Superlatives are like chuff before the wind in describing the drumming of Ed Blackwell, I’m sure I could speak with him for days and still walk away feeling like we’d never even got started. Born and raised in New Orleans, Blackwell brings the tradition of jazz drumming from the roots, adds to it, and takes off into new dimensions. He has experience in virtually every aspect of drumming, but he is perhaps best known for his work with Ornette Coleman. In describing his own music, Coleman has said, “I would like the rhythm section to be as free as I’m trying to get, but very few players so far—on horns or rhythm instruments—can do this yet. If I don’t set a pattern at a given moment, whoever has the dominant ear at that moment can take and do a thing that will change the direction (of the music). The drums can help determine direction too. Certain phrases I start to play with my drummer, Edward Blackwell, suddenly seem backward to me because he can turn them around on a different beat, thereby increasing the freedom of my playing.”

Coleman told writer Nat Hentoff that, “My music doesn’t have any real time, no metric time. It’s more like breathing—a natural, freer time. People have forgotten how beautiful it is to be natural. I like spread rhythm—rhythm that has a lot of freedom in it—rather than the more conventional netted rhythm. With spread rhythm, you might tap your feet awhile, then stop, then later start tapping again. Otherwise, you tap your feet so much, you forget what you hear. You just hear the rhythm.”

That gives a clue as to the development of Blackwell’s style of drumming. He is by no means confined to the role of “Ornette Coleman’s drummer.” He has performed, and continues to perform, with the best musicians in jazz, and he has his own band with a soon-to-be released LP on Sweet Earth Records, incredibly his first LP as a band leader! Two recently released LP’s with the Old and New Dreams band {Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell) feature some superb drumming. Of that quartet Blackwell said, “After leaving this hand, the love I feel from them, from the music, lasts the whole year. I feel so full.”

Blackwell is also teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, a tremendous asset to that jazz department, and student drummers are very fortunate to have this genius to draw from.

We met at Ed’s office at the University for this interview. We didn’t get too much into equipment because Blackwell uses a variety of different sets. He was playing a four-piece Sonor kit when I saw him; 18″ bass drum, 8 x12 mounted tom, and a 14″ floor tom. His cymbals were all Paiste. The hi-hats were 13″ Sound Edge 2002, a 22″ Medium Ride with sizzles FO 602, and a IS” Thin Crash FO 602. Sometimes he adds another 22″ Medium 2002.

My opening question was in reference to Paul Barbarin, a noted Dixieland drummer who was said to have been a tremendous influence on Blackwell’s drumming.

EB: Paul was one of the big influences, but there were quite a few. Paul had two brothers playing drums and he was from a family of drummers. But he was the oldest and the most well-known. We played beside each other in a club in New Orleans. He played with the Dixieland band in the big part of the club, and I played in the smaller part. Our group played the after-hours session, so when the Dixieland band would get off we would start. So maybe I would go down early and I’d sit around and listen to him play. He used to sit down and talk to me a lot about the drums and drum rolls; how he played and how he learned to play. He was very interesting.

SF: Was he playing a full drumset at that time?

EB: Oh yeah. He had two toms, bass drum, snare, cymbal, and hi-hat. He played all of it!

SF: When did you start playing drums’?

EB: I started playing in high school. A friend of mine, Wilbur Hogan, played drums in school and he was about two years ahead of me. So when I went to school I decided that I wanted to play the drums. I used to bang around the house on pots and different things, and I really wanted to play, but I couldn’t read the music. So Wilbur spoke to the teacher and told him that he would help me with the music and show me all the rhythms and the beats. The teacher said alright, and let me join the band. For two years Hogan taught me a lot about reading and when he left I took his position. He had been captain of the drum corps. When he left, they promoted me to captain. Hogan was another big influence on me. He was one of the younger drummers that we used to hang around, because he had an uncle that taught him to read real early, and he was very adept at reading. He wanted to show me how to play a paradiddle and what a paradiddle was, and what a long stroke roll was. We were very tight.

