Few contemporary players have learned so much about drumming—or have passed the wisdom of the ages down to so many. Even more important, though, the Broadway and big band vet has a natural ability to home in on what truly matters in any given musical situation. Class is now in session.
Forty-seven-year-old drummer Tommy Igoe leads two popular big bands, one on each coast, yet he largely disavows tradition. Before attending William Paterson University as a music major, he learned his craft from his father, Sonny, a storied big band and broadcast drummer—yet he scoffs at the idea that a musician must be college educated. He’s played all manner of jazz and rock, yet he’s a trained pianist who loves to conduct. So just who is this man on a mission?
Igoe’s Birdland Big Band presents modern material in shouting, sixteen-piece, huge-brass form. Big bands have recently experienced a comeback, in the hands of Maria Schneider, Christian McBride, and Ron Carter, and continuing in that vein Igoe’s group draws on the past while residing in the here and now, performing the music of Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Michel Camilo, and other contemporary jazz composers. The DVD Tommy Igoe and the Birdland Big Band Live From New York shows the ensemble steaming, sweating, and grooving.
A fervent instructor with notoriously strong viewpoints, Igoe has produced multiple top-selling educational materials, including Hudson Music’s Groove Essentials 1.0 and 2.0 book-and-DVD sets and Tommy Igoe’s Great Hands for a Lifetime. He’s a passionate, driven, demonstrative musician, one whose fervor for the instrument and the music seethes from seemingly every pore of his being. He just can’t contain himself. Ask Tommy about the ultimate chops builder, and he’ll explain his father’s “Lifetime Warm Up” routine in precise detail. Ask him about the state of jazz education, and he’ll energetically question those who all too easily support a universal approach. Ask him how he managed to build a loyal following for his weekly big band performances at the Rrazz Room in San Francisco and (the perpetually packed) Birdland in New York City, and, well, you can read his reply for yourself here.
But perhaps the most unusual thing about Igoe is his drumming. Though you can definitely hear the spirit of Buddy Rich and Mel Lewis, as well as flashes of Dave Weckl, in his big band delivery, Tommy is always playing in the service of his bandmates. He’s the leader, but he plays with such sensitivity to the charts, and with such an egoless demeanor, that the drummer inside you almost wishes he would play more. Even when Igoe, thrillingly, takes it from whisper soft to left-hook loud, it’s with a consistent underlying sense of empathy. From delicate brushwork to butt-kicking solos, Tommy keeps his ears trained on the band.
MD: The Birdland Big Band CD Eleven shows your vision for a new kind of approach. But why a big band? It wasn’t hard enough to be a jazz drummer alone?
Tommy: I love how that’s always the first question, because it’s so true! Back in 2006 I wasn’t looking to start a big band, but the opportunity presented itself. I had played in Birdland’s previous big band, and it was a ghost town. There was a core base of older fans, but that was it. I asked the club to give me a shot to create something different and unique, something for a younger audience. After we started playing, people started talking about the band. We became really, really good, and people responded. Within a year we were selling out pretty consistently. The moral of the story is that opportunities will present themselves, and you have to be ready to run with them.
MD: What is your new big band approach?
Tommy: My approach is to not have an approach. I simply want to play the best music I can, with zero nostalgia. We want to reach people emotionally and tell a story about the songs. I’m not a full-time composer; I don’t have an allegiance to anybody, including myself. The only thing I care about is music that can be absorbed by the general public. I don’t want a roomful of jazz snobs. I would rather people have never heard jazz or a big band and that we completely blow their minds. The 99 percent of the world that doesn’t know this music is who I want to reach.
MD: You’re a natural communicator on the instrument, which comes across on video. But there’s tradition in your solos, that big band spirit. Your drumming is clear, and it touches people.
Tommy: A lot of jazz communicates intellectually or historically but perhaps not emotionally. Instrumentalists have to communicate in a wordless structure. The challenge is to break the wall down between audience and musician, to make them feel like we’re all in this together. Rock and pop artists do that, but jazz rarely does. Jazz can be kind of exclusionary. I don’t like that.
We have weekly residencies in New York and San Francisco. We can’t just get up there and play a bunch of charts at an average level, with me playing a couple fast single-stroke rolls, and expect that it’s going to be an experience that will make people return. I’m always preaching to the band and to myself that the bar has to be astronomically high. I also talk to the audience a lot about where the songs come from or why the composer wrote them or why I selected them. That helps take it out of the mundane “Here’s a blues.” Snore…
MD: You do play older material, such as Sonny Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle.”
