Ed Soph

This is my second interview with Ed Soph for MD. My first interview was completed and accepted for publication about seven years ago. MD was a quarterly magazine back then, and before Ed’s interview could be published, a significant part of it had become outdated.

At that time, Ed’s primary reputation was that of a premier big band drummer. He’d been in the North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band, on the road briefly with Stan Kenton, and on the road and on records with Woody Herman. Back in the early ’70s, Ed showed up on Bill Watrous’s Manhattan Wildlife Refuge big band album, which was acclaimed by critics, listeners, and musicians. He also spent some years with Clark Terry’s Big Bad Band, and with his small groups touring and recording.

The Ed Soph I interviewed seven years ago was in a transitional period. He seemed to be doing all of the right things necessary for prime recognition as a per- forming artist. He was a first-class drum- mer playing with first-class musicians in first-class bands. Instead of forging ahead on that path, Ed decided to give up that grind. He was pleased with the recognition he received as a superb big band drummer, but he was displeased with the fact that many people thought that was all he was capable of.

Ed Soph is not a recluse. He may be more visible now than when he was on the road with bands, but the majority of his time is devoted to teaching. He performs numerous clinics for both Yamaha and Jamey Aebersold, worldwide. He and Horacee Arnold, in collaboration with Yamaha, recorded an educational video called The Drums: A Musical Approach. When he’s at home in Connecticut, Ed teaches privately at home and at Creative Music in Wethersfield. Together with Bob Breithaupt and Guy Remonko, Ed holds an intensive yearly drum symposium at Ohio University. If you’ve been reading MD for a few years, Ed’s name will be familiar through the fine popular articles he has contributed to the Driver’s Seat and Jazz Drummers Workshop columns. He is also an editor for the Percussive Arts Society magazine.

Fortunately, I was able to follow up on the best questions from my first interview with Ed, and they’re included here. Ed Soph is a rare combination. He’s an expert drummer in all areas and a master at communicating his knowledge to others.

SF: How can you teach somebody to evoke emotion on a drumset?

ES: You can’t. Teachers do only one thing: get the students to think for themselves, so that they can unlock what they have inside them. Students sit there as if they had padlocks on their brains. Teachers sit there with big rings loaded with keys, and keep trying keys until they find something that opens the locks. Then, they say, “Goodbye. You’ve got it. You understand. Go.”

I’ve never questioned, and have never really been interested in, somebody’s motives for wanting to play. When I was starting, I didn’t even think about it. It was fun. Coming from an environment where I was exposed to music at a very early age, it seemed natural to want to play something. I never even thought about saying, “I want to be a drummer.” I just kept doing it.

SF: I’m thinking about the development of a very high level of musical communication. For example, I read a Joe Zawinul interview where he related some of the horrors he felt growing up in war-torn Austria. Months later, at a Weather Report concert, I heard Zawinul play a solo keyboard piece without mentioning the title. What he was playing conjured up feelings and images of his Austrian childhood. When the piece was over, Zawinul announced the title, and it was in reference to his childhood.

ES: You hear classical people say that you must sing on any instrument—that you must evoke the quality of the voice. Okay, great. But people have to find that out for themselves. Otherwise, you’re talking dictator time. You’re talking control. Besides, if teachers could do that, everyone would sound the same. Everyone would know how to express emotions the same way. Unfortunately, some people think that teachers are supposed to do that. People say, “Well, being a teacher is so frustrating.” Bullshit! Realize what your job is. You’re simply there for one reason. You have more experience—more channels that you can draw upon. You’ve got a kid sitting there who’s 12 or 13 years old. You’re 40 years old. You’ve got that much experience. The kid has zero. You funnel your experience in and see how much, if any, of it helps the student. If you see something that helps, you follow that line of thought until you reach the point where you say, “I could give you more exercises, but that’s not going to make you a better player. The only thing that’s going to make you a better player is for you to get out there and play.” That’s how you learn to play—just by playing. You go to a teacher if you have a technical problem or a head problem. But teachers are superfluous.

