Some people get all the breaks. They’re the ones who just happen to be in the right place at the right time and luck out with the glamour gigs that every aspiring musician dreams of. The pattern is a familiar one: A big star comes to town, just happens to catch the house band at some local club or hotel, just happens to have a spot opening up in the band, digs the drummer (or guitar player or piano player or whatever), and instantly swoops up the lucky one, thereby rescuing said musician from a life of small town obscurity. It happens all the time.
Then there are those people who make their own breaks. Through their own hard work and determination, along with a healthy dose of chutzpah, they make things happen. Their persistence eventually pays off, and they are ultimately rewarded with the prize gig they sought after. Carl Allen, currently playing with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, is the classic example of the latter case.
After pursuing Hubbard for nearly a year, his persistence finally did pay off. “I had been attending William Paterson College in New Jersey, but I was just sick of school,” Allen recalls. “The professors of arranging were actually teaching jazz arranging by having you study Greek string arrangements. So I said, ‘I gotta get out of this.’ Right around this time I read in down beat that Freddie was coming to New York to find a young drummer with some energy. I didn’t pay much attention at first, but I was so sick of school. I wanted a gig. Freddie was playing at Fat Tuesday’s, so I went down there to see him. I walked right into the dressing room to talk and he said he’d call me for an audition. So I stayed up all night for about two weeks, just woodshedding and psyching myself up . . . I never got the call, which is famous for New York.”
However, Allen didn’t give up. The following summer he returned to his hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to work some gigs with local singers Jessie Hauck and Penny Goodwin. That summer, Hubbard came to Milwaukee to play the city’s big outdoor music festival, Summerfest. And again, Allen sought out the famed trumpeter, this time at his hotel. “He remembered me, but he seemed kind of ‘iffy’ about it,” Allen remembers. “He was testing me. He said, ‘So, you want to join my band, do you?’ And I said something like, ‘Well . . . that would be alright.’ And he kind of looked at me like, ‘Oh yeah? Who is this kid saying that to me?’ But I was trying to establish right from the start that there would have to be some kind of mutual respect there. I told him he’d have to respect me as a musician and as a man, and pay me on time.”
That nervy stance was enough to impress the feisty trumpeter, but it didn’t win Allen the gig. And yet, the 20-year-old drummer still didn’t relent in his campaign to get the gig. “After he left town I was calling his place in Hollywood a couple of times a week, leaving messages, trying to get some time with him. I mean, I was bugging him. I was just hustling for the gig. And now one thing Freddie says he likes about me is that I remind him of himself when he was young and hustling for gigs.”
The trumpeter returned to Milwaukee a few months later to play with the all-star group, the Great Quartet (featuring Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Ron Carter) at Milwaukee’s Kool Jazz Festival. As Allen relates, “One night after his gig, he came down to the club where I was playing. He heard me play. After our set, he came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to Europe and Japan for six weeks. I need a drummer when I get back. You’re my man.’ This was in late July and I actually started working with him in November.”
Since then, Allen has traveled all over the world with Hubbard. At first, he admits, he was leery of joining the group because of the in famous Hubbard temper. “I used to hear horror stories about Freddie kicking cats’ drums off the stage. But he’s changed. He’s more relaxed now. He used to have a real bad temper, but I’ve seen him change from the time I joined the band.
“Freddie has helped me out a lot. Just the way he plays and the way he runs the band has made me a better musician. And he’s taught me a lot about the music business and some tricks of the trade. I respect Freddie very much. And knowing that Freddie has played with such great drummers as Max Roach and Art Blakey, it’s a great personal honor for me to be playing with him.”
Allen, now 22, is trying to share some of the knowledge he’s gained from his mentor by conducting workshops for aspiring musicians. “I try to start off with the roots of the music, let them get to know where the music comes from, talk about the rhythms that come from Africa, and describe how each thing that was played on the drum actually meant something. Then I try to relate that to the music of today, and I try to get the drummers to understand that whatever they play, they should make sure it has meaning. I try to stress the point that whatever kind of music they might be playing, whether it is polkas or Bach or bebop or Dixieland, it has a groove. And I stress that it’s important to record themselves, to listen to themselves and criticize or compliment themselves for various things.
“But most importantly, I try to tell the drummers to make sure they learn as much as possible about the keyboard. I try to get them to learn theory and composition and arranging. There’s this myth that drummers can’t play melodies, and I don’t agree with that. Unfortunately, a lot of musicians think that a drummer’s role is just to be a rhythm machine—just to keep time. I think that’s been a big mistake. I believe it’s everyone’s job to keep time. But it seems that a lot of the younger musicians today have the attitude, ‘Well, I don’t have to keep time. That’s the drummer’s job. I can just play whatever I want to.’ Then if the time goes out the window, it’s the drummer’s fault. But to me, music entails having a whole concept together,”
Allen highly recommends the George Stone books—Stick Control and Accents and Rebounds— to his workshop students. “I’ve had these books for years and I’m still working out of them. They are the type of books that you can’t outgrow, I don’t care who you are. Joe Morello also preaches these books. Regardless of how good you get, you can always do something with them.” Other drum books he recommends include Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques For the Modern Drummer and Charles Wilcoxon’s Advanced Swing Solos.
