Andrew Cyrille: An Aesthetic Endeavor
HH: What motivated you to study music?
AC: We always had some kind of instrument in the house. My sister got piano and violin lessons, and I remember banging on the piano. My mother belonged to this club which needed a piano, so later she gave the piano away. I was never given any lessons, but I guess that some of the seeds of hearing tones were placed. As most kids do. I fantasized about playing trumpet, drums, saxophone, or what have you. But I didn’t give any serious thought to it.When I was about eleven, a gentleman named Pop Jansen came to my grade school in Brooklyn, St. Peter Claver. He wanted to revive a drum-and-bugle corps that had been dormant for a few years, and he sent a memo around to all the upper-level classes—sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—asking for kids who wanted to participate. At first I didn’t want to join the corps. It was very strange; I had some kind of reaction against marching up and down the street. I don’t know why, because I had seen a number of parades by that time. Anyway, my friends all joined, and as a result, because I wanted to be with them and because they asked me. I too joined. So it was coincidental that it was found that I had natural hands and an ability or talent to absorb these rhythms and play them. I was dubbed a natural, and in some ways I became the best one out of all the other kids. That’s how it began. Actually, once I began playing, it seemed as though I’d found my voice, in a very roundabout, accidental way.
HH: Do you think that you might have had that same realization on another instrument in another musical situation?
AC: Could have been, sure. I don’t see why not. I don’t know where the predisposition for the absorption of music came from. Again, there were musical instruments around, and my mother used to sing nursery rhymes to me all the time. But how I got into the drums themselves was coincidental.
HH: Did you play the whole drum section?
AC: I would play snare drum primarily, but sometimes I would play tenor drum or bass drum.
HH: Did you enter competitions at that stage, or was it mostly parades?
AC: It started off with parades. Pop Jansen had come from Huntington, Long Island, and he got tired of coming into Brooklyn and managing the corps there, so he asked some of the kids who he felt were the better musicians to come out and join this Catholic War Veterans Post Corps in Huntington. There we began engaging in competitions. I began seeing drum corps in that area like the Hawthorne Caballeros, the Patchogue Black Knights (or something like that; I can’t remember all the names), the Raiders, and others.
Even today, when I see a drum-and-bugle corps that has that precise execution, everybody playing these things in unison, it just sends a thrill through my body that is unexplainable. I can watch those corps all day long; it’s just fantastic to me. I love to hear them play those rudiments, how crisply and clearly they play them, and the kinds of combinations that they get.
HH: Did you have an actual percussion instructor concurrently, or did you learn from the corps masters?
AC: When we started, most of the guys who came down to teach the kids were much older and had been members of the corps that had existed a few years prior to that. They used to take turns showing us the rudiments, how to hold the sticks, and so forth. As happens today in my own teaching, they wanted to give us guidance. I came out of a ghetto neighborhood, and obviously in that situation there is always a kind of concern about most of the young people that they don’t go astray. You want to give the kids something of value that perhaps they can hold onto, and in that way they may learn some kind of responsibility.
Now, in that particular community at that time, once something musical began to happen, other people would learn about it. As a result, jazz musicians began coming to the auditorium when we were rehearsing. They would teach us some rudiments, but at the same time they would begin talking to us about this other music, a different kind of drumming. Fortunately, I was a gifted student, and they would say, “Man. you should come on up to my house, and I’ll show you some more.” A young fellow named Bernard Wilkinson and I would go over and take lessons from Willie Jones and from Lennie McBrowne, and they began playing records by Max [Roach] and the others. It came to pass that Bernard’s sister married Max, and as a result I met Max and began hearing the jazz element more and more.
As I was playing and hearing about the jazz contingency, I was continuing in the corps, and I belonged to a Police Athletic League Corps, the Wynn Center Corps in Brooklyn. Then in high school, along with these corps, I was in the school band. As a matter of fact, the guitarist Eric Gale was in my high school band, a year ahead of me. He and I formed a group with a couple of kids from the school band and began playing dances and so forth outside of the school activities.
In Brooklyn there was a piano player. Leslie Barthwaite, and it was with Leslie that we began really exploring the jazz forms and I began playing tunes like “Billie’s Bounce,” “Lullaby of Birdland,” “Opus de Funk.” and so forth. We began trying to learn the language of jazz; how to improvise. We were playing for community affairs, and in a sense we became young celebrities in the neighborhood. We were only fifteen or sixteen years old, and it was always thought that people who liked jazz were very intellectual and could do something which was really quite different from the regular kind of music. The other kids would always single us out. Even though many of them did not quite understand jazz (just as today’s regular population), it was always something that was prized or looked upon with favor. Then there were certain people who were really into the music, and they could appreciate everything that we did. With that particular unit of musicians, we began meeting some of the older musicians who wanted us to work with them on certain jobs, and that’s how it began to grow.
HH: When did you begin studying with Philly Joe?
AC: I met Philly Joe Jones when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. Again, all these things were happening at about the same time. Once I became interested in the drum, I had a choice to make as to how I was going to live my life, and I used to fantasize about how I was to make a living if I had to be a musician. I knew that I had to learn the discipline, and the best way to do that was to be involved with the people who were doing it. I met Joe after I met Max. And it was really Joe who took me under his wing and would talk to me about drumming and about music. I had only one or two actual lessons where we would pick up drumsticks and play: most of the time it would be just conversation. Joe would let me go to a lot of those recording sessions he was on. And sometimes on jobs he would let me sit in with the older musicians—that was an experience!
