At the age of 25, Kenwood Dennard is in a position many drummers would envy. For the past two years he has been playing in one of the top groups in the world, Manhattan Transfer. Previously, Kenwood had stints with Dizzy Gillespie and Brand X.
In addition to his work with Manhattan Transfer, Kenwood is busy with his solo act, drum clinics, composing and his own record company, Unisphere Records.
MD: What got you interested in the drums?
KD: I was inspired by another drummer I saw in an outdoor program around the Lower East Side. He was about ten years old and was really wailing. I was eight or nine and I said to myself, “I could do that too.”
MD: Once you became involved with the drums what kind of music did you play?
KD: Once I got involved in music, I felt Motown was what was happening. I listened to whatever was on the radio in the early ’60s: the Beatles, Frankie Lyman, Frankie Avalon, Beach Boys, James Brown, the Four Seasons and so on. Those were the things I was listening to, but I didn’t necessarily feel that they fit my style. Many of the drum tracks were just part of the whole music and they were not something that I would particularly focus on. For example, with the Beach Boys it would have been a case of the drums detracting from the music. You wouldn’t want a drum track to get in the way of all that harmony. Same thing with the Transfer on a song like, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square.”
MD: Did you take lessons?
KD: Yeah. I studied with a cat named Willie Kesseler, who was an old-fashioned player. He used to do stuff with Cozy Cole and I think he’s still around. He’s a great teacher, a very unorthodox cat, but he got the job done and I learned a lot. He used to sit me down and play rhythms and I’d copy them. We would also trade fours. I was eight or nine at the time and he thought it was a big thing. He used to call people into the room and say, “Yeah, check out my student.” In fact, I even taped some lessons on a little recorder. I don’t know what happened to them.
MD: Was that your first formal instruction?
KD: Yeah. I started really early. The point to be made is that this was good, but it was only one part of my experience. I had to open up and listen to some cats who were a little hipper for my time, compared to the swing era.
MD: You mean more of a bebop style?
KD: Yeah. I got into Tony Williams and a number of other people.
MD: What music school did you go to and why did you choose that particular school?
KD: I went first to the Manhattan School of Music, prep department and then to the Manhattan School of Music. It should be noted that I began to explore other styles and got hip to Elvin Jones and started getting more into jazz. Before that, I was studying in a more old-fashioned vein with Willie.
MD: What other schooling did you have?
KD: While in the prep department I was also taking private lessons with Charlie Simon, who later did The Wiz and who has the Harlem Bell Choir, which is beautiful. I saw them on T.V. two years ago when I was in Europe with Manhattan Transfer. He was great. He got me more into sight reading. He was a strict disciplinarian with a good sense of humor. Later, I went to Berklee because I dug the brochure. My mother wanted me to go to Julliard because that’s where she went.
MD: Who were some of the teachers who inspired you at Berklee?
KD: Gary Burton, Alan Dawson and Herb Pomeroy. Burton was inspiring because he was so methodical. I learned a lot about vibes from him and a lot about the theory of improvisation.
MD: Besides playing with Manhattan Transfer you have a solo act in which you play drums, keyboards and sing at the same time. Tell us more about that.
KD: That’s my secret weapon; my ace in the hole. That’s an “in-the-basement” type of thing. I’ve been doing it for quite some time, but I want to perfect it to a level of excellence.
MD: How long have you been playing the keyboards?
KD: Since the age of eight.
MD: Did your mother want you to take up the piano?
KD: Sure. My major at Berklee was composition.
MD: Do you find playing the keyboards and singing helps your drumming, and vice versa?
KD: Both playing the piano and singing help one’s drumming. You don’t have to be a virtuoso, but it’s good to sing if you’re a drummer. Alan Dawson used to have me do that. He has his students sing in particular forms while taking drum solos. It’s real helpful.
MD: What do you mean by forms?
KD: Well a form is a musical shape or outline to a piece. Now there are different types of forms, such as AABA. It’s good for drummers to learn forms and singing is one way of doing it. If you’re following the melody, you’re following the form.
MD: What has playing with the Manhattan Transfer done to make you a better musician?
KD: Put me under pressure, especially in relation to time.
MD: Did you have to make any kind of adjustments when you started playing with Manhattan Transfer?
KD: This is the first time I’ve worked with a four-piece singing group. There were some technical adjustments. They use a lot of backbeats and stuff. I began riding with the traditional grip with my left hand on the hi-hat and playing the backbeats with my right hand using the butt end of the stick. That’s the “hinge technique.”
MD: Was it hard for you to change over?
KD: I assume you mean from right-hand ride to left-hand ride. The “hinge technique” was developed specifically for this. The left-hand ride I developed while teaching at Drummer’s Collective. Everything I taught students, I taught myself. It took me about a year to develop it.
MD: Playing with Manhattan Transfer gives you the chance to play many styles.
KD: Yes. I get to use a lot of different styles and it affords me the opportunity to have some input into the music. No one can think of everything so, obviously, if I come up with an idea and it’s good and everyone digs it, it’s used.
