Busy jazz drummer and longtime MD contributor Paul Wells—who we last heard from in his December 2012 Drummer to Drummer feature with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s John Riley—sits down this month with a man that many consider to be the authority on classic jazz drummers. Of course, what follows has far less to do with dusty history than learning how best to play in the now.
Plenty has changed for Kenny Washington since his last Modern Drummer feature interview, in the July 1991 issue. For a long time, Wash was considered an underground figure in the jazz community. He was incredibly busy, but mostly playing with older innovators, including Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Tommy Flanagan, and Johnny Griffin. Sadly, most of the legends he built his career with have passed on. Washington is still very active these days, though, primarily performing with the piano trios of Bill Charlap and Benny Green. Despite having the same instrumentation, these two units couldn’t be more different, while still functioning within the bebop trio tradition. Kenny knows exactly what to do at all times with each group.
He also continues to make regular appearances as a session drummer, perhaps most notably on Criss Cross, one of the few remaining independent jazz labels. Washington is on forty-six of its releases—thirty-seven of which he recorded since we last spoke with him. These recordings are an encyclopedia of brilliant bebop drumming; you simply can’t go wrong with a single one of them.
When I first met Washington, in 1993, he was teaching students in his basement brownstone apartment in the Clinton Hill/Pratt area of Brooklyn. Not a lot of drummers outside the New York bebop scene were even aware of him at this point. Of course, those with the proper inside information knew that Kenny was one of the best drummers to take lessons from, despite—or perhaps because of—a reputation as being very demanding of
My rudimental technique was rather weak back then, and my first lesson with Kenny was a rude awakening. As critical as he was, however, he was extremely helpful and inspiring, ultimately leading me on the right path. I remember wishing at the time that he were teaching at one of the big jazz universities in New York. It seemed a shame that the forces in charge of those programs didn’t understand or appreciate what Wash had to offer.
Eventually, word got around, and Washington is now on the faculty at the Juilliard School and SUNY Purchase, teaching jazz history and private drum students. We begin our conversation here.
Kenny: I had done a couple of master classes at Juilliard. Carl Allen, who headed the jazz program at the time, called me and told me he wanted me to start teaching there. He told me, “Do what you do.” Same thing at Purchase: Todd Coolman and John Riley had both brought me on board there. Todd asked me to teach jazz history as well.
MD: How many students do you have at each school?
Kenny: Juilliard is a small program. There are six drum students in the jazz department. Billy Drummond and I each have three students. And at Purchase, I have four. We do hour-long lessons.
MD: What do you find to be the most common things that are lacking in a first-year jazz drumming student?
Kenny: Rudiments! These kids don’t have any hands—zero!
MD: Why is that?
Kenny: There are a lot of reasons. They’re not getting a lot of training on the snare drum. A lot of drummers start out with the full drumset and never work on their hands. What they listen to has a lot to do with it too. When I was coming up, all the guys I listened to had great hands.
From the early 1900s up until the ’50s, the thing that all the drummers had in common was good basic snare drum technique. After the ’50s, it goes elsewhere. In my opinion, the technical side of jazz drumming has gone down so low. A lot of it has to do with young people hearing the two most grossly misunderstood drummers—Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. Those two drummers played in the two most influential groups of the ’60s, the Miles Davis Quintet and the John Coltrane Quartet. The records that both of those guys made with those groups are classics, no doubt about it. There’s a certain mystique about both Miles and Trane, and young musicians want to play like that.
But what they don’t realize is that Elvin didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, “I’m going to play like that.” A lot of young guys have no idea that Elvin started out playing with musicians like Harry “Sweets” Edison and Jimmy Forrest. He could play really great time, swing his ass off, play great ensembles—the whole thing.
MD: Elvin got his start playing in marching bands. You need good hands to do that.