HH: He does give the impression of a protective father figure, a teacher of life.
AC: That’s the kind of guy he is, and I used to hang out with him often. I was at his house in Brooklyn a number of times during the week, and we would go into Manhattan.
Max was another kind of figure. I would see Max and we would talk and I used to watch him practice, but Max never gave me any direct lessons. Every now and then something would spill over, but Joe was the one who focused in on me and made suggestions. I’m not saying that Max was unfavorable towards me: it just never happened that way. Max did let me sit in on his gigs a couple of times. As a matter of fact, much later Elvin let me sit in with Coltrane. Things like that don’t happen very often.
Once Joe asked me to be his protégé. Even at that time I had a sense of identity and individuality, though, and I said, “Well, no, man, I don’t want to be a protégé.” But I love Joe a lot, and quite naturally, there are probably things that I do that reflect some of the things that he does.
HH: How long did you continue playing in corps?
AC: Until I was about sixteen or seventeen.
In my last year of high school I quit the school band and really started playing professional gigs with people like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne.
I was pretty lucky that way. I don’t know whether it was because I had the singleness of purpose, whereby I wanted to learn this music and would find myself in these good musical environments, or whether it was just by some stroke of luck that I was there. I guess that sometimes our actions influence our luck.
HH: It seems that if one puts enough energy into something eventually he will be in the right place at the right time.
AC: Right, sure.
HH: What drew you to study European classical music at Juilliard?
AC: I was at St. John’s University before I went to Juilliard. I remember that one night there was a university talent night. I decided that since I didn’t have a band I would do a drum solo, and I went up and played for about forty-five minutes. I think that was the first time I ever did a drum solo. After it was over, people began saying to me, “What are you doing here? You should go on and develop a career in music!”
HH: St. John’s didn’t have much of a music department?
AC: No, I was a chemistry major. I had to think about how I was going to make a living, and at seventeen or eighteen I didn’t think that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with a music career. It was a possibility, but I had assumed that I wanted to learn chemistry and make that a profession. What I found when I was in college was that I began working nights with some of these names, and it became a conflict for me to do my scholastic work and at the same time do the work that was necessary for me to play this music on a very high level. I’m one of these people who, if I’m going to do something, I would like to do it well rather than be an also-ran. So if I had to be a chemist I would have really wanted to be a doctor of philosophy and to be on a high level of performance there. I said to myself, “Well. I could take both of these disciplines into infinity, and I have to decide really which one I want to do.” I liked chemistry a lot, but I loved music. That’s really what the difference was so I decided to give music a shot.
I took the audition for Juilliard and I passed and was accepted. Then I spoke to the dean at St. John’s and said. “Well, look. I was accepted at Juilliard.” and he said. “A lot of people are not accepted there, and it’s an excellent music school, so what you can do is go there and try it. And if you don’t like it. You’ll always he welcome hack here.” So I went to Juilliard and I never looked back.
To answer your question more directly courses, we would bring jazz records into the listening library. There would he a group of us around this table with the earphones on, and every now and then something would happen musically on the record and all of us would crack up and make some noise, and the librarian would come over and say. “Shsh!” Afterward, of course, I’d have to do these other things for my assignment, and I’d be listening to records by Mendelssohn and Elgar and so forth, and sometimes I’d be so tired that I’d fall asleep during the middle of the record. When I’d wake as to why I chose a place like Juilliard. it was because I wanted to learn more about jazz. To my disappointment, that was not really in the curriculum.
AC: Right. At that time it was really about European classical music and its derivatives. I went, and I learned, of course, but I was disappointed, because I really wanted to learn about Monk and Bud Powell and Bird and Max and all those people, and it just wasn’t there.
I remember that some of my classmates were Gary Bartz, Grachan Moncur, John Gordon, and Benny Jacobsel, and when we would have to go listen to the classical records for our ear-training up the record was over, so I’d have to start listening all over again! In class the teacher would just put the arm down anywhere on the record and ask you who the composer was and what movement it was.
Anyway, that was my experience at Juilliard. I was disillusioned to some degree, and I wanted to learn really how to play the music. While I was there I did meet some musicians like Bobby Thomas, who was a percussion major, and bassist Morris Edwards, who gave me the opportunity to play with such people as Nellie Lutcher, Illinois Jacquet, and Mary Lou Williams. At the same time I began really getting experience with some of the masters, and then I knew that I had to leave Juilliard. It was always a feeling among musicians that if you stayed there long enough, eventually you would lose your feeling for jazz; that they would somehow alter its techniques and you wouldn’t be able to swing anymore. Whether that was true or not, I had that impression in my head.
HH: How long were you at Juilliard?
AC: A little over a year.
HH: Had you not looked into other schools where jazz might have been in the curriculum?
AC: No, I didn’t know of anyplace. I guess. The students at Juilliard always used to compare themselves with the students at the Manhattan School of Music— those were the two major schools of music in New York—and they would say that Manhattan was a better school for people who wanted to play jazz. But they would say. on the other hand, and I don’t know why. that the kids who went to Manhattan were programmed to be teachers rather than performers, and that at Juilliard it was the other way around— but they were performers in the classical tradition.
