Growing up in the Hartford, Connecticut, area with musically inclined parents, Jimmy Macbride caught the jazz bug early. He eventually moved to the big city to attend Juilliard, where he studied with the master drummers Carl Allen, Kenny Washington, and Billy Drummond. It was there where old and new records were heard, skills were honed, and relationships were formed.
Macbride is a classic swinger, with a beautiful cymbal touch and proper chops to be able to support all the varied musical situations he finds himself in. On recent albums by saxophonists Adam Larson and Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, and by guitarists Alex Goodman and Alex Wintz, Macbride kicks the proceedings into high gear with a reverence for traditional jazz approaches. But he also brings modern stuff for modern tunes. Not content to rehash the same old standards, Macbride and his peers are intent on taking jazz into the twenty-first century.
MD: How did you gravitate toward drums?
Jimmy: My parents are both creative. My dad is a composer and writes a lot of music, for percussion ensemble specifically. Maybe that got into my head somehow. There wasn’t any one thing. They said I was banging on pots and pans, and I gravitated toward playing drumset. I didn’t have any interest in playing classical percussion. In middle school is where I really decided to be a jazz drummer. Some of the first music I heard was Frank Sinatra, and I enjoyed the sound, but then I started to learn about improvisation, the feeling of it, and certain grooves, the subtlety and dynamics. That appealed to me, as well as the fact that your own voice could come out in the music, and that not everything was written down.
MD: What did you take away from Juilliard?
Jimmy: Two main things. First, meeting the other students who were like-minded and liked the same music as me and who were around my generation—people who I continue to play with today. And then, just finding a community of people that I could be part of. New York is such a big city, with so many musicians, that had I moved here without being in school, it would have been overwhelming. And the other thing was studying with Carl Allen, Kenny Washington, and Billy Drummond, three drummers who I admired, and part of the reason I wanted to go to that school.
MD: What did you learn from each?
Jimmy: Carl introduced me to a lot of records I didn’t know about that he thought would be helpful for me. He helped me physically with my posture and being consistent about where you hit things, like the snare in the same place. That’s something I still think about a lot and that’s very important to me.
Billy Drummond is super-open-minded, so he would ask me about what I wanted to work on. And he’d suggest checking out a record that might give me an idea of some new way to approach something that I might encounter in the real world of playing gigs. He has creative and unique ways of approaching things like playing in odd meters or playing more open music. He has a great blend of having such knowledge of the history of the instrument, but he sounds very fresh and in the moment.
Kenny is such a student of the drums, and he cares about playing the instrument correctly. You know he likes a certain era of music and that connects with him the most, but the way he approaches teaching fundamental drum stuff can be applied to any style of playing, beyond jazz even.
MD: You switch back and forth between matched and traditional grip. Is this a nonissue in 2018?
Jimmy: To me it’s a nonissue. However, if you can get the sound that you want [with one grip or the other], and execute ideas the best, then that’s what you should do. I started with matched when I first learned how to play drums. That’s what made sense to me and how I saw some people do it, and my teacher never said otherwise. I didn’t play traditional grip seriously until I moved to New York. I knew it was something I wanted to be able to do, because I had seen so many of my heroes playing that way. I liked the sound of it, and I liked the look of it. Plus those three drummers I mentioned played traditional and kind of encouraged it. Now I switch back and forth depending on the situation, maybe within the course of eight bars.
MD: Talk about the jazz scene today. In New York in particular, has anything changed since you came on the scene, even recently?
Jimmy: The jazz scene in New York is as vibrant as ever. There’s no shortage of people being creative, playing all sorts of different kinds of music, pushing boundaries on their instruments or compositionally. There are still plenty of places to play. But it’s also harder than ever, because with the advent of streaming services, artists aren’t making as much money from record sales as they used to. If you put out a jazz record in today’s world, you’re doing it because you want people to hear your music, not because you want to make any money. So it’s an investment on your part, an investment in your career. You hopefully believe in your art to invest that time and those resources into it. But in New York, you can go out every day and hear amazing music.
MD: How do you center yourself to make music with subpar backlines?
Jimmy: It’s important to learn how to tune properly, and to have a sound in your head, so that when you sit down at a new instrument, you can dial it in quickly—a general range you want things to be in. I prefer things to be closer to what I have at home, but playing a new instrument can be a cool challenge to your ear. If things are a little different, it can push you out of your comfort zone. It’s really all in your hands. I’ve seen many master musicians sit at any drumset, and it doesn’t matter if the drums are tuned well—they still sound like themselves. It’s remarkable. But having your cymbals helps, and I often bring a snare to clubs in New York, just to make me feel more comfortable.
MD: You’re mostly interested in being a part of making original music?
Jimmy: I love standards and playing tunes by jazz composers, but most of the people I play with prefer to play the music that they’ve written themselves. I do enjoy playing original music and interpreting people’s music and trying to bring my own thing to it, whether I want to or not, because that’s what most people are doing nowadays.
MD: How do you interpret standards, especially coming in after so many heavy drummers before you?
Jimmy: I’m with you. I always feel like you can’t reinvent the wheel. But I have many reference points from records I’ve listened to, and things get filtered through that. But at the end of the day, I don’t worry too much about whether what I’m doing is super-original or not, because I’m just concerned with playing well and playing musically, for whatever the situation is—playing original music, standards, or pop music. And I keep the basic tenets of music making that I think are important, like listening, dynamics, making the music feel good, and supporting the other people around you. So because I am who I am, maybe naturally something of my own will come through. And if the music is well written, open enough, and flexible enough, it will allow the musicians to do that without much effort. The songs play themselves when they’re good, and you naturally fall into the groove and feel comfortable to do whatever you want.
MD: And if you play a funk beat and Steve Gadd plays a funk beat, yours is still going to sound like Jimmy Macbride, unintentionally.
Jimmy: Right—I hope so. I don’t think I could ever sound like Steve Gadd, even though I would love to. If you just try to play well and support the people around you, naturally over time you’ll hopefully develop your own thing, and hopefully people will recognize that and want you to continue doing that for their music.
Tools of the Trade
Macbride plays a Sonor Hilite Exclusive kit circa the late ’80s/early ’90s that includes a 5.75×14 snare, a 10×12 tom, 14×15 and 15×16 floor toms, and a 15×18 bass drum (with an alternate matching 22″ bass drum and 13″ tom). Additional snares include a 6.5×14 Ludwig hammered bronze, a 5×14 Canopus Mahogany, and a 5×14 Rogers Powertone COB, all fitted with Canopus Vintage snare wires. Jimmy also occasionally uses a kit made by the now-defunct Modern Drum Shop; it has a black sparkle finish and includes an 8×12 tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 14×18 bass drum. Macbride endorses Paiste cymbals and primarily plays a 22″ Masters Dark ride with two rivets, a 20″ Masters Dark crash/ride, an 18″ Masters Dark crash, 14″ Formula 602 Medium hi-hats, and a 22″ Sound Creation Dark ride with three rivets. He uses Vater New Orleans Jazz sticks with a wood tip and standard Regal Tip brushes (black rubber handle), Remo Coated Ambassador heads all around (except for a Remo Powerstroke 3 on the 22″ bass drum), Yamaha hardware, and a Camco chain-drive bass drum pedal.