Spreading The Word
by Sam Silver
Michael hails from Houston, Texas. There his father, a professional drummer, encouraged Michael at a young age. In 1963, young Carvin began nine years as a studio musician in Los Angeles, including a stint as Motown’s staff drummer in 1968-1969.
Lately, Michael has toured the U.S. and Canada with the Harlem Opera Society, an outfit which features reedman Sam Rivers.
The interview took place in Michael’s Upper West Side apartment. We got on the subject of the latest down beat poll, that rated Michael a drummer “Deserving of Wider Recognition.”
SS: How do you see the music scene today? What is your opinion of jazz magazines?
MC: I haven’t seen a real jazz magazine in years.
SS: Does it bother you that rock drummers take precedence over jazz drummers?
MC: Nothing bothers me because I’m a private individual. Whatever people decide to do for whatever reason they want to do it is their business. It has nothing to do with me.
SS: How do you see the record business? You cut a lot of albums.
MC: The record business is booming. There’s an outlet for everything. It’s a matter of a person having the totality of knowledge to see what he wants to do. Some people can’t see, so they follow somebody else. The jazz business in Europe is booming. The jazz business in Japan is booming.
SS: But the club scene in New York is not booming. Is that a fair assessment?
MC: Well, I feel it is booming. Because I can hear Max Roach in a New York club. I can hear Philly Joe Jones in a New York Club. I can hear Art Blakey and Art Farmer in a New York club.
SS: Do you see a bright future for jazz?
MC: The future for jazz has always been bright, because I can still go and hear Count Basie. I can still hear Earl “Fatha” Hines. I can still hear Charlie Parker and he’s been dead twenty years. I can still hear Chick Webb. Nothing’s changed.
SS: What’s your opinion of the musicianship of the younger drummers coming up?
MC: The young drummers that are coming up today are at a disadvantage compared to me for one reason. They don’t have a variety of music readily available. In order for a drummer to become a master, he’s going to have to do a lot of research. At 17, had I moved to New York, I would have had the chance to work with this one and that one. Because it was happening. Today, it is happening, but not as much. Let’s say a young kid today wants to become a jazz drummer and develop a jazz foundation. He’s going to be in trouble.
When I was 12 or 13, you could go to a club on Sundays at a place in Houston, Texas called The Ebony on Elgin and Darling Streets. Upstairs at The Ebony, they’d be playing jazz. When you came to sit in, you had to be able to play. If you couldn’t play, you couldn’t sit in. Now today, where can a youngster go to play today — a kid thirteen years old?
SS: I can’t think of any.
MC: Nowhere. So you have to listen to records. When you go into a record shop, try to find a Michael Carvin album or Jackie McLean’s album. Dexter Gordon is different because he just signed with Columbia. But try to find a Charlie Parker record. You’re going to be in trouble, man.
Yet you can get off the plane in Europe, walk into a record store and find these records. You can go to Japan, look in their jazz collection and find Bessie Smith.
SS: What has been your experiences with the crowds in Europe and Japan?
SS: What about the size of the crowds?
SS: One Thousand?
SS: Five Thousand?
SS: Ten thousand?
MC: And more.
SS:What artists were you with when you performed before ten thousand people?
MC: I was with Freddie Hubbard, Pharoah Sanders, Hampton Hawes, Earl Grant, Carmen McRae, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Ben Webster, and Jackie McLean.
SS: This was Europe and Japan.
SS: On becoming a master drummer…let’s talk about the process in which you became a master drummer when you were young?
MC: Well, I’m not a master yet. I will be soon. See, I’m working on a theory. I’m not interested in being the world’s greatest drummer.
I’m tired of people saying, ‘Man, you beat the hell out of those drums.’ And I’m tired of people pushing the drumset in the corner. I’m dedicating the rest of my life to letting the people know that the drum is a musical instrument. Like a musical instrument, it can play melodic rhythms. I can play a melody, like a horn player plays. If I’m with a band and don’t know the tune, I will not solo. If I solo and don’t know the melody, I’m wasting my time. I’m know the melody. A drummer should play the fingering of the melody like a horn player. We have to start to let the public know, we do not beat. You would be surprised how many people say, ‘Oh, you mean, they write the music for drums?’ You would be surprised. Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, a drummer . . .just set them up and bang on them.’
People give me nice compliments, ‘Oh Michael, you play great,’ and they lay right on my cymbal. If it was a violin, they wouldn’t touch it. If you take a violin to 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the people walking by will smile at you. If you take a drum to 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, they’ll call the police on you. Disturbing the peace. Noise pollution. They don’t respect the drum as a musical instrument. I’m going to play musical notes on the drum. That’s why I tune my drums. That’s why when I play a drum solo, people say, ‘Hey man, you were playing the melody.’ I have to educate the audience, so they don’t put the drummer back, like in the thirties.
