Max Roach is a vital link in the chain of drum history. He was recognized as the man who pioneered a modern drumming style for his work with bebop giants like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

In the Fifties and Sixties, Max led a number of different bands that were incredible. The arrangements were often innovative (for instance, Max was the first drummer to have the bass player accompany the drum solo, so that the listener could hear the changes of the song as if he were listening to a horn player) and his early work with voices and percussion at that time was always searching and mostly brilliant.

Then Max disappeared from “the scene” and concentrated on teaching at The University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts. When he finally came back on the scene he was better than ever, and in addition to his fine quartet, Max organized M’Boom, a percussion ensemble of multi-talented percussionists who were all excellent jazz musicians. M’Boom brought a whole new look to the percussion ensemble and continues to do so.

SF: I was listening to your album Chattahoochee Red. I wanted to ask about “The Dream.” The significance of that song and the importance of a dream to human beings.

MR: Actually, that was a duet with voice. I think it grows out of some of the things I’m interested in besides playing with bands and with other instruments. I’m also interested in doing “mixed” or multimedia things: using a drummer in contexts other than just drums. Of course. Martin Luther King’s voice is, perhaps, one of the most musical voices that there is: the way he phrases, timbre, style: plus he has a message that is celebrative. So, I picked that particular piece to do in two parts with a drum solo. A talking, speaking voice and a drum solo which is very musical. As you say, everybody does have a dream. Of course. Martin Luther King’s dream is a dream deferred in a sense.

You’re also recycling materials. I’ve worked on pieces where I’ve used recorded speeches, new speeches, a chorus of people who t a l k in a montage with a percussion ensemble. It’s a great effect. Of course, these things aren’t for the commercial market. They’re mostly theatrical. So, I’m interested in those areas of performance and I know “The Dream” grows out of those kinds of experiences.

SF: I saw you perform in 1974, I think, at The Jazz Showcase in Chicago. You stepped up to the microphone and said something that struck me as very profound. You mentioned the names of many of the great people you’ve been associated with, and you said, “The thing that made these people great was that they were able to make their presence felt among people, without being oppressive. Beyond that they all had one original idea that you could hear every time they played.”

MR: They had something of their own.

SF: If I remember right, you said that we were all looking for that one original idea in our own lives.

MR: Right. Trying to find our own musical character. You know, you’re always striving to reach out and find new ways to do things. I’m forever trying to do something else with whatever I’ve already been involved in. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But, at least you keep on trying because if you get caught up in formulas that you know will work, sometimes it can stunt your creativity. I mean, we all are trying to be creative, so to speak. If you know that certain things will work or certain arrangements will work, this musical attitude will work, you can stay with that for a moment. But you’re cheating the creative aspect of your work if you just rely on that, and you never try to do anything else. I have a great deal of respect for artists who take chances.

SF: Like your duets with Anthony Braxton?

MR: Yeah. The duets came out of that kind of concept. I’m not the only one who does it! I think that Miles does it. Some groups kind of stay in the same format. M’Boom is reaching out. It’s an attitude of taking a group of percussionists— jazz players in particular—and involving them in the total percussion concept to see what you come up with! Now we know that it can be done. We know we can take a group of percussionists who are sensitive enough to listen to each other very carefully, and improvise and deal with everything, although our music is annotated as well as improvisational. It has both elements in it. We set up something with written sections and then we let the imagination of the players relate to what has been written: the mood, the timbre, and the ambiance of the written parts. And it took us time to work it out.

You have to work with the people for a while. I was talking to Jo Jones one day. He commented something like, “It’s very important how a person develops his own musical personality.” He says, “First, you have to be in a situation for a few years, the same musical setting, so that you can develop your character. Much the same as an actor in a play. If somebody gives you a script and you take a character and develop it, that character becomes you with the way you deal with that character.” Well, Jo Jones was explaining why today there might not be as much individuality among players as there was when he was coming up. You could always tell, “Oh, that’s Sidney Catlett, ” or “That’s Krupa.” Or “That’s Jo Jones,” or “This is O’Neil Spencer.” You could hear it right away and know that’s this person. Well, Jo said these people had an opportunity to work in one situation for a time so they could develop their own musical character within that situation. When they left there, then they had established their musical character so when they played the first few notes, you knew who it was. Some of the people today can do that because of developing that way. I notice most of the people who have an easily identifiable musical character are those who are with steady groups and they travel around.

You have to be there to play every night and deal with your instrument, and with yourself in a situation that allows you a chance to experiment and add and discard, and add and discard, until finally you come up with something.

SF: As far back as I can remember from listening to your records, you’ve always had an identifiable sound. Can you remember a time when someone might have listened to you and not known it was Max Roach?