I remember that my teacher at Juilliard, Morris Goldenberg, would always say to me (in a sense he had protégé attitudes also) that when you went to work with some symphony orchestra in Denver or Idaho or wherever, they’d know as soon as you picked up a mallet or a set of timpani or snare drum sticks that you’d studied with Morris Goldenberg. Even though I didn’t say to him that I didn’t want that to happen to me. I had an aversion to it. His main idea was to program me for the symphony or for staff work in studios.
I didn’t look around for another school because I assumed that most of them would be generally the same. Then again, other good schools like Eastman and Curtis were outside of New York.
A lot of the professional jazz musicians with whom I began working had negative things to say about learning in the academic system, and they would say, “Well, man, the best thing for you to do is just to get out here and play and learn from people like us who have been doing this.”
I knew, though, that I needed to further my studies, so as time went along I found another school, a private school on Forty-second Street which is now defunct, called Hartnett. It was there that I began studying harmony and theory that was geared more to jazz, and I began playing with a big-band there. George Robinson was one of the theory teachers, and after the school closed down. I continued studying with him privately, which is how I got the foundation for my ability to compose.
I thought that I needed some more training in reading drum music, so I went looking again for Morris Goldenberg. Morris was teaching privately as well as at Juilliard, and I didn’t want to re-enroll in the Juilliard course. I found him at his studio and told him what I wanted. He was concentrating really on mallet work, so he said, “Well, look, there’s a guy who has studied with me for a number of years who is very good,” and the gentleman to whom he introduced me was Tony Columbia. I remember that when I was at Juilliard, Tony was a few years ahead of me and I’d met him.
Tony was the one who began applying what we would learn in those drum theory books to the trap set. I don’t know whether it still goes on, but there’s another division in the music schools; when you’re in the percussion department, you learn how to play snare drum, but you don’t learn how to play snare drum in relation to the trap set or in relation to popular music; you learn it according to classical music. There’s a whole other way of interpreting those notes for the drum set, in relation to the music that we know to be American. Tony Columbia was focused in on that application, making it sound legitimate in relation to the set. I studied with him for about a year, and he opened up a certain thought pattern to me.
HH: How do you think American music education relates to what Cecil Taylor calls black methodology?
AC: Well, I think that all of it is in us, that most definitely we have European influences; we’re part that as well as we are part African culturally. In this country, black methodology has been, to an extent, a synthesis of what has been available to us. For instance, black people took the saxophone, the trumpet, or the snare drum as it was in their communities and did with it what had been handed down to them enculturally and developed the music that we know, called Afro-American music or black classical music or jazz, with the European influence. In Juilliard you learn about chords and about reading and so forth, but you can take those very same things and swing them, and give them another kind of feeling, another kind of inflection. Those things can be used or reapplied in a way that is more suitable to your artistic direction, more meaningful in your environment. I feel that if I had to go back now to a school like Juilliard and study further it would be more relevant because I know what I want to do and have established myself. There’s nothing wrong with getting more information about musical devices, the point being that I could shape them to function for my needs.
HH: Which of the three main influences—African, European, American—do you think plays the largest part in the development of jazz?
AC: Well, I would have to think that it would be the African because of the way the music eventually came out. It’s improvised; you have all of these cross rhythms; you have all of the antiphonal, call-and-response factors; you have the vocal inflection into the instrument to make it reminiscent of the human voice, so that it relates to the talking drum (a lot of people may not be aware of that). All of the ingredients that go into the making of African music go also into the making of jazz, but with the European means of instrumentation, chord structure, and so forth. We drummers use the rudiments— paradiddles, ratamacues, and so forth— in so many different ways within the sticking patterns. The idea is to make it sound or feel more natural to yourself, and because of the encultural influences in how the music survives, I think that in its intrinsic methodology here in the U.S., jazz is more related to Africa than to Europe.
HH: Do you consider yourself strictly a jazz musician, and does the term “jazz” mean the same thing now that it has in the past?
AC: As long as I have heard the word “jazz” it has meant essentially an improvised music, composed, organized, varied, and performed spontaneously. The people who began laying down musical ideas to me were black, and the idea was always to be able to swing. When we talk about swing as it always has been, we usually think of some kind of four-four metrical pattern (now you might play a three or maybe even a seven), hinging on the proverbial dotted eighth note and the sixteenth. To some degree this has been a point of debate even within the creative community of people who play, say, bebop, and people who have gone on from there and tried to do something else. Whether you want to call the music jazz, I think, depends on the feeling that you get when you play. The idea was never to make the music feel stiff or rigid or totally cerebral. Even when I myself, and I have to speak for myself, do something that may be considered abstract, I always try to inject it with a feeling of swing, or at least to impart some kind of feeling of levitation; that is, people get some kind of an emotional and organic stimulation as well as an intellectual stimulation. In that light, I would say that the word “jazz” could still be used but you have some people who would dispute that simply because now the rules and concepts of making the music have broadened. I may not play a four-four metrical pattern; it may be ametrical. It might be as I’m talking now, which very often is how I think about what I do, as a conversation; I don’t talk in four-four or six-eight or nine-eight or whatever. If people get something from the way I deliver what I say, then to me that has an organic, emotional appeal; then if they can move their bodies as well, then it imparts also a kind of levitation.
