Bill Goodwin

Ultimate Sideman

by Michael Rozek

At least figuratively and maybe literally. Bill Goodwin has played with everyone. (On a recent Phil Woods album, the liner notes reveal: “Bill has worked with jazz leaders Charles Lloyd, Bud Shank, Frank Rosolino, Victor Feldman. Shorty Rogers, Clare Fischer, Leroy Vinnegar, Mike Melvoin, Art Pepper, Paul Horn, Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, Gabor Szabo, George Shearing, Gary Burton, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lew Tabackin, Bob Dorough, Bill Evans, Chuck Israels, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Michel Legrand, and Phil Woods. He has also performed with singers Mose Allison, June Christy, Joe Williams. Tony Bennett, Tom Waits and The Manhattan Transfer. He has recorded with many of the above, as well as Dennis Budimir, Anthony Ortega, Steve Allen, Jefferson Airplane, Keith Jarrett, Hal Galper, Jack Wilkins, Stuart Scharf, Children of All Ages, the groups on more than a dozen Music Minus One albums, Don Friedman and the National Jazz Ensemble.

Born in 1942, Goodwin admits, “There are faster, cleaner players…but I’m the best Bill Goodwin around. Which I guess means I’m always completely there, for the situation…whatever it may he.” It’s that incisive kind of professionalism that keeps Goodwin’s services perpetually in demand and makes him a drummer well worth interviewing.

MR: Let’s begin with how you started.

BG: I grew up in Los Angeles, where my father was a network radio announcer and a character actor in films during the early part of the Second World War. I was sort of a Hollywood “brat.” I was exposed to jazz at a very early age, because my father was a fanatical record collector.

At five years old, both my sister and I started piano lessons. When I was 12, I studied tenor sax with a man named Frank Chase, who worked with Ray Noble and taught Paul Desmond, Herb Geller and Bob Gordon. I could read music at this point, but I couldn’t improvise very well. So eventually, by ear, I started playing drums. And when we moved to Palm Springs, I was the drummer in the high school band. I played in local clubs, too.

When I was 16, a great thing happened. I was at a friend of mine’s, and across the street — t h i s was in Palm Springs—there was a Vegas-style group playing called the Four Jokers. It turned out, though, that the band actually featured Art Pepper. The drummer only had a snare and a pair of brushes. I got to sit in and it was a huge thrill. Later, Art came to our high school and gave a clinic and we’re friends still. In fact, I traded coming from somewhere. It turned out to be a U.S.C. frat party, three blocks away. And the saxophonist, Charles Lloyd, was leading a band. He was a student there then. I introduced myself, which led to a friendship. The next year, he hired me. This was way before people knew about Charles, and the gigs were strictly local.

MR: What was your playing like during this period?

BG: I’d been hanging out at Shelly’s Manne Hole a lot during high school, listening to Shelly. He was creative and colorful, cerebral—yet he swung. And when I heard Shelly’s record of “Man With The Golden Arm.” I said, ‘I know I want to do that.’ Then, I went through a phase where I wanted to play loud and swinging, like Art Blakey. And later, I got a lot of advice from Stan Levey, who was playing with the Lighthouse All- Stars. As far back as when I was 13, my dad used to take me to their Sunday Marathons. Eventually, I would drive up from Palm Springs every weekend and sleep on their floor, after I’d gotten to be good friends with everyone, just to hear the music. Anyway, Stan told me about Max Roach: he said he was like a deep well that all other drummers could draw on. Elvin Jones was a primal force: like on Sonny Rollins’ “A Night At The Village Vanguard” LP.

The next year, when I was 17,1 got my union card and worked around L.A. But finally, I reached a point where I just took a year off and studied. I was parking cars at NBC at the time, across the street from a music store called Drum City, run by Roy Harte, who was the drummer with the original Bud Shank / Laurindo Almeida Quartet. Mel Lewis judged a contest there one day, and I entered and won a $100 scholarship for private lessons. He kidded me at the time; he said I got first prize because I played the same way he did—wrong. By which he meant the way my hands were positioned . . . drummers like Mel, Roy Haynes, Elvin, the self-taught naturals can get away with it, but I was in trouble. I could play with good players, because fear was a great motivator, and I just swung right along. But, I needed to play technically correct in order to grow creatively. For example. I didn’t have a proper grip on the sticks, so I couldn’t play as fast as I wanted. To be a working, professional drummer, you had to do a nice, clean roll, which I couldn’t do. So I studied the Henry Adler method, and learned how Buddy Rich does it, from a private teacher. Now, every time I see Buddy, I point out to him that I play with my hands exactly like him, but somehow, it just doesn’t come out the same. If you ever look at Buddy, he’s got perfect coordination; a perfect approach in terms of facility, economy of motion. This is something he does naturally, the greatest of all time. He’s never had a lesson. Studying his style helped me play as a comfortable, natural extension of myself, and in an easy, sensible way.

