You hardly have time to settle on a bag for Phillip Wilson when he pulls a rabbit out of his hat to confound all your preconceptions and expectations. Just when you’ve settled into a groove, it up and disappears; watch him turn the beat around . . . looks like he’s in trouble, but he still manages to rein it all in. Do you suppose he knew where he was all that time? You can believe that.
Watch him juggle duple and triple meters at pianissimo volumes, when suddenly here comes a triple-fortissimo rim shot aimed right at the solar plexus of the beat, cutting inside the time like a sneaky left hook. Sort of shakes things up, it does. Watching him rollin’ and tumblin’ around his set like a beserk beer truck—just the other side of what might be called “loose” in polite conversation—you might think that this isn’t exactly a precision machine, when here comes a textural blossom so sweet and serene it’s like Debussy playing traps.
Muscular and irrepressibly garrulous, Phillip Wilson looks like a street-wise Egyptian Pharaoh, what with his long goatee and a mischievous yet somehow regal demeanor. If pressed for a generalization, I might tell you that Phillip Wilson is a blues drummer, which sure isn’t a limiting term, given that the blues is the roots source for just about any form of American music. But…how shall we put it? Phillip Wilson’s drumming is funky yet sleek; earthy yet artful. It’s as if you pulled into a truck stop and the gas jockey were to check your oil, pulling a lace doily from his overalls to wipe your dipstick.
Since I’ve been in New York City, Phillip Wilson has been the mainstay of some of the finest jazz improvisers and com posers of the past twenty years, including Lester Bowie, Olu Dara & The Okra Orchestra (surely one of the most infectious, ribald jazz/r&b/funk/blues/third world/et. al. combos never to record an album), Julius Hemphill, David Murray, James Newton, Oliver Lake and many, many others (including his own band Magic, a delightful blend of funk and jazz with old friend David Sanborn, and collaborations with bassist Bill Laswell of Material, heard to definite advantage on the latter’s latest album Basslines).
What I’ve always loved about Phillip Wilson is his unpredictability: the subtle nuances and shadings; an ability to steam heat a band with a fat, nasty beat (usually performing on some of the most scabrous drumsets in existence), gospel-like asides, and powerful, salty fills, balanced by a seemingly non-metric sense of colors, shadings, tribal rhythms and pregnant pauses. Indeed, what Phillip Wilson doesn’t play is often as significant as what he does, but when he shifts into overdrive, each beat is like a counterpunch.
Still, as strong as Phillip Wilson can play, he places a higher premium on feeling than technique. “I used to be into being dynamic with all those hands things,” he explains, “but to have all that hands doesn’t really mean anything in and of it self. To hell with that—I don’t believe in it. You feel the music with your heart, not with your hands. My approach centers around being sensitive to the way the whole band sounds; to textures and the subtleties of dynamics. That’s what music is—period. I mean, I’m trying to get back to the rhythm thing of the ’20s, that way of playing a very pronounced top-of-the-beat rhythm, but be laid back at the same time—to incorporate all of the elements that made jazz what it was. Which means bringing the bass drum back, phrasing with it to carry the music, which is what the essence of jazz used to be, and is what rock and funk is today. Phrasing the rhythm so that the accentuations hit you in the body. It’s not about the “one” or the “two, “but all those cracks in time, like “2-e-and” or “3-and-uh”—I’d like to get people up and moving to jazz again. “
Which, given Wilson’s experience playing with the likes of Rufus Thomas, Solo mon Burke, Muddy Waters and Otis Rush, usually results in a powerful jazz body music.
CS: Can you tell us about your personal background and origins?
PW: I was born September 8, 1941 in St. Louis, Missouri. All of my environment influenced me—totally. My father was an all-around kind of intelligence. My father and mother used to run this thing in St. Louis called the Neighborhood House, which was like a community center. That’s where I first found out about people like Langston Hughes, because he used to put on plays all the time; he also played saxophone, and although he wasn’t so much a sax player, I learned a lot about music in general. My Daddy, Claude Wilson, was really something. He taught me gymnastics. He held a record in the 100-yard dash; was captain of the football team; taught arts and crafts; was a Scout leader; did metal work; worked with brass and wood. All of that basketball, football, gymnastics and arts related to music to me, and made me want to play music.
