At least once a week an MD reader will write—usually from the Midwest—and ask “Should I move to New York if I want to be a professional drummer?” Jimmy Madison made that move. I realized while we were taping this interview that Jimmy’s story is the perfect answer to that question.
I first saw Jimmy many years ago at Sweet Basil’s in Manhattan. As I was walking by with some friends the music caught our attention. Through the windows in front we could see Jimmy, eyes closed, swinging his head off!
He’s performed or recorded with a ton of good musicians from James Brown to George Benson! Jimmy is a jazz drummer in every sense of the word. He’s had the successes and the failures. He has been a Sideman, a bandleader, a studio musician and a road musician. He operates his own recording studio, and he can even teach you a thing or two about snow camping, mountain climbing and cave exploring.
If you’re asking yourself, “Should I move to New York?”—read this.
JM: I’m from Cincinnati. That’s a funny place to be from because you’re right on the Mason/Dixon line, which is the Ohio River. When you come to New York they think you’re from the South most of the time. When you go to New Orleans or Florida they think you’re a Yankee! You can’t win. Cincinnati is not quite as south as the South, but people that come from there do have kind of a “twang.” It seems like people “twang” a little more as soon as you get over the Ohio River. It’s really like a different place. They call it the Tri-State area because you’re right across the river from Kentucky and you’re only about fifteen miles from the border of Kentucky and Indiana.
My father was a musician who wanted to be a pianist and a composer. He studied composition and practiced and got to the point where he’d written part of a symphony and several string quartets. Then he wanted to go to Julliard. I don’t know if it was exactly finances or what, but he washed out from Julliard. He hated math in school but for some reason he got interested in it and became a mathematician and a scientist and an inventor. He’s a real amazing guy.
SF: Can you pinpoint the person or the event that made you decide to be a drummer?
JM: Apparently I always wanted to be a drummer. They tell me I was beating on things from about the age of two, before I was really even aware of what was going on. My mother was a trumpet player when she was in high school. She started working in dance bands. She met this trombone player, Eddie Bennett, in Cincinnati who later became staff on WLW television. He’s a good trombone teacher and he’s just been around Cincinnati for a long time. He sort of took her under wing and started getting her gigs. She ended up working with the Chess Wally band, which in 1943 was the best dance band in Cincinnati. She worked with them for about three years as fourth trumpet player. They used to have guest artists. Bobby Hackett played with them. Later on she also became a mathematician. When I was born she gave up the trumpet.
The first guy I ever played with on the road when I was about nineteen was Don Goldie. We used to play these terrible gigs because he was booking the band trying to save money. So, we did gigs like Savannah, Georgia to Kingston, New York to Mason City, Iowa to Odessa, Texas and then to Atlanta, Georgia. That was the schedule. Week gigs close on Saturday and open on Monday so you had to drive 1200 miles from Saturday night until Monday night. It was unbelievable. We used to leave after the gig on Saturday nights; pack up and split.
SF: How did you get direction in drumming before you were with Don Goldie?
JM: When I was four years old—which is too young to take direction—I was beating on thing’s seriously enough to where my parents decided to do something about it. They took me to see George Carey, the first percussionist and timpanist with the Cincinnati Symphony. They asked, “What can you do with him?” He said to me, “Play this,” and tried to get me to play something on the snare drum. Well, I didn’t want to know about “play this” when I was four! He said, “He’s too young. Bring him back when he’s eight, when I can really get through to him.” He died when I was six.
When I was eight I was still bugging my parents, “Get me a drum.” I hadn’t forgotten. Finally they bought me a used snare drum and got me lessons from a local drummer/teacher. I took snare lessons for about two or three years. Nothing fancy, just straight ahead learning how to read. But, I never practiced. I was terrible.
I loved to play the drum and screw around with it. The teacher would come on Thursday night. I would wait until Thursday afternoon and woodshed for a couple of hours or an hour before. But, I hadn’t really looked at the music since the previous lesson. He knew I was bullshitting. And he used to always scold me, “You could really be great if you’d just stop messing around.” Eventually I gave it up and the snare drum went in the closet, or it just sat on the stand, and I never played it at all from the time I was about ten to twelve.
When I was ten we moved to Deer Park, Ohio and the snare drum stayed in the closet for almost the first year we were there. One day I opened the closet to get something else, and it was just like McGee’s closet: the closet exploded and the snare drum rolled right out! I went, “Ah! Snare drum.” That was the first day of the rest of my life. The drum rolled out of the closet and I’ve never let it alone since then. I got back into the snare drum and then for Christmas or my birthday I conned my people into buying me a hi-hat stand with cheap cymbals. Then I had the snare drum and the hi-hat. I used to sit on the edge of the chair—because I didn’t have a stool or anything—and listen to jazz records and play my hi-hat and snare. My people were jazz lovers. They were into the big bands and all that stuff, like Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman. My father loved all the piano players. He loved Fats Waller and I used to hear all that when I was a little kid. He talked in glowing tones about Fats Waller.
