“I’m an orchestrator,” Ndugu Chancler told me when we spoke for his first Modern Drummer feature, in 1983. “The drums are just the instrument I use to orchestrate and paint the picture.” Chancler, who passed away on February 3 at the age of sixty-five, “orchestrated” not only the music of top jazz artists, he backed pop stars, country legends, funksters, and rock icons alike. He was a man of many hyphens: a producer-composer-arranger-drummer-percussionist-vocalist. He studied the business side of the industry, and started a production company. He raised his cymbals high to set himself apart visually. He played drums on the biggest-selling album of all time. And he spent the last twenty-three years sharing his knowledge in the Popular Music program at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.
“All my life there’s been like a show biz air around my personality,” Ndugu said, and there was no reason to dispute the contention. Chancler was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was eight, and attended Locke High School, where he was a classmate of famed keyboardist Patrice Rushen. While studying music at California State University, Dominguez Hills, the drummer was already playing gigs with Gerald Wilson and Freddie Hubbard. He adopted the Swahili name Ndugu (“Earth Brother”) while playing in Herbie Hancock’s trailblazing Mwandishi sextet. Stints followed with Miles Davis (Chancler was still in his teens at the time), Weather Report, Hugh Masekela, Frank Sinatra, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Rogers, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Santana, and Stanley Clarke.
Later, Chancler was called to work on high-profile film soundtracks including The Color Purple, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Indecent Proposal. And most famously, Ndugu teamed up with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones on the Thriller and Bad albums. His drumbeat opening on Jackson’s hit “Billie Jean” was described by Roots drummer Questlove in a tribute to Ndugu as “the greatest example of something so simple that you take it for granted. But if you truly dissect it, it’s a complex, compelling performance…[that] literally gives MJ his DNA.”
The same year that Thriller was released (1982), Chancler and his production company partner, Reggie Andrews, received a Grammy nomination for writing the Dazz Band’s hit “Let It Whip.” Chancler penned “Sister Serene” and “Reach for It” for George Duke, and co-wrote and produced “Dance, Sister, Dance” and “Take Me With You” for Santana. “As human beings we all have talent,” Ndugu told me. “We’re not always aware of what our talents are when it counts. The ones that end up being successful are the ones that are aware of their talent and develop it enough to a point that when the opportunity comes for them to show that talent, they can utilize that space.”
Chancler joined the Popular Music Program at USC in 1995. According to his drum students, Ndugu often talked about becoming a complete musician. He taught them how to listen to music, insisting that they know what all the instruments in the band were doing, not just the drums. “We shouldn’t just focus on what the drums are doing—that would be very one-sided,” senior drum student Kelly Cruz said in a tribute the school posted on its website. He expected much of his students, and, according to alum Ian Wurfl, “He had the ability to interact with any kind of music, and enlighten it and raise it up. I can say that for every week of the four years I studied with him, I got better.”
Professor and program founder Chris Sampson said Chancler was an inspiration to the teachers as well as students. “Ndugu kept us all at such a high standard of accountability,” he wrote on the school website. “Every year we would come together as faculty and [discuss] how we could continue to do things better, how things could be improved. Ndugu was at the center of that belief that we could always work better for the students.”
In a letter to those students following Chancler’s passing, his long-time friend (and chair of the Popular Music Program) Patrice Rushen wrote, “Ndugu truly cared about you—not only as students, but as gifted, creative spirits and talented musicians, capable of moving the music forward and ready to receive his years of knowledge, experience, and insight with which to create your own vibrant, professional careers.
“Your teacher was tremendously respected and loved worldwide by musicians and fans,” Rushen went on, “across all genres of contemporary music! There is no area of popular music or jazz in which he did not play with the best of the best. Let his tremendous body of work bring you joy. Joy truly describes what it was like to know and play with Ndugu.”
“As drummers, we realize we all need to keep going like he would want us to do,” Kelly Cruz said. “He wouldn’t want us to sulk forever. Now we have to carry on his legacy.”
Chancler is survived by his son, Rashon Chancler, and his common-law wife, Brenda Curry. In a letter from the family, Rashon gave insight into the nature of Leon “Ndugu” Chancler. “As most know, I am his only child,” he wrote. “However, as the sharing, caring person that he is, he took in many kids and individuals, and treated them as if they were his own. He sponsored and funded kids for percussion and education trips, offering his own home. Through his humanitarian nature, I have gained many non-blood relatives who I consider family. Although he was a well-traveled working musician, he put family first and instilled God, life values, and humility in me that I will always hold dear.”