When Nesbert Hooper was twelve years old he spent so much time practicing on an old parade drum that his friends in Houston’s Fifth Ward began calling him “Stix.” At fifteen he put a band together with other teenage musicians and started working school dances in the area, and they called themselves the Swingsters. That was in 1953. Today, Nesbert Hooper, Joe Sample, and Wilton Felder are known as the Crusaders. They are considered among the finest studio session musicians on the West Coast. Through individual guest appearances they contributed to over two hundred gold albums during the last decade. The Crusaders’ past six albums have all risen to the number one position on the jazz charts, and three have been certified gold. In 1975 the Crusaders were asked by the Rolling Stones to do an English tour with them, which made the Crusaders the only instrumental group to ever tour with Jagger and friends. Their music is known world wide: the title cut from their latest album was number one on the United Kingdom’s disco charts, while the album itself went gold in Japan.
The group’s longevity has paved the road for other fusion players, and their creativity has spearheaded a new direction in contemporary music. While the Crusader’s music has drawn from both jazz and rock, it has still preserved its unmistakable rhythm and blues flavor. This is due to Hooper’s strong influence. His “feel.” his “groove”: that is his distinctly unique trademark. Stix Hooper’s tasteful and precisely placed drumming, which can be beautifully simplistic, is something one cannot learn from the technique books.
CI: How did you first get interested in drums?
SH: I first started tapping out rhythms when I was six or seven years old. My father was listening to big bands and he had everybody, such as all the old Fletcher Henderson records. He’d play old 78’s around the house and I really got off on those kind of things, so I just kind of tapped rhythms out. I happened to see a drummer in a movie or something and I tried to emulate a drum set by putting together some pots and pans when I was ten or eleven years old. I banged up all my mother’s pots and pans and from there just got more and more involved. It was just a kind of thing that I gravitated towards.
CI: Rather than a piano or something else, it was drums and percussion that you were attracted to from the start.
SH: Yeah, it’s weird. Even though my mother wanted me to take piano lessons, for some reason I just really dug the drums. Eventually I studied piano when I went to college for a bit and got into music totally, but I was always into percussion, both melodic and non-melodic.
CI: Did you ever have any formal lessons’?
SH: I studied for a while with David Wurliger, tympanist for the Houston Symphony Orchestra, but most of my work was self taught, except for band directors in jr. high and high school. In college I got into music education programs, but there was never a one to one thing with a teacher, other than listening to everything that Max Roach did when I got old enough to appreciate what he was doing. But no, I really didn’t study one to one with anybody in particular. I was listening to a lot of people and I was into learning how to read music. In Texas, I won’t say they didn’t have a person of that caliber, but they just weren’t those kind of instructors; not for what I wanted to do. It was highly rhythm and blues oriented.
CI: Why did the four of you move out to California?
SH: At that time it was more than four. At that point it was five people; Hubert Laws was with us. We were in college and we thought we had learned everything to do with college level learning and we wanted to branch out and get into an area where we could really get into the music scene. So in 1959 we decided to come to the West Coast.
CI: Why the West Coast instead of New York?
SH: Well, I can answer that very simply. Most people from Texas just do not migrate to the East Coast. Most of the migration, particularly of the Blacks, to the East Coast is usually from the hardcore South. Another thing, I don’t think we were really ready to get into what we call the “asphalt jungle” because we were used to backyards and that whole trip. You can reach the middle ground when you move to the West Coast. Plus we had family. It was an easy transition for us. Now we think sometimes it might have been good to experience some of the things in New York, but eventually we experienced them anyway. You find a lot of people from Oklahoma and Texas usually move to the West Coast.
CI: Jazz was really happening in the Big Apple, especially at that time.
SH: A lot of things were happening out on the West Coast too.
CI: Do you feel that the West Coast music scene was in it’s infancy when you arrived?
SH: Not necessarily. I think it was more or less in transition. Infancy, yes, from a standpoint of a specialized identity. But the whole thing that was happening on the West Coast was happening on the East Coast. It just so happens that there was more of a focal point with what was going on on the East Coast. A lot of the be-bop players that came from the Charlie Parker era landed on the East Coast and seemed to be the center of everything. But there were some innovative things happening on the West Coast too. At that point. New York was much more of a focal point. Even now New York is still New York, but I think that is a misconception. We eventually wanted to prove that that wasn’t necessarily the case. But even in the term of the definition of that word with all that whole scene…
CI: Right, you mean the changing of the name of the group from the Jazz Crusaders to The Crusaders.
