-form solo. Once I understood that, I could make it my own.”
One day in Chicago, Carmen McRae presented her young drummer a small jewelry box containing a Star of David. “That fucked me up so bad,” Baron says urgently. “Carmen was so confident, commanded so much respect, was so proud of her culture, she had the total balance of elegance, soul and class, and she stepped forward and across a lot of shit to do that for me. When I was a kid, it was not cool to say you were Jewish. You’d get the living shit kicked out of you. I went to Hebrew School and hated it. I believed every bit of hate mail that the KKK shoved under our door. There would be something about Communists, and then ‘look at these people,’ and they’d have this picture of people with huge noses and ‘they could be in your neighborhood.’”
As long-buried aspects of Jewish identity stirred up Baron’s consciousness, he began to think about music in terms of personal identity. He was familiar with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and an Andrew Cyrille solo drum record, knew of Tony Oxley through his work with Stan Getz and John McLaughlin, and was particularly taken with Han Bennink’s solo recital Balls [FMP] “because it was so unafraid and un-timid; to this day, when I get lost for inspiration, or scared, I’ll put that on.” In time, he began participating in a workshop trio project with Carl Schroeder, Sarah Vaughan’s pianist of the ‘70s — Baron’s tapes of the band sound like a cross between Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions and Chick Corea at his most abstract. “Carl is responsible for my thinking of myself as an artist,” Baron affirms. “I needed to be in a community where people were doing something, and I did not want to be in Los Angeles. My wife was a painter; she was excited about the idea of going to New York. We packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies, put all of our shit in the van, all her paintings, all my drums, and came here in October 1983.”
After lean times, Baron began to establish himself in the New York sharkpit; by the mid-‘80s master improvisers like Red Rodney-Ira Sullivan, Jim Hall, Tom Harrell, Pat Martino and Toots Thielemans were hiring him regularly. During this time drummer Mel Lewis, facing hand surgery, asked his thirtyish colleague to be his sub in the Monday Night Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. “It was the most incredible drum lesson I’ve ever had in my life,” Baron affirms. “It gave me a lot of strength. It taught me to take charge when dealing with a large group, to be committed and confident, to set things up, to make a move even if it’s wrong. I loved the way Mel got inside of the band from the center, how he lifted the whole band from underneath.”
Baron became increasingly frustrated with the creative roadblocks he encountered in New York’s cliquish, balkanized ‘80s jazz culture. “I was shocked at how staid some of the situations were,” he remarks. “I wanted to be playing with Kenny Kirkland, that kind of post-Miles thing; it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I was seeing myself as a victim. I lost confidence on how to fit in here, where everything is so fast and hard. I was trying to shed this image of a nice sideperson. I wanted to play where you could emotionally express yourself rather than accompany all the time; I decided to try things I wouldn’t normally do.”
Baron shaved his head, and began to shed the skin of a freelance musician, shifting to situations that involved long-term aesthetic commitments. He said no to singer gigs, played once a week with Mike Stern’s workshop big band, and joined Bill Frisell’s ensemble. “I first met Joey not long after we came to New York at a large session where there was a lot of confusion,” Frisell recalls. “There was this little space, and Joey played a backbeat, just one note that was the baddest note. Right at that moment I turned to him. We smiled at each other like we KNEW. There was this weird connection. I started going over to his apartment, and we would improvise for hours — just play. I set up sessions where we played with Arto Lindsay, who was unlike anyone Joey had played with. I remember the first time he came to Roulette and heard me with Ikue Mori, and it was like, ‘What are you trying to…’ But then he started to kind of get it.”
Baron began to make feelers to “a whole crowd of people who at that time I didn’t even think could play.” One was the alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, who came to Baron’s loft with cellist Hank Roberts for a session. “It was very strange for me,” Baron laughs. “Not unfriendly. But musically, I just went, ‘Man, what is this? Doesn’t he play any tunes?’ It was hard music, but communicative and conversational, and I liked doing it. Everybody was scuffling at that point, but they wanted to do their music; I’d rehearse with Tim’s band, or with Hank, or with Herb Robertson. All of a sudden, they got record deals with JMT, and I was the guy who knew the music, which was complicated, not music that you could call someone in to sight-read.”
