When I mentioned Kenny Clare’s name to Joe Morello one day, Joe responded: “He’s the best jazz drummer in England. Kenny’s just a fine musician.” Judging by Kenny’s credentials, Morello isn’t the only one who holds such a high opinion of him. Kenny has kept very busy over the years accompanying such artists as Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Michel LeGrand, the Clarke/Boland Big Band, and John Dankworth and Cleo Laine. He has also done TV and studio work and has even given a few drum clinics. Versatility is obviously an important ingredient of Kenny’s success, but perhaps even more important is his attitude about wanting to truly accompany those he works with. Part of that attitude is simple professionalism, but a lot of it comes from his personality. As Morello put it, ”He’s a sweetheart—a wonderful guy.”
RM: How did you first get involved with music?
KC: My father was a local semi-pro drummer. By semi-pro I mean that he played every night, but he had a day job too. He couldn’t read, but he was a good drummer and knew what a paradiddle was and so forth. When I was about four years old, he tried to teach me, but I told him he was getting it all wrong. Kids are precocious, you know. I didn’t really fool around with drums after that, but there were always drums around the house. We would have musical evenings on Sundays. My mother played piano, my father played drums, and a friend of his played the violin. They would have jam sessions, but it wasn’t jazz; it was the show music of the day. So I was always exposed to music at home. And then my dad would take me to see any movies that were around with people like Gene Krupa in them. He tried very hard to get me interested in the drums, but I guess because he wanted me to, I wasn’t. It’s a typical children’s approach. That’s why rock ‘n’ roll and punk rock and everything else got so big: it’s a fight against the parents.
So anyway, finally one day, a friend of mine said the local Boy’s Brigade—which is like the Boy Scouts—was looking for drummers because they had just started a band. So I asked my father, “What do I need to do to play for the Boy’s Brigade?” He showed me a few licks, which I practiced for about three days on a Chinese tomtom. He wouldn’t let me use his snare drum! So I got the gig because I was the only one who could play. The others couldn’t play at all! So that was kind of fun for a while—walking up and down Main Street on Sunday mornings banging a drum.
Then one day my dad came home and said, “There’s a movie on you’d be very interested to see.” I’m not sure now, but I think it was called Ship Ahoy. It had Tommy Dorsey’s band with Buddy Rich. I knew about Tommy Dorsey, but I didn’t know about Buddy Rich. So I went and saw it, and there was this feature that Buddy had, and they had a dance routine to go with it. I thought the drumming was great, so I gave my drum back to the Boy’s Brigade and decided to become a jazz drummer.
RM: Did you ever take any lessons, other than asking your father about things?
KC: I never had any lessons because there wasn’t anybody around at that time to teach. In London, during the war, anybody who could play was out playing. There was actually no way to learn. It was a long process trying to figure out what was right and what was wrong. But the main thing in those days was the tremendous amount of movies with bands in them. Hollywood, in its wisdom, had finally realized that when people queued up at the Paramount Theatre in New York, it wasn’t to see a movie, but to see the band. So they thought the smart thing to do was to put the band in the movie. So that was how I saw Buddy Rich with Tommy Dorsey’s band—in a movie. And in those days there was a tremendous amount of movies. I would go to these movies and watch the way the drummers played, the way they held their sticks and all of that. That’s how I found out that single-stroke rolls were meant to be played in time. “Oh boy! That’s how you do it!” I’d just thought it was as fast as you could play. So it took a long, long time to find out these silly things.
RM: What were some of your first bands like?
KC: My first band never got a gig; we just practiced. We had a piano, clarinet and drums, and we pretended we were Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. But we didn’t get any gigs. I guess we weren’t too good, [laughs] Cardboard cutouts don’t make it. Then I got a gig with two accordions, piano and drums, but the agent made more than we did. Then I did a year with a trumpet player who never took the mute out of his trumpet. So, eventually, it went on from there. I finally had to go into the Air Force. After the war, I hasten to add. I managed to do quite a lot of practice there and hang out with a lot of good musicians. Then I came out of being in the Air Force and went straight into being a professional musician. And during that time I learned to read. I learned to read backwards. Does anybody ever do that?
