In this culture there is an adage that goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” John Rae is the exact opposite of that statement. In truth, Johnny is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s busiest and most versatile musicians. That is because he is an excellent drummer, vibist, and all-around percussionist. John is also, incidentally, a teacher, clinician, author of Jazz Phrasing For Mallets, and Latin Guide For Drummers, a contributing columnist for Modern Drummer, contractor, disc jockey, gourmet cook, and a professional “yenta” (talker). John is an amiable, humorous, outgoing individual who has performed in a wide variety of musical situations. As a vibist, he has performed with, among others, George Shearing, Herbie Mann, and Cozy Cole. Some of his drumming credits include Cal Tjader, Charlie Byrd, Joe Pass, and Stan Getz. For the last few years, he has concentrated on theater work and has played for musicals such as the National Touring Company’s renditions of Sweeny Todd and Chorus Line. In the area of recording, he has performed on numerous backup dates and jingles, and is credited on over 40 albums. Regardless of what type of musical situation he is performing in, John Rae is always tasteful, imaginative, complementary, and above all, swinging. To put it succinctly, he is a consummate musician.
CB: Would you describe your musical background?
JR: When I was a kid, I started on piano. That was because both of my parents were classically trained professional musicians, and they thought that that was the way for me to start my musical education. My father was not only a conductor, but also a teacher in Boston, and he knew George Lawrence Stone, who wrote Stick Control.
CB: How old were you when you began to play the drums?
JR: I guess I was about nine or ten when I began to study the drums with Stone. Unfortunately, I only studied with him for six months, because when I was a kid, I had rheumatic fever three times, and that interrupted my studies with him. I never did go back to him directly, but studying with George Stone gave me a taste of the drums. Anyway, after I got out of the hospital, I started back on my piano studies at the Schillinger House, which is now the Berklee School of Music. During this time I started playing the vibraphone on a self-taught basis. I also studied timpani for two years at the Boston Conservatory with Carl Ludwig, the former timpanist with the Boston Symphony. In addition, I studied harmony and theory for two years in adult night school while I was in the eighth grade through my first year of high school.
CB: When did you start studying drums again?
JR: At the Schillinger House there was a fellow named Sam Tully, who was a basic drumming instructor. I first studied with Sam when I was about 16 and ready to go out on my own. I also studied with him later, after I had been playing awhile. Later, I wound up studying with Stanley Spector for six months, because Terry Gibbs had turned me on to the fingers as part of my vibraphone technique. So I figured, “Here’s a guy right in my hometown who is supposed to be an ‘ace’ finger-coordination teacher.”
CB: During the middle ’50s to early ’60s, didn’t you stop playing the drums for a while and just concentrate on playing the vibes?
JR: Yes, basically, I just let the drums go for a while. That was because, at the time, the vibraphone was a reasonably rare instrument, and there were only a few players around of national prominence. However, I always considered myself a drummer.
In the mid ’50s, I moved from Boston to New York and lived there for about seven years. From 1955, when I joined George Shearing as a vibist, to the middle of 1961, when I came out to San Francisco as Cal Tjader’s drummer, with the exception of occasionally sitting in on drums, I concentrated mainly on playing the vibraphone. When I was with Shearing, and later with Herbie Mann, I not only played the vibes, but also the timbales and other hand percussion. Over the years while I was playing the vibraphone, I was also developing a sense of musicality which then carried over to the drumset.
CB: In what ways did playing the vibraphone influence your drumming?
JR: Because I actually had to stand in front of a rhythm section, night after night, playing a melodic instrument, I developed an awareness of the drummer, the bass player and everyone else in the band. So when I am playing drums, I have a lot of knowledge of where a tune is going, when the bridge is coming, and where the interludes are com- ing up.
CB: As a drummer, you have backed up quite a variety of jazz artists. Who are some of those musicians?