I ran into Papa Jo Jones a long time ago in Frank Ippolito’s old shop on 8th Avenue. I said, “Gee, Mr. Jones. I sure would like to get a drum lesson from you.” He said, “If you want a drum lesson from me, come up to such-and-such a club. I’m playing there every night.” I thought, “Soph, you dummy!” Those guys didn’t go to teachers. They went to clubs and watched the cats play. That’s gone now. How many kids can afford to go to that club in New York that charged $17 to hear Chick Corea, Roy Haynes, and Miroslav Vitous? Then there was a $10 drink minimum. If you’ve got to pay parking on top of that, come on!

SF: They pay that kind of money to hear rock bands.

ES: But those kids aren’t there to learn how to play drums. How can they be if they’re in a 10,000-seat auditorium? You’ll learn more listening to the record! I’m talking about going to a club, getting into the Peanut Gallery like they used to have at Birdland, just sitting there, and checking somebody out. Go to the Vanguard early, get right back there by the drums, and watch Elvin. That’s the learning opportunity right there. But times have changed. It’s not happening anymore like it was. Can you wonder why people get discouraged? It would be nice if they’d give a concert in the afternoon. In the old days, clubs used to have matinees for kids or musicians who were working at night. That gap will never be filled. Can you imagine going into a club and watching Sid Catlett, Dave Tough, or Tiny Kahn, or just going down and listening to Mel Lewis play?

You or I could take a kid—and I’m not making a value judgment—who is into Eric Carr, Neil Peart, or Alan White, and we could say to this kid, “Have you ever seen Elvin Jones play drums?” “Who?” “Come here, kid. You’re coming with me tonight.” You could sit that kid down at the Vanguard, and the child’s mouth would be on the floor after the first chorus, simply because the kid had never been exposed to it.

SF: Of all of the world’s drum students, what percentage do you feel are seriously studying the drumset?

ES: One percent. That’s the way it is in any field. As a teacher, I try to go in with an open mind. I learned a long time ago that it’s wrong to sit with a student and think, “You lazy bum,” or “You no-talent so-and-so.” All you’re accomplishing when you do that, by the very nature of your reaction, is putting up walls that will prevent you from communicating with that person. I also learned that, when it comes to passing judgment, like “Hey, kid. Be a plumber,” I’ve been dead wrong every time.

All you can do is try to motivate students. It’s not what you have to teach them. It’s how you motivate them, so that they can take your material and do something with it. Give them a degree of self awareness, so that they can solve their own problems. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a two-way street. I have to motivate, and the students, as well, have to have some self-motivation. In most cases, it’s not really that they lack motivation. They just have a very shallow knowledge of what drumming is all about, because of articles that they read and industry advertisements that suggest that drums are not serious. Can you imagine violin ads like drum ads? Can you see Pinkas Zukerman in an ad saying, “I play the new Strad-6 electronic blah-blah, because it makes me play faster and louder”?

The old adage of “Get Johnny a drum. Anyone can be a drummer,” has really come true in a lot of respects. The majority of kids don’t want to know about how much work it is to learn the instrument. That’s why you only get one percent. It boils down to intelligence, too—the ability of the kid to look ahead and think, “If I practice these sticking patterns four hours a day for the next six months, I will get better,” instead of, “Well, show me the beat that so-and-so played on such-and-such album.” Instant gratification—it’s just like those idiots who advertise in MD. “Quick Results!” That has nothing to do with learning how to play the drums.

SF: Do you feel that MD is on the right track?

ES: I really don’t know. Modern Drummer, in a lot of ways, is like reading LIFE magazine, in that, on one page in LIFE you have a picture of some piteously starving child. Turn the page, and there’s an ad for a washing machine. In MD, you’ll have a really good article dealing with basics that everyone should know, at least to begin playing the instrument well, like Nick Forte’s series on learning how to read notes. Then you turn the page, and there’s some idiot saying, “I can’t read. I’m self taught, and I crack at least 16 cymbals a night.” I don’t know what MD’s credo is. Are they there as an educational magazine? Are they there as entertainment? Are they there as a pipeline for the industry? What is their purpose?

