Alan Dawson

In the basement studio where Alan Dawson teaches, a concert poster shows Alan dressed in a tuxedo, looking stately on his throne, drumming with Dave Brubeck. Scrawled across the top is a note from Brubeck: “Alan—thanks for the great job at the concert, the newspaper review said, ‘Dawson was impeccable in dress as he was in playing!’ ” Alan chuckles when I point it out, but there is something telling in Brubeck’s playful words. Dawson’s presence truly does radiate a sense of dignity—a respect for the music he plays.

The high standards of Dawson’s art remain more important to him than the commercial aspects. This was apparent when I asked Alan to recall his most memorable playing experience. Rather than citing a grand-scale concert at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center or Symphony Hall, he recalled a college gig when the muse smiled on the band. ” Yeah,” he reminisced, spreading his trademark grin. “It seemed that the exchange between the musicians that night was just right. “His recent recording with Art Matthews, It’s Easy To Remember, on the independent label, Matra, is another musically rewarding work Dawson seems to treasure above other “more prestigious” album dates.

Alan has earned the distinction of having made a name as both a master player and a master teacher. His playing credits include work with Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt, Dave Brubeck, Teddy Wilson, Jaki Byard, Dexter Gordon, Frank Foster, Phineas Newborn, Quincy Jones, Tal Farlow, Charles McPhereson, Booker Ervin, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines and Hank Jones. His impressive roster of former students includes Tony Williams, Keith Copeland, Steve Smith, Kenwood Dennard, Harvey Mason, Vinnie Colaiuta, John Robinson and Akira Tana.

Alan’s busy schedule balances teaching, performing, and appearances as a Ludwig clinician, yet he still finds time to expand his craft. Audiences are currently being treated to another side of his talent. He’s unveiled his swinging vibraphone skills to the delight of Boston club-goers. Future projects include a new book to follow up his Manual For The Modern Drummer (Berklee Press) and an hour-long video-cassette clinic that climaxes with Dawson’s valuable rudiment ritual. The ritual is a workout featuring 70 rudiments played in consecutive four-bar phrases to a steady beat. After working with the video tape and included transcriptions, the viewer will be able to play through the ritual along with Alan.

I arrived at Dawson’s home in Lexington, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, for our interview and was surprised to find that he was not there at the appointed time. Ten minutes passed, then 20, and then 30. I was certain that something was wrong. A car pulled into the driveway with Mrs. Dawson at the wheel. She introduced herself and explained that Alan had asked her to relay a message to me. She had just driven over from the hospital where she is employed as a nurse. Alan had gone there that morning with chest pains. The doctor, finding that Alan was suffering from angina pains, advised him to play it safe and stay put in the cardiac unit for monitoring until the next morning. Mrs. Dawson expressed Alan’s apologies for the inconvenience. (I had driven in from New York that morning.) He was also disappointed, she said, at having to cancel his performance that night with pianist James Williams. Of course, no apologies were needed. I only hoped that all was well with Alan and requested that Mrs. Dawson pass on my best wishes.

Back in New York, a guitarist friend of mine, who was unaware of my interview visit, asked, “Did you hear that Alan Dawson had a heart attack?” I was astonished. The news that Alan was ill seemed to have reached New York faster than I had. “How on earth did you hear that?” I asked. He said that he had been at the Manhattan club, Lush Life, enjoying McCoy Tyner’s music when the alarming rumor spread quickly among the patrons. I assured my friend that the rumor was inflated, and that there had been no heart attack.

Weeks later, when I returned for the rescheduled interview, Alan arrived at his house pumping his 10-speed bicycle. When I told him of the rumor in New York, he laughed, shook his head and said, “I was instantly deluged with cards from all over—East Coast, West Coast—and here everything was just fine!” “Word must have traveled by telegraph drum,” I joked. I wasn’t far off, though. Dawson’s influence on people’s music and their lives made an immediate response to his hospitalization inevitable. His peers, students and former students comprise a vast, far-reaching musical family.

As a former student of Alan’s from years ago, it was enlightening to return to his studio and encounter him from the different perspective of being an interviewer. From this angle, I discovered new facets of his musical knowledge. As a teacher, Alan must analyze what he does. Because of this, his philosophies are carefully thought-out and clearly expressed. His warm, assuring voice reflects a touch of the philosopher and the time spent talking with him was, in itself, a drum lesson without sticks.

JP: Many musicians harbor the idea that one can either be a great player or a great teacher, but never both. The reasoning is that the teacher approaches playing in an intellectual, analytical way versus the player, who takes an emotional, instinctual approach. You’ve proven that to be wrong, having made a name in both areas. How do you balance the two disciplines?

AD: I don’t find them to be totally different disciplines at this point. But I did experience something like that before. First of all, I never set out to be a teacher. I definitely set out to be a player. So I was a player before I became a teacher. I became a teacher only because various people that I’d run into along the way expressed an interest in what I was doing. They asked if I would show them this and that. I was doing that on an informal basis for many years, starting around 1948. It was basically an informal exchange of ideas.

