MD Talks With Lenny White
by Aran Wald
WALD: Are your musicians schooled? Do you look for that?
WHITE: I don’t necessarily look for that. One of my guitarists went to Berklee and didn’t like it. It’s a different thing today because younger musicians are into all kinds of music. You have the fusion groups that play music with diverse roots. They come from traditional jazz music, or from rock and roll. The kids that started out listening to guitar from the Ventures are listening to George Benson. You have a cross reference, a meshing of styles.
WALD: Will you be diluting the effect if you seek to touch all bases?WHITE: Oh, we’ll basically have a concept. I write for the group and I’ll concentrate on certain things. Alex Blake writes for us, and the whole group put a tune together. So we have a direction – but we won’t be limited. I brought in a theme and had the whole group work on it and find out what kind of influences they would bring into this piece of music. I wanted to see what it would sound like if we all composed a single piece of music. We all use our roots and it’s all individual.
WALD: Where did you get your harmony training?
WHITE: I listen to a lot of records man, let me tell you. (laughs) If you mean did I have formal training – no. When I was young, the music played around the house was Duke, Basie, Trane, Miles and Bird. My father was a Lester Young fan. I listened to classical music in school, and I listened to more of it on my own – everyday. Even today I take a cassette player wherever I go. It’s a thing about conditioning. I have a very young son and everytime I turn on the music, he’s right there and moving. When my wife was pregnant, she was always around music. Maybe there are vibes – who knows. My harmonic approach to music is a lot more limited than someone who’s studied piano or whatever, but I don’t think it’s all that bad. It’s a matter of ears.
WALD: I assume you were a drummer to start?
WHITE: I don’t remember. I wanted to play trumpet, but the next thing I knew I was playing drums in the school orchestra. They’d have had me playing tuba unless I had two years training on drums. I told them I did and faked my way through it. To this day I don’t know whether my teacher knew, or I was lucky.
WALD: Did you ever have any formal drum training at all?
WHITE: No, not sitting down with a teacher. I know about flams and paradiddles, but I learned how to do them by watching people play, and by buying a book that told me what to do with what I saw. I still do some things that are incorrect technically. I lived down the street from a club called the Club Ruby and I saw Max Roach and Philly Jo. I’d look in the window and try to do the same thing. I’d listen to records and hear things, and try to create the same sound. Tony Williams was my idol. He would take Philly Jo’s style, Max’s style, and Roy Haynes, and he’d put his own thing to it. He would do things that were unorthodox. Opening the hi-hats and splash at them. Hit the stick here and there – drag the stick. Roy would hit on all four corners of the beat, not necessarily the downbeat. His hi-hat wouldn’t be on two and four all the time.
WALD: Wouldn’t you give the credit for all that to Art Blakey who experimented like that before Haynes?
WHITE: Art played in the middle of the beat. Philly Jo and Tony played on top of the beat; Elvin played a little bit behind, but Art played right in the center, like the pulse. Of course I listened to Art. I could play one of his solos, pressed tolls and all. He was the first person I heard play K. Zildjian cymbals. I didn’t know what it was, but the sound on those old Blue Note records…the crash would be like (makes a sound of rolling surf). Those K. Zildjians were different from the A’s. K’s are made in Turkey. They’re darker sounding with more overtones. I remember getting my first K’s and sounding like Art Blakey.
WALD: What do you use now?
WHITE: I use mostly A’s, due to the nature of the new music. K’s don’t cut. I was using K’s when I first went with RTF and beating them to death. They wouldn’t project. They’re softer and they would split and crack. I did a little research and listening and bought some A’s which are brighter and a little bit heavier. They also project more. You need that with all the other electronic instruments up there. We drummers don’t turn up an amplifier. It’s all pressure we put in the drum or the cymbal. Out of the frequency range they rate near the top. You can get a synthesizer to play notes that are above that, but you can’t hear them. There are overtones that you can’t hear from cymbals, too. I use A. Zildjian because of the amplification, and because they’re brighter and they cut through more.
WALD: What about your drums?
WHITE: My first set was an $80 special – didn’t even have a hi-hat; just a bass drum, snare and cymbal. Later, a friend of the family – Brad Spinney – gave me a Gretsch set – my first real set. It was THE thing to use Gretsch because of that little insignia on the bass drum, and all of the people I admired played them. I still use Gretsch. I use one 22″ bass with both heads. All my drums have two heads. I use 12″ and 13″ mounted toms, and three floor toms: 14″, 16″ and 18 x 16″. My snare is 5 x 14″. I have a few snare drums, but the one I use live and on recordings is a Gretsch wood. It has a special strainer on it, and nylon snares by Hinger. I also use an A. Zildjian 24″ high buffed heavy ride cymbal. The heaviness allows me to get the cleanliness, the definition rather than overtones. I like to hear the actual attack. I also use a 16″ and 18″ crash, and a 20″ K. Zildjian with six rivets. My hi-hats are high gloss 14″ heavy.