Baron met John Zorn in 1987 when both were playing in Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers; he joined Zorn’s surf-to-thrash all-star group Naked City a year later, beginning an intense, symbiotic relationship that remains close through Baron’s participation in Zorn’s popular Masada and Bar Kokhba ensembles. “I have one indelible image in my head,” Zorn relates. “I had just finished a set with my News For Lulu project at one of the European festivals, and Tim Berne and Mark Dresser happened to be around. The promoter cajoled us into getting on stage and doing a few pieces, and Joey played with us. We did a couple of Ornette pieces in a pretty out-of-control way. Though Joey had never seen the music, he had an incredible ability to follow wherever I went musically, even the most intense shit. All of a sudden, it was a full four-way conversation. It was an unbelievable rush, an incredible inspiration.”
As Baron recalls it, Zorn heard Frisell’s band play in Bremen. “He was fascinated about how we went so many different places in one song, how we were free to shape the tune, but it still remained a tune — it wasn’t just free improv. He arrived at that same place by composing, having things written out and pre-planned. He was thinking of it presentationally. He asked me and Bill and Wayne Horwitz and Fred Frith to be in this band with him, and that was how Naked City started — along with other projects, like different East Asian Bar Band pieces or pieces with spoken word.”
Baron recalls urging Zorn to acknowledge Jewish roots. “On my first gig with John we were sidemen for Arto Lindsay. We were in Italy, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and we were talking in his room. I mentioned being from Richmond, and that I’d had to go in the back door at gigs because I was Jewish. John said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re Jewish, aren’t you?’ He said, ‘No.’ At that time he did not identify at all with Judaism. I would talk to him and say, ‘Whether or not you identify, you are Jewish.’ I think I lit the fire for him to look at this culture and embrace it.”
If Baron pushed Zorn to consider his Jewishness, Zorn prodded Baron to expand his aesthetic scope. Baron evolved and personalized his approach, attacking the drumset like a contraption, individualizing each component, learning to shape rhythm-timbre with the elastic precision of a sculptor, finding startling, humorous figures to prod improvisers from complacency.
“In our early years working together,” Zorn says, “I was presenting so many different styles of music, including some that had never existed before, and it was sometimes difficult trying to get Joey there. He’d never played Hardcore before; he’d never thought about that music seriously before. I can be very specific about what I’m looking for; I know what I need and I go out to get it. I gave Joey tapes, we talked about technique, whether to use a match-grip or the grip he’d been using, whether he’d use a double-pedal, to use mallets on one tune or play with his hands on another. Eventually it became part of his style; he uses it now in his solo stuff, in his own bands.
“I can’t imagine doing a project without Joey. I’ve been spoiled. I’ve never met a drummer who does so much and works so hard. As a matter of pride, he wants to be able to do absolutely everything on the drums, and he mixes it all up in an organic way that I’ve never heard anybody do. I feel he intuitively knows what I’m looking for. If he is confronted with something that he doesn’t think he can do, he will go home and WORK on it. What he did was a matter of will! It didn’t just happen. He made a conscious decision to put tape on his cymbals. He decided to cut down his set. I really respect that. It’s easy to fly around like a dry leaf in the wind going wherever it blows. It’s difficult in this world to make a stand and say, ‘THIS is what I’m going to do. This has not happened before. I am going to take a chance.’”
Baron made his stand in 1991, after three years of hearing his compositions played by Miniature, a collective trio with Berne and Roberts that recorded twice for JMT. “It was the first time I brought in tunes, had them played and wasn’t ridiculed about them,” Baron says. “These guys kicked my ass and supported me, I started writing more, and realized that I had to start my own band. I wrote a whole book for Baron Down. I had the harmony in my head, but didn’t have the technique or terminology to name the chord changes, so I’d only pick the two notes of the chord that depicted what I was hearing — the instrumentation of trombone and tenor sax gave them a sound of their own. I figured it out slowly, and through four or five tours and three records developed the confidence to flesh out the harmony to create the lush sounds I originally heard. The Down Home band is an extension of Baron Down. It’s still funky and swinging, but deals with textures more richly. Now I can’t wait to have a block of time to sit and write some more.
