Jeff Hamilton knows that he’s lucky. Either as a band member or a sub, he’s worked in such coveted situations as the Woody Herman big band, the Monty Alexander trio, the Count Basie Orchestra (in November, 1984, after Basie’s death), and the L.A. 4. He’s even led his own band, which recorded its own album. He’s one of the fortunate few. Most jazz musicians complain that they can’t make a living playing the music they love, so they are forced to play something else. For Jeff, jazz is the only kind of music he’s had to play or will play.
A friend of mine described Jeff as a no-nonsense player, a straight shooter as a person, and an individual with strong confidence. That is an accurate description. He gives the music the kick in the butt it needs, laying back when necessary and being aggressive when called for. He knows what he wants, and goes after it with confidence and self-assurance. He’s one of the few who is totally satisfied with his career, wouldn’t change a thing, and has never been in the position to have to compromise his dreams. He set his goals and has spent his life attaining them.
RF: Most of the people who want to play the kind of music you play don’t get to, while it seems that almost everyone was brought up on it.
JH: I think people my age, in their ’30s, did grow up with a lot of music that their parents introduced them to, like the big bands. A lot of the younger players were not so much brought up with it, though. Some of them are just finding the truth of jazz—the honesty that is in jazz—and they’re starting to come over towards that direction. I seriously believe that, if you are dedicated and have a desire to do some- thing, whatever it is, you can do it. You have to have your playing together. You have to feel good about what you do and confident about what you do by being honest with yourself, before anyone else can hear that honesty and sincerity in your playing.
RF: But realistically are there gigs available?
JH: They may not be on the scale that you want them to be. You may not get to play with Wynton Marsalis right out of college, but there are steps you can take to get to that goal. For instance, my own experience was that, when I was 18, I met John Clayton, a bass player I went to school with at Indiana University, who has been very helpful and my best friend. He was a Ray Brown student at the time. We hooked up and he liked the way I played, so I said, “What am I doing wrong? I know it’s not all that comfortable for you, but I’m having a ball playing with you. What do I need to do?” He said, “Your time is not steady. You need to listen to some people who play good time feels, like Philly Joe Jones.” He asked me who I listened to, and the people I was listening to at the time were pretty good time players. I would listen to drum solos, though, and not really pay attention to the time that was going on. He asked me to name three bands I wanted to play with. I said, “Woody Herman’s big band, the Count Basie Orchestra, and the Oscar Peterson Trio.” He said, “Okay, you will play with all three of those groups—or at least one of them—if you really want to do it.”I said, “Yeah, right!”
I ended up playing with Woody Herman and Count Basie. I also played with Ray Brown and am very good friends with Ed Thigpen, who were part of the Oscar Peterson Trio. I met Oscar, and he was very kind to me. I had an offer to do a week with them in Detroit in 1978, but I was in Japan with the L.A. 4. At least the opportunity was there. That’s what I’m talking about. If you’re dedicated enough and do all the homework, you can do it. I knew what Don Lamond did on Woody’s band in the ’40s, I knew what Dave Tough did, and I understood why they did it. I really got into the research of the projects at hand. I had to do that with the Basie band, too. You have to do the research on anyone you want to play with.
RF: You mentioned that you can take steps to get these gigs. Can you be more specific? You also mentioned that you have to get your playing together, and I want to know how you got yours together. That’s certainly one of the steps.
JH: They go hand in hand. You have to go with what you like in any field—rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country & western. Pick your favorites, find out what they do, and play to the records. Don’t just sit down and play what you want to play. Be able to play exactly what they play: Transcribe the solos, transcribe the time that they’re playing and learn the little things they do with their left hands. Ask yourself, “What triggers what they do? Did the bass player do something that triggers them to answer or respond?” This involves years of work that you have to sit down and do. There’s an entire Thad Jones/Mel Lewis record that I know by heart. I know everybody’s solos, and I can sing Richard Davis’s bass lines through the whole album. This shouldn’t be rare. All drummers should be able to do that with the albums that are their favorites. Mel played so great on that album; I wanted to latch onto it and get his groove. I was able to do that. You have to know all different situations, like Philly Joe Jones in a small group, Max Roach in a small group, Mel Lewis in a small group or big band, and Shelly Manne with a trio or a big band. You’ve got to know why they played the way they did in certain settings. That’s the homework that you have to do.
