While Wilby Fletcher is gaining a solid reputation for his steady work with such jazz notables as McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, James Moody and Ahmad Jamal, he is not locked into that single idiom. The 30-year-old drummer is equally proud of his work in the fields of R&B and Top 40, as well as the sensitive support he has provided for singers like Harry Belafonte and Jon Lucien.
Make no mistake about it, Wilby is a jazz drummer, and quite an accomplished one at that. He can swing with the best of them. But he can also play in the pocket, as he is currently doing with bassist John Lee’s group Thrust. Or he can rock out, as he does on occasion with a Connecticut-based bluegrass-rock-fusion band called Colonel Bird. Wilby can cover all the bases and do it with authenticity. That’s a quality he first admired in one of his early drum heroes, Grady Tate.
“I was checking out Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette—all the cats. I really liked Billy Higgins, Freddie Waits, and Joe Chambers. Man, the list goes on and on. I was listening to everybody. But I especially loved Grady Tate because he was so versatile. I would buy one of his records, and it would be a jazz record. Then I’d go out and buy another, and it would be an R&B record. And he was so good at both styles. That really intrigued me, because for the most part, cats like Elvin and Art were strictly jazz drummers. But Grady made me think on another level. He was so versatile, and in his versatility he was authentic. He didn’t sound like a jazz drummer when he was playing pocket music. He played authentic pocket music.”
Fletcher comes by his versatility quite naturally. As a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, he soaked up straight-ahead jazz by osmosis before he ever knew what it was, via his father’s record collection. Simultaneously, he kept his ears open to the sound of the times—Motown backbeat music. Though jazz wasn’t particularly popular with his schoolmates, he grew to appreciate it all the same.
“My father played sax and it was his aspiration to become a musician, but since he had a wife and three kids to support, he had to be realistic. Then when I started to play, he really gave me a lot of support because it was something that he had always wanted to do himself. My father worked on the Chrysler assembly line during the week, so we never saw him much until after work. But the weekends belonged to him. I remember waking up on Sunday mornings and hearing Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Sonny Stitt. Clifford Brown, being from Wilmington, was another really big inspiration to my father and to other musicians who came out of Wilmington. So while I was being exposed to all this jazz from my father, I was also locked into the Motown scene.
“Motown was definitely the strongest thing happening then. There was a sound coming out of Philadelphia too—bands like The Delfonics. So basically it was Philly and Detroit, and I was locked into that. My peers were not into jazz at all. I couldn’t take a jazz album to school and try to turn some kids on to it, because they wouldn’t appreciate it. You’d go to school dances and hear nothing but Motown and the Philly sound, and I dug that. But I also grew to appreciate the music my father had exposed me to.”
Wilby admits that some of his earliest encounters with his father’s record collection were pretty disorienting. “I remember that he gave me an Art Blakey album once and told me to listen to it, since I was beginning to get serious about playing the drums. So I put the album on and 1 listened to what Art was doing. It was incredible to me. It was like ‘Wow, man! This is too heavy for me!’ All I could play at the time was ‘Cold Sweat’—that old James Brown backbeat. So I put that Blakey record aside. But once I started taking lessons, I began to understand about syncopation and independence. I was absorbing this stuff so fast, and in a year’s time I put that Blakey record back on. This time I was able to keep up with it. That made me feel good because I could definitely see the improvement I had made. It really encouraged me and made me want to study more, play more, and get even better.”
Wilby was introduced to the drums at the tender age of four. A cousin who had a set of drums showed the youngster how to hold the sticks and just let him bang away. As Wilby recalls, “It’s funny, man. I knew at that early age that that’s what I was going to do later on in life. It was just a feeling I got when I sat down.”
He could keep time right from the start, which everyone thought was extremely cute. But playing the drums became something more than just a novelty when Wilby began seriously studying the drums in high school at the age of 14. He had studied the clarinet for five years through grade school and junior high school, so he had learned the rudiments of music theory and could read adequately. But after joining the marching band in high school, he decided to go all out for the drums.
Amazingly, Wilby began working as a professional at age 15, playing his Japanese Champion drums in nightclubs with the big guys. These gigs more or less fell into his lap, as he recalls. “One night a friend of my father called up the house. His name is Bob Wilson. He is a trumpet player who used to work with Ray Charles and Gerald Wilson. He worked with my father on the Chrysler assembly line, and he also worked locally with a band. Anyway, this particular evening, for some reason, his drummer couldn’t make the gig. So he called my father and asked if he could bring me over to the Elks home to play. So my father drove me over with my drums, and we set up. And that was like a whole other world for me, man—just to go in a club with adults!