JR: My drum thing really started going when I joined Cal Tjader’s band. The way that it happened was that when I left Herbie Mann I went up to Toronto. For about four months I had been playing with the Peter Appleyard group. He’s a Canadian vibe player who has played with people like Calvin Jackson and Benny Goodman. He and I had a group in which I was basically the drummer and he was the vibe player. Occasionally, we did some double vibe and drumset routines—”show biz” stuff. Anyway, one day I ran into Willie Bobo and Lonnie Hewitt [piano player] on the street. Cal and the band were playing at the Colonial Tavern. I couldn’t get by to see them during the week because I was working with Peter, but I was finally able to sit in at an afternoon session and play some jazz drums. In those days, Cal split the band into two sets. There was the quartet set, which was MJQ-oriented bebop, and there was the quintet set, which was straight-ahead Latin. Well I sat in, and everything worked out real nice. Fortunately, my Latin thing was going pretty well because I had not only been playing timbales in Herbie Mann’s band, but also George Shearing’s Quintet. So even though I hadn’t been playing drumet very much, at the time, I had the concept.
A couple of months later, when I was playing with Peter’s band down in Indianapolis, Cal called me on the phone and asked me if 1 would like to do the gig because Willie Bobo would be leaving shortly. I said, fine, and he sent me a pile of records. When I received them, I copied the basic drum arrangements off the records. My wife and I arrived in L. A. on a Monday, and I opened the next day with Cal at the Summit. The following day, Wednesday, I had a recording date with Cal, and I was the only member of the band who did it. It was a studio date with Claire Fisher, and it was one of Cal’s latest recordings for Fantasy Records. I did a total of seven years with Cal—five years in one shot, and then later, another two years. During those years with Cal, I did a total of 16 albums.
During that period with Cal, I also played on the Stan Getz Big Band Bossa Nova album. I did that in 1964; that’s when bossa nova was first popularized in this country. At that point in time, bossa nova was so new that there weren’t too many American drummers who understood the style.
CB: Drummers, for the most part, seem to be better prepared these days to play a variety of music. It seems that 20 years ago, you were either a jazz drummer or a Latin drummer.
JR: This is basically what I’m saying; the lack of experience on the part of the American drummers is what got me the gig. During the process of recording the Getz album, arranger Gary McFarland finally said, “There’s only one drummer around who both ends of the stick,” and that happened to be me. As it turned out, that was a five-star album in down beat magazine; it’s a lovely album. However, if you listen carefully to the album, you’ll notice that I’m not playing the double bass drum beat. That’s because I hadn’t worked it out yet. I had just done my first bossa nova album several weeks before. At the time, there wasn’t the Latin or rock ‘n’ roll crossover happening like there is now. Today, you can get virtually any experienced drummer to play a good bossa nova. At the time, I hadn’t developed the bossa nova and samba concept the way we all did in later years.
CB: What happened after you left Cal Tjader the first time?
JR: After I left Cal, 1 was with Gabor Szabo for about a year, but I never recorded with him. In that band, 1 took Jim Keltner’s place, because he didn’t want to leave L.A. From a drummer’s point of view, playing with Gabor was a funny bit. Gabor called me and asked if I wanted to join the band. I said great, because I wasn’t doing anything at the time. I had known Gabor when he was a student at the Berklee School of Music, and I had heard a few of the things he did with Charles Lloyd. But I hadn’t heard any of Gabor’s records under his own name. At the time he was into his psychedelic feedback routine—which he did marvelously—utilizing light rock rhythms. So, I got my drums and flew to Shelly’s Mannehole in Hollywood. I got to the gig early and set up Pretty soon, the guys in the band started showing up one at a time. I was asking them, “What kind of music are we doing? Are there any kinds of charts?” And they were saying, “Don’t worry about it, man. Just get up on the stand and play.” Even after Gabor showed up, I asked him, “I want it to sound as tight as possible. Can you give me an idea of what the style is?” He said, “Don’t worry; just play.” I said okay and that’s what I did—just played.