My grandfather played drums on a riverboat, and we were very close, so we talked a lot. He used to tell me about the drums and I was really fascinated by them. Then, when I was around eight, I wanted to play something, and my grandfather got me a violin. I played that for a year, then put it down, and the drums were still there. At that time we stayed in a place called Carr Square Village and they had a little drum corps; no bugles, just this little American Legion Hall thing, and there were drums down there, and the little kids used to go down and play them.
I met this guy over there, and he could play real well, so I pretty much learned what was happening from him about sticks and sticking. I was over there every day. So from then on I was into it. By the time I was 10 I’d picked up a bit, then my mother sent me to drum school—which I hated. They had this school called the Ludwig Music School in downtown St. Louis. And this guy named Joe would give me these lessons which were really boring, because the things he was giving me, like reading 8th notes, I already knew.
So after like two or three lessons I figured I was wasting my time, and I quit, but without telling my mother, because I’d joined a drum and bugle corps called The American Woodsmen, which is where I met Oliver Lake. And I was taught by this guy about my age, who taught me for free, and his name was James Meredith. Outrageous reader. Great all-around drummer. He had control of the drum section in the American Woodsmen, and he would have us practicing eight hours a day—serious.
CS: What would you practice?
PW: Double-stroke rolls, single-stroke rolls . . . whatever. And not just playing the drums—during the summer we’d practice three or four hours on the drum line, then another three or four marching, getting our moves and coordination together. In the winter we’d practice a couple of nights a week.
Meredith really had a great influence on me. He really made me aware of holding the sticks, and how to play doubles and singles. And they had this particular way of sticking that he had developed himself; we would enter drum contests, and we would win a lot, because we had so many different styles of playing.
CS: What was so different about his sticking?
PW: It would look like he was playing backwards. And we had to work on his sticking patterns, which gave us the freedom to come out of the left or right side without getting hung up. And we had to practice maneuvers—a real precision group—marching as we played. You had to remember steps as you played—how many steps before turning. And then we’d do that with the bugle corps and rhyme that with the music and its subtleties.
So I played in the Woodsmen from grade school through high school, when I met Lester Bowie, and his father taught me; he was a music teacher at the time. Played cornet… funny lookin’ chug, everybody used to pick on him. But a beautiful person. And he helped me work on my reading in the school band.
Now around the time I was 15, I began to try and swing, to play the whole kit.
CS: You mean up until this time you had been playing snare?
PW: Nothing but snare drum. Right.
CS: Rudimental style?
PW: Totally. Nothing but. He would have us play them inside and out, change up the accents on us to create some new figurations, and have us reading snare parts.
CS: So you got to the point where you wanted to play a kit, but you’d only been playing snare drum. Don’t you think that your early grounding playing snare drum might have accounted for your unique approach, which is sort of a throw-back to the old New Orleans style parade drummers? And your unique touch—it’s like you were hearing drums as a string instrument.
PW: Yeah. Right. Not playing it like a muscleman. But playing the instrument orchestrally. The drums have a pitch, a timbre, and when you get the timbre of the drum right under someone’s note, you’ll really get the music happening. Tone. And touch. That’s the basis of my concept.
CS: So what had you been using until then?
PW: I had a snare drum that my brother-in-law had bought me. And other than that, they had drums at school that I could use or take home to practice with. Then I got me an iron to use as a sock cymbal on my left, and I got an old bass drum pedal which I’d position against the wall to beat against. Then I’d use a pillow as a ride cymbal, just to see what it felt like to play in that posture.
It really wasn’t that hard for me, I’m telling you. I remember there was this guy in the drum corps we used to call Big Stupe; this cat had so much coordination—he was a natural drummer. He was so agile it amazed me. And he was the first one to really make me conscious of separating my limbs—what the purpose of each hand and foot was for.
CS: Didn’t you find it difficult making the transition from snare drum to full kit?
PW: It wasn’t that hard, because he showed me how to work at it. The main thing he got across to me was the idea of being relaxed: make yourself a center of energy. Do things real slow—very slow. Work on your feet the way you do your hands, and play the rudiments with your feet, real slow; keep time with your hands and change the accents between hands and feet.
