The first person to get me excited about James Black’s drumming was Jaimoe Johanson.
We were listening to records and Jaimoe asked me if I’d ever heard James Black. I said, “No. ” He pulled out an old Riverside record of the Adderley Brothers, placed it on the turntable, put the needle on the record and admonished, “Listen to this!”
Many months later, Jim Keltner called from New Orleans where he was touring with Dylan. One of the first people Jim called when he was there was James Black. James came to the Dylan concert and he and Jim stayed up until the wee hours talking drums. I remembered an MD interview with Freddie Waits, Bill Hart and Horacee Arnold (Colloquium III). Billy Hart said, “I don’t care who goes to New Orleans, they’re in for a shock, as long as James Black is there.”
This interview was taped in two sessions. It’s always been a kick for me to get to know the-guy-who-plays-drums-on-this record as a human being. The drummers we refer to as “monsters” or “incredible,” “unbelievable” and “fantastic” usually turn out to be down-to-earth souls with an obsession for their instrument. I felt the personality of James came out well in this interview. There’s a pattern in here of James referring to the “discouragement” he’s had in his career and how he dealt with it. Something I read in James Baldwin’s short story, Sonny’s Blues, captured the feeling I got from James about his music. Just substitute the word “drums” for the word “piano.”
I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must he between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try to make it do everything.
JB: I majored in brass at Southern University. I’m a converted trumpet player. Drums was my main instrument, but when I went to grammar school, they had about fifty or sixty young fellows who wanted to play drums. My band teacher asked me if I wanted to play the flute. I told him no, because the flute was for chicks. He asked if I wanted to play the trumpet, so I started playing trumpet in grammar school.
I don’t know the name of the man who was my main influence on drums. He’s dead now. He was a short, almost midget sized drummer. He had a scene painted on his drums and he played Dixieland. I thought he was the greatest thing I had ever heard; a local drummer in New Orleans. I was a little kid about eight years old. I wanted to play the drums way before then, but seeing him play and listening to what his drums sounded like added to my interest in drums. My mom said I used to beat on the walls and the chair and everything. I was just a natural drummer, I guess. I had a certain fascination for drums for some reason, but I got steered into trumpet. My teacher said, “You already know how to play the drums. You need to know some harmony and some melody.” So, I played trumpet all through high school and through Southern University.
My drums were like a sideline axe until I got to the point where I made a decision and said, “Aw man, I’m going to leave this trumpet alone and stick with my drums.” I liked the trumpet, but I loved the drums.
SF: When you weren’t in grammar school did you play the drums with friends?
JB: Right. There was this friend of mine, Marcel Richardson, who lived around the corner and we grew up together. He played the drums and the piano. Mom used to give me piano lessons and we had a piano at the house. Marcel would play the piano and I’d play the drums. We had a little makeshift set. Then we’d switch over and I’d play the piano for a little while and he’d play the drums. We just learned like that.
SF: So, you never went through a methodical approach to the drums?
JB: After I got in school I started reading books and practicing to learn how to read. I knew how to read trumpet music. But, I never actually went for drum lessons as such. I never studied with anybody.
SF: I read an interview Valerie Wilmer did with you and Freddie Kohlman. Were you able to learn from the New Orleans drummers like Freddie Kohlman and his generation? Were they open to passing along tricks of the trade and conceptual things?
JB: I never really went up to anybody and asked. I’d just sit down in the audience and see what they were doing. I guess you could say I did study with somebody indirectly. I just watched and listened and I’d go home and practice. Ed Blackwell, believe it or not, was a great influence on me too. I used to go up this place where Ed Blackwell, Ellis Marsellis, Chuck Beatey and Matt Perrilat used to play. I thought Blackwell was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. I said, “Wow! I never knew you could get all this out of the drums!” It made me go home and practice more!
SF: Were you friends with Ed?
JB: I was younger and sort of fearful of going up to him and saying, “Hey man, what’s happening?” I never did really talk to him too much. I’d just sit and listen on the sidelines.