“The rhythms and shapes that musicians like Carmen McRae, Ray Charles, Aretha, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner put on record are so untapped by drummers as a basis for ideas. Drummers mostly stick to things that fall easily on the instrument, and they rarely deal with, for instance, phrasing eighth notes the way a great saxophone player can phrase them. I relate to the power of the drums and maintaining the rhythm as well. But I draw inspiration from the vocal aspect, the lyricism of the great musicians. I’ll go into my studio, think of a tune and a feeling, and play tempo for a half-hour, trying to keep the time going with a light touch. That’s an endless study.”
As we reprise the view while waiting for the downstairs elevator, Baron murmurs, “Believe me, I never take this for granted.” Outside, as we prepare to go our separate ways, the drummer gives me a taste of that light touch and flycatcher-quick sleight-of-hand. He displays two fuzzy, light-as-a-feather red balls, has me authenticate their feel. “Close your hands.” Dutifully, I make two fists. Baron presents the balls like a sommelier, then envelops them, executes a few criss-crosses and swirls, and unveils his empty palms. A few more moves culminate in a feathery touch. “Open your hands.” Inevitably, the balls are nestled in my closed left fist. “You did that very well, Joey.” “That’s what I say when people ask me how I did that trick,” Baron chortles. “‘Very well!’”
Joey Baron Musician Show (July 10, 1996):
[MUSIC: Baron Down, “Punt”]
TP: We’ll start off with something by Buddy Rich, who’s someone you were listening to very early. Where were you in your musical development at the time you heard the next track we’ll hear.
BARON: At the time when I started playing, which was around 1964, the big drummers of the day… Actually, Gene Krupa was still very visible. And for a young person in Richmond, Virginia, from a family that didn’t really have too much information about music, Jazz, improvised music, whatever you want to call it, if you turned on the television you were likely to see on a variety show tonight, Gene Krupa with his Band, or the drum battle, Gene Krupa with Buddy Rich. They were very visible to the mass audience. So those two people were kind of my introduction to part of what it was possible to do with the instrument. I started looking at television, and each time either of those two guys would be on television or on the radio, I would be there taping it and borrowing people’s records…
TP: This implies that you were already involved in the process of making rhythm, or playing drums in one way or the other.
BARON: I was starting…
TP: How did it begin for you?
BARON: Well, I was 9 years old. I’m from Richmond, Virginia, and there was a neighbor who was in the school band, and he was going off into the next school year, and he didn’t want to play his drum any more. He used to play it on the back of his porch, and I don’t know why, but I just loved the sound of it. He said he’d sell it to me for 20 bucks. So I cut grass all summer and saved money, and bought the drum at the end of the summer. I believe it was an old wooden Ledee(?) snare drum with an old box case, and it had a real flimsy stand to it, and came with a pair of brushes, and one pair of sticks, with calfskin heads too. That was my tool for a long time, just that.
TP: This must have thrilled your parents no end.
BARON: Well, it saved me… When I used to empty the trash, I’d say, “Okay, I’ll be back,” and then I’d put the trash in the cans in the alley and I’d start beating on the trash cans. I’d be there for an hour-and-a-half. This way it kept me out of…
TP: You were the joy of the neighborhood.
BARON: Yes. [LAUGHS]
TP: When did you begin to perform on drums? When did combos and such become part of your experience?
BARON: Still when I was 9 I got involved in it. I was in the school band. Almost when I was 10 there was a neighborhood Rock-and-Roll band that I was invited to be in, that I heard was forming. My mother worked (she was a secretary all of her life), and one of her co-workers had a son who was starting a band, and she said, “Hey, my son has a drum-set” — or a drum; it wasn’t a drum-set at the time. So that’s how that started. Also before that I would play with piano players at pizza parlors, like Shakey’s Pizza. There was a woman that played ragtime piano at my synagogue, and she knew that I could play a little bit, so she asked me if I wanted to come with her to one job — so I did. I started doing anything I could. It was just like an adventure, really fun.
TP: When did you get to the point of trying to emulate some of the jazz drummers or stylists that you heard? Was that part of your process?
BARON: Actually, the very first record, which I don’t have here, was called Big Swing-Face. I would listen to that, and I’d play along and try to copy his solos. I’d learn just by ear. I wouldn’t notate them. I would just play them over and memorize them. I’d slow the record down so I could hear exactly how many beats he was doing. It just fascinated me how… It’s very impressive what he specializes in. It’s not subtle at all. It’s very impressive, his precision and the speed at which he performs. I was very taken with that.