So I worked on that for a while, and then when I was around 16 I’d gotten it pretty together so that I could play with people and take care of my end. There was this club near me where you could go and sit in, back in the time when they used to have jam sessions, which is really the best format for working your thing out, seeing what works and what don’t. So you could play at these sessions all day and all night. And all the young cats would go down there and woodshed; me and Lester’d sit in and through that I met this organ player named Don James. He heard me play and just took me on. He’d say, “Come on, man, I’ve got some work.” So I was working every night at this place called The Midtown Bar, and that was really good for my education.
CS: What about school?
PW: Well, I had to do that, but I concentrated all of my energies above and beyond that on my drumming. Stopped running track, everything…I’d do my schooling, do my homework, then I’d go make a gig. But I had a lot of energy in those days, I was working, had a car—I could take care of myself.
I worked with Don until I was 18, then I tried to go to college for a year, and I didn’t like it. But then I had this offer to come to New York with another organ player, Sam Lazar. Grant Green was in this band, and a tenor player named Miller Brisker who was later with the Supremes. Miller had a tremendous impact on my life and my music. But we went to Chicago first, and played at McKee’s Show Lounge with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. So I was an up-and-coming star as they say, and I could play fast and cut the music pretty good.
CS: Playing in all of those organ trios, what sort of grounding did that give you in rhythm? What type of grooves did they want?
PW: Swing. A kind of a laid back shuffle-swing. So I learned a lot about the shuffle; not backbeat kind of shuffle, but an open kind of feeling where you had to anticipate the shuffle thing within the swing, and be ready to put that feeling to the music. If you’ve ever heard the way organ players play in those kind of groups, they play in the back of the beat mostly—they play behind the beat—so that’s usually where the shuffle is. So they could keep a straight beat, and they could sound like a shuffle.
CS: What could you play against that?
PW: I could play a shuffle, I could play rim shots, I could play anything else, but there was a certain feel you had to create. You had to get up under the organ player and push him. For instance, you’ve heard Jimmy Smith. Well he used to hook up and do rhythms with his drummer, between the snare and the bass drum, and the organ player was always laid back. So sometimes they would do backbeats, and other times they’d do these figures [sings an intricate boppish melody]. It was almost like funk but it wasn’t funk. It was all of that: swing, bop, funk, blues—with a big beat.
One of the masters of that kind of playing is Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith for many years. I learned a great deal about that feeling from him, and I used to go and watch him when I was with Sam Lazar. Man, his coordination was impeccable. He would keep time, and create all kinds of funny things against the beat with his right foot and his left hand. It was laid-back funk-swing. That’s a style of drumming that’s fallen out of style. You don’t hear that so much anymore, but I try and use it every chance I get, ’cause there’s some music with Olu [Dara] and Lester [Bowie] where that feeling is definitely called for. You can really get to the people with that kind of groove.
CS: Were you still using an iron and pillows, or did you have some of your own tubs by now?
PW: I had a set of Slingerland that this guy had given me. Some black Radio Kings…Marvin Shuck was his name, an organ player. He was a good organist, too. Man, I played in a lot of organ trios. After my period in Chicago with Ammons and Stitt I came to New York and played at Minton’s Playhouse, which was an outrageous place for me to find myself after everything I’d come through. I met a lot of people there, and I got a chance to play with Mr. Henry “Red” Alien which was really something else. Unfortunately he was never really documented. He could play, man. But that period in New York—around 1961—was one of the most fantastic periods in my life.
CS: You’d been developing your own style of grooving when you came to New York. Who were the heavy hitters that made a big impression?
PW: There was one drummer in particular: Edgar Bateman. He had something wrong with his leg or he was a hunchback or something, but, man, he had independence that was outrageous. So I used to just watch him when he’d come by to sit in at Minton’s, then I’d go home and practice on the bed. I was trying to get to different feels and rhythms. I got to the point where I’d have different approaches to using my feet. How to play if your heel was flat, and how to play when using your toe; trying to get the flexibility of playing off of either heel or toe.
CS: What’s the difference between playing off the heel or toe?