SF: Well, how did you get from being a little kid who banged on walls and chairs to the way you play today?
JB: I don’t know. I guess it was just in me and it came out. All I needed was some inspiration and some stimuli and these people stimulated me to practice. Believe it or not, one of my favorite drummers was Shelly Manne back with Shorty Rogers and His Giants. I used to listen to him a lot and I liked all the colors that he played. I know Art Blakey and Philly Joe from when I was living in New York. I met Philly Joe at a joint down here called Zoomin’ Charlies. It was like the local jazz club where everybody played. I saw this man sitting there in the audience and I thought, “This man’s face looks familiar.” I didn’t even know who he was until I was passing by on a break and a fellow said, “Man, I want you to meet Philly Joe.” I said, “Well damn! No wonder your face looks familiar.” I’d seen it on album covers and all that. We hung out all night and went to different places and played a few times. And I got to know him like that.
I met Art Blakey in New York. I also met him in Los Angeles when I was working with Yusef Lateef. Blakey and I got to talking and we just became friends. We had a mutual respect, I guess. I respected him more than I guess he respected me because he was Art Blakey. I was a little un known dude named James Black just coming up. It was a pleasure for me just to be in this man’s company.
SF: Well, how old were you when you owned your first drumset?
JB: I owned a snare drum and we had a pasteboard box filled with paper and we had a little makeshift foot pedal we put on. This is when I was somewhere around eight or ten years old. I played snare drum and the box! I didn’t own a set of drums until I was about seventeen or eighteen. At that age I played in a lot of rhythm and blues bands all out in the little country towns. There was a little group called June Spears and The Rocketeers. It was basically rhythm and blues, yard parties and stuff like that. I got into playing jazz through two friends of mine, a saxophone player and a guitar player, who used to play with Fats Domino. Their names were Nat and Roy. They used to pass by my house. I would practice every day after school. At 3:15 or 3:30 I was in the garage practicing the drums. They heard me and said, “Man, we need a drummer.” It was my first jazz gig. I was thinking about that the other day. “How did I ever get started playing jazz and learning that particular style?” I remembered it was them two people. They passed by and heard me and said, “Hey little ol’ chump. You want a gig with us?” “Yeah!” Because they were famous people around the city, I was honored. They took me to Baton Rouge, coached me, and nurtured my jazz experience and made me want to study more. They’d turn me on to different people to listen to on records. It was like they were big brothers that were hard on their little brother because they saw he had potential. They just brought it out of me.
SF: What kind of things were you practicing in your garage?
JB: I used to play along with records. Jazz stuff. Shelly Manne, Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers, Art Blakey, Philly Joe…all the people. Clifford Brown. All the jazz things. When I was younger, I had a fondness for West Coast jazz because of the harmonies involved. I guess that was because of my trumpet upbringing.
SF: How did Nat and Roy coach you? What did they give you that helped you out?
JB: They taught me a lot of self-discipline because they were hard on me. “Hey man! You’re playing the wrong stuff! Why don’t you practice? Why don’t you do better than that?” They still had me on the gig but they would just ride me and make me discipline myself enough to play with them. “Alright. You say I play bad? Wait until I come back!” I’d get mad and go home and practice, come back and burn them down. They’d jump on me again and I’d get mad and go home and practice and come back again.
SF: Would they tell you to listen to different drummers?
JB: Right. You got it. “Why don’t you listen to so-and-so, man? You’re playing all funny like that. You ought to quit listening to all that West Coast stuff. Listen to Art Blakey and Philly Joe, man. Listen to these people. Man, listen to Roy Haynes and people like that!” There was East Coast jazz and West Coast jazz at that time, and I really didn’t like East Coast jazz. It wasn’t harmonized enough. They were just doing a lot of solos. But, I started listening to it and that’s what happened.
SF: So, while you were playing drums and trumpet you were also studying piano?
JB: My mom used to give me piano lessons. She’d keep me inside and make me practice the piano.
SF: Do you feel that knowing piano and trumpet, melody and harmony, has helped your drumming?