Over the years, I developed a mental technique for dealing with that type of musical situation. For example, as a kid, I played twice with Charlie Parker—once on vibes and on another occasion I played drums. I was working in the house band opposite him at the High Hat Club in Boston. It was a great experience. Now the only way to get over the obvious pressure of being on the same bandstand, or, for that matter, even being in the same room with somebody like Charlie Parker, is that you’ve pretty much got to play mental games with yourself. You might tell yourself that he’s not there, or that you’re listening to a record. What I used to do was, if I was on the bandstand playing, I would pretend to put myself out in the audience, and watch and listen to the band. I would project myself into the audience so that I didn’t really have any conscious connection with what I was actually doing at the moment. I’d hear things in a musical way and get the total picture of what was happening. I’d hear the phrasing, the spaces in between, and when I’d hear a familiar figure coming up, I then had the option of playing it, playing between the phrases, or complementing it in some way. Anyway, that’s the method I used at the time that I played with Gabor when I didn’t know exactly what was happening. I just closed my eyes, listened to the band, and allowed myself to play. In other words, I did it entirely on intuition.
CB: A lot of times, in playing situations, your mind and body know what to do, even though consciously you might not think that they do.
JR: If you have to think about playing figures like, “left-right, left-right,” or say to yourself, “I’ll do this figure over here,” then it can hamper the fluidity of your playing. Sometimes when you relax in a group, you know what’s happening, and you are familiar with the group and its music, then you can take for granted the form that the band is taking—the interludes, tempos, and little things that go on during someone’s solo. I used to be able to do that with pianist Lonnie Hewitt in Cal’s band. I would be able to think right along with him. That was because he was such a phrase player that I could almost always sing his solos a bar ahead. If you can do that in a band, it gives you a good sense of cohesion and group playing. I like to hear a band instead of a group of individuals playing on a bandstand.
After Gabor, I was with Vince Guaraldi for a while. I did a TV show [You’re In Love, Charlie Brown] and two albums with him.
CB: When did you start playing with Charlie Byrd?
JR: I started playing with Charlie Byrd in late 1973, and I was with him until September, 1975. For the most part, I played with him on the West Coast. I only did one East Coast trip with him. His manager wanted me to move to Annapolis, but I really didn’t want to because I was really happy being in San Francisco, particularly because of my musical position in town. I was also, at the time, just starting to expand into theatrical work.
CB: Didn’t you also play with Great Guitars?
JR: Yeah, while I was with Charlie, his manager had come up with the Great Guitar concept. It was basically the Charlie Byrd trio with Herb Ellis and Joe Pass. Later, because of Joe Pass’ commitments, he left and Barney Kessel joined Great Guitars. I did the first live album with them at the Concord Jazz Festival.
CB: What drummers have influenced your approach to music?
JR: I would like to say this in large capital letters: KENNY CLARKE IS MY FAVORITE JAZZ DRUMMER.
JR: He just swings, and it’s also the way that he senses the spacing of time. His drumming, as far as solos and fills are concerned, is what you might call a little old-fashioned, but that’s because he’s basically a snare drummer and he hates to use toms.
CB: I can remember that, on a lot of recording dates in the ’50s, all he used was a snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat, and one ride cymbal.
JR: Yeah, particularly on all those Savoy record dates. He’d just swing his ass off on any recording that he did. Because of his age and influence, he’s the guy that Max Roach and a lot of other drummers were listening to when they were kids.
CB: Most musicologists consider him to be the daddy of bebop drumming.
JR: Yeah, pretty much. Historically, Kenny Clarke—as mentioned in many books and jazz encyclopedias—is given that position, particularly for his off-beat independence figures with his left hand and bass drum. I like a full-sounding set of drums and Klook always played a very rich sounding set.
CB: Are there any other drummers that have influenced you?