PW: From where I’m coming from now, when I’m playing from the heel I can play more laid back, like on a bossa nova. Then sometimes I might go to the toe for another thing. It’s according to where I want the feel of the song to go; where I want it to go, or where it’s going—period. So I have to sometimes back off the music; if I don’t want to push it too hard then I back up and use the heel. It works. And I learned this from Edgar Bateman. Plus, he had all the coordination things together, and he sounded just like a big band drummer, and I wanted to learn that, too.
Then I travelled to Cleveland, and met another drummer, I can’t remember his name, but he had this toe thing playing with an organ group, and created this tension between the laid-back and the top-of the beat approach. And I used to practice everyday, whether I was working or not, and when I was rooming on the road with Miller Brisker, he turned me on to a lot of things to shed, mainly reading things. There was this one book that was very helpful to me that I studied from, Stick Control by Lawrence Stone, I believe. He gave me some new approaches to accents. He’d have triplets in, say, short, little two bar phrases, and there’d be different accents falling in some strange places; then you’d get into paradiddles with the accent falling on the back of the beat, front, second beat, third beat, fourth beat. And it would make you feel things differently; I would take them and work them between my hands and feet, sometimes keeping time with my hands, then shifting to my feet.
CS: That’s interesting, because it seems like a big part of your style involves all sorts of displaced accents; not accenting the strong beat, but the off-beats.
PW: Yeah, sure, like putting the accent on the middle beat of a triplet. I used to put all my own accents in there—mark off different things for myself—because it felt so awkward all the time.
CS: Did your grandfather ever show you press rolls and stuff?
PW: Press rolls was about all he showed me. That’s how they played time in those days, and he sounded just like a buzz saw—could bring it in at any point in the music. That was a big influence on me.
CS: Do you think that his influence with the press rolls, and the violin studies, and the years you spent playing snare drum gave you a different perspective on the kit?
PW: Yeah, plus I played the snare drum in church when I was still young. I had to go to church every Sunday, anyway.
CS: So you played snare drum to keep from falling asleep?
PW: No, no, you didn’t fall asleep in the church I went to, man. You didn’t want to fall asleep in that church because there was so much music going on. People slamming their feet on the floorboard, hollering, being transported into another state of mind. Some deep stuff.
I’m going to tell you something: I came back from Cleveland, because I wanted to get off the road. So I quit for around a year or so, and I worked as a maitre d’ and stopped playing entirely. Then Lester [Bowie] came back through St. Louis and we formed a band, so I stopped what I was doing to rehearse with him every day. It sounded sort of like one of Art Blakey’s bands from that period, and we were trying to do the sort of thing we’re doing now. We weren’t into free music then, we were just starting to learn that way though, but our program would cover the whole history of black music. It was after that band broke up that we began working our way towards non-metric things, playing fast and loose with beat. We used to play in the park every day, me and Lester, and Julius Hemphill…Forest Park. We didn’t just play free though, we played rhythms like 6/8, sevens, fives, and put them against each other.
At about this time I couldn’t really play funk very well. I hadn’t had that much contact with that music, and when I started hearing these r & b drummers, that turned me around. So Lester told me I should hit with this funk band, and some of the people we played with were like Rufus Thomas and The Drifters. I remember Bobby “Blue” Bland had this drummer once who was unbelievable, and it dawned on me that I had a whole other area of drumming that I had to study and learn.
CS: What was it that set apart the good r & b drummers’ style from that of the jazz players you’d been hearing?
PW: Well…I can’t really say. I guess the foot. More foot, and heavier foot, too. And they had this tight thing with their hands. You know how jazz players can play real straight with their right hand and left hand? Well, I had this ting-ting-ting thing going in my right hand that I couldn’t get rid of, and I had to eliminate that…well, no, I had to modify it to fit the music. I had to tighten it down. The rhythm of r & b and funk is more…I don’t know, rigid? That’s not it. It’s tighter somehow.
CS: What was it that you couldn’t do at first?