JB: It helps you out a great deal. I found that out later. It gives you an insight into the harmonic and melodic elements of the music; different colorations that the drums can play instead of just being a rudimental- type person just playing a rhythm. You can hear the melody, too. You know where the melody’s going and what it’s doing. We all know that music is three things: rhythm, harmony and melody. Just to know the rhythm would mean you’d be an incomplete musician. That means you must know a little harmony and a little melody if you’re going to play the drums. I feel that people who deal in harmony and melody should know something about the drums. I was just lucky that I had people around me to guide me in the right direction. I already had the rhythm. They taught me the harmony and the melody.
SF: You were a teenager in New Orleans when rock ‘n’ roll started. People like Fats Domino with Earl Palmer were happening in New Orleans. How did that affect you?
JB: I played it! I became multi-styled. I just tried to learn as many styles of playing the drums as I possibly could. I played like Elvin Jones for a little while. I played like Art Blakey for a little while. Like everybody else did, you just imitate a style for a while until you develop some ideas of your own. When rock came out I joined this rock ‘n’ roll band and we used to go out in the country and play rock for colleges and stuff.
SF: Ed Blackwell told me that in New Orleans the musicians have a mutual respect for each other regardless of what style of music they play. Nobody puts anyone down.
JB: Right. Everybody wants to know what everybody else is doing. You’re in your own field but we’re not musically prejudiced. We’ll play anything, from Dixieland to Bach! We specify one particular area that we like to express ourselves in, but we’re familiar with all of the areas. There’s a certain musical culture about New Orleans that we learn multi-styles. You can’t just be limited to one style. If you do, you’ll starve to death.
SF: When did you first come to New York City?
JB: I came to New York with a man named Joe Jones. He was the piano player who had a hit called “You Talk Too Much.” And The Dixie Cups; I played on the Dixie Cups’ session, “Chapel of Love.” I think it was 1960 or ’61. I worked in a club called Jazzland right down the street from a joint called Beefsteak Charlie’s, until me and Joe Jones fell out. We got mad with each other. The next thing I knew, I was in a hotel with a bus ticket to go home. I get this call on the phone and it’s Horace Silver! It was the last three nights that Birdland was open that I worked there with Horace. I feel that was an honor.
SF: How did you like New York?
JB: Man, I loved New York. Everything that happened, everyday there was something new, something I hadn’t seen, somebody I hadn’t met. It was like I was in Wonderland. You’ve heard of Wilbur Hogan, right? He was a good friend of mine. After the Horace Silver gig he told me that Lionel Hampton needed a drummer and he asked me if I wanted to audition. I said yeah because I was looking for a job and I didn’t want to leave New York. If I couldn’t find a job I would’ve had to come back home. Going to New York was like going to Mecca in them days. I guess it still is. So, Wilbur and I were walking down Broadway when we ran into Lionel. We walked up and he said, “Yeah Gates. What’s happening?” Wilbur said, “This is James Black, my homeboy from New Orleans. He’s looking for a job. He’s a very good drummer. Why don’t you let him audition?” He said, “Yeah.” So I went around to the studio they were auditioning at. They put the book in front of me and I knew how to read. I auditioned and got the job. I stayed with him about three years.
SF: If you felt like New York City was Mecca, why did you leave?
JB: After a while I got sort of bored with it. It just became a hassle to me. I got homesick. I lived there for about six years. It was just too much for me to be dealing with. I decided to come back home. Basically, I guess I’m a country boy. I missed the trees and the life was maybe just a little too fast for me at the time. I couldn’t handle it. I came back home and said, “Why not stay here?”
SF: Do you think a person would have to come to New York City to make it as a drummer?