JR: Aside from Klook, I particularly like Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones. I particularly like Roy’s phrasing and his solos. I also like him because he’s from Boston. [laughs] There are so many good drummers out there—people like Mickey Roker, who has played with Dis. If Dizzy Gillespie and Bags [Milt Jackson] like a drummer, then that drummer is okay with me. I also like Connie Kay, even though when he started with the MJQ I thought he was a bit too conservative in terms of how Klook had approached music. I was such a Kenny Clarke fan that it took me a little while to reorient myself to Connie’s playing. As far as big band drumming goes, I’ve always been a fan of Don Lamond, Dave Tough and Mel Lewis.
CB: It seems that the main factor that ties together all these drummers that you’ve mentioned is that they are all excellent time players.
JR: There isn’t a single mold. All of these drummers I’ve mentioned sound like individuals, particularly Klook. You can tell him a mile away because of his interpretation of time. I’ve sort of analyzed his style, and been able to reproduce some of that feeling. In order to explain what I’ve learned, I’ll give you a comparison of his style with Art Blakey. Blakey’s style, particularly in the early days of the Jazz Messengers in the ’50s, had quite a heavy emphasis on 2 and 4. It was not only the strength with which he played the hi-hat, but it was also recorded in a certain way. A lot of drummers dug what Art was doing and locked into that style. Heaven forbid that anything should happen to the hi-hat, because the time would fall apart. Anyway, when I compared Art’s style of playing with Kenny Clarke’s, I found that Kenny emphasized 1 and 3 on the ride cymbal, and 2 and 4 on the hi-hat balanced his rhythm. Kenny’s rhythm is a sort of left-right, left-right, walking-down-the-street feeling.
CB: Kenny’s a very fluid player.
JR: I think that’s because of his emphasis on 1 and 3. Recently, I was explaining this point to drummer Steve Mitchell. We were talking about time concepts, particularly when playing slow tempos. I told him that I thought drummers have a lot more flexibility when accompanying a soloist at medium and slow tempos if they put the emphasis on the quarter notes, and de-emphasize the middle note when playing a ride-cymbal rhythm. The reason you do that is because it gives you the option of playing the same kind of time that the soloist is playing. In other words, if soloists are going to play with an 8th-note feeling, double up, or go to a triplet feeling, then you can accommodate them and play the same kind of time. Again, as far as the middle note is concerned, there are three options: You can play it either with a triplet, 16th, or 8th-note feeling. In an accompanying situation, you should phrase with the soloist. When you emphasize four to the bar, you have the flexibility of going whichever way the soloist goes, and then there’s no clash. There is nothing worse than listening to a drummer play a 32nd-note concept on a ballad, while the soloist is playing something lyrical. By the way, I’d like to mention that the type of drumming we’ve been discussing is what you might call “middle of the road,” or the bebop style of playing, and not the more avant-garde stylings or the impressionistic school of playing as exemplified by Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.
CB: Is there something that some drummers do that is a pet peeve of yours?
JR: Cymbal switching is something that I hear done by a lot of drummers who are otherwise playing just fine. Some of them will switch a cymbal in what I consider to be the wrong place. You don’t switch cymbals in the middle of an eight-bar phrase. I’d rather hear a consistent cymbal sound over a period of a chorus. If you’re going to switch cymbals, do it at the beginning of a chorus.
CB: What about changing cymbals on the bridge?
JR: That’s okay sometimes, particularly on a ballad because of the slower tempos. Again, if you listen to the band from the outside, there is a complete tonal coloration that changes when you switch cymbals. If you’re going to switch cymbals, you might want to change the tonality to a higher pitch, or you can change to a cymbal with rivets in it. Also, you can play the hi-hat where it is open just wide enough to let the cymbals ring together.
CB: Is that so the cymbals get a “sizzle” effect?
JR: Yeah. Drummers don’t do that anymore. I remember back in the early ’50s, when I started playing, that was considered a very viable way of using the hi-hats.
CB: Many bebop drummers would sometimes use that effect behind piano solos, and for the beginnings and endings of tunes.
JR: Right. Also, drummers shouldn’t be afraid of switching brushes. Of course, it’s helpful if you have some brush technique, particularly if you play them at medium and up-tempos. Philly Joe Jones is probably one of the best practitioners of that art form, and so was Shelly Manne.
