Alan Dawson

Mainstream Jazz: 1985

I’ve had several phone conversations with Alan Dawson over the years, but I never had the opportunity to meet with him face to face until we did this interview. I was excited about questioning Alan on musical trends and styles of the past ten years, and getting his thoughts about the future. But shortly after this interview began, I realized that I had a challenge. Alan Dawson is not a man who’s swayed by the current whims of the drum industry. His reputation as both drummer and educator is solid and irreproachable. The concept of four-way independence and Alan Dawson’s name are practically one and the same. He didn’t invent four-way independence, but he’s mastered it and formed it into one of the most sought-after teaching methods in drum history. A lot of people want to know how he does what he does.

This interview is as much a look at the past as anything else. “Sometimes,” Alan said, “by looking at the past, you can get a glimpse of the future.” At one point, I asked him what he thought about the cosmetic drum products, and I cited colored cymbals as an example. He smiled and said, “I’ve had green cymbals before, but they got that way from leaving them in a damp basement.” So much for the impact of drum marketing strategies on Alan Dawson.

SF: Have there been any changes in your students over the last ten years in terms of what they’re interested in studying? Are they generally more serious about studying or less serious?

AD: There’s not that much difference in seriousness, but their orientation does seem to be quite different. I now hear more students talking about getting into the studios. That was unheard of when I was coming up, or even 20 years ago. A person played an instrument to become a star performer, to play with a band, or to go on the road. If you couldn’t do these things, you went into the studio. That was for the people who could read but were really not that hip or creative, because most of the time, studio musicians are supposed to subjugate themselves to some extent. Obviously, because of people like Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd, the whole perception has changed now. These guys are studio players, but star studio players. People know who they are.

Now, I hear more students say, “I want to be able to play every style going.” In the past, most students wanted to zero in on a particular aspect or style. A lot of people come to me with the idea of, “Hey, you’re a jazz player.” And that’s right. I am a jazz player—I guess, aptly, a mainstream jazz player. That’s what I’m known for and that’s what I prefer to play, but that isn’t all I play and it certainly is not the extent of my teaching. I teach students how to play some music; that’s all. They can go where they want to from there.

SF: You did your share of studio work in the ’60s. With Richard Davis on bass and Jaki Byard on piano, you’ve been referred to as the in-house rhythm section for Prestige records.

AD: You might call it that. I was a semi-house player for Prestige for a few years, but not to the extent of studio players today who do one, two, or three dates a day. I did maybe one a month. I didn’t consider myself a studio player in that sense, but yes, I did a lot of recordings from 1963 to around 1968.

Years ago, it was said that studio players had to be good readers. They didn’t necessarily have to have a unique style. Most people said that studio drummers didn’t swing. That was probably a bum rap. The drummers in the studios today are also out doing live performances. They’re incredible players.

SF: Are there any drummers who have emerged in the last ten years who knocked you out?

AD: Steve Gadd would have to be one. I heard a local drummer here named Billy Kilson about three years ago, and I thought, “Where did this guy come from?” He was playing up a storm. I heard a young fellow named Kenny Washington with Johnny Griffin. There are some people that I’ve watched mature, such as Keith Copeland and Terri Lyne Carrington. In the last ten years, they’ve become monsters. I can’t say that I’m without prejudice, because they were students of mine. Nevertheless, I’m very impressed with what they’re doing.

SF: Jack DeJohnette?

AD: Of course. I’ve been hearing Jack for more than ten years, but in the last ten years, I’ve really zeroed in on him. Last year at the PAS Convention in Ann Arbor, he didn’t do a clinic per se, but he did play by himself for about 50 minutes. I was amazed. You could hear his compositional skills. He’d start little ideas, like a person noodling on a piano, and expand on them. Then it was as if he’d say, “Okay, I’ve taken care of that,” and he’d noodle around with some other idea. It was great.

SF: If I can get more specific, who would you consider the great jazz drummers of the ’80s?

AD: I’m not sure who we consider jazz drummers in the ’80s. I think it’s become blurred. What is jazz drumming? What is pop drumming? What is funk drumming, and what is rock drumming? Even when I look at the categories in MD’s Readers Poll of Studio Drummer, Rock Drummer, and Funk Drummer, these could very easily be in one category. Studio drummers do all of those things. This was the first year MD had the category of Mainstream Jazz. Without that category, I can’t see where I would have fit in. To me, jazz represents some semblance of the ching-chinga-ching feel. But if you really look at it, at least as far back as Dizzy Gillespie’s influence on music, the Latin influence has certainly become a part of jazz. For the most part, that’s a straight-8th-note feel. So you can’t really say that, if it’s not triplets, it’s not jazz. It gets confusing.