JB: Eventually, sooner or later, you’ve got to go there. Just to go there and say, “Alright. Here I am. I’ve come!” If you don’t stay there, at least you can say you’ve been there, made your little mark and now it’s time to go. It’s your choice. If you want to stay—beautiful. If you want to live like that—fantastic. If you don’t—you can leave. I didn’t particularly want to live like that. After a while I had a few domestic problems and some other stuff was happening. My wife was a country girl and I was a musician. She left because she got mad with me. I had two kids at the time and they didn’t like New York. They said, “Well Daddy, we don’t even have a back yard!” They weren’t used to living in an apartment. Here in New Orleans we have a yard and patio and all that kind of craziness. In New York it was apartment living. They just didn’t dig it, so they left. After a while, I got to missing them, so I left too!
SF: How did the New York musicians react to you when you first came to town?
JB: I had to break into the circle. They weren’t all that open. Everybody was trying to make it. They were sort of distant. They were friendly enough, but they were sort of closed. They used to act like they didn’t know me. They knew who I was—they just acted like they didn’t. That kind of got to me too.
SF: If a New York drummer moved to New Orleans to make a living, how would you guys treat him?
JB: People down here would probably love him and accept him with open arms, if he could play. If he can’t play, we’d tell him that too! A bunch of people have come down to New Orleans and just made it their home and started working around here. People here are a little more close. New Orleans is sort of a metropolis, but not like New York. New York has got people from all over the world there. People here are from all over the country and the world, but the musical society is a little closer here than the musical society was back then in New York.
SF: Are there second- and third-generation families of musicians in New Orleans?
JB: Right. Fourth- and fifth-generations of musicians. There are musical families of people. And it’s more family oriented here.
SF: Is having your family together important to you?
JB: Most definitely. Man, if you’re secure in your home life—when you go out to work your music is more secure. If you’re having hassles at your house, man, you can’t play. I mean, how can you play if you and your old lady are hassling and the kids are hassling? You can’t play if your home life is all messed up. You can do it, but it’s harder. It’s much easier if you know everything is alright at home. It makes it easier to express yourself.
SF: In your interview with Valerie you mentioned that your concept on drums was born out of hearing parade drummers, and trying to duplicate everything you heard the parade drummers do on your drumset.
JB: That’s right. In New Orleans, I guess you know about the second line, the funerals and all that. Anybody who grows up in an atmosphere like that—with the drums and all—if you’re musically inclined, you’ve got to play that kind of music. After I heard it I just transferred it right onto the drums like everybody else did. It’s a sort of a style of playing. Like the Dixieland style—if you don’t know that style, you ain’t from New Orleans. I had to learn it. You call it “good time” jazz, because everybody has a good time playing it. It’s not as serious and depressing sometimes as some of the New York jazz is to me. You know, it becomes real serious, and heavy and depressing, like New York became real serious and heavy and depressing to me after a while. I jus t had to get away from all that depression.
SF: Do you see the music of a group like The Meters coming out of the “good time” jazz too?
JB: Everything we do musically down here is coming from so-called Dixieland-style jazz. It’s just like the next step in the evolution of the music. If you listen closely, they still have that same feeling, even though they’re not still playing that rhythmic pat ter, that sort of “good time” parade feel. Like marching down the street having a good time.
SF: Did you study the rudiments?
JB: I studied rudimental things. Maybe I just had the intelligence to realize that if I’m going to play an instrument, I have to learn all the things about it. If you’re going to play piano you have to know all the scales. If you’re going to play the drums you’ve got to know all the rudiments because they strengthen you. They give you a foundation to go further. I learned the rudiments and all the rest of the stuff about the drums on my own. I just got me some books, opened my ears and practiced, because they told me practice makes perfect.
SF: Who told you that?
JB: Everybody! This is common knowledge. Practice makes perfect. I said, “Yeah, that makes sense. If I practice I’m going to get better.” All my partners tried to discourage me from playing the drums. “Man, you ought to play the trumpet. You ought to leave the drums alone.” That’s what I was hearing from most of the drummers around here when I was growing up. I saw right through that. I said, “I see why you don’t want me to play the drums, because I think I play a little bit better than you. You’re trying to discourage me so you’ll have an open field. I’m going to play everything.” In fact, that was my main stimuli. I’m a person like this: If you try to discourage me, that’s going to make me want to investigate and wonder why! “Why are you trying to discourage me like that?”