Around 1954, Clifford Jarvis’ father approached me about taking on Clifford as a student. I wasn’t teaching at all then on a formal basis, but I said, “Okay, why not?” That was the beginning of the teaching. Tony Williams was the next student. Other students came along, and then that lead to teaching at Berklee School of Music. I noticed, at that point, that the more I got into the teaching, the more I started to analyze everything I was playing. So for a while, I think that my playing suffered a little bit, because I was thinking more in teaching terms and that would carry over to my playing. There was also the thing of being an active player. I was subconsciously saying to myself, “Well, I’ll show these students what the basics of playing are: reading, technique and so forth. But I’ve got to keep my own stuff for me and my playing.” [laughs]

There were two things that I found I had to get beyond: number one, the self-conscious part, which was playing and thinking like a teacher; and number two, teaching and think- ing, “I’m a player. I can’t give out all my stuff.” I think that, once I got past that stage, my teaching and my playing improved considerably.

JP: Did you find that, as you continued to teach, you also became a better “psychologist”?

AD: Definitely.

JP: That seems to be half the job of being a good coach.

AD: Oh yes, it certainly is.

JP: You have a genuine rapport with students, and you also establish a camaraderie among the fellow students. It seems to be a planned ritual of yours to introduce students to each other, and to encourage a respect in them for the music and what they do.

AD: Yes, I think that’s very important. In any artistic endeavor, there is bound to be a certain amount of competitiveness. Up to a certain point, it’s very healthy. Past a certain point, it can be destructive. It can isolate people from one another, so that they don’t want to hear, or even hear about, what anyone else is doing, but people suffer from the isolation. So, yes, a part of my plan is to make sure that I introduce one student to the next student and so on, so that they won’t come in, put their ear to the door and say, “Let me listen to what this other drummer is playing. Oh, I play better than that,” or “Gee, this drummer plays better than me, so I feel awful.” I try to keep it a family-type thing.

JP: Establishing the drummers’ fellowship really starts students on the right foot.

AD: I started studying formally relatively late in life. I was 18 and I had been playing a number of years before studying. I studied with Charles Alden. His students would get together and practice. There was that positive type of competition. We would say, “I want to become good because I hear so-and-so playing that nicely,” and we wouldn’t hesitate to say, “I sure like the way you play that” and help each other. That was great.

JP: Upon moving to New York, I found more of that positive competition among musicians than I had experienced living in Boston. It’s funny. The cliche of The Big Apple would suggest that the opposite is true. You’re familiar with both scenes.

AD: I do find that very prevalent in New York. You would think it would be strictly dog-eat-dog, and I’m sure there is a bit of that, but I’ve noticed a lot of very positive vibes in that sense. I have to tell you about a specific instance of this.

Last year, I went to New York to do a concert. My car broke down somewhere in Connecticut. I had to leave the car and take the train. I managed to get to the gig 15 minutes late. Meanwhile, the promoter panicked. I couldn’t get in touch with him. So he got in touch with Freddie Waits to be on standby. As it turned out, I got there just before Freddie did. So it wound up that we split the concert, and everything was fine. He played up a storm. He wasn’t trying to do me in, and I wasn’t trying to do him in. We just enjoyed hearing each other play. Freddie invited me to stay with him in New York. Freddie’s car was too small for my drums, so one of the other musicians offered to drive my drums over to Freddie’s place. It was just wonderful the way the musicians opened up.

Alan Dawson

JP: Although New York is considered the jazz center, you have chosen Boston as your home base. What are the pros and cons of the Boston musical scene?

AD: Boston has a great musical scene from the stand- point of the music itself. There are a lot of schools here, so that creates an artistic atmosphere. That’s the basic plus. As a teacher, it’s good because I can draw upon these schools, and they can draw upon students of mine. My students very often go on from me into one of the schools, such as Berklee or the New England Conservatory, and vice versa. People come to Boston for school and decide to study with me also. The minus is that there are so many student players that it’s rather difficult to find a lot of local playing at a decent wage.

JP: Your style features sophisticated, highly developed four-way independent coordination and, above all, subtle control of sound, color and swing. Many of your young students are growing up in a time when the stripped-down, hard-hitting style is in demand. The electronic drum revolution is a result of this. How do you feel about this trend? Are the young students who follow this trend missing out on something, and are they gaining in other ways?

AD: There’s no question that technology is a big part of music. It’s bound to be assimilated into playing. I think it’s great in a way. However, I’m kind of happy that I wasn’t born into it. People who have not experienced the part of music that has to do with a more individual sound derived from your own touch and choice of instruments and tuning are missing out on something. I also think that people certainly are missing out when the instrument itself is being tuned and designed strictly for dynamic levels that range from fortissimo up. It’s a shame that a lot of the playing can’t get down to piano or pianissimo. I’m not at all advocating that a person should play soft all the time. That’s just as boring as playing loud all the time.

JP: But beyond the volume factor, let’s talk about a drummer’s individualism. A listener can say, “That’s Max” or “That’s Elvin,” because of the unique physical touch and spiritual input that those greats can bring out in their instruments. Can high-tech trends detract from that special kind of individual spirit in music?