SS: So how do you achieve this?
MC: You have to study that melody. I’m studying the piano at the present time with Professor Dennis Moorman at York College. I’m also studying marimbas from Professor Warren Smith at Old Westbury College.
SS: What about tuning?
MC: I tune my drums in fourths. And all of my cymbals have names. Lightning, Thunder, Sunshine, and Rain. My drums are called Earth, because the drums are the foundation of the earth.
SS: How do you explain the present attitude people have toward drums.
MC: The present concept is that the drum is not melodic, but rhythmic. It can only keep time. That’s not true. Max Roach and Kenny Clarke were the forerunners of a new concept. Around 1940, Max and Kenny developed a new way of playing time. Since that time no other drummer has upheld that tradition. Max and Kenny were the first two drummers to bring the drums forward. Since then, the drums have been going backwards. Notice today with disco records. The drummer plays the “and” of 1,2, and 3 on the hi-hat. He plays the downbeat of 1,2,3,4 on the bass drum, so it sounds l i k e “boom — sst — sst — sst — sst.” You don’t need a human to play the drum, you can get a machine or computer to program that.
You’re playing down beats with the bass drum sound and the “and” of the beat with a hi-hat or piercing sound. So the only thing you’re dealing with are bars of eighth notes. “l-and-2-and-3-and-4-and.” It requires no knowledge to do that.
So why in 1978, should the drums be going backwards, when they struggled all these years to come forth in the forties. What about the efforts Mr. Kenny Clarke and Mr. Max Roach put on the scene. So I feel it’s my job to be melodic instead of rhythmic. And let the world know the drum is a musical instrument. And the drum has to be studied like the clarinet, violin, or piano.
If you set up a drumset, a trumpet, a bass violin, a saxophone, and release some kids; see how many of them run to the drums. But they won’t touch the violin.
So I want the parents and the kids to know that the drums are a musical instrument and must be studied like all the other musical practicing instruments.
SS: What schools are you affiliated with presently?
MC: Rutgers University, Livingston College, The Jazzmobile at P.S. 201. Also, privately here at my own home.
SS: How is your drumstick (the Michael Carvin model) different from other sticks?
MC: First of all, the stick is completely balanced. Let me explain something about the stick. This is the butt (the non-tapered shaft), the shoulder (the tapered part leading to the top), and this is the bead or the tip. The average stick is thin at the shoulder. It starts plays, thinning out about four inches from the end. All the pressure falls here. That’s why they break in the shoulder area. My stick doesn’t thin out until it gets to the tip. That’s why it won’t break here. The pressure in all sticks is in the shoulder. It’s like your shoulder. If you lift anything the pressure is in your shoulders.
Also, other sticks have larger beads. In my melodic concept of music, if you have a larger bead, you will get a flat tone. By getting a fiat tone the drummer has to hit the cymbal harder to hear it. By getting a sharp sound you don’t have to hit the cymbal hard to hear it. A sharp sound is piercing but a flat sound is dark. I can play faster, because I don’t have to concentrate on beating.
SS: Do you use nylon on the end of your stick?
MC: A cymbal is made of brass. Brass is from the earth. Wood is from the earth. If you’re using a stick with a nylon tip, you have to play harder because nylon will not vibrate through brass.
When you play a wooden stick on a brass cymbal, you don’t have to hit it hard. The brass will vibrate through the wood, because wood vibrates. When you strike the cymbal you feel it in the tips of your fingers. This way, I don’t count. The only way I know the tempo is that my stick tells me what to do. The tips of my fingers are very sensitive to what comes through the stick after all these years of practicing. So as the stick vibrates, I know what I’m playing. I don’t have to hear it.
SS: Is there any place your sticks are available?
MC: At the Professional Percussion Center in New York City.
SS: Other than drumsticks, are you satisfied with the drum equipment being played today?
SS: Let’s talk about your equipment.
MC: I advertise for Paiste cymbals. My drums are Gretsch. My sizes are 18″, 12″, 13″, and 14″. Those are the sizes I like. It’s easy to get around with them.
SS: When you were growing up who were your influences?
MC: My first influence was my father, Henry Carvin, who was a professional drummer. My first idol was the heavyweight champion of the world, Art Blakey. Then I heard Max Roach, Jo Jones, Chick Webb. He was dead before I was born, but I was familiar with him because of my father.
The drummers I’ve always idolized are Elvin, Jo Jones, Roy Haynes, Max, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones.
SS: You said Max was one of the first to play melody. What about the others?
MC: Roy Haynes is the most sophisticated drummer I’ve ever heard. Roy Haynes has something very special in his left foot that no other drummer has. That’s why all your female singers are madly in love with Roy Haynes. He’s one of those drummers who makes you feel good. They call him “Snap, Crackle, and Pop.” They should call him Mr. Sophistication. He does something with his left hand on the hi-hat that I can’t figure and I watch him a lot.
