While it is perhaps a touch premature to bestow upon Marvin “Smitty” Smith the historical mantle of greatness, it’s readily accepted by the musicians and fans who’ve seen him in action that a talent like his flashes across the sky only a few times in a generation. When Roy Haynes lovingly dubbed him “Mah-velous Marvin” during singer Jon Hendricks’ gig at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club, and urged Smith to sit in with his ex-employer, there were no arguments to be heard. Clearly, the torch was being passed to a new champion.
Stories about Smitty’s remarkable stature preceded our first experiences—particularly drum connoisseur Stanley Crouch’s laudatory storm warnings in his Village Voice column—but nothing prepared us for his epic voyages with bassist Dave Holland’s daring quintet at Sweet Basil. Affable, gregarious, and inquisitive, Smitty projected the kind of radiant enthusiasm and love (of people and music) off the bandstand that is the visible beacon of a soul at peace with himself—and confident in his craft. Seated behind his Rogers drumset and his array of percussion effects, Smitty became a lightning rod for the band’s diverse energies, roaring through the music as if he’d written it himself—all this after only one brief rehearsal. But as a beaming Dave Holland noted admiringly after the first set, “That’s all he needs.” (This comment came from a man noted for his ability to sightread anything down cold and then play it as if his life depended on it.) Smitty’s concept was oceanic: a constant rolling and crashing of the waves in the form of cresting tom-toms and whirlpools of snare drum foam; thundering bass drum accents to steady his ship of swing as it burst through the waves; and the wind-soaked hiss of his cymbals swirling above the surface, rising and falling with the ship, crackling ominously and lighting up the sky in contrapuntal bursts of contrary motion. But just as suddenly, everything was becalmed, the fury was gone, and Smitty’s rhythms moved with stately grace and restraint, delicately punctuating the flow with elegant simplicity—sometimes playing next to nothing, yet making it swing as hard as his elemental outbursts of energy.
Smitty Smith’s drumming radiates strength, sensitivity, and class. Yet for all his energy, it is his ongoing love affair with the history of the instrument and his disciplined approach to music that animates his creativity. It is precisely this reflective, reverent point of view that sets him apart from his energetic percussive peers, enables him to fit instantly into challenging and difficult musical situations, and will carry him past the first frenetic blush of youth with visions and dreams intact—ready to carry forth the history of the drums to the next generation of players. It is a big job to be sure, but Marvin “Smitty” Smith is ready.
CS: You sound as if you’re trying to play two or three different drum styles simultaneously, like a cymbal style and a drum style. Some jazz drummers tend to lean predominately on the cymbal to carry the groove, and everything else is secondary, but you have a very strong bottom going, particularly in your work with Dave Holland’s band.
SS: I feel that there’s a need for something fresh in what is being termed as “jazz.” That’s not to say that I’m going to be the one to break the ice, because I don’t know who’s going to be the one out here to strike the next spark. I’m just going to experiment with my own ideas and see what I come up with. The end result is to make beautiful music. I can see that this quest has led me into some new directions, particularly in my music with Dave. Dave is open enough to encourage me to bring in tunes or any viewpoint that will add to the music. I’ve added this conga drum to my kit and this percussion setup I’ve used with Ron Carter and Hamiet Bluiett; it gives me all these nuances of sound within the band, and it’s fresh, because I don’t have to play the drums all the time. I can go to the congas or percussion, create different textures of sound, or sometimes I don’t play. That can be very effective, too. I let the horns carry the rhythm.
CS: It creates a certain anticipation.
SS: Right, but I still try to keep that foundation from all the drummers I have learned from: Max Roach, Philly Joe, Art Blakey, Art Taylor, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette and a few more, too. I mean, I checked out some Big Sid Catlett on this old Louis Armstrong record from Symphony Hall in Boston….
CS: You mean with “Steak Face” and “Mop Mop”?
SS: Yeah, those are the only two tunes where he opens up in a solo. And I heard Max, Philly Joe, Klook [Kenny Clarke] and some hints of Art Blakey in there. It flipped me out, because there were the seeds of all of them in Sid Catlett.
CS: The cat-and-mouse aspect sort of suggested where Philly Joe would come from, while the chops episode was a taking-off point for Max.
