Yosser was a character in a British TV seriescalled The Boys From The Blackstuff. Unable to come to terms with being unemployed, Yosser used to go around watching other people doing their jobs and saying, “I could do that!” As drummers we often tend to suffer from the same feeling. We see other drummers playing, and if we think we can play the same licks we say, “I could do that,’” without considering that it might require more than a basic ability to copy.
Jon Hiseman is a drummer to whom this feeling could not be applied. Very few other drummers would feel themselves capable of playing the things he plays, and even if they did, it would still leave the whole vast area of Jon’s highly individual musical approach. Before doing the interview with Jon, I would have said that he has phenomenal technique. Now, I must amend that to say that Jon has a phenomenal ability to play the drums.
Jon came to prominence as part of the British jazz and blues scene in the late 1960s. He took over from Ginger Baker in two bands, and the two players were often mentioned in the same breath. Actually, they were poles apart. Whereas Ginger was the wild man—the “Animal” figure—Jon was the thoughtful, sensitive, highly articulate all-around musician who had had training on piano and violin before turning to drums.
It was as the leader of three highly individual bands—Colosseum, Tempest, and Colosseum 2 (between 1969 and 1978)—that Jon really made his mark. He was one of the people who truly put the jazz into jazz/rock (a convenient phrase, but a very accurate one!). Since 1979 Jon has been a member of Paraphernalia, a band led by his wife, saxophonist, flute player, and composer Barbara Thompson. More than just the drummer in the band, Jon is also the manager, the producer, and the publisher—all jobs which his past experience and training qualify him to do. Both Barbara and Jon are founding members of the United Jazz & Rock Ensemble. This is an international, elite band of European bandleaders who play and compose in the jazz/rock style.
The Hisemans live in South London with their two children, Marcus and Anna. At the back of their house they have a 24- track recording studio. Jon is as serious about his skill as a recording engineer as he is about his skill as a musician. It was in his studio that Jon sat and talked with me for more than three hours. Jon told me many interesting things about himself, his career, and the people he knew. But most fascinating of all, he told me his opinions about music, musicianship, and drumming, which really got me thinking for a long time afterwards.
MD: You were once quoted as saying that too many drummers don’t play drums, but rather cymbals with drum accents. How would you define the function of the drummer and the drumkit?
Jon: Well, first I tend to separate players into “cymbalers” and drummers, and with a couple of exceptions, I prefer to listen to the drummers. The second thing is that the drumkit, for me, has always been a catalyst. It has also been a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I don’t have a very high regard for what I do on drums and I’m not actually very interested in drumming at all. I know that I have a reputation for being a technical drummer. That’s probably because I have done a lot of drum clinics, but I prefer to think that I do the clinics because I speak well.
I see the drums as the catalyst in the band. They have the ability to draw performances from people. That is why, whatever I happen to play, my first love is what I call “interacting” drumming, which you could call jazz drumming. But as soon as you say the words “jazz drumming,” you throw up just about everything that I don’t like about drumming. So jazz drumming, by the usual definition, is not what I actually mean. Interactive drumming occurs when, instead of just being a rhythm machine, you are creating a backdrop for whatever else is going on. It might be a theme, it might be a soloist, it might be a texture, but whatever it is, you are creating a backdrop to it, which is shifting all the time. That, to me, is most important. Machine drumming is something which I am not particularly interested in. Interactive playing is the key area for drums and the area in which drums have made their greatest contribution. That’s apart from keeping time on pop records, which is fine, and you get some lovely feels.
It’s the drummer’s ability to inspire people, to drag performances out of them, to give them the feeling that they can do anything, and to push them beyond what they consider to be the limit of their own ability. We have so much power, and it is greatly misused, in my opinion. It is misused most by “drummers.” I don’t mean drummers as distinct from “cymbalers”; I mean drummers who are into drums and drum techniques, and who grossly misuse the position of power they have and render 60 or 70 percent of modern creative music music-less. They take the music away. I think that drums are used too much. I spend a lot of time touring, and I get a chance to hear a lot of bands. I reckon that an awful lot of music is lost in the drumming! Drums are used too much in modern jazz/rock, funk, or any kind of instrumentally based music in which musicians are trying to give a performance based on interaction and improvisation. The music doesn’t speak because of all the “drummage” which is going on. A combination of bad acoustics and the inability of musicians to hear themselves properly causes the whole thing to degenerate. That is why there is a very small audience for modern creative playing compared to the audience that there was for jazz in the early and middle ’50s. There was an enormous audience. Jazz and interactive, improvisational music were the only alternatives to Pat Boone in the ’50s. That music has been killed off by a peculiar kind of technocracy which has been brought to the music and has destroyed it. An awful lot of the blame lies with the drummers, who have developed fantastic drumming techniques at the expense of the music.