Then I bought a used cheap-o bass drum from somebody. By that time I was in junior high school. I was twelve. I started borrowing the dance band’s ride cymbal because right away I got buddy-buddy with the band director. He was my buddy all the way through high school. Deer Park was a dumb Midwestern high school and if you didn’t play football you were a schmuck. So, the only connection I had with football was the halftime shows every Friday night. A lot of times I’d do the old classic jazz musicians’ role: The guy who shows up for all the rehearsals and can’t make the gig. On Monday afternoon we’d start the new pre-game show for the end of the week. All week we’d march in formations, and practice the music. Then we’d have dress rehearsal on Thursday and Friday and do a performance Friday night. About Thursday, I’d get a Friday gig. I’d call and I’d say, “Mr. Meisner, listen. This Friday. . . “And he’d go “Yeah. I know.” I was the lead drummer. So I would whip them into shape the best I could and then they had to make it. But, I told them I had to make some money.
I was doing gigs from the time I was about twelve years old. No rock stuff. The first guy I ever got to play with was a bass player named Jay Belniac. He was a terrible bass player. But, he knew a terrible accordion player. I didn’t have anybody else to play with. So we formed a trio and we sat around in his house and played. It was terrible, but it was doing something.
Jay used to sub for this other good bass player with a group at the college conservatory. The bass player was sick one day and Jay made that gig. The drummer was sick another time and I met this guy named Joe Rogers. So Joe and a saxophone player, and Jay and I formed the Joe Rogers Quartet. It was like The Dave Brubeck Quartet, made over. I was into Joe Morello but the bass player wasn’t into anybody. He was just terrible. The saxophone player was into Paul Desmond. So, for a year or two we did that and we used to do dance band gigs. But, we played jazz. This was about 1959 or ’60. People used to listen to dance music. They listened to old ’40s dance tunes, which were jazz tunes. We just played them as jazz tunes and they were happy and we were happy. I really got to play jazz gigs—although people were dancing to them—all the way through high school, at the Hilton and Sheraton Hotels downtown, and various VFW Halls. We used to get away with murder. Dance bands and jazz was the popular music in the ’40s and ’50s, so everybody liked it. The people that are around now are coming from a different place entirely. Those people that are my age have come up with rock and roll. They like all this “pop” music which is a big void more or less. It’s the worst of all the music elements stuck together and overproduced. That’s what pop music is. It’s the lowest common denominator. I’d rather play stone rock and roll! I like to hear a good rock and roll band. I just heard The Police on television the other night and they’re great. A lot of the new wave groups that I’ve seen just look like they’re bullshitting everybody…including themselves.
But, The Police are great. They’re good players, they’ve got stage presence and they know what they’re doing. They put on a good show and they play the shit out of the rock and roll. I’m not even a rock and roll fanatic, but I love to listen to them. But as for some of these other groups— give me a break!
SF: When did you first move to New York?
JM: I came to New York the first time with Don Goldie. He got to The Metropole in New York when it was still a jazz club. We played two weeks and the other band the first week was Lionel Hampton’s Alumni Big Band. The second week the group was the Gene Krupa Quartet. I briefly met Lionel Hampton and then our group went to Odessa, Texas for the next week. I was down there almost a week and I got a call from Lionel Hampton saying, “Come to New York and join my band.” So I quit Don Goldie, to the accompaniment of much screaming and howling on his part, and moved to New York and stayed with Lionel for about six months.
SF: Did you travel with Hampton’s band?
JM: All the time. New York was just the base of operations. We had a band bus and we’d play Connecticut, Maine, Montreal—all up and down the East Coast. A couple of times we flew to the Midwest. We were supposed to go on a State Department Far Eastern tour, but at the very last minute they cancelled it. We had two months of no work looking us in the face in November and December. The first week went by and I was already a week in debt to the band. I was not ahead in money. I was always on the verge of not being able to pay for my room and getting a plug in the door.
SF: How old were you when you got married?
SF: It must’ve been really difficult having to live like that.
JM: It was murder then in 1966. You know how bad it must be now! I was living in a hotel room with my wife for thirty-five dollars a week. It was a sleazy hotel…granted! But, those same sleazy hotels would probably cost $100 a week today. It’s expensive even to be broke in New York City now.
SF: So you learned how to play drums by just doing it?