RF: Did you have any formal training during all of this?
JH: Yes, but I didn’t learn how to play jazz through formal training. I learned how to play jazz through listening and playing to records.
RF: Then what was the formal training for, and was it beneficial?
JH: I started on piano when I was five and went to snare drum when I was eight. I didn’t get a drumset for five years. I was just working with snare drum on getting my hands to be machine-like almost. Finally, when I got my drumset, I was this little mechanical figure: You wind him up, and he can play all 26 rudiments without batting an eye. I then transferred all that technique to the drumset, a la Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson, which was the typical transition from the snare drum to the drumset. I studied marimba and all the percussion instruments, including timpani. I went to Indiana University, and I think they wanted me to be a classical percussionist. We had quite a crew while I was there: Kenny Aronoff, Peter Erskine, and I were freshman together there, along with David Derge and Bill Molenhof. Peter left after his first year to go with the Kenton band, and I left after my second year to join the newly organized Tommy Dorsey Band run by Murray McEachern. That was the end of my formal training, but I learned so much from the technical aspect. The timpani grip I used in school is basically the same grip I use on the ride cymbal with my right hand, and I still play traditional grip. It all ties together. The stroke you use for hitting marimba can be applied to the drumset—how to pull the tone out of the bar or the drum. The more technical training you get, the more it’s going to help you play.
RF: You said that your formal training didn’t teach you to play jazz. Can you be more specific about that?
JH: I’m opposed to institutions teaching jazz drummers to play. Horn players and melodic instruments are another story. They can be taught improvisation patterns and techniques that are going to help them. For drummers, I think it’s like learning a trade as a blacksmith or cobbler. I think that’s the best approach to learning how to play jazz. Find someone who touches you as a player and try to study with that person or with five or six people, because you may not always be able to study with Tony Williams or Elvin Jones. You have to be an apprentice, in that you have to be at every gig with them, you have to know everything they do when they do it, and you have to know what causes them to do it.
RF: You have students, but if you don’t believe you can actually teach someone to play jazz . . .
JH: I said institutions. What happens is that they get caught up in the whole program of the percussion school where students have to play everything instead of just jazz drumming.
RF: But you just said that marimba and timpani really helped you.
JH: It did help, but I think I would still be a good jazz drummer without that. Looking back and thinking about what I got from it, that was it, but it wasn’t the important thing about playing jazz. Listening is the important thing about playing jazz. Listening to all kinds of music and to jazz records is how you really form your own style. My students are serving more or less an apprenticeship. One student of mine has been on Woody Herman’s band already. I’ve got a couple who are ready to go on when there’s an opening. The students show up at the jobs, because they’re interested and want to learn how I handle each situation. Somebody kicks off a tempo that they think is going to be too fast. “Uh oh, what would I do here?” Then, they see what happens. I think that’s the best way to learn to play jazz drums— to get with someone who can show you the trade.
My cobbler, or guru, was John Von Ohlen. He was in Indianapolis at the time, so I left Indiana University after two years to study with him just before I went on the Dorsey Band. I was with him for eight months. In that time, he showed me how to treat a big band, how to read, and what to leave out, and a lot of little nuances and subtleties.
RF: Can you be more specific about those things?
JH: For instance, John stressed the point that most people try to read too much. They see all these notes on the part, and they try to play all of them. What we don’t remember is that the rest of the band members know how to play their parts, so we don’t have to play their parts for them. We’re there to lay the foundation for the horns to build a house over the rhythm section. So if there’s a group of four 8th notes, catch the first and the last one; otherwise, it comes out sounding like a typewriter. It’s phrasing. He said to think like a lead trumpet player when you’re playing big band. It’s true. I sing the parts mentally, and sometimes orally too, catching what the horn players would be catching, accenting what they would be accenting, and phrasing the same way. Leave out a whole bunch of things. Jake Hanna said to me once, “There’s only one important part of an arrangement that you need to lay for, and the rest of the time, just play time. There’s one peak in each arrangement, so lay for it.” There’s a lot to be said for that. That’s really cutting out all the extra frills. That’s not for every arrangement either, but in all the old big band arrangements, there was one shout chorus where you nailed everything, and the rest of the time you played time.
