The 1983 science-fiction movie Strange Invaders, starring Louise Fletcher, has a bar scene in which saxophonist Buddy Tate, guitarist Ed Bickert and drummer Terry Clarke perform on-camera. Don’t look for Clarke at the Oscars just yet, but it captures him at his forte—small group playing.
When I saw Terry last, he was backing Bickert in a comfortable, downtown Toronto jazz lounge, ft was a room well-suited to Bickert’s music—intimate, polite, and clean. Terry played more brushes than I’d have imagined, and he knew how to snap them.
The next morning he showed me around his house, located close to the inner-city. He is understandably proud of the place. Its lead glass and Tudor wood impart a musty elegance and speak quietly of a successful career. We spent the better part of the day in the yard, or in the basement, at an old, round-badge Gretsch kit which was used to illustrate points. Terry can cook at whisper-volume and he can peak the meters, doing both with a control and passion for musical form deriving from some pretty surprising musical situations. Widely known for his Boss Brass big-band work, and for his session schedule, he has done much more.
BW: You were born in Vancouver?
TC: Right, August 20, 1944. I’m the same age as Mick Jagger.
BW: You lived there how long?
TC: Until I was 20; 20 years exactly.
BW: Did you work a lot in Vancouver?
TC: Well, I worked there when I started playing at 13, practically right away with high school dance bands. So I worked in Vancouver from about age 13 until I was 20. It started with my brother and I playing together in a rock ‘n’ roll trio. We won a talent contest and went to Hollywood, and made a record of our own. It sounded like the Ventures. We were heavy into the Ventures, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and Bill Haley. This was 1958.
BW: So at a young age you hit down in Hollywood!
TC: Well, we just won that two-week trip. Nobody knew we were there; it was fun. I was in grade seven at the time, so it was a vacation.
BW: What sort of training did you go through?
TC: At that time I was just self-taught. I saw Ricky Nelson on television. I said, “I can do that,” so my brother said, “Let’s play.” I got out the pie plate, cookie tin, drum sticks and everything and muddled around. I didn’t take lessons for about two years. It’s good because you just feel your way through everything.
BW: Get the feel before the other thing.
TC: Yeah, and find out what you’re doing wrong. Then I went—to learn how to read—to a couple of teachers. I quickly went past them; they couldn’t give me much.
BW: Did you go specifically to read? I mean, that’s a very young age to …
TC: I think my dad just said, “I want you to take lessons to know what you’re doing.” I was in the high school band at the same time, so it was sort of good. Between the high school and the teacher I got that kind of basic thing.
BW: Was there any marching band?
TC: Not enough. I really never did get all my rudiments together in that situation. Then I finally decided to be serious about this and stop muddling around with dumb teachers. I wanted to find a really good one. There was a toss-up between two people, and one of them was Jim Blackley, so I called him. I was 15 or 16, somewhere around there, and I made the right choice. That’s when I really jumped into taking it seriously. I walked in and this guy was heavy; he knew what he was doing.
BW: What sort of things did he start you on?
TC: It’s funny about that rudimental thing because I never really got those together in school, and Jim never really stressed them. His approach was totally musical. It didn’t really have anything to do with rudiments per se, as much as sticking patterns, forming rhythms, and forming the music. It’s like, rather than worrying about right-left-right-right-left, listen to the rhythm that it makes and listen to the music that it makes. You may be playing a double flam, although it doesn’t really matter, but listen to what the sound of it is. It was a totally musical approach because he was a pipeband drummer from Scotland where that kind of drumming was handed down by word-of-mouth for centuries. None of that is written. Pipe drumming is all 12/8, which is basically the jazz feel. As a matter of fact, that’s what John Coltrane was getting into. John Coltrane was investigating some Scottish music before he died, because it has lilt to it; it has a swing to it. The swing comes from the 12/8, which comes from the triplet—which is what Elvin is all about—which is triple-meter, and it’s all subdivided. The Scottish were into more buzz rolls than paradiddles and all that stuff. Anyway, Jim eventually put that into a book, which I think got to Alan Dawson and I think to Tony Williams because Tony plays an awful lot of those types of things. It all just boils down to sticking patterns, if you want to work it all out and transcribe it. You could work it out in a rudimental way. I think it was almost good that I never did learn those things, because when you’re playing you’re not thinking about that unless you are a rudimental drummer and you join the NARD [laughs].
BW: That’s interesting. Stylistically would you say that Steve Gadd would come more from the American system of marching drumming?