“Basically, they were just playing the top tunes of the day and I knew them all, so I just set up and played. Those cats really liked the way I played, without any rehearsals or anything. I just came there and hit it. But there was a problem with my are. I was legally a minor, so on all the breaks, they would always have to put me in the back so that nobody saw me. After that, I’d get called periodically for these kinds of gigs. And I ended up doing that all through high school. I missed my teenage period, in a sense, because I was always so busy playing with these bands.”
Wilby got some great experience in versatility during these formative years, playing music that covered all ends of the spectrum. “I never really belonged to one band, so there was never any one set style of music that I’d be playing. One week it would be an R&B gig, the next it would be a dance band, and the next it might be a jazz trio. So that developed my appreciation even more for playing different styles of music. What I learned was that, if you’re a jazz drummer who goes to a situation where they’re playing Top 40 and they give you a solo, the people can’t dance if you play too much. Early on, I’d be throwing in all the things that I had been practicing all week long at home, and the bandleader would say, ‘Man, don’t worry about that. These people are not concerned about your chops. These people have worked hard all week long, you dig? They don’t know who Tony Williams is. They don’t know who John Coltrane is. So just play in the pocket, you dig?’ And it took me a while to absorb that message. But playing in those kinds of bands was good discipline. And it was fun, man. I enjoy watching people getting off on the music. The best way for people to express themselves is through dance. When people are dancing and having a good time, the energy and the atmosphere of the whole room is so spiritual that it makes you feel good. It’s a give and take that I enjoy.”
That teenage experience of playing out professionally prepared Wilby for his big move to New York City in 1973. A good friend of his, Howard King, was already living in the City and passed the word to Wilby that McCoy Tyner would be holding auditions for a new drummer. At age 18, Wilby wasn’t entirely confident of his abilities, but a persistent King finally talked the young drummer into taking a shot anyway.
“I came to New York,” he recalls. “It was just McCoy and myself before the rest of the band showed up. We started playing duets, and it was smoking! We were swinging our butts off, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Man, if my friends could only see me now, playing with McCoy Tyner.
They wouldn’t believe this!’ After the audition he told me he was going to use Billy Hart, who is another of my favorite drummers. But he was encouraging. He told me that I had talent, and that if I stuck with it I would eventually get a break.”
Wilby returned to Wilmington, slightly dejected. But two weeks later he got a call that lifted his spirits and turned his life around. “It was McCoy. He asked if I could go on the road with him for about a month while Billy Hart worked out some other commitment he had at the time. Oh man, my heart almost stopped! So I went out with McCoy for that month. Then I came back to Wilmington and made up my mind to move to New York. I figured that New York was the place I should be in order to learn what was happening to the music and to get that experience.”
Playing with McCoy Tyner was an experience in itself for the aspiring drummer. Tyner’s boundless energy and brilliant use of dynamics are especially demanding on drummers, as Wilby explains. “When I first got with McCoy, it was mind boggling to me. I had never played at such a high level of energy for so long before. The first gig I did with him in a club session was at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, with Azar Lawrence and Alex Blake. We didn’t even rehearse anything. I knew McCoy’s music from listening to all his records, but I was really nervous, man. Here you have all these people lined up and you have a packed house. I was really scared. But it was like something very spiritual came over me when we hit the stage. I kept telling myself, ‘Relax. All you have to do is listen.’ And I swear, the first set we played was a killer, man. We played one song for 35 or 40 minutes, and when we came off the set, I thought my brain was going to burst. Concentrating for that long a period, and keeping the tempo up and the form in my head was a very demanding thing to do, but I loved it. I was really in the big time. I was playing with the heavyweights.”
Wilby has had an ongoing relationship with McCoy Tyner for the past ten years, and through that association has come to work with violinist John Blake as well. Wilby’s stellar support can be heard on two recent releases by these two gifted composers—Tyner’s Dimensions on Elektra/Musician (Musician 60350-1) and Blake’s Maiden Dance on Gramavision (GR 8309). He has great admiration for both artists. “They know what they want and they express it well, which is a delight. Sometimes working with singers can be a drag because they tend to have the biggest egos, and many times they can’t express what they want, especially if they’re not musicians. But working with someone like Jon Lucien is fun, because he’s a singer who happens to also be a very excellent musician. He plays guitar, piano, bass, drums—a very versatile cat. So it’s a delight to play with him. He’s so musical and he knows what he wants, just like McCoy and John. And that makes you want to deliver. I love to work with people who know what they want, how to explain it, and then go out and do it. It just makes you want to give it to them the best you know how.”