SH: Yeah. You know, it’s really strange, because you were saying that there was a lot of jazz happening on the East Coast. How can you define it? There was a lot of stuff that was going on in Texas. How can you disregard Arnett Cobb, or disregard what was happening in New Orleans? But again, it was just a label. A handful of people determined a definition and they marketed that definition. Not the literal sense of the word marketing, but in terms of press and exposing the word and having a connotation and association with that word that was to be acceptable. We were out to prove that wasn’t the case. Even today, I go as far as saying the minute Ron Wood gets up and plays a rock solo, he’s playing jazz if he’s improvising. We say that we play music; music that we feel. We improvise, we create, we orchestrate, we do everything that’s necessary to play music. You can call it whatever you want to.
CI: Some people are very anxious to place a label on. or characterize music in some way. Why do you think that is?
SH: I think part of the reason is that some of the people that are associated with quote, “jazz,” think of the Charlie Parker era and the be-bop era as the era when that was the focus. So they wanted to perpetuate that into, I don’t know, infinity man. It’s like they felt like they discovered something, and they wanted not only to adhere to the discovery, but they wanted to nurse it along forever. Anything that indicated any kind of a change represented a threat. Not only a threat, it represented something that was different from the standpoint that it was conforming and so they didn’t want to accept it. And the very nature of jazz is that the music itself is growth, don’t you agree? If you want to give a definition of jazz; it’s a constant change.
CI: Music constantly changes, and it’s been aeons since the emergence of bebop.
SH: Yes. Like I said, we don’t want to be considered an old relic. A lot of guys are still playing the third chorus Charlie Parker played on his first record. But what he did was from his soul at that time.
CI: If he were alive today, there is no question in my mind that his music would have evolved.
SH: He would be a different person. He might be playing the Lyricon anyway! You know what I’m saying?
CI: In some of your early days you played some of the clubs around Houston. Does any one incident stand out in your mind that was kind of memorable during those hungry years?
SH: Well, when you have a career as long as the Crusaders there’s a lot of funny times and of course there were some lean years. When you first said Houston, I was thinking about a club called the Club Matinee. All of the local people worked what they called the “Chitlin Circuit.” It was like a Southern rhythm and blues thing, like Bobby Blue Bland, and B. B. King and that whole trip. B.B. used to play this club all the time. We were very young and we would go hang out under the window sill and try to check out the groove. And many times we couldn’t really hear and never got a chance to meet him. Anyway, it must have been ten to fifteen years later, we ended up producing an album for him.
CI: Wow! What a feeling that must have been.
SH: It was such a thrill because he was such an idol. And also, not changing the subject, this is something you can relate to in terms of what jazz is. I mean, a lot of people think that because we’ve been associated with jazz, if we’re going to produce B. B. King, we are going to have him play a couple of choruses of bebop or whatever. Our roots were so much in rhythm and blues that all that flavor was natural. When we went into the studio with B.B., it was like old home week. That was part of our change too. A lot of people thought we were changing because it was either a cop out, or a direction towards commerciality. But it was a very natural thing to get that monkey off our backs.
To go back to what you said about the many things that we did, we had some great and some funny moments, traveling around the world and being with people the likes of Monk Montgomery, who is a dear friend of ours. He has the Las Vegas Jazz Society and he was on tour with us, driving across country hearing all the stories. We’ve had some moments. At this point, I guess it’s something we’ll have to write a book about. We have experienced it all. On a personal level, having gone through all the different phases of music that has happened in this country and the kinds of things that we have done, and tried to always surface with an identity that has some kind of integrity, it was difficult to go through all of those eras and still be able to eat and survive.
CI: What kind of drum set-up are you using at the present?
SH: I’ve been playing Pearl since 1974, and I have the fiberglass shells. The reason I like the fiberglass is because they give me a certain kind of resonance and an overtone that I like in making them a little more melodic. I think that the drums themselves should expand a little more beyond just playing the time. The Pearl drums give me the opportunity to get the response that I want. I’m very happy with them. I have three rack mounted toms, tuned in thirds and fourths, I have two floor toms which I vary the tension on. and the real deep, special snare drum that they made for me.
CI: Does the snare drum have a metal shell?