PW: I couldn’t get that hand and foot thing going. At first I couldn’t keep the straight time going with the hi-hat and get that syncopation going. I mean, I could syncopate, but it was syncopating against swing; keeping a straight four with your hand, then playing the rhythm between the left hand and right foot. But this was something completely different. In funk I wouldn’t necessarily be playing a straight four down under; I might have to break everything up between snare and bass drum, keeping the heavy time on the hi hats. So I had to learn that, which happened when I went out on the road with this guy Jerry Brown in a band that included Oliver Lake and Bowie. So I learned to tighten the syncopations, keeping the four with my right hand on the hi hats, and keeping the backbeat, plus keeping the backbeat going in the right foot and breaking it up with my snare drum.
From there, Lester and I traveled out to California where we were more or less left stranded by that funk band. We played free for a while, not working at all, just exploring. Then Lester went back with Fontella Bass around the time she had that big hit “Rescue Me.”
The day Lester left I got a gig in Phoenix, Arizona making big money. I took Oliver Lake and an organ player and we worked this black country club backing up the likes of Lou Rawls, playing whatever was required. That was around 1964.
Then I came back to St. Louis and Miller Brisker was now working for Motown, and he told me to come on up and he could get me a gig. So I worked in Chocolate CampbelPs big band backing up Martha Reeves and Marvin Gaye, and I worked as a road drummer for them for a while until I got tired of it and wanted to get back home to my family. Besides, they didn’t treat you too cool. They had these chaperones who thought you were a schlepper, just there to get things for them. Nevertheless, it was really interesting, and I got a chance to hear this drummer Norman Williams, who was really something. He had the most different style of playing funk I’ve ever seen in my life. He was with the Temptations, and he was bad, man. Like Elvin Jones playing funk, only lighter. The things he could do between hands and feet scared me. I couldn’t believe somebody could play that much stuff and not miss no accents. Miss no band accents, miss no dancing accents.
So that really changed my head around. And I began to take that music much more seriously, trying to incorporate that way of playing into everything I did. Then, by this time, Lester had gone to Chicago and that marked my period working with The Art Ensemble of Chicago.
CS: What was it about the Chicago/AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) scene that was different from what you were used to?
PW: Everything was happening, but really we were happening. With the Art Ensemble that’s when I really started changing, because I had a chance to practice and play all day every day; the blues or whatever. So I really had a chance to work on my stuff, because for a year I hardly had any gigs, whatsoever. I hardly ever had any money either. But I had a place to stay and people fed me while I was living in this basement.
So I got a chance to develop my sound. I wanted to sound like a symphony, like an entire orchestra. So I began working on different attacks and dynamics; a rising and falling of sound instead of just playing grooves. And the Art Ensemble used to work on things together like that: real loud, then as soft as we could bring it down. Putting the accents in different places and varying the intensity. By practicing every day by myself and with the Art Ensemble I was able to achieve a great deal of growth. That was a very formative period in the development of my music.
CS: That was in the period when the band comprised Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Lester Bowie on trumpet, Malachi Favors on bass, and you on drums, with everyone playing percussion. How did those players strike you when you first hit Chicago?
PW: Well, I don’t know, man. They’re nothing like they were to me then. It was completely different. The music was so dynamic, really different. Roscoe used to carry a little box of goodies around, like Clarabell, with a little squeaker on it and all sorts of whistles and sound goodies inside. He was really whimsical; the music was so light-hearted, not so heavy. It’s changed quite a bit in time.
CS: It would seem to me that Roscoe was working to attain similar goals on the horns as you were on the drums—new dynamics and textures; another sort of melodic scope.
PW: Yeah, He was practicing every day. He’s changed considerably since I played with him. Not for good or bad, just something else. The band was beautiful, and it’s a shame it was never documented, except on that record Old Quartet [Nessa], which was released under Roscoe’s name, and was basically just recorded at a rehearsal.
I got so much out of the people who were around Chicago during that period. I developed so much and had a chance to play with so many great people. I played with this great, great harmonica player Little Walter, who taught me so much about rhythm. He used to just sit down and talk to me about music, because I wanted to play a whole lot of different blues musics, so he would tell me about the accents and how they were supposed to feel. He taught me about how to play on the upbeat instead of always playing the downbeat, because then it gets heavy. He said, “See, the blues ain’t got to be heavy.” He just explained things about where the beats were supposed to go to make the music sing.