RM: I’m not sure what you mean by learning to read backwards.
KC: Well, I used to play with a five-piece band for about a year, in a ballroom near where I lived. They would play all the hits of the day, which were like “American Patrol” and songs of the Glenn Miller era. I knew all the tunes because I bought all the records. There weren’t that many records to buy. So I would play them a lot, and I could walk down the street and sing to myself the whole arrangement to any tune of the day. So during this time, most of the time I had a regular gig, but every now and again I wouldn’t, so I’d go out and look for gigs. They would always say, “Can you read?” and I’d say, “Of course I can,” because I knew everything they were going to play. I would always put the music up on the music stand, and even though I couldn’t read it, I could play it backwards. But there was always the odd one I didn’t know because I didn’t have the record. Then I was in trouble. So just as the guy was counting off the tune, I’d manage to knock the music on the floor. Then I’d bluff my way through it: “Sorry, my music fell on the floor.” They finally discovered I was cheating.
In my bored moments I started looking at the music to see how they wrote what I was already playing. So I’d look at a chart like ”American Patrol,” and then I’d see some of the same patterns on other things. Once I discovered that, it was easy. There are very few actual phrases that you have to learn to be able to recognize what everything is. Even in the more “hip” charts of today, if you’re ever in trouble, all you have to do is cut everything in half—you know, make one bar into two—and you’ll have it back to something you know. It’s very simple. And so I don’t “read” now; I “recognize.” You know what I mean? I can “read” virtually anything at sight. I don’t make too many mistakes unless I’m tired or something. But I can read a part straight down, and also interpret it, because I always associate what I see on paper with some phrase in my mind. At first, I would think, “There’s a phrase from ‘American Patrol.’ ” I don’t have to do that now, but for a long time I did. I’ve never seen a book written yet that explains that way of doing it. Some books show every possible way you can see a phrase, but a lot of it is useless because you are never going to see it written that way. In the case of reading, you don’t need to do that.
RM: Was there access to a lot of jazz in England?
KC: During the war, which is when I became interested, you could get Armed Forces Network radio programs, so I could listen to bands like Tommy Dorsey five or six times a week. And Glenn Miller was over in England at the time. There were always lots of musicians around; lots of people playing. There were a lot of things I didn’t know about because I was too young. Like there was a club called the Lido Club where Kenny Clarke used to play a lot. I didn’t even know he was in the country. So there was a lot of jazz going on, and a lot of good jazz too.
There was always a certain percentage of good English jazz players. You’ve got to understand, though, that in England, the schooling and training are so far behind that you wouldn’t believe it. When I went to school, we had music lessons, but anything that wasn’t opera or straight music was considered rubbish. And John Dankworth will tell you that guys used to get kicked out of music college because they were caught playing jazz phrases on the piano. It’s stupid. When I see what’s going on over here, I can’t believe what’s going on in England. That’s why you’ve got so many fantastic players. The schooling in this country is just great! But it’s slowly coming in England. It’s taken a long time, but it’s coming.
RM: There’s a controversy about some of the music education over here, though. Some of the older players who learned in the street, so to speak, say that the people coming out of the schools are only learning to be incredible technicians.
KC: Yes, I must agree with that completely. But that’s everywhere in the world. Everybody basically wants to be Buddy Rich, or Billy Cobham, or Steve Gadd, or Louie Bellson, or one of those kind of fast players. But they miss all the other parts of those players. Most people, if they buy a record of Buddy Rich and there’s not a ten minute drum solo, they are not knocked out by it. But you only have to listen to two minutes of Buddy playing with the band. I mean, he’s a fantastic band drummer, and they never really listen to that. They all want to do the other part of it.
Basically, playing the drums means being an accompanist. Whether you’re playing with a country & western singer, or the hottest jazz player in town, you’re there to make whoever you’re playing with feel good. And most drummers, unfortunately, don’t understand that. And a lot of them play that way too, which is a great shame. Technique is only as good as what you can fit into what you are doing without upsetting people. I mean, even Buddy, with all his technique, only plays a drum solo for one number a night. He spends the rest of the two hours playing with the band—setting them up and making them feel good.