Kenny: Absolutely! He knew all about the Wilcoxon book—he used to talk about it all the time. I mentioned that book to him, and he said, “Yeah, the last page—‘Battin ’Em Out’!” [“Battin ’Em Out” is on the final page of Charley Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos, and many drummers consider it the hardest solo in the book.] He told me that he was once roommates with drummer Charli Persip, and they’d wake up in the morning and practice that stuff.
So when I finally saw him up close at the Village Vanguard, I realized that all of his stuff was based on rudiments. The way he phrases it and switches around the accents, it sounds totally different. But it’s still the rudiments. If you hear him on the tune “Keiko’s Birthday March,” you can hear that he has hands. It’s the same thing with Tony Williams.
MD: Tony had incredible hands.
Kenny: Yes, but a lot of drummers these days don’t have the sense to realize that Elvin and Tony had a foundation in technique and bebop that came from their predecessors. Today’s drummers are losing a whole language that Philly Joe Jones, Sid Catlett, Max Roach, and Kenny Clarke created—using rudimentary stickings in a very musical way within the bebop tradition.
MD: What do you hear lacking in students’ time playing as far as cymbal beat, comping, and so on?
Kenny: They want to play in odd time signatures like 5/4, 11/8, and 1002/37! But when I ask them to play in 4/4 and count off a medium-slow tempo…zero. Zero! They can’t play in 4/4, but they can play all this “fancy” stuff. When you ask them to play spang-a-lang on the ride cymbal, 2 and 4 on the hi-hat, feather the bass drum on all four, and play a shuffle or comp with the left hand…zero!
They don’t listen to the right stuff, and it’s amazing because these guys have access to Spotify and iPods and all this stuff. Man, I spent thousands of dollars on records and CDs. I used to have to look for years for one particular record. Now it’s so easy to check out so much music, but they’re not even doing that. They’re not listening to drummers who play the rudiments, per se. I get guys who don’t even know what a five-stroke roll is supposed to sound like. I tell them to get the Frank Arsenault CD. Are you hip to him?
Kenny: He was a rudimental champion in the 1950s and made a recording demonstrating each of the twenty-six rudiments, from slow to fast. It’s ridiculous! He plays them so well. The evenness between his right hand and left hand…it’s just perfect. You can find the CD online.
MD: What steps do you take with students to get their hands up to par?
Kenny: The first thing I tell them is to turn off their cell phones when they practice. Everybody is on their cell phones and texting these days, and they want everything so fast. When they’re practicing, they have their phones next to them. And the minute the phone rings, their concentration is gone. Also, practice using a recorder of some kind, because the recorder doesn’t lie.
The next thing I have them do is to play everything slow. I’d rather hear somebody play slow and even than fast and sloppy. And the Wilcoxon book is a must.
MD: I wanted to ask you about your association with and love for the Wilcoxon book. You were introduced to that by the jazz educator Justin DiCioccio, correct?
Kenny: Yes. I went to the Music and Art high school in New York City. I not only had him as a band director—jazz band, symphonic band, percussion ensemble—but he was my homeroom teacher as well. So one day I walked in and he said, “Hey, man, do you have this book?” I looked at it—Modern Rudimental Swing Solos—and said no. And he said, “You should,” and plopped it right on the table. And that was the beginning right there.
MD: You’d worked on rudiments before that, though.
Kenny: Oh, sure, but not that book.
MD: That book is an ass-kicker.
Kenny: Oh, buddy! See, being at Music and Art, I was exposed to a lot of different things. When I got there, I wanted to be a bebopper. But besides being around Justin, Mark Sherman was there, who plays vibraphone and snare drum. Omar Hakim was there, and Danny Druckman, who’s in the New York Philharmonic.
MD: These guys were teachers there?
Kenny: No, man, these were my fellow students! These cats were bad. They were mean back then, way ahead of me. But I learned a lot from those guys. They would have discussions, like how many buzzes per stick should be in a good buzz roll. I would watch Danny practice the handwritten exercises he got from Buster Bailey, the legendary snare drummer who was in the New York Philharmonic at that time. I’d sit there and watch him, and I got really into that stuff. I’d notice how he played different parts of the snare drum for different colors and different dynamic levels.
