After meeting and interviewing Keith Copeland, there’s one word that seems to represent his overall approach to drums: tradition. My dictionary has three definitions for that word. Two of them apply here: “The passing down of a culture from generation to generation, especially oral,” or, “Any timehonored set of practices, beliefs, etc. ” The jazz culture was passed on to Keith, at least in part, by his father, trumpeter Ray Copeland, who’s had an impressive career in jazz since the late ’40s that includes gigs and recordings with musicians like Thelonious Monk, Johnny Richards, Oscar Pettiford, Lionel Hampton and Randy Weston.
Keith has also been a mainstay for several years with Billy Taylor, who, in addi tion to being an all-around superior musidan, has contributed greatly to the jazz culture through radio and TV appearances, lectures and writing. Much credit can also be given to Keith for acquiring this tradition and passing it on to others through his own hard work and perseverance.
One of the most impressive aspects of Keith Copeland is that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Keith is carrying on the mainstream tradition not by default, but by choice. At one time in his life he was at the apex of the rock world as the drummer in Stevie Wonder’s first Wonderlove band. And prior to that he’d earned himself a reputation around the Boston area as a funk drummer to be reckoned with.
At 37, Keith has more professional experience in all aspects of drumming than most people will attain in a lifetime. When Alan Dawson retired from Berklee after 18 years of teaching, Keith Cope/and was hired for the position based on Dawson’s personal recommendation. Although he’s been away from Berklee for a long time, Keith continues to teach—sometimes at Eastman and other times at Long Island University in Brooklyn. He also devotes part of his busy schedule to a select group of private students.
He hasn’t recorded extensively, but the recordings he’s done are very impressive, particularly Return Of The Griffin with Johnny Griffin, In Motion with The Heath Brothers, The Bassist by Sam Jones, Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature by George Russell, Once In Every Life by Johnny Hartman and Where’ve You Been? with Billy Taylor. Keith’s drumming is exceedingly clean. He has the capacity to play busy, yet subtly, and no matter what tempo or style of song, he’s always coaxing the best out of his fellow musicians.
SF: You’re probably best known for your current work with Billy Taylor. What else are you doing to keep busy?
KC: I work regularly with two or three different groups. One of them is with Phil Markowitz on piano, Eddie Gomez on bass and Joe Locke on vibes. We did a recording in Rochester that’s just been released. Another band I work with is led by guitarist Rory Stuart. We did a live recording at Seventh Avenue South which is now out on the Cadence Label. That group includes Armen Donelian on piano and Calvin Hill on bass. Now that Rory has this record out, maybe there will be some more chances for us to play.
I also work with Lynn Welshman and his group—two trumpets, two trombones, three reeds and three rhythm. It’s a unique band with straight-ahead jazz arrangements and a few fusion-type arrangements. The horn players include studio musicians like Lew Soloff, Joe Shepley, Gerry Niewood, Pete Yellin, Lou Hoff, Jim Pugh and Dave Taylor. The rhythm section is Albert Dailey, Calvin Hill and myself. I do some big band playing with Frank Foster’s Loud Minority, and his smaller big band, Living Color. Billy Hart is the first-call player for that band. When he’s not around, Frank usually calls me.
SF: How extensive is your teaching practice?
KC: I’ve been going to Eastman every summer to be part of an intensive Jazz Performance Workshop, which usually runs about six days. This was my fifth year there. Before I moved back to New York City, I taught eight full-time semesters at Berklee College. I was teaching 20 to 30 hours a week. When I accepted the job I wanted to teach part-time drumset, specializing in Latin percussion techniques/or drumset. I also taught classical snare drumming.
SF: I was under the impression that you had an extensive teaching practice in New York City.
KC: No. I’m never around long enough. I see about ten students once every six to eight weeks. If they’re at the level I like them to be at, I give them a two-hour lesson. They have time to really work on the material. I tell them not to call me until they have it together. I have a limited amount of time to practice and I’m not in the business of teaching. I’m in the business of trying to play as well as I can. So they have as much time as they need to work on the material. I tape the lesson at a couple of tempos—the tempo they need to start working on and the tempo I expect them to have it at when they come back. If they have any questions, they can call me. I’ll analyze it so that they can get it together without having to come back.
