Ed Thigpen
Photo by Charles Stewart

Being a student of jazz drumming during the ’60s could ofttimes be a mind-boggling experience. One had more than a fair share of influences to draw upon: Elvin Jones and Coltrane; Blackwell and Higgins with Ornette Coleman; Philly Joe and Miles; Morello and Brubeck. Assuming that straight-ahead, hard-driving jazz drumming was your thing, you probably would have also found it hard not to be influenced by the tasteful and inspired drumming of Ed Thigpen with the dynamic Oscar Peterson Trio of 1959-65; the “little orchestra, ” as Thigpen fondly refers to it.

Since that time, Ed Thigpen has continued to be a key force on the jazz scene, despite the fact that ten years ago he seemed to drop out of sight. In truth, he has spent the last decade as a successful member of the European jazz elite, with Denmark as home base; a move which has positioned him slightly left of the domestic jazz limelight since 1972. However, in Europe, Ed Thigpen can be found at nearly every major jazz event, and as a Sideman for the Who’s Who of American jazz artists who regularly pass through.

Long recognized for his superb taste, impeccable time and remarkable facility with brushes, Ed Thigpen has maintained a reputation as one of the most proficient jazz drummers in the business. We met in a relaxed setting at the MD offices during a recent, far too infrequent visit home. Among the many words spoken, the resulting dialogue tends to leave one with a single, strong impression: Clearly, Ed Thigpen represents everything that is good about jazz, and modern jazz drumming— on any continent.

 

MH: Your dad was Ben Thigpen, drummer with the Andy Kirk Orchestra from 1930 to 1947. I imagine that was a strong early musical influence.

ET: Yes, my father was actually a very fine big band drummer. I can remember him taking me just about everywhere with him when I was quite young. The Andy Kirk band was based in Kansas City during those years, and I recall being up at the union hall a great deal; being at the band rehearsals, and just hanging out with the guys in the band. I was very young.

My dad once told me that during the rehearsal breaks, I’d climb up on the bandstand, get behind his 28″ bass drum and work the pedal. I was just a little kid. The guys would get a big kick out of it. They couldn’t see me, but they could hear me from behind that enormous bass drum.

My parents split up in 1934, and my mother took me to California. I didn’t see that much of my dad at that point, though I certainly never heard any bad words about him. I’d usually see him when the band came to California, and I’d follow them around. The real influence came many years later when I moved back after my mother died. I really hung out with him in later years, especially after I graduated high school.

MH: Was he your first teacher?

ET: No, not really. Actually, I started with piano lessons in California when I was quite young. This was during the Depression. My mother worked as a live-in domestic, which is where most of the work was for black women back then. In her effort to keep me off the streets, she found a boarding home for me. And she saw to it that I had piano lessons. Later I got very active in the church music. We had an excellent junior choir. Melba Liston was in that choir. I really didn’t start drumming until the fourth grade, in the school orchestra. Then it was really a kick whenever my father came into town. He gave me my first practice pad, and an old hi-hat stand to practice with.

I bought my first snare drum during the war. It was an all-wood Leedy drum, and that’s what I played on until I got to high school. That’s where I was first introduced to a drumset. Our high school teacher was a man named Samuel Brown and he really helped me a lot. Some very fine players came out of that school; guys like Dexter Gordon, Frank Morgan, and Art Farmer. I remember Dexter and Art had to go back to get their diplomas because they were always going out on the road with somebody. But that high school was a wonderful musical experience.

I was eighteen when I did my first professional job. Buddy Collette hired me. But I really wasn’t prepared to be a professional musician at the time. I majored in Sociology at L.A. City College, and I was even thinking about being a pharmacist for a while. Then I got a job working with a show group called The Jackson Brothers, for $50 a week, and I started getting more and more involved with the instrument. Chico Hamilton showed me a great deal, and later, I began studying with Ralph Collier, who was a student of Murray Spivak. I could read at that point, but my actual formal education started with Ralph Collier.

MH: What were your key musical influences at that point in your life?

