Susan Evans: Doin’ It All
by Rick Mattingly
While still in high school, Sue began her professional career by landing a gig as drummer for singer Judy Collins. This was followed by a long association with the Gil Evans Orchestra, where she played full percussion, and came to the attention of jazz fans. Subsequently, her name began turning up in Downbeat polls. While continuing to perform with a variety of artists, Sue became active in the recording field, playing in virtually every type of situation, from movie soundtracks to jazz and rock sessions. A stint at Radio City Music Hall supplied her with yet another set of credentials, and she is often called to sub for Broadway shows.
In spite of her considerable success in a world filled with inflated egos, prima donna stars, and eccentrics of all sorts, Susan Evans has remained a quiet, almost shy person, who continues to work hard to develop her talents to the fullest. We began by discussing her first exposure to music:
SE: My first exposure was through my father, who used to play clarinet and saxophone. Later he got into teaching and became head of the school system up in Mt. Vernon. When I was about 8 years old, I started studying clarinet with him. It was a disaster. I really didn’t like the clarinet. Meanwhile, I was taking piano lessons at the 3rd Street Music School. Eventually, I dropped the clarinet and started violin lessons, which I continued for about 3 years.
RM: How did you finally end up on drums?
SE: When I was in the 6th grade, a percussion ensemble came to my elementary school. I remember standing in the back of the auditorium and really liking it. I must have been turned on by one of the instruments in particular, probably the snare drum. I went home and asked my father if I could take drum lessons. At first he didn’t want me to study drums because I had already had lessons on three different instruments, but finally we made a deal. You see, I had been wanting to quit piano, but he said if I continued studying piano, then he would let me study drums. Today I am really grateful because I realize that I got the better end of the deal. I got lessons on both piano and drums.
RM: Who did you study drums with?
SE: I started with the staff teacher at the 3rd Street School, Warren Smith. I stayed with him for about 5 years. Warren was great because he was into everything. He was both a legitimate percussionist and a jazz drummer.
RM: Did he take you through the typical drum books?
SE: Yes. I remember using books by Haskell Harr, Charles Wilcoxon, Jim Chapin and Morris Goldenberg. Warren also introduced me to an MMO album by Chapin called For Drummers Only, which really helped my ensemble playing. In addition, Warren had collected charts from his various studio jobs, and he made those available to me as well.
RM: When did you move into full percussion?
SE: I had been with Warren for about 2 years and one day he said, “There’s more to percussion than just drums. There’s timpani, marimba, xylophone…” So he started me on the other instruments.
RM: Were you playing in school?
SE: In junior high I played in the band and the orchestra. They also had a dance band. The drummer who played set was terrific, but I couldn’t wait for him to graduate so that I would get to play more often. In addition, twice a year I played in parades that my father organized at the school where he taught. I remember being thrilled by marching and playing drum cadences in unison with other drummers.
RM: Were you a typical ’60s teenager? For instance, did you listen to groups like the Beatles?
SE: I liked the Beatles, although I wasn’t really into rock that much. I listened to a little bit of folk-rock, but I was never very interested in hard-rock groups. However, I can tell you about my first jazz album. It was by Max Roach. Max’s melodic approach fascinated me and it is still one of my favorite albums.
RM: What was your emphasis in high school?
SE: I was doing a lot of “legit” percussion in the senior orchestra, the senior band, the school precussion ensemble and the city-wide orchestra. I never got to play as much timpani as I would have liked, because there was always somebody who was the timpanist, and that was all he ever did. Also, I was involved in a more commercial group which consisted of a cellist, a guitarist, a flutist, and I played drums and vibes. The cellist tuned her strings like a bass, and used pizzaccato more often than arco. That gave the music more of a jazz flavor. I was inspired to write for the group.
RM: Tell me how you became involved with Judy Collins.