WALD: No splash, no gongs?
WHITE: No, not my style. I used some of the percussion things earlier in my career, but not now. But I’ll use them again.
WALD: What’s the difference between what you’re playing now and earlier?
WHITE: What we’re playing now is more structured. RTF was very structured also. You had the same situation I described earlier. You had people who came from the improvising school of music, Chick, Stanley and myself – post bop. We played this structured type music. What’s different is that I’m touching more areas than I did before. With RTFI played more high energy music, all dexterity, a lot of emphasis on notes – technique. The new group is more into textures, sound images. We try to recreate musical images that fit the tunes. On one piece, we try to recreate the music of China. On another, the textures from Egypt. We make audio pictures. We did some of that with RTF, but I still think the emphasis was on technical dexterity, and sheer artistic bent.
WALD: Did you practice when you were with them?
“I don’t like to use electronics just because it’s there. I think
they should be used musically, around a piece of music.
I feel the same way about drum solos.”
WHITE: We didn’t rehearse that much. We’d rehearse before we had a record date. The first time we played new music with Al DiMeola in the band we rehearsed for two days. I didn’t practice that much. I had some difficulty with some things that RTF played, but on the whole there weren’t that many problems. I can remember two instances that involved incorrect sticking. On Celebration Suite there was a drum thing and I had a problem with it, mostly because of incorrect sticking. I was prepared to work it out, but Chick said he’d work something around it. Since then, things like that have come easier to me because I constantly do it. You acquire different techniques, just like Miles created his own thing. I’ll have mine because I don’t have a technical approach to the music. I try to get the most musical approach to the instrument I can.
WALD: Does head pressure have anything to do with that?
WHITE: Sure. I use Remo Ambassador weight clear heads. On the snare drum I use a coated head, a regular snare drum batter. I use a Diplomat on the bottom. The pressure varies from recordings to live performances. There are different acoustics in different halls. There’s also the handicap of the drummer sitting on stage playing in his sound and not actually hearing it. You don’t know how it sounds to the audience because the sound goes through speakers. You hear it through the monitors sure, but you don’t get a true, true sound. You try to get a sound that’s as true as possible. I’ll tune a drum and know that the sound will carry, that it will have weight. If I tuned it with more tension it would make the sound a bit thinner, and it wouldn’t carry the same way. It would lose some of its impact if I loosened it a bit more.
Today’s drummer is what really makes the band happen.
The guy who keeps the time. If the time gets weird,
the soloists can’t play. Even the greatest soloist in
the world can’t play if the bottom falls out from
WALD: Have you tried metal or fiberglass?
WHITE: Yeah. Also plastic, but I like the sound of the true drums. I like the sound of wood.
WALD: About the size of your set-up, do you consider yours large or small?
WHITE: I’m right in the middle between a bop set-up like Max’s, and Billy Cobham’s wrap-around. I might augment the set with some Remo Rototoms or melodic tom-toms. They give you some melodic depth.
WALD: Would you get the same melodic depth by adding electronics?
WHITE: I did some recording in 1970 where I used electronic instruments. I did a session with George Cables and Stanley Clarke which was never released, and I used a lot of electronics on my drums. I did a session with Luis Gasca and Carlos Santana and there’s a bit on there too. There was one with Buddy Terry that I used Echoplex on.
WALD: What about the drum synthesizer?
WHITE: I used a Moog for an effect, but I used it musically. I don’t like to use electronics just because it’s there. I think they should be used musically around a piece of music we do that’s just a drum thing. I play a drum lick on bass drum and we get everybody in the group to play the same lick with melodic notes, but it’s the same lick. That’s the best way to present a drum solo. Like the way Philly played rudiments. To me classic fours is Billy Boy on Miles Davis’s Milestones album.
WALD: That’s probably the most deft brush work I’ve ever heard.
WHITE: Another solo that sticks out in my mind would be Skin Deep by Louie Bellson with Ellington. That’s a work man. The band was around him. They played the drum solo WITH him and that’s the way it should be presented. One piece of mine opens with synthesizer on a sequencer, that is a sample and hold which is played randomly. I’ll play with that and the band will play around it. The band supports the drums. It’s arranged so that the drums are playing on this figure. It’s the same concept as a horn player playing and the rhythm section accompanying him. This way, the drummer is playing the solo and everyone else is accompanying him.
