Shelly Manne

by Dave Levine


Many of the things that drummers take for granted today would never have come about if someone hadn’t dared to try it first; if some pioneer hadn’t crossed over into unexplored territory; if some drummer hadn’t found a new way of propelling a band. Often the names of these players are obscure. In at least one case, however, the name of a drummer can he directly linked to a substantial contribution to the art of drumming.

Shelly Manne was one of the first drummers to realize the full potential of the drums as instruments capable of making a complete musical, not merely rhythmic, contribution to a group. Through experimentation and his diverse influences, he developed a more relaxed, though still intense, style of drumming. He consciously turned away from a technical approach, relying instead on the physical control of the instrument only as a means of expressing the emotions of music.

His unique philosophy can best be stated in his paraphrase of something he once heard violinist Isaac Stern say. “There are many good players, hut some use music to show off their instrument and others use their instrument to make music. Those are the players that I care about.”

Shelly Manne was born in New York City in 1920. His father was a professional drummer. Though Shelly wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, father, knowing best, selected the saxophone as his son’s musical instrument. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

DL: How did you get involved in jazz and the drums?

SM: When I was 17, two friends took me to hear Roy Eldridge’s band in Harlem, at the Goldengate Ballroom. After hearing them I decided that not only was I going to be a drummer, but I was going to be a jazz drummer.

In addition to being an excellent tympanist, my father was also the contractor of a large orchestra at Radio City Music Hall. I was around musicians all the time. One of these musicians was the great percussionist Billy Gladstone. Billy could see that I was more interested in the drums than the saxophone. One day, when I was about 18, Billy and I secretly took my saxophone to Manny’s where we traded it in for a set of drums. Billy became my first drum teacher.

The first lesson I ever had was in the percussion room, downstairs, at Radio City Music Hall. Billy showed me how to set up the drums and how to hold the sticks. He put Count Basie’s “Topsie” (with Jo Jones on drums) on the phonograph, told me to play, and then walked out of the room. That was my first experience in playing the drums.

DL: You started kind of late. How long did it take before you were working?

SM: I had only been playing for three months when I got my first job on a transatlantic ocean liner. It didn’t last long because I already had opinions about the way music should be. I got off the boats and spent my time in New York at the clubs.

The scene in New York was fantastic! A once-in- a-lifetime thing; a once-in-a-forever thing. If you wanted to see any musician you would just come down to 52nd street. They were there, either working or just hanging out. It will never happen quite that way again.

I was so young that I had to sit in the back of the clubs with my Coca-Cola. One day, Arthur Herbert came up to me and asked me why I was always there. I told him I wanted to play the drums. He let me sit in and eventually I was sitting in all the time. I became familiar with the guys.

DL: Who were some of the big-bands you played with early in your career?

SM: My first big-band experience was when Ray McKinley recommended me for the Bobby Byrne band. I was fired after 8 months because Bobby wanted a Gene Krupa-type drummer who could play extended drum solos.

My next job was with the Benny Goodman band as a sub for Dave Tough. Benny knew that Davey was sick, so he called me up and said, “Hey kid, I’m going to the President’s ball tomorrow. The train leaves at one o’clock; just bring your cymbals, I’ve got the drums.” I said, “Yes sir!”

I showed up at Grand Central Station at 8 in the morning, waiting, and here came all those great musicians; Cootie Williams, Charlie Christian, Georgie Auld, and the rest of the band. I was shell-shocked. But that experience furthered my belief that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

When Davey was well enough to join the Goodman band, I took Davey’s place with Joe Marsala. Following that I worked with Bob Astor, Will Bradley (where I took Ray McKinley’s chair when Ray left to form his own band), Raymond Scott and Les Brown.

DL: How did you meet Stan Kenton?

SM: After the war I returned to 52nd street. I kept busy playing in the many small bands that flourished there. In 1946 some musician friends of mine brought Stan to the 3 Dueces, where I was working. Stan heard me play and asked me to join the band.

This was a big decision for Flip [Shelly’s wife] and me. She was a Rockette, and I was doing well in New York radio and club work. Together we decided it would be a good move so we packed our bags and went on the road.