I find the whole drum instrument an extremely painful thing, quite frankly. It’s a rotten sounding instrument, on its own. If you sit at the average drumkit and knock the drums and clash the cymbals, the noise is dreadful. Having said that, there is a trick, and this is what has hooked me on drums for the past twenty-three years. It is like a magician with nothing up his sleeves. Anybody, including me, can just sit behind a drumkit and go “flabba-flabba-bang” and it is just not a good sound, compared to a good violin or a Bosendorfer grand piano. But when a magician sits behind them and makes them dance, it’s a gift from the gods; it comes from nowhere. That’s the fascination of the drumkit, because there is nothing there.
MD: Surely there is even less there initially with a violin. It depends much more than a drum does on the skill of the musician who will bring the correct sounds from it.
Jon: Well, the violin itself is a beautiful instrument. I don’t hear that from the drums. I think that a tom-tom going “ughh” or a bass drum going “whump” is an offensive sound. Cymbals, out of context, can be offensive when they are a few inches away from your ear while you are playing them. It’s offensive compared to the way it can sound when it is done right, in a musical context. Something that thousands of drummers never get to understand is what their drums sound like to other people who are distanced from them. This results in a whole lot of dreadful drum sounds. There are too many drummers who play a lot of drums and very little music. And that is getting worse all the time. When I come into contact with young drummers today I am horrified at their unmusical approach.
MD: You mention the continually shifting backdrop for the music which you think that a drummer ought to supply, but you are not knocking players who just “lay it down’” when that is what the situation dictates, are you?
Jon: Oh no, not at all! Cozy Powell, for instance, is one of my favorite drummers. There is an inner life in Cozy when he plays. I enjoy hearing him, in spite of the fact that his style is a million miles away from my own. Stewart Copeland is an astonishing player on records, though I’ve never heard him live. But, in a way, I am less concerned with the great players, of which there are about twenty in the world, than I am with the hundreds and thousands of people who one meets and hears about who are actually floundering about not understanding at all what it is that these good drummers are doing. It is not a physical thing, but they all think that, if they can get the licks off, they can do it. I’m afraid that a magazine like Modern Drummer is culpable because it spends all its life printing snippets of licks from famous drummers.
MD: If you are dealing with an interesting player, the next best thing to allowing readers to hear what that drummer does is to give them some written samples.
Jon: I don’t think that is a problem at all. What I am saying is that young drummers take that four-bar segment out of context. That is the problem; they fail to understand the motivation which led that drummer to play those four bars in the first place. Drum magazines and the drum business are full of people who spend their time transcribing things from records and, I think, doing a disservice in many ways to a lot of the young players. In a weird kind of way they get bogged down in all this stuff. Which brings me on to the next point: We are not producing nearly enough individualistic players anymore.
MD: The recording industry must take a share of the blame for that.
Jon: Perhaps this isn’t what you mean, but I would say that the recording industry is to blame because it is too good. When I was a kid and I started playing, you could not hear what the drummers were doing on the records. That was pre-1965. The drums were so badly recorded that you had to imagine a lot of what was going on. So you developed your own style based on what you thought you heard. Today, if you listen to a record, you can hear every single beat that is played. But again if you don’t look beyond a particular four bars which has caught your ear, you are missing the point. We have a whole generation of young drummers whose playing is made up of a series of snippets they have caught, and who have not developed their own voices.
MD: What I had in mind is that the recording industry has standardized things. A young drummer who goes into the studio for the first time is under pressure, first from the engineer, who wants to make the drums sound like all the other kits you hear, and second from the other musicians, who want the drummer to sound like the drummers they like to hear on records. They are not generally looking for individuality from their drummer.
Jon: That is absolutely true. I know from talking with young drummers that they spend a lot of time going through this business of having musicians saying to them, “Play that thing that so-and-so does on such-and-such record.” One of the things I have been doing at the drum clinics is telling the drummers, in a rather joking way, that unless they get their backsides off the floor and get it together, they are going to be put out of business by the drum machine. I am very pro drum machine. I use one here all the time, and as far as I am concerned, it is a marvelous tool for someone like me. I don’t use it in final performance, but I do use it to help my own creativity when I am planning what I am going to do.
What I tell young drummers is this: They must realize that the drum machine is going to get more and more sophisticated, and for musicians it is a wonderful tool. It doesn’t get drunk, they don’t have to provide a lot of transport for it, it doesn’t leave its cymbals at the previous gig, it’s never late, and above all it plays with a good feel. That’s a shocking thing to say, I know. It doesn’t play with a good feel compared with a great drummer, but it does play with a good feel compared with 99 percent of drummers who totally misunderstand what they have been hearing on records and have been totally misled by what they read in magazines about what they should be practicing—the four-bar-snippet syndrome. So when other musicians turn to the drummer and say, “Listen, you know that thing that Steve Gadd plays—couldn’t you do something like that,” they’re not asking you to play like Steve Gadd. All they are saying is “Make me feel good when I play! At the moment you are making me feel terrible.” They don’t know that that’s what they’re saying. All they know is that when they hear Steve Gadd they get a good feeling, but their drummer is not giving them that feeling.