I also started getting into the literature, such as Podemski’s Standard Snare Drum Method and Andrew Cirone’s Portraits in Rhythm. One day while practicing, I realized that was how jazz drummers like Jo Jones and Sid Catlett were getting so many different sounds out of a snare drum. When I realized that, it was like a light bulb going off in my head. I realized it was all connected. Those guys all had great symphonic teachers. When I realized that, I knew I had a lot of work to do. That’s when I really started to get the instrument together. I could already play bebop, but what I was trying to do was refine it. Being exposed to those guys made me a better drummer, period.
MD: It sounds like you went there humble and wanting to learn. You didn’t show up at Music and Art thinking that you knew everything.
Kenny: No, I didn’t know anything! [laughs]
MD: How do you teach out of the Wilcoxon book?
Kenny: I tell them to practice it bar by bar, slowly. Don’t start out even trying to play the phrases. Just play bar by bar, one bar at a time. Work on one bar slowly until you get it. Then move on to the next bar. Then stitch the two together. And very slowly! Don’t use a metronome at first. When you’re first working out each bar, you want to learn how it feels between your hands. Once you can play it slow, turn on the metronome and play each bar in time. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself. If it doesn’t sound good, figure out why. If one stroke is out of sync, that’s one stroke too many.
Man, I used to hear Philly Joe complain about Wilcoxon all the time. He’d say, “Man, Wash, this shit is hard! It doesn’t get any easier.”
MD: I’m glad you mentioned Philly Joe, because he’s known for lifting entire phrases from Wilcoxon and using them in his solos.
Kenny: Cozy Cole was the one who turned all of the cats on to that book. And Max Roach was the one who turned all the beboppers on to it. Cozy Cole had opened a drum school with Gene Krupa in midtown Manhattan, and he used to teach out of that book. I heard that when Wilcoxon himself heard what Philly Joe and these guys had done with his material, it brought tears to his eyes. He thought that in a million years his stuff couldn’t be taken to that kind of level.
It might seem boring as hell to practice this stuff this way, but you don’t know what it will affect. It will affect things in your playing that seem to have nothing to do with Wilcoxon. It helps develop independence between your hands. It helps you with the dynamic balance between your hands. It helps your brushes. It helps your concentration.
MD: Do you find that it helps improve your sound?
Kenny: Absolutely! That was the next thing I was going to say. So many drummers play so loud. Everybody thinks that’s the hip way to go—“Oh, you’re playing with so much energy.” Energy, my ass! It’s loud, and you’re getting a harsh and ugly sound on the instrument. People in the front of the club are covering their ears. But the funny thing about the drums is that in the back of the venue, you can’t hear the instrument at all! Because the sound is staying welled up in the drums. The louder you play, the less sound you get out of the instrument. It doesn’t make sense to me to play the instrument that loud. Guys are getting tendinitis and working themselves to death. But if you work on the rudiments and work on Wilcoxon, that will teach you about control and getting a full sound out of the instrument.
I used to think that Elvin Jones played loud, from listening to the records. When I heard him live at the Vanguard, I realized that he wasn’t actually playing that loud, but the intensity was like being run over by a truck.
MD: His sound was big, but not loud.
Kenny: Yes, it was a full sound, but you weren’t holding your ears. If you went to the back of the club, no matter what dynamic level he was playing, you heard a nice, full sound from the drums. Even when he was playing pianissimo, the intensity was incredible.
MD: I don’t suspect that Elvin was playing loud with Coltrane in the ’60s. You can always hear the bass on the records. And he doesn’t wash out the cymbals—his cymbals were always thin, and you can always hear the stick.