DL: While you were on the band, the “Kenton Drum Sound” was established. How much did he guide you in defining that sound?

SM: Stan was a powerful man and he wanted a powerful sound. He wanted the band to move by sound rather than just by time. And it did. Stan never told me what to do, how to tune, what cymbals to use, or any of the stuff. Anything that happened was through my own inspiration. Of course, if you got into a particular area where Stan didn’t like what was happening he would tell you and then you’d just find another direction. Stan gave us complete freedom. Whatever came out of it was my sound, and it became the band’s sound. Just like when Kai Winding created the “Kenton” trombone sound.

The Kenton band of that era was probably the most famous, most popular band he ever had. With Shelly in the driver’s seat the “Kenton Sound” solidified. Shelly started making a national name for himself; he even had his own fan club. From 1947 until as late as 1962 Shelly was the top drummer in one major jazz poll after another. His work with the Kenton band was interrupted twice: first to work with Charlie Ventura, Bill Harris, and Jazz at the Philharmonic. Later he spent a year with the Woody Herman band.

DL: When did you settle in Los Angeles and what kind of work did you do?

SM: In 1952 Flip and I got off the road and settled in LA. I worked regularly at the Lighthouse but I didn’t do too much studio work. Most studios had staff orchestras and even when they needed extra players they weren’t inclined to call jazz musicians.

My first studio call was on a Hitchcock movie called Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart. Part of the music was Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-style “Fancy Free.” I was called because of my reputation as a jazz drummer. I did so well that the contractor and I were both heroes. They realized that jazz players could play other music than just “spang-a-lang.” If you have ears and absorb music you can translate that into your playing. This opened doors not only for me but for other jazz musicians, as well.

DL: During the ’50s you were very involved in the development of the “West Coast” style of jazz. What was “West Coast” jazz?

SM: The people who were writing about music said, “These guys don’t play like they do in New York.” But all of us were from New York. If we had stayed there we might still have done the same thing. They seemed to put up a wall between the east and west coasts. But music is not a competition, it’s not the Olympics. It’s supposed to be an art.

You can’t compare any artist to another artist. It’s not right. You can’t go into a museum and say, “This guy was greater than that guy.” That’s only an opinion. They’re all in the muse- um because they all had something to contribute, and they all influenced one another. It’s the same with music.

There were so many musicians in New York and there was a great interchange of ideas. The same thing happened in LA but it was among a smaller group. You know, you don’t have to freeze to be creative.

Miles Davis’ The Birth of the Cool was the beginning of the West Coast Sound. That record was recorded (in New York) in 1949. It featured Miles with a nine-piece group that included Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and Max Roach, among others. That album had a great effect on a lot of musicians. We (in LA) felt that was the direction we wanted to go.

The West Coast Style was characterized by cool, more subdued playing, with a relaxed swing feel. This style also drew on more traditional, classical concepts of harmony, counterpoint and form, combined with the improvisational influences of be-bop. Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Guiffre, along with myself, were the leading West Coast proponents. I was the main drummer for those records and that concept.

DL: How did you apply your concept of drumming to this new style?

SM: Through search and experimentation I tried always to maintain a fresh approach to my playing. I was successful in evolving a more flexible, more imaginative, more musical functioning of the drummer. (I had always been concerned more with the feeling that music created than with the way that feeling was produced.

I realized that drums could be used as a melodic instrument and still maintain their place in the rhythm section. Instead of letting the rhythm imply its own melody, my concept is to play melodically and allow the melody to create rhythm. My ideas are linearly conceived and executed, often in opposition to the structure of the bar lines. Improvisation is the result of melodic, not rhythmic, thinking.

Following the birth and maturation of the West Coast sound, Shelly continued to be a force on the LA jazz scene. In I960 he opened his own jazz club, Shelly’s Manne-Hole, in Hollywood. Many major bands and combos performed there as did Shelly’s own groups when his schedule permitted.