There were a couple of drummers down here, my good friends—and they’ll deny this of course—but they were playing drums before me. I used to want to practice with them and they’d let me play for a little bit, then they’d try to discourage me. The more they tried to do that, the more it would make me want to practice. It worked just the opposite on me. I’d say, “Alright. You tell me I can’t play. Just wait until you hear me again!” I’d get pissed. I’d go home and come out again and say, “Listen to this!”
SF: How many hours a day would you practice?
JB: From 3:00 in the afternoon until 6:00. Three hours a day, seven days a week, forever!
SF: Are you still practicing?
JB: Of course. I practice piano a lot now because I’m doing some composing and arranging. I practice the drums maybe an hour a day. I practice piano about two or three hours. Maybe I’ve gotten cocky on drums and I feel like I know how to play a little better drums than piano. I’m in the pre-production process of recording ten sides for Sansu records with Allen Toussaint. My own arrangements; my own compositions.
SF: It’s going to be an album under your own name?
JB: Right. I don’t know exactly when.
SF: Did you practice bass drum technique quite a bit?
JB: The bass drum is very important in the style of drumming that we play here in New Orleans, because the first thing you hear in the parades is the bass drum. You know when you hear that beat from far away, “Man, it’s a parade!” Our bass drum was the main thing. In Dixieland jazz, the bass drum was the thing. The bass drum and the snare drum—they were both important, but the bass drum most of all.
SF: Were there certain things you’d practice on bass drum?
JB: I have all sorts of different stuff I do. Mainly what I do is just play what I feel and hear. If it comes out—it comes out. If it don’t—it don’t. Now my playing has become a little more refined since I’ve been working in the studio. I play what they want to hear because they’re paying for it! They say, “We want to hear this on the bass drum.” So I’ll play that. But at least I feel like I’m capable and qualified to do that. On the album I did with Eric Gale, A Touch of Silk, that’s somewhat of how I play, but you’ve heard the other albums I’ve done too and you can compare the styles. It’s two different styles all together. When I’m working with Ellis Marsellis it’s one style of playing. When I worked with Yusef Lateef it was one style of playing. When I worked with Lionel Hampton it was another style of playing. And when I worked with Eric Gale it’s another style of playing.
SF: Well, when you practiced rudiments did you apply them to the set or just on the pad or snare?
JB: I used to practice paradiddles between snare drum and the bass drum. Instead of playing paradiddles with two hands, I’d take one hand off and play the other part of the paradiddle with my bass drum. Then I’d swap off between my left hand and the bass drum and my right hand and the bass drum. Independent coordination was what it was called. I used to practice independent coordination a lot. I’d practice all the rudiments like that too. This way my bass drum foot would become a little looser because it was kind of sloppy back then. It’s still kind of sloppy. It’s really not up to where I would like it. I haven’t played the kind of music I really want to play yet on the drums.
SF: What kind of music would that be?
JB: My own kind of music! That’s why I’m doing this record.
SF: To this day you’ve never played the kind of music on drums that you really want to play?
JB: Maybe a couple of times. But, to this day I really haven’t done it yet.
SF: Man, well it’s about time!
JB: Yeah! I think so! I’ve been playing everybody else’s music; playing what they want to hear, how they want to do it. But I’ve never actually done it the way I want to do it. It seems like people would always try to discourage me. “Oh, don’t play that like that.” And it just made me want to play it more.
SF: That happened even when you were playing jazz gigs?
JB: They wouldn’t let me just express and go out on it. Folks would just try to stop it.
SF: That would get discouraging.
JB: Yeah, it has been pretty discouraging and frustrating. All these years I’ve been sitting here trying to do it. But I think maybe I might have a chance to do it now. With Ellis Marsellis I got as close as I possibly could. But then after I got to the drum part of it I couldn’t get Ellis to play the piano part like I wanted to hear it. I’m just as guilty as they are. There are things I wanted to hear and there are things they wanted to hear. But they were the bandleaders. So they got to hear what they wanted to hear. I didn’t get to hear what I wanted to hear because I was just the sideman. But, now that I’m the bandleader, I’m going to try to get to the things I want to hear and see what happens.