The first time I heard a drummer playing a semblance of rock ’n’ roll time on the cymbal, I really thought he was trying to play a shuffle rhythm and couldn’t make it. Some boogie-woogie music was played with a straight-8th-note feeling, and some was played with a triplet feeling. When I listened to Chano Pozo playing congas with Dizzy’s band, it didn’t hit me right at the time. Now I realize what it was. I was hearing ching-chinga-ching in the phrasing of the drumset and horn players, and straight-8th notes from Chano. It didn’t quite mesh when both sounds were played at the same time. It’s true that some things are played purposely because of the rhythmic interference and tension that they create, but I don’t think that was the case in Dizzy’s band.

When you get right down to it, what we’re calling jazz—for want of a better name—is taking so many elements from other things and incorporating them into itself. At the same time, jazz is influencing what jazz has assimilated. It’s nothing today to hear Latin percussionists play with a triplet feel. If that’s what’s going on, they don’t play straight-8th notes against it.

SF: You cited Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd as star studio drummers. Do you consider them to be jazz drummers?

AD: They can play jazz, but I think they would disagree with being categorized as jazz players. I have heard a number of purists say, “No. They don’t play jazz. I’ve heard them go ding-dinga-ding, but they don’t do it right.” I guess the way to solve it is not to ask who the jazz drummers of the ’80s are. You’d have to ask who the mainstream jazz drummers of the ’80s are, who the fusion drummers of the ’80s are, and so forth.

SF: When you were starting out, were drummers separated by titles such as swing drummer and bebop drummer?

AD: Yes, I must admit they were. I first came up in the swing era, so I bridged swing and bebop. They used terms that I remember. When they first started talking about bebop drumming in Boston, they used to say, “He’s on the kick.” I don’t know exactly what they meant by that.

As people mature, they have a tendency to have more of an open mind toward the things that came before. When I was playing swing, I didn’t want to hear any Dixieland. I didn’t want to think about any Dixieland. Jo Jones was it. If you didn’t play like Jo Jones, forget it. Later on, I would say things like, “That guy’s still playing the swing thing. He’s not bopping.” That was when Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and those drummers came along. There’s that tendency when you’re young. As you mature, not only do you gain tolerance for what came before, but you gain respect for the roots and history of the music as well. As that happens, you start playing more of the things you’ve heard in other styles along with your own style.

For instance, when I started out, I really didn’t want to hear the bass drum going boom-boom-boom-boom. I still don’t like to really hear it, but back then, I didn’t even play it. The bass drum was the last of the three essential pieces of equipment I got. I had the snare drum first and then a hi-hat. I played them for a couple of years before I got a bass drum. When I got a bass drum, I didn’t think of it as the bottom that held things together. It was another voice—another piece of equipment. It was bigger than all the rest of them, so I had to do something with it other than boom-boom-boom-boom. I had to learn later, when I went with Lionel Hampton, that yes you’ve got to learn how to go boom-boom-boom. Do whatever else you want to do, but if you can’t just play time with a bass drum, forget it!

When I was young, I revered Jo Jones, and I tried to play like him. Then I revered Max Roach and tried to play like him. But then something happened to me that happens to everyone. It’s inevitable if you’re going to do any kind of growing. There’s some point where you get up on a bandstand and suddenly discover that you’re playing the drums by yourself. In your mind you can’t say, “Yeah, this is how Jo Jones would do it,” or “This is how Max Roach would do it.” You’re by yourself, and you’ve got to figure out how you are going to do it. You have to start listening to the music and reacting to the music on your own, rather than doing what you think somebody else would do.

SF: Do you have any thoughts on the extended use of drum machines in the last few years?

AD: I’m kind of glad that I’m a little older and don’t have to deal with all that. I don’t mean that there’s necessarily anything wrong with it. I was pretty good at mathematics, but I would have problems dealing with these electronic things. The more I’d think about the electronics, the less I’d be able to think about the music. Technology has pretty much taken over. As for percussion in general, it is true that just about any sound is valid in the right situation. Even if you don’t talk about electronics, there are so many things that can be used for percussion. I’ve seen demonstrations utilizing things that you would see in a kitchen. As such, I would say that you can’t discount things like electronic drums and drum machines completely, but I’m glad I don’t have to deal with them.

SF: Some people seem to see the rise of electronics as the end of the art of traditional drumming. Can you recall any other time in history when you or others felt that way? How about in the ’60s with the advent of avant-garde jazz drumming?