Because of problems with noise leaking into a recording studio adjacent to the Manne-Hole, the club closed in 1973. Since that time Shelly has kept busy playing and recording with groups that ranged from straight ahead he-hop to jazz rock fusion. He is presently working with a quartet that consists of drums, bass, and two pianos.

DL: What kind of drums are you using?

SM: Sonor drums. All wood. I care about the wood, not the thickness. I’d rather not have too thick shells for the reason that schlepping them around takes muscle. I’m only concerned that the wood must be good.

I use a 4-piece set for live jazz playing. 5 x 1 4 snare, 12″ and 14″ toms, and a 20″ bass. My jazz set has Remo Fiberskyn 2’s on it. In the studio I use coated Diplomats. My studio set has more tom-toms; 8″, 10″. 12″, 13″, 16″ and a 22″ bass.

DL: What’s your cymbal setup?

SM: 14″ hi-hats. I’m using a 19″ K. Zildjian on my left. On the right I’ve got a freaky cymbal that I use only with a trio or quartet. It’s a cymbal I found in Paris. I don’t know what kind of metal is in it. It’s flat and speaks very definitely. I’m using an old Zildjian 20″ swish with sizzles in it.

When I’m not using that flat cymbal I have a 20″ A. Zildjian and I also have a 20″ Paiste. In studio work I have an 18″ crash on my left and another 20″ crash on my right.

DL: How do you pick your hi-hat cymbals?

SM: Medium to medium heavy on the bottom, medium to medium-thin on top. I keep thinking of Papa Jo Jones when I buy hi-hats. I try to find cymbals so that if the hi-hat is left open a crack I get an even sound. Naturally, I want a good “chick” when I play them with my foot but I don’t want that to out-balance the rest of my cymbals. I don’t want it to be the dominant thing.

In rock drumming it’s different. You look for a certain “chick” by playing (sticks) on the closed hi-hats and a big explosion when you open them. With rides and crashes, first I’ll go through a whole flock of cymbals just to find a sound I like. It could be bright or dark, a musical sound. Not too metallic. A pure sound, not a pure pitch. I try to get a cymbal that doesn’t set up a definite pitch. I try to get an even-sounding cymbal that doesn’t spread too much. I don’t want a cymbal that builds up if I’m not putting more energy into it.

Sometimes I pick cymbals for recording differently, with a specific sound in mind. Generally, though, I like to stay with the same cymbals that I use when I’m playing live. I figure if they sound good to me then it’s the engineer’s problem.

DL: Do you look for a name on a cymbal?

SM: No. If I play a cymbal and I like it, then I’ll look and see what it is.

DL: How often do you replace your cymbals’?

SM: Hopefully, never.

DL: To hear a great brush player is inspiring. The sounds they can get are amazing. Why don’t more players play brushes well?

SM: It’s a matter of having to do it. It’s something you do by playing; by using them all the time. In most bands, nowadays, not a lot of brush playing is necessary.

You have to approach brushes differently than sticks. Brushes are constructed so that there’s a sweep involved. That’s why they’re brushes. A lot of guys play brushes like they play sticks. They use the same kind of technique and the same kind of stroking. If you’re just going to hit them you can use a stick. But if you use the brushes correctly you should make use of the spread of the brushes and the sweeping feeling.

That’s the way I approach brushes. To get a sweeping feeling is the most important thing. Once a rhythmical sweep is gotten then the accents can be added on top of it.

Brush technique is finding the stroke the way you want to perform it and then smoothing it, making it like silk. It is a different feel, it’s almost a different body motion. It’s a softening of your hands and your wrists to create the illusion of silk. It’s difficult to explain but I know it is totally different than playing sticks.

There’s a good brush book out. Philly Joe’s brush book (Brush Artistry, by Philly Joe Jones, published by Premier Drum Co.). It’s pretty close to the same technique that I use.

DL: Does tuning the drums mean the same thing today as it did when you were learning to play?

