Connie Kay

Sophistication Swing

“We will not see their like again,” lamented the epitaph on the poster that announced the Modern Jazz Quartet’s 1974 farewell concert at Lincoln Center. Luckily, this was wrong. After a period of a little over six years, the group familiarly known as MJQ reunited in 1981, further securing their reputation as the world’s longest-running jazz quartet. Originally formed in 1952, MJQ’s sound was grounded on the carefully crafted compositions of leader/pianist John Lewis, who combined elements of jazz and classical music. In 1955, Connie Kay replaced drummer Kenny Clarke, and the lineup of Lewis, Kay, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and bassist Percy Heath hasn’t changed since.

Lyrical, intelligent, compositionally balanced, and swinging as well, MJQ’s music crossed over to audiences other than just jazz fans. By the late ’50s, the group’s normal venues became concert halls and festival stages more often than jazz clubs. Offers to play with symphony orchestras poured in. With their chamber-like approach to jazz, they were the most appropriate candidates to meet the challenge of fusing the formats of symphony orchestra and jazz quartet. Black tuxes and bow ties became a trademark of the quartet’s presentation.

Delicate and caressing, yet with a clean, assertive pulse, Connie’s drumming was the perfect support for MJQ’s concept. By adding percussion such as triangles and hanging chimes to his drumset, Connie added further coloration and texture to the self contained four-man orchestra.

Born Conrad Kirnon, Connie grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx, although he actually first came into the world in Tuckahoe, New York, on April 27, 1927. Nicknamed “Connie” as a boy, his full professional name later came about at Birdland. Pee WeeMarquette, Birdland’s famed emcee, never pronounced “Kirnon” correctly in his introductions. “I got tired of hearing it wrong night after night,” says Connie. “So I told him, ‘Just call me Connie K.'” The name stuck from that moment on.

In his early professional days before MJQ, Connie worked with Charles Thompson and the young Miles Davis at Minton’s (1945) during bop’s formative years. Later in ’45, he played with Cat Anderson’s dance band and then joined the “Pres,” Lester Young (1949-50). Short stints followed with Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Stan Getz, after which he rejoined Young and stayed from 1952 to 1955. In between MJQ’s breakup and reuniting, Connie played for four years with Benny Goodman, worked as the house drummer at Eddie Condon’s (1975-81), gigged briefly with Soprano Summit (late ’74 to early ’75), and cut a long roster of records. Outside the dozens of MJQ albums, Connie has also cut discs with such artists as Cannonball Adderley, Roy Eldridge, Bobby Timmons, Randy Weston, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Stitt, Benny Goodman, Alberta Hunter, Sylvia Syms, Sonny Rollins, Red Norvo, Lester Young, and Tommy Flanagan. Since the reunion, MJQ has released four fine albums on Pablo records: Live At Montreux (1982), Echoes’ (1984), Topsy (1985), and Live At Budokan 1981 (released 1985). A videodisc shot live in Tokyo will soon be released in Japan.

There is another long list in Connie’s discography of which the public is largely unaware. Most MJQ fans only know Connie’s drumming in the context of such elegant John Lewis classics as “Fontessa.” So it should blow their tuxedo socks off to learn that this is the very same drummer who cut the raucous original of “Shake, Rattle And Roll” with Big Joe Turner, Laverne Baker’s “Tweedle Dee,” and several Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters hits. Later endeavors with rock figures included album cuts with Van Morrison and a regrettably unreleased session with George Harrison.

Connie has an evenly paced, slow-going manner that belies the fast pace of his life. To see him settle down into a soft chair for conversation, one would guess he was ready to ease into Sunday afternoon front porch yarns rather than to speak of jetting around the globe with a jazz band. The phenomenon of MJQ’s crossover appeal made them popular at Birdland as well as Symphony Hall, and requests for the favor of their company came in from John Lennon as well as the White House. Academic analysis of MJQ’s music aside, it’s clear from talking with Connie that the reason for MJQ’s success and longevity really boils down to the sincerity of the band towards their music, and—as with a good marriage—the members’ willingness to give and take musically for the good of the whole. And after 26 years of harmonious music making, that’s a recipe for togetherness that can’t be disputed.