SF: Were you interested in learning how to read?

EB: Yeah, I was into it. The only problem was that after he left, I was on my own! So I had to develop my own reading. It took me longer to develop because I didn’t have anyone to teach me after that. All the teachers around didn’t impress me as being the ones I wanted to study with. So I just listened to Max Roach and different drummers and learned to read on my own.

SF: Were you playing snare drum in the high school band?

EB: Snare and tenor drums.

SF: When did you begin to play a full drumset?

EB: Well, in 1949, two brothers called the Johnson Brothers were starting a rhythm and blues group. The drummer they had got drafted, so they needed a drummer. A neighbor of mine was their uncle and he heard me practicing in the house. He told them about me, they gave me a ring, I went over to try out. and I joined the

SF: Up until joining that band you’d never played a drumset?

EB: Never played drumset before. We weren’t playing anything but rhythm and blues and shuffles. But it was something. That’s when I started. They played all the popular rhythm and blues tunes. Their biggest number was “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” by Illinois Jacquet. One of the brothers played tenor sax and that was his solo piece. That was always the house closer. We always closed the concert or wherever we were playing with “Jazz at the Philharmonic” because that was the rocker! Everybody loved it.

SF: How many pieces were in that band?

EB: Five. Trumpet, tenor, piano, drums and bass. After awhile the trumpet player had to go back to college so we worked as a quartet. I really enjoyed it. I really began to get very interested in the drums.

There was another friend. Tom Wood, who was Wilbur Hogan’s cousin. He tried to teach me to coordinate the sock cymbal on beats 2 and 4. That was the hardest thing ever in my life! I just could not work that sock cymbal on 2 and 4. But after awhile, everything comes when you try, and I tried! It worked out. Then my sister’s husband bought me a drumset that used to belong to a girls’ group called The Sweethearts of Rhythm. His brother was the manager of the group. When the group broke up, the drummer sold her drums to him and he bought them for me. It was a big 24″ bass drum, but it was my first set and I loved it. I’ve gone through so many since then. I took a sheet and cut it out and put it on the bass drum head so it wouldn’t vibrate so much. It had a very good sound. I learned how to tune them very well.

SF: How did you learn?

EB: By listening to the sound. I knew when I hit it, it would vibrate loud, so I knew I had to muffle it.

SF: Did the Dixieland drummers give you any tips on tuning?

EB: Yeah. Especially Paul. The Dixieland drummers had a way of playing with the bottom snare head tuned looser than the top. They played with these very small snare drums that must have been about 4″ deep. They’re called Dixieland snares and they got a real “snarey” sound. They could roll like paper being tom.

SF: That’s backwards from normal snare tuning isn’t it?

EB: Yeah, but I guess they used it like that because of the size of the drum. I’ve tried the same technique with the normal snare. It depends on how high a pitch you want. Try different intonations with the drum. Loosen the bottom head, loosen the top head, try everything! Try the same method for the bass drum and tomtoms. It all depends on the size that you use. With a 14″ floor tom I find that with the bottom head looser than the top head you get a better sound and better intonation. If you’ve got them tuned too tight they sound too high. If you want to get a bottom sound out of it you have to have the bottom head looser than the top head.

SF: I read somewhere that you once built your own drumset.

EB: Well, I didn’t build them. I converted some drums. I took a 16″ military snare that I used to play in high school, bought some hoops for it and converted it into a bass drum. I had a tenor drum that a girl in school gave me. I put some legs on that and made a floor tom-tom out of it, and I had the regular mounted tom-tom. Then my brother painted it for me and put some glistening sparkles on it and made a real nice set out of it. I had a lot of fun with that set. In fact, Billy Higgins really loved that set. It was nice sounding, but it looked like a set of toy drums. The tenor drum was a 9 x 13. I think. The snare drum was regular. There was an album recently published by Harold Batisste called New Orleans Heritage: 1956-1966. I’m playing that set of drums on the record.