So many drummers think that chops are the answer to everything, whereas they’re only the beginning. If you can’t use them, they are no good.
When I was a kid, Dave Tough was one of my favorite drummers. I never saw him live, but every record I got, I knew if it was Dave Tough—even if I didn’t know he had joined that particular band—because you could recognize him. He had a way of making the band sound better somehow. Sid Catlett was another one. When he joined Benny Goodman’s band, I knew straight away when I heard the record. The band sounded completely different. Nobody ever talks about Don Lamond, but he was my main influence as a big band drummer. He was the first one who ever turned me around because he was the first unconventional big band drummer. Even now, he’s still the most different big band drummer. And that’s always been my criteria: to try and do the job I’m doing different than the drummer who was there before. Not necessarily better; just different. Whatever it takes to be different, I’ll do it. Does that sound dumb?
RM: Not at all. The main complaint I hear about modern drummers is that they all sound alike. If Steve Gadd does something that works, all the other drummers try to sound just like him.
KC: Oh sure, but that’s not the drummer’s fault, usually. I mean, I was a studio player for about ten or twelve years, and it finally drove me crazy. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was a drummer in the London studios at the time the Beatles came out. I used to work for George Martin back before he did rock ‘n’ roll dates. He had Matt Monroe, and he would do comedy records like The Goons and all that. So anyway, when The Beatles came along, it got to the point where people in America were trying to copy the Beatles’ sound, and people in England would then copy the copy. I remember working for this one a&r man—we had done a track and it sounded pretty good. But he called down—all unhappy—and said, “Can the rhythm section come up here?” So we went up and he said, “It was alright, but this is really what we want,” and he played us this awful imitation of the kind of thing we had just played. So I got mad and said, “Do you really want us to sound that bad?” I never worked for him again, [laughs] That’s what really drove me out of the studios, that thing where you were just copying everything, including someone else’s drum sound
Before the Beatles, when groups did an album, most of the time it wasn’t the group, it was studio players. Nobody ever thought of doing less than four tunes on a three-hour session. So if a group couldn’t do four tunes in three hours, they would have to get studio musicians in to do it for them. Then George Martin decided that because the Beatles were creative, he would just let them run around the studio and do whatever they wanted to do. That was the first breakthrough and after that, all the groups could take as long as they wanted to record, as long as the results were right. But until then, all of us dubbed for various drummers on the tracks. I remember one time they brought a band down to do an album, and they had just hired a new drummer. So they brought me in because they didn’t know if he would be any good. He played marvelous! I felt about that big. He was fantastic!
RM: Do you remember any of the groups you played for?
KC: Not really, no. I would just kind of do the gig, take the money and run. Another reason I stopped doing it was because of doing rhythm tracks. I’ve always wanted to play with the people I’m playing with, and when the people I’m supposed to be playing with aren’t there, then I don’t like it. Anymore, when you go in to do a record date, there’s just a rhythm section. That’s not fun, is it? They tell you, “Don’t play anything there because that’s where the trumpets are.” “Trumpets? What trumpets?” There’s no singing, no nothing. You don’t know what the melody line is or anything. All the hit records I was on over the years were all done then and there. The singer was always in the studio.
RM: Describe a typical date.
KC: Petula Clark’s first date was from 7:00 to 10:00 in the evening. We started with a sound thing, which took about ten minutes. Then we ran each tune down and taped it. We had finished the first tune by a quarter to eight, and everybody knew it was good. That was the end of it. They didn’t have to spend three days fixing it up, and then three days after that putting more things on the tape. Overdubbing was never done in those days.
The first time I dubbed on the drums afterward was with George Martin. After he did the Beatles, he also got a friend of theirs from Liverpool, Cilia Black, and the first record she did was a cover of Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart.” After they did it, George decided there was something missing, so he called me in and asked, “Can you do anything to kind of build it up a bit?” That was one of my things—I was kind of the “builder-upper” of the rock ‘n’ roll ballad; the big build when they changed key and all that. So I listened to it, and there was nothing to do on the first bit, but in the middle, I decided that if I put some 3/4 jazz things on it, it would work. And it did. That became a way of putting some jazz on the rock ‘n’ roll things. I hadn’t heard anybody else do it when I did it, and it became quite a thing.