SM: The traditional concept of tuning is gone. It’s tuning but in a different way; it’s deadening. How to deaden your drums correctly more than how to tune them correctly. With calf heads players were (necessarily) more involved in tuning. I’d stop the whole Kenton band at Carnegie Hall to tune my drums. Once I spent a whole day with Jim Chapin trying to tune a snare drum to get the sound that Jo Jones got on a rim shot. Even with plastic heads you can still tune the drums to get a good, musical sound.

Players aren’t completely to blame, though. I detest contemporary tuning but my studio set is the same way. It’s largely been caused by recording techniques and engineers with 16 and 32 channels who were getting leakage. So they put a mic up inside the drum, tape the heads, and throw a pillow in the bass drum. Maybe if we were still recording monorally, or with 2 tracks, we’d still be using open drums like I still do on all my jazz jobs and recording sessions.

In the new concept of drumming that has grown out of these advances, a lot of individuality has been lost. It’s been narrowed down to trying to make everybody sound the same, which to me, is a big drag. I used to be able to tell who the drummer was from one cymbal crash or one rim shot. Now 20 drummers playing in fusion bands all sound the same.

I’ll never learn to play drums that way. Davey Tough taught me that there’s a difference between playing loud and getting a full sound. Still, there are some great drummers today: Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Peter Erskine, and Steve Gadd, all of whom, coincidentally, have strong jazz backgrounds.

DL: You have been outspoken about the role that technique should play in a musician’s development. Can you restate some of those views?

SM: Technique is only a means to get there. Technique is important but it’s a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s like eating with a knife and fork. How you do it is not the most important thing. After awhile you learn to use the tools and you forget about them. Distinctive playing is a learned musical attitude more than a learned technique.

The most important things musicians, especially drummers, have are their ears. If they open their ears and listen they can learn. If they have control of their hands they can transfer what they’ve learned into the concept that they’re playing. You don’t play a snare drum part in a 60-piece orchestra like you’re playing with Count Basie.

The main thing a drummer still needs to do is play time that swings. Spang-splang-a-lang is the hardest thing in the world to do. The time has to live, not be just good time. A metronome has good time.

8th notes and 16th notes (in rock) create less space to worry about. But there’s beauty in space. Most guys I hear try to fill up every inch. On a slow tempo, like Count Basie’s “Lil’ Darlin’,” there’s so much space that you have to have some time going within yourself to create a swinging feeling.

DL: So, the swinging time has to be there first?

SM: You can take all the technique, and the solos, and the speed, and all of that stuff and throw it out the window if the other thing doesn’t exist. Because the other thing is what counts. The other thing is what makes it possible to play with anybody at any time, in any kind of music. That’s a thing inside of you.

Even today, after all these years, there’s still only a handful of guys who you can point to and say, “Boy, they can really burn, they’re great.” They’re great mainly because of the time factor.

You can train yourself to be more aware but it still won’t be a natural feeling. The swing feeling that is generated from playing good time I don’t think you can learn. Otherwise there’d be thousands of guys who could swing their buns oft”.

DL: The best drummers do have a good sense of time, a unique sound, and a certain flexibility. Are you saying that these things cannot be developed?

SM: There’s a thing called talent that enters into it, and who knows what talent is? When you’re talking about talent you’re talking about a very abstract thing. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. It’s the same thing with all the instruments. You just can’t teach that (talent).

DL: Isn’t there some grey area between “you’ve got it” or “forget it?”

SM: The grey area is there. Through teaching you can give a guy better time by making him practice with a metronome and by making him more aware of it. But there are guys who will always play time like a metronome; who will play good time but it won’t swing. Time can be learned, but to swing can’t. That’s the difference. It’s that difference that’s very abstract.

For me, jazz is something that happens naturally. The feeling is there. Just like it is for symphony or rock players. If that natural feeling, that conviction isn’t there, then the magic of the-music won’t be there. I don’t feel I’m a rock drummer because I don’t play rock with conviction.

DL: Do you believe that talent will seek its own level?

SM: In most cases I would say yes. But they have to devote some time to developing their talent, too. Maybe you’ll find a great drummer in Des Moines, Iowa, but I don’t know of him yet. He’s possibly there, I’m sure he’s there. I’m sure there are guys like this all over. If they make a move to be heard and get to be heard, and if they have that kind of ability, then they will make it.