Tyner was an especially good influence on Wilby, allowing him the space to discover more about himself and his playing in the context of the band. “The drum chair in McCoy’s band has always carried a lot of responsibility,” he says. “There’s a lot of freedom there. The first time I played with McCoy, I really wasn’t prepared because I was only 18 and my playing was nowhere near where it is now. But he was very patient, and I learned a lot from him. He would tell me, ‘Just feel free to play more rhythmically. Take the music to another rhythm if you want. We’ll set the groove, so it’s up to you to control the dynamics.’ He gave me a lot of pointers on how to build, and he got me really interested in learning how to apply different rhythms. For instance, we might be playing a swing, but we wouldn’t have to play a swing all the way through.We could take it into an Afro-Cuban feel or we could play a six against a swing. There were many things you could do with the time in McCoy’s band, and he openly encouraged experimentation. So McCoy was very instrumental in helping me grow and getting me to concentrate more on dynamics. As a result, I’m more musical, much stronger, and more sensitive today.”
Throughout his career, Wilby Fletcher has learned by doing, getting on-the-job training from inspirational mentors like Tyner, Ron Carter, and a host of others. Eschewing the conservatory route, he sought out the masters to pick their brains and learn invaluable lessons. “I went to Berklee for about a semester, but I became very frustrated with the way it was set up at that particular time, because I couldn’t practice the way I really wanted to. Although I needed to be there to learn other aspects of music such as arranging and harmony, I had this burning desire to play. And that prevailed, so I ended up dropping out. Besides, I was disappointed because I had actually gone to Berklee to study with Alan Dawson, but when I got there, Alan was on the road. So I really never had a chance to talk with him. I really wanted to get with him because I knew that Alan was instrumental in helping Tony Williams develop his style, and I was a really big fan of Tony’s.
“So I dropped out and returned to Wilmington, and it was a really bad scene there. People were very upset with me for dropping out, because they wanted me to get that degree. But I had this burning desire to play. Later on I met McCoy, hooked up with him on the road, and that got me to New York.”
In New York, Wilby was introduced to saxist Charlie Rouse, with whom he began rehearsing once a week. He started to meet jazz people in town, and eventually happened onto a good thing with a studio loft on 35th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. It was called Creative Artists and was run by a trumpeter named Chris Silver. “He liked the way I played, and I ended up becoming a part of that organization,” Wilby says. “I used to run errands and answer the phone there. I had a set of keys to the loft, so I could go there and practice at any time. It was great for me. It gave me a chance to play often and also to meet a lot of people through the studio. Michael Carvin was teaching there; Dennis Davis, who is an excellent pocket drummer, was hanging out there. Dennis was working with Roy Ayers at the time. He has since gone on to work with people like David Bowie, George Benson, and more recently, Stevie Wonder, so I learned a lot from him. Louis Hayes came through there, as well as Jimmy Owens. So I got a chance to meet all these people and one thing let to another. It was an important catalyst for me.”
Wilby is currently endorsing Yamaha drums exclusively. He has a Studio Series set with double basses (20: and 22”), five toms (20″ tom, 14″ mounted, 15″ mounted, 16″ floor, 18″ floor) and a variety of cymbals, depending upon his gig. He uses a 20″ Paiste 2002 ride, a 20″ Paiste power ride, an 18″ K. Zildjian medium- heavy, a 16″ Sabian crash and a 13″ Zildjian hi-hat. His sticks vary. “There’s no telling what I might use,” he says. “I go through so many sticks, especially working with McCoy. I might go through ten pairs of sticks in a night on that gig.” In general, he prefers heavy sticks in the 5B range. “I get more rebound with a heavy stick, so it’s easier for me to play with. I like a stick that’s more in conjunction with my muscles and reflexes, so I prefer a fatter stick. I’ve been using 5Bs, no matter who makes them as long as they’re straight and have wood tips.”
Wilby has also recently begun using gloves. “My hands perspire so much that sometimes it’s hard for me to hold onto the sticks. I don’t really have time to go to the hardware store and sand down my sticks, so I wear very thin gloves, like golfers gloves. I’ve been using them for the past six months and I like them.”
Wilby says that he doesn’t practice as much as he used to. “When I started, I used to practice eight to ten hours a day. Now I hardly practice at all. Between playing and trying to survive and pay the bills there just isn’t a lot of time for it.”
He does try to get daily exercise through bike riding, tennis, jogging, or weight lifting. “I try to stay active. It’s very important for your body to be in shape because it makes your job easier. Drumming is a very physically demanding job, especially with someone like McCoy, as well as being demanding mentally.”
He stresses that his main concern is to keep his muscles loose through various stretching exercises he does with his fingers and the sticks. “I don’t need to go through any extensive routine to warm up. It’s not like when I was first starting out. I’ve been playing the drums for 15 years now, so as soon as my muscles are loose, I’m free to play what I feel inside.”