MR: You’ve worked with a lot of different people. As a drummer, what did you learn from each of them?

BG: After I stopped woodshedding to correct my style, my first job on the road was with the singer Milt Trenier. That taught me a lot about backbeat. Then, when I came back to L.A., I worked in some freer groups with Gary Peacock, the bassist. We floated a lot when we played, but we also swung in and out, like Bill Evans’ trio with Paul Motian. Then, I worked with the bassist Leroy Vinnegar, which was a move from original music back to standards, and straight-ahead stuff. Leroy was beau tiful. He really instructed me. Not only with his personality, but with his beat.

He could shade it, slow it, punctuate it. I learned a lot just by watching his foot tap, which encouraged a sort of non-ver bal communication on the bandstand that every good drummer has to know about.

MR: Let me throw some other names at you. George Shearing.

BG: George had a book of about 300 pieces of music, and he could call any of them at any time. He has a photographic memory. So, the 40 or 50 we played all the time, during the year I was with him, we had pretty much memorized. But, once in a while, there’d be a surprise, like a blues in 9/4. You really had to read well and quickly, too. But, previous to the gig (1968) I’d done some commercial recording, plus studied some drum reading with Nick Ceroli, who later became the drummer with the Tijuana Brass. He showed me some texts that were helpful, and based on the reading I’d learned on tenor, I was able to keep practicing on my own.

MR: With so much reading on that job, and Shearing’s understated musical style, did you have to lay back very consciously?

BG: You had to play a lot of brushes. I really haven’t perfected a brush technique, but as much as I can play them, I learned from the gig with George. And I learned how to play the hi-hat on every two and four without variation. George really deemphasized the bass drum. It was a good job for adjusting to a specific musical context, and then bringing your own personality in wherever you could.

MR: Mose Allison.

BG: When I worked my first gigs with Mose, he told me, ‘Don’t ever play hi-hat on 2 and 4.’ So, sometimes while I was working steady with Shearing, I’d also do gigs with Mose. The fact that there was a dichotomy of opposites happening was obviously a very valuable thing. I love challenges. Without friction, there’s no motion. Also, working with Mose is a real drummer’s job because his piano style is so percussive. After you get through the head, it’s total freedom. You can just bash it out, make up rhythms.

MR: Gary Burton’s quartet.

BG: A demanding job because, at the time, it was different music than I’d been used to playing. It meant swinging, but a different kind of swinging: more related to the way Ornette Coleman played, loose and disciplined at the same time. You had to be conversational, not just reliant on the ride cymbal; all over the drums, instead. And there were constant gradations in dynamics and rhythms. At the time (the mid-to-late-sixties) we in the Quartet were all jazz players who were being heavily influenced by the in a style that might be more usual to a small group. We both knew I could just read the music as written, but we also both knew that wouldn’t be as interesting as something I’d heard and created over a longer period of time.

MR: Tom Waits.

BG: That was one of the few jobs I ever really asked for. I was working with Mose in Boston, opening for Bonnie Raitt. Afterwards, Tom came backstage and said some nice things about my playing. He told me, ‘You’re a young guy, but you play like an older cat.’ I told him I was just a middle-aged guy playing the way I play. Anyway, the next night I went to see him perform for the first time and was blown away. I came up in the fifties, when there was lots of jazz, poet-Beatles, The Band, and Dylan. Pretty soon, I was very comfortable with the style, and stayed with Gary for two years and 4 albums.

MR: Chuck Israels’ big band, The National Jazz Ensemble.

BG: In a big band, you follow a lot of what you do in a small group, except you have a somewhat less abstract relation ship to the beat and the bar line. Like the difference between Art Blakey and Sam Woodyard; they have a similar ap proach, but Sam’s is a little simpler, because a lot more players depend on his role as a source of certain landmarks and guidelines. In a big band, it’s not just your responsibility to keep the time. Everybody’s got to do that, but you can help, if you set up a certain obvious thing to help the band really put it together. In the National Jazz Ensemble, since we played such a wide repertoire, I just tried to fit in stylistically with whatever piece we did. Plus, Chuck allowed me to play more by ear than by strict reading, in a style that might be more usual to a small group. We both knew I could just read the music as written, but we also both knew that wouldn’t be as interesting as something I’d heard and created over a longer period of time.

MR: Tom Waits.