RM: Were they using click tracks at that point?
KC: They started doing that for movie things, but not for other things. They never bothered me because I used to always practice to a metronome anyway. It’s very comforting to have a click track.
RM: Do you ever use them for things such as Cleo’s records?
KC: Oh no. In fact, I very seldom record with Cleo. John isn’t like most people. Most people decide who they want, and then book the studio to fit the schedule of the musicians. But John always books the studio first, and then sees who he can get. And invariably, I’m already doing something else. But they certainly don’t use click tracks for that.
RM: Have you run across any drum computers yet?
KC: Not really. I mean, that’s after my time basically. But I heard one when I was in Australia recently, and it sounded good.
RM: So you stopped doing studio work because you didn’t like copying and you didn’t like doing rhythm tracks. But wasn’t it hard to give up the financial rewards of studio work?
KC: I guess it sounds crazy, because I was making more money than I ever made in my life. But during the course of my studio playing was when I joined Kenny Clarke’s band, and when I started playing with that band, I remembered what I had become a musician for. It certainly wasn’t to sit and do a dumb TV show, or a rock ‘n’ roll record date. So that’s when I started on the road to ruin and financial disaster—but smiling.
RM: How did you get involved with the Clarke/Boland big band?
KC: The reason I got on the band originally was because they were booked to do some radio programs. They had already done the first one, but Klook [Kenny Clarke] couldn’t do the second one and they had to go ahead and do it because they were under a time thing. I had been doing some recording with some guys from that band, so when they needed a drummer, they recommended me. So I went in and read it down, and it went very well. So then they decided that it would be very nice if they had a spare drummer who felt like part of the family, and who would drop everything and come to work if they needed him. So the next time they got together, I went in and played percussion. The last thing on the date was a 6/8 jazz march. Klook did a “ching, ching, ching” thing on the cymbal, and I did a “Boom de diddily boom de boom” thing on the snare drum. When they heard it back, it sounded like one guy with good chops. So he said, “Next time, bring your drums.” So we went in to do the next album, and I played timps and all that. But on the last tune, they said, “Get out your drums. We’re going to do two drumsets together.” So we set up the two drumsets and started to play, but everytime Klook did a fill, I stopped, because I didn’t want to clutter it up. The guy came over and said, “No, no. Just play as though Klook wasn’t there, and Klook, play as though K.C. wasn’t there.” Okay, fine. We did it and it sounded alright. Then they listened to it overnight, and the next morning, we went back and re-recorded all the tunes that we had done with one drummer, this time with both of us. And that seemed to set the scene.
Then we went to do a gig. Klook and I got it pretty good on the record date; we sounded together because we sat close to each other and listened a lot to each other and didn’t try to overplay each other. It was a nice compatible thing, and it worked. But then we got to this rehearsal before the gig, and we couldn’t get together at all. We tried everything—putting the drums different ways—but it was hopeless. So I wanted to go home. I figured I couldn’t win anyway. If it was good, people would say, “Boy, Kenny Clarke is great!” If it was bad, they’d say, “See, they get this white cat and look what happens.” I would always be the loser, so I was really desperate. I went down to the travel agency to see if I could get home, but there was no train ’till 12 o’clock. So I walked around for about two hours with my head down, thinking “Why me?” But I had to do it, so I went back there and nobody seemed concerned at all. The whole band was backstage having a little party, and they didn’t seem one bit worried about anything. And when we went on, it just went right together. The concert was great, and from then on it was always like that. There was just that one rehearsal where it didn’t work.
That band was a fantastic experience. Klook really has a magic time feel. He’s one of the few drummers in the world who can actually swing all on his own. Fantastic. Not too many people can play that way, but when I was there sitting with him, I could do it. I can’t play that way unless Klook is there. It drives me crazy.
RM: A lot of drummers find it difficult to play with another drummer.
