Beneath the Surface
by Cheech Iero
CI: How did you first get interested in drumming?
BM: Friends of my parents were musicians. Among them was Ed Shaughnessy who is my godfather. He gave me my first drum when I was about ten.CI: Do you remember your first drum?
BM: Yes. The first drum I had was a tom-tom.
CI: Ed gave you that?
BM: Yes. Later on he gave me an experimental set that Slingerland had tried. I’ve never seen anything like it since. It had a thin bass drum. It was about 20 or 22 inches but only 10 or 12 inches in depth. They had a silver type of finish. They never produced them because the finish chipped off easily. But they looked slick and he had a few sets so he laid one on me. That was like my first thing with drumming. A little later I heard Max Roach who was also a friend of my father’s and that was the turning point when I really said, ‘Ah the drums!’ When I first started playing I wasn’t particularly interested in drums more than any other instrument. In fact, maybe I was a little less interested in them. I also play vibes, and I’ve played them as long as the drums. But when I heard Max Roach I said, ‘Ah ha, that’s what the drums can sound like.’ He hits them in such a way that the true tone is produced. I haven’t heard any drummer before Max who did it.
CI: Where did you see him?
BM: I caught him in a lot of different places, concerts. He was a friend of my father and I was a drummer. He was very nice to me at a very early age. I’d go back stage to concerts. I remember one concert at the Museum of Modern Art that he did with sixteen voices. His band at the time included Booker Little, Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordon, Julian Priester, Mal Waldron, Art Davis. It was really strong. Abby Lincoln was singing with them. That was one gig I caught and remember it vividly. I saw him play a lot. Soon after that I saw Mingus and Dannie Richmond play. Richmond was a big influence on me. I’ve never heard anybody that sly. He had all the knowledge. The only drummer who could play with Mingus. It’s hard. I used to sit in with him when I was young. I might have even done better when I was a kid. I tried again as an adult and only lasted a night. There’s a funny Mingus story. There was a piano player he hired, a local pianist from San Francisco. The guy hit one chord and Mingus turned around and said, ‘You’re fired.’ The cat did not get a chance to hit a second chord. He reached the point of no return. Mingus was a big influence on me because my main thing really is composing. And consequently because I dig Mingus I’ve heard a lot of Dannie. They play like the wind together. It’s organic. You don’t have to think about it. Like nature, like wind blowing through the trees. I was committed to the drums at a fairly young age.
CI: When you were coming up did you have formal training?
BM: Not very much. I sort of rebelled against it. I studied for about a year with this guy Morris Goldenberg, a classical teacher. And he taught me basically reading, snare drum techniques, and a little xylophone, tympani, that kind of thing. It didn’t give me any roads into jazz which was what I was interested in playing. To play classical percussion you have to be excellent. But just the role in the music wasn’t that much for me. Roy Haynes plays more in 8 bars than you get to play in a whole symphony. So I was always drawn to the jazz thing and couldn’t get that from any teacher in those days. Presently, I teach and know there isn’t any teacher like me because I deal basically with jazz playing. I deal with modern drum playing and traditions coming from be bop and Max Roach, rather than learning to read the Stone book or whatever. I couldn’t find any teachers who were teaching that way. I had a couple of teachers who were bigband oriented, but that wasn’t the way I wanted to play either. I was digging Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Roy Haynes and they were talking about Buddy Rich.
CI: Weren’t you still forming your style when you sought out these various teachers?
BM: Well, I knew what I thought was good, and it really hasn’t changed that much. There was no one teaching that style of music and I felt the only way to learn it was to listen to the cats who were playing it. I heard Elvin with Trane about 40 times before I had any idea what he was doing. The first time I heard Elvin was in 1960 when he first joined Trane, doing “My Favorite Things.” I didn’t know what it was. I knew it was great. I knew it swung and everything. Max and Kenny Clarke didn’t play like that. There was more space. Elvin had all this constant, rolling, organic thing happening and yet it was still swinging. I couldn’t figure out what it was. ‘Oh, it’s triplets! Hey!’ When I teach I can get across the essence of what Elvin was doing in a couple of weeks. It will take me about three weeks to describe what took me years of constant listening to understand.
