Kenny Washington

At 26, Kenny Washington is something of a contradiction. Unlike the majority of drummers his age, he is not obsessed with today; his interest and knowledge reach back to Baby Dodds and the beginnings of jazz, and extend forward to the present. The sweep and depth of his concerns are reflected in his playing. An excellent historical foundation combines with a basic talent for the instrument, along with stable, often impressive technique, an uplifting “time” feeling and a good set of instincts. He’s a contemporary drummer with strong roots. Kenny’s love for his instrument and the music he plays is apparent the moment you meet him, and becomes even more so when you listen to him play, both in person and on recordings—with Johnny Griffin (his primary employer), Betty Carter, Frank Wess and Johnny Coles, Bobby Watson, Walter Davis, Jr., and Ronnie Matthews. There is a distinction in Kenny’s work—an open quality, a sense of freedom within a set of disciplines that bring to his playing a vivid sense of life, swing and interesting touches.

It takes time and unusual talent to grow to the fullest extent possible, but Kenny has ability; he works hard and has admirable aspirations. Now in the midst of his development, he shows signs of what’s to come. As Vernel Fournier, his first idol, says, “Kenny constantly makes that extra effort. He tries not to cheat when he plays. He has real potential.”

BK: How did you become so deeply interested in the traditions of jazz and drums?

KW: My father was responsible. He’s a record collector who truly loves music. Coming up, I heard all kinds of jazz in the house—Ellington with Sonny Greer, Basie with Papa Jo and Lester Young, Philly Joe with Miles, Roy Eldridge and Chu Berry, Sid Catlett, and people like that. One recording was very important to me: The Soul Of Jazz Percussion on the Riverside label. It’s the best anthology having to do with drums that I’ve heard. It includes peak performances by 12 drummers of the modern period, including Kenny Clarke, Elvin and Philly Joe. Because my dad knew so many musicians and was very deeply involved with jazz, and because I found myself strongly drawn to the sound and feelings of this music, there never was any doubt about what I’d do with my life.

BK: Okay. Let’s go back to the beginning. Where were you born and raised?

KW: I was born in Brooklyn, on May 29, 1958. For a short time, we lived in the Bronx before moving to Staten Island, where I grew up. It seems I’ve always wanted to play drums. I remember loving the instrument when I was a tiny kid in kindergarten. The first drummers I heard and cared about were Vernel Fournier and Papa Jo Jones.

Dad has all the “live” Ahmad Jamal Trio albums: At The Pershing, Volumes 1 and 2; At The Penthouse; At The Alhambra. Vernel was so much a part of the Jamal sound. The way he was miked gave him unusual presence; his brush strokes could easily be heard. He fascinated me; I felt I had to learn to do what he did. Then when I heard Jo Jones playing with brushes, on a duo album with Milt Hinton, and with trumpeter Ruby Braffon another LP, I really got caught up in drums and jazz. I was young, man. This was before I went to school—no exaggeration.

BK: Did you have any other significant musical experiences when you were a kid?

KW: Jazzmobile! That’s the organization that brings jazz on wheels to various parts of the city. Being under age, I couldn’t go to clubs, but Jazzmobile provided the opportunity for me to hear so many great people, like Mingus, and Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. One night, my father caught sight of Max Roach, listening to the music. I was too short to see him, so my dad lifted me up and there was Max. I rushed to get his autograph. I really was into Max at the time. And, you know, just seeing the man was something! I was nine years old. I also remember digging the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in Spanish Harlem. Mickey Roker was the drummer. He tore things up; the guy can really play with a big band.

BK: Obviously, you were intensely interested in jazz and wanted to participate. What did you do about it?

KW: I began to play. My dad bought me a set of drums and gave me tips about what I had to do as a drummer. He has very good insight when it comes to jazz and drumming. Before long, I was practicing with Music Minus One recordings and a number of other albums.

BK: That’s good for development of chops. But the feeling of a live band is so very different and calls for another set of responses altogether. I’m sure you were aware that you unconsciously come to depend on the drummer on the record.

KW: To bring the situation closer to reality, I would knock off the channel that had the drums. And there I’d be in rhythm sections with bass players like Paul Chambers and Sam Jones. It was fantasy time: I’d practice with Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson and Herb Ellis, and with Ahmad Jamal LP’s, featuring only Israel Crosby [bass] and Ray Crawford [guitar]. I tried to bring that very special Vernel Fournier “feel” to them.

You know, when I went to Chicago so many years later with singer Betty Carter, the first thing I did after I checked into the hotel was to try to find Fournier. I wanted to call to tell him how much I admired him and what his playing meant to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find his number. When he came to New York a few years ago, I followed through, searching him out at the various clubs. Finally, 1 did get a chance to meet him, and we’ve since become good friends. He’s a beautiful and warm person.