AD: Yes. The whole music scene seems to have evolved from an individualistic into a group thing. An instrumentalist basically now becomes a spoke in the wheel. The individuality of sound is lost. It’s become somewhat like an assembly line. Recording has obviously had quite an impact. Records are seldom done now, as you know, with people playing together, listening to one another, and feeding off each other. A drummer goes into the studio, throws on a click track, and lays down a drum track. They might put some overdubbing on that, and so forth. It becomes a pyramid that’s built more by the technicians than by the musicians themselves. The musicians all too often don’t have a picture or glimpse of what the overall product is going to be and, therefore, where they fit into it.

JP: Many of them literally never hear the final basic tracks.

AD: Yeah!

JP: Jazz has always had to struggle to survive commercially. As the technology trends have grown over the past years, most major record companies have also snipped back their budgets on the less commercial ventures. Radio air time for jazz is minimal now. As a teacher and “part-time psychologist,” what do you tell a talented and frustrated student who says, “My heart is in jazz, and I’ve been struggling for years. I can’t see a way to make it playing jazz.”

AD: I’ve run into that a lot. First of all, I think that all art is something of a reflection of the times. I don’t think it’s coincidence that certain music has come about—punk rock, fusion, et cetera. I think that they reflect certain things about the turbulence and uncertainties of the times. The music scene is also uncertain. There are so many categories now that I wouldn’t be able to define them. For instance, I don’t really know what fusion is.

JP: Don’t you think the mixing of styles is positive?

AD: Well, yes and no. Mixing styles is fine. Jazz has always taken different styles, but they are amalgamated into something that’s identifiable as jazz even when compared to various things that drew upon it. Right now, I hear talk of fusion, funk, reggae, punk rock, and progressive rock!

JP: Are you saying that each genre should have its own purist faction?

AD: I wouldn’t use the word purist. That would tend to imply that there isn’t any mixture. There is a mixture, but I think it should be identifiable. Once again, that comes back to the individual identity of sound and approach that the use of electronic things can take away from, even though they can be a plus in other ways.

JP: There’s something that amazes me when I think of your long list of notable students. Some teachers are specialists. A great funk player/teacher may produce great funk students. However, the style varieties between your students is incredible, such as the difference in style between John Robinson and Tony Williams. Is there a connecting link between these players that comes from your teaching?

AD: I don’t necessarily try to get a drummer to play like I play. I have certain convictions in what I like to play and listen to. But as far as dealing with students is concerned, sometimes I’m hesitant to say, “I teach drums,” although that’s broader than saying I teach jazz drums. But even broader than that, I like to think that I teach music, and the drum happens to be one of the instruments with which to create and communicate musical ideas.

In teaching someone, I want that person first to be a musician. I don’t mean that the student has to be able to write charts or even play a melodic instrument, although these things are helpful. I mean that the pupil must have an understanding, appreciation and respect for the music itself, which is not made up of rhythm alone, although rhythm is probably the first ingredient. The two most basic, important things in all music would be rhythm and melody. Harmony may or may not become a part of that. The basic things I try to stress are rhythm and melody, and how they complement each other in all music of all ethnic persuasions.

So if somebody asks me if I teach funk, I say, “No, I don’t teach funk. I just teach how to play music. If you want to play funk, you’ll be able to play funk.” I don’t start out with the idea of developing style itself. If you’re exposed enough to music and have enough appreciation and respect for music, I think you will develop style eventually and you will develop style in whatever area you particularly like. In some cases, you might develop style in all types of music.

I find that a lot more people today, surprisingly want to get into the studios. That’s amazing, because years ago that was not the case. People who were in the studios were people who had gotten into the technical side of playing and, generally, were not concerned that much about music itself.

JP: Well, there have been great changes in the studio field. The studio musicianship in rock/pop recording has become increasingly demanding over the last 20 years. The playing standards are very high now. Many drummers are finding this craftsmanship very satisfying. Also, studio musicians now are getting due recognition, whereas before they were the anonymous session people on the Top-Ten hits.

AD: Yeah, people like John Robinson, Harvey Mason and, of course, Steve Gadd, who is riding the crest of the wave, are people who, even though they’re able to go into a studio and do what is called for without their egos getting in the way, have become identifiable individuals and very versatile players. That’s quite a thing in itself. I would think that those who are big in the studios right now didn’t start off wanting to be studio players. They just wanted to play. As they played and got recognition, they were able to get into the studios through word of mouth or whatever. But I think that a lot of people need to play in live circumstances before they go into that studio scene. If you haven’t developed any kind of personality in your playing when you go into the studio and you’re asked to play like Steve Gadd or Harvey Mason, you could then have a lot of musical and psychological problems. You may never find out who you are.

JP: As I worked with your exercises over the years, one overall result emerged. Your lessons gave me the feel of what balance means. Many drummers make the same comment when they see you play—”He makes it look so effortless!” Your graceful balance while playing exudes a strong centering musically and physically.