What I say at the drum clinics is, “If you don’t get it together you’re going to be out of business, because most of you aren’t taking care of the things that matter. You are getting all tied up with the flashy runs that you hear people do, but if you can’t make other musicians feel comfortable, you are going to be put out of business by a drum machine which will do exactly that. In fact, you had better buy a drum machine, start working with it rather than against it, and find out what it is that all these musicians love about these things. Let’s face it, shops are selling more drum machines than they are drumkits.”
MD: Coming around to your own style of playing, you manage to play some very complex things which are continually shifting and flowing, and yet you manage to drive the band and enhance the music at the same time. How did you develop this?
Jon: When I was a young drummer in London there were a lot of other young drummers around, and I was able to compare styles and approaches to all this sort of thing. I realized then that I had a problem: I couldn’t reproduce licks at will. I can read anything, given time. I’m not first-time perfect, but give me three goes at anything and I will read it. The problem is that I am not actually playing the drums when I play music. This has been with me ever since I can remember. At first I thought that I would never become a drummer because of this. I couldn’t coordinate the “drummy” things at all when there was music going on. I only played the music, and often that wasn’t what was wanted from the drums. It made my early playing too busy. I heard everything, and wanted to play everything with everybody, but what I couldn’t do was play “licks”—drum patterns.
What I learned as the years went by was this: On any instrument there are quasi-technical devices which give you a superficial facility. With the violin, for instance, you don’t have to breathe, which means that you can play continuously. Eighth notes and triplets are easy because of the way the bow works. With an instrument like the drums you have got a great many of these quasi-technical devices—almost machine rhythms. So if you move your hands in a certain way, you get certain rhythms. I discovered that I wasn’t any good at that at all. I found that the music I heard going on around me never allowed that to go on for more than half a bar if I reacted to the music. So I developed a style which does not depend on continuing machine rhythms, which means that what I play appears to be changing and flowing all the time. It is not tied into any technical devices.
MD: You seem to be able to flow in odd-time signatures and make them sound so natural that a listener wouldn’t realize that it was in odd time.
Jon: If you can get used to playing the beats you feel, rather than stringing patterns together, you can play anything you want. This means that odd time signatures cease to be a problem, because when you are playing odd time signatures in this way, you are not playing drums at all. You are playing the cadence. The cadence is anything you have in your head. So when you play an odd time signature, you don’t play the drum part. You play the riff. If it doesn’t have a riff, there is little point in putting it in an odd time signature. So these odd time signatures aren’t odd for any other reason than that somebody wrote a melodic line, which we will call a “riff,” and then discovered to their surprise that it was that long.
What I do is play the melodic line, not the drums. I am playing the riff, often a bass part, and my hands and feet are playing the drums. That is the only way I can describe it. I am thinking the bass part, and my hands and feet fit a drum part into it. When we do that solo on the Paraphernalia Live in Concert album, and Dill Katz keeps the bass line going, all I am playing is that bass line. I don’t know what my hands and feet are doing at all. They are improvising on the bass line that I am playing. You might say, “A drummer doing that? What an interesting thought!” But what do wind or keyboard players do? They think chord sequences while actually playing the melodies, and improvising on them. They concentrate on the sequence as the bars go past, but their fingers are playing their improvisations.
Drummers’ problems are mental, not physical. The instrument is easy to play. It is the mental side of it which is totally misunderstood. In fact you don’t play the drums! You play the music which the rest of the group is playing and the drums will play themselves. If you can get into that mental trick, suddenly everything changes for you. I did it naturally. That is why you could say that I am a natural drummer. However, when I started playing, it was much harder for me to get started. I was a disaster for the first two or three years, as any of my friends who knew me then would tell you. I could not play, because I didn’t have the facility of separating the drums and making them work independently from everything else.
MD: What had you achieved at this stage? Were you a good rudimental player?
Jon: No. I didn’t even know about rudiments until two years after I had turned professional. Then I met an American drummer named Eric George. Eric was a rudimental drummer. I used to meet him on Saturday afternoons at Drum City on Shaftesbury Avenue, when he could get off his American Air Force base, and he would teach me rudiments. That changed my life. I had been pro for two years, and I thank the Lord that I knew nothing of what he taught me before that, because it would have ruined me. I was a totally self-taught player who just did what he thought was right for the music at the time. When I met Eric I began to realize that there was a facility that I was not able to achieve without some proper drum study, but by then I had learned the art of keeping practice quite separate from performance.