CB: Speaking of brushes, you have a bizarre style of playing brushes. How did you develop your unique technique for playing them?
JR: I’m right-handed, and I hold the sticks or brushes right-handed. However, when I play brushes on the snare drum, I play the beat with the left hand, and I do the “swish” with my right hand. I started doing that when I was a kid, before I took drum lessons from George Stone. You see, I could read a little music because of the piano lessons I had from my father, and because of my desire to play drums, I bought a copy of the Gene Krupa Drum Method. Well, I didn’t know my left from my right very well; I just looked at the pictures that showed how to hold the sticks, and I started to hold them left-handed or backwards.
A while later, I was playing drums at a band concert my father was conducting, and one of the other drummers turned to me and said, “Oh, you’re left-handed.” And I said, “No, I’m right-handed.” Of course, I’m sitting there, calm as anything, holding the sticks left-handed. Then he said, “You’re supposed to hold them the other way.” I replied calmly, “Oh, really?” Anyway, I think that’s partially the reason I play brushes the way that I do.
CB: In what other ways do you define the role of a drummer in an accompanying situation?
JR: I think it’s imperative that you be a good time player, and in jazz situations, you have to be able to swing the music. There also has to be a certain amount of looseness and fluidity to the music. Also, your playing style should bend so that it matches the style of the group you’re in. For example, there are some groups that swing with a four-to-the-bar feeling, others swing with a lighter feeling, and some swing to the 2/4 side. You should be aware of those factors.
One of the main points I try to keep in mind when playing the drums is that I try to “psych out” the bass player. For instance, does the bassist have a tendency to play on top of the beat or underneath it? Some of them, when playing in a certain range, play the time in a particular place. Sometimes, when they get to the low end of the bass, their time will go a little under the beat. Maybe that happens because of the fact that the strings respond more slowly on the lower end of that particular instrument. Even some of the best players, when they’re starting to go up the scale and use their thumb on the G string, tend to get way on top of the beat. You’ve got to be aware of these tendencies on the part of bass players and you’ve got to balance them. At the same time, you can’t get on their case too heavy. You don’t have to hit the bassist over the head with a stick, but you do want the rhythm to settle in the center. You should have that kind of control over the beat. You should be able to play on the dead center of the beat, on the “down” side without slowing down, and on the “up” side without speeding up.
Of course, there are always variations, particularly in a jazz group. The time and the music will sometimes center in the first four to eight bars, or maybe it will settle on the down side. Sometimes, on a particular tempo, it might get exciting, and the time will climb towards the high end. You’re not necessarily looking for metronomic precision.
CB: The music has to be able to breathe.
JR: Yeah, sure. You can name some of the best groups in jazz who, on the basis of straight time, are ridiculous. As for speeding tempos up, the old Oscar Peterson trio used to climb the damn walls. That happened in that band because of the prodigious technique of Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown. The Art Blakey groups also used to have a tendency to speed up. It didn’t take away from the swing or the basic groove, but it would occasionally happen. So metronomic time is not necessarily the criteria, but you should always keep the best possible time you can.
CB: Do you have any techniques that you can recommend to drummers to improve their timekeeping ability?
JR: If you’re playing a standard tune, you can sing the words to yourself, or if it’s an instrumental, you should have some recall of where the melody was when you played the first chorus. If you sing the melody, it allows you to check your position within the harmonic framework of the tune and, at the same time, you can check to see if the tempo has changed.
I think that the ability to keep time is a combination of natural and acquired skills. One facet of playing time has to do with your attitude. For example, in a band situation, once the tune starts, the drummer is really in charge. You have to believe that you have good time. If you don’t believe it, then the rest of the band won’t believe it.
Another way you can think about timekeeping is to imagine that you have a metronome right between your eyes going “tick, tick, tick.” If you drop a stick or the stool falls apart—no matter what emergencies arise—this little independent sense of time keeps going during the course of that tune. So once you get to the point of keeping good time, you better start believing it, and play like you believe it.