BK: Did you study formally as well?

KW: Yes. My first teacher was Dennis Kinne, on Staten Island. He helped me out with reading and rudiments. Because I had memorized so many records, with people like Philly Joe and Arthur Taylor on drums, I could play rudiments. But I didn’t know what they were called.

When I was about 11, Rudy Collins, who played with Dizzy, became my teacher. He was involved with a program in Brooklyn called MUSE. The Brooklyn Museum was behind it. Other than Rudy, there were a number of fine musicians who taught classes and gave private lessons. I met with Rudy once a week in both a classroom situation and one-to-one until I got to high school. I’d leave Staten Island right after school, go to Brooklyn, and follow Rudy through his beginners, intermediate and advanced classes. Then I’d have my own private lesson. He cleared up several of my reading problems and introduced me to a lot of different rhythmic patterns. Rudy moved me right along; we went through Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques book and Ted Reed’s Syncopation.

BK: How much time did you spend practicing?

KW: During the school term, I would practice several hours a day—all on drums. But I had to stop between 8:30 and 9:00 P.M. That’s the agreement we had with our neighbors. They were very understanding. I also would practice violin, which I played in the school orchestra. In the summer, it was music all day. My parents were great. I guess they figured I had something good to work on that was going to take me through life. And because of it, they had no worries about my getting into trouble. I was just too busy.

BK: When did you really begin to involve yourself in record collecting and, through that, the historical aspects of music and drums?

KW: After I had been playing and studying a little while, I looked into finding ways of getting records my father didn’t have. He became too busy to give it as much time as he had in the past, and I took up the slack. I made contact with other collectors, and we would swap records. That’s how I found out about Charlie Parker. I also read the good writers and critics; they led me to other artists and records. As I moved more and more deeply into it, I became increasingly curious about all music, not just drums and drummers.

Listening to various types of jazz, and to pop artists like Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Johnny Moore & The Three Blazers, Charles Brown and Ray Charles, helped me learn the vocabulary, and develop my conception and understanding of music. I believe the more you know, the more you bring to your performances.

BK: What about your playing experiences?

KW: All the time I was studying and practicing, I rehearsed and gigged with different bands on Staten Island. Several older musicians took an interest in me. I worked with trumpeter Don Josephs, a guy every- one respects, and I met Jimmy Knepper, the trombonist who worked with Mingus for so many years. He did what he could to help me get started a few years later.

Things became pretty intense when I entered Music and Art, the special high school in Manhattan. I auditioned on drums and violin, thinking I would study both instruments. But as it turned out, I landed in the percussion department and became a member of the percussion ensemble. I had a marvelous teacher, Justin DiCioccio; he heads the jazz band at M & A and teaches percussion as well.

Before I began at the school, I was solely interested in playing the drumset. I didn’t know much about other aspects of percussion. I had no idea, for example, how important triangle, cymbal and timpani parts could be. Justin showed me these things, often during his own time after school hours. Other young percussionists, who were way ahead in terms of knowledge, also made things easier and more understandable, particularly when I felt discouraged. I had three years of marvelous training at the school. One more year and I would have graduated. But it was a complicated time. I wanted to get out and play jazz on a regular basis. Finally, I left. My parents weren’t too happy, but they knew I had a head on my shoulders and made it easy for me to go my own way.

BK: You had been playing around town all along. But now it became very concentrated.

KW: Exactly. I joined Lee Konitz in 1976 and played in his various groups, including the nonet. Knepper told Lee about me; that’s how I got the job. Then I worked with Bill Hardman and Junior Cook, Cecil Payne, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Jr., and Ronnie Cuber. The work thing snowballed. For a while, I didn’t do much. And before I knew it, I was out there all the time, playing with a variety of people. My parents stood by me during the down times. They never said a thing when I was around the house a lot. Some parents might become impatient and say, “Why don’t you get yourself a real job and make some money?” I never heard any of that. They made it possible for me to grow at my own rate.

BK: Were there any music people who were particularly helpful to you when you were getting started in New York, other than Knepper?

KW: Jazzmobile executive director Dave Bailey, who used to be an excellent drummer, was terrific. He opened a few doors. Mel Lewis, one of my main men, got me on the right track. He came in to hear me one night when 1 was with Lee. He listened for a good part of the evening, and suggested I come to his house and hang out. He explained how to play in different situations, how to adjust to the size of a band, various kinds of musicians, the room in which you’re playing, and other things as well.

BK: Mel had a major influence on you; that’s obvious. But there certainly must have been others who helped shape your thinking. We know about Vernel Fournier and Jo Jones. Let’s go from there.

KW: Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke.

BK: What was it about Max that attracted you?

KW: Max’s solos killed me every time out. The way they were set up and structured could only be described as tremendously musical. He was one of the first guys to make me aware of the 32-bar chorus and its many possibilities. I also loved his time behind other players; it was supportive and firm. He remained the supreme accompanist while keeping things interesting.

