Harvey Mason : Modern Drummer

“I never really thought of being a professional musician,” says Harvey Mason. “Music is something I did for fun and enjoyment, and coming from a poor family, there was no way I was going to do anything that wouldn’t make me a good living. There were eight kids in my family and we were on welfare and it was really hard. I thought I would be a lawyer, but in my junior year in high school, I read an article in Downbeat about Larry Bunker and studio musicians, and the money they made. When I saw that you could make a living doing studio work, and knew I enjoyed all kinds of music, I thought it was something I was definitely prepared for.

“That’s when I decided I would be a musician,” Mason recalls from his home, where it’s nearly impossible to perceive his profession from glancing about. After speaking with him, however, it becomes obvious that the scarcity of gold records on the walls is intentional and proportionate to his modesty. He has left few clues to reveal his status as one of the foremost session players of the last decade. In fact, Mason refuses to compile a list of those projects special to him in fear that he will offend someone by his accidental deletion. But the list for whom he has played is lengthy, including Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, George Benson, Barbra Streisand, Bob James, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini, such TV shows as Chips and Benson, countless films, and endless jingles.

Growing up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Mason’s first influence was his father, who played drums for the Army band. He recalls playing the roll for the “Star Spangled Banner” at age four, and getting his picture on the front page of the paper. At eight, he began to take lessons on the snare drum, and didn’t buy his first set, a single-lug Gretsch, until his junior year in high school. “For years prior to that, I always wanted a drumset, but we couldn’t afford it,” he recalls. “Every Christmas I remember running downstairs to look for a drumset and there wouldn’t be one.

“When I was really young, I was just into reading and I didn’t play the drumset at all. I was in orchestras and bands and that’s really all I did. I had no direction as far as playing on a bandstand or anything like that. Then in junior high school, the drummer in the dance band got sick and there was a concert that night for the PTA. I was the best drummer in the school, but I had never played a set. I kind of had an interest, but since I didn’t own a set, I never pursued it. They asked me to play that night, and after that, I became interested in set. It was amazing. I sat down the first time at a drumset and I could play it. So I remember putting drums together and making a set, and using the crash cymbals and making them into hi-hats and all kinds of things like that. I did the same thing during my freshman year in high school and played in the talent show. Right after that, I got interested in jazz, which some of my friends were turning me on to.

“When I started going to shows and seeing Stevie Wonder and Motown bands and checking out the drummers, I began to get really enthused about playing. Musically, my interests were really wide because I was affected by a lot of music. I played piano in church and my interests were really varied. I took piano lessons, but not extensively. I was impatient and wanted to go faster than the teacher thought I should go, and faster than I was ready to go. Consequently, I never really put in the time I should have. I’m taking piano this year, though, and starting all over again. I can play functionally enough to play my own material and some other music, and I read slowly, but I really want to be good. I find more and more the need to be able to entertain myself on piano because drums leave a void in that way, as far as melodic interpretation, so I really enjoy it, plus it helps with writing.”

After high school, Mason went to Berklee School of Music for a year and a half, until he received a scholarship to transfer to the New England Conservatory of Music, where he completed his education. Mason says the choice to continue his musical education after high school was the best decision he could have possibly made. “It came from my background and not having any money, and not really wanting to fall back in that position anymore. I wanted some sort of what I thought was security, so if nothing else, I could at least be a teacher. I had all kinds of offers, even when I was in high school, to go out on the road and stuff, but I declined because I thought maybe it would be short-lived and there wasn’t any insurance.

“That’s why I finished school. Even now, I feel that I could probably teach on a college level, and when I first came out to L.A. and I was getting my California teaching credential, I taught for six months at Hoover High School in Glendale, and that was fun. It was always sort of an ace in the hole. Plus, the Conservatory gave me a good musical background. I learned a lot about harmony and orchestral playing, and I got to play with all kinds of great conductors at New England. I became familiar with all the instruments, and as far as Berklee, I learned an awful lot about writing in a real contemporary style. And there were all kinds of great players there. Boston was a great place to be—all kinds of music, all kinds of great players. It was perfect. It was the best thing I could have done, rather than go out there and get locked into one type of music and probably neglect a lot of other kinds of music, which would have put a real narrow capacity on my interests and abilities. By going to school, I went to a melting pot of music, so school was absolutely perfect for me.”