The other thing John stressed was time. His stroke is one I applied to my own playing, which is just bringing the stick back, dropping it on the cymbal, and getting three bounces. You’re getting a natural accent on TWO-a-three, FOUR-a-one, and you’re getting your 2 and 4, which is where you snap your fingers anyway, if you’re listening to jazz. That’s the stroke that I’m using, although naturally, I do some things differently with it than he does. I have to be completely relaxed in order to play, and it’s not hard to get relaxed with this stroke, because it won’t work, otherwise. I feel comfortable and relaxed, my posture is good, I’m sitting up straight and I’m letting my body breathe. The chest and upper torso are the furnace, and that’s keeping all the energy going. A lot of drummers slouch; I feel that they’re really hurting themselves physically and musically. I won’t mention names, but some of the older drummers have developed back and neck problems, and can’t play as easily or freely as they used to. Posture is an important factor. I used to have back problems all the time because I did slouch, until John straightened me out.
RF: Earlier you were saying that, when you listen to records, make sure you play what you’re hearing and not what you want to play. Taking that further, how do you make it your own, and develop your own technique and style?
JH: I feel that, by listening to all of your favorite drummers and even exposing yourself to ones who are not your favorites, you are naturally developing your own style. Art Blakey will do something with a rimshot that nobody else can do. Max will do things in solos that nobody else can do. Shelly will do the same thing with brushes. So you take Shelly Manne’s brushes, Blakey’s time feel, Philly Joe’s fours, and Max’s extended solos and that becomes you. Even though you’re playing what these people are playing, you’re learning what they’re doing in a situation. As you’re listening to the records, transcribe what they’re doing, because then you’re hearing it and you’re looking at it at the same time. A lot of times, if you transcribe and pull it out a year later, it’ll sound dumb because you’re just looking at a piece of paper. But if you look at the transcription while listening to the record, it all starts making sense. What looked like four 16th notes that were put in the wrong place for no reason at all suddenly becomes important, because you’re hearing it. The two together are very important.
Another reason for transcribing is that sometimes the ear isn’t accurate enough to pick up whether it was on the “e” or the “a” of 1 or 2, so listening to it over and over again and trying to decide if it is “e” or “a” strengthens your ear. After you’ve gone through the steps of trying to play what they play for a few months, then you go through it and play what you want to play. You think, “How would I do this in this situation? Well, he did this and the trumpet players needs this behind him, so I’m going to do this.” A lot of times you experiment with those bands just by playing with the records and seeing if it will work or not. That way you start getting your own style, I think. The thing about playing with records is that we don’t get to play with Oscar Peterson and Woody Herman when we’re young, so the next best thing is playing with the record.
RF: Back to you. At 19, you took off. What happened from there?
JH: I went out to audition for the Dorsey Band in Kansas City with a suitcase and a set of drums. I got the job, and I was the youngest guy in the band at the time. I had 15 fathers, which was good. I didn’t mind it at all. I spent eight months on the band, and then a friend of mine, Dennis Wilson, who was on the Lionel Hampton Band, subbed for our lead trombone player. He liked the way I played, so he got me on Lionel Hampton’s band in early ’75. That only lasted three months because, at that time, Lionel was doing a show on Broadway with Bette Midler called Clams On The Half Shell, using her rhythm section and New York local musicians only. I couldn’t do it, so therefore, I was out of work. I went back to my parents’ house in Indiana for about a month and a half, and got back on the Dorsey Band. Two weeks after I was on it, John Clayton called and said that Monty Alexander, the piano player, was hiring him and needed a drummer as well.