SS: Art Blakey?
MC: When I was growing up in Houston, Texas, I grew up playing a rhythm called “The Shuffle.” A “Shuffle” rhythm written would be a dotted eighth note tied to a sixteenth note for four beats. And in Houston, Texas that was the rhythm that we played. I heard Blakey on an album and they played “What No.” He was playing a “Shuffle” all the time, so I felt right at home.
But, Art Blakey showed me Africa in the way he tuned his drums. I was fascinated with the press roll he played. Also the bass drum roll he plays with one foot. I started on that immediately. I was ten years old at the time. Now, I can do it.
MC: He was one that wasn’t afraid to bring the drums forward by playing melodies. Max Roach was one of the first drummers that came on the scene. When he played the solo, you could hear the melody. Whatever the tune was he played the structure of it while soloing.
SS: Jo Jones?
MC: Let me put it this way. For every five beats that a drummer three of them belong to Jo Jones.
SS: He was that innovative?
MC: He’s known as Mr. Hi-Hat. Max Roach and all the other cats are teenagers compared to Jo Jones. Drummers like myself and a very dear friend of mine, Alphonse Mouzon, we’re babies, man.
Max, Art, Philly, Roy Haynes. They’re teenagers. Papa Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Baby Dodds, Cozy Cole . . . those are the real drummers.
SS: Philly Joe?
MC: Philly Joe is the dancer. The things he does with his left hand, his bass drum, and his right cymbal are amazing. Philly Joe is Dracula. (A reference to his Dracula recording of some years back in which he mimics the voice of the Transylvanian count). He’s the count of drums. Philly Joe has got sophistication. Philly Joe is the only cat I know who can play the 26 fingerings and make them sing. He was one of my teachers. Elvin Jones is the juggler. Elvin Jones is the only cat I know who can play the multi-rhythms with total independence and make them sing. He has six or seven things happening and it’s all under control. That’s Elvin, he’s the juggler. He’s got the multi-rhythmic concept mastered.
SS: How would you term your relationship with Jackie McLean on your second album?
MC: Twins. We have a perfect marriage.
SS: I read that your first musical marriage was with James Leary.
MC: Bobby Hutcherson, James Leary, Todd Cochrane. Bobby Hutcherson was the vibraphonist. That was my first musical marriage.
SS: Which of your other musical associations over the years stick out in your mind? What about Hampton Hawes?
MC: I joined Hampton Hawes in 1971. That was my first jazz gig. Before then, I was a studio musician in Los Angeles, California. I was a staff drummer for two years for Motown. I did the Barbara McNair studio show. I did alot of studio work in LA for about 10 years.
Two weeks after joining Hampton Hawes we went to Europe. When I met Hampton Hawes, I made an album with Hampton. Then I made an album with Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Johnny Griffin, Doug Cam. After making one jazz album, I made many.
I had been listening to jazz all my life. I was playing it at home with the record player, while I was making my money doing studio work. Because in LA, there was no outlet for jazz. And my father said a famous drummer was a television drummer. I believed my father, so I moved out to LA to become one. After I did that for 10 years, I said, ‘Man, this don’t make me feel good.’
Another cat who helped me a lot was Pharoah Sanders. I’m an excellent sight reader, and I came from pit bands and shows. Pharoah said, ‘Man, you forget everything you know. Don’t play no written music.’ That was a challenge, because I had to forget habits I had. In order to play with him I had to forget everything I learned. And that helped me. Between Pharoah Sanders, Hampton Hawes, and Bobby Hutcherson, I created the style of drumming I have today. But it’s weird to go to the bandstand, and know that you can read anything. Then a guy tells you to play yourself. I’d say, ‘Write it down and I’ll play it.’ He’d say, ‘Man, I don’t want you to read it. I want you to play.’
You have to go through a lot of changes in your mind. And you want to do it because you want that challenge.
I stayed with Pharoah three years. After about a year and a half, I saw what he was talking about. And I could see the other side of the world. I could hear it. I started playing differently.
SS: What is in Michael Carvin’s future?
MC: Well, he’s going to keep on creating. I will always teach. When all my students leave me, I’ll have the next group. Teaching keeps me in touch with the youth of America. Those are the people I dig. Anybody 19 on up, I don’t care to deal with, because they’re too hip.
I dig to be around cats who come to me to learn. And I dig to be around cats who like to learn. I like to see in their eyes when they start seeing it. It makes me feel happy. And by being around them, they make me feel young.
I’d rather teach young kids, and watch them become the next masters, than get into some track suit and run for some commercial junk to win first prize in some poll. I don’t have to go out in the street and flex my muscles. Because I was born with a name.