BG: That was one of the few jobs I ever really asked for. I was working with Mose in Boston, opening for Bonnie Raitt. Afterwards, Tom came backstage and said some nice things about my playing. He told me, ‘You’re a young guy, but you play like an older cat.’ I told him I was just a middle-aged guy playing the way I play. Anyway, the next night I went to see him perform for the first time and was blown away. I came up in the fifties, when there was lots of jazz, poetry, and Lenny Bruce. So, I recognized what Tom was doing as just part of my life. Back in Los Angeles, I called up Bones Howe, his producer, who’s an old friend of mine, and when I asked him if I could do Tom’s next record, he said, ‘Tom’s already asked for you.’ And the group on the record Nighthawks at The Diner, (Asylum) turned out to be guys I’d worked with for years, Mike Melvoin and Jim Hughart.

With Tom, there’s not much to do, but keep really solid time. You can make sort of literary references in your playing . . . like, I’d read and dug Jack Kerouac, so there were certain things I threw in that I think Tom really liked. After the record, I got Al Cohn to join us, and we worked a five-city concert tour. It was a lot of fun.

MR: The Jefferson Airplane—or was that a misprint in your bio?

BG: No. The drummer in the group, Spencer Dryden, was one of my best friends when I was living in Los Angeles.

We were real night owls together, hanging out all the time. Once, Spencer, a studio doing a lot of voodoo, ritualtype chanting and drumming. Pretty wild stuff. Which is sort of the context for the fact that on one of the group’s albums (Crown of Creation: RCA) I played talking drum on the title tune.

MR: And your current and longest single association, with Phil Woods.

BG: Well, it is a pleasure because it’s almost a perfectly balanced working group. Five and a half years ago, it started as just a bunch of people who lived near each other (Ed. note: Woods, Goodwin and company reside in Pennsylvania’s scenic Delaware Water Gap region) and got together to play all the time. Finally, we just meshed. And, I’d also have to say that considering the current reacceptance of acoustic jazz, we were also one of the first groups to bring it back.

MR: Let’s talk about your equipment. What kind of drums do you use?

BG: I have four drum sets and an endorsement agreement with Yamaha drums. I use the Yamaha snare drum, and some of their stands. In Phil’s band, I use a small wooden Slingerland set: a 12×20 bass drum, about fifteen years old, and some ten year old tom-toms. When I play rock ‘n’ roll now and then, I use big drums tuned down. With Phil I use small ones and tune them up. For a big band, it’d be a choice somewhere in between. But in Phil’s quartet, small wood drums blend best with the bass and with the acoustic piano. And we play 95% of the time without amplification, so that really requires that I use a lot of volume control.

I have about 20 different cymbals, which I vary according to the situation. With Phil, I use an A. Zildjian 20″, with two rivets. It’s an old A, maybe 30 years old, really dirty. And, I use an old 18″ that I’ve had since I started playing. In fact, for many years, I rarely bought new cymbals. I just trade for old ones. A few years ago, for work with the National Jazz Ensemble, Chuck Israels bought me a new Zildjian flattop because he wanted a cymbal I could bash on without drowning out the band. It’s also a very good cymbal for recording, because it’s live but doesn’t build up too much. It doesn’t have a bell on it, so it doesn’t spread, and the sound dies out fast. As far as my older cymbals go, they fit the sound of my small drums, and sound live. I also have a 17″, which I might use on a jazz job as a secondary ride and crash. On a jingle, for example, it may be the only cymbal I’ll use.

MR: What about your sticks?

BG: I change sticks based on the acoustics of the room. If I’m in a live room, I use a lighter stick, the lightest being a Vic Firth combo, with a round, wood tip. The heaviest I’d use for a live performance would be a Regal Tip jazz stick, with a plastic tip, fairly long. I like a long stick because at least part of the time I like to hold it way back at the end. I constantly change my hand position when I’m riding to get a difference in texture and volume, sliding up and down a lot. I haven’t seen many guys do it, but I do a lot. It contributes to getting different sounds out of the cymbals and playing at different volumes, and still with a lot of intensity.

MR: Do you practice regularly?

BG: I have no set time or duration for practicing, but I practice everyday. Generally, it’s rudimental variations, mostly of my own devising, on a practice pad. That comes from being on the road so much, where I’ll also use a towel on a table top. I’ve really come to enjoy that. If I want to work without bounce, I’ll just use a pillow on a bed, to develop the wrists. My basic regimen is based on the first three or four rudiments on the rudiment sheet. . . . paradiddle variations, flamtap variations, single and double stroke rolls and combinations thereof. A lot of it is also based on George Lawrence Stone’s, Stick Control, with the idea of one hand follows the other, that you should never be at a loss, that you should have an even-handed approach that always winds you up somewhere. And then, if I don’t have time to do any of this, I’ll just do some stretching, some left and right hand extensions, five or six times. I also soak up new ideas for practicing.

One time I was up in Boston, and Joe Hunt gave me some material they use at Berklee which I thought was interesting: grouping asymetrical groups of notes over individual beats; setting up a quarter- note pattern and then putting any number of beats over the single beats. It’s been helpful for me because I use a lot of 5’s, 7’s, 9’s, and 11’s inside the basic meter I’m playing. In fact, that I do this kind of roaming and still know where
I am, though I don’t always come out on one, or on a strong beat, might be the most characteristic thing about my playing.