SS: That really had me going: I knew I had to pick up some more recordings of Big Sid. Baby Dodds is another one. Plus, Cozy Cole had some hip coordination happening between the snare and the bass drum—a lot of syncopation patterns that are a part of today’s vocabulary. And Papa Jo definitely annihilated all hi-hat players for all time. Plus, he did all sorts of things with textures. But I relate what I would like to do with percussion back to drummers of the ’20s and ’30s, and the bands of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. Take a cat like Sonny Greer: He wasn’t just playing drums; he was playing percussion. Look at those old band pictures. He had all sorts of woodblocks, temple blocks, chimes, bells, triangles, timpani-you name it. And he was using them, man. It wasn’t just for show. I’m not trying to say we should bring that back, but I like to include it in the music I play. I love the whole family of percussion, not just the drumset, because it’s much broader than that. I love a great-sounding marimba, and I’d love to use one in band situations just as soon as I’m able to deal with the economic obstacles and the responsibility of learning to play the instrument.
CS: Well, you did some things during your drum solo with Dave where you were incorporating all sorts of tom-tom patterns, and syncopating them around bass and socks. Most “modern” drummers wouldn’t employ those kinds of patterns or such a deep tuning. They’d feel like archivists or something. But that Chick Webb-Gene Krupa vocabulary can fit very readily into contemporary musics. It isn’t necessarily dated.
SS: Drummers have to look at the approach and not get hung up thinking that they’ll be corny if they are up there going boom-boom-boom a-booma-boom, or that they have to play the toms that way. The point is to utilize it in a musical sense and adapt it to your particular situation. So, I utilize it in an appropriate tune and try to deal with it thematically. You mentioned in the Village Voice article you wrote that I was dealing with “suite-like improvisations,” and that’s an aspect of what I’m trying to achieve.
CS: Well, speaking of working thematically, there are schools of drumming where that’s the whole point and timekeeping is like the lowest form of slavery, while there are other approaches where the beat is paramount. But there’s a mid-ground you seem to be approaching, where you play through the time, not just the beat, but the beat is strong—not just digging coal.
SS: That’s why I’m excited by the possibilities of percussion. That’s why I try to listen to more music—period. Just try to get all the different points of view you can, and see how much of that you can bring back to the musics you are playing.
CS: Do you hear the extended drumkit as one phrase? I don’t really detect any separation between the instruments, like a pianist wouldn’t hear a separation between the left hand and the right.
SS: Correct. Snare, toms, bass, cymbals, and percussion are integrated to make one sound. That’s why you’ve got two legs and two arms to make a group sound and play independent parts.
CS: But you were reversing those patterns a lot, putting the ride cymbal part down on the bass drum, etc. It was a front-line approach, without dominating the ensemble, yet there was always something in motion at all times—a very wet, surging approach, particularly with your ride cymbal. That way you could come up to it or down to it.
SS: The point you made about it being a part without sounding like a drum solo, per se, is an accurate description of what I’m trying to do.
CS: But then the best jazz soloists have always sounded like drummers. Perhaps you’d want to call it rhythm music, like the way Charlie Parker plays.
SS: I understand what you’re saying, like the way Bird would play a line and Max would feed it back to him—communication, man. Interplay—they were talking to each other musically.
CS: Right, but they weren’t just playing time. They were making music.
SS: The thing about players like Bird, Bud, Dizzy, and Mingus is that they had a strong sense of time within themselves, which is the problem with some of the young musicians today. Because they don’t have that strong, individual sense of time, they tend to lean on the drummers, which hampers the drummers from venturing out into other approaches of playing the music, so they have to sit there and go ding dingading. If the drummers stray from that, the other musicians will turn to them and say, “Hey, don’t change up on me. Keep that ding dingading going.” If you throw in a little syncopation, they get scared and tell you not to do that, because you’re throwing them off. That’s frustrating when you’re trying to make music; you’re not about messing somebody up. That’s frustrating for me, because I am sincerely trying to make music. Being held back because they want the drums to dish it out so they can ride over it is a drag. Bird’s rhythm was a mile long.
CS: He sounded like he was playing the rhythm section.
SS: Dizzy, Monk—all of those cats had that. It was expected. When I first started playing with so-called “new music” cats, like Bluiett and subbing for Henry Threadgill—playing the so-called avant-garde—I thought it would be really difficult, because I’m not the type of cat to take any music for granted—especially in the “jazz” idiom. I knew there were cats who had been involved in that aspect of the music for a while and who had really studied it. So before I started to play with Hamiet Bluiett, I checked out all of the “new music” cats. I always loved the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their drummer, Don Moye. He’s been an inspiration to me, because he’s advanced the art of “total percussion” and brought that idea into the music he plays. I would love to take that even a step further and utilize mallet percussion, even though Moye does play balaphon. But I would love to add marimba and xylophone, and really play that. I also checked out Andrew Cyrille, who was a very nice person and who would talk to me about the music. I asked him to tell me about some approaches to playing this music, because it seemed kind of hard to me. He said, “It’s not really hard. You’re dealing with sound: sound on sound, sound against sound—sound as a whole and the different colorings, shadings, and nuances that you can employ musically.” He was a great help to me; sometimes he’d even come down to my gig without my knowing about it, just to scope me on the sly. Talking with Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Bluiett, and a number of other people hopefully prepared me to approach this music in an intelligent way.