AD: First of all, I think that everybody who cares about playing and sounds decent has listened to a lot of people, and probably some particular person has been a big influence. I have a very strong feeling about that. When I hear people say, “No, I didn’t listen to anybody. I just started playing,” I think that has to be a falsehood. In my case, Papa Jo Jones was the person who influenced me an awful lot.

I listened to him for years, and the way he sounded to me is how I had pictured he would look playing. At last, I got to watch him and he certainly did look like that. The posture at the drumset and the relaxation in movements are things 1 saw and started doing almost subconsciously. I think that I might influence people that way as they watch me play. Originally, I put that forth as a subconscious thing to people. It then became a conscious thing. This relates to balance in sound in what you’re playing and trying to bring out with the four limbs.

If you’re playing some combination of parts where the snare drum is going to be the line, then you have to think in terms of the other things you’re playing—hi-hat, cymbal and bass drum. They have to come down to bring out that snare drum line. You have to think of four voices, and one is the lead voice. It’s just like having a four-man reed section. You don’t want the second tenor to drown out the lead alto. So that’s the idea about balance musically and dynamically.

Then there’s also the physical balance when you’re playing. A lot of people tend to set up in such a way that they are not balanced physically. They are slouching. That’s why I’m always coming behind people and pushing in their backs. It’s a simple physical fact that, if you’re away from the perpendicular, then you’re fighting gravity to keep from falling in the direction you’re leaning. That puts a strain on your back and, in turn, on your limbs. I stress physical balance a lot. Once again, that comes from Jo Jones.

JP: The four-way independence exercises really bring this home. Players may practice four different lines in four different limbs, and when it finally comes together, they feel the pulse in the middle of it and then understand exactly where the notes should fall. It’s an example of going outside the center to ultimately feel the centering. Physically, you show that in your playing, just as a good dancer extends or retracts for expression but the center alignment is always felt.

AD: Yeah, there are a lot of analogies between dancing and playing. In fact, I use that a lot if I talk about the cymbal rhythm. I always use the vision that the player should have the stick dancing on the cymbal. I think about that as a definite contrast between the approach to dancing and the approach to marching. When you march, you tend to march on your heels. I was in the army, of course. They told you to march on your heels. The reason is that it keeps you from bouncing up and down. When you walk on your toes, you bounce, and that’s too nonuniform for marching. But if you dance, you dance on your toes to get that buoyant feeling, rather than clomping around. That, I suppose, is the basic difference between a person having a good beat and a person swinging something and having a buoyant feeling. There’s a difference. Having a good beat would be laying the beat down and being definite about it with straight tempo. If that was all there was to it, then a metronome would be better than any drummer.

JP: That’s why drum machines and swing don’t mix.

AD: Yeah. They’re “perfect.”

JP; From 1963 to 1970, you were the house drummer at the legendary Boston jazz club, Lennie’s. You had to adapt to the various styles and feels of countless jazz greats on the spot, without any second takes. How did you handle such a challenge?

AD: Well, there are some people who would get a hold of two, three, or even twelve records of someone they knew they were going to play with. I never did that. I had heard their records over the years, but I never did cram for these jobs. I felt that, in everything you play, you have to have a personal conviction. It has to come from your deepest, innermost being and feelings, and cramming would not do it.

Instead, I would think about the things I had heard these people play, rather than thinking so much about what their drummers had done. What I pride myself on is listening as intently as possible and, in some instances, trying to transcend the feeling that, “I’m the drummer, and that’s the piano player, and that’s the bass player.” I try to say, “Well now, get in the practice room, and try to get all the technical coordination together.” Then when I get on the gig, I throw that out of my conscious mind. I’ve worked on that enough for it to come across at the appropriate time. And then I forget I’m even the drummer. When I listen to people playing, I try to play some music behind them if that’s what’s called for, or with them, if that’s called for. Hopefully, I will inspire them and drive them. I don’t have a formula for that.

JP: That’s one of the beauties of the interaction element in jazz. The musicians would probably accept that “Alan Dawson is on the gig, so we want him to play like Alan Dawson.” It’s quite the opposite scene from our talk of studio trends. Many players express anxiety over the fact that they are constantly told to reproduce exactly the playing of certain other hit-making drummers.

AD: That’s it. People are so much into making hit records that they don’t explore much new ground. They figure that they will develop a formula. They say, “This is what made it the last time, so this is what we’ll go with this time, but we’ll change it enough to avoid straight copy.”

JP: Then they’re missing out on the interaction that you experienced at Lennie’s. You play as you play and they play as they play, but being fine, listening musicians, you all make the chemistry work.

AD: Yeah, the chemistry between people is the greatest thing about jazz–the interaction of things. In classical music there was improvisation. Bach and Handel improvised by themselves. But improvising with other people is really something.

Music, like anything else, moves on. Often a student will come to me and be almost apologetic. “Well, I grew up listening to rock, and I play a lot of rock.” I’ll say, “Of course you do. I grew up when there was a lot of jazz so I liked jazz.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people playing the music that’s a reflection of their time.