SH: Yes, it has a metal shell, and all this is custom made. And I have a 24″ bass drum. For cymbals I use all A. Zildjians in different sizes and tones. I get the response from them that I want. I have a bell tree and a special Japanese gong which was made for me by Pearl. My biggest thrust right now is playing the time and getting definition out of the drums. It’s really to play the drums melodically and I want to take them a step further. That’s why I like Pearl; for some reason I’m able to get that out of the instrument.
CI: Are your hi-hat cymbals 14″ Zildjian New Beats?
SH: Yes, but then I vary sometimes on different albums. I even use a 10″ on certain things.
CI: Why are the mounted toms that you are using single headed?
SH: It’s much easier to tune them, particularly if you want to get the resonance. It’s much more difficult to tune them for recording purposes if you want to get the flat studio sound because you don’t get the bounce back.
CI: Do you have any tuning tips that you can pass on?
SH: I think that the basic tuning tips for drums are, first of all, you have to have your own personal identity. Then you have to take into consideration what is basic for recording. Of course, if you want to get some definition, if you have a lot of harmonics and overtones floating around, you’re not going to get definition. That’s just common sense. However, there should be a middle ground with the engineer that should be able to compensate for all of that. I always figure that the musician is the star when he goes into the studio and that the board and the electronics are supposed to duplicate pretty much what you do. I mean, a guy shouldn’t go in and play a drum with enough overtones that sound like he recorded in the Taj Mahal either. But a lot of guys will go in and pad down their drums and will sound like they’re playing on a pillow, because they know that’s the easiest way to get attack and definition that’ll come through the board. I don’t believe that. Of course, we know that’s the basic form of everything to pad everything down. It’s immediate attack through the board and you get definition, particular for the taste of the group. I think that tuning is very personal and I think that there should be a middle ground using some common sense that has to do with what you know is going to happen electronically. Just be intelligent enough to meet it half way.
CI: I see a lot of drummers go into the studio and they put so much tape and padding. I think some of these players sometimes rely on the engineer and the mix to make them sound good.
SH: Well, that’s what I’m saying. It becomes the engineer’s gig. He’s supposed to duplicate your sound. If you’re an intelligent musician, you’re supposed to know that if you’re playing a tight disco groove, you’re not going to play an open, ringing snare. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to walk in and put a 50 pound pillow on it either.
CI: Why do you like such a large bass drum?
SH: For the definition, and I record sometimes in stereo and I get a broader sound that way. It really makes a difference.
CI: Have you gotten into any of the electronic percussion instruments?
SH: Yes. I have the Syncussion made by Pearl and I’m really experimenting on it. I just dabbled with it on the last album but I’m going to take it really seriously right now. It’s a very challenging instrument but the variations are much more significant than some of the other brands. But I’m definitely getting into that. In fact, the thing that I really want to get into is, when you say electronic drums, I’m thinking of amplification of the true sound of the instrument, and doing things electronically with the sound rather than have a synthesized drum. In other words, you hit an openheaded tom with the natural vibrations and with the natural acoustics, but then do what you want to do with it.
CI: How many cymbals are you using now Stix?
SH: I must be using about fifteen cymbals.
CI: What do you look for and listen for in a cymbal?
SH: First of all, I visually look at a cymbal. Normally, when you play with Zildjian, you know that they will be of fine quality, but you look at the circular rings and see if they have a basic consistency; the way the cymbal is physically made. Then I look at the arch of the cymbal, the curves. Those are the first physical things. Then I determine in my mind, “Okay, what am I looking for?” If I’m looking for a certain sound, I know that any one of those factors can contribute to that. In other words, if I want a lot of ring, I know if I have a deep cup I will get a lot of that out of a cymbal, and a shallow cup vice versa. That’s what I basically look for. In terms of a basic set up, I always want to have the basics. You have a ride cymbal, hi-hat, and you have another cymbal that just changes color. That’s basically your three set up. Of course, with today’s music, you go further and further. Then I get into medium crashes, thin crashes and different kinds of crash cymbals. I want to make sure that when I crash a cymbal it can get up fast or get up slow, depending on what I want it to do. I select one cymbal so that I can get a hard crash and it will cut right through. I also select a cymbal that I can use for mallet work, where I can start at a low level and already have attack. Then it gets really involved, because I get so involved. I go nuts after I get the base covered. I get cymbals that are physically tuned in intervals and usually I try to stay within the third, fourth and fifth, and maybe have one cymbal that’s an off color. So cymbals are personal, but the basic thing a drummer needs is a good, tight, ride cymbal that gives good stick response. I refuse to play plastic tips because, to me, that’s a barrier between the natural sound of the cymbal. I always use wood tip sticks. I like cymbals that can move up fast from a low level with different kinds of mallets, but also a cymbal that can take a scrape and you can hear the harmonics and all those kinds of things.