AD: I was pretty much put off by that music. At the time I said, “What is the drummer there for if there’s not going to be any time? Why is the horn there if there’s not going to be any melody?” I still feel that rhythm and melody are two of the essentials of music. Once again, we get down to the question of defining melody. There’s melody that’s very tranquil, where notes move smoothly from one point to another. There’s melody with jumps over an octave, to half-tones and then fifths— things that are pretty difficult to sing, but they are melodies. A rhythm can be very simple, as it was years ago, or it can be complex, but it is still a rhythm. In what I define as jazz, there is still some semblance of steady pulse.

I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to like everything. And I don’t, but I won’t refuse to listen to it, and I won’t necessarily put it down, because I have been in that position myself. The Dixieland and swing players said some awful things about beboppers. Louis Armstrong said that it sounded like Chinese music. People would say that the drummers couldn’t keep time, they couldn’t play the bass drum, they played too loud, and the cymbals were too big.

SF: The pioneers always get criticized.

AD: Yeah. That’s part of it. That’s like trying to make an omelet without breaking eggs. If you’re going to grow and progress, you’re going to wind up displeasing some of the powers that be.

SF: What’s your reaction to the essentially cosmetic products advertised today?

AD: I’m amused by it. It’s the kind of thing that I doubt I’ll ever get into. I’ve always admired the sound of things. I’ve seen drummers who can twirl sticks and this and that. I’ve said many times that twirling sticks is fine, but what happens on a record? Of course, that’s as if I were saying that a record is the real thing. What you hear on a record today is totally different from what you’re bound to hear at a live performance, unless someone has access to all of these technological advances.

When you really get down to it, you have to do your own thing. I never particularly went out for the flamboyant visual thing. However, certain things came about. I heard Jo Jones before I saw him. I certainly was impressed with his sound. There was nothing else that influenced me then. Then, when I saw him do a solo cross- handed, I must say that I was very impressed. But here was someone who had already proven himself soundwise. On top of all that, he had this wonderful visual thing, too. In that sense, it’s great. Jimmy Crawford was a fine player. On top of that, he was a master at twirling sticks. Sonny Payne could do that, too. It didn’t hurt that they could entertain you as well as they could play. But if you can’t play, I’m not interested.

SF: When you first heard Jo Jones, did you have a burning need to know what size his drums were, what kind of heads he used, and what size his sticks were?

AD: No. That never even occurred to me. Frankly, he’d sound that way on any drums. He had his own sound—an individual sound. These drummers sounded like they sounded no matter what drums they played on. I didn’t rush out to get a drumset like Jo Jones’s. Of course, just about everybody who heard Jo Jones play the hi-hats wanted to get that kind of sound. They were experimenting with cymbals to get that. But that’s a little different. That’s not like trying to duplicate it by getting the same size drums, heads, and all of this business.

I had a drum manufacturer say to me, “I’m not all that interested in having jazz drummer endorsees. Who cares about Buddy Rich? How many drums does he play?” The average rock ’n’ roll star usually has eight or more drums and a bunch of cymbals. If a kid sees Carmine Appice and says, “Hey, I’ve got to have a set like that,” then I can see the dealer being a whole lot happier than if a kid comes in and wants to buy a drumset like mine—five drums and three cymbals. Everyone has a right in this free enterprise system. People who have businesses can’t ignore profits, but I still think there’s an obligation to deal with artists from some artistic perspective, in terms of what they’ve contributed to the music, their feelings about the music, and their commitment to it.

SF: You endorse Ludwig drums. Have the Ludwig people ever approached you about playing their latest products?

AD: No. I’ve had the same drumset since I joined Ludwig four years ago. It’s holding up fine. They haven’t tried to influence me to play more drums or anything like that. If I had a roadie, I’d probably use two floor toms and maybe two or three mounted tom-toms, if I could sit comfortably. It gets pretty difficult to do that with a whole lot of equipment.

SF: Do you think drums are better made today than they were years ago?

AD: If you go back far enough, I’ll say yes. The first drums I had didn’t have separate tension on the heads. Things like that are wonderful. I had drums that didn’t have metal rims. The Second World War was going on, and they had what they called Victory drums. They were trying to save metal, so drums were being made with wooden hoops and lugs.

SF: Have you ever owned a drumset that you still feel is the best drumset you’ve ever played on?

AD: Sure. It was my very first drumset. I had a Slingerland Radio King snare drum—the only new piece of equipment I had. I had a Gretsch mounted tom-tom that clamped onto the bass drum. I had a 26 x 12 Ludwig & Ludwig bass drum, and a Leedy 15″ street drum with a metal rim. They were all bought in various pawn shops. The bass drum cost me $15. The snare drum was $39. I think I paid $10 for the Gretsch tom-tom. The most expensive part was the Leedy parade drum. I paid $45 for that. That was my first set. It cost me about $100, and yes, that was my best set. I’m sure there’s nostalgia involved, but if you say best set in terms of what I felt comfortable with, no set ever felt as good to me as that one.