JM: More or less. I did a lot of learning when my parents finally staked me to a drumset for my birthday. Then I really had to hustle gigs because my idea was to pay them back…which I did. I set the drums up in the basement and played along with all my favorite records—like Joe Morello—and I learned all the licks until I could mimic perfectly whatever was on the record. I learned a lot of Joe’s technique just from practicing along with him.
SF: Did you know what he was doing or were you going by sound?
JM: Mostly going by sound. When I was thirteen or fourteen the Dave Brubeck Quartet played in Cincinnati. It was one of those huge airport size hanger places with the fake palm trees. A big dance hall type place like out of the ’40s. Brubeck played there and I went to see my hero, Joe Morello. I took my friend Randy Bass, who was the other good drummer in my high school. We got there early and the manager said, “The band’s not here yet. They’re coming from the airport and they’re going to come in the back door. I’ll give you a deal. You can sit on the stage with them if you’ll watch the back door for when they show up so I don’t have to bother with it.” So we said, “RIGHT!” We watched the door and they showed up in a station wagon from the airport and we helped them bring the drums in and everything. We met Joe and said, “It’s great to meet you.” He’s such a nice guy and he’s always been a nice guy.
He started setting up the drums and I looked in the case and there was no snare drum. I said, “Where’s your snare drum?” He said “Oh, you know, I just got one of those new Super Sensitive snare drums.” This was when Ludwig first developed them, before they were even released, and they’d given him one to test out. He was in a New York airport and somebody stole it! There was a dance band there and Joe was going to use the guy’s snare. It was an old, beat up snare drum. I said, “Listen, I’ve got the same drum you use.” The regular metal-shell drum. “I’ll call my folks. They’ll bring the drum and you can use it.” Joe said, “Great.” My parents brought the drum down and got in for free. Joe played my drum all night and Randy and I just sat five feet away from him checking him out. That was the first time I ever heard “Take Five.” Joe was playing all these things and Randy and I were transfixed. Years after that, whenever the Brubeck Quartet would play the Cincinnati and The Ohio Valley Jazz Festival, we’d be right there waiting for them at the gate. We’d take the drums in and set them up and we’d get in for free. We were like Joe’s mascots. Whenever we’d do that and everything was ready to go, and there was time to kill, Joe would say, “Come on guys,” and however many there were of us drummers, he’d take us, beat on a windowsill and show us things. He gave us a drum lesson right on the spot. I learned how to do a lot of that finger drumming— which I’ve since forgotten. He was my main influence through most of my high school years. Then, abruptly, when I got to be about nineteen my first year in college, I met this piano player named Ed Farr and he was into John Coltrane.
I’d been exposed to white and black groups, but I hadn’t really been exposed to what I would call the hard core jazz groups. I’d never seen Miles in person or any of those guys. Randy got into Elvin real heavy just about that time and he said, “Listen to this guy!” Ed Farr was into Miles so he showed me Tony Williams. Between those two they really changed my whole conception of playing. Joe Morello is real metrical. Everything is in its place. Elvin is real asymmetrical. He’ll take a certain amount of space and put thirteen and a half beats into it. Whatever he feels like. So my whole concept of where time is and how to play with it changed from hearing both Tony and Elvin.
SF: What did you think when you heard Elvin for the first time?
JM: It knocked me out. I loved him. I didn’t understand how he was doing it, but it seemed like it was free of all conventional hang-ups. I think the first thing I remember being impressed by was Africa/Brass. It was just so loose. I said, “This is where it’s really at.”
SF: What did you like about Tony’s playing?
JM: The first thing I remember hearing him on that knocked me out was the fast version of “All Blues” which is on Miles’ Four And More album. When Tony played “All Blues,” the time felt to me like Tony was floating out in space and the pulses of time were stars. And the stars were coming along in a line under him. As each one came along, Tony was just kind of skipping along over the stars. I don’t know how else to explain it.
SF: When did you first get to see Elvin and Tony?
JM: I didn’t see Elvin play until I came to New York for Lionel Hampton. I used to hear Elvin at Pookie’s Pub. It was a great little club but there was never anybody in it. When I was there, there was only like three people and Elvin would have Wilbur Little, Frank Foster and they’d be bashing. He had Joe Farrell a bunch of times. He used to let me sit in if there weren’t too many people there.
SF: Was your family and close circle of friends supportive of your desire to be a professional drummer?
JM: Well, my people were always supportive; my mother and father and my sister. By that point almost all my friends were musicians. Even the people that I hung out with in high school were musicians. Even today all my friends that I can think of are either directly connected with music or connected with art at least.
SF: No one you were associating with tried to discourage you?
JM: The only people who were remotely cautious were my parents. When I was nineteen they said, “You should go to college and study something besides music or including music. If the music falls through you’ll have something left.” Since I was into spelonking and caving I said, “Okay. I’ll study geology.” That was my major for two years. I loved the outdoors and had this picture of me with my little hammer chipping on a rock somewhere. Realistically, the only people that can do that are petroleum geologists, mining geologists or paleontologists. I didn’t want to do that.