JP: The Modern Jazz Quartet has been such a solid, long-running institution in jazz. The group constantly worked, and played all the best festivals and concert halls. What was the main reason for the group’s breakup in 1974?

CK: There were many reasons, but the basic reason was financial. By the time we broke up, we had done almost everything we could do in terms of winning awards and being accepted. But the financial rewards didn’t seem to be keeping up with the recognition. When we saw what other musicians were doing financially, our situation just didn’t seem right. People who had come along in only the last few years were making millions of dollars. There we were, supposedly one of the greatest jazz quartets ever, and we were making peanuts. We were making a living; no one was starving, and we were secure. But still, it just didn’t seem right. Also, we just got tired of the road. We traveled quite a bit and none of us were young anymore. Plus, Milt’s [Jackson] record was doing pretty well, and he wanted to see what he could do on his own.

JP: So he initiated the breakup?

CK: Yeah, more or less, although his solo career never had been hampered by the group before because we always took summers off. So all of us had our own shots at making records. But Milt wanted to try something on his own, which was alright. We each went our separate ways and did what we wanted to do. John taught school, Percy and his brother, Jimmy, started The Heath Brothers, and Milt did his solo thing. I stayed around New York playing and also worked with Benny Goodman for four years. Benny’s schedule wasn’t like the MJQ’s. Benny used to work maybe two or three concerts a week. He wasn’t constantly on the road like the MJQ were. It allowed me to have weekends for myself.

I also kept busy as the house drummer at Eddie Condon’s. That was a place for me to keep playing, and I could take time off when I wanted to. When I started playing there, it was fun because all the musicians around town used to come in and jam when they got off from their gigs. People like Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Milt Hinton, and Illinois Jacquet would come by.

JP: It’s a shame to see that Condon’s was torn down recently.

CK: Well, I guess they call it progress. [laughs]

JP: You recorded so many albums with MJQ. If you were asked to recommend one or two that you feel are especially good examples of the group and/or your playing, could you single any out?

CK: I like a lot of them, but I like the live ones best. European Concert, the double album, is one I like. That shows the full spectrum of MJQ music. It contains different pieces and sounds, and it has that live, spontaneous feel. I also like another live one, At The Lighthouse. In the studio, you sometimes want everything to be perfect, and you know you can stop and do it over again if you make a mistake. When it’s live, that’s it! So, as a result, you don’t concentrate that much on what’s being recorded. You’re more concerned with projecting to the audience and getting feedback. The live record MJQ made with Sonny Rollins, At The Music Inn, is another one I like. That one was spontaneous because nobody knew what the heck Sonny was going to do. He just came out and played.

One live record I like that is not an MJQ recording is J.J. Johnson And Stan Getz At The Opera House. I did it while I was still with MJQ. It was a Jazz At The Philharmonic concert. Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Herb Ellis were in the band. I like it not so much for what I played, but for the whole feel of the thing.

Some of the live records stink, too. Sometimes it has to do with the person recording it: The sound is bad. And sometimes it’s the music that’s not the greatest. But basically, the live ones still remain my favorites.

One of my favorite studio records is the last record Paul Desmond made before he died, Desmond Blue. The feel was nice and the players were good. I always liked playing with Paul and listening to his lyrical style of playing. The way he flowed reminded me of Lester Young.

JP: Your drumming adapts well to those flowing, lyrical types of players because, as with the MJQ, your playing is very sensitive to the harmonies, textures, and the finesse of it all, rather than just bashing over the music.