SF: Who else was in the band?

EB: Harold Batisste and Alvin Batisste on clarinet, Ellis Marsellis, and an out-of-town bass player. I don’t remember his name. We were called The American Jazz Quintet, and we played all original tunes. Alvin, Harold, and Ellis would write all the tunes.

SF: There’s always a similarity in the playing of New Orleans musicians. It isn’t a sameness, but there’s always a similarity. Could you identify that?

EB: Well, it’s the culture. New Orleans has this heritage of marching and parading. All of the drummers that are born there come up hearing that everyday. When I was a kid, every Sunday there was a parade. There’s a parade for funer als, births, deaths. Everything called for a parade. In a minute people would get out and start playing a parade. Naturally, when you hear the music, people would gather and a big crowd would just follow behind. It was a lot of fun. The band would come down the street playing and you would hear them. You could hear the bass drum coming and you knew it was a parade. All the kids would have “The Second Line.” The kids would follow behind the parade, dancing. Most of the drummers would come up with that heritage, and you can hear it in their playing.

SF: So it’s definitely a military influence.

EB: Definitely, yeah. It’s a marching beat.

SF: You moved from New Orleans to California in 1951?

EB: Right. Ornette was in California. He left before I got there and went back to Texas. Then he came back in ’53. We started playing together because he couldn’t find anybody else to play with. Nobody wanted to play with him. I thought that was amazing. Here’s this cat play ing all this music and nobody wants to play with him! So we got an apartment together. We didn’t have any musical gigs so Ornette was working in one department store, and I was working in another. He was driving an elevator and I was a stock clerk. So that way, we were able to maintain a living while playing. But we’d play everyday. The minute we’d get home, we’d get right in and start playing, man.

SF: What topics did you discuss with each other?

EB: We used to talk about the different players that we liked. Mostly it was Charlie Parker, Max Roach and people like that. That was our whole conversation! All the time about music. Everyday, Ornette would write so many tunes. He would come up with a new tune and we’d get together and go over it and over it, play it and play it, until we got it down together.

SF: It must have been frustrating to have all that creativity and have no one taking it seriously. How did Ornette deal with that?

EB: It was more frustrating for me than it was for him. He took it very calmly. They had about three different clubs that would have jam sessions on Sunday. Every time we would walk in there, the rest of the musicians would walk off the stand.

SF: It would be just you and Ornette on the bandstand?

EB: Just Ornette and I. Nobody would come up there and play with us. I could go up by myself and they would let me play, but if Ornette came up with me they’d say, “No, no, man.” Because they just couldn’t do it. They couldn’t use him.

SF: Would Ornette ever play straight bebop tunes?

EB: No. Ornette was writing tunes and he was playing his tunes. That’s all. For some reason, at that time nobody could use it. He was a rebel. We never could play with a bass player. We never would get a bass player to even attempt to play with us. The only time we’d get a bass player was if we could guarantee him a job. If we said, “Okay. We’re going to be working at this club. Come on down and let’s do a rehearsal before we do the gig,” well, then maybe we were able to get one. Bass players would say, “No good, man. I can’t deal with that.” They couldn’t hear it. Ornette and I had a lot of fun together though. We didn’t miss them at all. We’d play together and we’d have a ball.

SF: Were you practicing drums by yourself as well as working out tunes with Ornette?

EB: I didn’t have time. Most of the times I was on the drums it was usually playing with Ornette. When we were awake, we were always playing. If we were not playing, Ornette would be sitting down writing a tune, or we’d be discussing music, or listening to music—different tunes. But that was i t . As far as practicing by myself, maybe I’d practice on the pad while he was writing. But most of the time we were practicing together.

SF: How did you develop your melodic concept on the drumset?

EB: Well that started to develop when I started listening to the way Max Roach played the drums: the way he developed melodic lines along the structure of the tunes. I just enhanced it more by playing with Ornette. But I had a good conception of how to play a solo along a structured tune. The only difference with Ornette is that the way I had been playing was structured differently than the way he played. So when I started playing with him, I had to change around to a whole new concept of playing. I thought that was very interesting because it was challenging. It kept me interested in playing with him. There was never a dull moment.