CI: Did you ever rap to these cats and ask them what it was they were doing? Like how did you do this or that?
BM: I was close to Max and got some help from him. At the time I didn’t talk to Elvin. You’ve got to remember I was a thirteen year old white kid and felt intimidated. I didn’t know what to say at that point. I got close to Roy Haynes and took one lesson from him. I consider it to be the most beneficial lesson I ever had. It’s a lesson that I’m still working on. But even he didn’t go into the details of the content. It was more generalized principles. So consequently figuring out what it was — I had to do that. I consider myself taught in the sense of having teachers, but of course, nobody’s self-taught. I learned from listening and being around. But the music was happening in the streets, it wasn’t happening in the class room and it wasn’t happening in teaching situations. Not then, not the kind of music that I was talking about. Even today it’s probably pretty rare but there are some people who teach like I teach. I deal with that kind of music and that kind of playing. And I get directly to that. But at that time, I had to do it myself.
Shortly after I quit Morris Goldenberg,I was telling him how great Elvin was and he went down to Gretsch night at Birdland. You’d see Elvin, and Blakey and Philly Joe all playing together. He went down there and he said, ‘God he sweats so much when he plays — it’s disgusting.’ That was his reaction to Elvin. So shortly after that I stopped studying with him. You can’t teach sweating man. When I go up to the Berklee School in Boston, I realized that all those guys are studying the music. But they’re not living the music and to me that’s the essence of the thing. It really wasn’t important that it took me two years to learn what Elvin was playing, but I knew what it was that he represented immediately. What he represented as a life style, as a life force. This was different than what is happening in my school. There was a different force at work and I saw that immediately. Now-a-days the technical information is available. A lot of people have it, which proves all the more that it’s not the key to the music. The key is what’s inside, the life you live, and that’s what I really learned from those people. Where the music came from, how much dedication and how much love was in it. People who just study the music will never sound as real. There are piano players who analyze McCoy or Bill Evans or Chick Corea. They know analytically what it is, but they didn’t live it and I hear that immediately. That’s what I hear first, before the note. I hear the aura and spirit. I hear what’s inside. But that’s an ability I’ve always had. I see the inside before I see the outside.
CI: You see it or do you mean you hear it?
BM: See and hear has become the same thing for me. I use “see” as a bigger word.
CI: Seeing means to realize.
BM: Yeah. Because that’s part of it too. Seeing those people play is different from hearing them on record. One of the reasons I go to Ippolito’s drum store is because you see Elvin and old Jo Jones in there. Just their presence in the room is music. They walk into the room and you feel this music happening. There’s an incredible thing coming from them. Just the way they talk, the way they act. That’s the difference. I see some musicians now that play well but they act like accountants. They may even have long hair and dress freaky but their attitude is so straight. They’re not visionary at all. They don’t have that color or aura. They don’t let the spirit take them. Especially in young musicians. You’d think the shit would be moving forward but personally there’s that spirit. The technical thing comes as you get it. Everybody has a different speed. But the heart I can see immediately.
CI: Do you think that quality is innate or must a person acquire it?
BM: I think that anybody is capable of getting to it, and the roads that lead there are infinite. Some people are born to it and some people have to travel a great distance to get there. I had certain advantages where my parents were very into the music scene. Consequently, I was around these spirits like Max and Mingus at an early age and was affected by that spirit. But still I felt I had to travel a long way to get there. I don’t feel I was born to it in a way. It’s been a long journey and I’ve seen people approach it from many different situations depending on where you start.
CI: If you weren’t surrounded by that environment would you have still been pulled by the magnetism of being a jazz drummer?
BM: Well, I think I would have been led to the magnetism of the spirit. Maybe I would have wound up being a painter, or a photographer.