Mason worked all through school as well, and in fact, on his first night at the dorm at Berklee he landed a job at the Pussycat Theater. “Someone called on the phone for a drummer and I was the first one to the phone, so I got it. It was great, because I had taken out a loan to go to school and had to pay $131.60 a month. I didn’t know where I was going to get that money. I was lucky I got that job.”

After that, Harvey gigged constantly in a variety of jobs, including at jazz clubs and belly dance clubs…with orchestras, percussion ensembles, operas, and R&B bands…once he even worked with Duke Ellington. He also began to work steadily at a club called the Sugar Shack, where the house band would back a lot of famous R&B performers who were touring through the area. And during his last year in Boston, he had the opportunity to gain studio experience by becoming involved with a studio called Triple A, where did jingles, religious albums, and various other projects.

Harvey Mason : Modern Drummer“I got to really think about drum sounds and really learned the kinds of compromises I had to make with my drums,” Harvey says. “I thought I knew, but I didn’t really, and I had to learn to bend and compromise that way. I have always been a sympathetic player because I’ve been in so many situations and I didn’t want to over-run the situations. I’ve always been in situations where I felt I was backing someone else up, and the object is to make them feel comfortable so they can do what they do the best they possibly can. I always wanted to have that kind of an attitude, rather than showing them up or anything like that. So going into the studio, I had to compromise, but it wasn’t hard for me to do that. You learn what to play and what not to play. By the time I went to L.A., I was pretty relaxed with recording.”

On his move to L.A. Harvey was accompanied by Sally, a trombone student who he’d met and married during his first year at Berklee. Sally’s family was from the West Coast, but Mason says they also settled there because of the abundance of record, TV, film, and jingle work. “I also didn’t want to go to New York,” Harvey says, “because I wasn’t crazy about the thought of going there and being surrounded by such a huge jungle, where there didn’t seem to be much organization. I thought it would be hard in L.A., but at least there seemed to be some organization to it.”

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, Mason began to get session work. His first big break occurred when Marty Berman took a chance and used him on a big Texaco commercial, during which Ray Brown saw him and called him to do The Bill Cosby Show with Quincy Jones. The calls, however, were for Mason the percussionist. Harvey had played timpani throughout high school and had studied with Vic Firth of the Boston Symphony. “There are some instruments I’m more comfortable playing than others,” he explains. “Timpani is one of them. There are guys in this town who have been playing the tuned instruments, the bells and things of that nature, as long as I’ve been playing drums. Being realistic about it, they would probably be more at ease doing that than I would. When I first came out here, though, percussion was all I was doing, and I went on dates where I didn’t know what I was going to see musically. So I put in quite a bit of time studying it. There are points about me that are real strong, and there are other things that I guess aren’t going to be as strong, but it all worked out. I got hung a couple of times, but nothing really major or disastrous. I just went in and had a good attitude about myself and what I was doing, and I was able to pull myself through the situations.

“In the meantime,” he continues, “I wasn’t getting any calls for drums, and I was wondering if my calling was percussion. I was doing a few record dates here and there, and they were even playing some of the records I had done on The Bill Cosby Show. I’d say, ‘That’s me playing drums,’ and they’d say, ‘Sure.’ There were a lot of drummers, but I guess it was a novelty that I played percussion. One night, The Sammy Davis Show was going on and the drummer was sick and couldn’t make it, so he recommended me to the conductor. I went in there and played drums and there were some people there, one being J. J. Johnson. He was doing a TV show on a regular basis and he began calling me both for drums and percussion. Once people started hearing me more on drums, they began to call me for that as well. I would prepare by checking out the artist’s every album to check out style, how the drums sounded on previous records, etc. For a long time I was playing percussion, so I would watch the drummers carefully to see how they would handle the various playing situations.”