SF: Did things start to break for Ornette’s band when you played that first famous gig at The Five Spot?

EB: Billy Higgins came with Ornette to The Five Spot. Then Billy ran into trouble with his cabaret card. They denied him a card, and when you didn’t have a cabaret card you couldn’t work anywhere that alcohol was being sold. That’s when Ornette sent for me again. I was in New Orleans and I was ready to leave. I’d had some problems there. Me and my wife were put in jail for misogamy. They were talking about giving me five years of hard labor, just for living together. I was out on bail and my wife was pregnant. So we went to the NAACP and had them talk to the lawyer, who guaranteed that if there was a trial, we would come back. So we got permission to leave and that was it! At that time Ornette was calling me to come to New York, and I couldn’t wait to get on the plane!

SF: How did you meet Billy Higgins originally?

EB: When we lived in Los Angeles we used to go over to this big garage owned by a friend of Don Cherry. It was set up like a studio. He, Don and Billy used to rehearse in there. When we got hooked up with Don, we started rehearsing up there and Billy was there at the time sitting around digging the music. Then he began playing with Ornette. When I went back to New Orleans, Billy got the gig, and they made the first album. Ornette had sent for me to make the album, but I was playing with Harold (Batisste) and I didn’t want to leave. I was having a lot of fun. So he made the album with Billy.

SF: I’ve often read that you were a “teacher” to Billy Higgins.

EB: In a way, I guess, because I was the only one that he could dig playing with Ornette. Billy was hooked up playing an all-together different style from Ornette. So by listening to me play, he was able to adapt to Ornette’s way of playing.

SF: The first record I ever heard you play on was Avant Garde with John Coltrane and Don Cherry. I was listening and thinking, “That drummer is playing with a stick in his right hand and a mallet in his left hand.” I’d never heard that done before.

EB: That was the way I had to play in New Orleans. I used to wrap a Scholl’s corn pad around the edge of the stick and make a mallet out of i t . That way, when I’m playing I could just turn the stick over and get a mallet sound. I like the contrast between the stick and the mal let—the hard and the soft sound. I used to play like that a lot.

SF: Were you using a stick with a Scholl’s pad on that album?

EB: No. that was a mallet. You could play and turn the snares off and get a tenor drum sound all around the drumset using the mallet sound. It brings out the real intonation of the drum, unlike the stick. With the stick you get that harsh sound. With the mallet you get a soft, round sound that brings out the full intonation, and that’s what I dug.

SF: When you play, do you approach a particular tune with any specific ideas in mind?

EB: I always went according to where the music was going. I knew ultimately what I wanted to do with the drums when I got into the tune. Then I could hear what I wanted to do. and the way I wanted to go with it. Otherwise, everything was always by ear. I never had any preconceived idea of the way I wanted to play any tune before I heard it. I would just adapt to the way the tune was going, and adapt my playing to the way I heard the music.

SF: When you were a kid did you know that drums was going to he it?

EB: Oh yeah. I had an older sister and a brother who were in show business. So as a youngster I was hooked up to this show business thing because we were very active in vaudeville. I would see them whenever they’d come to New Orleans with the show. I’d always make it to the theaters and watch them. I’d sit behind the drums and watch how the drummer would play with the tap dancers. When I started playing in New Orleans they had clubs and I use to play with these different “shake dancers” and “fire dancers.” That was another experience. Playing with dancers, you had to catch their movements on the cymbal. You had to catch their dramatic movements when they’d throw up their hands by choking the cymbal. It was interesting. I think drummers that don’t go through that experience miss a lot. I used to hear cats talk about how Baby Lawrence used to dance, and how Max Roach used to play drums while Baby Lawrence danced. They would trade fours! I can relate to that. I didn’t exchange fours, but I played with these types of dancers and it was a gas. You had to keep your eyes and ears open. Sometimes they’d be feeling happy and they’d start improvising from the way the act would usually go. They might take it completely out of the norm and you had to be ready for it.