SF: Can you spot a winner in a student?
KC: Yes. But when you’re dealing with most university situations it doesn’t matter what you spot. Mainly because of financial reasons, a university is going to advise you not to tell people that they should take up another instrument. That might keep the university from getting the four years’ tuition. But I don’t like to do that. Kids are giving up their money, fantasizing about being great drummers. I’ve had kids say to me, “I just got these drums six months ago. I’d like to play like Billy Cobham next year.” And they usually come in with 18-piece drumsets. I tell them, “We’ll see. But first we’re going to deal with the snare, one cymbal, the bass drum and the hi-hat. I’ll put you through a few things and see how you feel six months from now.”
I’ll try to wipe them out so badly that they’ll want to stop playing voluntarily, rather than tell them that they have unrealistic goals. They’re fantasizing about playing like Cobham in one year. They need to have a little more perspective on it. If they aspire to be performers of the caliber of their idols, then I tell them this: “If you want to come out here and compete, let me tell you what the competition’s like. You might become very proficient in playing locally—making club dates and becoming a very great teacher. You might be able to recognize talent in another person and give that person things that I’m giving you. But as difficult as it is to play mainly mainstream jazz, and because the availability of those kinds of full-time jobs is so limited, you have to be very good to lock in to one. If you’re talking about being in a straight-ahead rock or fusion situation, there might be more jobs available. I can teach you the techniques, but I’m not going to tell you that you’re going to be able to play like your idol if you study with me for two years or 20 years. I know what that takes. It has to be from the heart. If you don’t have heart, it’s going to be very hard for me to teach it to you. I can explain what it’s about, and how it’s supposed to happen, but I can’t just transmit that into your body. It has to be there.” I’m honest with kids.
SF: What characteristics do winners have?
KC: They’ve got to have good time and good feeling. There’s got to be something in their playing that makes me feel that they’ve got something valid and natural that I can improve upon to make it even more extra special. It doesn’t mean that they’ve got to have a high degree of drumset technique, snare drum technique or coordination. They’ve got to make my heart feel good when I hear them play, just in the way they play time—just in their concentration towards the instrument. If a student starts playing at one tempo and has sped up by the end of four bars, I’m going to say, “What you need, I can’t give you. I can recommend working with a metronome. Maybe that will help; maybe not.” If the tempo goes from here to there in four measures, the problem is usually beyond a metronome.
SF: Can someone develop the ability to keep good time?
KC: Yes, but you’ve got to have something to develop from that feels good. Suppose I ask you to play a tune and sing the tune while you’re playing it. Then I ask you to sing the tune and trade fours with yourself. If you speed up a little bit—well, when I was young I sped up a little bit too. But I learned to concentrate more to be really aware of meter at all times when I’m playing. So if the problem is relative, you can work with it. If I were a vocal teacher and a student couldn’t hold any kind of pitch, I would tell that person to do something else!
SF: What about that famous story of Papa Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker because he felt Parker was playing so bad? Doesn’t that contradict the theory of either you’ve got it or you don’t?
KC: I can’t say what was going through Papa Jo’s mind, but I think he did that because he recognized some talent in Charlie Parker, and wanted to scare him enough to really make him get it together. That’s what happened to me when I was coming up.
The worst, most traumatic experiences I had were when I was trying to play with people who I love and revere today. They virtually scared me to death to make me practice. When I was 17, I sat in with a group that pianist Barry Harris was leading at Minton’s Playhouse. It was George Coleman on tenor, Charles McPherson on alto, Peck Morrison on bass and Barry. Lenny McBrowne was the regular drummer. I thought I was playing pretty well, but I wasn’t playing any bass drum or bottom. I was just using my bass drum to drop bombs and answer what my left hand was doing, in the style of Philly Joe Jones with Miles. But Barry wanted to hear some bottom! While I was playing behind the horn soloists, Barry kept looking at me real strange and I was feeling real bad. When Barry started soloing, he began having a conversation with me about my inadequacies in using my bass drum. He was soloing and talking to me at the same time! I’d never seen anybody do that before. So I went home and worked on it. The next time I had it more together. The way he looked at me and the way he was talking are still alive in my mind.
SF: Have you noticed problems that recur frequently in people who are studying drumset?