SF: What made you decide to come back to New York?
JM: Well, I decided that after being back in Cincinnati for a year and realizing that the situation there was getting worse. When I was growing up, there were lots of gigs; jazz clubs, places that groups on the circuit would come through from Chicago and Detroit. There was always some jazz going around. But that all dried up. By the time I left, when I was nineteen, there was just a couple of clubs left but they started getting more of the commercial groups with the conga drums and chick singers. Show bands. I just came back to New York and decided to stay here until something happened.
SF: What was your goal?
JM: I wanted to be a jazz player. That’s what I always wanted. That’s what I started out to do and that’s what I’m still trying to do.
SF: Did you want to have your own band or did you want to be a Sideman?
JM: I didn’t really think about that. I just wanted to play. So I was content to be a Sideman until it began to get unprofitable in the last few years. Clubs are paying less money for the same thing. Literally there’s less money around to pay the sidemen with or to pay yourself if you’re the leader. And there’s more competition. Every year it seems like there’s more people trying for the same gigs.
SF: Don’t musicians cut their own throats sometimes? For example, let’s say you refuse a gig because the money’s not right. Another band will come in and take the gig anyway.
JM: Oh yeah. It works bad that way. People accept that shit so that’s what they get. You have to establish your price, but the thing is, you can’t go too fast. My band is new so I’ve got no say so. When I go into a new place, I usually just go in for the door and no guarantee. Then if I do good, I say so and tell the clubowner that I want a min imum guarantee. If I do good the second time I say I want the minimum guarantee up a little bit against the door.
SF: Could a drummer come to New York City today and expect to make a living as a Sideman?
JM: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. First of all, since this is New York City, I wouldn’t even waste my time coming here unless I knew damn well that I was above average. If you’re just a regular “I-want-to-be-a drummer” kind of player, forget about New York. There are good players crawling out from every rock here: the guy down the street, the guy in the apartment next door are the best guys in the world. It’s not like when you’re someplace where every body’s at the same level except maybe one or two people.
I knew I was maybe not the best drummer in Cincinnati, but I was at least one of the two or three best. There was no place else for me to go. The thing about that is that you don’t grow. I’d much rather be a small fish in this pond than a big fish in Cincinnati. But, that still doesn’t negate what I said about not coming to New York. I knew that I was above average then, and I knew that if I came here I could improve. If you’re coming to New York with the idea of getting to be above average, I don’t think you’re being realistic. The competition is just too great; the finances are just too expensive. The only reason that I can afford to live in Manhattan is because I’ve lived in the same apartment for thirteen years. My lease is up every three years and I’ve managed to keep my overhead down to a reasonable amount. If I had to move now I’d have to move out of Manhattan. My rent would at least double, and maybe triple.
SF: You’ve been involved with studio drumming. What are the realities for someone who wants to come to New York to be a studio drummer?
JM: The reality of the studio—not just in New York, but anywhere—is that record ing is a cliquish business. It doesn’t matter where you are. If you’re going to come here to do any kind of studio work, you have to be prepared to sit for anywhere from five to ten years and build up your business.
First of all, anybody that’s good—like Steve Gadd—doesn’t want competition. So, he’s not going to help you unless you just happen to be a personal friend of his. Let’s talk about jingles: If you’re going to do jingles—producers are notoriously conservative because their ass is on the line. Every time they do a jingle, if it costs more money, they get the flak. Or if somebody plays a wrong note and it takes longer to do it—the producer gets the flak. They’re responsible. Anything that causes a delay costs money and goes on the producer’s head. So he’s not going to bother with anybody that he doesn’t know for a fact can do the job exactly the way he wants it. If he cannot get his first call guy, if he can’t get his first ten call guys, if you happen to be eleventh on the list, you’ll get a shot. That doesn’t sound like very good odds, does it?
SF: How did you get involved with the CTI sessions?
JM: Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Big Band is a homeboy of mine from Cincinnati. We met when I was about sixteen. When I was nineteen—just about the time I left home to come to New York—Dave got involved with doing some arrangements for James Brown.
Then I went on the road with Lionel and moved to New York. Dave, meanwhile, became James’ music director and went on the road with him. Through that he got involved with Creed Taylor as an arranger. He helped me book a couple of gigs through Creed. The other thing that helped was that I’d worked with Joe Farrell. He had a recording contract with CTI. I did two or three albums with Joe for CTI. But, even though I knew Creed, Steve Gadd was just becoming his number one boy. Steve was his number one boy right until the end of CTI as it was before Creed went bankrupt.