CS: Who were the drummers during this period of time—your formative years up through the Art Ensemble of Chicago—who gassed you up the most and had the greatest influence?
PW: Some of my favorites? Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, a drummer from St. Louis named Joe Charles—another real coordination man. Ask Elvin about him, too. He had a tremendous influence on my playing. He used to practice every day, every chance he got. He had a fish truck, and had his drums set up in the back of the truck. [Laughs] I’m serious, man. He was a big guy, weighed maybe 300 pounds, and was about 5′ 6″, you dig, but this cat could play the shit out of the drums. Fast and unbelievably light, especially for a cat that big, and the delicacy of his whole approach made me think about what I was trying to do. He played pretty, you know.
And Philly Joe, man. He would play all of these accents against the grain of the beat, really turn things around, but he was so precise, so correct—always. And he was heavily into rudiments, which was in my bag anyhow, and he’d take these rudiments and put them in the most unexpected places. And when he’d take a solo, it would be so right, you could practically spell it out. Now Joe Charles didn’t play nothing like that, but he would swing you to death. It’s hard to describe his solos—it was like push and rush, inhale-exhale or something. Nothing in a set time frame, but he could come out of that and put it on the floor and swing—hard. So Philly Joe had an enormous influence on me, as he did on so many people. Then came Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. When I first saw Elvin with ‘Trane when I was living in Cleveland, I went crazy; his thing was so advanced I couldn’t believe it—he was playing like funk, swing, blues and free all at the same time.
Now I know I took a whole lot from Philly and Elvin, but it’s not like I wanted to play like them, I just wanted to take some of their tonality and textures—the way they touch a drum; the certain feel that they had in breaking up the time. Not to play that way all the time, but to have those colors as an option should the situation demand it. And of course I loved Tony Williams. He sounded like all of the drummers and none of them; really helped free up all the drummers who’ve listened to him since the ’60s, and of course, as far as four-way coordination, his thing was scary—still is.
CS: During this time, when you made the jump from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Paul Butterfield’s band, did starvation play a part in that move?
PW: That was one thing. And we had some conflict in the band; the living situation was pretty conducive to creating music, but I just got tired of living in the basement, and my family not having no money in St. Louis, so I said, “Well, I got to make a change.” And when this change came to me, and I told them I have to go, they were so upset, they didn’t even go out and get a drummer for a very long time. Because the thing we had was so tight, and colorful, but the dues just got too deep. My family was tripping, and I just had to get some money for them. They were important to me.
Then Butterfield came along, and I’d been playing with him before. I liked him, and I really enjoyed that time I worked with him. I learned quite a bit from that experience because it was like playing with a big band.
CS: That was probably where most people first got a chance to hear you. What was it like for you coming off of a jazz and r & b road life to suddenly find yourself in the big-time rock ‘n’ roll circuit?
PW: It was beautiful. A lot of people didn’t like the way I played, because it was a really different way of playing the blues; it really wasn’t even a blues band because we played so many different things. They thought that I didn’t fit in, at first. But after we’d done a few gigs, the music was so dynamic people couldn’t help themselves. At that time the band was one of the most fantastic groups of its day. There was Gene Dinwiddie on tenor; I brought David Sanborn in on alto; Elvin Bishop was on guitar; Mark Naftalin on keyboards. I got there about a week after Mike Bloomfield left.
CS: Too bad.
PW: Yeah, well we were in touch, and he wanted me to work with him, but that poor cat was so messed up I just couldn’t deal with it. The Butterfield thing lasted about three years and then we had a parting of the ways; it was time for us to all move on to something else, and I wanted to do something on my own. I went to live in To ronto for a while and played with this other band, Mother Load, which was really strange—a commercial band.
CS: What sort of drums and cymbals had you graduated to during this period?
PW: I had some Zildjian cymbals I’d bought years before and kept on using, and some Rogers drums that they were supposed to have given me. We did a commercial for Fender and Rogers, and they sent me a contract and I signed up, but I never saw the drums. So Butterfield ended up buying the drums for me, but I ended up paying for them [laughs]. It was those black Rogers you’ve seen me play for years. They were alright.
CS: After Mother Load, was that the time of Full Moon?