MR: Well, there must’ve been a time. I’ll tell you something that has happened. In high school the people I grew up with—like Cecil Payne—we all strived to find our own kind of identity. We were aware of that because the “old-timers” would tell us when we got a chance to go to the theaters and hang out backstage and listen. They would always make sure that you knew that the only way you were going to get over, really get over, was to find your own musical personality. Everybody knew who Coleman Hawkins was and what he sounded like. Everyone knew how Chick Webb dealt with things. Today, we have all kinds of techniques which go along with what’s happening today. If you get a hit record, it’s beholding upon me to piggyback the record that you have and vice versa. That’s part of this business. But, I do believe that the artists who have really taken the time to develop their craft and pursue the part of themselves that stands out in any situation, and that pursues their musical personality. I think they seem to last longer. They may not get rich overnight, but they last longer. Sometimes they do get rich overnight!

SF: Is it difficult, economically, to try to make money with a band on the road today than it was in the ’40s and ’50s?

MR: I think it depends on who the artists are and how much money they can demand. It’s complex today. If you have a record out, is the record being promoted or pushed? Then trying to stay above the high cost of transportation and all of the other things that keep a group on the road.

SF: In the ’50s, in the band with Clifford Brown, if you wanted to take that band on the road what was involved?

MR: The overhead wasn’t that great. We traveled by car. We had two cars for the five of us. We had no problems. We didn’t make a lot of money but we took care of our bills and took care of our families.

SF: Do you consider it important for musicians to be aware of the business aspects of music?

MR: I think it’s important to be aware of it. I think the musician should know what it’s about so that he can check and cross-check his agents and managers so he won’t be taken advantage of. But. I think professional negotiators and folks like that should be involved in handling a person’s business. A musician should have accountants and negotiators and legal expertise. These are essential with today’s business.

But, when we teach up there at U. Mass or I get to advise a student, I tell him to concentrate on the art. Concentrate on developing technique in every aspect. I’m a firm believer that every drummer should also perform on a melodic instrument—mallet instrument preferably, and, of course, keyboard harmony on piano. I teach theory at the school. That was my major in school; not percussion. So, when I get a student who plays a melodic instrument, I insist that they learn how to keep time on drums. If I have the reed section I insist that they have a jam session amongst themselves and create their own rhythm section out of the reed section. The drummers should do the same kind of thing. They should have the melodic and harmonic properties available to themselves and learn these properties. It all helps, even though their major is percussion. So, that when you sit down you’re not just sitting in there as a percussionist and that’s all you’re aware of. You’re aware of everything that’s going on around you. I find, especially working with M’Boom, that today some of the most interesting and original compositional concepts are coming from percussion players. I listen to some of Tony William’s work. I listen to some of the things Billy Cobham does. It’s interesting and it’s another concept. So, I encourage students who are drummers and percussion players to do more writing as well. That’s another thing.

I think that musicians who play instruments of determinate pitch can play an instrument of indeterminate pitch and vice versa. That completes the musician. It makes the musician a complete person, musically speaking.

SF: Piano was your first instrument wasn’t it?

MR: Yes, I play the whole percussion family. But, it all comes out of knowing something about keyboard harmony, which isn’t demanding. Knowing theoretically what music is about. How to create melodies, harmonies and what harmony and progressions are. All that information fits the whole indeterminate pitch family.

SF: What size drums are you playing now?

MR: I’m playing a 22″ bass drum, 12″ and 13″ mounted toms, a 16″ floor tom, and a 14″ which is a tunable floor tom.

SF: Back in the ’50s and ’60s jazz drummers were primarily using the smaller size drums: 18″ bass, 12″ mounted tom and 14″ floor tom. I’ve heard that one of the main reasons drummers used that size drum was because they were easier to transport than larger drums.

MR: Exactly. It made it easier to get from town to town. Pack up your gear, put it in your car, and off you go. That was one of the main reasons I think. Plus, the bass drum had begun to become less and less an integral part of the whole musical set-up. It’s different now. The bass drum, at that time, would stamp out what was happening with the acoustic bass. Even the pianists would leave that part. They would voice their chords so the bottom of the piano would be in thirds and sevenths instead of tonics and fifths. They left that part for the acoustic bass. So, your bass drum would only be used for accents and supports. So the small drum was great, plus, you didn’t have all the electronics around you, so you didn’t need that power there. There were many reasons for it. But, today you do need that power with the electronic scene.

SF: Did you and people like Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones ever get together and toss around ideas?

MR: Oh yes. By listening to other people you can learn what to do and what not to do.

SF: Were the older drummers receptive to you as a young guy? Could you go up to Baby Dodds or Jo Jones and say, “Hey, what is that you’re doing?” Or would they say “Get lost kid”?