KC: Funny enough, we never talked about it, but right from the first, I would play all of the band figures in the first and last choruses, and during the solos, I would switch to brushes and Klook would do his thing. It always seemed to work fine. I f someone was going to play six choruses, I would switch to sticks for the last two. Playing with Klook a lot, I got to know his licks, so sometimes, on the fifth or sixth chorus, I’d join in on his licks or play something against them. It was a lovely feeling. Two drummers can always work, as long as you’re not trying to cut each other. Drummers are already inclined to overplay, and if you get two together who are trying to prove to each other how much better they can play, then it’s hopeless. You just wipe everybody out. Two drummers are a great lethal force in any situation.
I’ve been very lucky in getting to play with a lot of drummers through the years, like doing clinics with drummers like Joe Morello. I think you find out more about a drummer when you’re trying to play with him. You seem to be able to get into their thinking very easily when you’re actually sitting next to them.
RM: With other instruments, when you get two of them together, it’s a duet. But with two drummers…
KC: It’s a battle. Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be. The way we did those clinics with Joe was he would play and I would try and keep up. I’d keep up as long as I could, and when I couldn’t keep up anymore, then I would do something simple, and then Joe would go into that too. We were actually trying to get something together musically, rather than Joe trying to prove that he could play faster than me. It’s a great shame about music that it often seems to be a kind of competition. It isn’t a competition at all.
RM: I’ve always wondered if Americans aren’t more guilty of that kind of thinking than people in other countries, because we are taught that “Competition is the American way.”
KC: I’ve got to say I think you’re right. I think America’s worse for that than anywhere else. I mean, I’m even a soccer fan from England, but the way you present the game over here is quite alarming to me. At the end of the game they count up how many passes each guy made, and whether they hoped to score a goal but didn’t— that’s not important. It’s did the team win or lose? But they keep all these statistics on things. They don’t keep statistics on drummers yet, but I’m sure they will at some point. “Seventy-four rimshots completed…”
RM: “Three broken sticks.”
KC: [laughing] Yeah, right. It’s crazy.
RM: Getting back to working with other drummers, you once did an album called Drum Conversations with Bellson and Rich.
KC: Oh yeah. That was a funny thing. Originally, that date was set up as a concert. When this very respected drum teacher, Frank King, died, Crescendo magazine decided to put this concert together to raise money for Frank’s wife, because Frank didn’t have any insurance. So they asked me to play and do a drum feature, which was fine because he had been a good friend of mine. So about three weeks before the gig, they called and said, “Louie Bellson is going to come over and do the gig too.” Great! I figured all I would have to do was play a couple of tunes and then let Louie play the rest of it, and I could just sit there and listen. Then about a week later, they called again and said, “Buddy is going to be in town, so he’s going to do it too.” Oh, fantastic! Now I’d only have to play one tune and then I could see the other two play. And then they called again and said, “We’ve hired a bloke to write a tune for the three drummers to do together.” Oh-oh. Now I’m in trouble. And I would have looked stupid if I had tried to get out of it. So I was stuck. But it worked out okay. They were very helpful and kept me going. I didn’t know we were going to record it until about two days before. I’ve never listened to the record, actually. I just look at the picture on the front. “That’s me!”
RM: How did you become involved with John and Cleo?
KC: In regards to John, we both went to the same school. We didn’t really have any relationship in school, because he was two years older than me, and when you’re in school, the older ones don’t talk to the younger ones. But we came from the same area, obviously, and so over the next few years I got to play with him quite a bit. Eventually he formed his own big band. I joined that band in 1955, and Cleo was on the band when I joined. After I left the band, I never saw too much of them. I used to do a TV show called That Was The Week That Was—which was kind of famous in its time—and Cleo was a guest on it sometimes. So I’d see Cleo a bit, but I never saw John. At that time, he was busy being a film writer.
Anyway, they did an album called I Am A Song, but after they recorded it, they inadvertently erased half of it. So they called all the musicians back to redo it, but the drummer couldn’t make it, so they ended up calling me. I went in and did it, and that reminded them that I was still alive.
