by Michael Rozek
“When I was four or five”, remembers 30 year-old drummer Ed Soph, “I started taking piano, but I was also fooling around with the drums. I was lucky to have a supportive family; my father would put on his Dixieland records, tap the beat on my head, and I’d play along on my wood block.
“When I was 13, I decided I wanted to take drum lessons. I studied with an excellent teacher, Elder Mori, in Houston. At the same time, I was playing afterhours sessions in Houston with people like Jimmy Ford, Arnett Cobb, and Don Wilkerson. I also played tympani in a youth orchestra, which helped my chops. And then, in 1963, I went to North Texas State.”
At this point in his narrative, Soph becomes a bit emotional, but not without an attendant strain of reason: “I didn’t get anything out of the music education program at North Texas State. I guess I didn’t have much discipline, because we’d be told to write a Bach chorale and I’d come in with something completely different, which the teacher would love. Then, when the reports came out, I had an F in the course. My heart wasn’t in the academic aspect of the music … you had to take required courses and you didn’t have any time for your main instrument. You had to learn how to play C major scales on the clarinet and oboe so when you got out, you could teach some poor little kid how to play, after you’d taken a half-semester course on the subject—ridiculous. I resented the fact that the whole program was built on mediocrity. I figured the only way I could excel was to concentrate; and since my first drum teacher at North Texas, Tommy Gwin, was so marvelous, I had enough of a foundation by sophomore year to change my major from Music to English. Then I concentrated on playing in the big jazz bands on campus with people like Billy Harper, Lou Marini, Mike Lawrence.”
Soph graduated from North Texas State in 1968, and through Cannonball Adderley’s recommendation, immediately joined (along with classmate Lou Marini) the Woody Herman band. In previous college summers, Soph had gained experience on tour with Ray McKinley—briefly—and Stan Kenton, whom he characterizes as “an angel”.
Soph spent the next three years working and recording with Herman while fulfilling his military obligation as a conscientious objector. Then he returned to North Texas State as a graduate assistant, teaching drum set (with an English degree), and encountering more frustrations within jazz academia: “I had some really good students. And a good student, to me, is someone you learn from too. But the schedule was really bringing me down; if you’re with a student and the hour’s over, goddamn it, screw the hour. Plus, they had juries at the end of each semester; a student plays one exercise and that’s supposed to show whether or not he can play drum set.
“Late in 1971, I felt a little stagnation setting in. I figured the best place to go to get my ass kicked was New York. Well I really got it kicked—I was so shy I wanted to go up to somebody and introduce myself—and I was content to sit at home and practice. Finally I sifted through all the, “When you get to the city, call me”, crap and called Clark Terry. There has been work ever since. I learn something from Clark every time I play with him; he’s an entirely musical person and there’s no bullshit about him….”
Besides working and recording with Terry’s large and small groups, Soph has backed a number of singers since coming to New York, most recently Vic Damone at the Rainbow Grill. And he appears on Bill Watrous’ first Manhattan Wildlife Refuge record. He’s also auditioned for Bill Evans, “a gig I didn’t get. But I did a lot of playing with him, and that was just beautiful. To me, jazz is something where there’s conversation going on between all members of a group, and they’re all speaking the same language. Now that’s falling by the wayside; leaders are saying to the drummers, ‘Here’s a piece of paper. We want you to play this pattern over and over and over’. I miss the rapport and the excitement”. Soph’s favorite drummers, accordingly, are a host of sensitive percussionists from Baby Dodds to Elvin Jones—players who, as Soph paraphrases T. S. Eliot, “keep the thin golden thread of tension going”.
Despite his critical feelings toward music education, Soph is an active clinician. “Clinics don’t mean just playing a drum solo with a high school band; they’re a matter of a week or two, and not just talking about music, but getting into all aspects of life and reflecting on your artistic expression or lack of it. I’ve done clinics where one night we’ll play New Orleans style, the next bebop, and the next free form—for all the kids, not just the drummers. It’s a great lesson in roots. Kids coming out of these music schools have no idea of the roots. For a young drummer right now, it’s either Buddy Rich or Billy Cobham. Or maybe he’ll try to play like Elvin. The student needs security around his instrument, but he also should know how the music evolved….”
Soph hasn’t entered the studio scene in New York. He remembers, less than fondly, his time at a Dallas “jingle mill”. “I had to walk into a session and turn off all emotional responses to the music. And jazz is emotional expression. I guess guys get trapped with families—and the money sure is great— but I came to New York to play jazz. I’ve had to scuffle, but that’s minor, since with the one life I have to live, I’m doing what I want to do.”