“Another thing that I think is good for drummers is transcribing solos by people like Herbie Hancock, Miles, J.J. Johnson, Freddie, and Coltrane. I transcribe each person for a certain thing. Miles, Freddie and ‘Trane—that’s intensity and tone. These cats concentrate so much on tone, where they can just play one note and let it ring, and it has so much effect. I think that’s another thing that’s been neglected by drummers—tone. As opposed to trying to get an actual note or a certain sound out of a drum, they just go ‘blap-blap-blap.’ They don’t try to get any quality out of their drum or cymbal.
“I listen to Herbie for his rhythmic sense and his use of space. The way he punctuates his comping and his lines is incredible. When I hear Herbie, I see where piano players and drummers have a whole lot in common, because what a drummer is doing on a snare drum is basically what a piano player is doing while comping. Listen to Billy Higgins. He is the master of comping. He’s dancing on the drums just like a piano player.”
Another thing that Allen stresses in workshops is the business side of being a musician. “I try to break some of the myths about endorsements and explain to them that things aren’t quite so glamorous as they might seem. I tell them how it’s often difficult to get a full endorsement from a company, and that it’s often just a 50% endorsement, especially for jazz drummers. I mean, cats like Ronnie Burrage, Tony Reedus, Jeff Watts, Kenny Washington and myself are playing all over the world and a lot of people are seeing us. We are actually giving the companies free advertising, and we’re basically helping to sell the product. Yet, we have trouble getting full endorsements from some drum companies. So now, a lot of drummers I know are putting a piece of tape over the bass drum head so the company doesn’t get a free plug.
“It just seems to me that some drum companies have a definite bias against jazz. And it’s funny because, as a jazz drummer, the things that I ask a drum company for are very small compared to what the rock cats ask for. I may want two small sets but the rock drummer might want five sets, and their sets usually include ten different drums. So these companies just aren’t willing to go out on a limb with us jazz drummers. And I’m not asking for money; I’m just asking for some cooperation. Give me some drums, work with me on some clinics and together we’ll sell some drums.”
Allen also enlightens his workshop students about the harsh realities and rigors of being a drummer in a touring jazz band. “A lot of times with a jazz group, you don’t have road managers, press agents, wardrobe people, or all the things that pop groups have, so you have to take care of a lot of things yourself. When you’re young and you go to see a concert, it’s like being in a fantasy world. Everything is fine and dandy in the limelight. But it’s not always that way. A lot of things are just taken for granted. For instance, you probably expect that if you’re touring with a major artist like Freddie Hubbard, you automatically have someone to carry your drums around, so that when you get to the club, your stuff is already set up. But it just doesn’t happen in a straight-ahead jazz gig, unless you’re Elvin or Art or Max. I set up my own drums and I take them down. If I break a snare head in the middle of a song, there’s no one there to give me another one. I have to deal with it myself. So it’s not all as glamorous as it may seem.”
Other useful information he shares with young drummers includes how to pack your equipment, how to pack your bag, what to keep with you on the plane (“Always keep your sticks and your cymbals by your side”), what to do if the airline damages your drums, and how to ensure the safe arrival of your drums (“Always tip the skycap . . . generously”). “I’ve had some bad experiences with having my drums shipped overseas,” Carl explains. “I remember when I first went to Europe, my drums came off the belt in Barcelona, Spain, and my cases were in pieces. Fortunately, I was able to get a settlement right away. But sometimes when you’re in foreign countries, it can be difficult to get some kind of satisfaction. If an airline company damages something, they’ll say, ‘Well, send in this application and in four weeks you can get reimbursed.’ They have no concern for what’s happening. They don’t realize that what they’re throwing on the plane is your life.
“I’ve had some things lost, and sometimes it takes weeks or months to get your money. All the airlines I know of are offering a maximum of $750. I remember one time Billy Higgins had his whole set completely lost, but $750 doesn’t cover that—the bass drum alone might cost that much. Or sometimes an airline company will say, ‘Get it fixed and send us the bill.’ I mean, how long does that take? So the only thing you can do is try and pre-plan how you might deal with a bad situation when it does happen. One thing you can do is always take your cymbals, snare and sticks with you. At least that way you have the basic essentials to do the job in case your set gets lost and you have to play with some broken-down, borrowed set in some foreign country.”
Allen plans to gather all these bits of useful information in a book he is now preparing. Included in this instruction drum book will be advice on warming up, exercises to practice, and tips on how to swing by using his “Ti-ti-boom” and “Spang-ga-lang” concepts. Allen was introduced to those concepts himself while in high school. He had originally picked up the drums at the age of eight when his older brother lost interest in drums and gave up his sticks to younger brother Carl. That initial interest led Allen into the high school drill team and eventually into a number of Motown-inspired bands.