SE: Judy had heard me play once when our group was on the bill with her at a concert. A few months later, I was taking a drum lesson from Warren, and Judy’s manager called. They wanted to see if Warren could fill in for Judy’s drummer that weekend because he’d gotten sick. Warren couldn’t do it, but he said, “Hold on. Sue is right here and maybe she would like to do it.” So he put me on the phone. I was really excited. I was ready to do it, but I had to go home and ask my parents, because it would mean missing two days of school. Of course, they were really thrilled about it and said, “Okay.” Judy’s manager sent me all her albums by messenger, and I spent Thursday night cramming in five years worth of Judy Collins. The next day they picked me up in a limousine and took me to the airport. We flew to New Hampshire and did three one-nighters in a row. I was so nervous. The other musicians were a lot older than I was, and the only rehearsal we had was the sound check. It looked like her regular drummer was going to be out for quite a while, so afterwards, they offered me the gig.
RM: So you were going to high school and, at the same time, running out to do dates with Judy Collins?
SE: It was crazy. I would take my suitcase to school with me on Friday and carry it around to my classes. At 3 o’clock I would take a cab to the airport and fly out somewhere to do 2 or 3 weekend concerts. I’d come back Monday morning in time for my first class.
RM: Were all of her gigs on weekends?
SE: Not always. We would sometimes go on a two-week tour and I would have to bring my books and do a pile of homework. It was hard to find time to study. I probably would have failed due to absence, but I was able to maintain good grades. Also, the principal liked Judy Collins, so that helped.
RM:How did your classmates react to all of this?
SE: The other kids were very envious, but also very thrilled. Other people in the school were doing things, too. Janis lan was making records. I used to sit next to her in history class, and she would be writing lyrics instead of taking notes.
RM: Did you play anything besides drums with Judy Collins?
SE: She never asked me to play any other percussion instruments. However, I did suggest to her that I play orchestra bells at times. On the recording of “Both Sides Now” there was a bell part that I really missed hearing in concert. Since I played bells, I didn’t see why I should not do it. So I played the bell part with with my left. That was the extent of my percussion with Judy.
RM: When did you start playing congas?
SE: I studied with Montego Joe for about a year when I was 19 because I really loved the sound of congas. I never got into congas with Judy though. I was just doing it on my own. When you first start to learn an instrument, you don’t think of yourself as being able to play it. So for a while, I would not tell people that I played congas. Then, all of a sudden, I decided that I was strong enough to say, “Oh yes. I play congas.” Once I said it, I had to live up to it. As it turned out, I ended up doing a lot of gigs and recordings on congas.
RM: Did your gig with Gil Evans follow Judy Collins?
SE: They overlapped. Again, this came about through Warren Smith. Warren had been playing with Gil’s band, and Gil had met me at Warren’s studio. In fact, Gil would sometimes come in and sit down at the piano to work out and develop motifs, and we would basically just practice together. We must have connected, because when Gil was getting ready to do the Ampex album, he decided to use me, since Warren was in Europe at the time. It was my first record date and I was very nervous. I remember being handed the marimba part to “Blues in Orbit” and thinking that it looked very hard. Not only was it hard, but I had to play it perfectly in only a couple of takes. It was a challenge, but I did it.
RM:So after the recording, you started working regularly with Gil Evans?
SE: We did a few concerts at places like the Whitney Museum and the Village Vanguard. Then we did quite a few tours of Europe. I had also been to Europe with Judy a few times before.
RM: Did Gil write out every note he wanted you to play?
SE: No. Most of the time, the parts were just road maps and often they were not very clear. When they were clear, we did not always follow them. At some point in the music, we would go off on a tangent. That was the beauty of the band. I could suddenly decide to take the band somewhere, and Gil would let me. So I had a lot of freedom, but at the same time, a lot of responsibility. Once I had made the decision to lead the band to a certain place, I had to have the strength to carry my ideas through.
RM: I suppose Gil had a lot of influence on your playing.
SE: Definitely. I had already developed some sort of distinguishable style before I joined Gil because I do not think he would have used me if I hadn’t. But playing in his band for so many years, his musical concepts have rubbed off on me. He always had an eclectic band of musicians with varied backgrounds and styles.
RM: In between gigs with Gil, did you continue studying with anyone?
