Bruno Carr is not a household name with most drummers. But if you could ask Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Michael Franks, Aretha Franklin, Monte Alexander, Stanley Turrentine, Roy Ayers or King Curtis who Bruno Carr is, they would know. He has played drums with all of them, either touring, recording, playing on TV, or appearing in movies with them.
Carr is probably one of a few musicians who does not care for recording. He states, “I don’t feel that I’ve ever been recorded well and anything that I’m asked to do, any drummer could do.” In many cases he asks that his name not appear on the record album. “I want to be known as a personable drummer, such as Elvin Jones. You can recognize that it’s Elvin when you hear him. He has his own style.”
Carr plays with a lot of fire and conviction. When he is playing, all of his energy is being centered towards the music. This could be witnessed when he was playing with Kenny Burrell for one week in Los Angeles. Carr’s playing could also be described as being subtle, controlled, restrained, and having a nice, light touch. In other words, adapting to what the situation calls for. Carr’s playing complemented Harry “Sweets” Edison’s music beautifully. And besides being the first time he had played with Edison, that gig was also broadcast live on radio, all over Los Angeles. Carr would also be heard on another broadcast within a month, this time with Red Holloway. When seen with Michael Franks, whether the style of music be light jazz, Latin or funk, Carr always played with taste. He also kept his eye on Franks. “I always keep an eye on the leader. You never know when they’ll stop a song or change the tempo.”
Carr was born February 9th, 1928. With over 35 years of playing experience behind him, Carr has the spirit of a man half his age, in his playing and in his attitudes. He jogs, does sit-ups, and when touring, exercises in his hotel room. “I have to stay in shape to be able to do the gig.”
Born and raised in New York, Carr grew up around many different ethnic groups, including German and Italian neighborhoods. He was a timbale player in Latin bands and this is still reflected in the way he plays his small tom-toms at times.
By listening to the radio while growing up, Carr was able to hear different styles of music. “Leaders would hand me charts, but I’d already know the tune by ear. I’ve got a good memory too.”
Carr took drum lessons, as he describes it, “for a hot minute.” He did take lessons though on brushes from Big Sid Catlett. “He taught me how to play loud and soft, to play in time and how to groove.” Carr can read music, but he says, “If Henry Mancini had a gig or session with no rehearsals, he would need someone like Jake Hanna, who reads music all day. With those guys, reading music to them is like reading the newspaper for us. They do it all the time.”
When the gig does call for reading, Carr will practice some reading on his own to stay sharp. One book he likes is Ted Reed’s beginning book. “I’ve given many copies of that away. I need to pick up another copy for myself.” Carr also keeps abreast of new drum books.
One thing Carr does do, is to tape rehearsals. “I do this so I know what to put in and what I can leave out.” Carr personifies the adage, “it’s not what you play, but rather, what you don’t play sometimes, that counts.” Carr also counts how many measures in a section, to learn the structure of the song.
Before the gig, Carr will do some warm up exercises to loosen up his hands. After the first set, Carr gets together with the bass player to discuss how they are going to play—whether on the beat, before the beat or after the beat. “The bass player is my ally and we’ve got to play as a unit.”
Carr, reflecting on his own playing, said, “You try to do your best, but sometimes it’s not exceptional, it’s mechanical. You’re going through the motions.” Carr feels that he plays his best when the music is new to him. He used to try and repeat the ritual of what he had done on a good night, to get that same feeling the next night. Carr explained, “It doesn’t work.” Carr does sound excellent, even though he personally is not satisfied with his own playing. He is just very honest with himself as he searches for his own sound.
On the topic of drum solos, Carr stated, “They are not important to me. If you listen to my playing, I’m soloing within the song. I used to like solos when I was younger.” Carr went on to comment, “I like to make the guys out front play. As long as you hear me, you don’t need to see me.” But this writer has heard Carr solo, and his solos are creative, energetic, exciting and unpredictable. Carr commented, “I don’t want the band to be able to predict what I’m going to play. When I do a solo, I try to be musical. I keep the melody of the song in my head and play around with the rhythms. I never think of what I’ll play beforehand because that will mess me up. Whatever comes and will not mess upthe artist and is as simple as possible.” Carr sees the role he plays in a band as a supportive role. As Carr puts it, “Staying out of the way of the singer.”
When asked what it was like playing with Billie Holiday and some of the other famous musicians of the 1940s, Carr replied, “It was an experience, but frightening because of their fame. But it also gave me confidence, since they had confidence in me.” Asked if this is when success began for him, Carr replied, “No. The people I played with had success in name, but had no money to pay.” It was not until Carr played with Ray Charles that he experienced success in terms of not ever having to worry about not working again. Carr states, “I’ve been working ever since.” With Charles, Carr toured, recorded, appeared on TV and in movies. But with all of the glory, when Carr felt he could not learn any more with Charles, he moved on.