MR: I have to observe that you’re not known as a soloist, given that you’re so supportive a player. Any thoughts on this?

BG: Well, when I get a chance to solo, what I always try to do is not a display, but rather a development of a fragment or an idea. Usually my solo will last three minutes, five at the longest and with Phil, there’ll usually be one spot for me per night. Also, Phil Iikes 4’s and 8’s. Although, I really prefer 3’s and 5’s, which haven’t been done so much. . . . 3’s and 5’s when everyone in the quartet is still playing, and I’m just the main voice.

I’ve also been very influenced as a soloist by Shelly Manne and Pete LaRoca, from the period where they were abstracting the solo form to great effect. Like Pete’s solo on Jackie McLean’s New Soil lp (Blue Note), on a piece called, I think, “Minor March.” He applied a free conception to bebop and made it acceptable, something that Shelly was also able to do. They never lost the form, though there were no strict number of bars. They kept the form in a very loose sense, and made comments on it in a very abstract way . . . like how a timbales player accents, stretching the time, using the clave like the steady hi-hat in jazz. Pete LaRoca was a timbalero in Latin bands before he became a jazz drummer. Actually, his name is Pete Sims, but he changed it because he played so well the cats couldn’t believe he wasn’t Spanish. So he went ahead and saved himself a lot of explanations, finally. Now, he’s an attorney, teaching other lawyers how to use computers. A brilliant guy.

MR: Which of your solos are you the most proud?

BG: Well, first, in concerts, Shearing used to feature me on a long solo, which became kind of a set piece. It was kind of funny, because it was on “Bernie’s Tune,” which we played really fast, and then I slowed it down. I played with sticks until it got softer, then brushes, then mallets, then one hand and one mallet, bending tones for tabla-Iike effects, playing the rims, playing under the drums, playing the front of the cymbals. Bending the cymbals to get different tones. The only time George didn’t like it was when people went so crazy he was forced to make them stop. The point is, since I originally studied piano and tenor, but I wasn’t good enough to play them in a band, my solo drumming comes from that kind of musical perspective, the desire to make music on the drums, rather than a show of speed. Or, as Shelly Manne would say, “Just singing a little song.”

MR: How about your solos on record?

BG: Well, there’s one on a Jack Wilkins lp, on Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” I was thinking of Shelly’s axiom a lot that day. Then, there’s the first one I ever recorded, on a Leroy Vinnegar record Jazz’s Greatest Walker, (Vee Jay) which is now impossible to get, on a tune by Mike Melvoin called “Kick, Laugh and Crawl.” It’s interesting to me because years later, on a Hal Galper album, I take a similar solo on a tune called “P.M. in the A.M.” And listening to them both, I can really hear the development in my career.

MR: You’ve mentioned some of your influences; any others?

BG: Well, there are a lot of drummers I really admire: Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Dannie Richmond, Frank Butler, Lawrence Marable. They’re not usually bandleaders, but they’ve always been about making the music sound really interesting. Donald Bailey is another. He lives in Japan now. He’s a great improvisor, and he has an amazing way around the drums. Plus, he sets them up in the strangest way possible, with his snare drum on the floor, and cymbals up so high he can barely reach them. So, he plays with more independence between his feet and hands than most drummers. Yet he’s always swinging. When I first heard him with Jimmy Smith, it was like hearing Elvin and Coltrane ten years later. Then there’s Wilbur Campbell from Chicago, who combines all the best qualities of everything you’ve ever heard into his playing…and way back at the beginning in L.A., there was a guy named Bernie James, who was really mainly a tenor player. He used to play just snare, hi-hat and brushes with the original Les McCann trio, way before Les made any records, and he used to swing his ass off. It was that his accenting didn’t state, it implied. Listening to him really taught me a lot.

MR: Are you eventually going to join the ranks of drummer/leaders, or just continue to hone your reputation as the “ultimate sideman?”

BG: Well, seriously, ten years from now, I hope whatever reputation that is is long forgotten. Because I am currently working on some of my own projects, not as a composer, but as a featured artist or leader and as a producer. One is a record with the working title of “Tabackin, Goodwin and Moore,” with Lew Tabackin and the bassist Mike Moore. It’s a cooperative idea, both in the group concept and in the actual music. And, for an lp project involving Steve Swallow and John Scofield, I’ve got the working title “The Bill Goodwin Orchestra.”

But as a drummer? Well, when I started playing, I wanted to swing, but also do more. There were plenty of guys who could keep time, but I wanted to do more. And I think through a lot of hard work and love of playing I’ve achieved that for myself, whenever I play.