I tried for a long time to play along, and eventually I got the hang of it, but it was a really watered down version, particularly in the left hand! [LAUGHS] Somewhere in the process I realized there’s only one Buddy Rich and there’s only one whoever I was listening to. But I used to really work my butt off to try and…
TP: I guess trying to emulate Buddy Rich’s style is a great way to develop your technique one way or the other.
BARON: It’s kind of powerful. He doesn’t make any bones about it. He’s very committed to what he does. That attracts me. He’s very clear with what he does, and it’s easy to listen to. Again, my first introduction was through Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. I found out about the more subtle approaches of Jo Jones and Max Roach and Baby Dodds. But honestly, my first introduction was through the Rock-and-Roll of the day, which was the Beatles, so that was the contemporary side, and then the music that happened before my time, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa were the star drummers that were in front…
TP: They had that visibility which would make them accessible to you.
BARON: Yes. And in Richmond, Virginia, at that time, there were not a lot of outlets to hear music, especially for a young person to go to clubs… You weren’t even allowed at clubs without a chaperone.
[MUSIC: B. Rich w/Rolf Ericsson, S. Most, M. Mainieri, “Blowing The Blues Away” (1961); Krupa-Rich, “King Porter Stomp”; Mongo, “Streak o’ Lean”; Cal Tjader, “Soul Burst” (1966); In Cold Blood “Your Good Thing” (1971)]
TP: The diversity contained in that set kind of marks the diversity of Joey’s listening experiences, and indeed, the different situations in which he still plays. You mentioned you stole a bunch of licks from the drummer in the Cold Blood band which you still play.
BARON: That drummer was one of the first I ever heard choke the cymbal in a Pop context. He’d do it very quickly, and I thought maybe something was wrong with the record, then I realized, oh, he’s choking the cymbal really quickly and not losing the beat at all. You can’t tell unless you listen very hard, but I always liked the sound, and I do it to this day.
TP: There were a lot of horn bands 25 years that mixed genres and crossed lines. Were you involved in bands like that?
BARON: I mean, the neighborhood bands I was in were never this good. But we tried to play things like that. Rock bands that had horn sections so you could play all kinds of music, like Rolling Stones or Otis Redding or the music that was coming out from Stax-Volt.
TP: Were you trying to idiomatically emulate the drummers?
BARON: Of course! Not copy note-for-note, but I would listen to these… Like, every piece we just heard, I would listen to them over and over and over. That’s probably why they’re in such crackly condition now. I’d listen to it not only to figure out what the drummer was doing, but to just internalize what the feeling was of the whole band and the whole vibe of what the ensemble was doing. That’s where the magic was for me. Once I had that in my head, in my gut, in my heart, whatever, when I would play with a local band that’s what I would think about. I wouldn’t think about, “Okay, now I’ve played four beats; now it’s time for me to hit the snare drum this way because that’s what he did on the record.” I never thought at that level. That was homework for me. I would do that when I was off by myself first learning how to play a song. I’d learn it, and then it’s kind of like what the older musicians would say, “You learn the rules, and then you throw away the rulebooks and start to think for yourself and play.” So I kind of, on a small level, started doing that with all the records you just heard. Like the Cal Tjader piece called “Soul Burst.” There’s not a drum set per se on that record, but I used to love to play along with it. I loved the feeling. I love that piece. I love the whole record. It’s on Verve, called Soul Burst.
TP: It’s from 1966, and it features Grady Tate on trap drums, with Victor Pantoya, Jose Mangual, Carlos Patato Valdes on hand drums, and Chick Corea playing piano.
BARON: Grady Tate was a major influence, just because he could do so many things. Listening to this, I wasn’t aware of a drum-set, but he was playing, and it was so light… It was a big influence. So for that, rather than just the individual licks, just sticking to learning the licks, I would try to internalize the feel of what was going on from the whole band.
TP: You said you used to be able to get gigs just because of your sense of the Latin feel. It seems as a teenager you had some command of all the different moods a drummer has to generate to be a working drummer.