CB: You’re known for your light touch and sensitivity in backing musicians in a variety of musical circumstances. Do you have any techniques that you can recommend to drummers for developing a lighter touch?
JR: When I was with the Charlie Byrd trio, I developed—through my Latin playing—a technique called “dead sticking.” This means that you play into the cymbal with some sort of pressure. You use a wrist action with no fingers involved. You can only do it up to a certain tempo; it’s a little difficult on real up-tempos. I developed this technique because the Charlie Byrd trio was acoustic guitar, amplified by the house mic’ and acoustic bass. Now that is about as soft a group as anyone is going to play with. I still had to play with intensity, but not the volume on the sambas and the jazz tunes. Dead sticking gives you a lot of intensity, and it can cut down your volume by almost two-thirds when you’re really leaning into the cymbal. It also cuts down the overtones quite a bit on cymbals. If you wish to expand the volume as you’re playing, all you do is loosen up your fingers as you go along, and before you know it, you’re playing full out. At the same time, don’t forget about controlling the volume with your feet on the bass drum and the hi-hat. They can be played loud or soft. Of course, there are some types of Latin beats, like sambas and bossa novas, where the bass drum should be a little more dominant because it’s more of an integral part of the beat. On those rhythms, it should be heard but not overbearing, as opposed to playing straight-ahead 4/4 jazz time. In that situation, it should be felt more than heard.
CB: As long as we are discussing volume control, would you say that one of the best criteria to use is, if you can’t hear everything, then you’re playing too loud?
JR: Yes. You should hear the band as a total musical entity. The idea of volume control should be automatic. If you get to a point where you can’t hear some of the notes, then you’re playing too loud. Or if you’re backing up a vocalist and you can’t hear the words, you’re playing too loud. You’re always a lot better off being “waved up” in terms of volume than being “waved down.” You can always give it a little more if you have to come up.
One of the toughest things I find with my students is that, when they are playing soft with their hands, their feet are still loud. This is, of course, also a problem for the experienced players.
CB: In other words, in terms of volume, all four limbs should be consistent with each other.
JR: Definitely. Through teaching I came across this theory: It seems that, initially, we learn the drumset as separate components. First we learn the snare drum, and then we add the bass drum, hi-hat, and expand to the tom-toms. So it ends up that most drummers still think unconsciously of the drumset in terms of separate components rather than a total sound. If you’re a piano player, you don’t think of the C as being different from the D or E; it’s all one instrument. One of the areas I work on with my students is getting their minds to tell them to do the right thing. In other words, getting them to hear the set as a total sound, and not as toms, cymbal, snare drum and bass drum.
As I mentioned earlier, I have the experience of playing in front of rhythm sections, and I find that even some of the fine drummers that I work with have some volume-control problems. Sometimes, when they are either backing a singer or vibraphone, a drummer will be playing at a mezzo-forte level, and then the breaks or fills will be fortissimo. When you’re playing in front of a drummer who does that, it’s like getting “zapped” out of the clear blue sky.
CB: In other words, there should be more consistency of volume level.
JR: Yes. If you want to emphasize a musical idea, it should be one notch up, and not three notches up.
CB: Would you relate your introduction to Latin music?
JR: When I joined George Shearing in 1955,1 didn’t really know that much about Latin music. Fortunately for me, joining the Shearing band was probably one of the greatest strokes of good fortune I ever had in my career. Bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Armando Peraza were still with the band. Al is probably one of the best Latin bass players around. When I joined the band as a vibist, Bill Clarke was the drummer. He was a swing type of drummer who had worked with Duke, Lester Young, and other people of their caliber, but he really wasn’t into Latin. So George asked me if I would like to play timbales in the group. My initial reaction was, “What are timbales?” As it turned out, Armando had a set of brass-shell Leedy timbales, so I learned to play on his set. He told me what beats to play behind him. For the first couple of months on the gig, I just used my right hand, even though I had enough coordination to play the left hand. Later Armando and Tito Puente taught me to use my left hand, rather than to use a stick on the timbales. There’s a “dead” stroke and there is an open stroke that you play with your fingers. That’s the traditional method of playing the instrument. I also learned from these guys all the basic Latin rhythms and a sense of clave.