CK: With the instrumentation of the MJQ, you can’t actually bash. I don’t think a drummer should bash playing anything really. If you do, you should know when to bash. A lot of drummers bash when they should be doing something else. A drummer’s fundamental purpose is to keep time and keep the rhythm. You should listen to what is going on around you and try to fit what you play into that. A lot of musicians today just play—not only the drummers, but everybody. They pick a tune, and the bass player, piano player, horn player, and drummer are each playing something different. Nobody wants to give an inch.

JP: You’re certainly an authority on give-and-take ensemble playing: MJQ made their mark for their chamber-like approach.

CK: Even when it’s not chamber style—when musicians come in to have blowing sessions, they have to listen, too. Then when you have your turn to play, you play. But there’s a limit to that also. If you’re doing a drum solo within a certain tune, you should play a solo that has something to do with what the tune is about. A lot of drummers play with the tune during the melody, and then when it comes to doing a drum solo, it’s not in the context of the composition; it’s just a drum solo. If you’re playing a 32-bar song, you should play a 32-bar drum solo. If you play ten choruses, each one of those choruses should be 32 bars. A lot of drummers just count off to get back in or play a cliche thing to signal the other musicians when to come back in. But that can be cutting right into the middle of the song. When I played with Lester Young, he told me, “When you play a song, Lady Kay, you should know the words to the tune.”

JP: Lady Kay?

CK: That was one of his expressions. He called everybody “Lady.” Just like he called Billie Holiday “Lady Day,” he called me “Lady Kay.” When Horace Silver was in his band, he called him “Lady Silver.” It just stuck with Billie Holiday, of course. He never called anybody Mister or Miss. Anyway, he always learned the lyrics to the songs he played. I went over to his place once, and he was listening to a Frank Sinatra song. He had the turntable set so that it played over and over. And when I finally heard Lester play it, it was like he was actually singing it.

JP: Your career has been well traced on recordings from your early years to the present. Listening back to those earlier records, do you find a certain point where you feel your drumming bloomed into its mature phase?

CK: I don’t think I have felt that yet, man. There are things I hear on old records that I forgot I could even play, which might not be necessary in my playing today. There aren’t too many records I’ve made where I can’t see something else that I should have done. I don’t think I have ever made a record where I sat down and said, “That’s perfect; that’s exactly what I wanted!”

That’s true with MJQ. The more we play a piece, the more I find different things to do or change. It’s funny because a lot of people think that MJQ’s music is mechanical—that it’s all written out. But that’s a lie. We do have a format, but after I get that together and stop looking at the chart, there is room for expression and ideas. Sometimes John writes a tune, and I say, “John, how would it sound this way?” He might say, “That’s better,” or, “Hey! That’s what I meant to put down.” That often happens because, with this kind of music, you can get it technically right on paper but it might not be exactly what you want. There might be a note there, but you can’t get a feeling—or soul—on paper. A certain feel or beat might be needed, or he might want the cymbal to sound a certain way, but you can’t get that on paper. So it is up to the player to bring it out.

JP: How specific did John get with the written drum parts? Many MJQ arrangements involve much more than typical blowing formats.

CK: When I first joined MJQ, John used to write a lot of notes in the drum part. But after I was there awhile, he hardly wrote anything for me unless it was something very specific. So a lot of the marts became just bars.

JP: In Arthur Taylor’s book of interviews, Notes And Tones, Richard Davis says, “Some drummers play at you. When you play with certain drummers, you get a caressing feeling that everything is going right . . . . When I play with Connie Kay, I call him the security officer because he gives you a sense of balance and makes you feel secure.”

CK: [laughs] He always called me that. I used to get a lot of jobs on account of that quality. The point wasn’t so much whether I played that good or not, but people liked me because I kept good time. Basically, that’s what most people want. My favorite drummer used to be Big Sid Catlett. He kept good time, and it wasn’t forceful. A lot of drummers keep time, but they force it on musicians. That’s not good either. You should be able to keep the time but, at the same time, make the musicians feel free. Time that is too heavy is as bad as no time at all. It feels like a hammer on your head.