The art of drumming is very much the art of learning to achieve a mental balance with your body. I’ll tell you something which has never ceased to amaze me, but which once I realized what had happened, led me to begin to understand just how clever the mind is and just how much of this whole thing is mental. I had a practice room with a practice kit. When I started working with Eric George, he advised me to get the heaviest military drumsticks I could buy. He told me that, in his opinion, my hands weren’t working at all, and to get them working I would have to work with those sticks for nine months or so. What you would expect to happen happened; the heavy sticks in the practice room felt very heavy, and when I went out on a gig, the normal sticks felt like matchsticks. After a while, the heavy practice sticks felt normal, and then I could put them down, drive for half an hour to a gig, pick up the standard weight sticks, and they felt perfectly normal too. That went on for two or three months and I didn’t think any more of it; it didn’t occur to me that I was using different weight sticks. One day I picked up a pair of the lighter sticks in the practice room. They felt incredibly light! I thought that they shouldn’t have, because I was working with them all the time on gigs. So I decided to take a pair of the heavy sticks to the real kit. I did some practice in my practice room, then I went to the car with the same sticks, drove for less than an hour to the gig, sat down with the heavy sticks and I just could not play! In the practice room the heavy sticks felt perfectly normal, and on the drumkit the light sticks felt perfectly normal, but swap them over and I couldn’t play with either. Suddenly I realized that the whole thing is a mental trick. There is nothing physical about it at all. We are simply being conned by our brains all the time. So if you begin to realize that you can play what you hear in your head, regardless of your physical abilities, then all you do when you practice is try to give yourself the best chance possible.
At the only drum clinic I have seen Billy Cobham do, he said that he hadn’t practiced for ten years, because he lived in a flat where he couldn’t. He would work out the feels and things he was going to play on buses and airplanes. Then he would sit down at the kit and play them quite naturally.
MD: Or he would sit behind the drums looking at them and imagine how things could happen.
Jon: Right. So he’s learned the same trick. If you can play it in your head…. So many drummers imagine that if they practice for three hours a day, one morning they will fall out of bed and it will all be there. It won’t be, because 99% of drummers spend fifty-five minutes of every practice hour practicing what they can already play! If you have only got half an hour in which to practice each day, you must spend that half an hour practicing what you can’t do.
I don’t think that my attitudes are dissimilar to those of many good players. It’s just that I have thought about it and put it into words. This is partly because I am writing a book about the mental attitudes to drumming, which nobody has ever done. There is not a note of music in the book. It is all about the mental attitudes to drumming, because I think that that is where the problem lies. I’ve got forty drum books if I have got one. I doubt whether I have done more than four pages of any of them, apart from Charles E. Wilcoxon’s Finger Stroke Control, which is a very thin book. Any three of those books will teach you all you are going to learn from drum books. It is the mental side of playing which separates the pros from the amateurs.
MD: What do you think that a drummer should expect to get out of lessons?
Jon: I meet quite a few young drummers, and the big question is always, “Should a young drummer have lessons and learn to read?” I don’t believe it’s possible to learn to read drum music on its own. If you learn piano music, violin music, or recorder music, then when you come to read drum music, what you see is a pattern which can be related musically to phrases. So for every hour spent having lessons on the drums, you should have lessons on the piano. If you can only afford one set of lessons a week, don’t go to the drum lessons—go to the piano ones. Find a working drummer— not necessarily a teacher—who will give you a lesson every six weeks. That is all you need on drums.
MD: You formed your own band quite early in your career. What gave you the inspiration and impetus to do this?
Jon: It relates to my point about the drums being less important to me than the musical context. When people ask me what I play, the usual answer is “the drums,” because that is the instrument, but what I would like to say is, “I play the band.” That is what I am interested in. That is why I am deeply into the technology of recording. To me that is an extension of drumming. I am simply playing the band again. It used to annoy me to find that my participation was limited to laying down the basic tracks on the drums. Very early on I realized that I had to get very heavily involved. I spent the two years previous to doing the Colosseum Live album learning, asking questions, and being a bloody nuisance in the studio until I was able to produce that record on my own. There was a certain amount of input from the others, but I was responsible for the way it sounded and what it was. I’m very pleased with that.
Forming a band was, for me, an extension of all this. I had worked with some of the best people there were. Graham Bond was an inspiration. Mike Taylor was the most original of British jazz composers. He tragically died and therefore hasn’t had the recognition he deserves. He taught me an enormous amount. It was about ’63, and I was just out of school. He asked me to be his drummer. The drummer before me had been Ginger Baker. Because Mike Taylor was totally unknown in rock and blues circles, people tend to only mention that I followed Ginger in Graham Bond’s group. In fact I followed Ginger twice. I was several years younger, and I was the guy who kept taking over when he moved on.
Mike Taylor is still a source of inspiration to me. He was doing things nobody had ever done before. That’s what I’m interested in—people who don’t sound like other people. They are the strong voices and the people with vision. Graham Bond was a lunatic, a fool, and a drug addict, but he was a wonderful musician. He had a vision. He never realized that vision, but verbally he communicated it to those who were close to him. A few years later that vision came to fruition without him, and I think that is probably what killed him.
MD: Could you explain that vision?
Jon: When I formed Colosseum, everybody told us we were mad because we didn’t have many vocals. It was instrumentally based music. When I was with Graham Bond, Georgie Fame, and John Mayall, we had played to a predominantly dancing audience. I have seen the Who playing for dancing! Graham had a vision that one day his type of music would be presented to concert audiences. I remember when we played at Enfield Tech about four months after Colosseum was formed. They were all dancing to records, and when the band came on they sat on the floor. We all looked at each other in disbelief! That was our first seated audience, but within three months everybody was seated. I’ll never forget that. The change happened so quickly.