MR: They would have to come to you. I wouldn’t dare approach them. You’d learn from them by watching and listening to records and watching and listening to them whenever they’d come to town. It’s not so much asking them “how” they did it, as to the fact that they could do something creative. You don’t necessarily want to do what they did but you want to be as creative as they are. That’s what it is. So, you may ask, “Well, how do you do such and such a thing?” They’ll never show you how to do it. But, you saw it and figured out your way of dealing with it so you can preserve your own individuality, contrary to saying, “Okay, you must hold the stick like this. You must do this with the right hand and left hand.” No. Then that would make you a slave to someone else’s technique.

I had an interesting experience. I went to Haiti and saw a great, great drummer there. I watched him teach a student and it was very close to the way we learned. We used to listen to records and take off the record what the person was doing. You didn’t see the person. You’d just hear it. We’d figure out what was happening with our ears. Then we’d duplicate the sound. Well, he taught that way. He’d put a student in another room with a partition. Then he’d make a sound on the drum and the student would have to imitate the sound. When I asked him why he taught like that and why he would never have the student look at how he did things, he said it was because everybody’s anatomy is different. So, it’s beholding upon the student to listen and then figure out a way to create that sound.

SF: Do you think it’s a bad approach for a kid to learn from a book that might have a Steve Gadd drum part written out with the sticking?

MR: It’s always been like that, even with the old books. They always put stickings in. But. I know what you mean. What would happen when we’d learn the stickings, sometimes I would play something that sounded like what I heard on a record. I’d create my own stickings and it would be totally different when I’d go to a theater and see Jo Jones do it. I’d say, “Wow, he does it completely different.” But, the sound was, there. I had the sound. Getting that involved with sticking makes you lazier. You can create the same sound so many different ways as far as sticking is concerned.

I never think about sticking. I just hear the sound. I hear a certain amount of sound in a certain amount of space and how you create the sound in that space doesn’t necessarily depend on the sticking. I’d be interested to slow it all down and say, “Aha, that’s what my sticking was.” But, basically it’s singles and doubles, unless you’re going to switch over sometimes.

SF: How did you learn how to tune your drums?

MR: Well, basic tuning for me is, if a drum is large and has got space, I figure it should be lower than another drum. I don’t tune for a particular pitch like thirds and fifths. But, I do tune for a “live” sound. Today’s tuning is not like that. Today’s tuning is for a flat sound. Mine is a “live” sound. Each drum has its own character. There’s high and various shades of medium down to the lowest or largest drum. Then it depends on what you want to do and how you want the instrument to sound. I think that the freedom drummers enjoy because they don’t have to adhere to intervals means that you’re constantly being surprised. You may come in one night and the weather has gotten everything soggy. You listen to that, and if you play with the same attitude, it almost fits the atmosphere. We’re not slaves to A 440 or to keys. So, we have the kind of freedom that is a privilege.

SF: It must have been nuts with calf heads.

MR: I loved calf heads because sometimes if the weather was damp there was a certain mood that everybody’s psyche was in because of the weather, and it goes along with that.

SF: The mood would be reflected in the drums?

MR: Right. And it would fit.

SF: How would it affect you if you were used to a tight drum and you came around on a roll and the response was mush?

MR: That’s something different. You don’t let that upset you. You just go along with it.

SF: When you were a kid and you got your first set of drums, who was the first person to teach you how to tune them?

MR: Well, at that time the snare always sounded crisp and the tom-toms always rang. That flat sound wasn’t there. It was always a ringing sound. Then you had to be careful, too. If the sound is too flat, it doesn’t carry unless you’re really miked. That’s another thing. Everything was acoustic then and your drum had to have many microphones. And different people would tell you that a snare drum has to sound like a snare drum, which was tight. And your side drums and tom-toms had to sound like that. They had to give you another character and also another color. So, you worked that out. But, the main thing was that you want it to project. You tuned it so that your large tom-tom was deeper than your small tom-tom but it still had to project. So everything was tuned up. Recording a percussion instrument, at that time the techniques were nowhere near like they are today. You can have a flat sound, just a “blah” sound, and it’ll record beautifully with today’s techniques. It would get lost at that time, so you had to tune accordingly. There was a certain tuning you used for recording and a certain tuning you used for live performances. You kind of picked it up and learned yourself. You would hear it. You’d go into a studio and when the drum was played back, if it didn’t sound the way it sounded to you in the studio, then you’d try different things. When it was played back and you heard the sound you wanted, then that was the way you tuned your instrument.

Or, you’d go to hear somebody and this was the way you’d learn tuning. It’s the way I learned it. I’d go hear somebody and I’d say, “Oh, that drum sounds too hard,” so I would tune mine down. Or it sounds too flat so I’d tune mine up. I didn’t want to sound like that. Maybe this person didn’t take time to tune his bass drum and his bass drum just died, and when you’d go to look at his bass drum it was too loose and you understood. So, you learn tuning from listening to others and listening to yourself by way of recordings. With today’s tech niques you can hear your kit in any kind of situation.

SF: M’Boom has been around about ten years hasn’t it?