BARON: Yeah. If you’d get called to play a job, and the leader was fairly older and used to playing what they called two-beat standards for people to dance to, they weren’t used to playing anything that was in a Rock-and-Roll or straight eighth note type vein, like the Beatles or stuff that had a groove like that. A lot of times, I got calls because I could kind of fake my way through the 4/4 things, the feeling of it. I was very inexperienced and still trying to learn it, but I could do a good enough job to fake through it. And I also had an ear so that if somebody called a Bossa-Nova or a Latin type of feeling they wanted on a song, I knew what they meant, even though I’m not an authentic… But I never tried to be. I just wanted to evoke the feeling that made me so happy when I listened to it.
TP: Before the Mongo piece, we heard a track featuring your two early inspirations, Rich and Krupa, from the early ’60s on “King Porter Stomp.” Joe Wilder took a solo, George Barnes on guitar, trombones by Frank Rehak and Jimmy Cleveland, arranger George Williams. You had a lot to say about him during that and the prior track, which was Horace Silver’s “Blowing the Blues Away.”
BARON: There was a long drum solo while the bass player was walking. That’s one of the hardest things to do. On that track I just think what Buddy played is brilliant. There was a lot of space, a lot of subtle things going on, like turning the beat around on purpose, and phrasing things back off a quarter-note or an eighth-note, taking a phrase and playing it in an odd part of the measure. He did that all throughout that solo, and he did it with such force. He doesn’t have, particularly on that solo, a light touch. So most people wouldn’t really know that was going on. I’ve listened to that thousands of times. It’s really difficult to play with another time player and you let them be the boss of the Time. For a drummer to give it up and then become the soloist within the time, it’s very difficult. That’s what he was doing all throughout that track. He was within the time. He wasn’t just blowing over it. He was in it, over it, around it, and right in there with the bass player. His precision is really… I hear very few people who are able to do that. Roy Haynes is one who comes to mind who is amazing at doing that stuff. Not many.
TP: Joey mentioned that after hearing Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa early on, you began going back and hearing the more nuanced and somewhat flexible styles of Papa Jo Jones and Max Roach. The drummer Ed Thigpen was a protege of Papa Jo Jones in many ways, through Jo Jones’ relationship with Ed Thigpen’s father, Ben Thigpen, one of the great Kansas City drummers, and you mentioned listening to him a great deal with the Oscar Peterson trio. Let’s take you out of Richmond, to the beginnings of your identity as a professional jazz drummer. Did it become apparent to you as a teenager that you’d become a professional musician, that it would be your life.
BARON: I knew the minute I started that that’s what I was going to do. I don’t know how, but I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. That was in Richmond, and I just lived and breathed, dreaming about the kinds of drum-sets there were. I memorized all the catalogues of drum-sets, all this nerdy stuff that people do when you’re really excited. I had a friend Bill Lohr was a few years older than me, and he had 33 Oscar Peterson records. He was really into music. He was not impressed by drum solos and the Buddy Rich school of playing. He actually saved me from becoming [LAUGHS] like the stereotypical drummer who just plays a solo and doesn’t know how to make music or accompany, fulfill the function of what’s become the tradition of being a drummer. So he kind of exposed me to the more finesse styles of people who could play with smaller, more intimate groups. Maybe they didn’t have the impact or the power of, say, a Buddy Rich or the visibility of a Gene Krupa, but nonetheless, they made music happen in the same way that many people who, if you look at them from a certain angle… Most people think Ringo Starr can’t play, but I would argue that he was the only one who could make the Beatles sound the way they sounded — which was great!
Ed Thigpen in his context, with the Oscar Peterson Trio, it was incredible! There was one record in particular called We Get Requests, which I don’t have here, that really influenced me. But anything that trio played… It was a working band, and it was before the production style of recording took place. Those guys actually played dynamically with each other. When you hear most of their records, Ed Thigpen was playing at a dynamic the same as you would hear him play in a club. Sometimes you hear a record, and you hear the drummer bashing along with the walking bass and a flute solo. There’s no way on earth that could actually take place without the assistance of microphones and stuff like that. These guys knew how to get a sound out of their instruments and blend. That’s an incredible lost art.
TP: Here we’re also talking about the principle of the drums engaging in a dialogue with the soloist and with the arrangement as well, and putting your own interpretation on material. When did you start playing with experienced improvisers or sophisticated musicians. Let’s discuss the process that led to you being a professional Jazz musician.