JP: Besides having good time, you received a lot of attention for your coloration and use of percussion instruments integrated into the trap set. How did that all come about?

CK: That was something John wanted in the music, so he asked me if I could do it. I told him I would try. In a lot of instances, he wanted me to be playing time while doing these things. Today, you have one person keeping time and someone else handling percussion. In a quartet, I couldn’t do that. I had to do everything.

JP: What are some of the extra percussion pieces you use with MJQ now?

CK: I use a bell tree, woodblock, triangle, finger cymbals, and tunable toms. At one time, I had miniature timps that were made for me by Sonor. They were tuned by turning a knob by hand. One was about 10″, and the other was 14″. This was before RotoToms came on the market, which I have also used before. I also use two Greek darabucca drums made of pewter.

I’m a Sonor endorsee, and for the drums, I use an 18″ bass, 6 1/2″ snare, 12″ tom, and a 14″ floor tom along with five Zildjian cymbals: a sizzle, ride, flat-top, crash, and swish. Sometimes I use an extra floor tom made by Sonor with pedal tuning that works like a timpani. We try to lighten up on the setup for airline travel. Some of the percussion is used only for one tune, and at some concerts, we might not even play the tune, so it would only sit there all night.

JP: Those miniature timps are unusual. Were they ever marketed?

CK: No, they never were. The only problem with them was that, at that time, Sonor drums were made on the metric system, so when the heads broke, you couldn’t find heads to replace them. That’s what made me stop playing them.

JP: And you used them as tuned pitches just as they would be in orchestral playing?

CK: Yes. I also used crotales for certain pitches. Sonor also made pitched wooden pieces for me that were like individual marimba keys. I used those for certain tunes in which John had indicated that he was looking for that sound.

JP: Did you study mallets?

CK: No, but I started on piano so that made it easy. I really taught myself how to play drums. I bought drum books, and practiced all the rudiments, reading, and so forth. When I got older, and I was playing jobs and had a little money, I started going to a teacher. Before that, I couldn’t afford it. Seven bucks for a lesson at that time was rough. The first job I played was seven bucks a night, four nights a week. I didn’t realize that that was good: There were people working for three bucks a night.

JP: Once you started collecting all the percussion equipment and working it into the music, did you at first find that it prevented you from concentrating on your role as security officer? Like a pit drummer, you had to figure out how to get from one instrument to the other without breaking the flow.

CK: Somehow I got around that. Sometimes you have to let the time go and keep it in your head, so that when you do get back to the set, you’re there. John usually wrote those things in a way that wouldn’t throw me. But sometimes he would ask me to do certain things, and I would think, “I’ll never be able to do this!”—like keeping the hi-hat going while I played something else. After a while, though, it just fit in. I find that the main thing about those situations is just not to panic. If it is going to happen, it will happen. It will all evolve.

The good thing about playing with the MJQ is that you’re not in the situation where, if you don’t get it tonight, you will never get another chance. It’s not like a one-nighter where they throw a chart up. You get a chance to try the music different ways. It is hard to get groups to stay together like the MJQ have.

JP: Because the MJQ did have that rare long-running stability, it’s disappointing to hear that finances originally broke the group up, especially considering that they were one of the few jazz groups to break into a regular concert-hall circuit.

CK: We were a corporation. We were paid 365 days. No matter what we actually brought in from dates, we made the same amount of money every week, even on the road. We were paid enough, but it wasn’t the kind of money where I could go on a yacht cruise when I wanted to or buy a Mercedes without worrying about it. It wasn’t like the situation Mick Jagger or some other top musicians were in.

Even though we crossed barriers with our audiences, most people still don’t seem to realize what jazz is and what it takes to play this music, so they don’t appreciate it like it should be appreciated. And classical symphony orchestras across the country—except the top ones like the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra—most of them are in financial trouble. Yet, that’s supposed to be the music. So if classical music is in trouble, what can you do with jazz? A lot of the concerts MJQ played with symphony orchestras were benefits for the orchestras. I guess they felt that, by having us play, it would attract both the jazz and the classical audiences.