CS: Well, that’s a disciplined, respectful way of approaching any music. Along those lines, when did you first realize you were a drummer?
SS: I truly feel it was a natural inclination, because my dad’s a drummer. He’s 56 now, and he’s still playing. I’m originally from Waukegan, Illinois. I was born on June 24, 1961. Waukegan is about 50 miles north of Chicago. When I was growing up, there was always a lot of music in the environment. That’s a funny thing, because when my dad was growing up, his parents would not let him play music. They didn’t want him to pursue a musical career. He wanted to play drums bad, too, way before he got a drumset; they resisted for a good while, but they finally let him get a drumset when he was 17. My dad would tell me how he used to sneak into the city to see cats play, hang out, and then try to sneak back home. His mother would always catch him, you know. Parents are sharp. You might think you’re getting away with something, but they’re right on your case—but for the love of music he went through it all. He’d been practicing before he got his drums, but then it was like he could start working on them. And he worked with some territorial bands: big bands and combos—all sorts of gigs.
CS: What’s his name?
SS: He’s Marvin Smith, Senior. He did one record with this pianist Don Walker in a group called Complete Expressions. Of course, they financed the project themselves, and you won’t find it in any stores, but we have a copy at home. When I was a little kid, it was just a terrific thrill for me to hear my dad on a record.
So, getting back to the point, you can see that it was a natural thing for me to play drums. In fact, he told me stories about when I was six months old, and we lived at his mother’s house, next door to where our house is now. He would have his drums set up in the living room, and there’d be this big rocking chair set up in front of his drums. When he’d start practicing, they tell me that I would crawl over to that chair, and sit and watch him practice. I would fall asleep watching him practice. Then he would finish, and go out to the kitchen to get a drink. All of a sudden, they’d hear someone going BOOM, BOOM, BOOM on the bass drum, and they’d come out and it’d be me! Of course I was too short to do anything else. Then I’d crawl on out into the kitchen and start beating on the pots and pans. Every Christmas he would get me a toy drumset, and I must have gone through about ten of these things. I couldn’t wait, because every Christmas I knew I was going to get a drumset. And Christmas Eve, I couldn’t sleep; I’d go down to the living room trying to tap them lightly so as not to wake anyone up.
I remember the first tune I could play. I played with this old James Brown record “Song For My Father,” Parts I and II, which was one of his instrumental records on Smash. Also, there was a straight-ahead record of Jimmy Smith with Donald Bailey doing “I Cover The Waterfront,” which used to knock me out too. So those were the first tunes I covered, when I was about three. That’s when my dad started teaching me formally, but it got too personal and emotional: “You’re playing that wrong. Try it again!” I’d be so nervous that I’d drop the sticks, and he’d start in yelling at me. I’d go, “Waaaaahhhhhhhhhh.” So after a while, we both concluded that it was getting too intense. He took me to a friend of his named Charlie Williams, and I’ll never forget this cat. He could play double bass drums, and he had chops up the wall. I studied with him for one year, and then he moved out to New Jersey. I’ve been trying to find him ever since, because this cat was bad, man.
Then after him, I went to another friend of my dad’s named Donald Taylor, and he was very important in terms of hooking my thing up. He loved to play along with records, and we got into reading and checking out other cats. He’d throw on some Elvin, some DeJohnette, some Max—all of the cats in a nutshell. Then, he’d send me home with some records and have me really check them out. I’d try to learn from them. On the other hand, he gave me a basic approach to the kit, and always emphasized that I should not try to play like these cats, but instead just to understand their approaches and how they came to make the music they did. I think that’s the key. A lot of cats get hung up trying to play another cat’s licks, and they’re missing the point. Understand how they approached their music, and how that can help you bring out your ideas. That’s the approach I’m taking. So it comes down to how I’m going to approach the music I play based on what I hear. Of course, we all have our influences, and that’s cool, because the past and the present lead to the future.
CS: Well, it just lets you know that something can be done or that it had been done—building blocks.
SS: Right. Of course, the influences will always be there, but you develop them into your own personal statement based on the music you’re involved in. Then, it becomes your vocabulary, and not simply a collection of someone else’s quotes.