KC: The biggest problem is coordination. They have to learn how to think four or five different ways about the drumset at one time, and still pay attention to all the other things going on around them while they’re playing. They have to develop ears. They have to know how to play something that’s going to fit the moment and still keep thinking about meter. Sometimes drummers react to something they hear and the time will fall apart, because they’re concentrating more on what they want to react to than the time.
On top of that, if it’s a reading situation, they have to think about interpreting the chart the right way. Nine times out of ten, writers are not going to write what the drummer should play. They’re going to write something, but the drummer is going to have to figure out what the composer really wants to hear. That’s splitting your head up in a lot of places! That’s what I really stress in my teaching more than anything else.
After they get that together, we talk about building chops to develop the ability to play musical drum solos, and how to listen to and phrase around the melody. But first we deal with how to keep good time and how to make the band feel good. That’s most important. If you do that well, you don’t even have to solo and you’ll still be very much recognized for your ability.
SF: Do you know the lyrics to many songs?
KC: About three or four. But I know the melodies. When I studied with Alan Dawson, one of the things he stressed was how to develop musical drum solos by singing the melody. He makes you sing the melody, play time and play fours. I’ve tried to continue that tradition. When I solo, almost 99% of the time I’m trying to play off the song form and in some way relate to the melody. My goal is to make the audience hear the melody when I’m soloing—to make the band members feel my solo as opposed to counting measures through my solo. I want them to know where I am in the tune so we’ll come out together. When that happens, it’s a beautiful thing to hear. With Billy Taylor we don’t always play for the most knowledgeable jazz audiences. We sometimes play for people who’ve never heard jazz before in their lives. If we’re playing someplace where I know they don’t get a lot of jazz, and after the concert someone says, “Wow, I heard the melody in your solo,” then I know I’m getting close. I’m not worried about playing in New York since I can get to those people. People in New York have heard everything! As long as I do what I do well, they’re going to appreciate it.
SF: Do you recommend attending a college or university to someone who wants to become a professional musician?
KC: Definitely. You should get some formal musical training either in the classical area, or at some of the special schools like Miami, Berklee, New England Conservatory, the University of Indiana or Eastman, which is probably the highest example of everything I’ve seen. Study as much classical and jazz as the schools offer.
If possible, go where there’s a lot of music going on professionally outside of the school. The bandstand is where you get the chance to find out if you’ve learned anything. You can get the college degree, but if you’re thinking about playing mainstream jazz in all its various forms, then you have to get your final degree from the New York bandstands—the most intense bandstands you’ll have to deal with anywhere in the world. If you can sound good on a New York bandstand, you can sound good on anybody’s bandstand. If you’re not playing good in New York, nobody will stay too long. They’ll go down the street to the next club to see who’s sounding good. If you can keep the room happening and full, then something’s happening. If it gets empty real fast, then you’re not ready to receive your final degree.
SF: You’ve just written your own drum book, which is being published by Carl Fisher. Why does the world need another drum book?
KC: Most of the drum books I see deal with beats, but they don’t tell you the thought process that went into devising these beats. And if they’re beats transcribed from records, they don’t tell you how those drummers achieved the sounds on the records. I want to get to the root of the problem by telling students how to create a certain beat to fit a certain situation at that moment, and how to use improvisation no matter what kind of music they’re playing.
All of the great players I’ve heard on records, in mainstream jazz or rock, created something on the spur of the moment. They didn’t look in a book and memorize a beat when they made those records. But you still see a lot of books coming out with beats—especially in the rock idiom. What about the creative process?
My book stresses building a foundation in coordination, and how to use it creatively to fit any and all situations that you’ll run into as a pro drummer/performer. I’ve been working these things out and getting results since 1970; it’s a culmination of my professional experience. Then I drew from my analyzation of all my favorite drummers, their work, and how they solved creative problems. My book is a compilation of all those records, amplified through my teaching at Berklee for eight semesters.
I had to be able to teach in a rather limited time span of a half hour, and get a maximum amount of information to the students. It was difficult, but I learned how to do it. Half the problem with teaching is trying to figure out what psychological handicap each person has to overcome to be a good drummer, if the person has an inherently good time feel. You need time to know the person before you can figure out the problem.