Tommy: Absolutely. That’s a relatively recent chart by John Clayton. Jeff Hamilton played on the original version, and he totally killed it, as always. A chart like that allows us to tie the past to the present. About half of our repertoire is charts written for the band, and the other half is cherry-picked pieces from everywhere. Some of them are quasitraditional charts from Buddy Rich, Count Basie, and Stan Kenton’s bands. And there are a couple tunes by Paquito D’Rivera and Chico O’Farrill, a couple Chick Corea tunes, and many others. People new to jazz can totally relate to the music if you serve it up and deliver it in a way that invites people in.
MD: Is the ability to communicate from the drums something you learned from your father?
Tommy: Yes, my dad was my first and most important mentor. I learned so much being around him, there’s no way I can articulate it all. He was a true pro. He always had a smile and loved playing music. Some musicians are really dark, maybe thinking about the gig they didn’t get. My dad was never like that. A career is full of hills and valleys. Whenever I got to a point where I felt unsatisfied, I thought of my dad, who always rolled with the punches. He was a man of grace. So I choose to approach the art from a positive area. Every day I wake up, and I can’t believe how lucky I am—I get to make music!
MD: Your dad played on Ed Sullivan’s and Jackie Gleason’s shows, during an era when every television variety show had a big band and orchestra. I hear a similar sense of orchestration and style in your drumming; it’s like the spirit of Ed Shaughnessy and Bobby Rosengarden.
Tommy: If you listen carefully to everyone who has studied the language, you will hear the icons coming out. You can’t play in a big band with authenticity without using Jo Jones’ vocabulary, for instance. Or Buddy Rich, or Mel Lewis. Those guys were there when the music was at its most popular. It was a different kind of relationship between the public and the music then. When I play in a big band, I don’t think about tradition, because I know the tradition, stone cold. Our forefathers didn’t have to worry about maintaining tradition. They were free to make amazing music. Now we have music being played in many large ensembles that are looking backwards— living history lessons. With all due respect to them, that’s not what I’m interested in creating.
MD: So what are you doing differently?
Tommy: My bands are “rhythm section first.” A rhythm section that plays deep grooves unlocks the true brilliance of the horns. Any horn player will agree. With most big bands, when they float from genre to genre, some genres are weak because the rhythm section doesn’t have the authenticity to make the different genres shine. It’s not a horn problem; it’s a rhythm section problem. One thing we pride ourselves on is trying our best to keep the grooves as authentic as we can.
MD: On Eleven, the Birdland Big Band covers the music of Michel Camilo, Herbie Hancock, Don Grolnick, Mike Stern, Chick Corea, and Michael Brecker; you’re bringing fresh material to the big band format.
Tommy: You can’t go wrong with those composers. The trick was coming up with great new arrangements. Take “Got a Match?” or “Spherical.” Those are great tunes on their own. But you have to arrange them for the entire band, and that’s where things can go wrong. There’s a way to write arrangements that will make you cry or make you feel power or suck you in, but it’s hard to do and hard to find.
MD: Being the bandleader, paying musicians, dealing with club owners—does your drumming suffer?
Tommy: Not really, but I tell all my students, you better practice now, because if you get a career going you’ll have barely any time to practice. I’m good at compartmentalizing that stuff; if there’s friction in one aspect of the music, I put that aside and focus on the joy of playing at that moment.
MD: You began drumming at the age of two. What was the focus of your lessons with your dad?
Tommy: I had a lesson every Sunday. We focused on having a strong foundation in rudiments, being a professional behind the drums, being able to play various styles, and being able to play concert snare on a classical piece as well as jazz and rock. I was constantly playing anyway, so he would give me pages of a book and I would get it together. It was a very organic experience.
MD: When did you start playing with other musicians?
Tommy: School bands started in fourth grade, then at fifteen I joined the Bayonne Bridgemen drum corps for three years, which gave my chops a whole new dimension and power. I won stuff like the All-State competitions for jazz ensemble, and I played rock in garage bands. In the house growing up, my dad played jazz and classical, and my sisters played rock. I heard Art, Tony, Buddy, Mel, Ringo, and Bonham, all at the same time. I was a sponge. And I studied piano privately. Then I went to William Paterson University and studied with bassist Rufus Reid, who is an incredible educator. I left after a year to play with the Glenn Miller big band, for the opportunity to tour internationally at eighteen years old. We got to go behind the Iron Curtain! It was an experience that had a powerful effect on me.