ET: Well, back in high school, I always loved the swing drummers. But I think, initially, I was motivated by the stage shows. I’d go to see Ellington, and I’d stand backstage and watch the lights go on, the dancers come out, and the orchestra start up. The warm feeling I got being around those people and that environment is what really did it for me. I knew I wanted to be a part of something that brought joy to people. It was such a positive thing.

As far as drumming influences, there was a guy named J.P. Johnson who played behind this chorus line of exotic dancers. He had this set of very long tom-toms he’d use with the dance numbers. I really thought he was great. And of course, like everyone else, I was a great Gene Krupa fan. I would go to see all his shows. Jo Jones was another. Jo was the dancer, the painter; a real storyteller on the instrument.

Then I heard Max with Dizzy. Max had a very strong influence on me. I learned a great lesson from him one time. Back then, a lot of us younger drummers would argue about the use of the bass drum. I’d listen to Max’s recordings a great deal, and I’d always say, “He is playing the bass drum.” When I got to New York, the first guy I looked up was Max. He was working with his group at The Baby Grand on 125th Street, and Henry “Red” Allen was on the bill as guest soloist. When Henry came out, Max played almost a straight backbeat behind his solo. I could hear the bass drum in four. I introduced myself to Max when they came off, and I said, “You are playing the bass drum, aren’t you?” I’ll never forget his answer. He said, “Of course, because that’s what the music called for.” That always stuck in my mind.

Music is a lot like theatre. You’re painting a picture; you’re making a statement, or telling a story. That’s one of the won derful things about Max’s playing. He makes statements, and he stays within the context of the music. Just listen to the way he structures a solo. If you know the tune, and you go out of the room while he’s soloing, when you come back in, you’ll know exactly where he is. I think his work on the Freedom Now Suite is the epitome of descriptive playing. The man plays the music and he tells the story. That’s the kind of player I’ve always been attracted to.

Later on, I loved to listen to Shelly Manne because his playing was so clean. When I met him, I found him to be a very kind and helpful person. I also listened to Jack Sperling, who I thought was a marvelous player. These were the guys who really fit in. They played the music, and were able to maintain their own identities.

MH: You’ve worked with three of the fin est pianists in jazz: Bud Powell, Billy Taylor and Oscar Peterson. What did you pick up from each of those experiences, from a musical standpoint?

ET: Working with Bud Powell was a thrilling and rewarding experience. Unfortunately, he was going through a rough period in his life at that time, so we didn’t have a great verbal relationship. But we got along very well musically. I would face him on the bandstand, and I could tell, by his smile and overall reaction, when he was satisfied. It was a delightful learning experience. I didn’t have very fast hands back then, and I didn’t have the independence thing down as well as some of the other guys, but I did have good time.

I worked at Birdland with Bud and Charlie Mingus on bass. A rather interesting story came out of that experience. I was trying to accompany Bud as best I could by reacting to his lines and his shading—and still make it swing. After a few nights, Mingus started prodding me for more bass drum accents; more independence. Of course, I was trying to concentrate on Bud. I had a great deal of respect for Charlie, but the truth of the matter was, I couldn’t really do what he wanted. I went to Bud’s manager, told him what was happening, and explained that I was playing what I thought was best for the man. He told me Bud was very happy with me. So I relaxed, and did what I had to do for the rest of the night. When I came to work the following evening, Mingus wasn’t there. Years later, Jo Jones said to me, “Ed, remember the time you were working with Bud, and Mingus quit? Well, Mingus told me, ‘Jo, I don’t know, the guy plays too much time.’ That’s why he quit.”

The interesting thing was that I knew what he wanted, but I couldn’t do it because I had to do it the way I felt it was going to work. Charlie was accustomed to working with guys like Max and Roy Haynes. But that wasn’t me. It never worked for me to try to sound like this guy or that guy. Later, I learned how to duplicate certain things, but back then, I was looking for my own musical identity. My father used to tell me, “As long as the guy you’re working for is happy, don’t worry about anyone else. Concentrate on pleasing the guy you’re working for.”

Billy Taylor? Well, I can’t say enough about the guy. Billy had a great deal to do with solidifying my ideas. I learned to appreciate the beauty of ballads, and the harmonic aspects of music. I learned about all those subtle things you can do with the instrument as an accompanist; how to use colors that would blend harmonically. And how to pull it all together. It was an education in music that really broadened me. We would actually talk over story lines of certain compositions; that kind of thing. I also think Billy Taylor has given more to the music than anybody, and any rewards he receives are more than well-deserved.