CI: You told me you don’t practice much anymore. You feel playing is a lot better for your chops?
BM: Yes. The presence of other musicians pushes you through the pain barrier more than you would push yourself. If you practice by yourself you can go so far and feel proud if you bear that much pain. On the gig situation you have to bear a lot more pain and you can’t stop. Especially playing with Hal Galper’s band, because he likes to start in fourth gear. If I hadn’t played in a week or two that band really kicked my ass. Blood would be coming off my hands, my fingers would be splitting open. I’d have bandages on my hands. I could never push myself that far practicing. I wouldn’t have inspiration or pressure. How humiliating to have to stop playing on a gig with people watching and the band counting on you. There were nights that my hands were just paralyzed with pain. My playing might have been a little stiff or the tempo came down a hair. I forced myself to get through that thing. Then the next night might have been a little better and by the third night I’d be on top of it. I could jump on it.
CI: Don’t you think that certain advocates of a particular technique would say, ‘Come on man, you’re not supposed to have that pain if you play loose!’
BM: Well, if they’ve got a technique that doesn’t have any pain I’d like to hear about it. Of course, you shouldn’t tighten up but you have to get to that point where you have enough strength to play loosely. You have to go through that at first, to get to where you can be relaxed. I don’t think you can just start off relaxed. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people who say you start off relaxed, stay relaxed. The purpose of getting strength is so you can be relaxed. There is a saxophonist, Alan Skidmore, who is very intense. People call him a mad man because this guy really burns. He gets up on his toes. His face turns red, veins bulging in his neck. And I said to him, ‘Alan I like the way you play, man, but I think you should play twice as strong as you play now.’ No one had ever told him anything like that before. If anything they told him, ‘Cool out, Al.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I want to.’ I said, ‘Dig it. If you could play twice as strong as you play now, you could be relaxed.’ It’s like having strength in reserve. That’s one thing about Elvin, when he was playing with Trane. As hard as he was playing, smashing the shit, you always felt that he could go further. It’s like sex, you can’t climax too early. With running, you can’t sprint too early because you can’t finish the race. The thing is to develop your strength to a point where your medium or coasting point is very strong. The only time I exert myself to the fullest is when I know it’s going to be the last tune of the night. When I was with this group called Compost, we used to do double drum solos with me and Jack DeJohnette. I knew nothing was going to happen after that. Sometimes we’d play 40 minutes to an hour, just two drummers, and I wouldn’t hold back anything. You can’t peak or play your hardest before your finish because you won’t be relaxed anymore. To me, the reason to have the strength is so you can be relaxed. I don’t know any way of initially getting that strength without going through some pain. But the ideal thing is to be relaxed at the end. Breathing is important. You should never breathe like you’re doing a sprint. Don’t get short of breath. You should breathe as if you’re sitting in an easy chair reading the paper.
CI: Do you ever do any breathing exercises?
BM: Nothing particular. I’m just conscious of not getting too excited no matter how hard I play. I don’t get out of breath. I like to play hard and really slam the drums. Consequently, I’ve developed the strength to play intensely and be relaxed. That’s the key. Relaxation is definitely the goal. These days, the music I play is not hard physically. It doesn’t push me physically. Sometimes I don’t even raise a sweat. I don’t have to warm up anymore. I have a philosophy of playing which involves not working too hard. It’s not a technical thing as much as it is a conceptual thing. My playing gives the illusion of independence. But, I don’t use much independence. My playing is what I call the dependent style of drumming. This means that I don’t separate limbs and play “gangdig-a-dang-dig-a-dang” with my right hand and then my left hand will do whatever it can do against it. I would never play with just one hand. I’d never play a rhythm with just one hand or one foot. I use all four of my limbs constantly, in a melodic fashion. Consequently, I can pla y fast tempos easily without, but it’s not because of any technical innovation. It’s a conceptual thing. I play the flow, between my hands. If it’s an eighth note flow I play eighth notes between two hands. Not just one hand. I get the same effect because what I’ll do instead of putting both hands on the drum is put the right hand on the ride cymbal. So, I get the feeling of a ride beat. I play the flow whether it’s eighth notes or triplets. I realize that the whole right side of your body wants to work together. So, I put the right foot exactly with the right hand, which also is a great sound. It gives the cymbal sound a bottom and it’s also very easy. Your right hand and right foot want to hit together. Your body works that way. If I play it at a really fast tempo I don’t catch every single beat with my right hand and right foot. I pick key ones that I want to bring out. My right foot and my left hand never stop when I play. I’m not one of those drummers who can swing a band with just their right hand. I need all four of my limbs, that’s why I call myself a dependent drummer. But it makes it very easy to play. If you play very fast tempos using just that one limb, either you’re going to tighten up or the tempo is going to go down.