PW: Yeah, fantastic band, We put it together ourselves—Buzzy Feiten, Gene Dinwiddie, and Neil Larsen. That was really one of the very first of the jazz-rockfunk bands. Actually, just before that, I had moved down to Woodstock, and that’s when I played with Jimi Hendrix, which was a beautiful experience. He lived not too far from me. I had a house there, so did The Band and Dylan and all those cats. So he’d come over to my crib or I’d go over to his, and we’d just play. It was fun.
CS: You didn’t tape any of it?
PW: Jimi Hendrix taped every time he played, so somebody has got all of that stuff—all of it. I didn’t believe in it myself. I didn’t have no tape recorders, no telephones. I didn’t want to be bothered by it.
CS: How did his music strike you, having come through bands as different as the Art Ensemble and Paul Butterfield?
PW: Me and him got along well. I’d met him before when I just went with Butterfield, down at the old Cafe Au Go Go. He came to hear us and couldn’t believe it. He said, “I ain’t never heard nothing like that.” So he brought a tape recorder down to tape us, because we were one of the first horn bands in rock. It was a scene, alright. There was a club used to be around where Electric Ladyland was—huge place, but I can’t remember its name—where cats from different bands would meet up, and jam all night. Everyone from Jimi to Sly Stone. So I was familiar with him and his music. It wasn’t all that different then what I’d been hearing all my life. Jimi Hendrix played the blues, man, played them strong and free, and had his own melodic thing. He was a player, man, that’s what I thought of Jimi Hendrix. They wasted that dude, I believe. I don’t think he went out on his own. I think he had help.
CS: How come Full Moon didn’t make it?
PW: We just couldn’t hold it together. It’s hard. I’ve been in so many bands like that, where the music was strong, but it just wasn’t in the cards.
CS: What happened after Full Moon?
PW: I went down to Memphis where I worked as a session drummer for Stax, and did some writing.
CS: That’s interesting. Having had some experience with Motown, what do you think distinguished the Stax sound from the Detroit soul sound?
PW: Al Jackson, man. That backbeat he had was so fat and laid back. That’s more of a country sound. That’s where reggae comes from, man. From the southern r&b and New Orleans. That’s the reason I went down there, because I wanted to get some more knowledge under my belt about what that feeling was about. I had to learn to lay back even further than ever. There are different kinds of laid back, and I never used to understand what they were talking about. Like when I was at Motown, I could play, but they’d always be on me: “Man, you ain’t laying back enough.” And I’d say, “Laying back? What are you talking about?” Then when I got to Stax every body’d be telling me to lay back and be tight. “Make it tight, and lay it back on the back of the beat.” Okay. Okay. I’ll check that out.
Like, you know Willie Hall? Really dynamic drummer, who learned most of his stuff from Al Jackson, and later did a thing with the Blues Brothers. Well, I used to watch him a lot. Did a lot of watching, right up until about 1976, when I returned to New York when there was the resurgence of jazz here, when all of the cats I’d been playing with and heard out in Chicago, St. Louis and the West Coast came to Manhattan and put some fire to the scene. Cats like David Murray, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, James Newton—all these great players. It was funny coming up here after playing with all these country/ western and cajun cats.
CS: What’s the difference between southern funk and cajun?
PW: Whew…that’s tough to explain. If you hear it you’ll know it. It’s like, more folksy. You see, the further you get down into the bayou, the rhythm starts changing. When I was down at Stax I played with this cat Coon [laughs]…these were country people, you know, and he’d take me down to Mississippi, out into the sticks; get drunk on cheap wine, and get with these black cats who’d be playing country/western and the blues, and it would just carry me away to hear the real country, not like this commercial stuff people hear up North. Real country is just like the blues, and it’s a dying art.
CS: So what brought you back to New York?
PW: Anthony Braxton had been looking for me, because there was a resurgence of the new music, and we’d done a concert together with bassist Dave Holland at Town Hall when I was still with Full Moon. He had written out some very hard music with a lot of rhythm and time changes, a lot of purely textural kinds of sound, and it was a challenge that I enjoyed while it lasted.