SF: What are some bands that you like to listen to?
JB: I like Herbie Hancock’s melodic concept.
SF: The new material he’s doing or back in the Maiden Voyage days!
JB: Maiden Voyage and stuff like that. I like that kind of harmonic concept. I like Earth, Wind & Fire.
SF: I’m trying to get an idea of the sound you’re looking for.
JB: I like that dissonant sound with the suspended chords with a lot of rhythm and harmony and a lot of melody. I like different meters. I like Max Roach. He’s the first person I ever heard play 5/4. I like 5/4 a lot. I like all the different meters. I like to put jazz style chords to all of these different beats. In New Orleans there’s a lot of Caribbean beats and a lot of voodoo-style beats. After you play them a while they become very hypnotic and they invoke a certain spirit in people.
SF: Did you pick that up by listening?
JB: By listening and feeling and talking to different people about different things. There’s this book called Muntu by Janhein Jahnz [Grove Press]. Charles Neville gave it to me. It explained a lot to me about what I was doing. About where most of the rhythms and stuff that I was playing came from. They came from the voodoo rituals. Read that book and it’ll give you a good idea what I’m talking about. It’s almost a sort of ritualistic style of rhythms that came out of New Orleans. I really didn’t know what it was until Charles gave me this book. I’d been playing it and noticing that after you played this kind of beat for a while—the people seemed like they changed. I was wondering why. It’s be cause it embodies all these African rhythms and traditions. The book says that the rhythm doesn’t actually get faster or slower. It just sort of changes direction. If you listen to African rhythms, on any part of the beat, it seems like it’s suspended in midair. It’s like a complete thing. This is like what I’ve been doing, or attempting to do.
SF: You’re trying to do that all by yourself on drumset?
JB: Yeah. It’s something I just normally did from living around folks like that and hearing people play. I just picked it up by ear. Most of the people here that I know of—plenty of them can play, but they can’t read music. They play by ear. Basically I started learning by ear first and then later I found out what I was playing that I had learned by ear.
SF: Do you think it would’ve screwed you up if you’d learned to read first?
JB: I think it would have. If I’d learned to read first, it seems like my ear wouldn’t have developed because I’d have been reading. If you put something in front of me I could read it, but I wouldn’t have nothing inside of me to play because I wouldn’t be listening. My ears would’ve turned off. In my case, my ears were turned on first. After my ears reached a certain point, then the written text came. “Alright this is what you’ve been playing. Take a look at it and see what it looks like.” I said, “That’s impossible. I couldn’t be playing nothing that looks like this.” Because to look at what I’m playing on drums—it’s fantastic. But, to hear it—it’s nothing. So, playing by ear first is the best way to learn how to play the drums. Play by ear first and then learn what you’re playing next.
SF: Do you teach, or have you ever taught?
JB: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of students. I take a couple of students from intermedi ate to advanced. They come to me from time to time and I give them my ideas and basic philosophy on rhythms and whatnot.
SF: Do you enjoy that?
JB: Yeah, if I get a good student and it seems like he’s really interested. That actually helps me to learn because it enables me to express what I’ve got in my head. Especially if somebody picks up on what I’m talking about. That reinforces my own beliefs and ideas. Because I’ve been discouraged a lot.
SF: Are the younger guys you’re teaching as open to all musics as you were to the New Orleans traditions?
JB: Definitely. I’ve got a couple of students I’m real proud of. Stanley Stevens went on to play with the show One Mo’ Time and toured Europe. I played with the show first. And the little drummer who died who played with Freddie Fender: Joe Lambert. We studied together for a while.
SF: What do you teach as your philosophy of drums? Can you elaborate on that?
JB: It’s basically a philosophy as a drummer about the people you meet, bass players you play with, guitar players, and how to play in a rhythm section. Not just how to play the drums, but how to play with other people and how not to get sidetracked; how not to get thrown off. How to keep a certain amount of concentration on what you’re doing and to do that no matter what the other person does.