BARON: Well, I’d have to say that this piano player, Bill Lohr, was one of the first. Through him I played with a bass player in Richmond whose name is Mike Ross. For a kid who was starting to play, those guys knew the ropes, and for home-town that was great.
From Richmond I went to Boston for a summer course at Berklee, mainly to meet other kids who were interested in playing music. Because all of my connections were with people three times older than me.
As far as working with professional players, it’s just a long process. In Boston I met this guy named John Scofield. I met this guy named Joe Lovano, and another guy named James Williams. It’s a long process. We were all learning how to play. Now look at us. We’re still learning how to play! But we’ve covered some ground, but you still keep learning.
But I’d have to say around 1972, Boston was a big exposure for me, playing with other musicians who were really serious, and loved to play music. That was the first kind of big exposure I had. I did some gigs with Tony Bennett as part of the Berklee Recording Band, they called it. He did a few gigs using the Berklee band. Tony brought his rhythm section with Kenny Clare, but he would do a few tunes with the Berklee rhythm section, then we’d let them take over. That was quite a thrill.
TP: You subsequently played with many singers, which we can talk about later.
BARON: Yes, thousands. Thousands upon thousands! [LAUGHS] Millions!
[MUSIC: OP w/ C. Terry-Thigpen, “Jim” (1963); Bird-Max, “White Christmas” (1948); Wes-Cannonball-L. Hayes-R. Brown, “Au Privave” (1960); S. Clark-Duvivier-Roach, “Blues Mambo” (1960); Wes-Herbie-G. Tate, “Sun Down” (1966)]
TP: You talked about Herbie Hancock on “Sun Down” utilizing space playing off the drummer and the rhythm section in an exceptional way.
BARON: I don’t know what it was, maybe the time, the late ’60s, whether things were much more relaxed or something… I’m not sure. But there’s so much space. Nobody is in a rush to fill everything up. I used to listen to that track and learn so much from what people wouldn’t play. When Herbie would play a phrase and let two bars go by without anything happening but just the groove of the rhythm section. That was a profound influence on me, that kind of way of letting things gel and allowing the group to come together, rather than always soloing on top of someone. I don’t know, it just seemed more human. Just like you say a sentence and you pause! It seemed so verbal, the way he played. And Wes Montgomery, too. It was a real relaxed track. I just love the feel.
TP: Hearing Max Roach in a piano trio playing as relaxed as he did during that session is uncommon in his discocraphy. He’s often on top of the music and doing his own virtuosic thing within it.
BARON: To me this is some of Max’s best group and solo playing. It’s a really well-integrated group. On that track George Duvivier was just killing! It wasn’t a very popular album, I don’t think. I think I found it in the bargain cutouts when I was a kid. I said, “I know who Max Roach is, but I’ve never heard of these other people.” It’s just a well-integrated group in terms of not being… Like, the Oscar Peterson trios were more of the big band setup, like Oscar was the hero, and Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen supported him. The roles are a little more defined. Like, everybody really had their solo space in that group. But this was a different kind of conception, more intimate, more interplay. It had a big influence which led me to investigate groups which did that even further.
TP: Which piano trios interested you particularly for the dynamism of the drummer within it?
BARON: Well, there was the kind of trio like Wynton Kelly or Red Garland…
TP: So Jimmy Cobb we’re talking about in the former case.
BARON: Yeah, Jimmy Cobb or Philly Joe Jones or Art Taylor in the former case. I’d listen to Red more than the drummer, just his rhythm. If he was playing a drum-set, everybody would be slobbering just to be able to play like that. He was an amazing time player in the way rhythms just flew out of him, and needless to say, the music and melodies that he made with those rhythms. That was one thing that really impressed me. Then also, around a certain point, I started hearing another kind of groove that was going on, and that’s the kind of interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time. It was more like a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove…
TP: Like Tony Williams or Jack de Johnette with Miles Davis in the ’60s?