CS: So, were you playing your dad’s kit all this time?
SS: No, he bought me my first kit when I was five. He showed me how to set it up and tear it down, but I usually kept it set up because I would be practicing every day for like ten hours. Of course I was so young, so I had all this time. I’d get home from school and shed until ten at night. It didn’t bother my mom because it was a musical house, and my dad would be practicing or holding rehearsals with the Complete Expressions. Unfortunately, my dad had a family before his career got off the ground, but I definitely respect him for accepting his responsibilities, taking care of business, and not looking back. He still plays music, but who knows? Maybe he could have gone to New York. But he said, “I have a family, and that’s my priority.” Plus, he saw my inclinations and figured, “Well, this is my extension right here.” So he saw himself in me.
CS: That’s beautiful.
SS: So I’m an expression of how much further he wanted to carry it. I have a great love for my pop and my moms, too. They gave me a lot of support. You know, I would trip sometimes, because my mom would just sit and watch me practice occasionally. She was a paraprofessional and worked at the high school I attended. When she came home and finished her chores, she would come down to the basement, stretch out, and watch me practice. Isn’t that something? I mean, you can’t get any more support than that. I remember when I first went to college, and she told me that it just wasn’t the same, because she was used to hearing me in the basement practicing the drums. It took them both a while to get adjusted to not hearing me play the drums. They miss me, and I miss them. She’s always asking when I’m coming home, and I say, “Whenever I get a gig that brings me close to home.”
CS: Where’d you go to college?
SS: Berklee College of Music. I passed through there for two years, and then I copped a gig with [singer] Jon Hendricks. It’s very interesting how that came about. I was doing a lot of work in Boston. It got to the point where I was playing with some of the faculty members there: this pianist by the name of Alex Ulanofsky, who I believe is still teaching there. He’d done some previous gigs with Jon whenever he came to Boston, and Alan Dawson was usually the drummer. Now this was December of 1980, and Jon was doing this thing in Vermont over the Christmas/New Year week. So he called Alex, and he was trying to get Alan Dawson, but Alan had something else happening. So Alex was going to get this faculty drummer named Quinous Johnson, who was my ear-training teacher, private drum teacher, and very good friend. But he had gone back home to Jackson, Mississippi, for the holidays. So Alex called and asked me if I was planning on going home. I said I was, and then he asked me if I’d be interested in making a gig with Jon Hendricks. I called my parents and said I wouldn’t be making it home for Christmas. That was the start of it—missing many, many holidays.
We didn’t have any rehearsal. They came up around Christmas Eve, and we had this big Christmas dinner and all. We got to know everybody, and when we got to the gig, we just talked down the tunes and hit. Jon was a little skeptical—I was just a young guy of 19—and when he got there, he asked who the drummer was, saw me, and freaked: “That little kid?” But afterwards I learned that Alex had told him not to worry, that I could handle the gig, and that he thought I was one of the best drummers he’d heard in 20 years, which was real nice of him. You know—”Trust me.” But then after the first few notes, Jon turned around and looked at me like, “Yeah!” So I had a ball, and at the end of the gig, he asked me if I’d like to go on the road with him. That took me back, because I’d never been on the road like that. So that was heavy for me. And I must have called up my parents every day for a week. They both wanted me to finish school, but my dad could understand because he was a musician. He’d wanted to do that sort of thing, but didn’t because of his family. He said to me, “Opportunities like that don’t knock every day, so you should get on it.” So I took a deep breath and went out. I was on that gig until December of 1982— almost two years. I saw a lot of things, and I grew mentally, spiritually, and musically. When I found it was time to go, I went. And in the meantime, I would do gigs in the city, because after Vermont, we came straight to the city and played Paulsson’s—before they got into a serious cabaret thing and excluded all drums—plus the Other End and Greene Street. But at Greene Street, a few days after the gig came through, we found out they didn’t allow drums, and I was heartbroken. I’d just gotten the gig, and now I couldn’t make it. But Jon said it was cool: “We’ll just arrange it so you can play brushes on a phone book, and play some tambourine, maracas, and all of your little percussion.” The gig was fun, and people thought it was a gas. Whenever I wasn’t working with Jon, I’d do gigs with [pianist] John Hicks and [saxophonist] Bobby Watson. Through that, I became affiliated with trombonist Slide Hampton.
CS: I’m curious about what it is you studied when you practiced to achieve your current level, and what you’re practicing now to advance it. I ask that specifically because Sam Ulano told me that, of all the drummers who ever came to him, you were the hardest working, most gifted student he ever had.
