One could take issue with Michael Carvin’s insistence that he isn’t a jazz drummer. His credits as a sideman for Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, and Pharoah Sanders, of course, suggest he’s wrong in that assertion. But in talking with him about his history in the “sound business”—his term for the music industry—you understand why he presses this point. Carvin is not a musician whose feel and phrasing can be reduced to any single style. Rather, he’s shaped a distinct sound from the diverse musical and geographic surroundings he’s encountered over his six-plus decades as a professional drummer.
Carvin grew up in Houston and cut his teeth on Texas’s cutthroat marching-band scene. His father, who worked as a drummer for the jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Illinois Jacquet, insisted that he develop his fundamentals early, and that experience served Carvin well. He won his first rudimental competition a full year before his father allowed him to even touch a drumkit.
While he was still in high school, Carvin went on to work as a weekend warrior playing shuffles and cha-chas for blues singer/guitarist Johnny Copeland’s band. As a young man he moved to Los Angeles, and while playing for TV’s variety hour and soundstage bands, he learned to apply a laid-back, gentle swing to all sorts of music—a feel he calls “floating.” Carvin worked as a house drummer at Motown Records from 1968 to 1970, though he doesn’t know which of the tracks recorded in those years features his playing. He likens that experience to working on an auto plant’s assembly line: Songs were neatly pieced together from the small parts, or phrases, that the instrumentalists crafted on their own. Carvin then moved to New York in 1973, when he took over the drum chair in Hubbard’s quintet.
Experiences facing various environmental and social climes—Houston’s hurricanes, Southern California’s golden sunshine, San Francisco’s obsession with the avant-garde, Detroit’s assembly-line culture, New York’s snowy winters—helped shape Carvin’s process and aesthetic as much as the music he was actually playing. You hear it clearly in his work on Sanders’ monumental live album Elevation. Carvin’s ideas come tumbling out on the drums, yet a buoyant swing also seems to pull the band together in tornadic updrafts. As freewheeling as it all seems, the phrases on the recording are largely based on the rudiments Carvin mastered as a young marching drummer. There’s also a sensitivity in his sound: He has the maturity to curb his own bursts of wild expression with meditative and minimal supporting playing on tracks that require a more delicate approach.
Carvin, now something of a drumming statesman, has recorded fourteen albums as a bandleader and still plays around the world with the Michael Carvin Experience. He also trains aspiring sound professionals at the Michael Carvin School of Drumming in Manhattan. All this makes clear that Carvin is, after all, a jazz drummer. But describing him that way hardly does service to his sound.
In this first chapter of Drum Wisdom, a new series where we invite notable player/educators to talk in the first person about their teaching philosophies and methods, we ask Carvin to lay out his priorities and offer insights to help us craft the sound that we want to present to the world.
Tell ’em what to do…with rhythm! I was the drum captain in school. So the drum major would signal me with the whistle, and I would start and stop that band with the sound of the drum. That gave me a great understanding of control at a young age. See, to control a hundred people with the sound of a drum, to have that control over people with a beat—that’s powerful.
The reason why a lot of guys hired me is that I understand what a beat is. I’m not into playing licks. I’m into playing a beat that moves bodies forward, a beat that moves people, man. You play a consistent rhythm so people will buy into that rhythm; then they will do what you tell them to do through your rhythm. That’s what I was mastering when I was younger.
John Philip Sousa was the first bebop musician. If you really listen to what it is…change the tempo [hums an up-tempo version of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” while snapping 2 and 4], you’re like, Wait a minute, John Philip! That’s what I was hearing while I was marching—that swing!
Let your hands go! You’re stopping them with your mind. When you watch a fight and hear the cornerman say, “Let your hands go!” it’s because the fighter’s going through in his head: stick-and-move, stick-and-move, peekaboo, uppercut, stick-and-move. He’s running the rudiments on his opponent. He’s not going to knock this guy out fighting him with those techniques. If he lets his hands go and trusts that he’s developed the rudimental technique, he’ll be a champion. Just let ’em go! That’s how you start actually applying the rudiments to your drumkit.
We are in the sound business, not the drumming business. [Audiences] will hear you before they see you. What do you want them to hear?