It’s nice if young rock players have respect for music to the extent that they have taken the time to acquaint themselves with what has come before them—the evolution of what they are playing. I admit that it often takes a long time before you can take the time to look back, or before you have the respect for the music to look back. That was the case with me. When I started playing, it was Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford. I wasn’t particularly interested in Fletcher Henderson or Louis Armstrong. But as I matured, I realized that you have to have an idea of what you are playing. It didn’t just drop out of space somewhere. It has a history. I’m sure a lot of people playing rock don’t realize that a lot of it goes way back. Rock didn’t start in England!

JP: Speaking of respect for tradition as it applies to drum training, you’re religious about rudiments and other traditional basics of training. What do you tell a student who says, “I can’t make use of all this advanced technique training in the gigs I play”?

AD: It’s true that you’re not going to wind up using all of this in one tune, in one night, one month or even in one year. But there’s a certain amount of security in having “something in the bank.”

JP: You mentioned that so many students want to be studio players now, which means that they have to be prepared for almost anything.

AD: Yeah, and by having something in the bank I’m not talking about money, of course. Musically, you’re not spending every bit of knowledge that you have on every tune. That’s operating so much on the brink that you’re bound to fall into the abyss. I don’t think there’s such a thing as having too much knowledge. On the other hand, I don’t think that the mere fact that you know how to play something is a reason to play it.

JP: Melodic drumming is a common term used by drummers which is a misnomer. But drummers and experienced listeners know what that means when they hear it. Perhaps it should be called “thematic drumming.” You would be considered a melodic player, along with such drummers as Max Roach, Billy Hart, Ben Riley and others. This melodic element shows in your teaching also. One of your practices is to have students do hand-foot drumset coordination exercises to a chosen tune that they keep in their minds or sing aloud. Special attention is paid to song form both in playing time and in soloing.

AD: When we speak of melodic drum- ming, we aren’t actually playing melody per se. What we’re doing is a case of sleight of hand. We’re making people “hear” melodies by dealing with approximations of pitch—basically going up or down— and by the combination of the rhythms that go with certain melodies. It can actually make you think you’re hearing it, but you’re really not. However, in playing, when you’re thinking melody, it becomes much more obvious that you’re thinking melody rather than strictly rhythm because the phrases wind up being more fluid. Phrases in melodies tend to overlap rather than being strictly in blocks of two, four, or whatever. If a person thinks more melodically, it seems that the solos tend to be less boring than if the player is strictly thinking in patterns. There’s no question about the benefits of this when you’re playing with other people, because knowing the melody and form helps you to accompany better. Regardless of what little devices you might use to make contrast between different sections of a tune, you know where to do them, rather than if you were strictly dealing with blocks of measures.

In the early ’50s when we heard about the West Coast and East Coast players, people talked about melodic drummers being on the West Coast. At that time, it seemed to be almost a minimalistic type of playing—a “ting” here, a bell there— hardly playing time but rather playing effects and colors. That’s not what I mean by melodic playing. I mean using the melody as a guide, because depending on the tune itself, that can be more or less obvious. For instance, if a tune is very rhythmic, you can use a lot of the rhythm of the melody and people would certainly hear the melody. But if the melody isn’t rhythmically active, obviously, you wouldn’t hear as much of the melody in somebody’s playing.

I can give you two examples. You can take a tune like “Oleo,” which is very rhythmic. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for you to sing that and not play it, as opposed to another very common tune, “Caravan.” The melody is very sparse rhythmically, so if you were to use it as a basis, it probably wouldn’t be that interesting. All the whole notes and notes held for two measures don’t give you much of a guide to the phrasing of the tune.

JP: A melodic drummer can put themes across even without a band to introduce the melody, however. For instance, take Max Roach’s solo drumset pieces. I remember first hearing Max play “For Big Sid” alone on stage. Being a drummer, I was very attuned to the “melodic” quality he put across. However, my non-drummer friends with me were also astounded by his piece, and very clearly heard or “understood” the melodic composition being communicated. Some drummers point to the tuning of the drums as the prime factor. That’s misleading. I still believe that the master melodic drummers can show up at a gig, find that their equipment hasn’t arrived, resort to a beat-up backstage kit, and pull great melodic stylings from those drums. It’s in the hands and ears.

AD: You’re right. Max is one of the few drummers who said in an interview, “Well, I don’t tune to any particular thing. I just try to get a good sound and some contrast.” It’s surprising because, since he is such a composer, you would think he would say, “I’ve got a flatted fifth here and . . . .” [laughs] Another interesting thing about “For Big Sid” that a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s a tune called “Mop Mop.” [sings melody]

JP:I didn’t know that. But it nevertheless stands up so well by itself just on drums.

AD: Oh yeah, it sure does. He’s not playing all of those notes from the melody I sang, of course. But that is another one of those cases where you can play the rhythm of the melody, and if anybody knows that melody, they will recognize it right away because it’s such a strong rhythmic melody.

JP: The rhythmic/melodic thinking certainly relates to your vibes playing. How do you change hats back and forth between drumset thinking and vibes thinking? How does the vibraphone affect your drumset playing and vice versa?