My point is that I’ve been involved with that for almost ten years and I haven’t done very much work for Creed. Of the stuff that I’ve done—fewer things have been released. It has to do with being around, but it also has to do with luck. Steve just had a certain sound that Creed, and a lot of other people, wanted to hear. He’s much more of a funk drummer than I am. I’ve been brought up on the jazz tradition from the beginning. I think he was brought up on some jazz but it seems like his funk playing is stronger. His funk play ing is totally believeable all the time. His jazz playing isn’t. When I listen to Steve Gadd I say, “Oh, there’s a guy who’s a great drummer, but he’s not really coming from a jazz tradition. He’s learned it second hand, but it’s not really in him from the ground up.” You have to grow with that from the time you’re little. You have to have it instilled in your blood from before the time you’re even aware of it.
SF: When you say Steve comes across more effectively as a funk drummer than a jazz drummer, are you speaking about feeling or his technical ability?
JM: Well, it’s all connected. His technique is more out of the rock and roll tradition. His technique is born out of drums that are softer feeling because they’re lower, which is a different feeling than the harder drumheads of a jazz set that rings. So your technique changes. You have to hit it harder to get a rebound. Because they feel softer it makes you play a different way and develop your technique a different way. The bass drum doesn’t ring. Consequently, you don’t learn to hit it either open or muffled. It’s always the same sound when you hit it so you don’t have to learn that.
That’s why you can hear the differences between, let’s say Max and Elvin and Art Blakey. But you can also hear a great simi larity in the way they use their drums because they’re open. It’s the sounds they get from their bass drums and the big open ringy sounds that you can’t get if you’r playing a drumset that’s dead sounding.
SF: Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve had to play a dead sounding drumset?
SF: How do you compensate for that?
JM: Well, I usually don’t. If I go into a recording studio and they’re tuned like that I’ll just say, “Listen, if you want a rock and roll sound—fine! If you want a jazz sound, I’m going to take the tape off, tune them up and make them sound like something.” I had a situation like that happen. I was going to do a record date with Dan Wall last year. I thought it was just a demo for somebody. He said, “Show up at Right Track Recording.” I said, “Do they have drums?” He said, “Yeah. Just bring your cymbals or whatever.” It turns out it’s his record date! They’ve got this rock and roll drumset with big thick cymbals and everything. I thought, “Oh my God! What are we going to do? We’re going to have to do this thing.” I took the tape off and tuned them up. They tried to EQ the cymbals as best they could. Actually, the sound is not too bad.
That’s where experience comes in. After twenty-odd years playing, I can play anything on any kind of drumset and make it sound reasonably good, even if it feels horrible to me. I have to compensate my technique. There’s no sense trying to make a ringy sound when there’s no ring to be had. I couldn’t imagine anybody forcing me to play on a set that I thought sounded and felt terrible.
SF: Why do you think drummers like Tony Williams are using things like black dot drumheads?
JM: Look where he’s coming from. He did come from a jazz tradition, but for several years, he was trying to be a rock and roll player. He was really trying to deny his roots.
You can’t deny your roots. It shows up somewhere. Tony plays very jazzy rock and roll, but, he’s really been trying to be a rock and roll player. Well, now all of these years of playing with big heavy sticks on big heavy drums with big fat heads and cymbals…his original technique has gone to hell. He’s got lots of chops now. He’s probably got more chops than he did before from playing those big sticks on those big cymbals. But, if you put him on a set of drums like he used to play back on those Miles Davis records, he’d probably sound pretty strange, because those drums are so sensitive. He was playing with small sticks. If he’d play those baseball bats on that old set it would sound terrible. If he played the small sticks he wouldn’t have any control. It would be like trying to play with two straws. He would have to sit down and woodshed with those sticks on those cymbals for weeks or months probably to get anywhere near the control he used to have back in the old days.
I played on George Benson’s gig for a year playing my same drums with heavier heads. Eventually I played bigger drums with bigger sticks and played really hard. When I came back I had to relearn my jazz chops. It destroys all the sensitivity. I feel that there has to be a dividing line somewhere between jazz, crossover and rock. Within those categories you can have all sorts of gradations, but jazz stops some where and crossover really begins and ends. Everybody would have a different idea when that point is, but I would say generally, it’s when a straight-eighth feel becomes the predominant time feel rather than the jazz rhythm. The loose 12/ 8, rolling, flowing kind of thing—that’s the first criteria for jazz. The second is when the tunes stop becoming real vehicles for improvisation. When everything starts being channeled and programmed, and there’s no chord structure to improvise on and there’s no imagination. When that stops happening, then it’s not jazz anymore.
