The four-time Grammy Award winner is such a versatile and influential drummer, composer, and producer, it’s easy to forget that he was barely out of his teens when he recorded four of the most important jazz records ever—and all in 1970.
Lenny White got his professional start playing with alto sax great Jackie McLean while still in his teens. White’s jazz drumming was an exotic blend of Tony Williams–like dexterity and complexity. Incredibly agile and quick-witted, he churned and burned in a jazz setting, but always in a light, even, skittering fashion. Even at its most raw and jugular, his drumming popped and sizzled, full of elegance and texture.
White’s own projects reflect his expansive mindset: the albums Venusian Summer, Big City, The Adventures of Astral Pirates, and Twennynine with Lenny White find him carrying the fusion banner high. But his unclassifiable albums, like Present Tense, Renderers of Spirit, Edge, and Anomaly, remain touchstones, and brought White’s music into the modern era. And his work with all-star groups on Echoes of an Era and The Griffith Park Collection were successful, and led to work in wider areas of jazz.
White is most revered for his important work on Return to Forever’s 1970s fusion classics Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery, and Romantic Warrior. Today the seventy-year-old’s entire body of work, which also includes recordings and performances with Gato Barbieri, Gil Evans, Stanley Clarke, Stan Getz, Al Di Meola, and Bobby Hutcherson, among many others, merits in-depth study.
For our purposes this month, though, we’ll be focusing on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Woody Shaw’s Blackstone Legacy, Joe Henderson’s If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem (At the Lighthouse), and Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, all of which introduced jazz audiences to White’s sizzling, emotive, expansive jazz drumming in 1970.
MD: What was your history before recording Bitches Brew?
Lenny: I was nineteen, living in Jamaica, Queens. In 1969 I’d been playing locally with Jackie McLean. I was living at home; my dad would take me to gigs. Early on I played a gig in Queens at a club called the Aphrodisiac. Rashied Ali and Bennie Maupin were on that gig, too. I’d played at Slugs; my first gig was with Jackie McLean at the Gold Lounge. That was uptown at 125th Street. I played with McLean, and then by recommendation and people talking about my playing I got the opportunity to play on Bitches Brew.
MD: Who recommended you?
Lenny: Miles had recorded In a Silent Way, and he had a new project that he wanted to use Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette on. But Tony was pissed at Miles because before In a Silent Way Tony had brought Dave Holland and John McLaughlin from England to be in his band, the Tony Williams Lifetime. Tony shows up to the In a Silent Way record date and Holland and McLaughlin are there, too, so Tony said he would never work with Miles again. He didn’t, and he recommended me.
After that, in 1970, I got a call from Freddie Hubbard. Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Herbie Hancock were doing everybody’s records, and Miles was getting upset about that. So they made a pact that they wouldn’t do outside records anymore, and when Freddie called Tony to do Red Clay, Tony recommended me. Then Joe Henderson asked me to be in his band. I’d played with Woody Shaw in Jackie McLean’s band, so Woody called me for Blackstone Legacy. Woody and I would talk a lot after gigs about musical directions. I’d played in two bands with Woody, in McLean’s band and Joe Henderson’s band.
MD: Going back to Bitches Brew, what happened when you set up the drums?
Lenny: I was playing the drums, hitting them to see how they’d sound. Miles comes into the control room and presses the talk-back and says, “Hey, Jack, tell that young drummer to stop playing.”
MD: You and Jack set up next to each other?
Lenny: Yes. They used a stereo pan microphone. Fifty years later, I teach a class at NYU on Bitches Brew. We use the book Listen to This: Miles Davis and Bitches Brew. There’s a lot of information about how the album was recorded with open miking, setups, etc. Back then when it was analog recording, what made all records, whether jazz or rock or classical, was the miking. From that perspective, Bitches Brew was pretty much over-miked; the way they panned it later became stereo.
MD: So, two drummers on the date?