When I formed my own band it was because I felt that I had played with some really good people as a sideman, but I couldn’t see where I was going to go once I had left the people I was with. I remember telling John Mayall, “You don’t need a drummer. You misuse a drummer, and your music would speak better without one.” While with him I had reduced a ten-piece drumkit, which I had used with Graham, to a snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat, and one cymbal. The music dictated what I did. There were whole evenings with John when I never used most of the drums. It surprised a lot of people. If I wanted a tom-tom fill I flicked the snares off with my left hand, played the fill, and flicked them on again. People couldn’t get that together. But I had reduced the drums to what John needed. Finally I told him he didn’t need a drummer at all. He didn’t have the courage to do it then, but eighteen months later he did. He had one more drummer after me, and then spent two or three years without one.
MD: The sound of Colosseum was unique. When you find a drummer coming along as leader of a band that doesn’t sound like any other band, it is most unusual.
Jon: Battles were fought! That was a very hard band to work with. I was immensely relieved when it was over. It lasted three years and I had to fight all the way. It was tough. I had to drag performances out of the guys.
MD: You mean that your expectations were different from theirs?
Jon: Dick Heckstall-Smith wanted to play blues. Dave Greenslade had never been in a decision-making band before. In fact he found his feet with Colosseum; he found a compositional talent in Colosseum which has blossomed and developed since then. He found his feet in that band, but the talent that he found, I didn’t want. I didn’t think it was right for the band. While the material you hear on the records is right for the band, there was an awful lot of material which was developed but not used. So what you hear on the records was the result of a lot of pain. The band broke up because we were trying to make another album and couldn’t get the material together at all. It finally killed it stone dead, because we were all moving in different directions. I don’t believe that you can achieve much in the way of creation without a lot of pain, and I don’t regret a moment of it. All the torture was probably worth it because it was a unique voice at the time and it influenced a lot of people. The problem was that we didn’t realize it at the time; we thought that we were failures. We have sold a million records since breaking up, but back then we were bewildered and thought that nobody recognized what we were doing. We are all still very good friends, in spite of the fact that we spent a lot of time shouting at each other. That is the sort of bond you can have with people.
MD: What about the business headaches of being a bandleader and a creative musician when you were relatively young?
Jon: There are two routes to go. One is, don’t get involved in business at all. Hire lawyers to make sure that you are not ripped off. The other way is to do what I did, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but I got lumbered with it, and still am lumbered with it. When I left school, I attended a business-trainee course, where I studied law, accounts, business, and organizational methods. So right from the beginning, two and two made four. When I joined John Mayall, I began counting the audience and finding out how much they were being charged. I’ll never forget coming home in the van after a gig and saying to John, “Do you know how many people we had tonight?” He didn’t, so I told him. Then I said, “Do you know how much the club was charging?” He didn’t, so I told him. All I could see of his face was two incredulous eyes reflected in the headlights of the car behind us. He had suddenly realized that he was getting nothing! He went into the office the following morning and canceled every gig in the book. They said, “You can’t do that. They are contracted.” He said, “Put them back in at double the money.” They said, “You’re mad. People won’t stand for it.” But, do you know, not one promoter complained.
That is typical of our business. The agency hadn’t bothered to send a representative out to the gigs. They didn’t know the crowds John was pulling. The promoter would be on the phone the next day and say, “It wasn’t that good. I had to spend a lot on advertising. I didn’t make much on it.” So next time, the band would go back for the same money or a bit more, and these people would make fortunes. Right from the early days that sort of thing happened to me, and I got involved, whether I liked it or not. It’s the way my brain works, I suppose. But I’ve got to tell you, you lose an awful lot of life that way, and it is getting worse, not better.
MD: When you formed Colosseum 2, were you trying to create what, in your opinion, you had failed to create with Colosseum 1?
Jon: Colosseum 2 was quite a different thing, but it was where I thought Colosseum 1 would have been if it had kept going. But my predominant memory of Colosseum 2 was that it was too loud!
MD: Surely you, as leader, could have had a say in this?
Jon: No. Not possible, I’m afraid. I couldn’t control the level of sound from where I was. If there is a guitarist who decides to turn up, the only thing the sound man at the desk can do is turn the other instruments up to match the guitar. That was the biggest problem. I couldn’t stand the volume. There was just no listening going on with the people involved; it was just hammering through. Electric Savage was a great record. It was recorded very quickly—more or less live. Once that was done the operation went very quickly downhill, in my view. I was lucky to get out when I did.