Max was such an influence when I was a kid that he almost got me in trouble. I dug the way he had his drums tuned—high, each of his three drums with its own tonality. I attempted to tune my inexpensive set like that. The only way I could approximate what he did was to tune my drums very tightly. Well, my floor tom-tom sort of caved in from the pressure. I thought my father would kill me. He used to take a look at the drums every Sunday to see if I was taking good care of “our investment.” When he saw the condition of the tom-tom, he asked, “What happened here?” I just told him the truth. And he started laughing. I thought he’d be angry but he let it pass, saying I could do worse than be dedicated to Max’s way of doing things.

BK: How about Klook, Philly and the others?

KW: Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe always offer something special to a group or large band. If you listen closely, it doesn’t take long to feel their energy and note how subtly they color the music. And you always know who’s playing; both are immediately identifiable. I discovered these masters as a little kid. As the years pass, I keep finding new things in their playing that escaped me the last time 1 really listened.

Louis Hayes helped me get closer to Klook, while teaching me a bunch of things. Hayes’s cymbal beat really impressed me. I asked him, “What kind of exercises do you do that make it possible to play so fast, using so many unusual accents in your right hand?”

“Actually, it’s simple,” he told me. “Just practice time on a practice pad—all kinds of tempos. It’s a matter of developing the right muscles.”

We spent whole days listening to Kenny Clarke records. Hayes is a Kenny Clarke freak. You know, that’s where he got his cymbal beat. So not only did I learn about time from Louis Hayes, but I also came to understand Klook better.

BK: There’s one drummer who means a great deal to you, right? It’s an enthusiasm we share.

KW: Yes, sir: Shadow Wilson. I heard him on records with Lee Konitz, Monk and Coltrane, and with Sonny Stitt as well. His time feeling was something else. When I began working on the road and got to Lon- don, early in 1980, I ran into Joe Newman, the great trumpet man who worked with him on Basie’s band. I had dug Shadow since high school but hadn’t gotten to the heart of his playing. I mentioned several small-band recordings to Joe, including “A.M. Romp,” a track on a Jazztone LP that featured him and Shadow. I was very impressed with what Shadow did, and I said so. Joe smiled and asked, “Have you heard Basie’s ‘Queer Street’?” I said, “No, man. I’m not hip to that.” He looked almost angry and snapped, “Then you don’t know about Shadow Wilson!” He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the night. Of course “Queer Street” is one of the wonders of the 1940s. It includes a classic Wilson four-bar break that’s got to be one of the great short statements of all time. It’s so right, it’s historical!

A few weeks later I found the record in Paris, with an alternate take, on the French CBS label, The Complete Count Basie. I bought volumes 11 through 20; there’s more than a little bit of Shadow on those albums.

Listening to Shadow, Mel Lewis and Charli Persip gave me a pretty good idea of what playing in big bands is all about. Max, Philly Joe, Klook and Elvin sharpened my view of small-band performing. From them, I determined what I wanted to do and be. Each time they play, a lesson is given. Check out Elvin on the Lee Konitz Verve album, Motion; he’s not playing loud but intensity is there—so strong but under control. He makes you feel as if a truck were coming at you.

BK: From what you’ve said and what your playing indicates, it would seem that you’d like to take the torch from the masters and carry on in the great tradition.

KW: That’s it, man. I feel I’ll find myself more and more by knowing the literature and just playing. My instincts push me toward the time feeling—the natural pulse of jazz. Free music? If you can play “inside,” with the disciplines, you can take care of yourself when you move “out- side” into the freer places. That’s my philosophy. It’s worked for me since I came out on the scene in 1976. I’ve made the necessary adjustments to each job. I play one way with the Mingus Dynasty, another way with Jon Faddis, and still another way with Griff, Milt Jackson, Lou Donaldson, Betty Carter, and Bobby Enriquez. In each case, the music has demanded something different.

But there’s one thing all this music—all jazz—has in common. Swing. Pulse. Whatever the style, there is a kind of movement that is your responsibility. You have to be able to take care of this kind of business. Getting the groove—keeping the right kind of time—should be emphasized by those who teach drums.

BK: Would you like to get into teaching?

KW: There’s a lot that is not currently being taught. Let’s put it that way. I might be able to bring something to younger drummers. They should know more about the instrument, its history, about the music they play, and certainly the structure of tunes. It’s surprising how little some musicians know.

BK: How about the future, Kenny?

KW: Straight ahead. Listen, study, play, play some more, and practice as much as possible.

BK: It must be difficult to practice with your wife and young son in the house.

KW: No, it’s easy. You make music a family thing. I keep my boy with me while I’m listening to records and practicing. It works. It’s the way I grew up.