Lenny: There were four percussion players: two percussionists and two drummers. I didn’t go in thinking, “Jack’s playing this, and I’m going to play that.” It was my intention to make it sound like one drummer that had eight arms. I’d played with another drummer before. But this was my first record date.
Here’s another very interesting point. I wasn’t taught how to play music. I was given an opportunity to create music, and creating music is different from playing it. Miles Davis didn’t hand me a drum chart and say, “This is what I want you to play.” He said, “Think of this as a big pot of stew. I want you to be salt.” Now, what musical knowledge am I going to call on to sound like salt? I had to create something that I’d never witnessed before. I had to use whatever musical knowledge I had to create what Miles wanted. Miles wanted a spice, and so I had to create that on the spot. It was whatever I heard. He told us all what he wanted, but it was up to us to create that.
MD: Did Miles hold rehearsals?
Lenny: There was only one rehearsal, at Miles’ 77th Street apartment. He asked me to bring a snare drum and a cymbal. Jack was there, Chick Corea was there, as well as Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter. We rehearsed the introduction to “Bitches Brew.”
MD: What drum setup did you use?
Lenny: My bass drum then was made from a metal oil drum. Miles’ nephew, Vince Wilburn, has it now. It was an actual oil drum. Elvin Jones wanted to buy that drum. I used that drum, some Ludwig tom-toms, and a Gretsch metal snare drum. Later I took that very same drumset to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio to record Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay. I hit the oil can bass drum, and Ron Carter said, “No, no, no, no, no. You can’t use that. It’s too resonant and will drown out the bass.”
Tools of the Trade
Today Lenny White plays Gretsch Custom Broadkaster drums including a 6.5×14 metal snare drum, 8×12 and 9 x13 toms, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 14×18 bass drum. His Istanbul Agop Lenny White Epoch cymbals include 14″ hi-hats, a 22″ ride, a 17″ crash, and a 19″ ride. He uses Vic Firth Lenny White Signature sticks and brushes.
Here I get an opportunity to play with my heroes, and Ron Carter says I can’t use that bass drum. So Rudy pulls out this 28″ bass drum that had a painting of a moonlit lake on the front head. I think it was one of Gus Johnson’s drums. So I used that on Red Clay. We recorded Bitches Brew at CBS Studio Building [Studio B] at 49 East 52nd Street.
“It was like an orchestra, and Miles was our conductor. We wore headphones. We had to be able to hear each other. All live recording, no overdubs. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., for three days.”
MD: Did you and Jack discuss what you were going to play?
Lenny: No! I’d only met Jack once before. When I played at Slugs with Jackie McLean, Jack sat in and played melodica. When I played with Jackie McLean, people said, “Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette both played with Jackie McLean, then they played with Miles. So you’re next to play with Miles.” When I was seventeen, I first heard Seven Steps to Heaven; that’s the seventeen-year-old Tony Williams. Immediately he became my guy. So two years later I got an opportunity to play with Miles, too.
MD: At the Bitches Brew sessions, everyone was set up in a half-circle with Miles and Wayne in the middle?
Lenny: It was like an orchestra, and Miles was our conductor. We wore headphones. We had to be able to hear each other. There were no guests at that session. No photos allowed. But there was one guest that nobody talked about, Max Roach. All live recording, no overdubs. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., for three days. After the sessions, Jack, Max, and I rode uptown in Jack’s VW bus. I forget where we went.
MD: What do you teach in your NYU class?
Lenny: I have an ensemble, and I teach a lecture on Bitches Brew called “The Miles Davis Aesthetic.” It encompasses not only Bitches Brew, but how the aesthetic has changed. I discuss everything that has gone on since 1969, everything that led up to why Miles decided to make that change and the music that he created. Bitches Brew was ten years after Kind of Blue, which changed how music sounded from 1959 to 1969; Miles opened a whole new world with Bitches Brew. That’s how hip-hop and all sorts of things began. Those were novel recording concepts in the jazz idiom at the time. We talk about all those things.
MD: What did you tell people when they asked what Bitches Brew sounded like before the album was released?