AD: The first jobs that I did on the vibraphone were jobs where I played drums also. I found it very, very difficult to go back and forth. I would play one or two tunes at the most on vibes. Even though you’re thinking melodically when you play drums, it’s a different thing when you have to think of all of the notes and harmonies of a tune. If you get yourself too immersed in those intricacies, when you go back to the drums, that could get in the way rather than be a help.

Within the past year or so, mostly due to James Williams’ prodding, I’ve done some gigs with him on which I played vibes only. That gave me a chance to really orient myself towards playing vibes for a period of time. I had a chance to do it long enough to do it right.

JP: That must have given your ears a workout. Vibes and piano are tricky footing even for the most seasoned vibes player.

AD: Frankly, I was way over my head. That’s good for you too! It might be embarrassing at times, but it’s good for you. It opens up your ears. There’s no such thing as progress without mistakes.

JP: Have you been playing dates recently with drummers behind you?

AD: Oh yes.

JP: Has that affected your own drumming? From the fresh perspective of the front-man role, you must hear things from the drums that you agree or disagree with.

AD: Yes. As a matter of fact, that’s why I think it’s best for every drummer to play some melodic instrument. My reason for that is not because it’s good to know harmony, but because it’s good to get a perspective on what’s happening from the other side of the drumset. Unless you do it, you’ll never know how it feels. It crystallizes your likes and dislikes in what you would prefer to hear. It doesn’t mean that every drummer should play what you like, but it does give you a good idea about what might sound good to a drummer even though it doesn’t sound good to the front player. Much of it is subjective. You’re not going to find a formula that works for everybody. One man’s food can be another man’s poison. The insight, perspective, and not just empathy, but sympathy, that you might have [laughs] for a player trying to get something going in front of you can make quite a difference in your drumming.

JP: You played with Dave Brubeck during a period when he experimented with bold new projects, such as concerts, oratorios, and orchestral collaborations. He was expanding his borders beyond the jazz quartet format and changing musical demands. What did you learn from these challenging experiences?

AD: I learned an awful lot from this period, both on stage and off stage. Around 1967, Dave had disbanded his former quartet—the famous group that made “Take Five”—for the express purpose of taking the time to write his first large work, “The Light In The Wilderness,” an oratorio to be done with jazz group, full orchestra, and chorus. Around 1968, he re-formed with the new group. His purpose in re-forming was that he had finished this piece, and he wanted to have a group of musicians who could play and read pretty well to do the oratorio.

We did a tour and played with various symphony orchestras around the country. I, of course, had never played with a symphony orchestra before. The closest I had come to anything like that was a very distant second—playing in the concert band in the army. So it was quite interesting and challenging in the areas of interpretation of the music, following the conductor, and knowing when it was time for you to become the conductor. That’s actually what the rhythm section winds up doing when you have this kind of situation. When you get to the improvisation parts, the conductor would follow you. You don’t follow the conductor. One of the things that stuck in my mind was that, of course, in the symphony orchestra, the percussion is always in the back, but in this kind of situation, you’re the feature, so you’re right in front. Some of the oratorio parts were partially with orchestra and some of the parts were with the jazz group. Here I was right under the conductor. The first words I would hear from him would be “Shhh!” [laughs]

All of a sudden, when you have to play super-soft, you find when your sticks get down close to the drum that there’s a certain amount of shaking in your hands. The result is that you play some notes that you didn’t mean to play, and you miss some notes that you aim for. That’s something that I brought back to my teaching. When you start having to get that precision way down near the head, naturally you’re going to learn from it. For that reason, when my students work with snare books, I have them play on snare drum along with a metronome. The metronome fulfills two purposes. One is the time, but even more than that, you’ve got to play pretty soft to hear it above the snare.

So that was one of the revelations from the concert experiences. Another was working with many different types of halls. And I mentioned the offstage things—meeting people in and out of the band, and in symphonies around the country. And of course, Dave was just a gem to be around. He’s a very sensitive, considerate, straight-ahead person. After some initial friction, Gerry Mulligan and I got to be very tight. He’s a fantastic musician. And Jack Six became like my brother.

Alan Dawson
Mel Lewis, Alan Dawson and Chico Hamilton performing at a Gretsch Drum Night in the ’60s.

JP: Symphony orchestra coupled with jazz group was rather new then. It must have been a problem for the two ensembles to adapt to each other. At that time, very few classical players had ever had the opportunity to play with jazz groups and vice versa. The gap between the two worlds was greater then. Some other collaborations of this kind suffered from a pull between the two “feels.” Did you find these complications, and how did you approach them musically?

AD: There’s always a difference in time conception even among jazz players. Having people from different feels compounds it. There’s not generally a really smooth transition between orchestral ensemble parts and jazz parts, for instance. There’s usually a feel difference in there. But the better conductors would follow the jazz group in the jazz parts rather than trying to conduct. Some of the die-hards would try to conduct, but the difference was there regardless. You feel it especially when playing with this massive ensemble, and suddenly you’re freed up from that. It’s almost like being let out of the cage.

JP: How about the parts in which the two ensembles overlap?