I used to depend on the bass player to play. When the bass player would fall down I’d fall down too. The bass player and the drummer are the foundation of the band. I got to the point where I’d say, “Hey man, if you fall down you just fall down by yourself. I’m going to keep playing.” I try to get my students to realize that if you’re playing, don’t depend on nobody but yourself. If the bass player falls down, plays a wrong note, has a heart attack, passes over or goes up in a puff of smoke—you keep playing. That’s true. If the man goes “POOF”—up in a cloud of smoke—just keep playing. He’ll come back sooner or later.
It’s sort of selfish, but it’s the only way you can play. When you hear it back on a tape you say, “Wow man. That sounds really good.” But if you try to play and just go along—you’re limiting yourself to the amount of expertise that the other person has. You may have more expertise rhythmically than they do. But if you limit yourself up to the point where they are, you never grow. You’ve got to grow in spite of them. I told my students that there’s a lot of people who are going to hear you and think you’re really great and they’re going to become jealous of you. They’re going to try to stop you from playing. They want to shine. They don’t want you to shine. But you shine anyway!
SF: Does your concept change when you’re in a jazz rhythm section and a rock rhythm section?
JB: No it doesn’t. My style may change, but my basic philosophy is the same. I’m going to do my best. I’m going to give 100%. Now if you go up in a puff of smoke around me—I’m going to be sitting there on the bandstand giving 100% until I think the song’s over.
SF: If you’re in a jazz quartet with trumpet as the lead instrument, and then piano, bass and drums, who are you locking into?
JB: When I play, I lock into James Black first. After I lock into him, then I listen to everybody else. But, my first thing is locking into me because I feel like I’ve studied enough to know exactly what’s happening. Just because so-and-so is the leader on the union contract don’t mean that he’s the leader in the music.
SF: Do you think the drummer should always be the musical leader?
JB: If they do it right the drums are leader. They lead the music; they lead the band. Like the drum major leads the band. I mean, what is a drum major? He’s the major drummer. You just come on the band stand and lead the band, regardless of who’s supposed to be the leader. If you’re the drummer, you’re the drum major. You primarily lead the band. You pace the band off. You give them their time, you put them in their place. You control. If you lose control, you’ve messed up. You’re supposed to be in control, but you’re supposed to be in control of yourself first off. If you’re in control of yourself you’ve got everything else under control.
SF: What do you do if you’re hired for a gig; after the first song is over the bandleader comes over and says, “James, you’re playing too busy. I can’t even tell where “1” is. You’ve got to play simpler.”?
JB: That’s a matter of decision. Do you want to play simpler and keep the job and make the money, or do you want to tell him to go fly a kite and quit? If you’re pro fissional enough about it, you’ll know that it’s just a job. You play simpler. Discipline yourself to just follow direction. Different people like to hear different things. If you’re working for somebody, you’ve got to do the job that they want you to do. There have been people who’ve told me, “Hey man! You ain’t playing enough! Play more!” So I play more.
SF: When you were getting discouraged, how did you handle that?
JB: I prayed a lot. I asked the Lord to help me. “Lord could you please help me, because I need your help.” I fell on my knees and went to praying. That sort of gave me a little spiritual boost. Instead of just dealing with the materialistic aspect of it, I started dealing with the spiritual aspect of myself and got that together. It worked out. I didn’t do too bad. I’m talking to you; getting interviewed for Modern Drummer! Everybody here in New Orleans has got some kind of spiritual some thing about them. Just the fact that they deny that the spirit exists makes it exist. It don’t mean that it don’t exist. After a while, you get to dealing with the regular material side of life and you come to realize there’s more to it than this. Not to become a fanatic or anything like that, but just have your things balanced. We said rhythm, harmony and melody is like a trinity. You’re physical, you’re mental and you’re spiritual. It’s a trinity. It’s like all things come in threes. You get your three things together so you can be a complete person. Instead of just being a drummer who doesn’t know harmony and melody—just rhythm. That’s like a machine. They’ve got electronic Sideman that you can plug into the wall and it’ll play the straight rhythm for you.