SE: As I said, I did most of my studying with Warren Smith. But I also studied with Morris Lang for about a year and a half. We worked mostly on mallets and did a little bit of timpani. The thing I remember really respecting about Morris was that he was an open-minded player. He did not just view percussion from the context of the symphony. He was very interested in jazz and would come to hear me play with Gil. In this one particular piece we played, I would get a little uptight about the way I was holding the tambourine whenever I knew Morris was in the audience. I had to overcome that feeling and go ahead and play the way I felt it should be played to get the sound I wanted, regardless of whether or not it was the “correct” way. And Morris understood that. In addition, I studied with Sonny Igoe for a while. I went to him primarily to get my drumset reading together. He had a terrific system for teaching you how to set up big-band accents. It clarified big band drumming for me, and enhanced my work with Gil’s band.
RM: Who were some of the other people you played with?
SE: I was with Steve Kuhn for awhile. My first experience with Steve was at Gerdes Folk City, where we did the album, Live in New York. About 3 years later we did the ECM album, Trance. In between, we did some live gigs and some touring. His music varied from straight ahead be-bop to bossa and samba feels. I had the freedom to play whatever I thought would add to the music. I also played with Kate and Anna McGarrigle. They are French Canadian songwriters and I was with them for about a year. We did a little tour of New England and I played on a couple of their albums. That was a group that I really felt a part of. We rehearsed a great deal, which enabled me to develop specific parts on my instruments.
RM: Have you done any shows?
SE: My first experience with shows was when I played the Catskill Mountains. I had reservations about taking the gig, because although I could read, I never really played for singers before. But I went ahead and tried it, and it was successful. I ended up playing there every weekend for a couple of summers. It was wonderful experience, reading charts and working with big bands. My biggest experience with shows, however, was when I was on the staff at Radio City Music Hall.
RM: How did that come about?
SE: I used to sub for a drummer there. It got to the point where I was subbing for him fairly often. Finally, he quit and I got his job. I stayed there for 3 years. That was great experience because we did 4 shows a day, 7 days a week. The show changed every 6 to 8 weeks. It’s not like a Broadway show, where you might play the same book for 3 or 4 years. The new show would always open on a Thursday, so on Tuesday and Wednesday we would rehearse between shows. Thursday morning we would rehearse at 7:30 in the morning and open the new show at noon. Radio City really helped me get my xylophone and timpani playing together.
RM: Did you just hold the percussion chair at Radio City?
SE: No, I did both chairs, drums and percussion. Playing drums for the Rockettes was another good experience. I had to be very strong and solid because they relied on the drummer a great deal.
RM: Have you done any work with Broadway shows?
SE: I’ve subbed for some shows, like Annie, Dancin’ and They’re Playing Our Song. I’ve also played some off-Broadway shows.
RM: How did your career as a studio musician develop?
SE: Very, very gradually. It started with that Gil Evans album. I did one session a year, 2 sessions a year, one session a month, one session every two weeks, one session a week, and now I sometimes do several sessions a week. But the whole process was gradual over a 10- year period.
RM: Do you enjoy studio work?
SE: I get an incredible amount of personal satisfaction from studio work. People ask me, “How can you stand playing TV commercials?” I love playing in any musical situation that works, or that feels good. Of course, some commercials do not have much musical depth. But on the other hand, I’ve worked for some incredible arrangers who really know how to make the most of a 30-second spot. If there’s a place for me in that 30 seconds, I love it.
Then, of course, it’s not all jingles. I get calls for albums, film dates, T.V. shows, and so on. Each demands a different approach to my instrument and a knowledge of various styles. I find it very rewarding to play on an album where the singer is singing live with the tracks. It gives me the same feeling I had working with Diana Ross at Radio City Music Hall.
Studio gigs have afforded me an outlet for multi-percussion playing. Sometimes, I am called upon to lay down the basic drum track, and then overdub congas, mallets, or whatever. Other times, I may play a variety of instruments along with another drummer. Frequently, I work with percussionists that I greatly respect, and I always learn a great deal from them.