BARON: Or maybe slightly before, like Paul Bley and Bill Evans, that kind of school, the way Paul Motian would approach playing a ballad. To hear him play a ballad was really incredible, because he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did. He really played a ballad. That was also a really big influence, because ballads are great to play. There’s lots of time to listen to what’s going on, to think about and comment on it. That was a whole different approach that I started listening to parallel to Oscar Peterson, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly. I was kind of interested in being able to do both, because I liked them both. I didn’t bring with me this record called Ramblin’ by Paul Bley with Barry Altschul and Marc Levinson, who now makes high-end sound equipment. Hearing the way they played on that record, sometimes you couldn’t tell where the time was. Was it that important that you couldn’t tell where it was? The feeling was just incredible. It was a very forward-moving feeling. That intrigued me as well as the straight up-and-down kind of grooves that were coming from people like Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland.
[MUSIC: Baron Down, “Dog”; Toots Thielemans, “Autumn Leaves”; Joey (solo), “Over The Rainbow”]
TP: I’d like to ask you about your composition. Is it off the drums, from patterns, or less reductive than that?
BARON: It’s both. The drums are my main instrument, my only instrument, so that’s where I’ll start. I’ll play, and a lot of times sometthing will come to mind from something I’ve played. So the trick is to remember that, write it down and develop it, and set it up to be a composition. Other times I’ll have a melody floating around in my head, or a shape I’m thinking about, and I’ll just go straight to paper with that. Or I’ll hear a certain melody and write that down, then I’ll go to the piano and check it to make sure that’s what I was hearing.
TP: Do you use conventional notation, or do you have your own sort of self-developed notation? I’d also like you talk about “formal education” on the drums.
BARON: My notations for the band… On some things, everything is written out — the melody, the rhythm, the form. Other compositions aren’t really notated that way. It might be similar to a Zorn game piece. I have one piece called “Third Base” which is a way to set up a revolving series of duets, and there are rules about that. It’s very simple, but having three people, there’s a lot you can do setting up rules to keep things moving so that it doesn’t become static. The chart for that will just be written-out instructions as to what the rules are, and that determines the form of the piece.
Basically I use regular notation and just written-out instructions, like “Play loud,” [LAUGHS] “Play pretty,” “Play ugly,” “Play soft.” But a lot of the things, there are definite parts. A lot of the things we do in the band, I do have a specific thing that needs to be communicated, so I write that, whether it’s through normal notation or instructions.
TP: Are you an incessant practicer or is a lot of your practicing at this point on the gig?
BARON: I like to play a lot, and I go keep loose all the time. I try to play a few times a week, just go in a room someplace and play time for an hour, or work on just keeping in shape.
This next track, Junior Walker and the All-Stars was also a big influence. At the same time as all the more improvisation-based music, the piano trios and big bands and stuff, I was hearing this stuff on the radio, and it had a very powerful impact. Still does. Anything this band did really had a big impact on me, and it’s very powerful. I hope you’ll like it. This track is called “Cleo’s Back.”
[MUSIC: Junior Walker, “Cleo’s Back”; Keith Jarrett, “Dedicated To You” (1966); Patsy Cline, “After Midnight”; Horowitz plays Scriabin’s Feuillet D’Album; Carmen McRae, “Our Love Is Here To Stay”; Astrud Gilberto, “Undiu”; Lee Dorsey w/ Zigaboo Modaliste, “Yes, We Can”]
TP: Before the next set, focusing on some of the great contemporary Jazz drummers, any things that came to mind?
BARON: Just in the ballad selection by Keith Jarrett, the way that ballad was played was quite different than the regimented style in which people had played in eras previous to the ’60s. That was a big influence. There was so much interplay between Charlie and Paul. That still sends shivers down my back when I listen to it; it’s really great. That was a classic group, and I love that period.
TP: That floating quality exists in a certain sense in the Gilberto pieces and a lot of the Brazilian music of the time.
BARON: I guess. It’s a different thing. In this situation nobody was really stating any rhythm per se, but you could just feel it moving. It was okay that it wasn’t stated, and it was okay if it wasn’t regimented, like if one wasn’t always where one should technically be. I just hear a lot of trust coming through when I hear that group play, particularly when they play standard material — or anything that group played. I’d just hear a lot of trust. That really inspired me eventually to seek out musicians who would trust me and who I could trust musically. That’s one of the greatest positions you can be in as a player.
TP: Having worked with Carmen McRae for three years, you’re well-positioned to talk about how she would deal with the musical aspects of leading a band. How specifically would she instruct you on what she wanted behind her? Perhaps stretch that more generally to include the dynamics of drummers playing with singers.