I joined Monty in June of ’75 and was with him for two years. We played the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and I did my first recording with Monty at the festival, live. We had to follow the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, and the Stan Getz Quartet with Billy Hart on drums followed us. I was shaking. It was sink or swim, but I had enough confidence in me to go out, and we just stomped all over it. I was with Monty until about July of ’77, at which time Birch Johnson, the lead trombone player I was on the Tommy Dorsey Band with, was playing lead with Woody Herman. He recommended me for the band. I was ready for a change at the time, so I went on Woody’s band in July of ’77 until December of ’77. I had met Ray Brown from playing with Milt Jackson and Monty Alexander at the old Lighthouse, and apparently, Ray liked something about my playing. I called him to say hello while we were playing Disneyland, and he said, “I’m on my way out the door, but I’ve got this little band with Bud Shank, Laurindo Almeida, and Shelly Manne, who just left the group. It’s called the L.A. 4, and I wondered if you would be interested in doing it.” He said he’d be back in a week and we could talk about it. I was recording a suite Chick Corea had written for the band called “Suite For Hot Band.” The album was called Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow, and we did Steely Dan tunes on one side while Chick Corea’s suite is on the other side. We did that at Capitol Records in the first part of January, and on the breaks from recording, I was going over to Ray’s office, which was right across from Capitol Records, and meeting with him to see what this L.A. 4 business was about. I did this for three days, and finally I decided to join the group. Business-wise, it was a tremendous move for me. Instead of riding a bus for 45 weeks a year, I could now live in one place, work about four months a year, and make a little more money.
RF: What was it like having to fill Shelly’s shoes?
JH: I never tried to do that. I had to play it the way I wanted to play it. Ray made it known that he hired me for me and what I could contribute to the group. I’ve been doing that since ’78. We did three records in January of ’78 with Woody’s band, one with Flip Phillips called Together Again, Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow, and a direct-to-disc called Road Father. After the Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow album, I just stayed in L.A. Living here was a ball, working three or four months a year, doing what I wanted the rest of the time, accepting gigs I wanted to take, and turning down ones I didn’t want. I thought, “Man, this jazz business is easier than I thought it would be.”
RF: But you’ve since learned that that’s not true.
JH: Oh yeah. Jazz is the form of music that keeps going, but if you’re looking at a graph as far as sales and popularity go, it’s down near the bottom of the page. In all other kinds of music, acts go up and down, and in three to five years, you won’t hear about people who are winning Grammys now. But most of the jazz artists keep that same profile, and it doesn’t seem to change that much. That’s one of the things I had to get used to. I just kept thinking, “Boy, if I could latch onto some big jazz group, that would be it for me.” That’s not the important thing to me now. The important thing to me is to play the music I want to play, because I love playing this kind of music. This is the only form of music where you can really express your feelings completely. You get solo time: If you’re angry, it affects the group; if you’re happy, it affects the group. In most other kinds of music, you can be hallucinating, and all the other musicians will just go along with what their roles are supposed to be. Jazz is such a personal and revealing music that your emotions are on the line. Everybody knows what you’re feeling.
RF: Are there tips for improvisation?
JH: One of my pet peeves is hearing drummers take solos that turn into show-and-tell experiences. I’m not much for the extended drum solo, unless it has a form to it. I think that, any time you play, there has to be a form to what you’re doing. Even avant-garde music has form to it. Jazz drummers are supposed to be playing the tune. Everybody else in the band improvises over the changes and the form of the tune. When it conies to a drummer, why do you have to pull out your Charlie Wilcoxon book and show everybody what you have? Think musically. I think like horn players a lot when I’m playing. If you’re playing “Confirmation,” play “Confirmation.” Don’t play “Satin Doll” or don’t play a drum exercise. I want to hear eight-bar phrases or four-bar phrases or whatever constitutes the tune. That’s the first thing I think you need to worry about. Secondly, I personally like to hear melodic lines on drums. I like to hear voices. I don’t like to hear a lot of rumbling. I like to hear more single-note lines. Dynamics—if you have eight 8th notes, don’t just play straight 8th notes at the same volume. Make a phrase out of them. Most horn players will not play every note. They swallow notes or play what we call “ghost” notes. You don’t need all the notes. They just need to be implied. Those are some important things in improvisation.
