In 2009, Jamison Ross participated in the prestigious Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, an educational residency for promising young jazz artists. Among the notable artists serving as auditioners/panelists was vocalist Carmen Lundy, who approached the nineteen-year-old drummer. But rather than offering educational guidance, Lundy extended her hand and asked, “Do you have a card?”
“I’d just rushed out to Kinko’s the day before,” Ross laughs. “I gave her that card with so much joy. She called me two weeks later for my first European tour—my first time on the road with an artist. I didn’t even have a passport yet.”
From that turning point, Jamison’s swinging and frequently funky drumming earned acclaim with a succession of name jazz artists. And then he upped the ante, launching the “secret” weapon waiting in his arsenal: his exceptional, soulful voice.
That talent came as a surprise windfall to his current label, Concord Jazz. Ross was awarded that record contract upon winning the famed Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Drums Competition in 2012. Concord initially thought they’d signed a gifted drummer—which they most assuredly did. But the musician’s 2015 debut disc, Jamison, featuring his dynamic dual talents—as well as compositional strengths—also earned the drummer a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Now, with the escalating success of this year’s follow-up release, All for One, Ross’s close-knit piano/organ/guitar/acoustic bass/drums quintet has embarked on a year-long itinerary that will span the U.S., Canada, India, Japan, and Europe.
In addition, Jamison occasionally drums with the jazz-funk collaborative Snarky Puppy. He’s toured intermittently with the band since 2015 and will be recording the unit’s next studio album in August.
Ross grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, immersed in music at his grandfather’s church. “I was singing, playing organ, playing the drums—just playing whatever needed to be played,” he says. As I got older, I fell in love with the drums, and that became my focus.”
The animated drummer speaks with a quick cadence. And one topic that repeatedly lifts his voice to impassioned peaks is the value of education. “My mom put me in situations that would inspire me, beyond the church,” he says. “I already had the natural ability, but she wanted me to legitimize myself with education and knowledge. And that’s how jazz came into play.”
Jamison attended the Douglas Anderson High School of the Performing Arts, where he helmed their topflight jazz ensemble. Traveling to New York to compete in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Festival and Competition in 2006, the band seized first prize, a victory captured in the documentary film Chops. “That was huge,” says Jamison. “A light went off in my head, like, Bro, I want to do this for the rest of my life!”
The great pianist Marcus Roberts, who also hails from Jacksonville, caught wind of the budding local talent and reached out. “He wrote my mom a beautiful letter persuading her to let me come to Florida State University,” Jamison recalls. “He wanted to teach me; that was really special. At FSU I started diving into the whole vocabulary of the music, which really refined my concept and how I sound today. I was diving deep into the entire jazz lineage, starting with Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds and Zutty Singleton.”
Following college, Ross continued to tour and record with Lundy and landed a scholarship at the University of New Orleans that allowed for him to maintain his touring demands. His freelancing eventually expanded to dates with Marcus Roberts, Ellis Marsalis, Billy Childs, Cecile McLoran Salvant, Jon Batiste, Henry Butler, and Jon Cleary. “Moving to New Orleans to attend school was the best decision I ever made in my life,” he says, “because of the music I fell in love with there.”
A bandleader singing from behind the drums is a rarity, especially in jazz. And possessing both talents at such high levels makes Jamison remarkable. His drumming encompasses a wide spectrum of jazz history, cored with a groove informed by soul, R&B, and the blues, all with a generous spicing from his current residence of New Orleans. His soulful, fluidly phrased vocals and melting-pot compositional concept also embrace the same multi-influences.
On a recent gig at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard club, Ross mounted the stage wearing a sharp-fitting white vest with his long dreads bundled behind. Welcoming his audience with a beaming, warm smile, he counted off a funky opener. The groove was instantaneous and deep, sparked by Jamison’s passionate voice and infectious drumming. But most impressive was the way the two elements integrated in an effortlessly independent yet inseparable flow.
“I focus on melody,” Jamison stresses. “You always hear me talk of melody before rhythm. You can’t get either/or. You can play rhythm and it might be spot-on. But the combination of both is what makes music.”