The problem now is that when you think about the word “jazz” and listen to the commercial radio stations, what you hear is almost rock. And then the definitions have widened, so you will find some jazz musicians, a lot of the guys from Chicago, for instance, who will say that they’re not really jazz musicians; they’re “creative” musicians. It’s funny; as the appellation continues to be applied to so many different kinds of music within what we know to have come from, say, ragtime to dixieland to swing to bop, the musicians still accept it; but there hasn’t developed one singular term that everyone can feel comfortable with. Sometimes I feel more comfortable with the term “creative music,” but you have creative musicians who get their impetus from the European classical tradition, which is not necessarily involved with the African tradition as well. So when people ask me what kind of music I play I usually come out and say, “Jazz,” because that almost automatically stereotypes or directs them in a certain area and there are no more questions. If you say, “Creative music,” they might say, “Well, what kind?”
HH: Tell me about Voices Incorporated.
AC: Voices Incorporated came about through drummer Andrei Strobert, who had been working in their show. He asked me to sub for him with this show, then he left, and I took over the chair. At that time it wasn’t Voices Incorporated; it was called The Believers. This was during the sixties, and they were trying to raise the level of black consciousness through musical theater. I had met this other African drummer, Ladji Camara, who had come here with the African Ballet of Guinea. He had worked also with Olatunji, and he and I happened to be the drummers who started off and ended this show. The show would start in Africa to show the development and gradual evolution of black people as happened later here in America. The Underground Railroad, slavery songs, songs about freedom, gospel songs—the whole scenario was based around music. After The Believers closed, Voices Incorporated was a group of the same people who continued doing these kinds of shows around the country. It was another great experience for me because there I had the opportunity to be a drummer playing trap set with trained voices. Most of the people who sang in that show were trained operatically, but they would sing black spirituals. There’s a connection, as I was saving before about encultural influence; you have spirituals which are a development of New England hymnody and African rhythmical inflections. The people go to schools like Juilliard and get operatic training, but when they begin to sing spirituals it comes out another way; you have the bent notes, the dropping of the voices at the end of words, shouts, field hollers, and so forth. It was a great thing that they could relate to and hear my drumming so easily.
HH: Were you the only instrumentalist?
AC: Usually there would be a piano, but sometimes it would be just the voices and me. It was very strict harmony, the chords being stacked as we know them to be, in thirds, sometimes with the higher functions.
In between I was making jazz gigs, but Voices Incorporated was a way for me to make some money and at the same time be in something which I thought was artistically viable and in keeping with my other goal, which is what I’m doing now.
HH: Surely that experience helped to prepare you for the completely natural ensemble you have with Jeanne Lee and Jimmy Lyons. In most situations, if you told someone that your band consisted of voice, saxophone, and drums, he’d say, “Well, there’s something missing.”
AC: Right, yeah. Here we are, talking about education. A lot of my education has been empirical. Conservatories are just that; they conserve what people learn over the years through experience. So even though I haven’t gone completely through a conservatory in the academic sense, I’ve gone to a conservatory of life, and I probably couldn’t learn how to do these things in a school. I am out here living a life heavily influenced by politics, economics, sociology, and so on. Playing art that is relevant to the times—which is invaluable experience. I’ve had the ability and the good fortune to be involved with people who allow me to do my work.
HH: Do you think that the current state of jazz education in America is healthy?
AC: Well, I haven’t been involved in a real academic setting since I was out at Antioch with Jimmy and Cecil back in the seventies, so I can’t say that I think it’s really better or worse. But from what I hear, there are more programs going on around the country. I understand now you are able to get degrees in “jazz.” so I would say that perhaps on a comprehensive basis, with the establishment becoming more involved with the music, maybe it is getting better. I would say too that the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in 1979 [which featured Andrew as a performer-clinician], incorporating styles from the other disciplines of drumming, addressed itself to a larger area of education. There are people who are trying. Then again, this country has so many universities and schools that probably, if you really looked at the percentage of jazz education, it would be less than a drop in the bucket.
HH: Your most famous gig as a sideman was with Cecil Taylor. Tell me about that.
AC: I met Cecil back in 1958, up at Hartnett. I met him through trumpeter Ted Curson, who had a rehearsal with him and asked me to come along and meet this guy who plays piano in a very unusual way. When I got there, Cecil asked me if I wanted to play, and I played with him on that occasion. We hung out and became musical acquaintances and, as time went on, observed each other on the scene. Cecil would practice and hold rehearsals at Hartnett, and finally in 1964, when Sunny Murray left Cecil’s band. I was there. Cecil knew about the work that I had been doing with people like Walt Dickerson. Ahmed Abdul-Malik, and Bill Barron. I had made records with them as well as with Coleman Hawkins. Cecil would see me and we always had a good rapport. So Cecil asked me to be part of his organization, and I said. “Sure!” That was ’64, and the relationship lasted until ’75.
HH: How would you describe your personal relationship with Cecil?
AC: It was one of great rapport. We understood each other as black individuals in an American social system that sometimes has been very unfair and unjust to individuals like ourselves.
Often when I’d be around him I would have this feeling of peace and tranquility. He was someone I didn’t have to struggle with, explain or demonstrate to, or be always on guard against as to what I was, what I felt, and why I was playing the drums the way I did.
It was a total relationship in that I worked with him on almost all of his gigs. But very often we would maybe only work two or three times a year; I’d be doing other things. During this time I was working with Voices Incorporated and so forth. I was also working with dance classes, which was another invaluable experience.