I think my book will help people to think more creatively. I cover all aspects of music, even Latin American, and the notation is very simple. The descriptions for the coordination and technical exercises are brief but very clear. Once you execute the exercises, you will then be able to listen to other drummers and understand what you’re hearing them play. Then you can under stand what creative process was used.
SF: Let’s consider somebody who wants to study the great jazz drummers, but whose only listening/playing experience has been in rock. Can you name some key drummers you’d recommend and also some key albums?
KC: A person interested in bebop, post bop, hard bop, mainstream—all those titles having to do with the swing idiom—would have to listen to people like Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. All of those records are good. There are some special ones, like the early records with Clifford Brown on trumpet. The first Jazz Messengers record I heard was a two-record set recorded in 1955 called Live At The Cafe Bohemia. That’s good for starters. There were a couple of Blakey albums recorded live at Birdland. Then, in the ’60s, there was an excellent album called Moanin’, and one with Curtis Fuller, Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter called Mosaic. There were two other live records in a series by Art: At The Jazz Corner Of The World and Meet You At The Jazz Corner Of The World. Those were very, very fine records that sound fresh to this day. Even the albums that Art’s recorded recently with Wynton Marsalis are great, like Live At The Keystone Korner.
SF: What about Art Blakey/Thelonious Monk collaborations?
KC: They are some of the most incredible recordings in the world. The interaction between Art and Monk was so special. That reached, almost, the level of Coltrane and Elvin. I think Art Blakey did the best with Monk out of all the drummers. But, I also enjoy listening to Monk with Frankie Dunlop. Frankie did as great as anybody after Art. I really enjoyed the way Ben Riley played with Monk. Billy Higgins sounded wonderful with Monk on a record called Thelonious Monk Live At The Jazz Workshop. A serious listener should listen to all of Duke Ellington’s records. Horace Silver has never made a bad record. And Cannonball Adderley made some really fine records. He made a record called Somethin’ Else, which is a classic!
Any of the records that Max Roach made with Clifford Brown are unbelievable. All of the Miles Davis records from the ’50s are priceless. I would definitely recommend a series of albums Miles recorded with his quintet for Prestige that were originally issued as Cookin’, Workin’, Relaxin’ and Steamin’. In a later quintet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and George Coleman, Miles made a record called Four And More. That’s some of the best work that I’ve ever heard Tony Williams do.
These are records that wouldn’t do anybody any harm if they really wanted to quickly get into what was happening at that time period. From there they’d have to do some research. If you get to that music, then you can understand what came after that. Don’t just start listening to music that was recorded after 1970. Listen to all the Charlie Parker and Lester Young music. That’s very important. That music came before the music we were just talking about. Then you can get a better grasp of what John Coltrane did. And if you study all of Coltrane’s recorded work, then you’ll get quite a history of the evolvement of the music.
SF: What artists would you recommend for study to someone who is interested in the history of big band drumming?
KC: You can’t go wrong with Count Basie. One record I really liked was Live At The Sands with Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. Sonny Payne is the drummer and the arrangements are by Quincy Jones. That’s one of the greatest records of a combined big band/vocalist performance.
I have to mention Duke Ellington again. Then there were the bands led by Maynard Ferguson in the late ’50s. Some of Stan Kenton’s things were very, very unique, as were the records by Johnny Richards, who did a lot of arrangements for Kenton. Woody Herman has consistently had good groups of musicians. Later on we get to the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. They have quite a collection of records that are very important. I heard a fantastic big band in Europe: The Kenny Clarke/ Francy Boland big band. The big bands I like today are Frank Foster’s Loud Minority and the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin big band.
But the greatest music I’ve ever heard live—which was also recorded—was the John Coltrane Quartet at Birdland. That was when I was 17 and to this day I’ve never experienced anything more intense or spiritual than that. I base everything on that. I’ve never seen that type of communication between musicians and I’ve never seen that audience reaction again.
SF: Could you chronologically trace the jazz drummers who’ve influenced you and explain what it was about them and/or their playing that influenced you?