WALD: I take it you’re an ensemble player.
WHITE: That’s the thing I liked about Roy, Tony and Philly, too. In the early days of the Lifetime group with McGloughlin and Larry Young, they’d play figures and Tony would play on top of the figures. The group around Roy Haynes would play a blues and Roy would play a melodic solo over the blues. That’s like an art to me – to be able to play a drum solo and make it melodic. Max did it all the time, Bemsha Swing, Parisian Thoroughfare, I Get a Kick out of You; that’s arty drumming to me. I met Max the day I did the Bitches Brew album with Miles. We had a little talk and he befriended me – gave me some pointers. Later, I met Art Blakey at Slug’s in the Village and he paid me the highest compliment by letting me sit in on some solos; he did that again at the Village Vanguard. When I was playing the Vanguard with Freddie Hubbard, I went back to the kitchen and Philly Jo was there. He said, “You’re playing good. You gotta kick Freddie’s ass, make his lips burn.” All the while Freddie was telling me I was playing too loud. When I came up it was the chic thing to be overpowering. It was hip to get over. It was during the time Tony was with Miles and Elvin was with Trane. And they were different, not only harmonically, but the way they approached the beat. Both Elvin and Tony played pulse, but Tony was more on top of the beat – ride-hi-hat. Elvin was into the DRUMS, like quarter note triplets and stuff. They were two different schools. It was the thing to hear people say, “man, that drummer was bad. Did you hear that drummer with Freddie?” You wanted to make a voice and to have people hear you.
WALD: Do you use both stick grips?
WHITE: I used to. I still use the traditional grip when I play straight ahead, but you get more power out of the matched.
WALD: When you listen to a group’s drummer, what do you like to hear?
WHITE: In today’s music I listen for a drummer that has built-in-ears – a guy who pushes the band. Today’s drummer is what really makes the band happen. The guy who keeps the time. If the time gets weird the soloists can’t play. Even the greatest soloist in the world can’t play if the bottom falls out from under him. All the great players are masters at doing that. Buddy pushes that band man, and he’s colorful. A drummer is back there sitting. He can’t move. He has to sit there and be colorful. He has to be animated.
WALD: Do sticks make a difference?
WHITE: I use a Regal Tip 5A. They’re between light and heavy. I use the plastic tip, again, because of the clean, crisp sound.
WALD: What have you learned from being a leader?
WHITE: All about life. Basically, how to put things together. More will come through trial and error. At concerts, my attention was on the stage where it shouldn’t be. The people became more impressed with me than they were with my group. That’s understandable because I was the leader and the best known, and I felt I had to perform because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t go over. I might have put on better performances had I been more relaxed. Now I know that if I spread the spotlight around it takes the pressure off any one of us. My concentration now is on the audience rather than on the stage. Your attention should be around the whole room and not centered in any one area. My attention was on everyone on stage. I wasn’t playing to the audience; I was playing to the guys on stage – like a quarterback giving orders. I’ve also learned to play differently in a club than I do at a concert. My attention span must take in the whole room – no matter how large.
WALD: Now that jazz is getting out there, more musicians are learning to project themselves. What’s your goal?
WHITE: First, I want to become a personality, then a musical personality, then a drummer. If someone tuned in and saw Buddy on the Tonight Show and never heard him play, they’d think he was a comedian. I know, I can do that. I can tell jokes. I want people to say, “I love his music; I love the way he plays, and I love the guy.” All about Lenny White. Take Miles, for instance. Here’s a guy who is loved for all the things you’re not supposed to do.
WALD: What about setting up a group. Is it difficult?
WHITE:: For some, I guess it is. I was with the top group of my genre. I didn’t have to start at the bottom again. I had the recognition already. Business wise, you have to have something that appeals to people, not only musically – but visually. You have to be an accessible commodity. If you’re not accessible, you don’t get on TV, and TV is the most important medium today. More people come to see the show than hear the music these days. The first thing you must have is a musical concept. Then, you begin to make it salable. The classic examples are the Beatles, their haircuts – clothes. People began to believe them when they said anything. Another example is Muhammed Ali. He’s the most famous man in the world, and it’s not because of boxing alone. People who hate him will also come just to see him get beat. He gets it over. He makes it accessible. In my case, it also has to compliment the music, or it won’t work for me.