RF: In our Update, you mentioned something about playing the legendary charts. How do you take a legendary chart and make it your own? How much liberty do you have, and when do you know that you can assert that liberty? What about working with these people who have had great drummers before you?
JH: The Basie Band is probably more restricting for a drummer than any other band, because of the list of great drummers who have been in that band. As I said before, though, we’re all individuals. By not trying to fill someone’s shoes, you respect what that person did and recognize that the things that person played could never be copied by anyone, but the influence is there. All you can hope for is that you’re a good enough player to go in and apply your style to the band, and let the band style become part of you. It’s a merging. It was a good experience for me to play with the band, and hear things I had heard Sonny Payne, Jo Jones, Gus Johnson, and Harold Jones—who are my four favorite Basie drummers—do. Everybody knows the Basie fills, and I was constantly going through battles with myself, saying, “Just succumb to it. Play what Jo Jones did, because it worked and it felt good.” There were nights when I just felt that I should play the Basie style and what was expected of that chair, instead of playing what I wanted to play.
RF: It’s not that creative at that point.
JH: It’s not, but that’s where you really have to dig deep and search for where your creativity is going to work. Not everything you think of is going to work in that time slot, so you have to be more selective about what you’re going to play. You can’t lay a typical Elvin Jones fill in there that would clutter up things, if all they needed was the bass drum on 4 and 1. That’s one of the greatest Basie fills. It was fun for me to play those charts and still try to be Jeff Hamilton.
RF: What have you been doing recently?
JH: Recently I went back with Monty. We played the legendary Gibson jazz party in Denver on Labor Day. At the last party, the drummers were Ed Shaughnessy, Butch Miles, Alan Dawson, Frankie Capp, Gus Johnson, and myself. Monty Alexander and John Clayton were there, so we played together. It felt so wonderful that we said, “This is too right to not make this happen again,” so we decided to work as much as we could. I’m free-lancing now. I have to say that I’m honestly enjoying doing the things I’m doing right now, and I’m not working because I have to work. I look forward to getting on the bandstand with Monty every night, and when I sub with Woody’s band, it’s the same thing. I love to give drum clinics. I could give ten times as many as I’m giving. I’m doing a little bit of everything. I’ve started a big band with John Clayton with some great players like Snooky Young on trumpet, Bobby Bryant, Oscar Brashear, and George Bohanon. Ray Brown made the last rehearsal. We’re trying to get that working in the Los Angeles area.
RF: What’s going on with the L.A. 4?
JH: The L.A. 4 has become more of a side band for all of us, because Ray is active with Milt Jackson and he has his own trio. Since Bud Shank left the studios, he’s back on the road playing jazz and getting great reviews. He’s on his own and with Shorty Rogers. Laurindo Almeida is out with his wife, who is a singer. We also have a new guitar player whose name is Ron Eschete. If you add up the work, it will probably be about two and a half to three months a year. I think there still is an L.A. 4, but it hasn’t been the main band for those three guys for a long time. When I first moved to Los Angeles, that was my bread and butter, and the money was great for five months a year. I lived in an apartment, I was single, and I had no overhead.
RF: I feel as though you really lead the bands you work with.
JH: Big band drums should be a strong part of the band, and you have to lead the band at certain times, musically and visually. It’s required of you.
RF: How do you do that?
JH: I guess you do that by achieving that confidence we talked about before— knowing that your time feels good and that you were hired for your playing. There were a couple of incidents on Woody’s band where we were having time controversies. People who had been there for a few years felt that their time was where the arrangement should be played. I listened to what they had to say, tried it, and it didn’t work. That’s when I realized that Woody did hire me for my playing, so I had to go in and play it the way I thought it should be played. It altered things in a minor way. They were things they had gotten used to doing over a period of years, and all of a sudden, somebody brought in a new idea. You just have to feel that you’re solid enough and that your time is a good feel. That’s another thing John Von Ohlen instilled in me: If you’re playing good time, you’re feeling good about your playing, and you’re relaxed and happy with what you’re doing, that goes through the band and the audience. Everybody is having a good time, which is what everybody is there for.