TC: Yeah, he’s basically a rudimental drummer. And being that that music is more straight 8ths and 16ths, it applies much better to a rock ‘n’ roll context. He took it one step further however because he ultimately ended up playing the music of the rudiments, not the sticking patterns of the rudiments, which was laid on him by Chick Corea, who got it from Tony. That type of thing that Tony does by just letting the stick fall, that kind of real dropping, and playing the rhythm of it, apparently turned Gadd right around. That was the beginning of changing his way of playing. But anyway, the point being that it’s really the same thing that I’m talking about. What Jim taught from that standpoint is, “Listen to the music.” He introduced me to Elvin and he introduced me to Dannie Richmond of Mingus’ band. We were studying a lot of different ways to play a lot of those rhythmical things—coming out of the cymbal ride and learning the jazz triplet feeling and all that. And I really hadn’t heard jazz, per se. I just sort of dabbled and got some Dave Brubeck records, and Shelly Manne and My Fair Lady, and thought that was very light. Then, all of a sudden, Jim turned me onto this whole other world of Charles Mingus. We had been studying awhile when Mingus came to town with Dannie Richmond and one of his quartets. I went down and I had never heard jazz before. I sat there with my little suit and tie. I was 16 or 17 and I sat there in this funky club with the smoke killing my eyes. They started playing, and I immediately understood exactly what they were doing, and it astounded me! I can remember the moment that Mingus and Dannie started in on this churning kind of surging thing. I knew what they were doing and it was all because Jim had sort of led me to that point. He always did that. He’s the perfect teacher; he’ll take you to the edge of the cliff, but you jump. I was astounded at the power of that kind of music. Nobody had ever played like that in Vancouver; I’d never heard that. Well, that really turned me around. Dannie Richmond and Jim got together and they really had the same ideas about things. He got me listening to Elvin on the record with Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard before Elvin went with Coltrane. Jim said, “Listen to this guy. This is the next guy. This is the guy who’s going to revolutionize jazz drumming, mark my words.” But I said, “This is garbage; this sounds terrible.” At that time they used to call Elvin “the animal” in New York, because he was such a fierce player that he used to knock cymbals off stands. In one club the cymbal went like a Frisbee right across the room, he hit it so hard. He was just such a ferocious player and it was such a unique way of playing—it was totally his own. He didn’t try to play like anybody else. It was so foreign to my ears, but then Jim said, “It’s really very simple: Elvin is just a basic swing drummer; just a basic 4/4 drummer. He’s not far out at all, but people think he is.” It’s the convolution and it’s all the permutations of the basic triplet thing, which went back to the the 12/8, which went back to the Scottish drumming, which all comes out of the cymbal ride, which is just a triplet meter. Everything was so beautifully logical that when I suddenly realized what was going on, it made so much sense to me. It all just came together. Jim’s really responsible for just opening up my ears so that when all the chances came and the breaks, I was ready because I understood those concepts.
BW: How did you get the recognition of John Handy?
TC: That came about because at that time there were a number of jazz clubs in Vancouver that are not there now. That was an exciting era for music. There were about five clubs, and one of them decided to bring up John Handy. I had never heard John Handy, and they said, “Well, he played with Mingus at Monterey.” I said , “Mingus, okay, here’s the connection.” So I started listening to the couple of records he had out. He came up as a single and Don Thompson played piano and a guy named Bob Witmer played bass. The three of us played but I didn’t know what the hell was going off. We did the week and it was such an exhausting experience, I said, “Well, that’s it for my jazz career. I guess I’m not going to be a jazz player. I can’t do it; it’s just too much. I just haven’t got the energy to do this.” So we finished the gig and about together because it had really been a profound experience; it frustrated me because I couldn’t do i t . So I was really working hard, but I never thought I’d see him again. Well, he came back a year later with a piano player, Freddie Redd, and Mike White on violin. So the three of them came up and Don Thompson switched to bass. All of a sudden, it just came together. The stars were right and everything just exploded. It was a dynamite band. Then John went back to San Francisco and said, “I’m going to call you guys to come down.” Well, I had been called by Vince Guaraldi to come down to San Francisco about a year before that. But then, about a week before, Vince called me and said, “By the way, how old are you?” I said, “I’m 19,” and he said, “Oh well, that’s it. You can’t come down to the club I’m working at. You’ve got to be 21.” So that was a big disappointment. Then John came along and he decided to bring us down. I said, “Well John, I can’t work. I’m not 21.” I was 20 then. He said they were opening up a new club in San Francisco and it was a coffee house—no booze. So he went ahead and got us an H-l permit and Don Thompson and I went down there. The first week we were there, Ralph J. Gleason came in. Somebody had told him to come down and hear this new band with the weird instrumentation. John had replaced Freddie Redd with Jerry Hahn, a guitar player from Wichita. It was a very strange combination. It was three Americans, and two Canadians—guitar, violin, saxophone, bass and drums. So Gleason came in and he flipped out; he loved the band. The next day there was a rave review. I still have that review, it was just dynamite! All of a sudden, everybody in San Francisco was there; the place was jumping every night and everything started happening for this band. Gleason continued writing about it. This club attracted so many different people: little kids, to professors, to high school kids, to jazzers— everybody. It sort of became a cult, like a John Handy Quintet cult. Well, the Monterey Festival came up in the fall of ’65 and we were not listed. But the people down there were so excited about our band they got a petition together and sent it to Jimmy Lyons, who was head of the Monterey festival. Well, we got on the bill. So Sept. ’65—I had just turned 21—we played Monterey to 5-6,000 people. I couldn’t believe it—we went out there and flattened them and they recorded it. That became a hit album, John Handy Live at Monterey, which put the band on the map. John Hammond of Columbia Records came out, heard the band, and decided to release it. The word went out about this hot new band. So that album hit big and it was a jazz best seller. We nearly got the Album Of the Year in down beat that year behind Ornette Coleman, Live at the Golden Circle. We missed getting the Album Of the Year by four votes. It was the first time Columbia Records had ever had a jazz record that was a best seller with only two extended tunes on it! Everything was sort of a milestone; a new kind of a thing. And as a result we all got on the down beat poll. It was really a pretty heavy time for a young 21-year-old from Vancouver. I hadn’t even left home yet.