What I like about MD—even though it has changed drastically, looking over past issues—is that, in terms of content, it reflects the times, which is important. You still get good articles, and you still get good interviews with people who can play. That doesn’t immediately mean that I’m talking about jazz players. I’m talking about good rock ‘n’ roll players like Charlie Watts, Steve Gadd, Harvey Mason and people like that. No matter what your style is, you can be a musician. It’s the drummers-of-the-moment that I can’t stand, but I understand that MD has to do that. They’re in business. As long as they try to balance it with some intelligent material, well, then I’m happy, because there’s something for me to read.

SF: You originally moved to Connecticut to teach at the University of Bridgeport. Why did you leave U.B.?

ES: I left to concentrate on teaching. When I was there, I was trying to teach, but the students were terrible. They really had no desire to work. They wanted to learn the latest licks, but they had no desire to sit down and really learn the instrument. It wasn’t worth my time, so I got involved in doing lots of clinics with Jamey Aebersold and individual things with Yamaha. By teaching privately, I could really find out who wants to study with me. My students are not under any grade-point requirement. I’m very fortunate in teaching privately. There’s not one student who I’m not proud of. They all work.

That brings up a second problem. Let’s say you have students who find themselves learning and excelling on the instrument. What the hell are they going to do? There are no gigs. Their concerns are, basically, making a living playing their drums, and doing something they enjoy. They are, for the most part, young people who have grown out of the stage of imitating some other drummer, where they realize that they have the potential of their own individuality on the instrument. What worries them is whether or not they will be able to reach that potential as an individual, be it in jazz, rock, or anything else. They don’t want to play in situations where they are forced to sound like someone else, as in a Top-40 group, and/or any situation where they’re forced to play in some way that goes against their own artistic intent. That’s totally unrealistic. They’re very idealistic at this point, which is great. The fact that they have that concern is very important.

SF: Do you think it’s wise to be so idealistic that you refuse to learn how to play certain styles of music?

ES: No, I don’t. I can say that, because I used to think that way. Any gig can be good, even if it’s good only to the extent that you find out that you never want to play that type of gig again. Everything must be tried. It’s all attitude. What my students are saying, what I’m saying, and what I think any drummer/musician who has aspirations to better himself/herself on the instrument is saying is that we don’t want to do that as a steady diet. My students don’t want that to be their musical life-style. They want that, perhaps, to subsidize what they do. It’s idealistic, but it’s very important. If people didn’t think that way, there would never be any changes in the music or the instrument.

Ed Soph

SF: In 1978, you said that “going out on the road with Stan Kenton was a sobering experience from the ivory-tower world of school.” Can you explain why?

ES: I went on the road with Kenton in ’65. In school, I was top dog, playing in the One O’clock Band. Living was no problem. I split the rent on a little house with another guy. It cost me $27.50 a month. It was great. You didn’t have to deal with drunk musicians and weird people. I realized then that there was more to being a musician than just playing music—that there were certain advantages and disadvantages of life-style. There was the realization that, if one thought in terms of security, one better think in terms of security other than financial or material. The first security had to come from knowing that what you did as a musician was good and right, and it made other people feel good. Hopefully, you would be able to make a decent living from that. I came to the realization that being a musician is not easy.

That first time on the road with Kenton, I was only out about four to six weeks. After being on the road that short amount of time, I realized that I needed to learn an awful lot more in terms of playing experience and in how to deal with people. It’s one thing to deal with your peers in school. It’s another to relate to, say, a neurotic brass section of road musicians. I’m not placing myself above them by saying that. But in any big band there are personality conflicts and problems. At North Texas, there were those problems, but we weren’t on a bus together. At North Texas, we were together an hour a day for five days a week. That was it.

SF: You graduated North Texas with an English degree. Did you have as much chance to study drumset there as you wanted to?

ES: No. I only studied drumset for my first year with Tommy Gwin. I was there for five years because I switched majors. The teacher they hired after Tommy could teach drumset, but all the set drummers who had studied with Tommy could carve this cat up.

SF: What was your musical involvement at North Texas as an English major?