I can’t help feeling that one of the reasons why nothing I have ever done has lasted is because I get bored easily. I feel that any relationship between most people has only got just so much creative potential, beyond which they start repeating themselves. So, long relationships can be stultifying. If you look at drummers who have had very long relationships with one operation, they often become caricatures of themselves. They cease to become working entities in a creative sense. So I keep moving on because I like fresh challenges all the time. I like the fight more than I do the result. I am not a good bet for some body who wants to build up a long-term operation to retire on.
MD: I imagine that you would have a long-term operation in view now, working with Barbara in Paraphernalia.
Jon: No. When I speak, I sound a lot more organized than I am. I never do have any plans. I drift from project to project, and from idea to idea. While I do hope that my marriage with Barbara lasts, because we are very happy and have been for many years, I wouldn’t say that either of us has a lifetime commitment to only play with each other, or to the continuation of Paraphernalia. We will do the best for each other and for ourselves, as far as that is compatible. If she wants to get another drummer, she knows that she could tell me tomorrow, and if I wanted to leave, I know I could tell her tomorrow.
MD: Barbara is very much the leader of Paraphernalia?
Jon: She is the leader. It’s a deal. I handle the business, I record the albums and I drive the band as far as the drums are able. But without her I am useless, because she has got this extraordinary talent for composition, which is the best I have ever met. We have got enough material already written for several albums. She has done a sonata for T.V.S., there is a feature film on the go, two TV series, and more Paraphernalia material than I know what to do with. The current show is a complete suite, which will be the whole of the next album, probably with Paraphernalia augmented to a ten- or eleven-piece band. I would be just as happy producing Barbara and not playing, at the moment. The music is more important, and if I could get better results sitting in the control room and not behind the drums, I would get another drummer in to do that.
MD: But would another drummer match up to your expectations?
Jon: I would probably be knocked out with the person. You might listen and say, “Oh, it’s not the same thing at all!” But I wouldn’t hear that. I hear good in others and bad in myself.
MD: Barbara must have an affinity with you as the drummer.
Jon: She thinks I’m rotten as a drummer, but very good as someone who plays the right things behind her. I’m the most “un-drummy” drummer she has ever worked with, which I think is the greatest compliment.
I would like to be thought of as the ultimate non-drummer. I actually believe that my drum style is totally un-copyable. I hear people playing and sounding like Bill Bruford. We have got three very good Steve Gadd surrogates in London at the moment, and I have heard half a dozen excellent Billy Cobham copies. I would like to think that a young drummer couldn’t put on headphones and “get me off.” A guy came up to me in Sweden recently and said, “I have been listening to Colosseum Live and Electric Savage. Do you know that no two bars are played the same on those albums?” I suddenly realized that that is probably my achievement. You can’t reach out and touch me.
Let me say then that my favorite drummer is the only drummer with whom I have never been able to understand what is going on either technically or mentally. That is Elvin Jones. I’ve got most of the records he has ever made, but I just don’t understand what he is doing. You give me anybody, and after ten minutes I would be able to play it back to you. That’s in terms of listening to four bars on a record and then getting it off physically. But with Elvin, I can’t even put the beats in the same place. He’s so far ahead of everybody else, nobody is even beginning to catch up. And that is with the music he played in 1965 with Coltrane. It may be that he is not ahead or behind. He is just very special and nobody will ever get close to him. He is untouchable; that is what I admire most. There is a nuance in there that is un-writable. It’s hearable, but it isn’t reproducible unless you can play that, and only he can. He is one of the great non-drummers of all time.
Dick Heckstall-Smith and I used to have a running joke. We used to try to think who our favorite drummers were. In answer to that question, we would say things like “Duke Ellington,” “John Coltrane,” and “Miles Davis.” The idea was that the great drummers are not the drummers, but the people who make drummers sound great by the environment which they give them. So the great drummer was not Billy Cobham. The great drummer was John McLaughlin, because he gave Billy the musical environment to be truly inspired and creative. The great drummer was not Elvin Jones. It was Coltrane. The great drummer was not Sam Woodyard. It was Ellington. You see the point? If you are a drummer who plays the way I play—simply as an extension of the music—you are not playing at all. You are being played! You might be playing the band, but you are not playing the drums. That sums it all up.
MD: You talk about American players. Do you think that British jazz musicians tend to look to the Americans for their inspiration?
Jon: We never did!
MD: Not you personally, but….
Jon: Well, yes. That’s what’s wrong with Britain. We have got an awful lot of talented musicians here who refuse to find their own voices. They are besotted by the front cover of Modern Drummer with well-known American drummers on it. The trouble is that the rock drummers do fine. People like Bill Bruford and Stewart Copeland are original voices. They don’t play like Americans. But when it comes to the jazz drummers, they are still walking around in a dream, knocked out by the American drummers. They just have not developed. It may be that all the talented drummers in this country have said to themselves, “I’m not going to hang around playing jazz in pubs. I want to get out there where the action is.” So all the talented people have gone to play rock. It is a cruel thing to say, but it may well be that that is what is going on.