BW: So you were on a limited work permit?
TC: Yeah, it was limited. We kept getting extensions on it. Finally, after three years with that band, they told us, “We can’t extend your permits anymore.” Well, we wanted one more extension. We finally got to New York and we played Carnegie Hall, the Half Note, and the Village Vanguard. Then we went back to the coast and we wanted to work at Shelly’s Manne-Hole. They said, “If you want another three months you’ll have to register for the draft.” Now this was all in the flower-power time. The Beatles were happening, the San Francisco music scene was happening, everything was going on, and the Viet Nam war was happening—a very turbulent time. So they said, “You’ll have to register for the draft, but if you leave the country after your three month extension, you’re not liable for military duty.” Soil was just a formality that Don Thompson and I went through. Well, the whole thing made down beat magazine. There was an article saying Handy was going to lose two key Canadians, and people were petitioning again, people were really rallying to our cause. Well, it didn’t work. So we went back to Canada only because of the work permit scene. I’d still be living down there, you know, if I wasn’t kicked out of the country. They said, “If you want to get a permanent visa you’ll have to go back to Canada and apply for one.” That still happens to this day, though it’s even harder to get a permit now, let alone a green card.
I was just going to say, to backtrack a bit, during that time also, Miles’ band was playing and ‘Trane’s band was playing. Elvin Jones had a very good friend in San Francisco who heard me play with Handy and he wanted Elvin to hear me play. That really was a turning point musically for me, too. The very first time I heard ‘Trane was on a Sunday afternoon at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and I had just been listening to them on record. This is another thing that was happening, I mean, not only was I 21 years old and playing in this heavy band, but I was able to be in San Francisco and hear Miles Davis, Mingus, Horace Silver, and ‘Trane and Elvin and be in that environment. That’s what really shaped the kind of playing that I do—being down there that young and being able to hear that much heavy playing and be involved in it. I played with Jack DeJohnette at a session once. He was playing piano and Charles Lloyd’s band was happening then. Keith Jarrett came on the scene. The whole thing was such a fruitful time for music, you know. One afternoon I finally went to hear John Coltrane, after being a total devotee of that quartet, and this friend of Elvin’s was in the audience. They were playing and I was just amazed to actually see John Coltrane and Elvin and McCoy; see that whole thing happening. I was sitting right beside Elvin and they played this frightening set. I just said, “Well, that’s it!” And Elvin’s friend came along and said, “Hey, I want Elvin to hear you play.” I said, “Are you kidding?” He said, “No man, go on up and play.” And sure enough, the next set was beginning so this friend that I was with pushed me up on the bandstand. All of a sudden, I’m sitting behind this kit and I said, “What am I doing here? This is ridiculous. Elvin’s kit—this famous kit that I’ve been trying to sound like,” and I couldn’t believe it. So McCoy got up on the bandstand and they were starting to play free. That music was starting to go from strict-time modal playing to even freer than that. ‘Trane was trying to get into a whole range of different textures and colors and he wanted to play more free-tempo.
BW: This was a year before his death maybe?
TC: No, this was two years before his death. It was starting to stretch out then. That music was really becoming very elastic and it was just before Rashied Ali joined. So they started playing this real free thing, which I hadn’t played very much of. They started this modal drone and I was just sort of bashing around. ‘Trane walked up and Pharoah Sanders was playing and Jimmy Garrison and Donald Garrett—two bass players—and they just sort of played outside. Out of my own insecurity and fear I just said, “Well, I’m going to go into a tempo.” So I just grabbed onto the tempo, and I just went “bam-ding-a-ding” around that tempo. I went in there just out of sheer fright because it was the most comfortable thing I could do. And within about a millisecond, ‘Trane was right with me. All of a sudden I looked over and it was just this flash of awareness; the whole thing was like a 747 taking off. I don’t know how long we played; I just sort of played for my life. We went bashing away and it was the most exhilarating experience—just so fresh in my mind and still is—because I’ve never felt anything like that before. I don’t know how long we were up there but it was marvelous, and then I sort of stumbled off the bandstand after that tune. Afterwards, what was phenomenal was that ‘Trane came up and shook my hand and said, “Thanks very much for playing with me.” And Elvin comes up with his baseball cap on and says, “Keep up the good work!” [laughs]. He shook my hand and it was like a dream come true—like being at the circus.