“The funk then was a lot simpler than it is now,” he says. “Back then it was just the strong backbeat. Everything was based on ‘2’ and ‘4’—those James Brown grooves. The role of the drummer then was to just keep time. There was very little use of cymbal work and the only time you heard tom-toms was in a fill. But I always wanted to have a musical approach to the drumset. I was always listening to the melodic instruments and trying to incorporate those ideas on the drumset.”
He studied classical drums in Saturday afternoon sessions while his friends were out playing baseball and football. Then at the age of 13 he bought his first jazz record, a trio date featuring Ramsey Lewis. “At the time I thought, ‘This stuff is too out.’ I couldn’t understand the concept. Then I bought a Ben Webster record for 50 cents and for some reason it made more sense to me. Also during this time, my older brother Eddie was always giving me records to listen to, pointing out the similarities between what Kool & The Gang were doing and what jazz was all about. So I started trying to relate to that.”
Allen’s first drum idol was Billy Cobham. “I thought he was THE cat. But then after I got into high school, I started really listening to Blakey and some of the pioneer cats like Ben Riley and Billy Higgins. The band director at school was also a jazz drummer and he would bring records to class for us to check out. We would hear cats like Elvin, Jimmy Cobb, Mickey Roker, Philly Joe and even some of the earlier drummers like Big Sid Catlett and Baby Dodds. I liked what I was hearing but I didn’t know what they were doing.”
So this period between the ages of 13 and 16 was a significant transitional period in Allen’s musical career. By the ninth grade he was determined to become a jazz drummer, not a fusion, pop, funk or any other kind of drummer—and especially not a classical drummer. “I’m a very hyper per son by nature and so relaxing didn’t come naturally for me. But I was always much more relaxed playing jazz than playing classical music. When I would do classical recitals, I was always tense. It just wasn’t natural to me. There’s so much anticipation involved. Everything is so precise, so exact and very restricted. It was good for discipline and I am glad I went through that experience. It’s very important to have that formal training. But I just get too tense if I have to work within a tight frame where it’s expected to be precise and note for note. Whereas, if you’re playing straight ahead, you can veer off the frame and be more creative. That comes more naturally to me.”
After high school, where he participated in both the all-city jazz ensemble and the all-city drum corps, Allen went on to college at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. There he met drummer Mel Lewis, who was instrumental in Allen’s decision to move to New York to seek his future in jazz. “Mel came there to do a clinic. I met him. He liked me and told me to audition for an opening in the Basie band. But I didn’t feel that confident about my playing at the time, so I passed. I kept in touch with Mel and he’s given me a lot of guidance and inspiration along the way. He was a big influence on me and was actually the one who encouraged me to come to New York.”
Allen transferred to William Paterson College in nearby New Jersey, which led up to his fateful meeting with Freddie Hubbard. Now, as a young drummer making his mark in the jazz world, Carl Allen is always mindful of paying his respects to those pioneer drummers who made it all possible for him. “I think this is a problem today,” he says. “A lot of the younger cats aren’t doing that. Much too often a lot of the creators are forgotten. All the young people today are praising cats like Steve Gadd, but what they fail to understand is that he got his style from so-and-so. I mean, it’s good to have new heroes, but I think these new people should give credit to where they come from.”
And with that, Carl Allen would like to thank the following fathers of the music: Louis Armstrong, Tony and Leroy Williams, Alan Dawson, Baby Dodds, Big Sid Catlett, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Freddie Hubbard, Connie Kay, Freddie Waits, Mickey Roker, Papa Jo Jones, Al Foster, Michael Carvin, Joe Chambers, Eddie Gladden, Roy Haynes, Cozy Cole and about a hundred others.
The Spang-ga-lang and Ti-ti-boom Concepts
by Carl L. Allen
In jazz drumming there is a defined cymbal pattern used that is very much relied upon.
As simple as it may seem, this pattern is too often played incorrectly—it doesn’t groove— and this is a very crucial element in any form of music, especially jazz. One helpful factor in establishing a groove is being able to feel the accented pulsation of “2” and “4.” This is where the Spang-ga-lang concept comes in. If you count in common time and start saying Spang-ga-lang on “2,” the accents should automatically fall on “2” and “4” of the measure. Visually it looks like this:
Thinking of this concept while playing jazz, or even just listening to it, should help you feel the music a little bit better, and will hopefully help you establish a groove.
The Ti-ti-boom concept helps define the triplet pattern that is the backbone of mainstream jazz. The pronunciation of the term “Ti-ti-boom” fits the rhythmic pattern of an 8th-note triplet pattern.
The Ti-ti-boom pattern can be played with any two drums or cymbals. For now we will deal with just the snare and bass drums, and this would be illustrated as such:
Illustrated below is the same pattern in 4/4 with the ride cymbal and hi-hat added.
Although you may use various combinations, you must use the 2:1 pattern.
By incorporating the Ti-ti-boom concept with your individual time feel and personal groove, you should be on your way to some hard swinging mainstream jazz.