SF: That’s what most of the people playing drums are trying to be like.
JB: Right. This is what I like about jazz. It gives you a chance to express yourself. I like to play funk and rhythm and blues and all that, but I still like to play jazz too. Each style of music has its own benefits and its own limitations. I wouldn’t want to play jazz constantly because it would seem boring to me. It would be like eating steak everyday. I want to eat a little chicken, a little fish and maybe just eat some vegetables sometime. I try to teach my students to become multi-styled drummers. Be able to play anything, anywhere at anytime. Be a musician that plays the drums. Don’t just limit yourself to, “I want to be a classical musician.” Be able to play anything; any kind of music anywhere. Be able to play Chinese music if it’s necessary. Be able to express yourself in any style. It’s like becoming multi-lingual.
SF: Right. And as far as being able to make a living…
JB: Your chances are better and then you get to meet a whole bunch of different people. Not just in one particular facet. “I want to be a jazz drummer.” Then they just listen to all the jazz people. That’s what happened to me. I just wanted to be a jazz drummer and it became boring! After you see the same faces and play the same songs about 20,000 times, then what else is it? Man, there’s got to be something else. I got off into funk and rock and went back to my roots. I thought, “I used to play rhythm and blues. That’s true.” I went back to that and found that that was paying off too. Now I get a chance to play a little r&b, a little rock, a little jazz, a little Afro-Cuban and a little of this and that. A little Martian music! Play some music from Pluto for a while; some of the avant garde kind of stuff and just space out! Just get all your stuff out of you. Then after you play your little avant-garde for a while, go back and play some funk. If you can do that, you’re well rounded.
SF: Have you read Valerie Wilmer’s book, As Serious As Your Life?
JB: I got it from Alvin Fielder and I never read it.
SF: It’s a strange perspective. She writes about a lot of the drummers who are strictly into avant-garde drumming . . .
JB: Right! And they can’t play nothing else but that. Hey man, you can get anybody to play avant-garde drums. I’m not trying to put nobody down, but you could get just about anybody to play that kind of drums. I think the avant-garde is just New York musicians’ frustrations over social conditions. It’s not really the type of music that you lock yourself into. It’s like complete chaos. “I’m just letting the world know that it’s chaotic! And I’m frustrated! And I’m tired! And I’m pissed!” Alright, good. We’ve expressed that. But that’s not where I think the music is going. That’s alright for a while, but if I had to play that kind of music constantly, I’d be in Bellevue.
SF: What comes across in the book is that these guys decide to focus on avant-garde and then they get bitter because they’re not making any money by doing that.
JB: Right. Because who are you playing for? You’re playing for people, right? People know what they want to hear and what they want to feel like. If a person doesn’t want to eat meat—you can’t make him eat it just because you like it. They may be a vegetarian. So, if you qualify to perform in a whole bunch of areas as a musician— you can get away with playing just about anything. But not just one consistent diet of the same thing. That’s boring. After you’ve heard the first two songs of an avant-garde band—you’ve heard their whole repertoire. The rest is just redundant.
SF: Do you like Ornette Coleman’s and John Coltrane’s music?
JB: Right. I knew John Coltrane. I met him and talked to him. We played together once down here in New Orleans. Yeah, I like what they were doing, but they did that already! It’s been done. So it’s time for us to try to come up with something new. The music right now is stagnant. It’s in a very depressed kind of a state. I’m trying to inject some life into it because it’s really becoming depressing. Everything’s starting to sound alike. Everybody’s starting to look alike. Where are the innovators? It’s like it’s all been done and nobody’s trying to do anything different. They are just reaping what the past has done and just trying to improve on that instead of coming up with something new and different. It’s a sad state of affairs in music.
You know what I’ll be trying to do when I record? I may do a couple of funk things just to make a few bucks for a bit. But sooner or later—from maybe the third side—you’ll hear the real James Black come out!