MR: Yeah. Sometimes we’d lay out of it for two years or something like that because I went up to U. Mass, to do some teaching. Whenever someone would come up with a job is when we’d get together. But, we’ve been around about ten years.

SF: How long was the preparation for the first M’Boom album?

MR: We gave ourselves about a year, but we were in the studio only three days. But, when I say a year it wasn’t constant. If I was in town and everybody was available we’d get together. Finally, everybody would bring in material and we had more than enough material. It broke itself down into using, I think eight pieces on the LP.

SF: Did CBS think you were crazy when you came in with the idea?

MR: First of all they said. “Eight drummers?” I think they may have suspected we were going to have eight drumsets in there. But no, it was only two sets of drums and so forth.

SF: I wanted to ask you about a quote of yours from the back of the Gene Norman album. “Listening and talking to the symphony cats gave me a great sense of the dignity of the art and inspired me to strive for high standards. I guess there’s no substitute for perfection.”

MR: That quote was made some years ago. However, since that time I’ve changed quite a bit. I find that the so called “classical” musicians that I’m impressed with are composers and soloists. Certain composers; certainly the masters all the way up to now. I particularly like people like Puccini, Bach, Beethoven on up to Stockhausen.

As far as working in a large orchestra is concerned, that’s something I don’t believe I ever could do because it all seems so boring to me to have to play the same material that someone else is responsible for over and over again. I think this music that we call “jazz,” this area of American music, freed musicians. Now a musician who deals in this music can create and perform his own creativity spontaneously. That’s what this music has done for musicians totally. If you have to sit in an orchestra and play parts of someone else’s ideas, I think that’s very democratic, and it’s a new way of doing things in a sense, and it’s highly disciplined because everybody has to be on the same plane technically as far as the music is concerned. Everybody has to be aware of what the tempo or the rhythms are, the keys, and the harmonic progressions, and also the implications involved in the melody.

SF: Let me ask you this: If you could establish The Max Roach School of Music, how would you run it? What areas of music would you stress for a kid that wanted to concentrate on the creative area of percussion?

MR: I think the main thing about education, for me, is that a person is supposed to go into an institution, or go to a teacher, and they should come away with the equipment that would help them to survive out here, doing what you have taught them to do. It could be music, it could be literature—whatever area. Education is so we can learn things to become contributing citizens to the nation or the society that we live in. That’s basically what I would hope to do. I would want to prepare a student to deal with any kind of a situation, if that were possible. And I think only here, in the United States of America, is that possible. I find that today, many of the musicians who work with symphony orchestras are familiar with improvisational techniques, and you will find them at a jam session. Prepare musicians so that they can deal with as many things as possible so they can make a living. That’s what I would try to do with a student. I would in NO WAY deal with a student the way our educational system today deals with students, in the majority of our schools of higher learning, where everything is so one dimensional. That means if you’re a piano major or a percussion major you have to learn standard, predominantly European repertoire, which you would only deal with if you were with a symphony orchestra. I think that’s unfair.

Our educational system on a cultural level is strictly Germanic. Strictly Germanic. We’re not a bi-lingual people and we’re not a bi-cultural people, and that’s the fault of our educational system. We should be much more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, if you will, than any other nation in the world because it’s not a homogeneous society that we live in. In England it’s all English. In Nigeria it’s all Nigerian and it’s African. In Japan it’s all Japanese. But here in the United States of America the sociological mix is everything.

So, when we go to school, we go to school with just about every racial mix, and admixture, if you will, and religious makeup or composition. Everything! That’s what we go to school with. But still in all, we’re just taught one particular thing. It doesn’t reflect the sociological makeup of this country. I would deal with a student to prepare that student to be as comfortable in an orchestral situation, where he has to be re-creative, and interpret other people’s work, as well as for the students to be able to deal with their own creativity from an improvisational, as well as, an annotated point of view. Any drummer who studied with me, these are things that they would have to do.

I would advise any student to prepare themselves and get some kind of a BM or a BA in music. At the University of Massachusetts we’ve in some ways solved the problem. A student can get a Bachelor of Music degree with a concentration in jazz, which means the first two years of studies would prepare them to take a teaching job in an elementary school system or a high school system. If they want to get into a Master’s or advanced degrees, of course they can teach on a college level. By the same token, the first two years, they’re taught what we would call the formal, one dimensional musical thing. After that, their junior and senior year they are able to concentrate solely on improvisational things, writing for Broadway shows, for big bands, for small combinations, or dealing with rock. Anything they want. Writing for film. They are able to deal with contemporary things so that when they come out of school, if they don’t get a job teaching or they don’t want to teach, or, if they can’t get a job in an orchestra or something like that . . . I find graduate music students who are teaching in gymnastic schools! They’ve got a Master’s in music. That’s because they’re waiting for somebody to retire in an orchestra or die, or waiting for a teaching job. They don’t do that, and they haven’t been prepared to deal with any kind of improvisational or contemporary music.