I came from the school where that’s what was happening. Today’s music—it’s just open and close and play the groove. I came from the school where there were colors played on cymbals and a different scrape, different mallet, different sound, there was a different thing that was happening.
CI: You were influenced by Max Roach a great deal, weren’t you?
SH: I wouldn’t go so far as saying he was the first, but he was the first drummer that I heard that really made me realize that he’s not a guy that’s a metronome. He played the arrangements and he also played them melodically within the framework of the arrangement. You could hear the choruses the way he constructed his solo. That was what really got me into listening to him, beside Max being an excellent time keeper. He would get the most out of a cymbal. I have never heard a drummer get as much out of a cymbal as he could. He can take one stick and play a symphony on a cymbal. That’s what I think a drummer’s role should be. He took it a long way. To me, the most significant thing is for an individual to be able to play creatively. All those other things, like the electronics and stuff, is just the frosting on the cake.
CI: About 2 years ago. during the Newport Jazz Festival. I went one night to Carnegie Hall. Max came out and he did a solo just on the hi-hat. It was so beautiful. Then he introduced Papa Jo (Jones), and he came out. Then Max attributed his playing and knowledge of the hi-hat to Papa Jo.
SH: I totally agree with you about Max. This is why I like to see a guy do 80% of everything without any assistance electronically, or microphones or any other thing, because those things can become a crutch. I’m not saying Max is the only one, but since we’re talking about him, that’s what I noticed about him and his playing. I think that he made a lot of drummers aware that this instrument is. in fact, an instrument. I was talking to Ralph MacDonald about a year ago and we commented about something. We were saying that we hate when somebody says. “Man, I beat the drums.” That is the attitude a lot of people took that has even filtered over to the drummers themselves. It’s an instrument, man. It has melodic sense. I’m not saying that you’ll be able to play a Beethoven Symphony on it, but it is an instrument that has a melodic quality and I think that Max emphasizes that point.
CI: Don’t you think that the player is the one with that quality that brings it out in the instrument?
SH: Oh, yeah. He has to have that quality too.
CI: Like Ralph MacDonald doesn’t play hard on the congas.
SH: He did work with us on an album called Free as the Wind, and that was the first time we ever used an outside percussionist. Some people said, “Why don’t you put some more meat on some of the tracks?” It wasn’t because we were anti-doing this: it’s just that we couldn’t find anyone that was sensitive enough until Ralph, and then eventually Paulinho (DeCosta). because they would play the instrument with sensitivity. When Ralph played conga, I couldn’t believe it. He was getting the most meaningful sound out of the instrument. We talked about that. Like he said. “I play the instrument.”
CI: You’ll find no callouses on Ralph’s hands!
SH: I’m hip!
CI: What are your feelings on drum soloing?
SH: Well, again, you put them into categories. I’m on a trip now where I try to play a concert during the drum solos. The reason why I’m doing that is because I’m not only thinking melodically. I think that there’s so much in terms of executing techniques and playing all the rudiments in terms of reaching an audience, that you can only take it so far. The instrument itself is limited in terms of communication unless you are playing it proficiently enough that everyone can really get into a groove or feeling. So then you take it another step: you play a lot of different colors, a lot of different sounds, within the framework of that instrument. I t h i n k a drum solo is not all energy. I mean, I get into it and get fierce, but I want my fury to be controlled. A lot of the attitudes of the drummers about the drum solo is that all hell is going to break loose and the audience is ready for it. I have opened drum solos with a triangle in a 4,000 seat concert hall, and in doing that. I have allowed myself to t h i n k without opening up with an open-stroke roll and a triple fortissimo and moving all around the drums. That is my approach to a drum solo. I believe that something has to build. I believe a drum solo has to have a point A to a point B. Point A to B doesn’t have to be the typical thing where you start out in triple F and end up in quadruple, you know what I’m saying?