SS: Well, Sam specialized in sight reading. If you want to get your eyes together, Sam is the cat to see, as far as my observations go, because this cat has his whole thing hooked up as far as a system is concerned. Discipline is something you can definitely learn from him. I had a good amount of that with my previous teachers back home, because that was one thing they were always into—the love of practice. Donald Taylor loved to practice. Anytime I’d call him up, he’d be practicing, and anytime he called me, I’d be practicing. He gave me that love of practice and the discipline to go with it. So after I got off the road I’d be checking in with Sam at Alex’s Music, where he’d be doddle-e-whoppin’ on a rubber pad with these metal sticks and talking about reading. I became interested and decided to check this cat out, because my eyes were kind of slack. I dug his system, because he had it organized and tight, and he knew how he was running it. So I started studying with him, and it was real nice, because it built up that discipline. It was fun. He’s a good guy, and every time you go to a lesson, it’s fun because he makes it fun; he’s good people, and you look forward to seeing him next week. So I refreshed myself in getting that good discipline back, hooking up a system, and getting things back in order. I guess my youth and enthusiasm gave him something to feed off of, too. I mean, I just wanted to learn, and I always loved to apply what I learned.
CS: So he kept throwing books at you and challenging you?
SS: Yeah, it seemed as if this cat wrote books every day. I’d come to my lesson, and he’d have a new book for me to try out. So we’d read through a few pages, and I’d be into it: I’d say, “Do you have another copy?” And he’d say it was just a prototype, and that when he got a copy he’d lay it on me. It was cool, because you can apply the art of organization to all the aspects of your life—period. I was impressed by the fact that here was a cat who was like 63 years old, and he kept in shape, could sight-read his butt off, and still played some gigs. That showed me that you don’t have to be washed up when you’re 50. So when I reach that age, I know I should be able to perform at that level or better.
CS: What are you practicing now?
SS: It’s been a while since I’ve been with Sam, but I still practice my sight reading. I just reached a point where I got so busy that I couldn’t make regular lessons, and I miss that edge you get when you have to see somebody every week. But I still work with my books on sight reading and technical things. I still play along with tapes and records, which goes back to when I was younger and it was so much fun. I don’t do it so much now, because I’m experimenting with other ways of learning. Now I practice creating off of tunes. I have a Real Book, and so I’ll play a head. Then, I’ll play some choruses on it, and see how far I can go before I can’t come up with any fresh ideas anymore. I’ll practice with my drum machine to tighten up my time, program some rhythms in it, and play on top of them.
CS: Do you play other instruments?
SS: Well, I mess with piano; I have a little five-octave keyboard in my apartment. Some people have tried to help me with some little things, like different ways to voice II-V progressions. I have a couple of little piano books that show me how to finger scales, and I practice them because I’m really trying to get some facility. I write music: I have several compositions I’ve completed, even though it’s a real slow process for me, but several people have encouraged me to write, like [altoist] Bobby Watson, [guitarist] Kevin Eubanks, [bassist] Dave Holland, [tenorist/arranger] Frank Foster, [altoist] Steve Coleman, [tenorist/arranger] Benny Golson, and a few others who slip my mind. They encourage me, tell me not to get hung up on trying to write a symphony each time, and give me the confidence to pursue it for the musical benefits it’ll yield me as an improviser.
CS: Writing is nothing but reading in reverse.
SS: It affects your playing when you write, because you’re thinking more compositionally. I mean, I’ve been writing for a while; I studied theory in high school, and we’d have writing projects for different settings, like big band pieces for different numbers of horns; I wrote something for strings. So I’ve had that experience, but my chops are rusty and I have to sharpen them up. But it’s something I love to do. Just to know that you can actually create music, make your sound, and hear it being played back at you is a beautiful feeling.
CS: Let me ask you this: Drums are primarily a rhythmic instrument. Do you hear them as a melodic or harmonic instrument in any way?
SS: Within the realm of the physical nature of the instrument, you can’t play a C-Major scale on the instrument unless you have a group of concert toms tuned to that scale. But I feel that they can express ideas melodically and harmonically. Take Max and Philly Joe: You can tell that they’re playing a tune, right? But it’s all based on rhythm anyway. Melody has to have some kind of rhythm. And like I’ve already mentioned, I would love to incorporate all the mallet instruments and timpani into the kit.
CS: Well, you have a very interesting approach to the kit and its tuning. The sound of your kit was really enthralling: so deep and resonant. Let me ask you this: You have a conception on the instrument. How do you want to present your particular synthesis of ideas and vocabularies?