So, I would want a student to be prepared to do all those things. If he wants to play for an orchestra—he can! If he wants to play with a big band—he can! If he wants to get a job with a rock group—he can! If he wants to get a job with a straight-ahead group or if he wants to write. I believe strongly in drummers dealing with the compositional aspect of music. I think they will bring something new and fresh to composition because of the way they come to their instruments. The way they respond to the music by way of the instruments will bring some new ideas and new forms to what composition is about. Heretofore, all the composers have been pianists and people who played instruments of determinate pitch. They’ve always been the order of the day.

Max Roach

Of course, in order for a percussionist—a “drummer” if you will—to deal with composition, they have to also deal with instruments of determinant pitch, keyboard harmony, and all the essential things to writing music, which are the rules to improvisation as well. I find that some of the best drummers write a lot of their own music. Al Mouzon, Tony Williams, and then I go back to Louis Bellson, for example, a very fine orchestrator of things; like a composer. I go back to Kenny Clarke! The first record I heard of Kenny Clarke was an old Edgar Hayes 1938 recording where Kenny played vibraphone. He didn’t play drums; he was a vibraphonist. Art Blakey was a pianist. Papa Jo plays piano. Philly Joe Jones writes good things for big band. He plays piano. I think it all helps. So a student with me would have to go through all of that, not just the drumset itself.

SF: Do you teach privately now?

MR: I don’t teach any percussion up at U. of M. Dr. Peter Tanner teaches percussion. Sometimes he’ll introduce me to a student who is really interested in this area of the instrument and I’ll take that student on. I do a lot with the students as far as time is concerned. In any time signature, but basic time, breathing, and shading. I don’t teach technique. If you really want to strengthen your wrists and your feet and all these kind of things—that’s just hours. The students have to deal with that themselves. You can tell a student he has to put the hours in to get fast hands. It’s just hard work. Singles and doubles predominantly. Just doing it!

Independence was first introduced to me by Baby Dodds. He would play quarter notes on the bass drum, shuffle rhythm with the left hand, Charleston on the hi-hat, and the chit-ta-chang swing beat with the right hand. He played all those things at one time, and that was swing and independence. When we started dealing with a group of musicians who came from Africa, dancers and drummers, in the early Forties, that’s where I became aware of two against three. Because the basic hand drum beat is two against three. I realized that when I did that research trip in Ghana. Everything’s based on two against three. When you play two against three on the conga drum, that’s the basic beat. Independence has always been there. Baby Dodds and on up—we’ve always expressed it.

SF: When you came up, the bebop school of drumming was a reflection of that era in the U.S. Do you think it’s possible for someone like myself—and I’m 30 years old—to learn to play that style?

MR: Yeah, if you would deal with the music. If you played the music of that period you would lean into that. It’s just like if you sat in with the Basie band. There’s a certain way that music takes you. There are certain things that you would do automatically with the Basie band. It’s the same thing if you would play Charlie Parker’s music. I never considered myself a bebop musician, because I was a sideman working with Dizzy and Bird. I really didn’t start dealing with myself musically until I started having my own groups, writing my own music, and designing things that I could deal with. If you notice, I never did extended solos until I got my own groups. With Charlie Parker I played four bars in exchange, or maybe played an eight bar bridge and that was it! Then, the only thing was the so-called “front line.” The horns were the front line and the drummer was like the n****r of the band. He was the guy who was always waiting, and then when he did play an extended solo, everybody would go off the stage and leave him up there. It didn’t become musical until the front line came back. I resented all that.

SF: Did you ever make that known?

MR: Of course! I’d tell the front line, ‘You know, I’m breaking my back accompanying you folks, and then when I play a solo, an extended solo, which is usually once a week, everybody just lays out! Why can’t you accompany me as well? Can’t you think of something to do with me?” They told me to write it. They said, “Write it out and we’ll do it.” And that’s what I did.

SF: Couldn’t they hear?

MR: No, because nobody had set any precedents as to how the horns should accompany rhythm. Even today, when I did the record with Anthony Braxton— he just did it automatically. He would imitate a bass drum, and play in the high register of the horn, just keep quarter time, or he would just play things behind me. I would just rattle all through it.

SF: You were the first person to play drum solos with bass accompaniment, right?

MR: Yeah. When I did my album It’s Time, I wrote some things, but basically I think it should be an improvisational attitude. When drummers are playing, horn players should color the way we color behind them! It’s always been like that. To me, it’s a matter of imagination and it also has something to do with humility. Drummers have a great deal of humility in order to stay underneath somebody all that time, and give them support constantly, and get little reward for it.

I notice in the history books, when they talk about new trends and things that happened, they say, “This is the period of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; This is the period of Miles Davis; This is the period of Louis Armstrong. They never say anything about the drummers! Now this is the period of fusion. They say this is the period of rock. But, you know, for every one of those things, the reason that there is a change is rhythmic things. It has nothing to do with the horns! They’re still going from C to F, or just doing an A minor mode or whatever it is! This is where they are basically. So, the rhythm changed!