CI: Isn’t that a part of creating the illusion, by not playing every single beat with the right hand?
BM: That’s what I’m saying, with me I can’t do that with my right hand for twenty minutes. I break it up. That’s why fast tempos are nothing to me. They’re no problem at all. When people compliment my chops I say, ‘Well thank you but my chops aren’t that great.’ They’re certainly not that fast. I have been working on chops, not speed. I’ve been working on playing more from the wrist and less bounce which just gives a certain thickness to the tone. It’s now more the way Tony (Williams) plays, where he uses his wrist on every stroke. I don’t do that. I’m not that extreme. I don’t have the patience to practice it that much. But I’ve been going more towards using the full wrist and opening up my stroke a lot. Like playing up on the drum and putting a full wrist thing into every stroke just because of the nice fat, thick tone that it gets from the drum. I like to use bounce too. I wouldn’t just use one or the other. That’s the only change, technically, that I’ve been working on. But in terms of speed, nothing I play is hard.
CI: Let’s talk about studio playing.
BM: I’m not the best one to give any tips on studio playing. I have a lot of trouble in the studios, because I don’t want to change my drum sound to accommodate them. I would like them to record my drums the way they sound live. Most of the studios have very little experience recording drums the way I have them. For instance, I don’t use any muffling on my bass drum. My drums ring but they’re not flat. They’re not stuffed with towels, and I don’t like the head off the bass drum. Consequently, drums like mine don’t sound that good on recordings. And I’m often forced to compromise and find myself in a half-way position. Like, I’ll put something over it which helps a little bit. But it won’t really be my sound, and it won’t really be their sound either. The true sound of my drums have rarely been recorded. There are engineers who can do it, and I believe that it can be done. I also believe that it really should be the artist’s choice. I t should be them trying to record what I want to hear, not me, try ing to accommodate their machines. In terms of recording, I haven’t heard anything that tops what Rudy Van Gelder was doing in the 60’s, with maybe 4 or 8 tracks. No separation, and no baffling. They put you in a separate, isolated room and that’s how you were recorded. And the drummers had their drums wide open. I never heard drums recorded better than at Van Gelder’s studio. If someone could do it as well as that I’d be totally happy.
We’re talking about 15 years ago and our technology has supposedly progressed. It doesn’t sound to me like it has progressed in terms of sound. I know basically what Steve Gadd does to make his drums sound so up front on the recordings. But that’s not my sound live. It throws me to change that much. It’s such a drastic change.
CI: What type of cymbals do you prefer?
BM: I like A Zildjian. I like K’s too because they are the most spiritual cymbal. You know they’re hand hammered in Turkey and they have a deep thing. But I’ve found the new ones are a little harder to control. They tend to ring a bit too much, so I can’t get that precise stick sound. I’ve been using A’s which have a lot of music in them. I consider the ring as the music in a way. And yet they are dry enough. I’ve been using the mini cups or the flats. They cut down that ring enough so you get the clarity of the stick sound but yet they’re not really dry and dead. There’s still some music in it.
CI: How do you test your cymbals? What do you look and listen for?