SS: I just want to apply all the experiences I’ve had and all the things I’ve learned. I want to be able to apply all that, and reflect that in my music and in my playing. And I want each aspect to show itself at its best. I want everything to be top-notch—just the best it can be. I would just like to communicate with other musicians and the general public, as well as make a contribution on my instrument—a contribution to music for people. I would like people to remember Smitty Smith as a good cat—just good people—because it’s more involved than just sitting up here practicing for several hours a day. It’s about people, and it makes the expression so much purer and clearer if we have an understanding among people.
CS: Are you a spiritual person?
SS: Yes. God has blessed me with a gift, and I’m going to use it to the fullest. I’m going to multiply it as many times as I can, and give it to the people for them to enjoy. I try to stay high in spirits. I try to be a positive person. I’m just searching for the truth, for myself, and then apply it—be a part of the truth. And I want to pass it on. Our elders passed it on. They left it here for us: They said, “Here’s what we contributed. Take it, use it well, and use it wisely. But— and this is the most important thing—create something of your own out of it!” We should also carry on the tradition of doing something for other people—just creating beauty, whether it be music or science or architecture, because it all relates to life itself. It feels great when musicians say you’re a musician’s musician. That’s respect among peers and contemporaries, and that’s wonderful. However, it’s also nice when people—who maybe never heard jazz or your music before but are just looking for a brighter aspect of life—come up to you after your set, and say they really enjoyed your music and that it made them feel good inside. That feels wonderful. That means you were communicating with the public. It seems like it often gets to the point of “I’m the musician, and you’re the audience,” creating a condescending attitude toward the listener, making the music seem aristocratic or esoteric, and making yourself seem more important than you really are. But it’s all still about communication; we could still sit down at a bar and have a conversation. Why should it be any different? Why should we feel that we need to talk above somebody’s head?
CS: Maybe to prove one’s self-worth. That has been a syndrome in jazz.
SS: I don’t see why we have to strain to prove anything. When I was old enough to understand, my parents told me that I was somebody, so I never felt like I had to prove anything. I never worried about proving I was somebody. From there, you just go on and live. Do the best that you can and be honest. Be true to yourself and stick to your guns. Just knowing that you were true to your beliefs is a hell of an accomplishment. Then you are more comfortable than if you were always selling yourself out.
CS: Well, what do you mean by selling out? Many jazz musicians who pay lip service to communication put that on the level of trying to deal with pop music or R&B music, both of which are more familiar forms than the mainstream of jazz.
SS: That’s cool so long as they are sincere. That’s really not my problem. I can sit up here and pass opinions on what somebody is doing, but I don’t care to get into that. It all depends on the artists. If they feel true to themselves and go into “commercial” ventures, and it’s really in their hearts, then, to me, that’s not selling out. If that is what they really want to do, that’s great. Selling out to me is not sticking to your guns, not having the faith in your own beliefs, or backing down on your own beliefs to benefit somebody else with the illusion that you are benefiting yourself. That’s what I’m talking about.
CS: I suppose I’m just fishing around to see if you have any interest in music of the so-called pop side of the fence.
SS: Let me put it this way: I can clear it up in one statement. I never declared that I was a jazz musician, because once you put that label on, that’s it. I play good music. Duke Ellington said that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad—and I play the good kind. At least, I would like to believe that. I’ve played so-called commercial music. I play in a funk ensemble led by a trombonist named Henry Mitchell—a group called Beautiful People. I’ve been playing on and off with them for a long time, appearing at clubs like Mikell’s, and we’re trying to do something in the studio. It’s a ball for me to play, because I don’t get to do these gigs a lot. I look forward to it, because it’s another perspective, and it’s another area where I can make a contribution and play good music. I also play with a jazz-fusion big band from time to time, led by a pianist named Tom Pierson. I also auditioned for Sting’s band.
I don’t totally dislike any style of music. I grew up playing that kind of music: the funk—what is also called R&B—and rock, too, as well as jazz. I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s, so that’s part of my life. I was playing a lot back home. I had to play with the old cats in order to play jazz, but I was still playing with my boys, too, and we were funking out. Then we did a rock thing. Then when the so-called fusion thing came along, we got into that, but I was still playing jazz, too. Hell, I played in a wedding band for three and a half years when I was in high school, playing country & western tunes, polkas, mazurkas, and all. I’ve played everything, you dig?
CS: So you don’t make any separations?