About a year later, I was there the night that Elvin quit “Trane’s band. I went to hear Elvin, Rashied, Alice Coltrane (McCoy wasn’t with them), Pharoah Sanders, and Jimmy Garrison. Elvin and Rashied were just like… it wasn’t working at all. So Elvin, after the first set, packed up his drums and said, “That’s it!” and a week later he was playing with Duke Ellington’s band. So then about two weeks after that, I was in hearing the band again, without Elvin, just Rashied. Jimmy Garrison came up to me, put his arms around me and said, “Hey, that was a lot of fun playing with you.” This is a year later! And I said, “You remembered?” and then the other bass player, Donald Garrett, came in and he said, “Trane is looking for you.” I said, “What?” and he said, “He wants you to be the other drummer in the band.” I said, “Are you kidding?” and he said, “No.” The work permit scene locked me into playing with Handy, so I said, “I can’t do it because John’s here; I can only play with him.” Meanwhile, Elvin wanted my gig. That’s what was funny. It would have been a switch. Elvin wanted to do my gig but Handy wasn’t paying more than 100 bucks a week, and Elvin was used to making a lot more than that, so it didn’t work out. But I was so honored to have it suggested that I might have been the other drummer. You know, that whole kind of environment was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I mean, ‘Trane died and everything just changed after that. Elvin never did play the same way.
BW: You had a unique opportunity. Not too many guys really enjoyed a shot at playing with Coltrane.
TC: Yeah, nothing has been able to match it since. And Elvin, I don’t think, has ever risen to those heights again. He’s changed, he’s improved, he’s definitely matured and come along, but no one has come along with that kind of power and that kind of challenge. The two of them would play for an hour at a time—just the two of them. It was incredible. There’s a funny story about that. In New York, they were doing a live radio show from the Half Note. The radio announcer came in and said, “We are here at the Half Note with the John Coltrane Quartet.” There was a bass solo at the beginning of the tune. The band was playing for so long at that time—one tune for two hours—that the whole half-hour show was just the bass solo. [laughs] At the end of the half hour, the announcer said, “And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, was the John Coltrane Quartet, LIVE,” and all it was was Jimmy Garrison playing for 30 minutes because that was all the time they had! That’s what they were getting into. Miles’ band, and all of the bands including our band were playing long tunes. I built up that kind of endurance that I’ve never been able to utilize since then, outside of playing with Sonny Greenwich. Sonny was with John’s [Handy] band, by the way. That’s when I met Sonny. Sonny came down after Jerry Hahn left. So we all sort of grew up through that, where you played for an hour at a time, non-stop. That kind of endurance and that kind of intensity was very hard on audiences. You know, that almost marked the death of that music, because rock ‘n’ roll was so much easier for people to fathom after all that. But still, at that time we played the Fillmore opposite the Grateful Dead. It was the time when everything was a complete marriage of everything. Everybody was love, peace, groovy, and all music was welcome so that the Fillmore West was a night of truly multi-media. It was jazz and rock, it was Charles Lloyd and Jerry Garcia and the Jefferson Airplane and all those bands. It was all one big happy thing. It was a beautiful time and it was that kind of environment that, as I say, put something into my playing that I wouldn’t have otherwise. But had I grown up in Canada, it wouldn’t have happened.
BW: What hope do you have for the Canadian scene producing jazz players?
TC: It’s a lot better now because of the fact that you can hear so much more now than you could before. I don’t know…it just takes time to grow up; the country has taken a long time to grow up.
BW: How did you get involved with the Fifth Dimension?
TC: It was after I had to go back to Canada. About six months later, the Fifth Dimension came along. Jim Blackley was the band leader at a club in Vancouver called the Marco Polo. The Fifth Dimension had been signed to play there, and they had just recorded “Up, Up and Away,” which was their big hit. Their price had doubled from the price that they had contracted out to the Marco Polo for, but they decided to do the job anyway for the original price, just to get their experience and their act together. So they came to Vancouver and Jim was playing in the house band but they brought their own bass player and drummer. The bass player was Gerry Cheff who went on to play with Elvis and was a studio player in L.A. They were looking for a new drummer and they wanted Jim to go. Jim said, “No, I don’t want to go out but Terry Clarke might want to.” The bass player knew of me and the piano player knew of me, so I thought, “Well, this group is going to be hot.” They were breaking new ground: it was a new sound and I thought, “I want to be up there.” It was exciting; they really had a great stage show. So I went back on the road—they got me a work permit—and I plunged back into H-l permits for another three years and kept getting extensions, because they had enough gigs that they could get me a permit from January to November.
BW: So they took you where?
TC: Everywhere—every state in the union, Europe, Hawaii, every where but Alaska. And that’s when I became more politically aware. It was good for me musically, and I got to hear the Motown acts and was immersed in the black experience—I was in the minor ity. It was something that a WASP Canadian boy wouldn’t otherwise get and it was an eye-opening experience. We travelled in the South and I got more hassle for having long hair in Alabama in 1968 than the Fifth Dimension did for being black. And we got thrown into the 1968 Democratic National Convention as supporters of Hubert Humphrey. That was right in the middle of Yippie time. We played a concert a block away from Rush Avenue where Jerry Rubin and the Yippies and the tear gas and martial law and tanks and guns and people were going crazy, and all this hysteria was exploding around us. And I thought, “It’s about time I figured out what’s going on.” Because when you’re in the middle of it, you better find out.