About three months later, they had a tour to do in the U.S., and they called me to see if I could do it. I had just gotten a TV series in Germany, so I couldn’t do it, but I told them, “I’ll be in New York when you start, so I’ll look you up.” I wound up doing the first night in Carnegie Hall with very little rehearsal. So they went ahead and did the rest of the tour, and I went to Germany, and when we all got back to England, they called me and I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s not a year-long gig; it’s still basically casual. But it’s a very enjoyable gig.
Johnny is very exacting about drums. When he wants to stop, he doesn’t want the cymbals ringing over or anything like that. He likes attention to detail, and so do I. I was someplace recently where a bass player was playing a solo, and it was making the drummer’s snares vibrate, and the drummer was too dumb to turn the snares off. It drove me bananas! In all my years with Johnny D., I’ve spent half my time slipping the snares on and off. When I’m not playing, I know the monitor will make my snares rattle, so I take them off.
Back in the old days when I was doing record dates, we used live drums, and when you hit the tom-tom, the snares would rattle. So you had to knock the snares off, play the lick, and then get them back on for the time. I got pretty adept at that. So I like attention to detail. When I hear drummers not doing that, I think, “Why aren’t they noticing things?” It’s all a challenge, and I like a challenge.
RM: You really get to do some playing on that gig.
KC: Oh sure. The way the show is now, the band plays the first half, and everybody has their feature. We do “Caravan,” so I get a chance to play a solo. Actually, I don’t care if I play solos or not.
RM: Does Cleo stay with the band, or does the band follow her?
KC: Well, I listen to Cleo anyway, and sometimes on downbeats I have to watch her breathe. But you don’t really need any more than that. She’s fantastic anyway. She’s got fantastic time and she never screws up or anything like that. She’s not temperamental, or anything like that. She’s marvelous to work with.
RM: Jimmy Cobb once told me that Sarah Vaughan liked to play with the tempo a lot, so in a situation like that, his job was to follow her.
KC: Cleo’s not like that. But I worked with Sarah for about three weeks once on a tour of England. The thing that amazed me about her was that she never did it the same any time. She would read the song differently in the course of two shows. She’d do it one time, like you said, with a different tempo, but also with a completely different approach. Sarah was fantastic.
RM: What’s different about playing with a singer as opposed to playing with an all-instrumental group?
KC: First of all, the audience is completely different. When you’re working with a singer, the audience has come to hear the singer, not the musicians. So you don’t get too many drummers in the audience.
Drummers are funny people. When they see another drummer sitting in the audience, they go bananas. They try to prove to the drummer in the audience that they can play. I’ve never been into that. My first gig in America was at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959, and sitting in the front row when we went out to play were Sonny Igoe, Ben Riley, Ed Thigpen, and Connie Kay, I think. Now in those days, when an English drummer went to hear somebody play, he didn’t sit up front, he stood in the back. But this was a different approach completely. It was already a hair-raising experience to be playing at America’s premier jazz festival. So when I looked and saw those four, I thought, “My God!” And I really got nervous about it. But then I thought, “What the hell. If I get nervous I’m not going to play any better; I’m only going to play worse.” So I just didn’t look at the front row. And so basically what I’m saying is that I’m never going to try and impress a drummer sitting in the audience. I’m only going to play for the people in the band. As far as I’m concerned, at the end of the bandstand is a brick wall. Whether it’s the Hollywood Bowl or a small club, to me, it’s the same.
But musically, it’s no different playing with a singer than it is playing with a horn player. You’re accompanying. If you’re playing with Milt Jackson, you accompany Milt the same as you’d accompany Cleo Laine, except you do what suits Milt. It’s as simple as that. I mean, you’re not going to play the same for Shirley Bassey as you’re going to play for Cleo, because they each want different things. And it’s the same for jazz players.
One thing I’ve never been able to do is impose on people. Some drummers don’t accompany people; they just set up their thing for the person to play over. I can’t do that. Speaking of Milt Jackson—I worked with him at Ronnie Scott’s last year. I was doing my approach to Klook’s style, because Milt had played with Klook for years. So it was fine; it was happening. Then Jack DeJohnette came in one night, and sat in for a set, and he played everything completely different. Tore the arse out of everything, you know? I can’t do that, but I love it. I wish I could, but after 35 years of being a conservative accompanist, I can’t get out of that mold.