SF: What was going on during the transition period when you were playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie? Did it change your melodic concept?

MR: No, No. When I first came on 52nd St., I was playing piano. I played drums as well, but I’d get calls sometimes to play piano.

SF: Are there any recordings of you on piano?

MR: No. I never made any albums. I wouldn’t dare. Lately I have been doing some things. In Europe if I record I play some piano. I’ve done that on my latest album. But, you know, when you work with people like Bud Powell and Art Tatum you just don’t deal with it because you hear and see what can be done with the instrument. With me it was just that at the time they needed a pianist and that was that.

SF: A drum teacher/author told me that Dizzy Gillespie was largely responsible for what the bebop drummers were playing.

MR: That’s not true. The people who were responsible for me playing what I played on drums were Chick Webb, Sidney Catlett . . . not horn players or pianists. They don’t know anything about the instrument! Let’s get that together. The people I listened to in order to learn how to play this instrument were Chick Webb, Sidney Catlett, the Kenny Clarkes, the O’Neil Spencers, these folks. That’s where I learned how to play this instrument. Not from Dizzy Gillespie or from Miles Davis or anybody else!

SF: I’ve never heard O’Neil Spencer play.

MR: He was a magician with brushes.

SF: There are not many recordings of him.

MR: Yeah, but you know in those days the recording industry always messed up the drummer in the back. This was really… what do you call it… cultural discrimination. The first record date I had. Dizzy had gotten me to do this date with Coleman Hawkins. When I got to the studio they put a lot of blankets over the drums and everything else. I said, “Dizzy, listen! If you don’t want a drummer on the date, I’m going home.” He said, “Just be cool.” And I suffered through that. That was done about 1944. Finally, pounding with all this stuff on and way over in the corner of the studio at that time, I finally played “chut-cha BOOM.” Two eighth notes and the bass drum. And everybody heard. It was like a new thing to hear! It sounded very soft like “b-b-boom.” I listen to the record now and I say, “Well . . . .” But at that time, the drums were always felt and not heard.

SF: I wanted to ask you about the development of your solo pieces like “Conversation” and “For Big Sid.”

MR: It was just compositional form. After you get past, say, the “techniques” of an art form—and we’re dealing with music—even though you play a melodic or an instrument of indeterminate pitch, no matter what you do on that instrument, if you are running up and down that instrument with all kinds of pyrotechnical things it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense. It doesn’t mean anything even though you’re playing the right changes, and all the right notes that are coinciding with the chordal progression. What makes a piece an art piece is design. If you play any instrument, and you don’t create design; if the artist doesn’t know how to utilize space and sound, the dynamics of soft and loud, and all the little things, then it’s not a piece anyway, whether you’re playing an instrument of determinate or indeterminate pitch.

I hear some people who run up and down the piano and it’s not musical. All I can say is, “Well, he’s got good technique.” But, I never say he’s playing music, or he’s creating some design. So, when I build a solo, it’s design within the structure of something, sometime. Basically it’s design. Like creating a poem, a painting, or anything else. It’s how you use it to set up certain things. Space is important and dynamics are important, and things like sequences or sequential things are important. How you relate to certain timbres on the set itself is important. That’s how you build a solo.

SF: The initial ideas for the pieces—where do they come from?

MR: Well, they come from maybe a phrase that you improvise with. They can come with a time signature. All the possibilities. After you’ve mastered the techniques and you’ve got good hands, good feet, good coordination; your separation is together, you know how to use all four limbs equally yet apart, the next step is ideas. You have to create and invent new ideas that do things, and each idea has to be different. It has to be a different challenge. If this idea is dense, then maybe the next idea you’re playing can be very open. There are gradations between dense and open. You use all the techniques that are involved in creating a musical composition or creating a poem: periods, question marks, call and response. All these kind of things. It can be done within the context of a piece that’s being played, if you’re playing within a solo context. They may turn the drummer loose in any situation and he always sounds the same. He doesn’t relate to the personality of the piece. Every piece has it’s own personality. When you write a piece, you write the personality of the piece eventually. You may start a piece and have an idea of what the piece is going to be like. It may be quiet, it may be busy, it may be relaxed, it may be peaceful, it may not be. Whatever! That is the basic nature of the piece that you’re going to deal with. Now, when someone improvises within that piece they have to understand that that piece was a piece written for a certain mood or a certain feeling. When you improvise, you have to improvise within that. You can’t say, “This is a very simple modal piece” and then come in like you’re playing “Giant Steps.” It has a different feeling to the piece.

SF: When you’re playing tunes with lyrics, is it important—as a drummer—to be aware of the lyrical content of the tune?