HH: That seems to be one of those New York phenomena, that a drummer has the accompaniment of dance programs as an opportunity which is not nearly so available in other cities.
AC: Which is unfortunate, really unfortunate. Just as you can relate the voice to any other instrument, dance is another manifestation of music, almost a twin to rhythm. People don’t dance unless they dance to rhythm. Why can’t there be more drummers and dancers who get together? It’s another whole area of exploration in the arts, the visual contact as well as the auditory. Some of it’s fantastic because when you find a dancer who can hear and utilize his or her body the way that an instrumentalist can, it’s almost like watching the musical development itself. You can exert the same kind of creativity with a dancer that you do with other instruments, but you have to think a little differently. Dancers organize their movements a little differently from the way we organize sound, so you have to find a way to play the music so that it relates to their artistic science of form and count. Of course, in other cultures, such as India and Africa, dance and drumming go almost hand in hand. Here, in some ways, it’s been more widely separated, probably because of the European heritage of the drum in relation to the other instruments of the symphony orchestra.
HH: To what do you attribute, and how would you describe, the widely acclaimed musical rapport which you shared with Cecil?
AC: From my own point of view, I would have to say that my role as a drummer in the organization sometimes was, as it was even before I worked with Cecil and as it continues to be, interpretive.
I was always told that the role of the drums was one of accompaniment in relation to the soloist. With Cecil, however, that particular concept changed a bit. Sometimes, yes, I would be accompanying, but other times I would be soloing simultaneously with whomever it was who was actually the featured soloist, listening to what was happening all around me. You would hear, therefore, this density of rhythm and sound coming from the Unit. You might ask, “How did the audience know when a particular person was soloing if everyone else was soloing?” Well, the person who was soloing would simply raise the level of consciousness and go one notch higher in terms of projection. In other words, he would project his ideas more strongly, setting dynamically the direction and shape that the improvisation would take. That’s how we solved that problem among ourselves. When we were playing and it was time for somebody to solo, there was no doubt about it because he was the individual who would take over.
I would think of forming contrasting shapes, sounds, and rhythms by employing various timbres from the trap drum set. I would think of antiphonal phrasings. It was a push-pull concept that would suggest and absorb the ideas being presented. Ninety-nine percent of the time Cecil would not tell me what to play; that was left wholly up to my own interpretation. This was an excellent situation because it gave me an opportunity to form my own sound within the language. It also presented a challenge in that I had to measure up to whatever else was happening, playing something that was interesting to the others as well as to myself. We had a feeling of continuity, rapport, and support.
Sometimes I would project certain feelings and pulses by using parts of the drum set in a particular way. For example, using the ride cymbal primarily, with alternate-hand accents around the set to give a feeling of floating, levitation; or rapid, high-tension rhythms with incredible energy to generate force. At other times the opposite was the case, and I would suggest space, brevity, and peace, giving the feeling of being soothed. Whether the tempos that I played were exceptionally fast or very slow or in between, we struggled for sonic beauty with clarity of thought.
HH: How did your role as a percussionist relate to Cecil’s as a player of what might be considered a stringed percussion instrument?
AC: I would think of him and Jimmy and whomever else was in the Unit as part of an African drum choir, where each individual found a place for himself that was natural, unobtrusive, and adaptive to what was happening. There’s always space, and you can always find your place.
HH: You and Jimmy were together throughout that association, correct?
AC: Right. I met Jimmy when he was with Cecil, at Hartnett. Actually, I met Albert Ayler the same day.
In terms of relationships, let me say this without any reservation: I hold Jimmy Lyons, who has worked with me as well as with Cecil for over eleven years, in the same high regard in which I hold Cecil. Jimmy hasn’t received the kind of recognition that he deserves. He is a great, great musician and a true friend. We’ve had fantastic times together, and I’m sure they will continue.
I stopped working with Cecil consistently in ’75. I’ve done two jobs with him since then, one in ’78, a Newport gig, and in ’79, a week at Fat Tuesday’s in New York City.
I feel that things in life are circular, and maybe from time to time Cecil and I will get together, but it’s nothing whereby he can feel that he can depend on me on an “on-call” basis. If he wants to use me and I can make it, then I will, but it’s not as though if I have something that may conflict I won’t choose to do the other thing. I have other priorities now.
HH: What is the background of the Dialogue of the Drums?
AC: That’s another one of those situations in life whereby you meet people, find out that there’s certain rapport, and say, “Well, let’s get together and plan to do something,” and in time it happens. I met Milford Graves about 1959 or 1960.I was playing a dance in St. Alban’s Queens opposite another band, and Milford was the drummer in the other band. I remember that when I walked in they were playing, and he was on timbales. We probably just said hello to each other. But as time goes on, because you are of a particular frame of mind, you begin meeting people who are thinking more or less in the same direction.
I always had felt that I wanted to do a solo percussion record because I had heard those kinds of things in the past. I had heard Max’s “Conversation on Drums” when I was about twelve years old. Then later I had gotten records of Art Blakey doing pieces like the “Message from Kenya” duo with Sabu Martinez on conga, and “Nothing but the Soul,” which was a track on one of those old Blue Note records where Art plays magnificently. Those things turned me on. Then I started hearing Indian drummers, which is another whole ten-thousand- year tradition. And I used to see these Gretsch Battle Royal nights at Birdland with guys like Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Charli Persip, Art Taylor, sometimes Philly Joe Jones, sometimes Max, sometimes Art Blakey. They’d get three or four of them together with some horns, and they’d usually start off with a tune like “Cherokee.” Everyone would play, eventually they would trade fours or eights or choruses, and then the horns would let the drummers have it. I saw all that; that was the generation that preceded me.