CB: Isn’t it true that even Latin players don’t always agree on where the clave should be placed on a particular tune?
JR: You’re right. I have a great story that deals with this particular point. All the time I was on the road with George, if there was a tune that would require timbales, 1 would play them. However, when we got into the studio, we had to retain the “Shearing sound” [piano, vibes, and guitar] for the sake of the recordings. That meant that whenever we recorded, we’d hire additional Latin percussionists. So one time, when we were recording George’s third album on Capitol, called Latin Escapade, we used Tony Martinez and Chico Columbo. On the date, I had to learn the vibe parts because I hadn’t been playing them on the road. So we went into the studio with the two hired percussionists, and we had all the introductions and tunes worked out. We were playing along, the hired players were following along nicely, and it was coming out real good. Then we got to this one tune that had a rhythmic introduction and then went into the melody. We did the intro, and just got into the melody, when suddenly the two hired guys came to a screeching halt! One said, “Oh my God, the clave is different on the introduction than it is on the melody.” The other guy was saying, “1 feel the clave here, and I don’t feel it there.” McKibbon and Peraza were saying, “We hear it here.” And the four of them really got into it. As it turned out,’we had to change the rhythmic emphasis on the introduction just to make these guys happy.
CB: So there really isn’t a mutually agreed upon placement for the clave?
JR: At best, it’s a tricky proposition. Even with all the Latin experience I’ve had, when 1 play with Latin groups here in the Bay Area, I put the clave wherever they want to put it. But once you have the clave established, it has to stay in that direction all the way through the tune.
CB: After Shearing, what other Latin bands did you play with?
JR: A couple of years after I left Shearing, I joined the Herbie Mann band. Most of the time I was with Herbie we had Carlos “Patato” Valdez on congas, and Jose Mangual on bongos—a couple of great Latin musicians. Later, they left and were replaced by Ray Mantilla and Ray Barretto. After Herbie, when I first joined Cal’s band, Mongo Santamaria was still in the band. Six months after I joined the band Mongo left and was replaced by Wilfredo Vincente, who’s a good player but he’s obscure. Then when Wilfredo left, Bill Fitch came in, and he was a phenomenon in the sense that he was not Latin. Finally, Armando Peraza joined Cal for four years and that gave me a total of six years on the road with him.
CB: So you’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best Latin percussionists in the world.
JR: Yes, they are among the best in the business. I played in front of these people as a vibist, and played timbales with them strictly as a backup player. Being able to play with them is about as good a break as any gringo’s going to get. I’m no soloist on timbales, particularly with those musicians on the bandstand.
CB: In the late ’60s, you wrote a book called The Latin Guide For Drummers. What prompted you to write the book?
JR: Publisher Henry Adler prompted me to write the book. A few years earlier, I had written a vibes book for him. He had already published the Humberto Morales book, which is still a standard work on Latin drumming, but he wanted something a little more modern that applied Latin rhythms to the drumset. It seems that he was aware of the type of Latin drumming I was doing with Cal Tjader at the time. After I did the manuscript, Henry had a change of mind and he declined to publish it. So the next time I was in L.A., I took the manuscript to Bob Yeager at the Professional Drum Shop. At the time, he was just starting Try Publications, and he decided to publish it for me. Over the years, it has been slightly revised and it’s in its second printing. For the type of book it is, it has done pretty well.
CB: Could we discuss the reasoning behind the book?