It’s interesting because you have to be real precise and consistent. The beats that I play are beats that have evolved over the past two years. It gradually changes. You cannot play one thing tonight, something different the next night and something else the night after.
MD: What kind of equipment do you use?
KD: My set contains various brands. I use different drums and piece them together into different sets.
MD: What about your cymbal set-up?
KD: I use a 16″ swish, which I’ve never seen on the market but they’ll probably come out with one. They’re good for a quick attack.
MD: A. Zildjian?
KD: Yeah, Zildjian. I use a brilliant ride cymbal. I got the idea from Lenny White. It’s a nice heavy cymbal with a big bell. I also have an upside-down stage knocker. I use Zildjian heavy hi-hats, a brilliant crash 16″, and 17″ and 18″ crashes on my left side.
MD: Do you use any special recording techniques in the studio and do you have a lot to say about your miking set-up?
KD: Yeah, as a matter of fact. When I’ve been in the studio it’s mainly been with the projects that I’m co-producing or that are being done with close friends of mine. I use the same engineer, Tony Rodriguez, and so I have input into the mic’ set-up. For different styles I use different techniques. For example, the drum set-up I had with the Transfer at the Garden State Arts Center utilized four tracks; one for the bass drum, one for the snare drum, one for the tom-toms and the cymbals. I put a mic’ on the floor in front of the bass drum.
MD: Playing live, would you use a different set-up depending on the size of the hall?
KD: With the Transfer, Dan Castings does the miking so it’s pretty consistent from night to night. I guess he operates his equipment differently in different halls but the equipment and the miking remain the same.
In terms of whether or not there’s a specific studio technique, you just have to be very aware of what you are playing and take every situation as it comes, realizing that everything you play is indelibly pressed on tape. So you have to be on top, as time is very important in the studio. Padding is very important. Engineers are helped greatly if they have a cat who knows what he’s doing; knows how to muffle his drums. It saves a lot of time. In Japan I learned a technique for muffling. Take two strips of tape—one about three inches long, the other about five inches long. Then, take some tissue and fold it to make a two-and-a-half inch square. Put the three-inch tape on top and then put the five-inch tape a little further back. It works really well for all the drums, except of course the bass drum where you use pillows or bean bags.
MD: You do a lot of drum clinics. Can you compare drum clinics and private instruction?
KD: A drummer can gain a lot from the clinics and get a lot from private lessons. Most people prefer private lessons. One thing a clinic can do is offer input from peers, which private lessons can’t. There are a lot of different ideas flying around at clinics.
With small clinics, I have personal input into everyone in the class. They can sit down and play and I can teach them as if it was a private lesson. Bigger clinics are more like a demonstration where you go and play, explain what you did, and answer questions.
MD: What techniques do you concentrate on with your students?
KD: That depends on the individual who comes in for the lesson. I concentrate first on rhythms and take it from there. I have three different areas; physical, mental and creative. Physical is the actual jumping on the set, doing chops, taking solos. Mental is reading and theory. It’s important for a drummer to have some knowledge of chords or theory so he’ll know what’s going on. The creative part is shaping solos; spiritually expressing yourself through the instrument.
MD: Do you teach your students traditional or matched grip first?
KD: I start beginners with the matched grip because I find it easier for them to understand. Over a period of time, they seem to be able to handle many different styles using the matched grip. Both grips are useful. The traditional grip is indispensable for most styles of jazz, especially bebop. Now I ride with my left hand in the traditional grip and there’s a reason for that. The traditional grip is good for playing objects close to you, while the matched grip is good for playing objects which are farther away.
MD: Do you use a lot of finger control with the matched grip?
KD: Yeah, I developed it myself. I was going to be taught finger control by Charlie Simon, but something happened and I wasn’t studying with him anymore. So, I made up my own finger control and called it the “Wood Stroke.”
MD: Besides playing the drumset, do you also have experience in playing percussion?
KD: I’ve played some percussion with the Municipal Symphony Orchestra in Caracas, Venezuela. I did a lot of orchestral work while studying at Berklee and a couple of concert things in New York.
MD: What advice would you give to young drummers?
KD: If it had to be one thing it would be to “jump in the lake” and swim.
MD: A baptism of experience.
KD: In terms of being well-rounded, they have to have a lot of possibilities that I was given, such as a good teacher, playing a lot of different styles and listening a lot. Play with musicians with more experience.
MD: Are there drummers that you admire?
KD: Tommy Rendall. I shared a lot of stuff with him when I went to Berklee. Also Vinnie Colaiuta, Billy Cobham, Billy Hart and Max Roach.
MD: Your major at Berklee was composition. Do you still compose?
KD: My composing goes on all the time, and by the time I’m 50 or 60 I’d like to be known as a serious composer.
MD: What does the future hold for Kenwood Dennard?
KD: For a while, I’ll probably just play on the road and work on other projects with Unisphere Records, the record company I co-founded in 1980. Then I’ll be getting into my own thing. I’m going to come out with an extraordinary band that allows me to explore, technically, a lot of things. I’ll also put together a more commercial group. Of course I’ll play on other people’s sessions. Once you have your own album out, that doesn’t mean you stop playing on other people’s sessions.