SS: I just try to judge whether I get a good feeling from the music. No matter who I see, whether it’s Sonny Rollins—whom I’ve had the honor of playing with recently—or James Brown, I go in there with the attitude of trying to learn something from the music, enjoying the show, and going away with a good feeling. It inspires me to be more musical and create more—just to have a good feeling about people and have a good time with them. I want to have a good time. There are some people who look upon music as an occupation, but I don’t want to kill the spirit I have about music: I love it, it’s fun, and it’s a part of me—as a player or as a listener. If I wouldn’t enjoy playing in a situation, I’d rather have someone take my place who would enjoy playing the gig. You get better music that way. You’re not doing people any favors by trying to play music with a negative attitude. Let someone who’s up for it have the gig. Don’t shortchange the music, and don’t shortchange the audience.
CS: You know, when you think of most cats playing a jazz gig, you think of little drums, Ambassador heads, thin sticks, and 18″ bass drums. But you were going for a big, round bottom frequency that some cats have forgotten about. Have you always had your drums tuned that way?
SS: I always loved that deep sound—that jungle drum sound as some people might call it. With all due respect to Max Roach and all those great drummers like him who tune real high and get a beautiful sound that way, I was just hearing a much deeper gutbucket sound—that raw Art Blakey sound that just reached out and grabbed you—Rooooaaaarrr! I love Art’s sound, and I just love that depth of tone and feeling he gets when he plays. That’s the sound I’m hearing for now, and I’m trying to capture that sound. I just began using a 22″ over the past few months. I used to use a 20″, and I tried everything I could to get a deeper sound, but it just wouldn’t do it. It depends on the situation, again; I’d use that sound with Dave Holland, Hamiet, Branford Marsalis, or Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison. Now, obviously, if it was a real intimate trio setting or something with a vocalist, I would use a smaller set; I wouldn’t use so many toms. I’d use smaller bass drums and cymbals.
The setup I have now is a Sonor kit consisting of 12″ and 13″ rack toms, 14″ and sometimes 16″ floor toms, and 18″ and some- times 22″ bass drums. The snare is a 6 1/2″ bronze-shell Ludwig. Ludwigs are my favorite snare drums. There’s something about Ludwig snare drums. They always give you that nice, fat sound when you hit them in the middle. That always fascinated me, and that’s why I always loved to play them. I mean, I have a couple of other snare drums, but just give me a good Ludwig snare, and that’s good enough for me.
CS: You tune it so it’s pretty fat and resonant, not tight like Roy Haynes.
SS: That’s a beautiful thing in and of itself, isn’t it? But for my own personal tastes, I’m trying to get a fatter sound, still maintaining the liveliness, so I tune the snare head tighter than the batter head.
CS: It sounded almost like you were bending notes on the snare at points, which is an old Pete LaRoca trick.
SS: Yeah, he kind of sticks the butt of the drumstick into the head. I don’t focus on that aspect, but I suppose it comes out that way sometimes. I’m just trying to get a nice, open, fat beat sound. I do that with all my drums, too. I tune my toms low—lower than most drummers would. There’s just something about four tom-toms that I love, because it gives me more of a tonal range to deal with. It helps me to achieve a more realistic melodic sound, especially since they’re not precisely tuned instruments. So it gives me more of a sense of the pitch that way. I like that sound. I’m not just carrying them around to have a big set.
Cymbals, too—you mentioned to me before that having rivets in my ride cymbal creates a continuous layering of ride cymbal. That’s true. I like to look at my ride cymbal sound as a wave on the ocean; it doesn’t have to be loud. It just coats the entire area. It surrounds you. It can be relaxing and mellow, or it can build like the rise and fall of the waves; it’s ever-present without being overbearing—but it is there. It creates a mood. I look upon that for all of the cymbals I ride on. Basically, I ride on just two cymbals: the ride on my right and the other one on my left. That’s to set different moods. It’s creating scenery for the soloist to play off of, and to give the listeners a picture in their own minds of how they hear the music. I’m fascinated with cymbals for the colors they offer, as well as the drums.
CS: What do you have now?
SS: I have an old 22″ K. Zildjian medium ride with rivets. I found it at Alex Music; Sam Ulano sold it to me. When I played it in the store, the rivets weren’t in it, but I knew it would sound good with them. It has a nice bell, and it has just enough spread to get a crash on it, but just enough weight to get definition when I ride on it. Most of the ride cymbals I hear today are too heavy. Do you know what I mean?
CS: Sure, too dry and top-heavy.
SS: Do you know how Tony got a sound? I like a ride cymbal like that, and Art and Elvin of course. That’s where I think I got the idea for that kind of sound. They’d be riding along on one of those rivet cymbals, but when they wanted to crash, they could ask for it. Yet they could come right back into the ride. Their cymbal sounds were so powerful that they just created this ambience through the entire room.