SF: As a kid were you listening to many different kinds of music?

EB: Oh yeah. My brothers used to bring home records of Jo Jones. Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich. As a kid I heard a lot of big-band drummers. Any kid in New Orleans that showed any kind of an inclination for playing music was always encouraged to pursue it. The family was always ready to pursue it because being a musician was one of the better paying jobs for black people. So they would always encourage you to develop your musical talent if you showed any kind of inclination for playing any musical instrument.

SF: Have you ever done any swing style big-band drumming?

EB: Yeah, I played that. Musicians in New Orleans would always experiment together and put together big-bands. Cats would write and that was their way of experimenting writing charts for bigbands. They would get musicians because we were always ready to play. Everyday that I lived in New Orleans musicians were always playing with somebody; either a bass player, a piano player, or a group of cats. Everyday you were on your instrument, and that way you kept your chops up. New Orleans is the only place I’ve ever been where I saw drummers congregate together. That’s a funny thing about New Orleans. The musicians have a great respect for each other. Each instrument had their own little clique. Everybody would always congregate with each other because they were always trying to exchange ideas. New Orleans is the only place I’ve ever been that maintained that. Even now. you never hear one musician putting another one down. I always dug that. There were bands playing rhythm and blues, I was playing bebop, and we all had our own set of music, but we always had respect for each other. Each one of the cats did what they did very well, whether it be R&B. bebop, or whatever. Whatever they did. that’s what they did and they did it well. You have to respect that.

SF: When you first arrived in New York, what was the reaction of the established “name” drummers to your playing?

EB: They all came and checked me out.

SF: The new kid in town.

EB: That’s right, and playing at The Five Spot with the most controversial musician in town! A lot of people weren’t aware that Ornette and I had played so much together before. They thought Billy Higgins was the first drummer that had ever come up playing with Ornette. So when I came on the scene, everybody said, “Where’d he come from?” When they found out that Billy was having problems with his cabaret card, everybody was telling Ornette. “Man. You ain’t gonna find a drummer to play that shit, man.” He was telling them. “I know somebody who can play it.” He knew that nobody else could play it. There were a lot of drummers that came around to sit in with him, but they were all like babes in the woods with Ornette. Ornette may start off with “1” here, and the next time, in the middle of the chorus, “1” would be somewhere else! So you’ve got to listen to where he puts that “1” in order to follow where his “1” is. If you’re going by where your “1” is and you’re playing like that AABA form—it just won’t work. Ornette told me about a lot of the drummers that sat in with him before I got to New York. When I arrived on the scene, you can understand how these musicians coming in from out of town, playing these tunes, didn’t know that I was there when Ornette wrote them. So I knew the songs. I got in that day and I was working that night. No rehearsals or nothing, and I hadn’t seen Ornette in about a year.

SF: Whose drums were you using?

EB: The drums that Billy Higgins had been using. My drums were on the way. They got hung up in the airport. Max Roach finally gave me a beautiful set of Gretsch with an 18″ bass drum.

SF: Max dug where you were coming from?

EB: Yeah. Every interview I’ve ever had, I’ve always mentioned how much influence I got from Max. He still knocks me out. He’s still the man to me.

SF: Was The Five Spot a good scene?

EB: It was a very happy scene. We were there about three or four months and every night it was packed. A lot of people really began to hear Ornette.

SF: Would horn players sit in with the band?

EB: No. The only person that sat in while I was doing the gig was Lionel Hampton. He came in one night and wanted to play the piano. So he sat in and played the piano!

SF: How about John Coltrane? Did he ever come down to check out the band?