MH: The Oscar Peterson Trio, with you and Ray Brown, was one of the swingingest small groups of the early ’60s. Why do you think that trio worked together as well as it did?

ET: That trio was a little orchestra. It worked because of dedication, on an individual basis, and as a unit. Of course, Oscar is a genius. The things he does at that piano are absolutely incredible. I would be mesmerized. He was also quite a taskmaster, and a very demanding musician.

MH: In what way?

ET: Well, first let me say that as demanding as Oscar was, he was never more demanding on the people who worked for him than he was on himself. I’ve seen him very critical of himself; angry to the point of wanting to tear up a hotel room because he didn’t think he played very well. The group could sound just great one night, and he’d come back and say, “We sounded like a bunch of amateurs.” The standard was set very, very high. Every tune had to be an opener and a closer. It was simply a matter of attitude. We had a philosophy that we were going to play so good every night, that even on a bad night, we’d be heads and shoulders above everyone else at their best.

MH: How did you get the job?

Ed Thigpen
Photo by Charles Stewart

ET: I wanted that job four years before I got it. The original trio was Oscar, Ray and Herb Ellis on guitar. I was offered the job when Herb left, but we couldn’t come to terms for a short while and they offered it to someone else. But that didn’t work out. When they offered it to me again, I jumped at it. I went into that group as a real fan of both Oscar and Ray.

Working with the trio gave me an oppor tunity to develop certain elements of my playing. It was essential with that group. I had a chance to develop a cymbal technique, and a method of phrasing which simulated a big band situation. I learned how to listen to the melody, and how to phrase with the improvised line to give the feeling that other things were happening. It was complementary, but it was still the time, which is what Oscar wanted in the first place. Being the drummer in that group was like being a jockey with a great horse. I was there to play time and make it swing. I was never a fast soloist, but I could play fast time.

Ray and I roomed together. When I first joined the group, Ray said to me, “Okay, we’re gonna practice time; just the two of us.” And we did. I figured it would last about a week or so. Well, a year later, we’re still practicing time. We’d wake up in the morning and practice time. We’ practice dynamics, tempos, and singing the tunes we played. We got to the point where we could recite our name and address as we were playing time, and know where we were in the tune at all times.

One time, in San Francisco, some drummer made a comment that I had no left hand. I’ll tell you, I was rather hurt because I was really trying my best to do a good job. But it gets back to what I said earlier about being overly concerned with what other people say. When I really thought about it, I realized, the way Oscar plays, where in the world was I going to put my left hand?

MH: You’ve also worked with some of the best vocalists in the business: people like Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis and Ella Fitzgerald. What are the key points a drummer should be aware of working behind singers of that calibre, or any singer for that matter?

ET: The important thing to remember is that every singer is different. Peggy Lee, for example, wasn’t that demanding, but she did expect it to swing. She has a lot of respect for her musicians and she’s a very professional lady. Johnny Mathis is more of a theatre-type thing. I was a great fan of Johnny Mathis long before I ever worked with him.

But Ella Fitzgerald was the epitome of it all. Of all the jobs I’ve had, working with Ella was one of the highpoints of my entire career. She’s a wonderful human being, and we really had a great time. The warmth she gives out to an audience is just incredible to be around. Musically, she can be like a horn, a trio, or like an orchestra. It wasn’t difficult working with her because the woman has an impeccable time concept, and she knows exactly what she wants. She knows the band; she knows the figures of her tunes. Her inflections suggest band figures. I was in the trio with Tommy Flanagan and Keeter Belts.

When you’re in situations like that, with good singers who really have respect for the music, the most important thing is to be sure it swings. Second, would be to get a good blend and a good balance. If it’s a trio, it’s essential to be aware of the comp figures. You can destroy a thing if you’re not together. In a trio situation, you have to find ways to sound almost like an orchestra, or at least capture the feeling of an orchestra. Watching the artist is also critical. You pick up little signals in the way in which they move. Of course, listening to the way they phrase is also essential. And that even involves breathing with the singer, which in turn, helps you phrase with them. As an accompanist, you have to literally put yourself into that other person.