Go in and be strong. Each leader is different. Woody was not in control of bringing the band in sometimes. He would give enough freedom to the rhythm section to do it. There were things he would give me freedom on. You have to know which tunes he counts off at the tempo he wants them and which tunes he doesn’t. For instance, “La Fiesta” is in 6/8, but he would turn around and say, ” ‘La Fiesta’, Chick Corea, one, two, three, four,” and we were supposed to start. The rhythm section would have to be intact from that moment to lay down a 6/8 feel. He did that because of his confidence in the rhythm section; you put it where you want it. But in the Basie band, the piano would set up the time, and Freddie Green, the guitarist, would lock it in for the rhythm section. Each band has its own way of letting the rhythm section do what it’s supposed to do. Woody counted off “Caladonia” with no relation as to how it was going to be played. That also gives you confidence that you can do the job, and you either sink or swim.
RF: I would like to explore what is required of you in each situation you’ve worked in.
JH: The great thing about Monty Alexander was that I had just been playing big band, and I was invited into a trio situation where I would not just be a timekeeper. I would also be a melodic small-group soloist with smaller drums and smaller cymbals. I could play more musically and not have to be so definite about 15 musicians knowing where the downbeat was. The trio really revealed what I needed to work on. I was pretty heavy-handed at the time from big band. The trio setting was completely new to me, although I had played in trios when I was 15 years old in Richmond, Indiana, at Elizabeth Parker’s Restaurant on Main Street. I really didn’t have an idea of trio playing at Monty’s level, though. It’s a lot subtler, but you must still have the energy behind the soft passages. I also learned that you have to keep the intensity inside and not let it get past your wrist. Otherwise, it’s going to be too loud. But you still have the intensity, because you’re thinking it and feeling it inside. You’re sweating, groaning, and grunting, but all you hear is “ding, ding, ding, ding.” It was great to have to learn that.
We talked about Woody’s band already—not too subtle, not soft. But the difference in that and the Basie band was that Woody has more blowing opportunities—more improvisation for drums. It’s more of a bebop band than the Basie band, and a drummer can loosen up and color a little more, instead of just being a rock-solid timekeeper.
The L.A. 4, up until the time I joined it, had been a very colorful chair for the percussionist. I am a jazz drummer, though, and don’t fancy myself a percussionist. I just want to play the bread and butter: the drumset. There had been a lot of bells and tinkling effects, which is the way Shelly had approached the band. He felt it should be a light-playing group and not too much of a strong group. That was what I was faced with. During the time we were negotiating, I actually told Ray, “I have to be honest with you. Everything sounds great—the corporation, the financial arrangement, you want me to write, you want me to arrange—except I’m not crazy about the tapes you gave me. I love everybody in this band on his own, but there’s something that is not touching me.” He said, “That’s why I called you in the band. You can put what you want in the band, and play the way you want to play.” I want you to understand that I’m not putting Shelly down, because Shelly was one of my idols and best friends, and I’m still not over missing him. But I just didn’t hear what I know Shelly Manne could do, what I know Ray Brown can do, and down the line. I felt the band should swing a little more and have some kind of groove in it, and I didn’t really want to play a lot of percussion things, although I did because that was part of the book. I slowly phased it out as much as I could, though. That was an opportunity that was dropped in my lap. At the first rehearsal, they all actually told me to play the way I wanted to, and they would tell me if it didn’t fit. I never heard a word.
RF: What about your own group?
JH: I did the album Indiana, which I enjoyed doing. I would like a shot at doing another album; however, record sales will dictate whether or not I’ll have that opportunity. Drum albums are not big sellers unless you’re Phil Collins . . .
RF: Because that’s not a drum album.
JH: That’s right. By the way, I loved seeing him on the Grammys, being so real. Here’s a real human being. The longer I’m in the business, that’s what I find I want. I won’t play with jerks anymore. I won’t mention names, but I had a problem racially with someone because I wasn’t black, and I will never play with that person again. I refuse to work with people who are not nice people. There are a lot of nice people who can play and who care about what they do. I don’t enjoy working with people who are strung out all the time. I don’t need that. That affects the music.