BARON: She just wanted it to swing, and she wanted the drummer to blend with the piano player and the bass player and her. She did not like a lot of wasted motion or unnaturalness in the playing. She liked very spare… You know, the way she sang, that’s how she liked her accompaniment. She never really said much to me in terms of she wanted this or that. By the time I was working with her, I had been listening to her since I was like 11 years old or something, so I pretty much knew what she liked, what she wanted and what she needed. I do remember, though, she was really on the pianist’s case about comping for her when she would do a ballad and she’d sing the verse of the song. She had a real particular thing she wanted from the piano player. Outside of that, the bass player was in the hot-seat. If the bass player was not a strong walker and couldn’t give her a real bottom that she could stretch out and rely on, it was trouble. [LAUGHS] The great thing about her was she’d let you know. There was never any question about what she wanted and what she needed. And she’d let you know in a very clear-cut way.
BARON: [LAUGHS] Yeah. I had a great experience with her. I know there’s a lot of terrible stories, people who had horrible experiences, and I’ve seen some of that go down. But just for myself, I had an incredible learning experience. She commanded such respect, and she really respected what she did. She treated it as if it was something great that she was doing, and it just made such a difference to see her walk on a stage and then command respect from the audience, just by her presence.
TP: The next set will focus on some of the great contemporary jazz drummers, beginning with Billy Higgins. I guess we lead in indirectly through Ziggy Modaliste’s work on the Lee Dorsey piece and the New Orleans frame of rhythm, Billy Higgins having been very much influenced by his encounter in Los Angeles with Ed Blackwell, who perhaps took the New Orleans rhythm to its most abstract and highest point in a certain way. I don’t know if I’ll ask you make that connection, but put on the professor’s hat and say a few words analyzing the sound and style and wonderfulness of Billy Higgins.
BARON: He is simply one of the greatest drummers to have ever sat behind the drum-set. I mean, that’s evident by just the large number of incredible recording dates that he’s been a part of. That whole ’60s boogaloo thing, “The Sidewinder,” that’s Billy Higgins, the trio stuff with Cedar Walton, the stuff with Ornette. He’s a master time player. He is like a master of time. He can make time live and breathe. There are people that are masters, and he is one of them. I have not one negative thing to say about Billy Higgins. He’s got a real patience in his playing. I think one of the main characteristics is that you’ll never hear Billy bash. That’s part of his sound. I’m sure he’s listened to people who crash and bash and all that stuff, but in his own playing he can extract what he likes about that stuff and channel it through his own style. He’s got a very unique, identifiable sound and style.
TP: His sound is loose, but there’s incredible control over the timbre of the sound even at the hottest tempo.
BARON: Yeah. Beautiful touch. I mean, he is really a supreme master. It took me a while to appreciate what he did. Because when you come from being first wowed by somebody like Buddy Rich, all you focus on is what they’re playing in their solo, and you don’t think too much about the subtler things. But the longer I spent playing and listening to more music I was exposed to, I really got to appreciate just what it is that he does. On this next track, there are no drum solos, but it’s one of my favorite tracks in the world, with a wonderful melody. The sound of the bass on this, and Billy is swinging… It’s just the greatest!
[MUSIC: Eddie Harris-Walton-Carter-Higgins, “The Shadow of Your Smile” (1965); McCoy-Haynes, “Reaching Fourth” (1962); Albert King, “Personal Manager”; H. Hawes-D. Bailey, “Easy Streak”]
TP: Even though there’s only two minutes to go, I’ll have Joey put on the professor’s hat to discuss Donald Bailey and Roy Haynes.
BARON: Donald Bailey was a major, big-time influence musical and non-musical. He’s one of the biggest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, and one of the most original thinkers and players to ever sit behind a set of drums. His approach is just incredible. He did things that I’ve never heard anyone else do. And he can burn at the lowest volume I’ve ever heard a drummer burn. He’s still around and still playing his butt off in San Francisco.
I just met Roy Haynes a few days. Reaching Fourth has some of the best Roy Haynes I’ve ever heard. I mean, anything he plays on is some of the best Roy Haynes! He’s really heavy, and I think he’s overlooked. Considering how heavy he is and how innovative he is, I think he’s really special, and I love that album.
[Baron Down, “Sitting On A Cornflake”]