Later, as I began getting these other concepts about how to organize rhythm and how to make music from the drum, I said to myself, “Well, since I have this stuff, I might as well think about a way of documenting it in this time zone.” I knew about Milford and approached him about doing some duos. The first time we played was for some people from a mental institution, and they loved it! Milford and I had a good rapport. I knew that he was trying to expand the consciousness of the drum set, so it was only a natural union. Around the same time I knew also that Rashied Ali, who had been working with Coltrane, was going in the same direction. This is how we got to the Dialogue of the Drums.
HH: How do you as a drum ensemble organize a totality of ideas and maintain musical interest?
AC: Let me answer the last part first. You create musical interest through the organization of your performance and whatever abilities you have to communicate that to an audience. To answer the first part, we have compositions.
HH: Predetermined throughout?
AC: Sometimes, yes, very often. For instance, I would contribute a composition that I would think about just as I do for the other instruments, and I would explain its organization. Milford and Rashied would present their ideas and compositions as well. And let me say this: because of the way that this music is learned—this methodology of being able to improvise— we can just improvise flat out and still make music because we know what and what not to expect, what and what not to do.
HH: The Dialogue is an ongoing relationship?
AC: Oh yeah.
Interestingly enough, Milford and I haven’t really played together since 1974, but we have a business together, IPS Records and the Institute of Percussive Studies, Inc., so we’ve been in contact with each other, sometimes daily, over the past six years.
It’s funny. In order to survive as musicians in this society we have to do many things, and one of the things we had to do was to get a business together—which was a result of the music itself. First there was the music, and then in order to continue the music, we had to have the business. In time, of course, the music will always prevail.
HH: It’s important that today’s artist has at his disposal these means of survival— numerous funding agencies, ownership of private studios, record companies, clubs, and so forth—so that he can function more completely in his art rather than having to experience frustration and despair in some unrelated field.
AC: At least this organization of musicians is being given the opportunity, through organizations like the National Endowment, to get little bits of money to create areas whereby we can perform and not have to depend always on the commercial establishment. Of course our returns for what we do are still very small, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.
This was not made available to jazz musicians ten or twenty years ago, which is probably why you had more self-destruction then. Now we are able to use our creative abilities in a more constructive way.
HH: Several years ago NBC produced a videotape of the Dialogue. What was its outcome?
AC: That was with Milford, Rashied, and myself, on a program called Positively Black, and it’s probably in the archives at NBC. Again, with my desire to document the Dialogue and not have it lost to history, I approached one of the producers— this must have been between 1970 and ’72—with the idea of showing this unusual way of playing drums on this program, and he gave us a shot. It was only about five or seven minutes. Maybe in time, as we get older and the music becomes more important on the documentary or academic level, NBC will release that film again.
HH: Also in the media department, you once hosted a radio program on world music. Tell me about that.
AC: It wasn’t really a world music program, but I made it into one. It was on Jazz Alternatives at WKCR-FM in New York, coming out of Columbia University— a student-run station.
HH: Did they approach you as a guest artist?
AC: No, I approached them. This was around 1973 or ’74.
Another one of the fortunate chapters of my life was when I went out to Antioch College. Finally I was able to focus my efforts and energies, which had been scattered so much by my having to freelance in order to make a living. At the college I was able to read, buy records, lecture, and teach; I was able to consolidate a lot of information. Consequently, when I went back to New York I said, “Well, I might as well share some of what I learned.” I approached WKCR and asked them to let me do this program on the various areas of drumming around the world. The program was music that had percussion in it as an indigenous, integral element. I played music from Tunisia, Ethiopia, the Australian bushmen, skiffle bands (a guy playing pots and pans), Zutty Singleton from New Orleans, Charli Persip, Ed Blackwell, Oliver Jackson—I’d try to pick somebody who wasn’t heard a lot in terms of solo work—and then I’d pick one of the avant-garde people, like Sunny Murray, Milford; I had a cross-fertilization program. It was very successful.
I did about five or six of those programs, and fortunately KCR documents everything that goes down. As a matter of fact, I think that any KPFA station can get one of those programs from KCR and broadcast it.
HH: Let’s discuss the drums specifically. Cecil has described various registers of the piano according to their cosmic implications. Do you have any similar metaphysical concept regarding the drum set?
AC: I can very well understand that you can live in certain areas of the percussion ensemble of accouterments and find a home there in terms of what you’re trying to project; playing only on the cymbals, only on the snare drum, on the large tom-tom, on the bass drum; using different effects in order to get different sounds from the heads, devices other than drumsticks in order to produce sound. In that way, yeah, I think of sound, of colors, of rhythm. There are many different ways of approaching a drum set.
HH: You’re a master of what John Cage might call a prepared drum set, playing the instrument while various cloths, chains, or others objects are resting on the surfaces. You frequently will play at a certain “station” of the set without having your feet planted on the pedals for long periods of time. It was refreshing that during most of the first set last night you hardly touched the cymbals— not what one expects from the “modern jazz” drummer.
AC: Right! “Jazz,” what is it? People have to be open in terms of what the music can offer.