Lenny: I couldn’t. Nobody had heard what that sounded like. We were creating it for the first time. There was no precedent, so there was no way that we could describe it. There was nothing that you could compare it to.
MD: What set did you play on the live Joe Henderson record?
Lenny: I again played the oil can bass drum, the Gretsch snare drum, and the two Ludwig toms. Red Clay was recorded in May of ’70. Joe’s …Part of the Problem was done after Red Clay because I was in Joe’s band by then. Woody Shaw’s Blackstone Legacy was 1970 as well. Ron Carter was on Blackstone Legacy, too, and Clint Houston and George Cables. We’d all played together in Jamaica, Queens, as part of the Jazz Samaritans. That band had played in a local competition while Billy Cobham was in the group. He left to join Horace Silver’s band. I also recorded an Andrew Hill album then called Passing Ships for Blue Note. That wasn’t released until 2003. I played Rudy Van Gelder’s blue sparkle drums on that session.
MD: How did you get away with playing the oil can bass drum on sessions?
Lenny: It sounded great. It sounded cool! It was killing, man, are you kidding? Everybody thought that was a badass drum. After years, Vince Wilburn refurbished it. It looked like an 18″ bass drum. The edges were shaved so you could put reinforcement hoops on it, and it was drilled so a head would fit.
MD: Did they hand out charts in those other sessions?
MD: How did you all learn the music for Blackstone Legacy and Red Clay?
Lenny: My classic story about Red Clay is about the song “The Intrepid Fox.” That’s a unique and difficult song form, and we had played an entire take. And it was a great take. We got to the last eight bars of the tune, and I played this figure that sounds like I knew what I was doing. I played the figure on the other side of the beat, and I came out on the right side of the beat. I was so relieved. That’s the take that’s on the record. I was so glad that I got through that!
MD: It was a loose approach, but did Freddie give chord charts to the other musicians?
Lenny: Yeah, that was hard music, man. “The Intrepid Fox” is a hard tune. I don’t think we did more than one take. We just used our ears, man.
MD: What about the Blackstone Legacy sessions?
Lenny: Woody had a bunch of music that he gave everyone, and we went in and recorded it. I don’t remember if we rehearsed; I don’t recall rehearsing a whole lot.
MD: And had you already been in Joe’s band when you went into record Joe Henderson’s …Part of the Problem?
Lenny: Yes. There’s a bootleg tape of us playing at the Both/And Club in San Francisco. We recorded that album with Joe Henderson at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach.
MD: In my twenties I studied jazz drums with a former Berklee instructor, James Baker. He made me learn your solo on “Caribbean Fire Dance” from the …Part of the Problem album. I could never get it, and that’s why I’m a writer and not a drummer!
Lenny: Really? That’s funny.
MD: Those gigs and recordings in ’69 and ’70 launched your career.
Lenny: Well, yeah, I had no career before that. No one had heard of me before those records. The first year I recorded an actual album that people could hear was 1969. Jackie McLean was the first guy that I played with that had a recognizable name. I was still in school, so I had to play close to home, like in Philly. Once I did a gig in Philly with Jackie opposite Sun Ra.
It’s interesting that Tony Williams and Elvin Jones played in the era, especially in New York. They were somewhat avant-garde drummers, along with Sunny Murray and Milford Graves. They brought that edgy, avant-garde attitude to their drumming. It was the same thing with Jack DeJohnette and Clifford Jarvis. There was a wave of things that were happening, along with Max and Philly Joe Jones and all those guys. Max, of course, was very advanced and leading that. There was this edge on the music, and Blackstone Legacy and some of these other records had that attitude. There was an attitude about the music that represented what was going on in the black community at that time.
MD: Looking back, how does your drumming on those records make you feel now?
Lenny: I’m much better now than I was then! Honestly, I would hope that people judge you on your body of work, as opposed to certain records. It’s like an actor. An actor can win an Academy Award, but hopefully not be judged by that one film. I don’t get any love for the jazz records I recorded!