As for doing my own project, my goal is to keep doing what I’m doing for the rest of my life, which is not necessarily having my own band or my own record. That’s not a goal to me. If that happens, that’s okay, but I enjoy making music with people I love and care about. That’s currently what I’m doing. I found that you can’t get any better than that.
RF: In some of these bands, you might say you’re a sideman, but I almost get the feeling that, in a jazz situation, it’s much more of an ensemble. When you talk to rock people, they’re sidemen when they’re employed by an artist.
JH: I agree. I think the sidemen in jazz are sidemen because their names aren’t on the marquee. They’re not getting the most money in the band but very close to it, and sometimes the sidemen’s names are on the marquee. With Monty Alexander, the names are up because we’re a trio, and all three of us are equal as far as contributing to the music goes. That’s what I want to do; I don’t just want to play for somebody.
RF: What equipment do you use?
JH: I play Gretsch drums with calfskin heads. I use calf on top and Fiberskyn II’s on the bottom.
RF: Why the calf?
JH: There’s a feel that is so pure from a calf head. When you put a stick on a calf head, the feel of it is unlike any plastic that is made. The closest to the calf head is the Fiberskyn II, medium. The calfskin head produces such a warm sound in a drum that it’s worth all the headaches of having to tune it three times during a gig, although sometimes it doesn’t have to be tuned at all. I used to use them on top and bottom, but I learned my lesson in Washington, D.C., at Wolftrap in July ’78, when it was damp and very humid, and I couldn’t play the drums. You should only put the calf heads where you can get to them and tune them. You can’t get to the bottom easily.
Calf heads have a wood hoop around them, and when you put this on wood drumshells and then put a drum hoop over that, you’re not getting metal against metal, so you’re not getting that false ring. As the shell vibrates after you hit the drum, you’re not getting the metal against metal vibrating. You’re getting the wood hoop, which is deadening against the metal hoop of the drum, so it’s producing warmer, lower overtones. I don’t use any muffling. I have a pair of men’s underwear in the bass drum. From time to time, I use the internal tone control on the snare drum, but no other tone controls on any other drum.
I use Zildjian cymbals. I use a 19″ A mini-cup with three rivets in it for trio playing and small-group things. That is my main ride cymbal. I have this Chinese cymbal that I got in Amsterdam for $70 in 1975. I drove a hole in the bell myself and put about ten rivets in it. Zildjian, in fact, uses my cymbal for research. I’m using New Beat hi-hats, which I got in about 1975. Most of my cymbals are old, warm, and dark. I like getting that sound out of them. I have a 75- or 80-year-old K Zildjian that belonged to my drum teacher, John McMahan, in Indiana. For big band cymbals, I use a 24″ K, one of the original cymbals from Istanbul, which I got when I went in the Dorsey Band, and I move the sizzle over on the left and use that for a crash-ride. I pretty much use the same cymbals on everything. I just try to change the stroke if they need a different sound.
RF: Do you endorse Gretsch?
JH: I’ve been on that company’s roster since 1974. Gretsch did some heavy advertising when I was on Woody’s band until about ’78. Since then, I’ve gone through something like six presidents of the company, and you get lost in the shuffle. The only jazz player I know who Gretsch is doing anything with is Tony Williams. My complaint with drum companies, and especially Gretsch, is that they’re forgetting about the jazz people who put them on the map in the first place. Gretsch lost Mel Lewis and Elvin Jones when the company swept jazz drumming under the carpet, because jazz drummers don’t sell 15-piece drumsets. Kids will see somebody in a rock group who plays the kit, and the company will sell the drums. Jazz drummers just won’t sell the great quantities of drums that somebody in the limelight will. It’s business, and I understand it, but loyalty is loyalty. I’ve had offers from other companies for years, but my sound is the Gretsch drum sound.
RF: You work with brushes a lot.