CS: Plus the hiss of the cymbals creates a light hum that blends right in with the ring of the drums—not just a tik-tik sound.
SS: Even with the ride cymbal Art has now, there aren’t any rivets in it, but he gets this roar from it that’s something else. And that’s the way I think about all of my cymbals. Each one sets its own mood—a blanket of sound.
CS: What’s the one on your left?
SS: That’s an old 20″ K Zildjian medium ride—a perfect match with my 22″. I have a new 15″ K thin crash in the center, an 18″ Canadian K crash on the far right, and sometimes I add a new 17″ K thin crash. My hi-hats consist of a Canadian K top and an old A bottom. They’re 14″. I change my cymbals depending on the situation. I try to get the appropriate sound for each context. I use my K’s for more jazz-oriented music, and my A’s for more rock- oriented situations.
I like the effects I can get from all of those cymbals. Maybe I will create just a hint of a crash here—like in the distance—rather than a bash, and bring up a great big wave in another spot or whenever the appropriate moment arises. I just like music to have life—not simply ding-dinga-ding, but breathing. Music is supposed to have an added dimension.
CS: Well, you, Jeff Watts, the Marsalis brothers, Terence and Donald, the Eubanks brothers, and a lot of other cats have certainly brought that into contemporary music.
SS: Steve Coleman, too. All these cats want to play. They came to play and have that hunger.
CS: But more than that, this generation of young players has reestablished certain standards of excellence. I’m not talking about being geniuses, even though you’re all very gifted, but about a level of no-bullshit competence on the instrument, from top to bottom, which is very studied, disciplined, and sincere. A lot of cats in the ’60s were very flashy and exciting, but many of them weren’t all that schooled on their axes, as if a disciplined, schooled approach would somehow detract from their muse. As a result, most of them have faded from the scene. For staying power—once that gush of youth has passed—you have to have the flexibility and broad vocabulary to adapt to a variety of situations, or you’ll die. It’s very competitive.
SS: Right. I think all that reading and writing discipline is very important. It definitely helped me out—that combination of natural feeling coupled with discipline. It’s important to be able to read not only drum music, but music in general. I’ve gotten into some nice situations that manifested themselves into better situations, because I had certain skills. For example, I had subbed on a Jazztet gig for Billy Hart, with Benny Golson and Art Farmer. On the last night of a six-night engagement, Billy had to leave to go to Bombay, and he called me to fill in. I know the band and the music, so I knew that Benny had these charts. Man, he’s a hell of a writer. Those are some serious charts, and you don’t just brush them off. But I knew I could read them down, and that’s why Billy called me, even though I’m sure it shook Benny and Art to see someone come in who was supposedly just going to read these charts. They were skeptical. So I set up my tubs, and met Rufus Reid the bassist, who I’d played with before. He knew what I could do, so he was cool. Benny came in, and he was so nice. He told me just to relax and everything would be fine. Then Art came in, and they wanted to know what tunes I wanted to do. I said, “Gentlemen, you play anything from your book that you like.” I didn’t want them to feel inhibited because of me. So I told them just to run their program. And after the first tune, Rufus let me know later that they were real cool. Benny turned to Art and said, “I bet he could play ‘Without Delay,’ ” which is a drum feature that has a lot of kicks in it. I supposed that was the hardest chart in their book. All this was happening on the first tune now; Curtis Fuller was taking his solo, and Benny and Art were having this discussion. Later on when we played “Without Delay,” it was cool. Subsequently, I have been playing on and off with them ever since. I also got to play with Frank Foster and Frank Wess the same way. I wouldn’t have been able to perform that way if I didn’t have the disciplined reading under my belt—not just knowing how to read a chart, but understanding how to interpret it as well. I knew the music all along. That’s the other half. Just reading it for accuracy is one thing, but to interpret it as music and make it come alive is another. I’ve seen people who have theory up the wall and who can read flyspecks, but you count off a tune, and they get lost. Then, on the other hand, you have some superb natural players, but they kind of cut themselves short, because you might have a last-minute situation where they have to cut these charts, and they can’t do it because they don’t have that knowledge of reading. That hurts me. It really does, because they have all that natural talent and beautiful feeling—and you can’t buy the feeling or study to get it—but they’ve hindered themselves by avoiding the theoretical aspects of music. If you want to have staying power—if you want to be able to reach out to the people and other musicians as you get older—you have to have both aspects happening, or you’ll never reach your full potential.