In general, the drums I see today are pretty well-made. Some people are purists, in that they insist on a wooden shell. I’ve played on wooden shells that I like, and I’ve played on some that I didn’t like. It’s the same with metal drums. People said that there was no soul to fiberglass drums, but I loved the Fibes drums I was playing. I hear some purists talking about older wooden drums that were made out of solid maple rather than plies. I don’t think that makes a big difference—not just as a blanket issue. I’m sure you’d find an individual drum that sounds great and an individual drum by the same maker that doesn’t sound great.

Ludwig is the third company I’ve been with. I was with Gretsch, and I left them to go with Fibes. I didn’t leave Fibes to come with Ludwig; Fibes was gobbled up by a corporation. I do try not to endorse everything that comes along just because I get a chance to. It strains your credibility. Even the youngest, most naive person out there is bound to say, “Wait a minute. I just heard him say that was great last month. Now he’s saying that this is great.”

SF: Are you optimistic about the next ten years in drumming?

AD: I really can’t look in my crystal ball about trends and styles. I do see trends in training. Musicians are getting better and better training in high schools, colleges, and with private teachers. Drummers are coming along who are so well-versed in the technical aspects of playing and in very musical approaches. What’s wonderful is that there are more and more people teaching who have the credentials of actual teaching experience, the commitment to teaching, and the knowledge and respect for the history of the music. Whatever is going to happen should be pretty doggone good, because the people who will make the music are good.

As for innovators, they are very few. Innovators tread a lonely path. I don’t know who the next person will be to revolutionize music or drumming. There’ll be new trendsetters. People will latch onto them after, of course, initially putting them down. That’s how the history of things goes. The people who latch onto it will do whatever it is very well.

SF: Who do you feel was the last drum innovator?

AD: I find more people who are derivatives. I would say certainly Jack DeJohnette is innovative in his approach, but I’d say he’s probably a derivative from Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. By the same token, Tony is a derivative from Elvin and Max. But I’d say probably Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams may be two of the most influential drummers of the ’80s.

SF: Do you feel that there’s a difference in being innovative and being an innovator?

AD: Maybe I’m splitting hairs a little bit. When I think about innovators, I think of people who really seem to have taken something and gone completely in another direction. They burst on the scene, and people don’t understand what they’re doing. People can be somewhat innovative if they can take somebody’s style and make something else out of it.

SF: So an innovator is someone whose style can’t really be traced back to anybody.

AD: Yeah. Eventually, you probably can trace it back. When I first heard Max Roach, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to say, “Well, he sounds like Jo Jones.” He didn’t, but he was still influenced by Jo Jones. So I would consider Max an innovator, yet in retrospect, I know that his style didn’t come out of nowhere. Nothing ever comes out of nowhere, but it seems to come out of nowhere. When somebody’s reactions to the very same things that everybody else has been exposed to turn out to be so completely different, you think that that person couldn’t have been exposed to so-and-so at the outset. Later, you find out differently.

SF: Would you consider Elvin Jones an innovator?

AD: Yeah. Yet I realize, and Elvin will tell you, that he came out of Roy Haynes, among other people. Elvin doesn’t sound like Roy Haynes, but it’s obvious to me where he came from. Jo was one of Roy’s strongest influences in that formative stage. Roy Haynes doesn’t sound like Jo Jones, but it’s obvious to me where he came from. In my formative stage, Jo Jones had a tremendous influence on me. Max Roach had a very strong influence on me, but not as strong as Jo. Since then, there have been plenty of other players who I’ve listened to and admired.

Talking about trends and styles is hard for me to do. I’ve been pretty much doing my own thing as far as playing is concerned. My contact with what other people are doing is basically through my students. More and more, I’m appreciating the importance of the historical perspective. If you know where a particular thing you’re doing comes from and, in turn, where that comes from,  you can be much more convincing in playing whatever you’re playing. People who play strictly from the top tend to be playing somewhat superficially. It might not be all that evident to them or even to people they’re playing with. They might be in the same position. There are so many things. If you start tracing back, you’ll find that there’s not too much that’s new. Sometimes by looking back, you’ll get a glimpse of the future. If you lived long enough, you could stand in one spot, and at some point in time you’d be an innovator. Of course, that might take thousands of years! I don’t try to look too far ahead in a lot of things. I figure there’s so much I might miss that’s going on right now.