MD: You’ve talked about the politics that occur even at the college level. How did you overcome that?
Tommy: I got my ass kicked, that’s how! That was the best thing for a freshman. I shut up and observed. I watched the upperclassmen tussle over who was going to get in the big band or get this or that gig. But I’m not a hardcore school guy. I believe in college—I just don’t know if going for a jazz performance degree in 2013 is the smartest thing to do. Each student has to be given the facts and weigh them in their personal situation, and then they can decide for themselves. I don’t counsel every student to automatically go to college for a music degree, especially a performance degree.
MD: Why not?
Tommy: Because for some people, to put it bluntly, it’s not the right fit. One size doesn’t fit all when you’re talking about a pathway for the arts. For many, school just might be the best option. But if you’re going to be a performance major, it might be a good idea to double major with something else. Or, if you’re really hardcore and only interested in performing, maybe moving to New York City, eating SpaghettiOs, and meeting some other young, bold musicians while studying privately is the right move for you.
As educators, if we really care, it’s our job to be completely honest and not sell a formula. But here is my biggest problem with college now: When I went to school in the 1980s, it was relatively cheap. Not anymore. We’re turning out young musicians—the ones not on scholarships—with often crushing debt that follows them for decades. It’s hard enough to get gigs, but to get gigs and have that burden hanging over your head? That’s really tough. I’m an advocate for students to completely know what they’re getting themselves into. Then, armed with knowledge, they can make the best decisions for their personal situation.
MD: But don’t college students play in ensembles and meet certain requirements? Doesn’t that prepare them for the real world?
Tommy: After witnessing thousands of students, I can say with confidence that it really depends on the program and the student. I’ve had graduates of esteemed schools come to me unprepared to survive as a professional, and there are no-name schools that have produced polished monsters. Look, an ensemble is only as good as the leader. Great educators are rare. Some guys are teaching because the playing thing didn’t work out, not because they have a real passion for education. Also, the playing opportunities are a lot less now. Broadway has become one of the last bastions of steady performance employment that allows you to not tour while making a substantial living. But we’re still turning out thousands of exquisitely trained musicians every year who are going to be looking for a gig in a smaller pool.
It’s happening right now. I believe we have to do a better job of communicating the realities of the music business, so they have the information they need to make the right decisions. Like the idea of being a studio musician— that doesn’t exist anymore.
MD: College students are being told they can become session players?
Tommy: Are you kidding?
MD: There’s still session work in Nashville and L.A., to some degree.
Tommy: And there will always be a little of what we now call “real” session work. My point isn’t that there aren’t any studio musicians anymore; my point is that we are all studio musicians. More drum tracks are created in private drum rooms owned by the player than in commercial pro studios. The biggest game changer now is the affordable gear. It used to cost unimaginable amounts of cash to record drums well. Now impressive quality is within reach of almost every budget.
If you’re a young player with aspirations of being a professional today and you don’t have a drum room where you can record your kit, you’re either A) not serious, or B) living in the past. For a very elite few, like Vinnie Colaiuta and Josh Freese, they will always be busy in “real” studios, whatever that even means anymore. It’s just not like thirty years ago, when a drummer like Steve Gadd had three kits rotating in New York daily and had a tech who was as busy as he was. Underneath Gadd there were drummers twenty-five deep, and they were all working every day!
Real drums are becoming a luxury item on recordings. To succeed in 2013 requires different skills than it once did. Once you understand the realities, then you can kick some ass. The studio legends of an era gone by didn’t need to be able to physically record themselves with their own gear. We do.
MD: You played The Lion King on Broadway. When did that begin?
Tommy: In 1997, and I did it for fourteen years. They originally tried a concept of all percussion—no drumset. It didn’t work, because it was still Elton John music, and it needs a backbeat of some sort. But on the first day of rehearsals, the music producer, Mark Mancina, said, pointing at my drumset, “This can’t sound like a drumset.” They didn’t want anything Western. They wanted it to scream Africa. A lot of the grooves are drum based, not cymbal based. I would play syncopated backbeats accenting the “a” of 1, then 4. The groove would naturally percolate. So it was about presenting the groove without having it sound like a drumset. It was a real challenge.