That leads to other conclusions—and these are maybe unrelated but I think they are related—people will like what is pushed. In the ’40s, the big bands were being pushed so that’s what people liked. Now rock’s pushed so that’s what they like. People don’t know any better because they haven’t heard the other thing.
The best thing that ever happened to jazz was when WRVR went off the air. WRVR was a charlatan. It was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They were selling watered down, 90% commercial, big record company stuff and selling it in the name of jazz, and thereby selling the jazz players down the river—especially anybody that had anything to do with anything new. I was very happy when they went off the air because as soon as that happened, WKCR started playing more jazz. WBGO came on the air full time. WRVR used to be a great jazz station. When I first came to New York there was WLIB and there was WRVR. They were both good stations.
I don’t know what happened. They slowly just went down the tubes. They got rid of Ed Beach and all the old D.J.’s. All of a sudden, they got this new program director fresh from a country station, whose attitude was, “What can we sell? What’s the lowest common denominator?” They had no idea what they were pushing. Rock stations have 100% rock. They don’t play jazz. Why do we have to play rock on a jazz station? It should be 100% jazz.
SF: But, where do you draw the line? If Chick Corea records a Return to Forever record and then does an acoustic album with Eddie Gomez, Mike Brecker and Steve Gadd, is one jazz and the other not?
JM: I don’t know. That’s a very good question. I don’t have the answer to it. I think there should be some sort of dividing line. Look at the stuff The Crusader’s are doing now. That’s not jazz by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not even crossover anymore. It’s pure out-and-out commercial funk. And that shouldn’t be played on a jazz station. They should refuse to play it on a jazz station.
SF: When WRVR started to go downhill, did it affect jazz musicians in New York?
JM: No. It didn’t have anything to do with the jazz musicians in New York! That’s my point. It had to do with some money-making organization somewhere that owned the station. It had nothing to do with jazz. They would’ve sold Chinese country music if it would’ve made money.
SF: So, if you’re an independent jazz recording artist, where do you go to get your records played?
JM: I call the jazz stations and say, “My name is Jimmy Madison. I’m a jazz drummer; I have a quintet. I’ve played here, here, and here. Here’s my record, tape and information. What do you think?” Then, if he’d listen to it, he’d say, “Yes, that definitely is jazz. I’ll play it.”
SF: Well how do they keep their stations solvent? Where does their money come from?
JM: I don’t really know. They do commercials for various restaurants, especially clubs that have jazz in them, which is perfect. That’s like one hand washing the other. That’s what we need. The station supports the clubs, who support the musicians, who support the station. I’m a member of WBGO and I send them $25 every year. I’d send them more than that if I had it! But, at least I’m sending them a mini mum donation. A lot of people I know are doing that. It’s a non-commercial station so we’re trying to keep it afloat. In exchange, they’re helping us every way they can. They’re pushing our concerts, playing our records, and that’s what we need. Every other form of music has a subsidy in that respect. People say, “Well, you can’t do that. What’s the angle? What’s the hook?” The hook is jazz! That’s the only legitimate, original American art form. That’s the hook.
SF: I interview drummers from all types of bands, playing all kinds of music. One thing that puzzles me is that rock musicians consistently have their business much more under control than the jazz musicians.
JM: But, why is that? How can I say this without slighting rock and roll? It’s not meant to be a total slight. There are creative people playing rock and roll. But, it seems to me that the real creativity—the hardest creativity—is along the improvisational lines, rather than in how much technique you have or how slick you are, which is more the criterion in rock. So, the real creative people, the most creative people, are generally into jazz. Very creative people in any field tend to be absent-minded professors. They tend not to be as concerned about the finances, other than how to stay alive. They never get past their art far enough to get into the business end because they’re artists.
The second thing is that rock and roll has money behind it. Where there’s money there are organizers, managers, and agents. It’s like the guy you were telling me about from the rock group. His record company calls up people and gets him publicity. I have to call people myself!
SF: Okay. Max Weinberg has been with Bruce Springsteen for nine years. What would you have to have been paid to go on the road with that band nine years ago?
JM: Between $300 and $500.
SF: Okay. Max’s salary was $75 a week. What you’re saying is true. There are creative people in all artistic fields who are not great businessmen. So, if they’re not good businessmen themselves, why not surround themselves with people who are? The best bands throughout history were all the same guys that stayed together for a long time. For example, the Coltrane Quartet, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Oscar Peterson Trio. You don’t see that happening a lot in jazz today, especially among younger players.
JM: The only reason it’s not is because of the money situation. The best example I can think of is my own band. If I had some money to pay salaries with, or even just rehearsals, I could have a going concern and they’d stay with me. If they were making even small regular money, there would be an incentive for them to stay together. But, now I get the odd gig every month or two and they make a pittance once a month; they’ve got to take anything else that happens to come along.