MR: It is if you’re dealing in that area. I don’t deal too much in that area. My specialty is instrumental. If I do a lyric— now at least—I would sing it myself. And I would write it myself. My forte at this point is dealing with the instrument as a solo instrument as well as an accompanying instrument.

SF: You’re an equal voice?

MR: Yeah. It’s like it’s always in a duet context. I’m not just keeping time for somebody. I believe that musicians should learn how to keep their own time if they’re professional musicians and dealing with the music of this area we’re talking about. The beautiful thing about working with a person like a Charlie Parker was that he had what I called a built-in rhythm section, that without the band, without a rhythm section—you could hear the pulse. Always. The way he’d phrase and the way he dealt with eighth notes, sixteenth notes—there was always a sense of time. So a drummer didn’t have to keep time for him. Therefore, you could play in between the phrases. You could do what you wanted to do with him. That was the beauty of working with Dizzy and Miles and Charlie Parker, and folks like that. You weren’t just restricted to keeping time for them.

SF: Trying to hold them together.

MR: Hold them together. Exactly! “Drummer! Your function is to hold us together.” That’s what’s happening to drumming today. They hire a drummer to keep the rhythm. That’s i t .

SF: Have you ever thought of doing something with M’Boom using just drumsets?

MR: We do a thing we call “Rise and Fly,” but we use only two sets of drums. You can do it with one set, actually. You have one set of drums so there’s a challenge there. It’s not a matter of every player playing in the same tempo. I do my number for maybe a short span of time, then I get up and there’s a space. You come in and you don’t have to relate to the same time I’m doing or the same mood or anything. You do what you’re going to do. Everybody does his own thing. It doesn’t have to relate to what the person that’s just finished has done. See, with five or six drumsets you seem to be all together. I think the percussion ensemble has not been dealt with, at least, in this improvisational area. When we say “improvisational” it’s not totally improvised. Somebody gives a guideline, which we call a “head,” and the rest of it we contribute ourselves. It’s like Count Basie’s band or Herman’s band or Buddy’s band. There’s a certain amount of annotated stuff and then some is improvised. That’s the way our percussion ensemble is being treated, and this is the way we’re hoping to deal with percussion— period! It’s dealing in this area we call jazz. It’s annotated, improvisational and the craftsmanship of all the instruments that are involved.

Warren Smith just amazes us when he plays the solo on “Epistrophy” on the tympani. And now that we’ve seen it done, everybody in M’Boom can deal with it. It’s an experience to work with a group of musicians who are constantly probing and looking for new things to do. Our rehearsals are just so much fun. Rehearsals are like a learning experience. If today you did mallets on one part, then tomorrow I have to play mallets, and so forth. It’s a constant thing and everyone brings a different attitude to it.

SF: You had mentioned something in International Musician about the importance of being aware of the quarter note. I wonder if you could elaborate on that.

MR: The quarter note is the basic thing regardless of the meter. It’s like the common denominator. If you’re in 3/8 or 6/8 or 7/8—there’s a relationship to understanding where the quarter note is in that pulse regardless of where you are. The basic rudiment, for me, for percussion players is that which is a drone: All four limbs playing just a quarter note. They can do it for five minutes, like a drone, where it’s transparent.

Say you play the quarter note with the bass drum, the foot cymbal, the snare, and maybe a ride cymbal. Just quarter notes and you have the kind of transparency in it that you could hear all four limbs in concert. One would not override the other. It helps give you some kind of perspective on what the drumset sounds like collectively. Of course you’re listening to yourself when you do that to make sure that your bass drum doesn’t override your hi-hat. It helps you also to understand the relationship between the timbres of the instrument—all these drums, these different things that you have around you. It also helps you physically to know that, maybe you have to come down heavier on the hi-hat. Maybe you have to lighten up on the ride. Maybe you have to lighten up on the snare or come down heavy on the bass drum. I was talking about the quarter note from that aspect, and understanding the timbre of the instrument and getting a feeling of all four things working like a machine. So that when you start beginning to separate things, there’s a certain amount of transparency, no matter how much you’re traveling all over the instrument. Everything is being heard. Everything should be heard.

I hate to hear someone pounding away and see the hi-hat moving and I don’t hear what they hear in relationship to what they’re doing. I know that the drummer onstage hears that hi-hat within the context of what he’s doing. He hears that. But, all I do is see it. That means if he could maybe develop a system where he could make sure, that maybe he comes down with his hands on areas that the hi-hat would be heard, it would enhance what he’s doing because that’s what he means to do! Otherwise you wouldn’t see the hi-hat moving.

SF: Obviously you’re still practicing. Do you still work out new ideas on the drumset?