HH: The small “jazz” drum sizes, born of practicality, gave rise to a whole different concept of tone color. Today’s jazz listener accepts the higher-pitched, ringing 18″ bass drum, but few drummers acknowledge the instrument, and some who use it do so because they think it looks hip.
AC: It’s a funny thing. It is said that to play with a big orchestra you need a 24″ bass drum. People will dispute this probably, but I don’t find that to be true at all. I play the same 18″ x 14″ bass drum with a large orchestra such as Carla Bley’s or the Jazz Composers Orchestra, which is twenty-four or twenty-five pieces, that I use with a small group, and I get the necessary sound projection. Nobody ever said, “Hey, man, play louder” (I don’t use any mufflers in my drums, and maybe that’s why). I can’t understand the discrepancy or controversy regarding a bigger drum’s being necessary for a large orchestra.
HH: Tuning, grip, stroke, touch, head selection—such things contribute heavily toward one’s tone quality and projection. What are your thoughts on these matters?
AC: Actually, to be honest with you, I like the skin heads more than any other kind; I seem to get more of an organic feedback from them. When I play the drum set, I don’t want the drums to make me work; I want to get some kind of rapport with them, a good feeling from the heads when I hit them. I don’t use any mufflers because I don’t like the flat sound. That sound comes from the studio engineering of records, even though a lot of people don’t know that; it’s an imposition made by engineers so that the sound won’t leak.
I like to tune my drums in an intervalic relationship, fourths, fifths, sixths, octaves; for some reason I respond to that. I like a rich, ringing sound. If I need to muffle the ring, I will muffle it with my hand or some other means. I take all my mechanical mufflers out.
HH: Do you start with a specific set of intervals?
AC: From the large tom-tom to the two closest small toms I might have a fourth and a sixth, which would be two whole steps between the two small toms; and then from the large tom to the one at the top I might have an octave; then the bass drum may be a fifth or a fourth below.
HH: Do you always start in the same place?
AC: I usually start with the large tomtom because it seems to respond first, and then I tune the other drums according to it. But it’s not whether it’s a G-flat or an A-flat or an F or a C or whatever.
Since I do endorse Ludwig and they sent the drums with the plastic heads, I’ve continued using the plastic heads. I’ve found advantages in the plastic heads in that normally they don’t warp or break on you, and they’re not adverse to weather.
HH: Do you always use double bass drums these days?
AC: Well, let me say this: when I do solo work, I use two bass drums. I’ve done a couple of solo percussion tapes that at some time I may be able to have out on a record. I use double bass drums on the Nuba record with Jeanne Lee and Jimmy Lyons.
There’s a track on the Loop solo record where I use newspaper as a percussion device.
HH: What’s the application?
AC: It’s an idea I got from thinking about the news, about news reports as they would come over the media, and at the same time, about different regions of the country and the different kinds of music and rhythms that come out of them. “News” is an acronym for “North East West South.” I rattle the newspaper, and I use it on the snare drum, and I play on it. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to work on it, but I approximated it as best I could. I called it “The News,” and it seems that everybody who hears it likes it because it’s a unique idea. And this recording is excellent. It comes across the speakers just as though somebody is rattling newspapers right here.
I’d play a rhythm going from one page to the next, and I’d crush up this newspaper. I’d have these different sections and segues, so you wouldn’t have any space, but you’d have interludes of newspaper between each rhythmical section.
HH: Manifestations such as this demonstrate how, in some ways, the evolution of jazz has compressed independently into a few decades, developments which occurred in European classical music over as many centuries.
AC: Perhaps so, but with feeling.
Of course, with the Dialogue and with other percussion performances I use all kinds of percussion instruments such as timpani, tubular chimes, crotales, African thumb pianos, and so forth.
I just did a duo percussion festival concert in London with a South African drummer, Louis Moholo, who worked with a now-defunct group of black and white
South African musicians called the Brotherhood of Breath. (He’s now with a group called the Blue Notes). It’s quite interesting, knowing South Africa and its evolution over the past century or so, that here are their drummers, playing the trap set. And they play it with more or less the same kind of conception that we do, maybe because of the same type of colonial influences, but with kind of a South African inflection. I know that Africans from other parts of the continent play trap set too, but they play it more in their own traditional way; it’s more conservative. I don’t think there’s any other nation of people in Africa that would approach the trap set the way Moholo did.
HH: The name of your group Maono is a Swahili word meaning “feelings,” correct?
HH: In the same ways that we mean it?
AC: Yes, in my own head, anyway. I always liked the word “feelings”—obviously, I use the word a lot—and, although I could have named the group Feelings, I wanted a name that was different and, in a sense, exotic. So I looked up in the Swahili dictionary the word for “feelings,” and it said “maono.” I may change the name because a lot of people can’t pronounce the word or don’t know what it means, but maybe I won’t.
HH: What do you think about when you’re preparing to play?
AC: I think about organization. I’m one for organization. But within that, you can go crazy if you like; pull out all the stops, let it all hang out. I’m there to make an event, a happening. Within that organization, if it’s not an event, I feel as though I haven’t arrived.
HH: Are there specific things that you do or avoid doing on the day of a concert which contribute to or interfere with your performance?