JH: Brushes, to me, are a dying art, and those who play with brushes do not spend enough time trying to create new sounds or different things. Most of the good brush players are 50 years old or older, and there’s a reason for that. When people started plugging in their instruments to play, there was no need for brushes; you couldn’t hear them. That was the decline of the brushes. I got started because a pair was thrown in with my first drumset when I was 13. I thought, “I wonder what these are?” My parents had some Louie Armstrong and Basie records. I heard them and thought, “I wonder how they’re getting that sound?” When I saw the brushes, I put it together. I was fascinated by them from the first time I saw them. Then having to play that trio in town, I had to experiment and try to come up with how to play time and how to play softly. I didn’t get all that great at it, but John Von Ohlen showed me that lateral-stroke approach, which was coming in from the side, instead of playing like they were sticks. He came in from the side with brushes, and it got a much warmer sound. I took that and ran with it. When I was with Monty Alexander, I had a lesson with Philly Joe Jones in Philadelphia. He spent about four hours with me and quite a bit of time on brushes. That opened a door for me to go ahead and do what I wanted to do with them. I still use some of his basic strokes. I feel that, if you’re strong enough in something, you can change what’s going on in the business. If you play brushes well, people will come to you. I get called for brushes a lot. I did a record with Keely Smith recently, and almost all of it was brushes. I enjoy that. I’ll take gigs that I know are going to be basically quiet, because sometimes I’d rather play brushes all night than pick up the sticks.
RF: Since it is such a dying art, where can a young player learn to play brushes well?
JH: Apprenticeship. I go to Scottsdale and teach at the Creative Drum Shop every three months. I’m the visiting jazz teacher there. I will go in and teach from 10:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night, and I may give five brush lessons a day. I would love to get that going at some other drum shops around the country because I enjoy it. The students I’m getting are mostly people who have been through the technical training, and are just trying to find their own concept and style.
RF: We started this conversation on the availability of jazz gigs. You obviously make a good living, but that’s not really common. When we did our Update, you seemed very unwilling to compromise. What are your feelings now?
JH: The same. That has been my feeling for years, and it will continue to be the same. I don’t want to do studio work.
RF: Yet, you said you didn’t want to be on the road that much.
JH: That’s why I said I want to do exactly what I’m doing now, which is be on the road maybe five or six months a year and make the amount of money I make by doing that, then fill in the other six months by teaching and doing clinics.
RF: You must realize that you’re very, very lucky. Most people have to compromise.
JH: Sure they do, and I admire them for doing that. I would probably do it, too, if the bottom fell out. I had a very slow period about four years ago when, all of a sudden, the L.A. 4 did maybe three gigs that year. I got married in May of ’82, I went out for a week after the wedding, and that’s all we did for that year. I didn’t have any income, and I hadn’t hustled for any other work. I had a rough year financially and musically, too, because I was accepting gigs that were jazz gigs, but they weren’t good jazz gigs and they weren’t good financial gigs either. I thought, “Listen, you’ve been uncompromising since you were 19 years old.” So that year I decided that I might get into some studio work if it were thrown in my lap. I wouldn’t like it, but I’d go ahead and do it, because as you get older, you learn there are more important things in your life. I kept telling myself that I was being very selfish—that I had someone else to think about now. I started doing studio work, and the work started coming in. Being lucky, as you said, is a disadvantage, too, because everyone looks at you as being lucky, so everyone thinks you’ve got all the work in the world. “He’s always busy, so why don’t we give it to Bob Moore or to so-and-so?”
The other thing you can look at is how many people are doing what I’m doing in the style of music I’m doing. It’s getting more and more limited as years go on. Before I was married, I actually thought I would leave the music business and sell shoes or men’s clothes, if I could not play the music I loved to play. It’s not worth it to me to go into a job I don’t want to play and dread it. Music is something I’ve always loved, and I don’t want to go into it as a nine-to-five. I’d be punching in, doing my four hours, and getting out of there as soon as I could. I always thought how horrible it would be to do that. I think I still feel that way. I’d open a pipe shop or a tennis shop instead of playing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.” I don’t think I could do that. I hope I’m uncompromising, playing the music I believe in. I don’t think that’s going to ever change.