We’ve got Trevor Tomkins and Martin Drew, who are both beautiful jazz drummers. Then we’ve got the crossover drummers like John Marshall—one of my favorite drummers. He is a very original player, but I don’t think that he has ever found the musical environment in which to develop. Over a long period, drummers are only as good as the people they play with. I feel very strongly about John. He needs the music to make him heard, but he just hasn’t found it yet.
By and large, the majority of jazz drummers in this country sound loose and old fashioned to me. The worst thing you can do is to take an old drummer’s style and try to re-create it in a young drummer. A young drummer who wants to play jazz has got to understand what jazz is. Jazz is not the re-creation of Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey. People don’t go to hear jazz; they go to hear certain personalities. When I was a kid I wasn’t interested in jazz, but I was interested in John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and so on. The worst thing that a young drummer can do is to try to re-create the old jazz records. We need jazz music which is alive and is reflecting what is going on in the world today. We don’t need an archaic musical form. You keep hearing records made by session musicians who earn their living sitting in barracks playing what is written. Doing backing tracks without ever hearing the finished product, they have no musical commitment whatsoever. It is just another session for a good technician. They get off playing jazz, and evoking the days when they were kids and had hope in their hearts. What we don’t have are enough serious, creative jazz musicians who are trying to play a synthesis of today’s life-styles in a creative musical environment.
MD: Is there a market for it, though?
Jon: That’s not important. There is always a market if there are enough people generating something, but people aren’t going to pay to hear music done second-hand. I will always go to hear Art Blakey or Elvin Jones play. They are the originals. I don’t want to hear a young drummer trying to play like them. There are not enough young drummers prepared to find their own voices, because they have been told by too many other people to play like Steve Gadd. [laughs] So we are back in a full circle to where we came from.
MD: Your recent solo album, A Night in the Sun, was recorded in Rio with Brazilian musicians. How did that come about?
Jon: We have our own publishing company in the U.K. and a sub publisher in America and Europe. He is also a publisher for many of the key session musicians in Brazil. They write material which doesn’t get issued much in Europe and North America. I told him that the trouble with being a drummer is that you are always in search of good writers. He suggested the project because he had some really good tunes written by these Brazilian people. I said, “Okay, but I’m not going to make a drum solo album. I’ll play the music, and if you want to call it a Jon Hiseman album, fine. But I don’t want to do any drum solos on it.” In fact, there is one four-bar solo on it. I did the whole thing in four six-hour sessions. That included learning the material. For me it was an enormous challenge and incredibly exhilarating. It was a wonderful experience because the musicians were so nice. Márcio Montarroyos, who also plays lead trumpet and wrote two of the numbers, did a great job of producing and mixing. He got something out of it that I would never have done, and I am grateful for the experience. I would like to do another one. I chose the material. They presented lots of stuff and I made the final choice. I had a say in how it was organized, but in fact Márcio is the man who is responsible for that record, and I am very grateful to him.
MD: You have been a member of the United Jazz & Rock Ensemble for many years. Could you tell us about that?
Jon: The United Jazz & Rock Ensemble was formed in 1975. The members of the Ensemble are all bandleaders who run operations in their own right. The band only comes together for four weeks in every year. Before we record, we usually have a couple of days’ rehearsal and four or five gigs. It’s a marvelous release for everybody concerned. We come together away from our individual problems and play charts which we haven’t seen before. We have good nights and bad nights. There have been times when I’ve played the best I ever have. Although sometimes after a bad night, I wonder why they stick with me. There must be an awful lot of drummers who could cope technically with that gig better than I do. I find that band an enormous strain because each of the bandleaders who contributes a piece of music is writing in a different way, involving a drum style which somebody else has made a career out of. I play ten of them in a night, and I don’t find it easy to switch styles.
MD: You have spoken about going into the studio and learning new material, apropos of A Night in the Sun and the United Jazz & Rock Ensemble. Presumably you are able to take longer with Paraphernalia.
Jon: Oh, yes. There is plenty of time to develop the material. Barbara writes things, and we rehearse them and demo them. We take them out on gigs and maybe change them. Then we might shelve them for a while and bring them out again. I often worry about drum parts for six months—worrying away, wondering how to do it—then suddenly it’s there.
MD: When you are learning fresh material, you must be much more involved with the melody line than a drummer would be who plays a rhythm and is only concerned with stops and starts and bits of phrasing on the first run through. Do you work from a piano part rather than a drum part?
Jon: Barbara gives me what she calls a short score. It consists of the lines that she would play together with any other lead line, like keyboard or even bass guitar if that happens to carry a lead line. I will work off that for the first two or three times through. After that I put it on the floor, and from that point I begin to make mistakes. But I don’t learn a piece of music until I am doing it from memory. When I am reading it, it doesn’t register at all.
I did an album with John Dankworth last year. We did a complete album in eleven hours. At the end of one six-hour session, we had done five numbers. After that I went into the control room and they were playing something which I just did not recognize at all, but they told me it was the first thing we had done that day. I couldn’t believe it. When you are working in a situation like that you actually concentrate everything on your reading. It goes straight in and comes straight out again. You react to what you see, but you don’t learn at all. Take the music away and you make mistakes, but you don’t make the same mistakes twice. You remember how things go. I work without music at all times when I perform.