MD: How did touring with Carmen Lundy at a young age influence your playing?
Jamison: My college undergraduate time was an intense study. And at the same time, I started touring with Carmen. She opened up my entire brain in regards to playing the drums. She brought me back full circle. When you get out in the modern jazz circuit, all the music is not swing. But when you’re studying music in a college setting, you do tend towards the traditional part of it. And I do like that; it was a key part of my development. But Carmen freed me. One night she screamed at me on the bandstand—because I was being conservative. I was in my head; I was being a “student.” I was being that guy who had checked out a ton of records and knew what I was playing. But I wasn’t embodying it like the way she felt I could.
You have to bring your own approach so you can create your own concept of the music. She was trying to get me to do that. I never forgot that night when she said, “You’ve got to open up. Play what you hear!” We were playing modern music that needed more than just a traditional approach. I literally started going back to the drawing board with her music; I tried to remember how I first fell in love with music—which was actually not jazz. It was pure fun grooves, from gospel, from R&B, from my native upbringing in music. So I tried to combine the two, and that’s when I really started diving into my own sound. That’s when I started to realize that I didn’t have to forget all the things that I grew up playing just to play this music. That’s the downfall of a traditional program: you can easily become the jazz police.
MD: Once you found your style and embraced your roots, how did that specifically affect your jazz drumming?
Jamison: It gave me purpose and insight into how to play music. It wasn’t that I had gospel in my music. But there was a certain foundation in the groove. Soul music, and Afro-American music in general, is based in the groove, and that is probably the one thing that influences my swing sound. And it’s probably why I can go back and forth and play a lot of different styles of music.
MD: Your adopted hometown heavily influenced your music.
Jamison: When I got to New Orleans, I was thrown into this world of music that I’d never heard before. My introduction to New Orleans had been through listening to and playing traditional jazz music. I started to play traditional gigs around town, including Preservation Hall. In New Orleans, a jazz gig is so different: you could be playing “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and the next tune could be “Feel Like Making Love.” That’s the kind of city it is. It opened me up, a cat like myself who was already on the brink of so many things I could pull from.
I started working with the bandleader Jon Cleary, a phenomenal songwriter and R&B artist, and that was pivotal to the music that I do now. In fact, I just did a new album with him that’s coming out next year. I already had perspective about the jazz music going on in New Orleans. But Jon opened me up to the R&B perspective—which, to me, is all the same, actually: your R&B drummers, the Earl Palmers and Smokey Johnsons of the world—they were swinging too! That’s what’s deep. That’s what put the hot sauce on my entire concept. I realized, “I don’t have to prove anything; I can just play exactly what I hear. And things started to open up musically for me.
MD: You were called to record Dr. John’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, alternating tracks with Herlin Riley. Now that surely must have given big local cred to an “outsider.”
Jamison: Exactly! I started to get street cred as being a part of the city. That’s why people can’t tell the difference now whether I’m from New Orleans or Jacksonville. It’s just now that I’m trying to make the distinction that I’m from Jacksonville, because I respect New Orleans and all the wonderful musicians who are actually from there. However, all the names you can think of in New Orleans—I’ve now interacted or probably played with them. From Kermit Ruffins to Irvin Mayfield to George Porter, I’ve played with them.
MD: On your live appearances and also on your first disc, you feature a segment where you sing with your drumming. It’s an organic “duet” that’s quite beautiful. How did you develop that?
Jamison: It started when I was in a practice room in my house, using mallets. I was always a melodic player. I used to sing my drums solos, and I still do today. When I take a drum solo, I sing it, I put melody to it. And the reason is that I was a guy who used to hate drum solos—because nobody would be able to follow along. It was one moment in a set where you would either go bombastic and wow the crowd or have to find a way for people to follow along melodically—like a Max Roach approach. That’s the genius in drum soloing.
My professor, Marcus Roberts, knew I could sing. He asked me, “Why don’t you sing your solos?” When I started doing it, I started to get this really cool phrasing of my own. That’s my secret. When you put me next to any drummer, you will really notice it because I’m actually putting melody to my playing. That’s what’s giving my rhythmic concept a lot of motion.