KC: The most senior person who influenced me would be a toss-up between Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey. People within four to six years of that age bracket who were influences would be Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Alan Dawson, Jimmy Cobb and Elvin Jones. They all sort of came through at the same period. I wasn’t really around when Papa Jo Jones was at his peak. But as I did my research historically, I found out how important he was. I was influenced by people who were influenced by Papa Jo. And in my research I’ve heard bits and pieces of Big Sid Catlett and Chick Webb, but I wasn’t directly influenced by them. It’s hard to define specifically what attracted me to them because each one is totally different. They all had such individual styles. I suppose that’s what attracted me to them—not just in their solo work, but in the way they interpreted the beat.
That’s something that is lacking today in a lot of young players, because of the way the tradition of the instrument has changed, and the utilization of the instrument in the pop idiom. It’s much more prevalent for younger players to try to sound like whoever is the hottest person in the recording studios. There’s not much room left for creativity in that idiom—not as much as there was in the jazz era of the ’40s up until now. That’s why I liked the drummers I mentioned. They each had something special to say.
SF: Why should young people interested in today’s pop music study these master jazz drummers?
KC: If they don’t want to play traditional mainstream jazz, they shouldn’t! What those jazz masters represent is not going to help in the straight-ahead pop/rock idiom. If they tried to utilize some of it in their performances or recordings, I’m sure the producers would tell them that it wouldn’t work. That kind of creativity is not usually compatible with what those producers want. I f they’re really locked in to the hard rock or pop/rock—I call it formula music—then there’s really no need.
One thing I like about drummers in the mainstream jazz tradition is their longevity. They’ve been here a long time, and they seem to keep getting better. If they’re really good, they get a chance to play through their whole lifespan. That’s one of the pitfalls of being in the pop/rock idiom. As soon as you go out of style, that’s it. Either you go on to the next thing or you’re left out. There are not many groups like The Stones who have that magic to remain popular through a couple of generations.
But if they’re wise and they invest that superstar money properly, they can be comfortable and go into other things later on. If they choose to study the more creative aspects of the instrument, whether it be fusion/jazz or straight-ahead jazz, then it might be helpful to listen to those jazz masters. If they’re doing that and not getting the chance to practice or perform it, then it’s going to have a negative influence on what they’re doing. If their bread and butter depends on dealing with hard rock or pop/rock, then they should just concentrate on that and listen to the people who do that well.
SF: You spent some time playing with Stevie Wonder. That’s a long way from what you’re doing today. How did you get that gig and why did you decide to leave?
KC: When I was attending Berklee, I was very much involved in trying to play jazz. But the jobs I was getting called for were mostly rock or top 40. That’s when I met Mel Brown and George Moreland. They used to come through quite a bit with Gladys Knight & The Pips and The Temptations. They helped me immensely. I was trying to get that style together by listening to Sly & The Family Stone, Kool & The Gang and all the Motown records I could find.
In 1970, I left Berklee to continue freelancing around the Boston area. I had a chance to check out the whole R&B and soul scene in Boston, and started getting a pretty decent reputation as a funk drummer. Then I had an opportunity to go out on the road with a group from Boston called The Lords. We were doing this gig in Detroit and some of Stevie Wonder’s people heard me play. They taped me at the club and played the tape on the phone to Stevie in New York.
Stevie was at Electric Lady Studios. He was recording, by himself, all the tracks to Music Of My Mind. He was also trying to put together a band that could promote that music once it was released. Stevie flew me into New York after he heard the tape. I auditioned for Stevie and flew back the same night to do my gig in Detroit. I got the call about three weeks later in D.C. to join the band.
I stayed with Stevie for seven months. I loved the band. One of the main reasons I had never wanted to play that kind of music was because I never found a band as creative as that band. The first Wonderlove band was amazing. There were people in that band like Lani Groves, Deniece Williams, Steve Madeio, Trevor Lawrence, Dave Sanborn, Scotty Edwards, Jim Gilstrap…just some marvelous people.
I left the band because I wasn’t really able to get along with the management people and their attitude towards musicians. After seven months, I wasn’t being treated the way I wanted to be treated. Stevie really loved us. I don’t think he had enough control, at that time, to be able to hold that kind of band. I was about the fourth person to leave because of general discontent with the way a lot of things were run—scheduling, transportation, hotel accommodations. The band was intense and we needed to get the maximum amount of rest, so that we could perform fully rested. But there just didn’t seem to be enough money to take care of us in that way.