MH: What about when a full orchestra is involved?

ET: You have to remember that the trio is the nucleus. As a drummer, you’re at the center of it all. If you have a musical conductor, he’s basically the key person, but you’re always responsible for maintaining the time.

When I first went with Ella, I didn’t have that much big band experience, and I remember having to make a decision which way to go; with the trio and the singer, or with the conductor. Ella’s conductor would say, “Watch me! If there’s any static afterwards and she’s not happy—it’s my responsibility.” Of course, that was in that situation. In another situation, where you might have someone as strong as say, Irv Cottier, well, then everybody has to listen to what Irv is doing because he’s got it, and everybody is depending on it. It has to be established beforehand. There may be times when everyone will agree that the drummer has it. In that case, the conductor will tell the band, “Okay, the drummer has the time, I’ve got the cues—listen and look.” It has to be flexible. The game plan has to be set in advance.

MH: You worked, for a while, in the L.A. recording studios, but you got out. Why?

ET: I got out because I went back on the road. I dug the studio scene while I was there. I would’ve liked to have been heavy into it, but I hadn’t done a lot of reading. You have to do that all the time in the studios and you have to be on your toes. When that red light goes on, a lot of bread is being spent.

MH: Whatever happened to the music school you had with Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson in Toronto?

ET: That was an extremely good school. It was called The Advanced School For Contemporary Music. I was in charge of drum instruction, Oscar taught piano, Ray did bass, and Phil Nimmons taught composition. It didn’t last because we were still so busy playing. We were basically players, and during those years, the trio kept growing and growing. We just couldn’t make the total time commitment. Nobody was ready to stop playing to do the school thing exclusively. We still had a lot of growing to do as players. But people came from all over the world to go to that school. They still talk about it.

MH: Was the school Oscar’s brainchild?

ET: Actually, it was all of us. We wanted to use Toronto as a base so we could spend more time with our families. The plan was to divide our time between the school and the road. But as the trio became more popular, the commitment became greater. Unfortunately, it just sort of fizzled out.

MH: In 1972, you moved to Denmark, and you’ve been there ever since. Why the decision to leave the U.S.?

ET: Actually it was nothing political, nothing racial and nothing financial. When I was in Copenhagen with Ella, I met a Danish girl. I brought her to the United States and we got married and moved to California. But she didn’t like it here, and she wanted to go back. I figured, “Why not? I’ll move.” So I sold off every thing and left. It’s as simple as that. I had no idea I’d be over there this long. But it’s worked out. I did a lot of work in Sweden the first five years; shows with singers, and festivals. Over the years we’ve developed a superb concentration of good musicians who live and work there: Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Kenny Drew, Horace Parian, Richard Boone; some really excellent players. At the moment I have a small group I’m forming with Kenny Drew. And Ernie Wilkins has a thing called The Almost Big Band, which I’m doing. There’s some excellent musicians in that band. The playing situation is very healthy. When I go back, I’ll be going out with Dorothy Donegan for five days, and then Teddy Wilson is coming in. I’m also scheduled to go out with Hank Jones, and Thad will be there with Jerome Richardson. I always have a variety of good things to do. My season starts around late April, and I don’t stop until December.

MH: How do you find the European jazz audience?

ET: The thing about the European audience is, once you have them as a fan, they’re a fan all their lives. In America, the fans have a tendency to be a little more fickle. They love you for a while, but if you don’t come up with something good— that’s it. But I guess that’s understandable. America has such an abundance of everything, that we seem to waste resources. Unfortunately, we waste talent just as easily. We’re so oriented to “throw away this, throw away that,” that we throw away people in the process. Fortunately, certain elements like the jazz societies, and other small groups of people, have been able to uphold and support the music. If it wasn’t for them, everything would fall apart.

A lot of the older American players get tremendous support in Europe. They find they can tour, even though they may be out of fashion in this country. In that sense, the European jazz fan is definitely more loyal. Here, it’s the latest model this, the latest model that.