ES: I played. Someone could say, “Why go to a university and pay to play?” I don’t know where else you could go and play in a good big band for five years, and get that experience without the outside pressures of the real world on you, and where you have no other responsibilities other than to learn your instrument. I got on Woody Herman’s band through North Texas. It was, and still is, like a farm school. The sad thing about some of the institutions is that they’ve gotten so large that the quality of instruction has gone to pot. But in a way that’s good. Those who are meant to be good will be twice as good, because of what they have to fight against.

The young drummers who are coming up today are more widely based than their predecessors. They have more to draw upon, simply because, by going to a university, they have studied music and percussion. That’s not to say that someone like Baby Dodds or Sid Catlett was an ignoramus. I don’t mean that. I mean that the resources we have to study from today—as opposed to before—have been consolidated and centralized in the university, so that someone like Peter Erskine can go to Indiana and study with someone like George Gaber. Kenny Aronoff, who is a great timpanist, can study at Tanglewood, but he ends up playing with John Cougar. It’s things like this that the little kids watching MTV don’t know and should know. Kenny Aronoff has a good, deep background as a musician. He’s not just up there banging away, and he’s not, simply, that kind of drummer, any more than Elvin Jones can only play triplets.

But the players today like Erskine, Aronoff, Steve Houghton, and Greg Bissonette weren’t hurt by going to a university. And again, we’re dealing with extremes. There are people who say—as I said one time—”You don’t have to go to school to learn how to play drums.” And you don’t! It’s just a matter of what your priorities and needs are. Some people get structured by going to New York, hanging out, and studying privately. Knowing what a university offers, if you feel it’s going to help you, go. If you don’t feel it’s going to help you, don’t go.

SF: In your private teaching practice, do you work from any specific method books?

ES: Ted Reed’s Syncopation and Stone’s Stick Control. Some people think that books in themselves are an end, and that one can learn to play the instrument by learning those books. Maybe that’s why there are teachers. Books give people different vocabularies to work with. Then, someone has to come in—to draw a very bad simile—and teach the pronunciation of that vocabulary. If students can’t play a particular lick in a rock book, they don’t know why they can’t play it. First, they are going to say it’s too hard, that the book’s no good, or that they need new foot pedals. The last thing they think about is that they can’t move a certain way so as to produce that certain pattern. They are simply concerned with the end result: the sound. They are not aware of what produces the sound, which is the motion. That leads me into the videotape that Horacee Arnold and I did. We deliberately addressed motion studies, and with the video, you can show them. The tape is called Drumset: A Musical Approach. It’s like condensing a whole lifetime of study into a two-hour overview, starting with grips, basic stroke types, and accent technique. Once one has established a basic technique on one surface, we address ways of moving it to the drumset. We’ve also included brief histories of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz drumming, with examples, and a discography and bibliography. People aren’t going to buy this because it’s Ed Soph and Horacee Arnold. They’re going to buy it because they’re going to learn something from it. There has to be more done with drummers from a motion standpoint, rather than simply an exercise standpoint. There’s too much learning through the eyes and not enough learning through the ears. There has to be more done relating to the body and how it works. I just don’t think books can do that that well.

SF: Let me ask if something else you said in ’78 still holds true. “One of the biggest problems I have is that I want to play music—I love to play music—but I have a great deal of difficulty accepting the environment that it must be played in.”

ES: I miss certain aspects of playing, but I don’t miss others. I know who I would like to play with, and if I ever have the opportunity, I will play. Take for example the trio Creatrix that I’m involved with. Not only from a musical standpoint, but for compatibility of the members, there’s no stress involved.

SF: How did Creatrix start?

ES: Wayne Darling was on bass, and I was the resident drummer at a clinic with Joe Henderson as guest clinician. Steve Erquiaga was the guitarist in Joe’s group. I’d never met Steve before. He asked if he could play with Wayne and I on one of the faculty concerts. Man, it was just lock-up city—amazing. The rhythmic concepts were just ridiculous. There were times where people actually thought that things were rehearsed. We had trouble not playing the same things. It would sound like people trying to copy each other. It got to the point where we had to tell ourselves, “If one guy starts to do something that you hear at the same time, somebody don’t do it.” It sounded like a bunch of people chasing each other.