Also, when I toured with Jon Batiste, he would have me go on stage by myself to sing and play drums. We spent two years together in bunks on the road during 2013 and 2014, and he guested on my record. Jon wanted someone in his band who could do multiple things. I was playing drums, keyboards, and singing. I had the biggest rig!
MD: Singing from behind the drums while playing with a band is difficult—keeping the drum groove centered while being free vocally.
Jamison: The reason I’m able to do it so freely is because I don’t think about it as the drums being one locked groove. I think about its relationship with the singing—a parallel of rhythm and melody. It’s one big connected string, like chromosomes.
MD: Tell me about that knockout New Orleans–influenced groove you play on the Allen Toussaint tune “Mellow Good Time,” from All for One. It’s tricky keeping that fluidity.
Jamison: The way I like to approach that groove is about how I’m using the 8th-note concept. The snare being on beats 2 and 3 makes the groove sit on the “opposite side.” What ties it in is the hi-hat pattern. The snare and bass drum are simple, but the hi-hat makes it crazy. I’m going in between a straight versus a swung 8th. Kind of a boogaloo—like [Lee Morgan’s] “The Sidewinder” with Billy Higgins. But I’m taking that concept and putting it on the hi-hat, making this swampy, funky groove.
MD: When you won the Thelonious Monk competition, what set you apart from the other finalists? You didn’t necessarily go the flashy route.
Jamison: I didn’t. I wasn’t going to do it at first, and I give my wife a lot of credit for pushing me. I’d just come off the road. And, you know, competitions can be weird. When I made the final list and went to Washington, D.C., I was trying to figure out which approach to take.
Now, I know the landscape of the drumming out here. And let’s just say, my generation is very quick to skip a large part of tradition and get right to creating something new. I know that’s pretty prevalent. So I thought, “This is a jazz drum competition—so let me explore jazz.” So I played “Bye Bye Blues” very traditionally. I started it in an old 1920s Paul Barbarin or Louis Barbarin manner—open snare drum, no hi-hat. Then I went into swing and took a traditional-approach solo on the rims of the drums. But then I played “Beatrice,” a very modern tune, and I opened up from that perspective. After that, I played “Rhythm-a-Ning”—everybody had to play a Monk tune. Some drummers approached it in an esoteric way. But I played the melody on the drums. Some judges took it as being a traditional approach. But no, what I was really doing was just accessing the tradition and the range of where jazz has taken me.
On the finals night, I played “Magnolia Triangle,” which is a James Black composition. I played it because I knew it would pay homage to James but also a part of drumming that is forgotten about a lot of times. I also played an original composition of mine, “Shrimp and Grits,” which has a soul-jazz concept to it. Mixing the soul/jazz, that was my concept. I thought, If I’m gonna go down swingin’, I’m gonna go down SWINGIN’. And I did; I was totally myself. I just tried to stretch the entire imagination of jazz lineage in drumming.
The New York Times said that I was the guardian of a hybrid new tradition. And I love that. I don’t want to be seen as stagnant or a guy that’s “traditional”—that’s not my thing. But I am a person who upholds the things that I believe in musically. That’s the truth.
Tools of the Trade
Jamison plays a Yamaha Absolute Hybrid maple kit with an 8×12 tom, 14×14 and 15×16 floor toms, a 14×20 bass drum, and a 5.5×14 Recording Custom steel snare drum. His Sabian cymbal array includes 15“ Artisan Elite hi-hats, a 24“ Apollo ride with six rivets, a 22“ prototype with one rivet, a 21“ prototype crash/ride, and a 20“ Legacy Ozone stacked with a 10“ Air splash. He uses Remo heads, preferring coated Emperors for tom batters, clear Diplomats for tom bottoms, a coated Ambassador on his snare, and coated Powersonics for the bass drum. He uses Vic Firth 5A Barrel Tip sticks, Heritage brushes, and T3 timpani mallets.