Even the European club owners tend to think differently. There’s no, “Look at my new $50,000 chandelier, but the piano’s out of tune,” mentality. I mean, they’ll see to it you have a decent piano to work with. A lot of American jazz artists go over primarily because of the non-appreciation aspect which is so prevalent here when it comes to the music. In Europe, they see to it that a musician’s needs are tended to.

MH: Could we touch on your equipment preferences for a moment?

ET: Well, I’m not endorsing any particular brand of drums or cymbals at the moment. But I am using Remo heads. I think Remo is a very innovative organization and I’m happy to be associated with them. I use the Diplomats basically, though I like the Pinstripes for the rock things. I like my tom-toms to have some kind of a tonality, unless I’m doing a rock date and a flat sound is needed. I almost like to think of tom-toms as miniature tympani which blend within the chord structure. I like them fairly open for projection.

I also the love the Fiberskyn heads. They have such a tremendous feeling of calf, and they’re just great for brush playing. It seems as though many young drummers, because of the volume required, haven’t had much of an opportunity to explore the art of brush playing. It’s understandable, but unfortunate. There are things you can do with brushes that are impossible to do with sticks. They offer such a wide range of subtle qualities. You can express quiet emotions with brushes and aggressive emotions as well. I’ve even used a pair of plastic brushes for some softer rock things. You can play them pretty heavily and they give a different sound. You can even swing a big band with a pair of brushes. Buddy does it. I’ve noticed a few rock drummers getting interested in them. Steve Smith of Journey was telling me he used brushes on a recent album. I’m glad to see that.

As far as sticks go, I’m using a plastic tip for the first time in my life. It’s a Vic Firth model, and it feels very natural. The stick has great clarity. I’m not really sure if it’s the wood, or the plastic, but I like them.

MH: You’ve always managed to attain a very distinctive cymbal sound, particularly on the early trio recordings. What’s your personal approach to cymbals?

Ed Thigpen
Photo by Charles Stewart

ET: Selecting a cymbal is very much like being in a perfume factory. One particular fragrance may work beautifully for one person’s skin where the same brand won’t work for someone else. I basically don’t like a cymbal with a lot of overtones. And I don’t like cymbals that clash harmonically, or have a pronounced pitch of any kind. What I do want is for the cymbal to sing. And I want a distinct “ping” quality, though a lot of that has to do with your touch and how you articulate. It’s similar to the way one speaks. Some people mumble, others articulate more. Guys like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette are great examples of drummers who’ve learned how to articulate off the cymbals. It’s all in their touch; that’s the real secret.

The overall weight and style of the stick makes a difference as well. Utilizing the correct stick for the situation is of prime importance. And the degree of pressure you exert on the stick also comes into play. There’s a lot of subtlety involved in the sound each individual produces from his cymbals.

I’m currently using a 20″ sizzle, 20″ medium-heavy ride, an 18″ crash, and a China-type. I also have an authentic Chinese cymbal with a real funky sound for big band. Horn players love it, and it works great behind reed ensembles. It’s all a matter of blending the sound into the musical situation.

MH: What specific ideas do you have on how a drummer can go about improving his time?

ET: Making use of a metronome, for one thing, can be very helpful. A metronome is a very applicable practice tool for a drum mer. We used to play a game with the metronome. As an example, we’d set it to 120 and play time. You need a partner to turn it off while you continue playing. After eight or twelve bars, your partner turns the metronome back on, and you can tell right away how accurately you’ve maintained that 120.

Breathing with the time is another important aspect. Playing along with records is also good, although the time on a lot of recordings tends to fluctuate. You have to be selective in that area.

I also think it’s extremely important to listen to a lot of good, solid time players. I had a slight time problem at one point in my career, and my father pointed out that I was paying too much attention to my hands, and not enough attention to the bottom end. I had to concentrate on the bottom more, and he was right. It’s really impossible to carry the time on the ride cymbal, unless, you’ve learned how to transfer that same bottom time feeling up to the top. Guys like Tony, Elvin and Jack, are good examples of players who’ve been successful at transferring that time feeling to the top. Most guys don’t know how to transfer it correctly.