I tried to quit three times. Each time I wanted to leave, there was something crucial coming up that would have benefited the band a lot through exposure. Our first tour was in England. We came back and did the David Frost Show. That’s when I first met Billy Taylor. The next time I quit was right after we’d done some one nighters with Joe Cocker and we were doing The Bitter End. Then we got on The Rolling Stones tour. I quit after it was half over because of further disagreements with Stevie’s management, Stevie, and the way the Stones treated Stevie. But it had nothing to do with Charlie Watts. I love him. He’s marvelous.
SF: So many drummers would love to be in Stevie Wonder’s band on tour with The Rolling Stones!
KC: Well that’s fine. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. I would love to play with him anytime. But if I’m going to be on the road traveling, I want to be treated like I am now, working for Billy Taylor. If I can’t, then I’d rather not travel. It’s too much of a drain on you to travel and have to perform at your peak when you’re tired because of scheduling. If I can’t have a comfortable place to lay my head and get myself together so I can give an inspired performance every time, then I don’t need it. That’s why I left.
SF: You’ve played drums in everything from trios to symphony orchestras. How does your approach to drumming differ in each situation?
KC: In a trio there are only two other people. I have to really listen to the style and provide the accompaniment/support that’s going to make the leader feel comfortable. In some situations you can play busier than others because the piano player might like a busy drummer. Other pianists might like a less busy accompanist. Then you have to understand the way the bass player is playing. Both of you are supposed to support the piano player. You have to interpret the time the way the bass player does. Is it right in the middle of the beat? On top of the beat? A little behind the beat? You’re supposed to interpret what makes the bass player feel good. Both of you have to agree on that so you can provide the accompaniment to the next person.
As the groups get larger, the responsibilities change. In a quartet or a quintet, you do all the things you’d do with a trio. Then you have to understand the styles of the horn players and what makes them feel good. Do they like a lot of activity from the drummer? Do they play off the drummer? A lot of horn players play off the drummer, just like Elvin and Coltrane. Other horn players don’t like that. You don’t need to play a lot behind a horn solo, if that doesn’t make the player feel comfortable. However, you can still play fairly busy by playing off the piano player’s comping, and give some support that way. Or you can try to play off a soloist who likes that exchange, and still be aware of how the piano player is comping and of the rhythmic emphasis the bassist is providing. If you’re playing a swing feel in 4/4, the bass player may be adding various rhythmic inflections. You really have to be together because you’re listening to three or four things at one time, while concentrating on keeping the time and meter, and making it sound like everything is together.
When you get into big bands, the emphasis changes. You might want to get very busy and communicate a lot with the soloists. But your main priority should be to hold the band together. In that situation, the most important thing is to lock up with the bass player and provide the dynamic textures that fit. This is where your choice of cymbals is really important. You have to have cymbals that’ll make the reed section sound good, the brass section sound good and the soloists sound good. I’m only using three cymbals. I use the same cymbals in all the situations we’re discussing. I picked them so they’ll be able to fit different situations, depending on the way I play them and the type of stick I use. I get a different sound out of a plastic-tip stick than I do with a wood tip. For big band, sometimes I have to use plastic tips so the cymbals will cut through a bit more.
In big band, it’s important to lock up with the bass player and the lead trumpet player. If the brass section is really together and the drummer and lead trumpeter are really together, the band is going to pop! Then if the bass player and drum mer are together, that gives support to the rest of the rhythm section and the reed section.
It’s not true that the drummer has to play louder when there are more musicians. Sometimes you have to play softer. Sometimes with a symphony orchestra I have to play softer than when I play in a trio, because of the acoustics of the hall. If I play too loud, there’ll be too much echo and resonance which will cut the clarity. The orchestra brass is in the back and I’m up front. I have to be very intense and precise, but not too overpowering so that all the elements of the orchestra can be heard.
To be a good big band drummer, you need really good ears, and a good working knowledge of reading and interpreting figures—especially with your left hand—without that affecting your time feel. You must also have a really good sense of dynamics, so you can play softly and not lose your intensity. Then, just generally be aware of everything that’s happening. One of the soloists might need extra excitement, so you provide it, but not to the point where it throws the rest of the band off when it’s time for them to come back in.