CI: And by using dynamics you gain the audience’s attention.
SH: Yeah. You gain their attention without being loud and without playing the “fire up drum solo.”
I did that in my younger days. I ‘m not saying I’m getting older so I’m getting cooler or more mellow, hut I can play the fire drum solo too. but within its place. I’m saying the drum is an instrument. You should deal with everything: deal with dynamics, with colors. If you have a lot of cymbals, a lot of different instruments, a lot of percussion, you should be able to play those like an orchestrated solo. There are some drummers who are doing that now. Of course, in the olden days you were limited. You had a ride cymbal, like we said, and another cymbal to change colors and a hi-hat and a snare and a tom on one side and a floor tom, so there was just so much you coul d do. But now, like in my case, 16, 17 drums, I mean you don’t have to play all energy. That’s the way I feel about a drum solo.
CI: There was a time when you did have a smaller kit.
SH: Right. I did. But even then, there was something inside me that said. “Man, cut that shit down.” Because I was be-bop, you know, but when I got on brushes and stuff, I found it wasn’t too bad to play in low level. So I said, “Maybe this instrument can be dealt with in another way.” I wouldn’t say that was a total transition for me but that’s when I realized that there were things you can do to construct a solo that’s not based on energy and power techniques and a lot of rudiments.
CI: A whisper can be so magical. Do you have any unfulfilled musical goals that you haven’t attained?
SH: I have a lot of goals I want to attain. Part of it is that I want to continue to have the attitude to want to grow and keep my ears tuned to what’s happening around me; always be contemporary, which is part of a bi-line we have in the framework of the Crusaders. Maintain my identity and be on top of what is going on. I want to continuously try to expand the role of the drums. There are rhythms that still haven’t been played. I mean, I can remember that some of the things that happen now in the funk school with bass drum and counter rhythms were once considered impossible. The bass drum now has come right out front, but in the be-bop era, the ride cymbal was out front and the bass drum, as we use to say. “would drop a few bombs once in awhile.” Now, particularly with some of the funk bands, if you isolate some of the drum tracks, listen to what some of these cats are playing. It’s just phenomenal! I look at the instrument as a strange phenomenon. I think physically, something strange is happening and things can be done. I want to be or top of it and either be a pace setter or be able to move right in fast. Now if somebody would say a cat could play a triple ratamacue on a bass drum with one foot, they would think he was nuts! What I’m saying is, everything is done. Even the use of the hi-hat, the way they use it now, is just crazy.
CI: I was listening to a track from one of your earlier albums. Your playing was so simple that it seemed to make it that much more funky. What would you suggest to make something funky? What’s the special ingredient?
SH: Good point. We always felt that we wanted to deal with simplicity. Again, you have space to think. First of all, you have to think of the essence of the group, which is part of the reason the Crusaders never got into “fusion.” When you say “fusion,” you’ve got a lot of energy, a lot of notes, and everything is based around 16th’s. The drummer joins in on the melodic line and everybody’s playing I6th’s and stopping together. All it is is a lot of energy and everybody plays an up tempo funk. I mean, everybody’s playing what implies funk. But like, when you first start learning music, what is perfection? Where are the weak beats and the strong beats? So if you get down to that element, then that’s where you deal with your simplicity and then you put stuff on top. So that’s what we try to do. We wanted to find out. “Where’s the hump of the song?” If it’s country/western, two beats to the bar, then 1 and 3 is where the hump is. So you have to make 1 and 3 the most dominant thing; I don’t give a shit if you can play 10 triplets in between and all that and you can execute it, it still doesn’t mean you’ll be any funkier unless the I and 3 is dominant and strong. So simplicity is first, to get that thing happening, and once you got Stix that happening, there’s nothing else you can really do. You can’t put all these other things in it, but you’re just putting on extra spice. It might work and it might not work. So that was the approach that we took to playing funk. Simplicity of putting it together, finding out what is the groove, what is the hump, what is the basis of this? We found out it has to happen throughout the song. The minute you lose the momentum on those important beats, you’ll lose the groove. That’s what we try to accomplish. We’re still fighting for that 99% of the time. We don’t feel like we have it, but that’s at least what we go for. There’s nothing wrong with freedom: there’s nothing wrong with free playing. There’s a place and time for it, but you need a good foundation, and simplicity is where it’s at.