Working with musicians who have good time is also a plus. One often runs into situations where not everyone in the band has good time. And you really have to concentrate very deeply under those circumstances. It’s easy when everyone in the band has good time. Then you’re free. But if that’s not the case, the time has a tendency to float if you’re not conscious of it. Whatever bass player I work with, we make sure the time is right. If the band has a problem, we want to be absolutely certain it isn’t us. We’re going to make sure the time is right. You become that metronome, and everything else you do is built on that foundation.

MH: Is there anything in particular you listen for in a drummer?

ET: If I don’t hear any bottom then all I hear is surface playing. I listen for the bottom end, first and foremost. I want to be able to pop my finger. I need to hear the groove. It doesn’t matter what it is; even if it’s country/western, as long as I can feel that groove, I’ll dig it.

MH: You’ve always been quite active in the educational aspect of drumming. Does your present schedule allow much time for teaching?

ET: Yeah, some. But I don’t consider myself a teacher. I’m an instructor. The student really teaches himself. I just supply the tools. The majority of time is not spent with me; it’s spent alone, in that practice room. And it’s up to the individual student to get it together.

I generally try to establish what the student wants to do with the instrument. Is he interested in doing it professionally, as a hobby, or perhaps as a therapy? I ask because I want to be fair, and do the very best I possibly can for the student. Once I know where the student stands, I know how to approach the situation. If I see he’s really interested, then I’m prepared to give everything I’ve got. If I see a student who’s not all that interested, I’ll modify my attitude. A good instructor exerts himself. Teaching is very hard work, and I try to approach it from a very honest standpoint.

MH: What’s in the immediate future for Ed Thigpen?

ET: My life right now is a combination of a lot of things I’ve been working on for a long time. I’ve developed some educational programs which have proven to be valid tools. Two of them are encompassed in my latest publications; The Sound of Brushes, and Rhythm Analysis and Basic Coordination. The latter book is a very sound method for analyzing rhythms. It’s really for a kid who doesn’t know how to read at all. He’ll be able to analyze some basic things after just a few pages. For those who can already read, it helps in interpretation. We started off using it with drummers only, but now we use it with all instrumentalists. I’ve always believed that rhythm is a separate study unto itself. And even though the book is not for speed reading specifically, once the student understands it, he’ll get faster simply because he’ll be confident he’s right.

As far as my playing, well, I think I’m playing better than I ever have. My independence isn’t completely where I’d like it to be, but at least I can participate in the ballgame now.

MH: Would you ever consider coming back to the United States, permanently?

ET: I’ll probably continue to use Europe as home base for the time being. I’m working very hard at setting up a tour of seminars, and I think I’ll be participating here more so than in the past. I’d like to be able to come back. I’ve always considered this my home. But as it stands, I’m doing alright the way things are. Of course, if I should happen to get an offer that I can’t refuse, well I would certainly consider it. But it would have to be pretty good because my playing situation right now is so nice. I get the opportunity to play with some good people, in some nice places. But if things work out, and I can afford it, then sure, I’d come back.

MH: What would you say to a young, talented student who told you he wanted to have a career as a drummer?

ET: I think I would try to give him a very honest picture of his options. Not everyone has the opportunity to become a big star, so you have to deal with options. It’s really a question of, how can I make a living at what I want to do? What are the different areas?

Education is also very, very important. If he wants to come into music, he has to think of himself as a craftsman. The competition is heavier then it was twenty years ago, and that’s certainly something which should be taken into consideration. The student of today has got to prepare for it, and must be dedicated to the task. I’d also strongly suggest he find out everything about the requirements necessary to reach the point he’s shooting for. Assuming it all checks out, then I’d tell him to go for it. I would never discourage anyone. If you really have the desire and the talent, and you stick to it, your chances are just as good as anyone else’s.

Personally, deep down inside, I’ve always felt I’ve been a member of a luxury profession. I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of it. Just the idea of playing music; the rapport between a group of musicians when that magic happens; the gratification when it works. It can’t be described. You can’t put a dollar sign on that. You can’t put a dollar sign on the love and joy one receives out of being able to participate. To my way of thinking, it’s about as close to heaven as one is going to get on this earth.