Playing with that trio is truly what I’d like to do. Playing with a guitar is really good, for some reason, even more so than a piano. It’s looser. You can be more percussive on guitar. Guitarists I’ve played with, as opposed to pianists I’ve played with—with the exception of someone like Hal Galper or Jim McNeely—have been more rhythmically adventurous. Erquiaga would always say, “I wish I could get right inside the drums.” He has a great fascination with rhythm. He’s not overly concerned with harmonic concerns, as so many horn players can be.

Creatrix did some recording in Australia that was supposed to be a record, but it never came off. What amazes me—and I’m trying to say this as though I were not part of the group—is that, whenever the trio has played, the response has always been overwhelming. I mean, people go bananas! People are truly moved by the music. Still, no record companies, producers, etc., have been willing to take a gamble with Creatrix. But my musical goal is to, in some way or form, play in that trio setting. As long as the desire is there on all three of our parts, something will transpire. If things keep working out, maybe eventually I’ll be able to work the trio into a clinic situation. It’s so much nicer than dealing with clubs. I’ll tell you one difference. I could see how this could really rile older players, and rightfully so. When you do a clinic, people are coming there to listen, hopefully to learn, and to pick your brain. People are not coming there to bullshit, to make noise, or to be rude. In other words, you’re treated with some sort of respect. The more people can take from me, the more I can give to them, and the more I get in return.

Clinics have become a virtual necessity now, simply because jazz has become so spread out. It’s not a metropolitan music anymore. There are people interested in jazz/improvised music all over the world. People in a little town in Kansas can’t jump on a plane or train and go to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco or whatever. But musicians can come to them.

Now, a good clinic would be a format like the video Horacee and I did, where a person is almost compressing a whole lifetime of experience into one little lesson, saying, “‘This is what helped me. Try it and see if it’ll help you,” as opposed to a situation where an individual says, “Number one, I can’t read music. Number two, I’m self-taught. Number three, I don’t know anything about how these things work. I just sit down and play.” Great! Don’t call it a clinic. Sit down and play, but don’t call it a clinic! Also, the drummer who gets on stage, takes a solo, and then asks if there are any questions, immediately lets the audience dictate what is going to be said. No offense to young drummers, but, you and I, both having been young drummers at one time, know the average thought process of a 12- or 13-year-old drummer. “What size sticks do you use? How is your right foot so fast?” I don’t get those kinds of questions at my clinics very often. I don’t give the audience a chance to ask them. I ask them questions. I reverse the whole thing.

We all come up through the same stylistic changes as the music. Case in point: I’ve had kids at Aebersold clinics who play four-on-the-floor bass drum, a 2 and 4 backbeat with the left hand, and a non-repetitive ding-dinga-ding ride cymbal. I’ll ask, “Who do you listen to?” A kid will say Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Louis Bellson, and Max Roach. I’ll say, “Do they play the way you just played now?” “No.” “Then why do you play the way you play? Do you listen to those drummers, or are you just trying to impress me?” “No, I listen to them.” “Then why do you play the way you play?” “I don’t know.”

It all has to do with the development of the brain and how one learns the steps of coordination. By the end of that week, those kids have gone from their early period, emerging into their bebop period, because they’ve been taught, they’ve listened, and they’ve picked up from others how to coordinate that way. The sad part is that people try to bypass that. They try not to deal with it, learn it, and then move on to the next phase. Any good drummer does that anyway. That’s part of the progression.

SF: How much has rock music influenced you?

ES: Well, I’m 40 years old. When I grew up, I was a terrible jazz snob. When I was with Woody’s band, we did a couple of rock-oriented albums done by Richard Evans on Cadet Records. Morris Jennings was brought in to play percussion. There were a couple of swing tunes and the rest were like funk. On one take after another, Richard Evans just kept saying, “Ed, that isn’t the right feel, man. It still sounds like you’re playing jazz.” It got down to the point—especially on the Heavy Exposure album—where Morris had to play drumset on some of the stuff. He didn’t even look at the charts, and he just killed it! That’s when I woke up and realized that there really was something to playing this stuff.

