On playing on the classic 1963 album Sonny Meets Hawk!

I’d been working with Sonny Rollins for about a year prior to recording that album. Sonny was such a strong player that he made me play strong. He loved Coleman Hawkins and always wanted to do an album with him.

I believe we were playing at the Five Spot in New York City, and Sonny set up a session at RCA. Right after the gig we’d go record, and it was a beautiful thing—no sheet music, just Sony calling out the tunes and him and Hawk brilliantly playing off each other.

On breaking new ground in 1966 as a member of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet with the soul-jazz smash “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

We were at Nat Adderley’s house, rehearsing, and Joe Zawinul came in, as he often did, with bits and pieces of paper. He asked us to play some of it, and it had a real good feeling to it—Cannon loved it. It turned out to be “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” It became a huge hit [reaching number two on the Billboard soul chart and number eleven on the Hot 100 chart, and receiving a Grammy for best instrumental jazz performance, group or soloist]. No matter where you went, you’d hear it. After the Buckinghams’ remake [number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart], Buddy Rich did it with his big band, and after that just about everybody was recording it.

On opening the door for funk and fusion by emphasizing the backbeat and employing a definitive bass drum pattern.

It was just a natural thing. I was listening to a lot of different music at that time. Being from upstate New York, I used to play with a lot of blues bands, so a backbeat was nothing new to me. I don’t know if we realized it, but Cannon wanted to explore different directions. We were one of the first jazz bands to use a Wurlitzer electric piano, then a Fender Rhodes, which brought that funky thing into it.

On being prepared to play with a diverse range of artists, from Count Basie to Herbie Hancock to the jazz-rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Well, I studied with Bill Street from the Eastman School of Music. We worked on rudimental drumming all the time, and I was also involved with marching corps. It’s those things that got my chops up for playing and soloing, and I still teach them to my students today.

On teaching jazz studies at the University of Southern California and the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.

My cousin Ron McCurdy, who’s a trumpet player, was the chair of the USC jazz department. He was looking for a drum instructor and asked me if I was interested. I was unsure at the time, but I eventually accepted the position. Fortunately, all the guys that work there are jazz musicians, so if one of us had a road gig, we would send somebody in to cover. It’s been rewarding, because the kids I teach really appreciate what I’m showing them. They keep in touch and even come back to visit. It’s the best feeling.

On what separates the living legends of jazz drumming, including Roy Haynes, Harold Jones, Redd Holt, and Louis Hayes, from the current crop of jazz drummers.

I think mainly it’s experience. We’ve played with so many people, which [allowed us to] develop the know-how to do almost everything, from drumming behind singers to playing with big bands or small ensembles. We’ve accumulated all that knowledge over the years, and we’ve all used it to stay around for a while.

Roy McCurdy plays DW drums and Istanbul cymbals and uses Remo drumheads and Regal Tip sticks.