EB: Coltrane would come down but he wouldn’t sit in. He’d sit down and listen. During the break he and Ornette would talk quite a bit, but he never sat in. He just wanted to listen and he did a lot of listening. The scene was phenomenal. The same people that owned The Five Spot owned The Jazz Gallery. That club was about two blocks away, around the corner. When Ornette was at The Five Spot, Thelonious Monk was at The Jazz Gallery. He had a very good group: Charlie Rouse on tenor, John Ore on bass, and Frankie Dunlop on drums. They stayed there for quite awhile. After Monk left, John Coltrane went into The Gallery and he had a lot of different people playing with him. We used to go around and listen to him. We were off on Monday nights, so on Monday nights I always made it a point to come down and listen to John. Billy Higgins was drumming with John then. He was the drummer before Elvin joined the group.

SF: Can we talk about that band with Booker Little and Eric Dolphy?

EB: Yeah. That was 1961 or ’62. That was fantastic. When our band played this “Rebel Session” in Newport with Max Roach and Booker, that was really the first time that Booker and I ever really conversed with each other. He used to sit around when Ornette and I were playing and he was always digging our music. So when I came back to New York, Max and Booker Little were playing at The Jazz Gallery. Booker was talking about getting a group together and he asked me if I would be interested. I said, “Of course.” So I was standing on E. 10th St. and my telephone had been cut off. I hadn’t been working—I hadn’t been doing anything! Eric Dolphy’s lady brought a telegram up there to tell me to report for rehearsal. They were getting ready to go into The Five Spot. We rehearsed and rehearsed at The Five Spot. We went in and did two weeks and they recorded the last night of the last week.

SF: So it was Booker Little’s band?

EB: No. It was co-led by Booker and Eric Dolphy. We must have rehearsed three or four days. Booker and Eric were writing all these new tunes, so we wanted to really get it together. They wanted it to be tight. I enjoyed it, man. I enjoyed the rehearsal with those cats. They recorded that whole last night; about four sets of music. They must have enough for seven or eight albums just out of that one night.

SF: What kind of things did you learn from players like Dolphy and Little?

EB: Well, the only thing I can say I learned from the guys is the love of music. The love that they had for music was generated so much that you had to feel it. Booker and Eric were of the same caliber as Ornette. They were true to their art, man. The music was their first love. You could feel it—and I got the same feeling from them that I did when I was with Ornette. The music was it! The music came first, and there was the love that they played with, which was so obvious that it’s luminous.

SF: I’ve read that you felt your trip to Africa freed up your drumming.

EB: It did. I learned that the African drummers play a rhythm in such a way that it’s continuous. Individually they were very simple rhythms that would become complex when they would merge. But if you had the chance to walk around the group while they were playing, you could see each cat playing a different rhythm. It was a very simple rhythm that they played, but when you hear the overall thing . . . man! It remined me so much of the way the guys used to play in New Orleans. In fact, by going to Africa I was able to really dig how much the African culture was maintained in New Orleans as far as their funeral parades. In Africa, when they have funerals, everybody dresses up real colorful and after they’re through with everything they have dancing and a big celebration! That was the same thing in New Orleans. They’d march to the graveyard with the body and they’d put the body down. Then they’d come back dancing! Africans, I guess, had the concept that death brings on another life, so it was not anything to be sad about. It’s just that the soul is gone to another life. That’s the same concept they have in New Orleans. I didn’t realize that until I went to Africa and I was able to reflect on the way the funerals were in New Orleans. We had a chance to see a couple of funerals in different places in Africa. The people were just dancing and everything. It wasn’t this weeping, wailing and crying. It was happiness. You couldn’t tell the relatives of the dead person from anyone else. Everybody was happy.

SF: Did you get a chance to talk with many African drummers?

EB: We had a chance to play with an African troupe from the Cameroons. It was a dance troupe and they were travelling with only one log drummer. We did a concert with them. I had a chance to play with the guy and talk to him. There were two women and two guys dancing, and they were fantastic. They really had the whole show with just that drummer!

SF: Did you start to incorporate African rhythms into your drumming?