Carr then played with Herbie Mann for seven years. Of all of the groups he played with, Carr feels that he learned the most about music from Mann’s group. Carr comments, “Herbie changed his music all the time. We played Latin, jazz, Mid-Eastern and pop music.” This was also one of the reasons why Carr left Mann’s group. Carr states, “While touring Europe for three weeks, we had no time to rest or to even wash our clothes. The group was also broken into two factions, jazz and pop. The audiences wanted to hear our hits and the group wouldn’t play them. I left on good terms.” Besides touring with Mann, Carr also recorded and played on many TV show with the group.
It was when touring Japan with groups that Carr’s endorsement of Yamaha drums came about. “I was touring Japan with Mann in 1964 and the promoters don’t like you to bring your own drums because of the cost. So I played on the Yamaha drums that were furnished. They were like toys. I told them after one set that I couldn’t play on them.” Then ten years later in 1974, Carr was touring Japan again, this time with Michael Franks. Carr goes on to tell the story. “Yamaha drums were furnished again. I remembered how bad they were previously, but I tried them and this time they were great. They make my drums to my specifications, including the size and color of the drums that I choose.”
In California, Carr was playing on a beautiful purple set of Yamaha drums. The set consisted of two small toms, 12″ and 13″ with the bottom heads on; one 14″ floor tom with the bottom head on; one 22″ bass drum with the front drum head off and a blanket inside for muffling, and a 15″ x 6 1/2″ concert snare drum. All of Carr’s drumsets include 13 drums, but he only uses all of the drums for special shows or when playing with a larger group. Carr replies, “When I do use all of the drums, I can plan the sounds. Using all of the drums also depends on the size of the stage. I usually start with my basic set and bring in extra drums, one at a time, just for the change. At times I’ll also use an extra 16″ floor tom for timpani cues. I really love to concentrate on just the bass and the snare.” Other reasons why Carr does not use his larger drumset include, as Carr states, “It’s more work and you begin to sound like everyone else, doing the same lick around all of the toms.”
When it comes to tuning, Carr likes his batter head to be tighter than the snare head. He likes his tom-tom heads to be as loose as possible but without sounding like paper boxes. Carr also uses Rogers external mufflers on his tom-toms. Carr states, “I tune my drums by what sounds good to me. It also depends on the room I’m playing in. At one club, my drums will sound great and in another club I’ll have to retune them to make them sound good.”
Carr presently has Yamaha clear heads on his tom-toms and a Remo coated head on his snare. Carr replies, “I prefer calf heads, but they’re unpredictable. I’ve tried other types of heads but none of them appeal to me.”
Carr plays both Paiste and Zildjian cymbals. From Carr’s viewpoint behind the set, he places a 22″ Paiste ride on the right side. Centered on the front of his bass drum is a 20″ Flat Top Paiste and to his left he places a 18″ Zildjian swish with rivets. His hi-hat cymbals are 13″ Zildjians.
Carr places his cymbals up high and at sharp angles for various reasons. “The height is so I can hear the cymbals quickly and so I’m able to see and hear the singer. The angle is to stop the ringing quickly. I like a fast crash.”
Carr likes to check out all styles of music when listening for pleasure. Lately he has been hearing funk groups and incorporating their licks, but also seeing how he can play their ideas differently. When listening to other drummers, he listens to how they voice their part, whether they hit a high or low sound, and what their concept is.
Asked if he prefers playing with a singer or an instrumental group, Carr replied, “A singer. They pay better, take care of you and you don’t work that hard. Playing with a singer also gives you a chance to use a lot of finesse. Singers also leave room for musical coloring. Instrumentalists are the worst to work for. They don’t leave any room. Singers also need to be kicked to keep the tempo cooking. At the same time, you need to stay out of the way of the singer. The first song dictates to you the flow of the evening. To start the night with a ballad is a low note to start on. Slow songs wear you out. It takes more energy to play them right. Also, if the leader gets excited or nervous, they will rush the tempo. There’s nothing you can do. You never know where the tempo is at. The tempo has to be established and correct at the first. You’ve got to lock the tempo in.”
When asked if there’s someone who he would like to play with but hasn’t, Carr’s reply was, “Al Jarreau. He does all kinds of different songs and is willing to try something new as far as I can tell. So many singers, once they find their niche, stick with it and are not willing to try something different, but he does.”
Carr has never recorded as a leader but has had the chance to, and still does, yet is not excited at the offer. “Unless the record company is behind you, it goes nowhere. Then if you have a hit, the company starts dictating to you to do the same thing over and over. I prefer to have a lot of time to myself. I like my freedom and need a lot of space for my own head.
“When you’re a famous name, you’re doing a lot of record dates but you’re not playing. I don’t want that. In Los Angeles, the studio musicians will play clubs as a diversion and for low wages. This brings the scale down. You can play six nights a week in Los Angeles and not even make $200.”
On a brighter note, Carr states, “When I’m on stage, I have no worries, life’s everyday problems fade away.” When asked what his ideal group and gig would be, Carr replied, “To play everything.” Asked if had any goals, Carr replied, “To open up a coffee shop with live music and to make a living.”
On a final note, I asked Carr, “Has the music business and life been good to you?” He replied, “Yeah, but it’s been up and down, so you go with the flow. No gig lasts forever. It’s an end to a means.”