BW: How did the Fifth Dimension get aligned with a presidential candidate?
TC: I think it started from working with Frank Sinatra and somehow we ended up playing at the White House after Nixon got in.
BW: Did you record with them?
TC: No. Well, we recorded at the White House and it’s in the archives somewhere. We did record in Vegas. They always promised me that I’d eventually be recording, but they were locked in with Bones Howe who was locked in with Johnny Rivers. He used Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborn, Hal Blaine—the L.A. sound. If you used Hal Blaine on a session you were guaranteed a hit. Simple. He was the Steve Gadd of his day. So I was having to learn all his parts and heard all the rough tracks. Boy, were they rough. I remember getting the rough tracks of “Aquarius” and “Let The Sun Shine In.” It was unbelievable—talk about fixing it in the mix!
BW: So you were just beginning to get exposure to the new recording techniques—layering and so forth. Did you want to do more recording?
TC: Oh yeah, I wanted to do it but I wasn’t in the situation where I could. I’d done a little in Vancouver, pre-Fifth Dimension. I didn’t even know that the Monterey Jazz Festival was being recorded when we did that album. The follow-up to that album was done in the studio, but it was a jazz record, you know, where they put up a couple of mic’s. But as far as pop recording, I wanted to do it but I was just learning about it. I didn’t have the kind of experience. I was doing everything live. It wasn’t until I got here [Canada] that I really got into recording and knowing what it was all about. Anyway, the work permit ran out and Don Thompson had been writing to me and said that if I ever wanted to leave the group to come to Toronto and that there was lots of music being played. I didn’t really want to. I thought I’d come here when my permit ran out and then apply for a visa and move to New York. So I went to New York before I came here and I used the connections from the White House gig to attempt to get a green card. I moved here after applying to wait out the year. The day I arrived here I worked a job. It was New Year’s Eve with Guido Basso and Lenny Breau. The union freaked out. I shouldn’t have done that. But I worked that night and I haven’t stopped since. My plan was to move here, get a little apartment, get my Gretsch kit from Vancouver, play a little jazz and wait out my visa. All of a sudden I started getting calls for recording sessions. I think it was about three or four years later I realized that people thought I was American, and that I was a pop player. They knew nothing about the jazz thing. So I immediately started doing sessions, jingles, and I met Doug Riley and that led to Dr. Music and that led to working with Moe Koffman. All those pop albums came out of those Bach things [Koffman]. Dr. Music was a Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen-type band with four girl singers, four guys, and a nine-piece band. It was big-time, get-it-on rock ‘n’ roll. We had some hits.
BW: So you came to Canada, by default, and there haven’t been any dry periods?
TC: No. I had the feeling just before I moved here that something’s up and everything seemed to pull me. It felt right and it was the first time I went with a real gut feeling. I arrived at the right place at the right time. I had something that was needed. There was a burgeoning recording industry happening and I was in on the ground floor. I did all the early films and lots of dates in addition to playing jazz. It was not planned that way. These things never are. Any kind of success you have is a combination of being at the right place at the right time and having the goods. I had obviously had enough experience to be able to go into any situation and do a good job because I had really covered the gamut in those five years in the U.S. I played the drums a lot differently than drummers did here.
BW: Can you describe that difference?
TC: It’s just being a product of an entirely different musical environment than what was offered around here. You know, if you grow up in a vacuum you can’t produce anything. You’ve got to be influenced.
BW: You seem to have a bit of a “nice-guy” image around here. Lending your drums to Marty (Morrell) when he was breaking into studio work, lending your Paiste hi-hats to a young drummer and getting them back cracked…
TC: Nice guys finish last!
BW: What about your adaptations? You helped these guys when they were new in town. Did playing in the studios come easy to you?
TC: Yeah it did, because of having played with the Fifth. I had built up a lot of power that I didn’t have playing the sort of jazz I played with John Handy. I was using my body in two totally different ways, and hearing the drums being played totally different ways. What helped my adaptation in the drum sense was that if you tune a kit in a certain way, it’s going to make you play a certain way. If you play a little jazz kit with the high bass drum, you’re going to start playing that bass drum like a tom-tom, which was the whole point of that kind of tuning. That’s what Tony was doing, Jack DeJohnette—those guys. Even after I moved here and started doing session work, at night if I went to do a jazz gig I would play it on my little Gretsch kit. Just hearing the sound, I reverted back to my other self. If I’d go in the morning and I had my big drums, with the blanketed bass drum, etc., you can’t move quickly around that, so I’d play a different way. It’s the expanding self, you know; all these different parts of me were being utilized.
BW: Studio work has changed. You know, take an early ’70s album and you have a snare drum reasonably tightly tensioned with maybe Jim Keltner or Gary Mallabar, and then late ’70s the same guys with everything tuned sloppy.