EB: Of course. But there’s only so much you can retain. I was able to tape some of the stuff on my tape recorder until I ran out of batteries. It was difficult finding batteries around Africa! Some of the things I taped I was able to retain, but after traveling to so many different places, you hear something new and it would just wipe out what you’d just heard. I was exposed to so much stuff that I was able to retain very little . I was able to retain the overall effect of the African drummers as far as how the rhythms would affect an individual, and how to try to relate my own rhythm to that way of playing. But that was all I was able to retain.

SF: I’ve read statements like, “Ed Blackwell is a walking encyclopedia of African rhythms.” Was there ever a conscious effort where you decided, “Let’s see how I can break down these African rhythms and apply them to the drumset”?

EB: I have some African rhythms that I do that with, but there are so many more. I have a book of African rhythms. You look through that book and see the rhythms. There’s very little that you can just convert over to your own way of playing. You have to get the overall concept of what they’re doing and relate it to whatever you have to play with. That’s what I did.

SF: What about those rhythms you play on cowbells’?

EB: A lot of that is my own stuff, but there’s a couple of rhythms that I heard and retained. There’s a rhythm on cowbell that they call Amagello that I learned from a guy in Ghana. I use that quite a bit. Most African rhythms are written in 12/8. The main African cowbell beat is 12/8. You can adapt that to a lot of different things. Most of the things that Africans play—you would have to spend much longer than three months in Africa to really retain an overall concept of how they do the different rhythms because there are so many. It’s an end less thing the way they change them and the way they apply them to different drums. They have a family of drums. A male, female, son, and daughter. Ac-Tu- Pa is the main drummer or the lead drummer. He plays the lead rhythm and the other drummers play according to what he plays. He might go into a different rhythm and then the whole thing would reverse and go into something else. The other drummers know when to turn it around just from the rhythm that the lead drummer is playing. It’s amazing. The drummers do it all together. So you have to really spend a lot of time hooked up to that to retain exactly what they’re doing.

SF: Max Roach has written some great solo pieces for drumset like “For Big Sid” and “Conversations.” Have you ever written anything like that?

EB: Yeah. I used to use a lot of it up here to teach the students that I have. In fact, I’ve transcribed a lot of things from Max for my students, to try to teach them the more melodic concept of the drums rather than just the technical. Instead of just sitting down and playing a bunch of 16th notes, break them up into the way that they will sing something. Sing with the drums. A guy can sit down and go all over the drums all night long. But what is it? If he sits down and breaks the notes up and tries to sing with it, then it becomes more melodic and more listenable.

SF: Is that a difficult concept to teach?

EB: It’s the kind of thing that students have to really develop on their own. You can only suggest to them that it’s there. It’s there to be done if they can develop it. I show them the different exercises that I use to demonstrate that concept, but there’s so much more to it that they have to really develop on their own.

SF: What exercises do you use?

EB: Usually I use the paradiddles around the drums—paradiddles, four-stroke ruffs, rolls, breaking and playing the single- stroke, five, six, seven-stroke rolls and triplets. All different ways of playing them around the drums so that they become more or less a melody instead of just an exercise.

SF: How long can a student at Wesleyan study with you?

EB: They can study as long as they want to while they’re here. They’re here for four years and if they want to, they can study for the whole four years.

SF: Do you turn them on to the great jazz drummers?

EB: I turn them onto the drummers I dig: Max Roach, Big Sid Catlett. Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. Those are people that I dig. If they can listen to these people and can’t get anything from listening to them, then they won’t get anything from listening to anybody.

SF: What is the one thing that you hope a student takes with him after he completes his study with you?

EB: The concept of being able to practice and listen continuously. I feel that continuity is the answer for playing. I always feel that if a drummer’s sitting down, he should have his hands playing or working on something, some movement of playing the drums. You can practice with your mind! You don’t actually have to have drumsticks or a set of drums to sit down and practice drumming. You can practice mentally. I would hope that the students would take that concept away with them when they leave, and try to broaden their scope.