AD: Basically, 1 found that you had to think a lot more in terms of downbeats when you played with orchestra. If you started playing anything with a lot of 2 and 4, before you knew it, the 2 and 4 would be 1 and 3. In fact, I noticed that recently when I played with Oscar Peterson and the Boston Pops Orchestra at Symphony Hall. All of a sudden, I turned around and thought, “Oh! They’re hearing my hi-hat as if it’s on 1 and 3!”

JP: That’s hard to believe!

AD: Well, you know what happens? It’s not like they don’t have meter. There’s a time lapse that occurs, and also a lot of the players aren’t always following the conductor.

JP: These concerts were an overall success. However, some skeptical jazz critics said that the music wasn’t really jazz, and classical critics said it wasn’t classical, as if that were a sin. Did you get that feedback on tour?

AD: Never firsthand. Some of the critics said, “It was neither fish nor fowl.” [laughs]

JP: In that very way, these performances opened a lot of doors.

AD: Yes. Dave was classically trained. He studied with Darius Milhaud. His jazz piano playing was very classically influenced.

JP: Your teaching advocates that all stick lessons, including rudiments, should also be done with brushes. That seems unusual. It presents a special challenge for certain double-stroked rudiments because of the lack of rebound advantage in brushes.

How did you arrive at this method?

AD: It’s funny. There are a lot of things that happen by pure circumstance. I’ll tell you why I started doing that. When I was teaching at Berklee, my studio was right next to another studio. Every morning in my studio, I used to go through a pretty elaborate warm-up on the pad. I would start with heavyweight metal sticks. Then I would go down to pretty big 3S wooden sticks and then I’d go down to a rock stick size. Finally I would go down to the sticks that I play with normally. After I had warmed up to that point, I would go to the drumset. Just about the time I sat at the drumset, I’d look up at the clock and it would be time to start teaching. So I thought, “I’m not getting to the drumset this way. I’ve got to find a way to warm up without driving everyone crazy and still get to the drum right away.” So I started warming up by playing brushes. The original idea was just not to play too loud. That gradually gravitated towards working with the rudiments individually. And doing that, I gradually realized that I was developing better chops for the sticks.

JP: It must give you better control for picking up sticks.

AD: Yes. That’s the real point. It gives you that sense of picking up. But you can overdo anything. I got to the point where I almost never practiced with sticks on drums. I didn’t have any problem manipulating the sticks after that with one exception. However, it was an important exception. In playing brushes constantly, I started playing more and more high handed, and when I picked up the sticks, I realized that I was playing very loud. It was getting difficult to play softer. So I realize now that what I should have done in the first place was to do it both with brushes and with sticks.

JP: You spoke of warming up from heavy to light. Wouldn’t that also throw you off?

AD: You know something, I have thrown that out completely. It throws off your sense of touch. And the fact is, it’s the same thing I saw happen with brushes. When you play with very heavy sticks, you’re getting used to a rebound that is more than it is with a lighter stick. You might be building up just plain strength, but it takes a lot more than just strength to play drums. If that were not true, then I’m sure that any one of the Patriots linebackers would be a better drummer than you or I.

Control is the thing you should try to develop mostly. Strength is going to come to some extent from repetition. But if you use a big, heavy stick and then go on the gig with a light stick, you will find that you won’t have any control. Not only will you have trouble holding onto the sticks, but you will have trouble in the rebound.

JP: The great stick-weight debate seems an endless issue. Some claim that the metal sticks can literally be damaging to your hands. Others swear by them.

AD: In all kinds of artistic endeavors and specifically in drums, we’ve gone from one theory to another. As I mentioned before, you don’t make progress without making some mistakes. It’s a process of elimination. Originally, people used to use heavy 3S drumsticks to practice with and then go to smaller sticks. There is validity to that, especially with beginners, because with large, heavier sticks, it’s easier to control rebound. But switching from big to small throws off the hand hold and fulcrum. Around the late ’40s, when these metal drumsticks came out, the idea behind them was to have a stick around the thickness range of what you would use in actual playing and that had the heavy weight. It was a valid premise.

What I found when I used the metal was that, at first, I had a heck of a time getting used to them, and the more I got used to them, the more problems I had with the wooden sticks. I found that it’s best to use something close to the size you would use on drumset. I don’t think you should dig such a hole for yourself that you say, “I use 5A sticks and nothing but 5A,” because obviously, you’re going to use different sizes for different types of things.

JP: One more technique question—I noticed that when you teach the practice of singles in a slow-to-fast-to-slow method, your wrists almost “switch gears” as needed. At the peak speed levels, your wrist relaxation remains. It’s an old problem: How can one get beyond the “tensing point”?

AD: There is certainly the mental and the physical in that, too. About ten years ago, I began to take long winter walks. I was never one for the cold weather. I’d step out into the cold and think, “Boy, I know it’s cold out here.” So I’d automatically hug myself tightly. This would constrict my circulation. The thing to do in the cold is to relax, stretch your arms, and keep loose. Your circulation will be better, and you will tend to stay warmer.