This two-beat pickup is the only feel we used in Motown. [Counts out 1-2-3, then taps along to &-4-e-&]. That way, it’s not enough time for anybody to get lost. That’s a hell of a concept: a two-beat pickup that built a whole sound. When you listen to the Four Tops, they say, “One, two, three…” [hums that two-beat pickup into “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”]. That’s a marching band!
The energy around us defines our cadence. I saw that connection to marching music then, and I still see it. The army march right here: [scats the rhythmic figure of “The Downfall of Paris”]. The American Army marches at 120 bpm. Why? Because the voltage coming out of that wall is 120. [Continues tapping quarter notes with his foot at 120 bpm and mimics a newscaster] “Good evening, ladies and gentleman, welcome to NBC News…” [continues scatting and tapping marching snare rhythms] The voltage, as we sleep, that’s what’s moving through our bodies. That’s why a lot of American drummers can’t play fast.
Europeans and Japanese drummers can [play fast]—Japanese [voltage] is 220. European is 180. When you watch European television, it’s faster. That’s because of the voltage.
All of us are affected by our environment. The first time I ever saw snow fall, I was forty years old. Snow can create blizzards that kill people, but it’s solemn. And it’s peaceful. What fascinated me about New York drummers is how they could play so quietly and so fast. Every drummer that I heard at Shelly’s Manne Hole [L.A. jazz club owned by drumming legend Shelly Manne] that was on the road with a New York act, they had that same control on the cymbal. I was like, Wow!
I grew up in hurricanes…sheets and sheets of rain. Growing up, I was fascinated by the rain, and I’d watch how it would hit my bedroom window and you’d have these individual lines coming down and then some more would come over here—I could see rhythms. They’re not heavy, but they’re powerful. On something like “The Gathering” [from Pharoah Sanders’ Elevation] I visualize this [waves arms in front of him, wax-on, wax-off style]. I see 180 degrees of rain here and 180 degrees of rain here, and once I get to 360 it doesn’t matter what I play, because I have the band inside my circle.
Shorten your stride. For the students who came up outside the…let’s call it “snow area”—New York, D.C., Chicago—shorten the stride on your cymbal. When I was first working with Freddie Hubbard, he said, “Man, you can play, but you play too goddamn loud.” I was coming about ten inches off the ride cymbal and I didn’t realize it—that muscle memory when you’re just pushing. I struggled the other three sets that night because the muscle memory kept coming back.
I found the answer in the silence of the snow. In New York jazz clubs it’s all brick. The floor is cement and the tables are bare. That’s why all the New York drummers have this technique [demonstrates fast spang-a-lang ride groove where stick movement is fueled by bounce and comes only about three inches off the cymbal], because they don’t have to push to cut through anything. That terrain really taught me how to listen and how to get into the sound business and not the drumming business.
Spend more time around water, especially drummers who grew up on the East Coast. I developed my double-stroke roll at Pacific Ocean Park. I’d practice to the ocean because of the motion of the waves. Everybody that rolls, except for me and my students, they roll this way [plays a double-stroke roll picking hands up and down vertically after striking the drum]. I’m working the speed bag and going this way [cycles hands around each other, à la cha-cha hand motion, after striking the drum]. Texas and L.A., you’re around water all year, so that’s why guys out there have more of a floating rhythm in their playing. Even the pop guys.
Drummers have educated hands and ignorant feet. If we play Chapin [Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer] as written, our hands are going to be very intelligent. But our feet have been sleeping. Any time you use your hands, use your feet. If not, then we’re not going to be familiar with the pedals. Like, sometimes we stand in the shower on our feet and walk right out of the shower without washing them.
Pay attention to what you’re doing, not what you’re playing. Number one, we talk about hand position. Boxing, drumming. Okay, what you’re playing today, hopefully you won’t be playing three days from now. You will be playing the same thing if you don’t pay attention to how you get to it. I never cared about what a drummer was playing. I wanted to know how the hell he was getting to it. Because if I can figure out how he’s getting to it, I can take his job.
All programs are subject to change at any given time. Don’t depend on nothing. Set yourself up in life where you have alternatives. It doesn’t have anything to do with what bill you were gonna pay with that paycheck.
Carvin plays Pearl Drums and uses Promark sticks and Evans heads.