MD: Playing with the melody lines and cadences, as you do, do you tune the drums to suit the music?
Jon: Yes. I often tune the toms to the key of the piece. Sometimes I’ve thought they sounded right, but when I’ve heard them back I’ve found that it isn’t the same note, but it is still in tune, as the mics are picking up a different harmonic. So, yes. If the tom-toms are going to play anything more than a passing role, they will be tuned to the track. Just a quick twist and they come in. My toms are tuned about a third interval apart. I don’t make a big deal out of tuning.
MD: You only see drums as valid within a relevant musical context, but it must be said that you do some pretty amazing solos.
Jon: Someone said it was my “claim to fame”—that I am probably one of the three or four best drum soloists in the world. If that’s true, I would put it down to the things we spoke of before. I treat the solo as a continuation of the music, and getting into the solo is everything for me. What kicks me in is vital. I have to be very careful about the piece of music I choose to solo on, because unless it is right for me, I can’t get started.
MD: I was slightly surprised to find you soloing on “Aliyah” on Paraphernalia in Concert.
Jon: “Aliyah” was my creation. Pete Lemer wrote it, but I persuaded Barbara that we should do it. We spent four months working on it. We just couldn’t get it right at all.
MD: The Middle Eastern concept of the thing doesn’t say “drumkit” at all.
Jon: Writing the drum part to that was my greatest challenge. It took about three months. We ditched it a couple of times. I just couldn’t find a way to play the drum part. The drum part I actually created is based on playing the hi-hat with the left hand, which I had never done before. I had to say, “Look, give me three months to work on it.” So we stopped rehearsing it, and I practiced and got my left hand working. It was great. It made me do something I had wanted to do for some time, and that has pushed me on into other areas.
MD: Why did you and Barbara wait a relatively long time before starting to work together?
Jon: Barbara and I married in 1967, and she was not a jazz musician. She had come up in the classical tradition, and was getting into jazz and rock as a result of the records which were lying around the house. She was slowly making a crossover and also getting into composition. Then in 1971, we started a family. Once we had done that, it was not possible for us to work together because of the traveling involved. So we waited until 1979 for the family to be old enough for us to get a live-in housekeeper, and then we could travel together.
MD: And in the meantime Barbara was still composing?
Jon: Yes. As you know, I’m always interested in original people, and I am proud to say that my wife has developed into just about the most original voice in the area of jazz/rock music. The major German daily newspaper said, “Only Barbara Thompson knows the way forward.” And I think that that’s right. She is a real original. She is now producing the most extraordinary compositions. The Paraphernalia experience has been the most exciting experience because it has been the biggest challenge for me. It has changed my playing more than any other band. I’ve had to change a lot of aspects of my playing to cope with what Barbara has written.
MD: The band on Ghosts with Barbara and Rod Argent is a studio band only, isn’t it?
Jon: Yes. Apart from Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Variations, which I was only the drummer on, I’ve never had to view the music purely from the point of how the studio can treat it. In other words, what I have done before is to take a band on the road, and then go into the studio to try to re-create the same thing. I’ve spent most of my life failing miserably at this, because it just can’t be done. People buy albums of live working groups as souvenirs of the live performance, but seldom do you get the same thing. Barbara’s live album with Paraphernalia, the United Jazz & Rock Ensemble’s live album, and Colosseum’s live album have all been the most successful albums for those bands.
Ghosts was my first studio project ever. It only scratched the surface, but I think it was a good record. We are going to do another one, even more studio oriented. You can do things in the studio which you couldn’t do live. Numbers take on a different life in the studio.
If anybody asked me now why Colosseum, Tempest, and Colosseum 2 were not more successful, I would say that the budgets I was given to make the records, based on the company’s expectations of sales for instrument music, were usually only fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five percent of what most rock bands were spending. We had to go in with ready prepared music and simply play it. Twelve days to make a record was the longest I ever spent. You know how long people like Yes and Jethro Tull spent making records? Months! We didn’t have the success because the material wasn’t recorded for the studio. It was watered-down versions of live material. If we had been able to develop things in the studio, get the material right for that medium, spend some money doing that, and then go out and do it live, we might have had more success. But I blame myself, because at any stage I could have turned ’round and said, “Right! We are going to do it differently.” But I didn’t.
MD: Jon, you have given us a great deal to think about here. Your opinions are likely to influence people’s thinking.
Jon: There is no such thing as right or wrong. I believe that these are opinions and must be presented as such. I also think that a big problem with magazines over the last ten years is that they have spent most of their time presenting opinions as fact, particularly in editorial. It can be misleading. I like the idea of the in-depth interview that Modern Drummer does, for instance. You get the impression that these are the drummers’ opinions, and because they are good players, you are interested in their opinions. One never gets the idea that any of it is fact. And that’s crucial because, in fact, there is no fact!