Studio work is a challenge which I feel parallels many situations in life. For example, I may be hired for an hour out of the day, but during that time I must be constantly “on.” The first take must be as good as the last, because I never know which one will finally be used. I must be precise, but at the same time, relaxed. This kind of work can also be very Lucrative. It allows me to continue my studies, maintain a studio where I can practice and jam with other musicians, and even take a vacation every now and then.
RM: You have played with some of the biggest names in the business. What are some of the sessions you particularly remember?
SE: Gil Evans Live at the Royal Festival Hall, London, was the first album I played drums on, all the way through. Then I played congas on a James Brown album, although I did not receive credit on the cover. On the Billy Cobham album, Total Eclipse, I had to play a very challenging, odd-meter marimba part. Another session I recall is the Steve Kuhn album, Trance, where I played with Jack DeJohnette. I love Jack’s playing and I really got to know it doing that album. He was very sensitive to what I was doing.
RM: Are you generally happy with the quality of sound on records?
SE: Most of the time, I’m really happy with the sound they get, even though the finished product is always different than the live sound.
RM: I would like to hear about all of your equipment. First, would you describe your drum set?
SE: I use Yamaha drums. I have an 18″ bass drum, 14 x 14 floor tom, 8 x 12 and 9 x 1 3 tom-toms and a 5 x 14 snare drum. I’ve always used wood drums, even the snare. I never really liked the sound of chrome drums, because they thousands of people in the audience, I was sight reading the music, and I was playing on a strange drum set. I was afraid to hit the floor tom because there was a black-dot head on it and, not having used those heads before, I kept thinking there was something lying on the drum.
RM: Have you ever used calfskin?
SE: I used calf for a long time, but I stopped using them on a regular basis after a tour with Gil, where I went through 2 tom heads. They were very expensive, and I couldn’t always find them. But I love the sound of calfskin heads, and I still use them occasionally.
RM: What about your congas?
SE: I still use the original congas that I bought, which Montego Joe helped me pick out. The conga was made by Junior, and the tumba is a Gon-Bop.
SE: LP is great for most of the “toys.” There is nothing like the LP cabassa for that type of sound. I also use a lot of shakers that are homemade.
RM: Which mallet instruments do you own?
SE: I have Musser vibes, marimba and orchestra bells.
RM: When you play percussion with someone, is there a particular assortment of instruments that you use?
SE: It depends on who I’m playing with, and the type of music. If it’s an R & B or Latin group, I’ll bring congas, cowbell, shaker, tambourine, and that type of thing. If it’s a jazz group, I’ll bring everything I can fit on the stage. Most of the time I won’t play them all, but I like to have everything there so that I can use whatever I want.
RM: Are you ever hired to play drums and vibes and congas and percussion on the same gig?
SE: Occasionally, when I’m hired as the drummer, if the leader knows I play congas and “toys,” he might say, “If you don’t think this tune needs drums, feel free to play congas, or whatever.” It’s strange though, that some people who hire me for drums do not know that I’m also a percussionist. And there are people who hire me for percussion, who don’t know that I play drums.
RM: I was always told that if you are going to double on several instruments, you should do it well enough that no one can tell what your primary instrument is .
SE: I never know what to answer when somebody asks, “What’s your main instrument? Which one do you enjoy the most?” I cannot answer that question.
RM: Do you try to practice each instrument everyday, or do you focus on one thing at a time?
SE: It is not really so much my choice as it is what I’m called to do in the studios; for instance, if I know that I’m going to be playing a lot of congas during a particular week, then I will spend most of my practice time on congas. But otherwise, I try to play all of the instruments at least a little bit everyday.
RM: In situations where you are the percussionist, I notice that you play very sparingly. Have you always played that way, or is this something which has evolved gradually?
SE: I have always played sparingly, but for a while, I went through a phase where I felt guilty about it. I would think, “I’m getting paid for this. I should be playing more.” But what has happened with age is that I’m becoming less guilty about laying out when I want to lay out. I’ve gotten more from listening than I’ve gotten from just jumping in immediately and playing.