BM: I have a very sensitive ear for cymbals. I’m not really a fan of cymbals. I like the sound of drums more. I play a lot of cymbals mainly because it’s wanted of me. I’d rather use them very sparingly as colors. I could play time fine without even hitting a cymbal. I test my cymbals by bashing them hard in a small room. If they hurt my ears even slightly, I reject them.
CI: Do you do this at the factory?
BM: Yes. I get the few that I think I’ll like, take them into a small room and bash them hard. I have a few different set s of A’s and one K that I really love and use occasionally, but mostly A’s.
CI: Do you have a preference when it comes to drumheads?
BM: I used to use calf. In a way calf gives you the most pretty sound but they weren’t practical. As soon as I started working a lot, doing heavy road work, they would get drastically out of tune. If you played once every couple of weeks and have 3 or 4 hours before the gig to set up and tune each drum, it would be nice to use calf. But many times, you don’t even get a chance to get a sandwich let alone tune your drums. You’re lucky you get them set up in time.
CI: When your sound is altered, is your style affected?
BM: It depends on the kind of music. If you’re playing some funk or reggae music, which I like to play, I will change my drums. I have a set with the head off. I use that if the music requires that sound. Most of the recording I do is on jazz dates. I’m not a studio drummer who does a lot of anonymous pop dates. They’re mostly specific creative projects. In most of the cases, the flat sound is not the sound that fits. I’ve been burned on a lot of records. Very few recordings have my sound.
CI: It’s known that you admire the work of Edgar Bateman. Could you tell me something about him?
BM: He’s been pretty much ignored and it’s a shame. He lives in Philly now which is a disadvantage. He hasn’t really played very much in a long time. He still plays and practices. He’s in school, studying with a classical teacher. He also studies composition.
Edgar Bateman is maybe the greatest drummer I’ve ever heard. At a certain point, he became my inspiration. I followed him around. I caught every gig. He was beautiful. I went to some strange gigs, in burlesque houses, to some really beautiful ones. I heard him play with Eric Dolphy, Lee Morgon, Bobby Hutcherson and Reggie Workman one time. He had his own band with Joe Henderson, and used to play at Birdland on Monday nights. In fact, they even played one of my tunes. I remember when I was 16 going to rehearsal. Joe Henderson was with Edgar’s band and they played a tune I wrote called “Weirdo’s Waltz.” Kind of like a Monkish tune. I was in seventh heaven. They must have liked the tune because they played it for about a half hour. They really stretched on it. That was my first experience of not only hearing my music, but hearing it from people of that quality. They just took it and flew with it. That man was very nice to me in every way. He had the most independence of any drummer I’ve ever heard. And the most grace. I think of his hands as moving like swans. His brush work. He never repeated himself. I heard him play 20 or 30 times and I never heard him play the same thing twice. Everybody’s got their licks and their bag of tricks and things they just like to play a lot but he was astounding. A lot of people didn’t hire him because he played too much. He had this incredible rolling thing. Similar to Elvin, but I was hearing him do that before I heard Elvin do it. That constant action between the snare drum and the bass drum.
CI: Maybe it was too busy for some musicians’ taste.
BM: It was a lot. It definitely drew your attention. I’m not one of those people who listen to the drums because I’m a drummer. I listen to the music, and not necessarily to the drums anymore than the piano or the saxophone. But in this particular case, when I walked in I heard Edgar, and said “What?” I got a table that was about two feet from the drums and did nothing but watch this guy for the whole night. I didn’t hear a note of the sax player or the bass player after that. And I think that scared a lot of people. There weren’t that many people who were ready to play with that. He had a lot of bad breaks. He was supposed to play with Trane for awhile and that didn’t happen. He would have been excellent too. He’s had a child which was a good thing for him. He’s just one of those people who’s been neglected and underrated, and I try to mention him in any interview because I consider him so heavy. And it should be on record that one person thinks so. Most people who are coming up now a days don’t know about him and that’s a shame. I hope to use him in the future on an album of my own. To pay him back a little bit.