SF: But what if you found guys who were so into what you were doing that they were willing to stay with you for an extended period to really develop a sound?
JM: You’re talking about dedication. Let’s be realistic. Is Bob Berg going to get a day gig so he can work once or twice a month with me? Of course not.
SF: But if the jazz musicians aren’t willing to commit themselves long term to a band, that might have something to do with why they’re not as economically well off as the rock musician who is willing to commit long term to put a tight sound together.
JM: The only people you’ll find who’ll be willing to do that are people who are just starting out; who have nothing to lose by doing that. I don’t want anybody that’s just starting out unless they’re exceptional; unless they’re so good that people just fall on the floor. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain over the last twenty years of working with people, and now in the last year and a half trying to get a band together, you pay for what you get and you get what you pay for, as far as quality. You don’t get quality from somebody who just got off the boat. You’ve got to have somebody who’s been pounding the pavement for ten or twenty years, or else they’re just not up to it. My guys are doing me a favor working for such lousy money.
Jazz has never been a big money maker, except in the swing era. It’s like a tautology. It’s never been a big money maker because it’s never been a big money maker. If it was a big money maker then the whole behavior of jazz musicians would be different than it is. Everybody has to operate on the premise that there’s no money—because there isn’t. So, that’s traditionally how you’re brought up to think when you become a jazz player. So what we’re saying is that jazz as a whole—whatever you want to define it as—has to get more organized if it wants to be successful in the terms of modern concerts and recording, and to take a chunk of the market away from rock, pop, country and all the other music. We should have our legitimate chunk. But, to claim that chunk we’re going to have to do better than we’ve ever done.
But, the important thing to note there is that we can do that without selling ourselves out; without compromising our mu sic. So far, anybody who’s made it—with very few exceptions—in the last ten years, has compromised. All the guys that went from jazz to rock—they all compromised.
SF: How well could you read music when you made the permanent move to New York City?
JM: I’ve had to brush up all along since I’ve been in New York because as soon as I started getting jingles and record dates, at night I got with a few rehearsal bands. Dave Berger has a big band and we’d get together and play his charts. I had to learn to read that. Then when the Dave Matthews Big Band started, I had to read those charts and they were even harder. And I did various record dates along the way. Also, I started working with singers a lot and had to read their books.
I practiced from the time I was twelve until I was nineteen—mostly just playing. When I was seventeen or eighteen I started getting gigs subbing for guys at the Playboy Club on Saturdays, playing the shows with singers that would come through. I’d have to read their books. When I first started doing that I really couldn’t read. All the reading that I knew was that snare drum “rat-a-tat-tat.” I had some lessons where I learned how to play club dates and all the different things I’d need to know just to be a working drummer. But. I hadn’t done anything like that for about three or four years. I really scuffled.
When I started coming to New York I started reading better and better. I taught myself. About a year after I got here I was working with Marian McPartland for about two years. Mike Moore, my old home boy, was on bass and he got me the gig. Every night, he and I would go in the back room on breaks and I had the Louie Bellson/Gil Breines book. We used to beat on the desk together with our hands. We’d go through the book and then we’d go through it faster, and then we’d do it backwards. Then we’d go through it upside down—anyway we could think of just to have to read it some more. I’d try playing on the ride cymbal with the right hand and playing the book with the left. My reading went up a whole bunch right then.
SF: How did you know—when you looked at a chart—how you were going to play the figures? What determined whether you were going to play a note on the snare, toms, bass drum or cymbals?
JM: I honestly don’t know how anyone can teach that. If you teach pat phrases, then they end up coming out like pat phrases. Listen to other drummers. Listen to drummers that are already established in whatever area you’re interested in. Lis ten to the best guys and listen to what they do. Write those things down, and practice those things individually and try to interchange them so that you can do it anyway you want. I learned mostly by doing it. That’s where experience comes in. You learn when you first start that you play too much. Then, somewere along the line, it occurs to you that less is more, and you start simplifying. Pretty soon you learn the exact thing to play on a particular piece of music—especially if you work with the band all the time. After playing 18,000 different kinds of fills you finally learn that if you end your beat or your fill on “one” because the brass hit is on “two,” the important thing is that you hit that “one,” because the brass players know that’s what it is and they hit right. So, you set them up. If you’re going to set the brass section up—I won’t say you should set them up the same way everytime—it’s the old story that you can break the rules but you have to know them first. You learn what works and then you start experimenting.
SF: Who did you use as role models for big band drumming?
JM: I liked the way Mel Lewis played a lot. The first record I ever heard with Mel was Terry Gibbs’ Big Band. He used to play the shit out of it. He was my favorite big band drummer.
SF: You were never into the Buddy or Louie school?