RM: I remember hearing someone say, “Percussion is like salt. A little bit can enhance the flavor, but too much will ruin it.”
SE: Right. With a lot of the albums I do, percussion is just the spices. It’s almost more of a complement when someone says, “I did not remember there being any percussion.” Often, it’s only a musician, producer, or arranger that may notice something really nice that I did. It’s funny, I may tell my students, “Do not be afraid to play,” but also I have to tell them, “Sometimes, do not be afraid not to play.” Of course, on certain gigs, I’m part of the time feel. In that situation, I play a lot, and I love that kind of percussion, too, where you lay down a groove.
RM: Did you ever have any trouble drawing the line between coloring and sounding like a vaudeville act?
SE: That was never a problem for me because I really have an aversion to that type of percussion. It’s fine if you are playing a vaudeville show, but I find it distasteful to play that way in the context of modern music or jazz. Sometimes when I hear a group play, I find myself wishing that the percussionist would lay out more. I really do.
RM: Do you try to play structurally?
SE: Yes. I usually have it all worked out in my mind. If the tune has specific sections, such as, an A section, B section, C section, I’ll try to use a certain sound for each, repeating that sound which corresponds to a certain repeated section. I like to establish a melodic and rhythmic thread throughout the music.
RM: When playing percussion, do you ever have stylistic conflicts with drummers?
SE: The only way a drummer can get in my way is by overplaying. When that happens, I just lay out. If he’s playing too much, there is no room for me anyway, so I just leave him alone. Other times, we will both be playing, trying to set up a groove together, and something is just not working. But that happens sometimes. The times that it works makes up for the times that it doesn’t.
RM: What do your day-to-day musical activities consist of?
SE: For one thing, I have my own studio in midtown that I treat almost like a 9 to 5 job. I get up early everyday and go to my studio, where I spend much of the day practicing. I keep all of my instruments there so that when I’m doing recording sessions, I can work out of my studio. Some weeks I’ll only do 1 or 2
sessions, while other weeks I’ll have a lot more. It’s hard to give an average because it’s such an erratic business. Also, I’ve been having other musicians come to my studio for jam sessions.
RM: How much live playing do you do?
SE: There’s really no average on that. I go through periods where I’ll get called for many live gigs. I wouldn’t be happy just doing studio work. I crave the kind of communication and rapport that goes with playing for a live audience. I enjoy performing and sharing my musical ideas with others. I remember doing a jazz gig in a club in Germany once and noticing all of a sudden how couples were starting to dance to my music. It seemed odd at first, because I didn’t think people would dance to jazz, but it somehow made my contribution to the music more valid.
RM: Who are some of the people you are currently working with?
SE: I’ve been working a lot with a trumpet player named Marvin Stamm. I first met Marvin about 5 or 6 years ago when he asked me to play with him at the Brass Conference. After that, we saw each other occasionally in the studios. A year or so ago, Marvin approached me about an album project that he and Jack Cortner were getting together. They were thinking of who they might use, and when it came to percussion, they thought that I would be good for the group. Marvin is very heavy into jazz and he was impressed by my jazz background. So they approached me, and I said, “Sure. I’d love to play.” So they wrote some tunes, we rehearsed, and then we recorded the first half of the album. After that, we worked a few gigs at the Possible 20 restaurant. About 6 months later, we finished the album.
RM: Who else is in the group?
SE: Ronny Zito is on drums, Kenny Ascher is on piano, Marcus Miller plays bass, Chris Palmero is on synthesizer, Marvin is on trumpet, and I play percussion. The album was written by Chris and Jack Cortner.
RM: What do you enjoy about this group?
SE: Marvin’s group affords me the opportunity to play the way I feel percussion should be played. It’s a strong rhythm section, so I’m not called upon to merely lay down a background for someone else to solo over. This situation is also conducive to working out new sounds, new riffs, and new techniques. Marvin and Jack are open-minded enough to listen to my ideas and they respect my input to the group. And they expect everyone in the group to contribute.