JP: Playing with symphony orchestras presents special challenges for a trap drummer. When playing swing feels, how did you handle the push and pull that goes on between the different time conceptions of an orchestra and a jazz quartet?

CK: I find that that situation is getting better these days. Many symphony orchestras now are getting members from the younger generation as the older players retire and die out. And the younger people—maybe thanks to rock music—have some sense of rhythm other than symphony style. In the old days, the players tended to know and listen to only classical music, although they might have known a little bit of Glenn Miller. The new players grew up with rock and also jazz, so they have more of a feel for it. They understand what you want. Plus, a lot of kids also played in stage bands at school while they were studying classical music.

JP: How about the early experiments, pairing up with symphony orchestras before the new breed of players. Was it rough?

CK: Time-wise, yeah. But you get through it. First of all, you approach it knowing that it won’t swing like it would if you were just playing with the quartet, so you don’t even worry about that. You go in with the intention of holding it all together, so that everyone starts and ends together, the overall sound is correct, and when it comes time for you to do what you’ve got to do, you do it. If you go on tour with one of these symphony orchestras, as the MJQ did, you get to play the stuff two or three times a week, and you find that, the more they play it and listen to what you’re doing, the tighter it gets. So it’s like playing with a group in that sense. I have done concerts with some orchestras where, by the third night, it was much freer, everyone knew what was going on, and it began to ! swing. And I thought, “Gee, two more weeks of this, and it will be beautiful!”

Another important factor is that there are good conductors and bad conductors. I have played with some orchestras in which the conductor comes down for 1 and the orchestra is always a fraction behind. In fact, I find that that happens in most symphony orchestras. I would hit the bass drum on 1 and then hear “da-dat” when the orchestra entered, as if their first beat were on the & of the conductor’s 1. That can throw you off. Then you get conductors who wave. You never know where their 1 is at because they are doing all these acrobatics. Then there are good conductors who forget that they are conductors and follow the drummer.

The MJQ played with the Boston Pops, and the “Old Man” [Arthur Fiedler] was conducting. At rehearsal, there was a part where the orchestra played and we laid out. So I was behind the drums with my arms crossed, just sitting there listening. He stopped the orchestra and said, “Mr. Drummer, you have to keep your feet patting over there, so I will know where the time is.” I kept my heel going, so that he could watch out of the corner of his eye.

Modern Jazz Quartet

JP: Europe was such a big market for the MJQ. MJQ combined jazz and classical elements in their music, and Europe has a sense of history for its classical heritage, which in turn, enhances the appreciation of jazz.

CK: Yes, they have an appreciation for both. To the Europeans, jazz is an art form; it is American classical music, whereas we take it for granted. We’re still stuck in the old maze thinking that European classical music is the music and everything else is not quite as important.

JP: After almost seven years apart, what sparked the decision to reunite the MJQ?

CK: After we broke up, there were some promoters in Japan who had been trying for years to get us to come to Japan to do a reunion concert. We never could get together to do it. Finally, in 1981, they offered such a nice piece of change that we decided, “Okay, we’ll get together for just this tour, come home, and go our separate ways again.” We went to Japan, and we all enjoyed playing together again. In 1982, we were offered another tour. So we decided that, since jobs were coming in and the money was nice, we would stick together and do them on a limited basis—work as MJQ but allow everybody to continue with whatever they had going on their own.

JP: What are some of the independent projects you have been able to do between the cracks in MJQ’s schedule?

CK: I worked with Zoot Sims a few times, and I played in Nice recently with Joe Newman, Major Holley, George Masso, George Kelly, and Hal Ashby. Then I played gigs with John Bunch and Warren Vache, and I did some records with Scott Hamilton.

JP: Your brushwork has such a lilt. It gives a clean, crisp lift to the music.