DL: So, if there are two people, one with less talent, but he works harder than the other one (with talent), will the other one still be the better player?

SM: Yes, but there’s something about becoming a good craftsman, also. The guys that have good time, but maybe don’t swing; and have great chops, but maybe no imagination; and have all the things that go with learning how to play drums, can become good craftsmen, maybe even great craftsmen. And they can always find work and a way to survive, whether it be in a symphony, in the studios, or in a jazz band.

Artists have to play all the time. They have to be searching all the time. They have to have imagination. Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Haven’t you noticed, that when you talk about great drum artists you always go back to the same names? Sid Catlett, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Jo Jones, Roy Haynes, Buddy Rich. Up the line to modern drummers like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. I haven’t even named 10 guys. What makes the difference isn’t that one guy played faster than the other, or one didn’t study longer than the other, but they have an imagination about playing. They have an identity to their playing, and they can swing their asses off.

The guy with less talent has to work harder.

DL: Do you view yourself as an artist or as a craftsman?

SM: As an artist who’s also developed a craft because I do studio work. First and foremost I’m a jazz musician but I don’t just go into the studio and play be-bop.

DL: Who is responsible for the time in a band?

SM: In a jazz rhythm section the bass player and the drummer have to see eye-to-eye as far as the time is concerned. You must hit together and sound together. If you don’t see eye-to-eye, you do your best to give and take. The first thing you don’t do is fight him. You can’t win by fighting. You discuss it with him in a nice way. The drummer and the bass player have to be happy playing together for something to happen.

If someone tells you that you rushed or dragged, don’t take it as an insult. Take it where it came from and analyze it, and be aware of it the next time you play that chart. Every band has conflicts like that.

A little secret that I have for time feeling is to constantly think of the melody of the song I’m playing. By singing the melody you can tell if the time is remaining stable. It’s a double check for yourself.

DL: What are your feelings about drum solos’?

SM: I’m no friend of long drum solos. I think you should approach every drum solo the way a good improviser ap proaches soloing; you shouldn’t know what you’re going to do until the time comes to do it. Miles Davis said that you should aim a little farther than you think you can reach.

If you sit in your room, practicing, and come up with a great 8-bar drum solo, and you really get it down, and you use it every time—regardless of what’s happening with the music—you’re not creating. Transcribed drum parts often look simple on paper but when they are analyzed in their creative musical context they take on increased meaning. A drum solo taken out of context may have little or no meaning.

It bothers me that some great jazz musicians, who created a solo that happened to become popular for reasons of greatness, repeat themselves for the audience. I find that happens a lot. The artist should never play and say, “Hey, this is going to knock them out!” The artist should play something he really feels at the moment. If it knocks everybody out, so much the better.

An artist has to be concerned with the music and the music alone. He wants the audience to like what he’s doing but he can’t be concerned with what the audience is thinking.

DL: Can’t you be inspired by the audience? Suppose I were playing somewhere and Elvin Jones came in?

SM: Of course that would turn you on to play better, but not just to show oft”. Human nature would make you want to show off but you should just be playing the best you know how, with your head down and not seeing who’s in the joint. You should be so into the music that someone in the audience wouldn’t enter into it. By doing that you’d probably knock him on his butt.

DL: How important is it to play, and how important is it to practice on your own?

SM: It’s more important to play. I’ve always felt that playing is the most important thing. You learn something every time you play. It’s the experience of playing that, over the years, makes you a good player. Under any conditions, whether it’s Lawrence Welk, a wedding, or a bar-mitzvah, you learn something that can be used someplace down the line.

DL: Is it easier to get that experience today?

SM: 30 or 40 years ago very few drummers could read. Now many drummers come out of conservatories and are complete musicians. They’ve studied theory, harmony, composition. Do you know how many good drummers come out of North Texas State? Lots. They’re learning but it’s not education in the traditional sense. They’re learning because they have the opportunity to play all the time. The school gives them that opportunity. They’re playing with a good big-band, and good little bands and good, if not great, musicians, and they’re getting that experience. That’s what’s so important about the school systems, and the clinics, and the music education systems.