Kenny: Right, right! My whole thing is this: I don’t care if you play punk, funk, or skunk, you have to have good technique. I’m not saying that I’m a Buddy Rich or a Louie Bellson, but I strive to get to that level. Clarity and sound—those are the biggest things that I look for. There’s nothing I can’t stand more than sloppy drumming. My hat’s off to any drummer who plays the drums well. I don’t care what kind of music it is—you can tell if the guy can play the drums. Not everyone wants to be a jazz drummer, and that’s cool. But be a good drummer, no matter what style you decide to play.
MD: How do you feel about students playing jazz with matched grip?
Kenny: In my opinion, as a jazz drummer, there are some things that you can’t do with matched grip. I’m not saying you can’t play jazz with matched grip. But there are certain things that you’ll get a better sound with by using traditional—when you’re playing a shuffle, for example. There’s a certain way of snapping the wrist that you can only do with traditional. With matched, you can certainly play a shuffle, but the sound is different. To me, it’s the same thing with brushes. There are plenty of guys who play great brushes with matched, but there’s a different sound. When I get students who play matched grip, I don’t insist that they switch—it’s too much work, if they’ve already been studying with matched.
MD: Do you find that your students are receptive to all of this? Do you ever meet resistance?
Kenny: When I started giving lessons, I didn’t necessarily want to teach this stuff. I wanted to teach drummers how to play in group situations, how to listen, how to match long notes and short notes with an ensemble. If you’re doing a record date and there’s no drum part, or a bad drum part, you have to use your ears. So I wanted to teach musical conception for drummers.
What happened—and this was about twenty-five years ago—cats would come to me for a lesson and they wouldn’t have their hands together. So I would send them to a drummer/teacher named Keith Copeland. A few of them would come back to me months later and tell me, “Keith is tough! He has me working on Wilcoxon, and if I miss one thing he makes me go back to the beginning and play the whole thing over again.” And I would say, “That’s good!” [laughs] So by the time they’d come back to me, they’d have all of that stuff together, and we could start talking about music.
But unfortunately Keith moved to Europe, and I didn’t have an ally. So I had to start teaching the hand stuff, because so many drummers didn’t have this together. A lot of guys who come to me want to learn brushes. Now, a few of us have really helped to bring the brushes back—me, Jeff Hamilton, Lewis Nash, Clayton Cameron—and there’s a renewed interest in brushes. But if I ask a guy to play a five-stroke roll and it sounds like an egg roll, then no, you can’t learn the brushes yet.
I realized that I had to start teaching this stuff, because the students I get almost always do not have this stuff together. Very seldom do I get pleasantly surprised. It’s the fault of a lot of teachers who won’t say anything to students. They’re willing to teach drummers to play in all these odd time signatures even if they don’t have their basic hand technique together. They’re putting the cart before the horse. In my lessons I’ll tell you straight to your face what needs to happen, and then we’ll work on it and make it better. The whole aim is to try to get better, and I make sure they know the benefits.
Most guys who come to study with me know me and know that we’re going to be dealing with this stuff. But occasionally I get somebody who isn’t aware of me or my teaching style, and I may meet some resistance. I just tell them that if they can play any solo from the Wilcoxon book perfectly, then we can work on anything they want to. Bam—nothing! A lot of times, after a few months, they start to see the benefits. They start getting a better sound, and their chops get a lot better. I tell them at the beginning of the school year that if they stick with this, their technique will be a lot better by the time they’re wearing short sleeves again.
All of this stuff takes time, and it’s a long process. My students say I’m tough. If we’re at a lesson playing Wilcoxon and they play one thing wrong, I’ll stop them and have them start again. I’m trying to get them to listen, so when they get home they’re just as picky as I am. You’ll realize what you’re doing doesn’t sound good enough, and you’ll keep working on it. Each time that you do that, you’re helping yourself. You’re paying yourself off in technique, and you won’t know what it affects.