MR: What I do now is practice to keep my chops up. I practice singles and doubles with hands and feet. Sometimes I practice combinations. Say you would have four eighth notes: The first eighth note may be your bass drum, the second one would be the right hand, the third one would be the hi-hat, and the fourth one would be the left hand on a different part of the set. So it would sound like: Bass drum; right hand maybe on a ride cymbal; hi-hat “chick”; and snare drum. That’s a combination. There are unlimited ways of doing it. If I think of an invention or something that involves combinations, I ‘ l l work it out that way. But, mostly what I do is play singles and doubles to keep my chops up. When I come to a situation my improvisation should be pure even though I’ve got a lot of combinations and inventions that I’ve taken the time to work out, by annotating them and slowly working them out until they become part of my anatomy. So anytime I call for this invention, or this thing, I can just get to it. I practice so that when I’m working, everything is fresh again. I don’t practice what I’m going to play. I want everything to be up. Sometimes you go on the gig and you’re calling for things and it just does not happen! You should try everyday to get a little bit in.

SF: Some of the tempos that you play are lightning fast.

MR: That’s done through combinations though! No one limb is overworking. There’s a way that it works itself out so that all the weight isn’t on the right hand, or the left hand, or the foot, or both feet. It’s put together so that every limb is working so that it sounds fast. It sounds fast because each limb is doing a little something. It’s really very relaxed. But, it’s way up there! And you can just go for as long as you want to as long as you distribute the work equally.

SF: Are you thinking in half-time at those tempos’?

MR: No, I’m thinking upstairs. But, I know I may have to go for an hour or a half-hour. See. coming up, I’d sometimes be the drummer on the stage with nine guys in the front line. So, you learn how to expect this. Forget about playing a drum solo. You’re just strictly accompanying time. Forget about it!

SF: I’ve noticed that you’re using matched grip almost exclusively these days.

MR: I find that the matched grip, for me, is much more flexible and I use the military grip on the left hand—since I’mright handed—when I want certain effects. Like, if I want to dig the stick into the snare drum to create a quarter-note guitar effect, like Freddie Green does with Count Basie, then I use the military grip. Just for that quarter-note effect and then open that up into some other kinds of designs, some polyrhythmic designs. But basically, other than effects like that, I basically am using the matched grip exclusively now.

It’s great for me because I’m playing mallet instruments as well, so the matched grip is there, and my major at Manhattan was tympani. So the matched grip was always a part of me, but I just never used it before that because that was the way the snare drum was set up. Other players are still very comfortable with it. Blakey uses a combination of both. I think Elvin Jones uses it, and Buddy still uses the combination. I have always been taught that you should deal with every technique possible, because you never know when you are called upon to do something, and you have to accomplish it by any means necessary from a technical point of view. So the more different techniques that you have mastered or come up with, I find it’s easier to deal with.

SF: Where do you see yourself in five years?

MR: Well, I’d like to see more percussion ensembles out here. I think we’ve come to the point now where percussionists can at least make the kind of contributions that the bands have made in the music of this area. I really do. I do a lot of writing. At the moment I’m working on the music for a film of the day that Malcolm X died, and I’m doing some stage projects. I enjoy writing and I enjoy playing my drums. I really do. I enjoy it. I want to do more of the same and do new projects with percussion. I see M’Boom doing things with voices; with strings or with soloists, with maybe a woodwind or brass player. Things like that. I’m also working on my biography. I must say that the technique in what’s happening now with the drummers of today—such a wide variety of things are happening percussively. I think the whole art of percussion as we know it in the USA—the jazz drums is perhaps the only indigenous instrument.

SF: I heard you on a radio talk show stating that you felt that the media, mostly, was giving listeners too much of the same kind of music.

MR: Most people tend to be sectarian. If you’re an opera buff, you’re almost hard pressed to hear someone do something out of context of the opera because you think it’s bastardizing the form. You may not even deal with symphony music that much. And I’ve heard a lot of people who appreciate symphonic music who can’t stand opera. By the same token, you’ll find people who are in the rock thing can’t stand jazz and vice versa. And then jazz has it’s other levels where the swing era people can’t use the avant garde, and the avant garde can’t use the contemporary.

When I did my clinic in Austin I’d read in the paper that The Police were coming to town. So, I went to hear The Police and I really enjoyed it because it’s a whole lesson in mass appeal. They played before an audience of thirty thousand people. And Stewart, and Sting, and Andy—it was a brilliant performance for me! And it was in the genre that I could understand because I didn’t go there looking for them to sound like The Modern Jazz Quartet. So I could enjoy myself.

The things that The Police are doing electronic-wise with percussion is fantastic. They carry their own P.A. system, but the way that his bass drum comes through those speakers that they have in this place that holds thirty thou sand people in it! Every seat was taken. They were standing all in the aisles. We’re talking about the economy! Somebody could take a lesson from them! I’m just trying to enjoy myself. I tell most of the students that do come to me up at U. Mass. to enjoy culture! Don’t go there with so many biases that you can’t enjoy it. There’s something in it that will appeal to you down the line.