JR: Well, the reasoning behind the book was really Henry Adler’s idea. Latin drumming in the context of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and most Carribean music is not intended for the drumset. Aside from reggae, which is not pure Latin, bossa nova is the only legitimate Latin rhythm that, in the first place, was intended for the drumset. All the other beats are intended for multiple drummers in percussion sections. When I was with Cal, 1 was developing a method of playing Latin rhythms with as much authenticity as possible on a drumset. That was because, when Armando was in the band, he would play congas and bongos. So I had to take care of the other percussion. I took away the snare drum and put timbales behind the drumset. Then I’d stand to play the timbales and the rest of the set. In this way, when accents could come up, I’d utilize the cymbals. Sometimes I’d play a mambo beat with my left hand on the cowbell, and at the same time I’d double it with my right hand on the cymbal. Later I started playing the bass drum following the bass line of the tune. I developed this method of playing Latin music out of necessity to give the music and the band a fuller sound. It was easy to write the book because it was based on what I was doing on a day-to-day basis on the job.
CB: What are some of the common mistakes that drummers make when performing Latin music?
JR: From a Latin point of view, the most common mistake is that American drummers tend to put in too many fills and change the basic beat. When you’re work- ing with a conga and other percussion, you only play your part; you can make little changes, a note here and there, but you can’t change the basic rhythm. Jazz drummers, even though they may have a good Latin concept, tend to think in terms of fills as if they were playing jazz music. Latin rhythms have got to be more solid and settled because there’s more syncopation going on. Also, when you’re working in a multiple-percussion section, there are more things that are slotted around what you’re doing. You have to play your part in the correct place so that there is that space on either side of your beat for that bongo part, cowbell beat, or whatever.
Also, American drummers should be aware of their tonality. That means being aware of when to use the cymbals, the sides of the toms, the closed hi-hat, and the cowbell. Those types of effects are important, and they are best worked out in the arrangement, depending on the type of tune it is and who is soloing. If you’re working with a conga drummer, you should try to stay away from the toms, because you don’t want to get into the conga’s tonality. Armando Peraza showed me a way of playing a mambo on a set that works very well with conga drummers. With the snares in the “up” position on your snare drum, and playing with both hands in unison, you play the mambo beat on the snare drum and cymbals. At the same time, you play a variation of the bass figure on the bass drum; the tone of the bass drum will be below the conga drum. What I usually play on the bass drum is a “spacy” clave figure. That means I play only the two notes in the second bar and I don’t play anything on the bass drum on the first bar. It’s a simple bass drum figure, but it’s solid.
CB: Who in Latin music would you recommend that drummers listen to and appreciate?
JR: There are probably a lot of new people around that I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of, but the individual I listen to is Tito Puente. He is still considered the absolute monarch of Latin music, not only because of his natural talent and his wonderful swing feeling as a soloist, but also because of his total musicianship. He is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and most of the arrangements for his big band were done by him. He plays a variety of instruments and he’s a very good Latin vibe player. There’s no way around it; he’s about as good as you’re going to hear in Latin music.
CB: How important is it to be familiar with not only percussion, but what the other instruments are doing in a Latin band?
JR: Very important. You should familiarize yourself with the patterns that the other instruments are playing in the rhythm section. For example, you should learn some of the basic Latin piano patterns, so you will know what kind of complementary figures to play with them. In particular, you should be very aware of the bass player. On any of my gigs, whether it’s jazz or Latin, I lock in with the bass. Unless something goes wrong, it always seems to hold most of my attention. In Latin music, you and the bass player have to lock together.
CB: Before we finish, is there anything else you’d like to stress?
JR: What we’ve really stressed in this interview is musicality. That is what we’re talking about when we’re discussing the drummer as an accompanist. The drummer is also the person who gives the music that extra push when it’s called for. Lester Young always used to say that the only way to really play a tune is to know the words. If you’re working with a vocalist, then you’ll know that there’s only a certain tempo that makes those words intelligible. For singers, in most cases, it’s a question of mood and being able to articulate the words. Also, you’ve got to be able to play a combination of volumes and tempos. Total musicality— that’s what makes a good accompanist.