TC: Yeah. This is a funny story: Jim Keltner followed me into John Handy’s band. Jim Keltner was a jazz player. Jim Keltner, Bobby Hutcherson and Albert Stinson all lived together in L.A. When I had to leave, Handy had to get a replacement and Jim Keltner was the drummer. Later he got hooked up with Delaney & Bonnie and totally changed his playing. But the best players were originally jazz players. They have that kind of musicality and command of the drumset that really helps in those situations so that they bring a whole different feel to it. Harvey Mason is another good jazz player. Charlie Watts was a fan of mine once; he wanted to hear the John Handy Quintet. He’s a jazz fan. We worked in Bracknell in England, once, and the band that followed us was a swing, “Blues and Boogie Band,” they called it, and it was Jack Bruce on acoustic bass and Charlie Watts on drums! He had a ride cymbal and his Chinese cymbal and he didn’t play his hi-hat once. The best big-band swing you’ll ever hear. Strong, really powerful— I mean, nothing in the fast department—but he really has a great feel. He originally played with Ben Webster and all those guys around Europe. Which makes him the best rock ‘n’ roll drummer there is. When you hear him play you don’t hear a trace of that at all; it’s as if that’s his other self. Again, it’s like almost compartmentalizing yourself.
BW: You know, there’s an awful lot of interest from young players writing to the magazine, inquiring about how to get into the studios. I think it’s becoming abundantly clear in interviews with, say, Keltner, yourself, that you play the music first. There is no typical studio player or formula.
TC: Right, I never set out to do that. It was a by-product of what I did. I had something musical to offer that, fortunately, also happened to work in a studio situation. But if I wasn’t playing at night and at live gigs I wouldn’t bring anything into the studio. I wouldn’t have anything to offer. That’s what I’m saying—I’m the sum total of my experiences and all of those experiences can be utilized in so many different ways. One of them is the studio, one of them is big band, one is Latin things. Paulinho Magales taught me Brazilian music and I taught Paulinho how to play jazz drums. It was a nice exchange. It’s all music to me, and it all has a groove and your job is to get that groove going.
BW: You’ve been quoted as saying that the whole idea of playing is to make every note mean something, and that the challenge is to do as much as you can with what you have.
TC: Yeah, well I found that out when I broke my arm. [laughs] Jake Hanna heard me in San Francisco playing with Jim Hall and I had my arm in a sling. Jake always has the greatest lines and he comes up after and says, “Man, you sounded great with one arm broken; if you break the other one you’ll sound twice as good.” Having a lot of chops and technique can almost be a cop-out because you can jive your way through. It always takes me back to the most important thing, which is time. Jim Blackley always said this about my playing (he has always been sort of prophetic), “I think you’re going to end up being a fairly simple drummer.” And it’s turning out that way. Gradually, as you get older and play enough, you know what not to play. Observing the silence. You know, silence was there first; music came later. Ed Bickert is the classic example. Everything he plays is absolutely right. You’re always satisfied because he found the ultimate; it’s the Zen of it, finding the exact right thing. If I can play one note in the right place it will mean much more than 33 notes. All that would do is dazzle the people who are dazzled by fast technique. The prime directive is to play the most musical that you can, and the most simple, and what’s right for the situation you’re in.
BW: Speaking about time, there is a real commitment in the studio to metronomic time. Did you have to come to grips with that, the notion of time being more elastic in your jazz background?
TC: That wasn’t much of a problem. Contrary to what other musicians might think, it’s not only the drummer’s responsibility for the time; it’s everybody’s responsibility. You can have great time, but if the bass player’s rushing, or the guitar player is dragging or playing too many notes, it’s going to really make things bad. It’s the group time that’s the most important; you have to make sure you’re playing with a good bass player who’s well aware of what the drums are supposed to be doing. The studio can do that for you, but it’s going to be a lot easier if you can get that together on the floor, without a click track, EQing, and all sorts of effects. If you can do that right off the floor it makes the engineer’s job easier.
BW: Fluctuations in time as opposed to strict metronomic time can be exciting.
TC: Well, if you listen to the metronome, it doesn’t swing. It’s just a machine, but if you play along with the metronome and add your human thing, all of a sudden it’s going to swing; it’s going to have a lilt to it. So it’s possible to really get with the click track. That doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve sort of noticed the general public’s collective time-feeling: if you had an audience in Maple Leaf Gardens, say fifteen years ago you’d have everybody clapping on one and three. You can now go into a concert and have four thousand people clapping on two and four, and it feels great. Recording techniques have improved the time feeling of people generally. People dance better, clap better. There’s no black and white music anymore, it’s all overlapping. Everybody has good time now, and has a better time playing good time! Disco music was important; it brought it all down to the quarter note, which is where it all is anyway. The quarter note is the pulse. It’s what you should be thinking about when you are playing. That’s all you should be thinking about. If I can play four quarter notes in a row that are perfect before I die, I’ll be glad, you know. That’s the simplicity of it. When the time is that good then the music can happen. If you have a click track—fine. A lot of good records are made with click tracks, but there are a lot of drummers who don’t need a click track, and those slight variations in tempo feel good in some situations.