RM:So you do not just feel like a sideman.
SE: Right. There are 5 of us. We are not 4 people backing up Marvin Stamm. For instance, when I’m given a part by the arranger, I’m told, “Try this. You may add to it, or subtract from it.” It becomes my part, not just a part that any percussionist in the city could come in and do. I can follow my own philosophy of percussion, that is, embellishing the music and being the spices.
RM: Do you work with anyone else on a regular basis?
SE: Yes. I’ve worked often with Peter Gordon’s group, French Toast. I’ve also been playing drums with the Pat Rebillot Trio, with Reed Wasson on bass. Pat writes most of the tunes, and I’m given the opportunity to play congas and various “toys” in addition to playing set.
RM: Are you doing any teaching?
SE: I’m doing a great deal of teaching. It is an invaluable experience. I think I get more out of it than the students.
RM: What do you listen to?
SE: I listen to a lot of styles of music. I do not listen to only groups that use a lot of percussion. I once told one of my conga students that she should go to hear Phil Woods. She wanted to know if he used congas. I had to say, “No. There’s more to life than just congas.” So I listen to everything from piano duos to big bands to Stevie Wonder, to Rostropovich. In the last year or so, I’ve been attending more classical concerts, and rediscovering some of my “legit” roots.
RM: Have you ever suffered discrimination as a result of being a woman?
SE: The most blatant discrimination I’ve ever come across was on the union floor. I went up to a couple of club date contractors and said, “I play drums and I have a car,” and they actually said, “I’m sorry, I don’t hire women.”
RM: Those guys could get arrested. Did you have any trouble in areas other than club dates?
SE: In the other fields, I’ve been able to break in and establish a reputation that surpasses gender. You see, I was 11 years old when I started, and I didn’t know that girls were not supposed to play drums. Nobody ever told me that. By the time I found out, I was already into it too much. I think that because I was so fortunate in getting a very prestigious gig when I was 17 years old, I’ve never worried too much about my career. If I do not get hired for something I usually get called for, it’s best I assume that there is a musical reason, rather than think that it is because I’m a woman. This way, I practice to improve that area I felt was lacking. Then if it turns out that wasn’t the reason for my not getting the job, I’m still ahead of the game. You can’t spend a lot of time worrying about the role of women in music or you will be ignoring the more important aspects of your life. The music is too important to be bothered with the politics of playing.
RM: Playing an instrument well is a full-time job. How do you deal with playing so many?
SE: The same way I deal with the fact that anything one does in life could be a full-time thing. There are books that I really love, and when I read them I say, “I should just read all of the time.” Or, I’ll cook a meal and say, “Hey, this is pretty good. I should get into cooking.” It’s the same with percussion. I feel that the point of everything is to make music that is enjoyable to listen to, communicate with the listener, and have a good time. If I can participate with the congas one day, and make it work, and participate with the marimba or vibes the next day, and kick a big band with the drum set another day, that’s great. The more instruments I play, the more chances I get to be involved. Of course, you can’t just dabble in them. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of work to keep them all up. That’s why I have the studio and all the instruments, and why I place so much importance on practicing everyday.
RM: Do your experiences on one instrument help you with the other instruments?
SE: Yes. For instance, sometimes I might be in a situation where I’ll play nothing but vibes for a week. When I go back to the set, I find that I’m playing more melodically.
RM: What are your personal projects at the moment?
SE: Right now, I’m interested in getting my improvisation on the vibes together. So I’ve been studying with Adolph Sandole because he offers me a total music program. He has a system which includes ear training, transpositions, sight singing, memorization and various scale and chordal studies. I find that the ear training is also helping my timpani playing.
RM: What are some of your unfulfilled ambitions?
SE: A major ambition of mine is tied in with the studying I do each week, and that is, to develop my ear to the fullest. I know this will enhance any area of music I choose to pursue. Perhaps I’ll write more, and even lead my own group. But for the moment, I know that as long as I keep my priorities straight, maintain a balance between playing and practice, all else should fall into place.