CK: That comes from Sid Catlett. I used to follow him around like a puppy—not in an obnoxious way, but any opportunity I had to be around him, I would be around. When I was about 17,1 met him when he was playing on 52nd Street. He couldn’t get a taxi home from the gig. I had a car so I said, “I’ll give you a ride.” On the way home, we started talking, and he found out I was trying to play drums. When I got him to his door, he said, “Hey, Bub. See this building here? I live on the ground floor on the right. Anytime you want to, come on by.” I was there the next day. I could hardly sleep that night after I had dropped him off.

In all the years that he and I were friends, I never once asked him anything about how he did certain things on the drums. It was just osmosis, man. I learned from him from having conversations on anything: baseball, women, life in general. Just being around this guy, man, you could see why he played the way he played. I didn’t want to impose on the cat to make him think I was trying to pick his brain. I figured that, if I was going to get lessons, I should pay him. If he had asked me if there was anything I wanted to know, then I probably would have asked him how he did certain things. But he never asked me. Basically, I wanted to be his friend.

At one time, he asked what I had been doing lately, and I told him I had a gig. I said that, if he wasn’t doing anything, he should come by and tell me what he thought of my playing. Sure enough, he showed up. I was shocked, man. He heard a set, and after I got off, I sat down with him. “You play good,” he said. “There’s only one thing I think you should do: You should do more with your left hand.” That was the only advice he ever gave to me. Other than that, it was all osmosis and knowing him as a man.

JP: What was his quality, as a person, that came out in the drums?

CK: He was just a beautiful cat, man. Everybody loved him. I never met anybody who didn’t love Sid. Another thing was that we used to go around at night from joint to joint. When he walked in, guys would ask him to sit in. This guy played everything. He would go to 52nd Street and play bebop with Bird, then go to Nick’s and play Dixieland, and then go to another place and play something else. That opened up my eyes. When I grew up, bebop was just evolving. That was the hip thing: to play bebop like Max. Anything else to me was corny; I didn’t want to play it. I would go around thinking, “I’ve got to be droppin’ bombs and play all the hip shit!” But by being with Sid, I saw he could play both the old and new, and that changed my whole thing. Years later, a lot of guys used to come up to me while I was playing the older style at Condon’s and say, “I didn’t know you could play that!” But if you’re going to play this music, you should be able to play it all. It’s not that you should have to go out and perform it, but that you should be able to play it.

JP: Outside of your Birdland dates with Lester Young, you also made many Birdland appearances with several other artists, including Coleman Hawkins.

CK: The Coleman Hawkins performance at Birdland was just for a week, and the band included Howard McGhee and Horace Silver. I have a record of that. At Birdland, there was an enclosed soundproof glass booth from where Symphony Sid broadcasted records. But on every Friday night, they broadcasted live music from the club for an hour. Some enterprising guy got an air check at a studio and made a disc out of that years later.

JP: From which you never saw a dime?

CK: Right, not a dime. There are about ten Lester Young albums like that from broadcasts that somebody put on disc. They put “rhythm section unknown” on the records, so as not to invite trouble from players who might want their money. I’m sure someone must have caught the week I did down there with Stan Getz and possibly the week I did there with Miles, too.

JP: Most people only associate you with bebop and swing. Yet, you recorded with Ray Charles.

CK: That was during my rock ‘n’ roll days. I made most of the Atlantic hit records in the ’50s and did most of their studio sessions. I was Atlantic’s house drummer until I joined MJQ.

JP: Speaking of “rhythm section unknown,” it’s frustrating that they never credited the session men on all those early classic rock and R&B records.

CK: Oh, they never put your name on a record, anyway. I made Ray Charles’ “Greenback Dollar Bill.” I did four tunes with him, including “It Shoulda Been Me.” I did all the Ruth Brown records, including “One Mint Julep.” I did “Crying In My Own Tears,” too. I also played on the Clovers’ records. I started a certain beat that they began using on other records. I was talking to Dr. John about that. Over in Nice, I helped him get on the bus, and I had just watched his show. So I told him I enjoyed his set. He said, “Hey man! I know you! You’re Connie Kay. I know about all those rock ‘n’ roll records you made on Atlantic. I’m hip to you!” [laughs] He said that he had worked at a record company a long time ago, and the company was trying to find out who the drummer was on one of the records I had played on. Dr. John said, “You were the first guy to do hip shit on rock ‘n’ roll records. You freed up the guys so they could do something.”