I like teaching Wilcoxon and all of this stuff, but as I said, what I’d really like to teach is musical conception. Like, taking drummer-less recordings by the Nat King Cole Trio, or Benny Green’s trio with Russell Malone and Christian McBride, or Oscar Peterson with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis, or Ahmad Jamal’s The Three Strings. I’ll give them a couple of these recordings and tell them to live with them for a while and then start playing with them. I’m interested in what they’re hearing, in terms of how they play the ensembles. Then we start talking about the great ensemble drummers—Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor, Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes, Lex Humphries.
MD: What do you mean when you refer to playing ensembles?
Kenny: When I say ensemble playing, I mean playing with the band—matching the long and short notes and the phrasing with the ensemble. Generally, you match the long ensemble notes with a cymbal and the short notes with the snare drum. Drummers can make or break bands—a band is only as good as its drummer. All those great drummers were concerned with what was best for the band, not what was best for them. Sometimes you may need to do something you don’t want to do, but it may help the band play in better time or make the band the best they can sound. All of those great drummers were obsessed with that, and they could all sing the parts. They knew all the nooks and crannies of all of those parts.
Then we talk about the cymbal beat—getting the cymbal beat to swing. I have them get the Miles Davis record Walkin’, and I have them practice with that. Also, Al Harewood on the Horace Parlan records Speakin’ My Peace and On the Spur of the Moment. Arthur Edgehill on Eddie Lockjaw Davis’s The Cookbook. Mel Lewis—the last track on the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis featuring Joe Williams record, “Night Time Is the Right Time.” Listen to the way he plays the cymbal beat—that sound and the way he’s playing the time. Practice along with it. Get that sound into your brain and into your heart.
MD: Tell us about the differences between Benny Green’s and Bill Charlap’s trio.
Kenny: Both groups have the same instrumentation and even the same bass player, but the music is completely different—two different ways of playing the drums, and they’re both hard! Benny is a real bebop piano player, so you have to bear down a little more with him. His compositions are complicated. He’ll send me MP3s of tunes he’s working on—just solo piano versions—and ask me to check them out. So I listen and get an idea of where the music conception is coming from. I may have an idea of what to play, but when I get with the bass player, it may change. He gives me complete freedom to come up with parts.
Bill’s trio is different but also not easy. He plays a lot of different colors and sounds on the piano. He plays bebop too, but it’s different. Bill plays with a lighter dynamic, and in some cases his arrangements are a little more elaborate. There are over fifty tunes in the book, and I know all of them by heart.
MD: How do you think your playing has changed and developed over the years?
Kenny: I think my sound is better, from practicing and everything.
MD: I still hear you coming up with new ideas and new things to play.
Kenny: I went through and studied every drummer you can think of. When I was a kid, I had a new hero every month. I wanted to play like all those guys—Shelly Manne, Mel Lewis, Philly Joe, Persip. So I’ve gotten to the point now where sometimes people tell me they were listening to the radio and heard something and they just knew it was me. It’s taken me a long time to get that kind of sound. A lot of practicing and a lot of life.
All these different drummers I heard, I can take a little bit from each of them. All these guys that no one talks about—I grab from every one of them. Like an all-you-can-eat buffet! I’ll take some Lex Humphries, I’ll take some Cozy Cole, Big Sid…I’ll take some Elvin too. But I try to do it my own way. I never thought about having my own sound—a lot of people put too much emphasis on getting their own sound. That will happen naturally, whether you try to or not. It just takes time. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Elvin Jones—those guys took time to develop.
I’m never going to set the world on fire. I just wanted to play well and sound like my favorite drummers. If I can sound half as good as Louis Hayes or Kenny Clarke, I’ll be doing well. I want to be able to play with different people in different situations and help them sound good. Mel Lewis told me that if you want to be successful, you have to be able to play different styles. Playing with Bill Charlap is one style. Playing with Benny Green is another style. Playing with Melvin Rhyne is a completely different style. You have to know what your role is—how you’re supposed to play in each situation. And you learn that by listening to records.
Tools of the Trade
Washington plays Canopus drums and Zildjian cymbals
Story by Paul Wells
Photos by Paul La Raia