That happens in playing, too. There’s a physical thing that happens when you play faster and faster, or for longer periods of time where fatigue and tension come in. There’s also the mental part when you’re thinking, “Hey, this is getting hard,” and you start to tense psychologically. What you really need to do to play fast is to loosen up. So it’s very much like the control some people have to relax enough to put themselves to sleep—actually willing individual parts of the body to relax one by one. But physically you actually are aware, with stick in hand, that you have to loosen up, not at the fulcrum, but with the fingers to allow the stick to rebound more and take more advantage of the rebound in the work of your fingers. You also consciously loosen up as things get harder to do.

JP: Is there a common denominator that you recognized in your students who were later to become major players?

AD: I certainly saw talent in all these students. But in terms of their becoming outstanding to the point that they’ve become, I had no idea that that would necessarily happen. I remember saying to Tony Williams many years ago, “You know, Tony, you’re going to go on out there, and you’re going to be worth one thousand students to me.” But that wasn’t said in any kind of clairvoyant way. I knew he was very good but 1 didn’t realize that he was going to wind up being maybe the strongest influence on drums in the ’60s and ’70s.

JP: He must have been very advanced even then.

AD: Yes, he was, but nowhere near what he is now! [laughs] Now you probably think about Tony, “Boy, this guy has some chops!” Obviously, that’s not all he has. He has a whole lot more than that, but his chops were not outstanding at all when he came to me. I’m not saying he got it all when he was with me. At some point, he decided to work hard on that particular thing.

I can’t say really that 1 would recognize absolutely outstanding talent. I recognize talent in each student that I have. Frankly, I’m as proud of one student as I am of another. Definitely some are more talented than others, of course. Some talented ones, for one reason or another don’t become famous. Maybe they don’t have the drive, or maybe they don’t have the opportunity. But I’m as proud of them as I am of Tony.

JP: The great thing about your lessons is that they don’t end with the last meeting. I found that your exercises are designed so that one can work with them infinitely.

AD: Ideally, in any kind of student-teacher relationship, basically the teacher is trying to stimulate the student’s imagination and creativity, and to show the pupil possibilities.

JP: Like your balance on drums, you seem to have achieved a strong balance in life. Your life-style balances performing, teaching, recreation and family. You’ve gained a lot of respect from your students, and they all feel fortunate that you have a conviction about sharing your special knowledge.

AD: You’ve got to play, in public as well as in your basement. So if you’re going to jealously guard all your secrets, then you better not play out in public [chuckles], because everybody who’s pretty hip can pick up on what you’re playing. So rather than delude yourself, you might as well give freely. I don’t think I’ve ever given anything to anybody where I haven’t gotten that much back and more.

That’s something that happened before I was teaching formally and continued as I was teaching formally. Even if it’s someone who is a beginner, I may not be learning how to play from that person, but I’m learning some approaches I might not have thought about before. Teaching itself is introspective, too. Once you put something that you do into words, you start to examine yourself once more and you start to find ways to communicate things that you have been doing instinctively. It’s a two-way street. What you give, you get back.

Several years ago, I was playing with Dave Brubeck at the Schlitz Festival. Dizzy Gillespie was at the festival with his group. He had a Schlitz hat on, and Gerry Mulligan came up to him and said, “Hey, that’s a nice hat you’ve got there. Where can I get one like it?” Diz, without a word, just took the hat off and put it on Gerry’s head. Gerry said, “Hey, man, I just meant where can I get one. I didn’t mean to take yours!” Diz said, “Well, the only way I can keep this hat is to give it away.” Now that was a pretty profound statement.

It immediately dawned on me what he meant about that. The only way that knowledge is going to survive is for you to pass it on. If you have some particular knowledge that only you have, then it dies with you. If the knowledge passes on and you pass on, then you keep it, because it’s always alive.

JP: It’s interesting that the complex teaching of tabla drumming and master African drummers has always been based on an oral tradition. It always lives on, and many of the teachers feel that it’s actually their duty to pass the word.

AD: Yeah! Another thing that I feel strongly about that is probably part of advancing age is a sense of history. That applies to people as ethnic groups and certainly to music. As I was saying earlier, developing an appreciation and respect for the music that came before is part of the history. Anybody without a sense of ties or feeling of history is really cast adrift.

JP: I can feel the satisfaction you get from teaching. Your students do feel it also.

AD: It’s kind of, let’s face it, like immortality in a way of speaking. Right now, I’m seeing parallels in my students with my own family. I’m seeing the generations going on. I’m running into young people now who say, “I haven’t met you, but my teacher studied with you” or even “My teacher’s teacher studied with you.” [laughs] I some cases, it’s actual generations where 1 taught the father and son.

JP: When you pick up Modern Drummer, it must be like reading a family reunion bulletin.

AD: [laughs] Well, it is sometimes. Some issues have four or five articles about former students of mine. [Flips through an issue of Modern Drummer] This drumstick advertisement pictures 12 endorsees, and I’ve had seven of them as students.

JP: And in the articles, they’re all quick to mention your strong influence. They obviously haven’t forgotten that the line of tradition you passed on is alive in them too.

AD: [Smiling] Yeah . . . That feels good.