AC: No. I feel, as I’m sitting here, that if I had to play, and if all the elements were together (the convergence of all the things in the universe that make an event happen), I could do it right now. That’s the kind of feeling that I like to carry with me perpetually. On the day of a performance I’m usually so busy putting all the equipment together that I don’t have much time to sit down and meditate. Of course if I’m early enough I can think about what I’m going to play and how I’m going to arrange it, and I ‘ l l warm up and so forth. Sometimes I do like to be alone at that particular time. If there are other performances going on, I don’t like to listen to them until after I’ve played, so that I can get a focus. I guess it’s almost like a boxer in the training room before he comes out to get into the ring. It’s nothing that goes on for days, though.
The only thing that does go on for days is my preparation for a solo percussion performance. Maybe a month or a few weeks before, if I have the time, I’ll get vague ideas, and then the closer it gets— and I don’t know whether this is something that happens just with me—almost automatically I’ll get the form.
HH: Do you practice on the instruments that you will be playing, or is that left more or less to chance?
AC: Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t, but I can apply the forms in my mind to any instruments. The structures can be the same, but the sounds will come out differently.
HH: Tell me about your current activities with Jeanne and Jimmy, with Maono, with IPS, and with anything else you would like to discuss—the present world of Andrew Cyrille.
AC: Well, all of these endeavors are pieces of me addressing how I have to survive in this society. If I can’t do one thing, at least there’s something else happening so that I don’t get put out of my house.
As we were saying before, necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes I don’t like that pressure; I wish I could invent under more agreeable circumstances. I have interest in all of these things, but a lot of them come out of the fact that I necessarily have to do something which people may want to buy. Fortunately, I’ve never had to do anything outside of music in order to make a living. We’re involved in a noble artistic endeavor, and I can always point to the aesthetic and say, “This is something of value.” The Institute, my private teaching, the band Maono, Jeanne and Jimmy— all of these things happen from one time to another because I can’t do one thing all the time. It’s almost like freelancing, but with different types of activities that I have inaugurated wholly or in part, that I want to do.
HH: What is the relationship between IPS Records and the Institute of Percussive Studies?
AC: IPS is a business partnership registered in the county clerk’s office in New York, and it’s a profit-making record company. We thought of the appellation Institute of Percussive Studies when we got IPS Records together. As time went on, we decided we wanted also a tax exempt, nonprofit corporation to do some other kind of work, so the teaching practice called Institute of Percussive Studies became that. They’re two different, legally separate entities or functions. IPS Records, which began in ’74, is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve never been offered a record contract in America, by anybody. I’ve done only one record—it’s not even a whole record, just a track—for an American company, in the Douglas Wildflowers series. They have about six albums out with new music people, and on one of them is my composition called “Short Short.” I decided that if I was going to have some of my works documented on records, I was going to have to do it myself.
I was going into a Unit Core record label with Cecil, but for some reason that didn’t happen. Milford had the SRP record company as a business partnership with Don Pullen, but that company became dormant after their Nommo record. I approached Milford with the idea of a company with me in order to do the Dialogue of the Drums record. He was the one who came up with the name Institute of Percussive Studies, the acronym being IPS.
IPS has put me on the recording map around the world, and as a result, the Italian companies Black Saint and Ictus asked me to record with them as well. They knew that I could make some kind of money for them, if not thousands upon thousands of dollars.
HH: How would you compare Maono with the trio with Jeanne and Jimmy?
AC: With Maono, and of course the personnel there may change, although it hasn’t for the past three or four years, I can write with conventional notation and dictate instrumentally what I want. With Jeanne and Jimmy, because of the kinds of musicians those two are, a lot of the work we do at this point is conceptual, even though we rehearse and we know what we’re going to do (a lot of it is predetermined). But it’s not of the same stylistic nature as Maono, which plays charts. Then again, Jeanne and Jimmy have other commitments. Jimmy has his own band and plays with Cecil, and Jeanne sings with Gunter Hampel. So that cannot be a permanent group unless we begin really making a lot of money on an ongoing basis. Maono is more something that I can direct and control regarding the music that I have been writing over the years. In that group, too, the individuals have ideas of forming their own bands (Ted has his own organization, as does David), but I can replace those people.
It’s hard, running a business. You have to sit down every year and deal with these tax situations, and you have to send out statements. I just don’t have time to do all of that. Not that things are over my head now, but with all of these different avenues that I have to drive down, it’s just about saturated. I wish I could practice drums every day for six, seven, eight hours and/or write music for six, seven, eight hours. I can’t have too many irons in the fire. Fortunately, I have a little bit of help, and I have my head in order to devote enough time to each activity to keep all of them viable.
HH: What other projects lie in your foreseeable future?
AC: I would like to write a book on drum methodology one day. Henry Adler has been after me for a couple of years now, but I just haven’t sat down to it. I have enough material and information from my private teaching and from my experience over the years to write a couple of books, as a matter of fact.
HH: Do you use standard published materials in your teaching?
AC: Sure. I teach not necessarily from an artistic point of view, and here I’m being really practical, but rather I deal with all of my students on the basis of what they need and want. I don’t impose my own musical or artistic principles on them. If someone’s interested in playing shows, I’ll give him the information I have in that regard; if he wants to play march music, I’ll show him how to do that. As we go along and we get a closer relationship, then I’ll tell him why I do what I do and why perhaps he could think about what I do in regard to himself. My main objective as a teacher, however, is to help the student to find himself, to tap his own resources, to feel comfortable with himself. I’m not interested in producing clones.