RM: Getting back to John and Cleo, you play in different settings. Sometimes it’s just the small group, sometimes there’s an orchestra…
KC: If we play Vegas, there’s a band there. John’s got a book that covers from five to a thousand, so whatever situation we’re in, we’ve got a book to cover it.
RM: How does your playing change in the different settings?
KC: Obviously, if there are four trumpets sitting there I’m going to play different than if there aren’t four trumpets sitting there. I’m not going to start setting up brass figures that aren’t going to be played. We do play similar figures, but I’ll play them differently when there’s a band with us.
One of the nicest things about this gig is that it’s not always the same. Even with the quintet, it’s not always the same. Most of the charts are originally written out, but then we improve on them, and it becomes part of the chart. And John doesn’t mind that; he likes you to experiment. So this gig really is interesting in a musical way. You get a chance to play a solo sometimes, and it sort of keeps you going.
When I was with Tony Bennett, we always did the same charts. We played a rehearsal every day with a new band, and you’d hear the same mistakes in the same places, and the same complaints because there was some strange string part that was different from the usual thing. And so in the same place every time you’d hear the string players say, “I think I’ve got a wrong note here.” “No, that’s part of the chart.” It was a great gig, and I got to play with some fantastic players, but we were always rehearsing the same few charts. It’s hard to approach it with any kind of freshness when you’re only playing those few charts. I don’t think we changed more than two or three tunes the three years I was with him. When we’d do a TV show, he’d bring out a bunch of other charts, which was marvelous, but on the road, we’d play the same few.
RM: What are you doing besides the gigs with Cleo?
KC: More and more jazz things, which is fantastic. That’s what I always wanted to do, but I guess I didn’t understand how much I wanted to do it. Bobby Rosengarden has been a great help in that respect. I worked with Bobby’s band some years ago when I was with Tony, and we’ve been friendly ever since. Any time he’s been called for a gig in England or Europe, if he couldn’t do it—or do all of it—he’d recommend me. So I’ve done a few tours and things, and it’s getting to be really nice now. I’m starving, but enjoying.
RM: What’s it like being a jazz musician in today’s economy?
KC: It’s becoming increasingly hard to be a musician. I was walking down 7th Avenue the other day, and there was a little group playing on the corner of 49th Street. It was a good little group good drummer, a girl playing the string bass, an alto player, a tenor player, and a guitar—and they were playing modern jazz. One step up from bebop kind of thing. And it was good! And a couple of kids walked by and put their fingers in their ears! I couldn’t believe it! Why can’t kids see the nice part of jazz music? Maybe it’s because their parents like it, because if the parents like it, then the kids don’t like it on principle. But that’s a tragedy. It’s such a compatible music to listen to and yet I can’t understand why it isn’t more popular.
RM: Part of it gets back to that competition thing—if you like a certain thing, then you’re not supposed to like anything else.
KC: Yeah, sure. And I’ve got to say that when I was a kid, I was basically the same. There was a guy who lived on my street, and he became manager of a record store. We used to sit and argue for hours about how he thought Duke Ellington was great and I thought Duke Ellington was terrible. I liked Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman, but I didn’t like Ellington. Years later, I realized what a fool I’d been. But as a kid, I used to sit and argue with this guy. I think you have to grow up, basically.
RM: A moment ago, you joked that you were “starving, but enjoying.” And earlier, you talked of giving up the financial rewards of the studio to go back to doing what you had become a musician to do.
KC: I just happen to enjoy playing to the point where I don’t enjoy studio work, and that’s why I’m on the road. I’m always amazed when I see in your magazine where people write in and say, “How do I become a studio drummer?” That’s the last thing in the world I’d want to be. I learned to play drums because I enjoyed playing drums; not for any financial reward. I know it’s different nowadays, after the success of some of the groups where they all became millionaires. But in my day, it was fantastic just to not have to do a day job—just play drums and practice and listen to records and all that. I never had any more ambitions than just to play the next gig. I still haven’t. I think too many people these days are interested in what they can get out of it, rather than in what they put into it. I don’t know what to tell those people. But in my case, and I’m sure with a lot of other people, it’s a labor of love.