MD: Did you sometimes play air drums to “feel” the cymbals?
Tommy: Yes! Or I would tape up the floor tom so it was dead and use rods on it. That gave it a low, cool, organic sound. That forced me to get outside my comfort zone.
MD: You’ve released a number of popular instructional books and DVDs. What is your general focus with private students?
Tommy: I give students a comprehensive and exhaustive manifesto before the first lesson to let them know exactly what they are getting into. I never cover licks or dissect a particular song. For example, I won’t teach you how to play a Rush song. Neil Peart is great, but instead of me showing a student what a drummer is playing, I’m way more interested in giving the student the tools to figure it out for themselves, opening a much larger world. I want to empower students to function away from me, rather than make them dependent on me. It’s all about unlocking their ears. The drumming is secondary.
Also, I bring computers and YouTube into the lessons. There are amazing performances on YouTube, like Papa Jo Jones playing a great drum solo with Count Basie. I give students specific instructions, such as writing three paragraphs about Steve Gadd [after watching three different clips]. Then we discuss the videos. And instead of the standard approach, assigning a page to be learned by next week, I put the responsibility on them. I ask if there are any questions, then I listen to them briefly play the page.
The majority of the lesson is spent with the student playing music and being recorded. When you record a student in the lesson, all the reasons why we’re actually in the room together become clear.
MD: What is the “Lifetime Warm Up”?
Tommy: My dad created that in the early ’50s. It’s basically a routine that flows through the rudiments, with the double-stroke roll as the connector. We did that in every lesson.
MD: What is your next book, Fillosophy, about?
Tommy: Fills and solos. That’s where most drummers seize up. It’s a real problem for a lot of players. Groove Essentials was to the point on grooves, and Fillosophy will be the same for fills and solos.
MD: Where do your drive and passion come from?
Tommy: I’ve always been this way. I do everything one hundred percent— it’s just the way I’m wired. I play hard, and I work hard. It’s fun.
MD: Are you a musician who happens to be a drummer, or is being a drummer what you’re really all about?
Tommy: Isn’t that a Catch-22? I am a musician, and playing the drums is what I do best. I tell students, “Be a musician who plays the drums; don’t be a drummer who is trying to play music.”
Drums: Yamaha Phoenix or Club Custom
- 4 3/4×10 Musashi snare
- 5×14 Sensitive series snare
- 8×10 tom
- 12×14 floor tom
- 16×22 bass drum
- 13″ K Mastersound hi-hats
- 18″ prototype crash
- 10″ K splash
- 22″ High Definition ride
- 12″ Special Recording hi-hats (closed)
- 16″ K Dark crash
- 16″ Spiral Trash
Percussion: Rhythm Tech G2 Hat Trick tambourine and Moon Block; LP Sliding Bass Drum Mount holding Mambo and Cha Cha cowbells
Heads: Evans coated Power Center Reverse Dot snare batters and Hazy 200 bottoms, coated G1 tom batters and clear G1 bottoms, and EMAD bass drum batter and ported Ebony front head
Sticks: Vic Firth Tommy Igoe Groove Essentials signature stick, Heritage brushes, and Rute 505
Hardware: Yamaha HS740A hi-hat stand, FP8500C bass drum pedal, CHH 930 closed hi-hat, SS950 snare stand, CS755 cymbal stands, DS840 drum throne, and CH750 splash cymbal arm
Chick Corea Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Roy Haynes), Three Quartets (Steve Gadd) ///Wynton Kelly Smokin’ at the Half Note (Jimmy Cobb) /// The Beatles Abbey Road (Ringo Starr) /// Stan Kenton Live at the London Hilton 1973, Vol. II (Peter Erskine) /// John Scofield Loud Jazz (Dennis Chambers) /// Paquito D’Rivera Manhattan Burn (Ignacio Berroa) /// Buddy Rich Swingin’ New Big Band (Buddy Rich) /// Tower of Power Live and in Living Color (David Garibaldi) /// Remember Shakti The Believer (Zakir Hussain)
The Birdland Big Band Eleven, Live From New York /// Tommy Igoe New Ground /// Pacific Mambo Orchestra PMO /// Brent Stanton The Sign of the Kiwi /// Michael Zilber Stranger in Brooklyn /// Patrick Brent Oz in the House /// Lauryn Hill “Little Drummer Boy” /// The Lion King original cast recording /// New York Voices What’s Inside, New York Voices, Collection