BW: Have there been takes where you’ve been unhappy because you’ve rushed or dragged fills?
TC: Oh yeah, but they’ll keep it because the whole thing will feel good. Some people would go crazy and say, “Well, I’m not going to let that go; I’ve got to overdub a fill that’s per feet,” but you have to consider studio time and how much time you’ve got to devote to that. Wayne Shorter did several takes on the saxophone solo in “Aja,” whereas the rhythm track was done in one take. Duke Ellington never took a second take. Music should be spontaneous; music is one-time-only as far as I’m concerned.
BW: So in the studio and live, then, what’s your realm of activity, today, yesterday, tomorrow and next year? What have you done and what can you expect?
TC: That’s just the thing—I never know what to expect. I mean, I’m doing a Miss Piggy special next week and a Maureen Forrester album on Monday and Tuesday. I played with Red Skelton last week and I’m doing a semi-legit Claude Boiling-type album with a trumpet player (funk meets Bach preludes). I don’t know what it’s going to be.
BW: What’s an average busy day?
TC: A busy day would be like tomorrow: I do a TV special from ten in the morning until 6:30, and work with Ed Bickert at night, which will really round out the day. I can remember having to do the Bobby Vinton show from 9:00 in the morning until 8:30 at night and then having to go to work at Bourbon Street with Victor Feldman. I went home, had a shower, had a coffee, went on the bandstand, and Victor Feldman started playing, and within eight bars it was morning! I was a new person. Victor Feldman is a mas ter— talk about time! It was so hot, and so good that I left the club that night with more energy than I began the day with. That’s the power of good music.
BW: Speaking about piano and vibes, do you get any calls to do percussion?
TC: I’ve done some percussion. I do a few timpani things here and there. But there are so many good practitioners of that sort of thing around here that it’s not really required.
BW: Let’s talk about equipment then, if you don’t mind.
TC: Might as well, everybody else does. I played Gretsch first with Jim Blackley, who used to sell Gretsch in Vancouver. Then I got to San Francisco and coupled with John Handy, and somebody hooked me up with these new drums called Camco. I said, “Oh yeah, you mean the people who make the pedals?” and they said, “Yeah.” So I went down to L.A. to Bob Yeager’s Professional Drum Shop and picked up this kit and immediately thought, “My God, I don’t have to do anything.” They sounded great right away. The drummer with the Temptations—remember a guy named Mel Brown?—took over the company for a while. Anyway, when I got the Camcos I got the Paistes. Then they sent me a set of Camcos from the factory when I came back across the border with the Fifth Dimension, and again they sounded gorgeous right away. After Camco changed hands, I went with Ludwig because I wanted to get some kind of endorsement. Nothing ever came of it, but I got a nice Ludwig set—a great Ludwig set—which I use to this day in the studio, which is the engineer’s dream. As a matter of fact, Jim Keltner came up to do a session and asked for my set—he knew about that set. It’s 14 x 22, a 13 and a 16. I didn’t even switch to a third tom until 1973 when I got an 8 x 12. That 14 x 22 bass drum is a dream in the studio—it’s so fat. The 16 x 16 floor is fat; everything’s fat. Well, you can hear it on a couple of Moe Koffman records and on the first direct-to-disc Boss Brass. On that record, I used two Slingerland concert toms and the Ludwig kit. I use mainly Ambassadors. Now I’ve got a black dot on the 18″ Milestone which you saw last night, and it really sounds nice. And I’ve kept it on the batter head with the Ambassador on the outside. So I mainly use Ambassadors and Diplomats. On my snare drum I try and use a Diplomat on the bottom. If it doesn’t break, I ‘ l l keep it. Oh yeah, and I use the metal snare with the Ludwig.
BW: The 400?
TC: Yeah—the Ludwig classic. The snare drum has the bite and the depth, and the warmth comes from those wood drums. I tried using the Milestones to record for a while. I traded in my 20″ and got a 22″—I’ve got a 16 x 22—but what I’ve really found is that the Milestones are the greatest drums for live playing. I’ve two kits: a gig kit—16 x 22 bass drum, 12 x 9, 13 x 9 and 16 x 16—and the small kit I’ve got which is the 10 x 9, 12 x 9, and 14 x 15, so I can mix and match. With the Boss Brass now I’m using the 16 x 22 bass drum with both heads on with muffling, the 10 x 9, the 12 x 9, and 14 and 16, so I’m using four toms and four cymbals. The Milestones are good for TV too, for live TV. Like Nashville Swing—I was even using the Synares on that show. For the little jazz gigs I’ll use the 18 x 16, the 10 x 9, 12 x 9, and 14 x 15 toms, and the Camco snare—the “brown bomber”—14 x 5. I’ve got three of them, actually, a brown one, a light one, and a deep one, and a Ludwig deep one which I’m going to start using more. I got some antique metal snare drums which I should show you, from 1920, from Frank Ippolito. Old Jo Jones saw me take one of these snare drums. He’s so funny. He said, “Man, if you can play that drum…I’ll give you a year… if you can play that drum, I’ll personally kiss your ass in Macy’s front window!”