JM: Not really. I always had a healthy respect for Buddy Rich, and what he can do he does better than anybody else, but I find that—and I’m probably going to get all sorts of letters from Buddy Rich fans—I just find that it’s in the same kind of area as the Joe Morello style. It’s very metrical. Much more than Elvin or somebody like that. I like the free-flowing thing more than I like the metrical thing. Although, I really wish I could do half the things that Buddy can do. Technically he’s amazing!
SF: Does your concept change from small group to big band?
JM: I try to just keep it to one concept. Sometimes if the big band is too big, or if it’s not rehearsed enough and it’s slow, you have to become a pile driver just to keep it together. But, usually if a big band is well rehearsed, everybody knows their parts. I play like a small group with horns added rather than like a big group.
I listen to the whole thing. I try to concentrate on the rhythm section and let the horns follow us. That’s why it’s so weird to play with different bass players and different drummers sometimes. Everybody has their natural center of gravity, that they will lean towards if they don’t think about it. At any given time in their career that may or may not be in the same spot. So, when you meet somebody that has a similar center of gravity, you can sit right down and play—even though you never saw them before—and you’ll sound like you’ve been playing together for years. Whereas, if you’ve got somebody that plays naturally more behind the beat than you do— you may never feel comfortable with them even though you’re a great player and they’re a great player. If you’re a very experienced player you can bend to compromise. Or if you’re a really good player you can bend all the way to get to the other person’s point of view. It might be totally uncomfortable for you to play the date, but the end product will come out alright.
SF: Let’s talk about some of the singers you’ve backed and the different ways to do it.
JM: Well, there’s been Mark Murphy, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Amanda Ambrose and some others. I’ve done a lot of it and people tell me I do it good. Singers always like the way I back them up. I guess the biggest secret is to learn to keep your ears open and really play what the singer needs. Stay out of their way, but support them all the time. And learn dynamics. The best thing you can do when you’re rehearsing with a singer, after you’ve learned the chart, start playing with dynamics! Immediately! Find out what the loudest you can play is without getting in their way and the softest that you can play. Really exaggerate the dynamics. As you work you’ll probably exaggerate the dynamics less. The subtleties come into it.
SF: Can you give me a quick rundown of your equipment?
JM: It’s about a seventeen-year-old Gretsch set. It’s an 8 x 12 tom-tom, a 14 x 14 tom-tom, standard snare drum, 5 1 /2 x 14. The bass drum is a 14″ bass drum but it’s 18″ deep. It was a large tom-tom shell once. It’s all set up for jazz; there are two heads on everything; calf head on the snare drum on top. I just changed that I’ve been using plastic for fifteen years but I’m going back to skin I think. Mel Lewis is responsible! He’s been bugging me for years! He’s a fanatic about skin heads.
I’ve got two basic cymbal set-ups. A 20″ and a 22″ ride cymbal. They both have 18″ crash cymbals and 16″ crash cymbals. The 16″ crash cymbals sound almost alike. One of the 18’s is a newer A. Zildjian thin crash and the other’s a medium crash that I’ve had for a long time. I have two sets of hi hat cymbals: a K. Zildjian set that has one of the new Canadian K. ‘s on top and a very old regular K. thin on the bottom. It’s a strange combination but it works. The other set is from two sets of New Beat hi-hats. I took the two thin cymbals from the two sets and put them together as a set. The A. set has a bit more of a bite than the K.’s so I like that better for rock. The K.’s area little jazzier.
SF: Let’s wrap it up by talking about your new band.
JM: The new band is almost two years old. Part of it’s been with me since ’78 when I did my first record. Tom Harrell is still the trumpet player. Bill Evans is the saxophone player. The bassist recently has been…well, I’m going to be using Dennis Irwin, but Gene Perla has been doing it. It’s probably a toss up between those two. The piano player has been really a toss up. Phil Markowitz has done it, Andy LaVerne, Dan Wall…this particular time I’m going to have Kenny Barron. I’d like to keep Kenny all the time if I can, but he’s so busy it’ll probably be hard.
That’s basically the band. Touring and recording will be the next steps. I’ve got the band, recording studio and material; all I need is some money man somewhere from some record company who’s interested.
SF: Is there anything you’ve learned from being a bandleader as opposed to being a Sideman?
JM: Yeah. It’s a big pain in the ass! When you’re the Sideman you just show up and play and have a good time, collect the money and go home. The only rewards that I’m getting now are the thoughts that I may someday be a self-supporting person and not have to worry when the phone’s going to ring so that I have another sideman gig. I’d like to have some kind of security of my own that’s dependent upon something other than somebody else’s state of work or no work. I’d like to do both. I ‘d like to keep my hand in there, but I’d like to have something to call mine.