The prerequisite to all of this is to listen to the drummers who did it the best: Sonny Payne, Jake Hanna, Mel Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Rufus Jones, Louis Bellson and all the masters who played with big bands. These are all very important people who came out of the big band era. Most of them can play well in any situation, but they happen to be experts at big band drumming. Grady Tate is one of the greatest, most versatile drummers. Besides being able to play small group and big band jazz, he can even fit into today’s fusion and pop music. And he knows just what to play. Earl Palmer is another one of the old masters. He has that New Orleans tradition in his playing that fits big band, small group, rock and R&B. There are not many of those drummers around.
SF: You have spent a lot of time studying Latin music. Can you tell us about the influence of Latin music in today’s music and, here again, mention specific Latin drummers you admire?
KC: The reason I put so much emphasis on learning the Latin idiom is because most drummers in the drumset tradition learn to function by themselves. But in the Latin tradition, especially from Cuba, you have to learn how to play in a drum section. That can be difficult for most drumset players to learn to do with other drumset players. They tend to get very self-centered and they can’t lock in to what somebody else is doing.
In Cuban music you have to deal with a variety of different clave rhythms—the basic pulse underlying everything. The drummers are all playing different parts around that clave. Some of them are playing basic parts while somebody is soloing on top of all the others. You really have to be aware of the meter, and still relate to what’s going on around you. That kind of discipline is great. It’s wonderful if you can master that and apply it to your drumset playing.
When you get into trying to duplicate those rhythms on drumset by yourself, you can make it sound like two or three people playing at one time. That’s what the Cuban drumset masters are able to do. They can manifest a sound like the timbale player, the conga player and the person who’s playing bongos and bells! If you’re going to get into it, again, listen to the finest recorded Cuban music.
A drummer should listen to the intricacies of the greatest players like Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Eddie Palmieri and definitely Machito for his use of jazz improvisors in his band. Drummers should follow this up by going to hear players perform this music live. I recommend a group led by Jerry Gonzales called Fort Apache. They’re excellent. Listen to them and experience it. See how these players do it. Then start experiencing the complexities of playing drumset in the caliber and expertise of players like Steve Berrios and Ignacio Berroa.
Steve Gadd should be mentioned for his use of Cuban feels in his special style of rock and fusion. When you hear him play, you won’t know that a lot of these rhythms come from the Cuban tradition unless you listen to the Cuban tradition. Then you can hear how Steve has incorporated that. And he can definitely make it sound like three or four drummers playing at one time.
Another person with an immense amount of knowledge is Don Alias. He’s an unbelievable hand drummer from the Cuban tradition who also plays tremendous drumset. And he incorporates a lot of the hand-drum knowledge he has into his drumset playing. A lot of people don’t know that Willie Bobo was a very fine drumset player. He had a couple of very fine records. One of the best was Spanish Crease, where he played timbales.
The Brazilian influence has had a really strong effect on the rock idiom. In my book I’ve alluded to how the Brazilian clave rhythms snuck into music, from Motown up to the present-day rock music. Drummers need to check out some of the heavy Brazilian drummers like Airto and Dom Um Romao. They should also listen to the famous Cuban conga players like Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria, Carlos “Patato” Valdez and Candido. Even some of the Bata players are starting to gain recognition. Bata is one of the most serious aspects of the Cuban tradition. If you’re going to study it, you have to go all the way into it.
Music is really my life. When I’m not playing it, I like to listen to it, study it and practice it. I’m just starting to get involved in composing. The only other occupation I like is traveling to broaden my scope of things. I like the outdoors. I love the sea. My son and I go fishing whenever he’s with me.
Except for my belief in the Supreme Being, I don’t think I devote any other part of my soul into anything as much as my instrument. Every time I play, I think of putting all my feelings into it and bringing some happiness, joy and conviction to my playing so that my audience can receive that. My goal is to make my audience react physically when I’m playing and to feel that, somehow, I touched them. In all the great performances I’ve seen from all the great performers I love, I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen their ability to evoke emotion from their audience. I don’t try to do it in a show business or entertainment fashion; I’m not doing it with any tricks or twirling sticks. I’m doing it because of the sincerity and honesty that I’m putting into it.