BW: Last night you told me you were fed up with buying shiny cymbals and that from now on you were going to stick with the old green ones.
TC: That’s right, the green ones are the best!
BW: What do you look for in a cymbal?
TC: Well, they’re all gold to me now. I ‘ve gotten to the point where I’ve got enough for every situation so I don’t go around looking for used ones, or new ones unless I’ve cracked one or absolutely have to have something. I bought an A. Zildjian recently, an 18″ crash, for a bright, live sound for big band. Very loud. But if I see a great, old, used K. or a really good used cymbal of any kind…
BW: I’ve seen you use a lot of K.’s.
TC: Yeah, I guess it boils down to K.’s for small live gigs and some jazz recording, and then for basic, studio and all-around situations I’ll use A.’s. and that Paiste 602 swish, a heavy A. Zildjian ride, an 18″ crash, and 14″ A. Zildjian hi-hats I got 15 years ago and they sound fantastic.
BW: You’ve been shown several times in the magazine as a Milestone user. Are you an endorser, or does it work that way?
TC: No, Michael Clapham was a student of Jim Blackley’s after me, and he always wanted to make a drum. When I was with Dr. Music in Vancouver in 1972, he brought a snare drum out to me—a prototype Milestone, black, fiberglass snare drum—and said, “Here, try it.” I thought it was great and told him if he ever made a set to send me one. About seven years later I ordered a kit, never thinking I would get them. At the MEAC convention a few years ago somebody said, “I saw your kit.” So I went out to look at my kit. I had tried them downtown and they were good. It wasn’t that the guy was a friend, it’s just that I love them, regardless of any agreement I may have with them. I’m not going to play them unless I like them.
BW: How do you tune the snare for the studio, sloppy?
TC: Yeah, I tune the top head sloppy. I spend a lot of time tuning in all situations. It’s something I started with my very first kit that my parents got me when I was twelve years old. Immediately something was wrong, so I took the time to find out. Half of your sound is the sound of your drums. Ultimately it’s the drummer but the drums have to sound musical. I’m convinced that there are guys who have the ability to make a bad drum sound good. Elvin Jones has the ability to make an 18″ A. Zildjian ride sound like a 20″ K. Zildjian sizzle, by the way he plays it. At this point I think I have my own sound.
BW: You played Elvin’s drums when he was with Coltrane. Could you make them sound like Elvin did?
TC: No. I played Tony Williams’ drums too. When I played Elvin’s drums I was in such blind terror. I remember everything was so wide-open. Everything felt so loose and wide-open. Tony’s played my kit too. It’s interesting: they can make my kit sound the way they sound. Roy Haynes sat down at my kit once in Boston and got that snap, crackle sound out of the snare. Elvin sat down behind my drums, and after about twenty minutes had lowered the pitch of each drum about a tone! And Tony’s kit—he had that beautiful K. Zildjian cymbal that started everybody looking for old K.’s because he got such a good sound, but after playing it, I realized it wasn’t so much the cymbal as the way he played it. He has that wrist snap to his playing. I couldn’t get it. Back in ’65, I sat down behind his kit. It was like being behind my own kit. We sat exactly the same height; everything was set up close together so it was easy to get to with very little effort, which is the whole point. And that cymbal was very hard to play—a real garbage-can lid.
BW: You don’t use plastic-tipped sticks do you?
TC: I did until I got here, and Don Thompson turned me on to Kirkwoods. Those sticks were so perfect. Billy Cobham got a bunch, Shelly Manne flipped out over them, everybody who tried them loved them. His quality control was such that he would hand match every pair.
BW: They’re back now, apparently.
TC: I’ve heard that. I’ll have to check that closer. Then Powertip. Tom Patterson decided to make the ultimate stick. The grooves in the stick feel good. I’d rather break wood tips than use plastic. I’d rather go through a dozen. The old ones are great for kindling.
BW: What about future goals? What about live playing or fronting a band? What would you do if you had your druthers?
TC: I’d play with my druthers-in-law, that’s who I’d play with. You know them? Rob and Dave Piltch—best bass player in the world. Fronting a band is like breaking your arm: it puts the same kind of responsibility on you which makes you actually play better. The few times I’ve been leader, I’ve played better.
BW: How long did you actually play with one arm? You really lost complete use of the arm?
TC: I played with one arm for five weeks. One arm and two legs. I was playing with Jim Hall, whose music doesn’t require a lot from the drummer but requires the right things. It was the perfect job to be on. Besides, I had all those people carrying my instruments. But it’s something about that kind of responsibility which makes me play better. It’s like playing without a piano player—with just bass and a horn. In trying to make up for the piano player not being there everybody plays more thoughtfully. Sometimes in a big band you can kind of lay in the weeds, but with two or three people you’re more exposed. So I should do that more often where I have to direct the flow.