We never got the opportunity to play in school. Now it’s THE place where they get to play and I think it’s the playing that makes them better musicians.

Now that I think about it, there are more opportunities. Before, the only opportunities were to get a theater job, a radio staff job, or to go on the road with a band.

DL: Okay, there are more opportunities to get experience now, but there are more players and more competition. Is there also more opportunity to earn a living in music?

SM: There are more symphonies, more schools, more teaching positions, more studio work, and there are also more musicians. Not just in LA, but throughout the country. I’m not sure who’s outdistancing who.

There’s always competition. You have to have that kind of competition because you grow through that. You’re not just talking about drums, you’re talking about life. The same things apply.

It used to be the competition of just playing against one another. It was like a cutting session: “Let me get up on the stand; I’m gonna put this cat away!” It was fun and after it was over the guys would hug each other and be happy that they were able to play against each other. It has become more of an economic competition because there are more players.

Every Saturday when you watch a football game you see a 125 piece marching band on the field. A lot of those players are studying music. A lot of them are thinking about becoming professional musicians. Every college has a football team and a band. You wonder where they’re going to go.

On a recent Japanese tour Shelly found himself playing in two very different settings. One was a swing-style combo where he was teamed with Benny Carter, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Milt Hinton, and Teddy Wilson. The other group was a progressive jazz unit featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Cal Tjader, Harold Land, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Illinois Jacquet, Eddie Gomez, and Cedar Walton. Both groups performed on the same concerts though they were stylistically 20 years apart. Because of his diverse background, flexibility, and willingness, Shelly was able to adapt to both situations.

DL: You’ve always had a reputation as an adaptable performer. How was that developed and how is it maintained?

SM: Disciplining yourself to play all kinds of music, and to be aware of all kinds of music, makes you a better musician. Most musicians who become famous reach a pinnacle in their career and are accepted by people around the world as the premier artist at what they do. Some of them believe that and stop developing. They become a little closed to new concepts, to new music. I’ve always had a great curiosity about new music.

It’s nothing for a studio string player to go from classical to rock. It’s still half notes and whole notes. In the rhythm section, everyday you’ll get a composer who’ll come in and say, “I want this to sound like. . .” and then he’ll mention a record. Now, I haven’t heard that record. He happened to hear it driving to work in his Mercedes. He heard some band that took 6 months to lay down one side; where the drummer psyched out all he was going to do, laid down his track, and then everybody laid down tracks on top of it. He expects to go into the studio the next day and create that whole feeling, NOW.

He’ll write out the beat the drummer played. The drummer might have psyched out the beat for quite awhile. All of a sudden I look at it and it’s a strange beat. I mean he’s got the bass drum very independent. I’ve got to look at it for a minute. The more I play it the more comfortable it feels. By now I’ve learned another beat.

You have to be prepared. You have to maintain your thing but still be aware of what’s happening. I would never have learned to play rock if I was just playing jazz, not doing so much studio work.

DL: Jazz used to be a clearly defined area of music. Are the lines getting fuzzy? With all the crossover, is categorizing music still valid?

SM: Well, you can say that music is music, but jazz does signify something specific to me. The lines are becoming fuzzy to the people that listen to music but I don’t think they’re fuzzy to real jazz players. The basic ingredients still hold true today. The feeling of swing, the construction of improvised solos, good chord changes, the empathy that happens between players, and the total freedom of playing; those elements are still the most important parts of jazz.

Jazz has always absorbed other kinds of music. That’s good. The young kids who come to jazz clubs now aren’t just the jazz fringe that have always been there, they’re becoming the mainstream of music listeners.

DL: Are there any things in music that you would like to do that you haven’t done?

SM: No. I never liked to set goals. I just want to keep playing and I want to keep expanding my playing. When I go to jobs now I still have the same feelings I had when I was younger. The reasons I wanted to play in the beginning were not so much to make a living. I never thought about making a living. I just try to please myself when I play.