You see, instead of playing 2 and 4, I used to play on 2, leave the space, and play a bass drum pattern in the space. The 2 and 4 stayed in the hi-hat. I’ll tell you how that beat evolved. In the early ’50s, this sax player named Frank Culley offered me a job down South. He had a lot of jobs for a two-month period, and he was getting a band together. I had never been down South, and I wasn’t doing anything at the time; things were slow. He was kind of a wild dude, man. He was one of the forerunners of guys like Big Jay McNeely. He would run around with the sax and walk on the bar. So I was kind of skeptical at first, but then I said, “What the heck!” I was young, without responsibilities, and could get back if I got stranded. Plus, Randy Weston was in the band, and he was my friend.

When we got back, Atlantic wanted Culley to do a demo record with a group from Washington called the Clovers. We went to the studio for the date to back up the Clovers, and the bass player never showed up. So, I tried to fill in the parts on the bass drum that the bass would have played, along with one beat on the snare. They liked it, and after that, everybody wanted it. Every time I went in the studio, they would tell me, “We want the Clover beat.” All the other record companies were asking, “Who’s the drummer on that record?” because nobody knew what the hell I was doing.

During that time, I started playing with Lester Young, and I kept doing the Atlantic sessions while I worked with Lester. Later, when I joined the MJQ, I had to leave, and the record people said, “We might have to wait until he comes back!” But MJQ turned into a long-term thing. You would be surprised how many session drummers were glad I got the gig with MJQ. [laughs]

JP: Those fledgling days of Atlantic must have been interesting: low-tech classic rock and soul. What were the sessions like then?

CK: At that time, single-track tapes had just come around. They had just advanced from acetate to tape recorders. Everything was mono. There wasn’t any four-track or laying down of tracks for the singer. If a cat goofed or a singer forgot the words, then we would have to do it again. There were times in those studios where we got to take 65! The singer would be put in isolation, but it all went on the same track.

Atlantic used to be on 56th Street at that time. The studio wasn’t any bigger than this living room. In fact, in the daytime, the studio was their business office. The sessions all started around 8:00 at night after office hours. Then, we would go in there and put one desk on top of another, stack the chairs together, and push the sofa in the corner. They made a lot of money in that room.

JP: Between playing record sessions and working with Lester Young, you had a good musical situation going. How did you make the transition to the MJQ, and what made you drop everything else for the group?

CK: I went to see MJQ play at Birdland, and Kenny quit that night. They had a gig the next night, so they called me the next morning and asked me to work on the upcoming gigs. It happened very quick, and as far as I was concerned, I was just filling in until they got somebody steady. But after the gigs, I stayed because I could see the future in the MJQ. I looked at things in the long run. I knew they were going to happen. I loved playing with Lester, but I could see something in the MJQ. Also, right away I was making more money than I was with Lester.

JP: When making the decision to leave, did it cross your mind that you might not be able to really play out and lean into the groove with MJQ like you did with Lester?

CK: No, you should be able to get some kind of groove no matter how you play. There was a period for a while when John didn’t want me to play sticks at all. He wanted all brushes—even on the cymbals. I didn’t dig it that much, but I could see what he was trying to do, so I did it. After a while, he realized that sticks were needed for some tunes. Now, there are a lot of tunes that I think need brushes, and John says, “No, play sticks.”

JP: A delicate chemistry is needed for the MJQ sound. It’s such a personalized sound that a lot of other drummers—although they may be great players—would not have sounded right for the group.