Since then, I’ve found that, from studying funk and listening to good funk players, it’s just as much fun, just as demanding, and can be just as creative playing-wise. It’s all in your attitude. There’s good funk and there’s bad funk, just like there’s good and bad jazz. My favorite drummers back then were Dannie Richmond, Roy Haynes, and Max Roach. Of course, if I’d had the opportunity to meet one of those guys and said, “Gee, Mr. Haynes, I hate rock ‘n’ roll,” he probably would’ve said, “What are you turning your ears off for? Listen!” We accuse other people of categorizing us in our playing, but we do a large part of that to ourselves by our attitudes toward music. We gravitate toward that which we’re most familiar with and feel most comfortable with. I realized that, for years, my reasons for putting down rock ‘n’ roll were really because I was totally ignorant of it, and didn’t have the guts to try it.

A large part of my practicing now is geared towards funk-type stuff. From a teaching standpoint, let’s be realistic. With the way the marketplace is now, kids have a better chance of making their livings playing that sort of music, than they do if they go out and try to play like Elvin Jones. Kids who are serious drummers will be able to do it all. That’s the beauty of it, and that’s what really opened the door for me. One day I said to myself, “What am I, a jazz specialist?” I had kids who wanted to learn this or that, and I’d steer them someplace else. That’s not right. To establish a positive relationship with students you start out doing something they want to do, and then branch off from that in directions where you see they need to go.

Drummers who play like Elvin, Mel Lewis, or Steve Gadd, have studied their instrument, which means one thing: They can use their brains. They can think, and they can concentrate. Any good player on any instrument—anyone who does anything well—thinks well. That is one thing that MTV and many drum ads don’t talk about and don’t instill. Using your brain is the key to learning the instrument and playing it well. MTV and pictures of drums on fire do nothing for students. They do plenty for the merchandisers. But the merchandisers must realize that the only way they are going to maintain a market is by getting people who play the instrument on an ongoing basis, and who pass that information and love on to other kids who want to play. If you learn to think about the instrument, then you’ll find out immediately whether you want to play it. This is a hard instrument to play. You don’t just play a big backbeat on 2 and 4, and bash away on the hi-hat all night. There are other aspects to the instrument—just like you don’t play ding-dinga-ding and hip licks with your left hand all night. When some students hear that, they go, “Wow! Let’s get going.” And others don’t even have the guts to call you, and tell you that they’re not going to study anymore.

With a drumset, you’re working with students towards their ability, eventually, to improvise. I mean, 99% of the music played on drumset is improvised. The hardest thing to do with young or old students is to get them over the fear of making mistakes. As soon as students realize they can make mistakes, and that if they approach it in the right way, they can turn their mistakes into non-mistakes, then the battle’s won right there.

The last time I was in England, I ran into this little 12- or 13-year-old kid named Mark Mandaceer, who comes from one of those ghettos where they stick the West Indian folk. He’s so poor that he doesn’t even own a drumset. He can’t afford a teacher. He knows other kids who are taking lessons, and he cops lesson sheets from them. Man, this kid is just going to tear it up. He and the instrument are the same. He has natural movements behind the instrument, and the most beautiful thing of all is that he has no fear of failure—no fear of making a mistake. When he’s playing in this combo, and he tries to pull something off, but he drops about six beats all over the floor, he just turns to me and gives this great big smile, shrugs his shoulders and says, “Next time.” The next time comes and he kills.

SF: Are there any aspects of your studies that you would tell your five-year-old son Steven are a waste of time, and any aspects that you would tell him are absolutely essential to learn if he decides to become a professional drummer?

ES: No. The only thing I could tell him about would be his attitude, and about how to approach the instrument or what- ever he’s doing. I would tell him that none of it is drudgery, and that any event with the instrument can, and should, be positive. As soon as that instrument becomes something that you’re going to say right, wrong, good or bad with, then, to me, it has lost its validity. That instrument is neutral. As a musician, if you take a gig, your job is to play it well. There’s nothing worse than going on a gig where you’ve got a one armed bass player. If you get angry, first of all, that’s the most egotistical thing in the world. If you look hard enough and approach it the right way, you can make music at some level with that person, if you give and take—mostly give. It’s like Baby Dodds said: Your job is to make everyone in that band feel like playing. It’s a very idealistic way of looking at it, but you’ve got to. That’s your outlet.