CK: There comes a time in life when you say to yourself, “This is a good thing; whatever makes it go is what I’ll do, whether I dig it or not.” I think that’s wise. A lot of times, there were things in the band that I had to do that I may have wanted to do differently. But I had to sacrifice my ego and do it. A lot of other people might have said, “This is the way I play, and if I can’t do it, forget it!” That’s one of the reasons why Kenny Clarke left. He wanted to play a certain way, and he didn’t dig what was happening, so he split.

JP: Benny Goodman has been quoted as saying, “It has always been my enigma—drummers.” He was known to have been a tough bandleader.

CK: He liked to be correct. He didn’t want any bull, and he wanted his music played the way he wanted it to be played. So if you call that tough, he was tough. I have no qualms about that part of it because I don’t want to play anything if it’s not going to be right. Benny could be a little eccentric at times, but that was mostly off the bandstand. You could either put up with it or ignore it. I chose to ignore it.

When you play in someone’s band, the leader has hired you for the way you play, but it is still the leader’s band. So you have to feel it through and realize what the leader wants. As a drummer, you are accompanying, not soloing. If you’re accompanying, you have got to give the soloist some space.

I think bandleaders should tell you if they want something. If you don’t dig it, you can either do it or quit. But some leaders just go off the bandstand and complain. This is the worst thing of all—when you play with leaders who don’t dig what you are playing but don’t tell you. That makes it hard because you don’t know if you’re cool or not. That doesn’t help you or anyone else in the band. When a bandleader just stays bothered by a drummer and doesn’t say anything, you can tell by looking at the bandstand: Everyone looks mad, and the music comes out that way—uptight. The tempos never land in the right slot.

In some situations, though, you’re not there to please the leader. I used to play for burlesque and striptease dancers. No matter who messed up in the band, they would always say, “That damn drummer!” I learned early that the situation was: To hell with the bandleader and everyone else. Please the dancer! The club owner is going to keep the dancer. The dancer is the one bringing in the money, and the club owner isn’t going to give a damn who’s up there playing the drums. So if you want the gig, please the dancer, [laughs]

JP: Was burlesque some of your first work in New York?’

CK: It was one of the gigs I played for money. I was young and still living with my parents at the time, and I needed some money to be independent. I also played taxi dances on Broadway where guys came to buy tickets for a dance, and we played all night nonstop. The very first gig I ever had was in a Bronx nightclub with chorus girls, comedians, tap dancers, and singers. One night, the house band’s drummer didn’t show up. There was a bar in the back corner of the club, and the band members were hanging there saying, “Man! We need a drummer quick!” Someone sitting at the bar heard them and said, “There’s a guy around the corner who I hear every time I walk by.” My street was on the way to the subway, so everybody heard me practicing.

So these guys ran over, rang my bell, and asked me if I played. I told them, “Well, I’m trying to, although I have never played professionally before.” In fact, I had just gotten my first set of drums only a week earlier. They asked me if I wanted to make a gig around the corner. I said, “Yeah, but I will have to ask my parents.” [laughs] I went over there, and it had one of those old bandstands with the drum platform way up in the air. I didn’t have time to rehearse anything, and the guy just talked the show down to me. I was so jittery playing the show that I was playing 1 and 3 on the hi-hat instead of 2 and 4, and I couldn’t get coordination in my feet. Finally, I relaxed and played the show. I got through it, and that was my first and last time being nervous playing the drums. I ended up playing there every weekend for a long time. My father told me, “Just be careful in there,” and sure enough, one night while I was in there, a man got killed.

JP: So for your first gig, opportunity literally knocked at your door. It was a long musical step from there to playing Birdland with Lester Young.

CK: One of the things that I regret is that I wasn’t older when I played with Lester Young. I was young, so I didn’t realize what the hell was going on at the time. For me to play with him was great, but I didn’t realize how great it really was until later. As I got older and listened back to some of the records I did with him, I could see so many things I left out or could have done better. I was in my formative stage—which I still am.