Then I met Olu Dara, and that was the best thing that happened to me since I got back. Nobody plays cornet like him. Nobody. He’s so lyrical and rhythmical…some ancient things as old as the blues—and older. Not too many people can do the things he can with just tone. He’ll pick some notes and make them go around the room—get them moving just like a ventriloquist. He has immaculate control, only picks out the prettiest notes, doesn’t play a lot of bullshit. Plus he’s very funny, has a total command of a lot of instruments, and he likes all kinds of music. So we became friends immediately, because he was from the South and I’d just returned from there, and he was plugged into that whole folk tradition. So we’ve played a lot of duet situations, and that and the duets I did with Lester [Bowie] are among my favorite musical experiences. There’s something about the trumpet—probably from my drum and bugle days—that makes a connection for me. Maybe it’s something from times way back, or the sound of the brass. But I love it.
Right now I’m putting all of my own energies towards Olu and Lester and my own thing. And what Lester has together, I’m going to help him develop that and really make it work so you can see all the connections between the different musics, from the root to the source. It’s one of the best bands Lester’s ever had, with Albert Dailey on piano, John Mixon, Henri Brown, Fontella Bass and her mother, and David Pierson.
CS: What equipment are you using now?
PW: Anything and everything. I got drums called “Mismatch.” I had this beautiful old snare drum which got stolen, and damned if I didn’t get it back. This young drummer, J.T. Lewis, got it back for me. I was sitting in a bar the other day, and he came up to me and said, “This is your drum, man. A cat gave it to me, but it had your name inside and everything, so here it is.” That was beautiful. I couldn’t believe it, man. It’s an old Gretsch from 1939, a 6 1/2 x 14 and it’s fat and powerful and open. I can get anything I want out of it.
Then I’ve got an old Ludwig 20″ bass drum, a 14 x 14 Rogers floor tom—both single-headed, with a CS head on the bass drum and an old beat-up Ambassador on the floor tom. Then I’ve got this set of tim bales that I’m using up top as aerial toms, and that’s it. It’s a funky set-up, but I don’t care about the heads or the shells or any of that. I can make ’em work because I’ve got over 30 years of experience making any set of drums do what I want.
CS: What are you playing in the way of cymbals these days?
PW: Paistes. The Rude people. I’ve got a pair of 14″ Formula 602 heavy hi-hats which are real crisp and bright sounding. They work surprisingly well with Rudes.
CS: I can’t believe what a controlled sound you get with the Rudes.
PW: I know. But it’s like I been telling you—it’s about the touch. I’ve got a 20″, a 19″ and a 14″, all ride-crashes, and they all sound different. I really dig the Rudes, because you can play just as loud or just as soft as you want with them. I mean you can play them loud, boy, but they’re very responsive. The bells are clean and ringing, and they’re a lot more musical sounding than people give them credit for.
CS: The Zildjians you said you were playing back during the ’70s: were they all A.’s?
PW: All A. Zildjians. I couldn’t find a K. worth looking at. They would never sound right to me—you really had to look hard. I’d buy everything at Manny’s in those days, and I could have gone to the K. warehouse in Brooklyn, but I’d picked out some great A’s. Then they were stolen from a rehearsal studio up around 48th Street—cymbals, drums, the works—so I had to start all over again. I was using an 18″ A. medium ride back in those days.
CS: Pretty radical for a rock band.
PW: Hell, I’ve used a Paiste flat ride in a rock band, too. That’s what I had, and that’s what was available, so I made the most of it. I try and be flexible, so that any sound I want to hear, I can get out of a cymbal. I mean, they’re all different, for sure, but I am the director of the drums—I play the cymbals, they don’t play me. It’s up to me, how I play them. So I know where the different tones are on the cymbals and the drums.
That’s my thing—pulling the sound out of the instruments. Any volume, any dynamic point, whatever texture you want to get, you can find, just by adjusting your touch. Not playing down on the drums, but playing up, snapping that stick off the head or the metal to let the sound come out. Having enough strength to be able to play real, real, soft or bring it all up for those spontaneous moments. You see, I used to study gymnastics, and I always was conscious of bringing that technique to the trap set. Think of them the same way. Be so agile, you could be centered in your power; sit up straight, and go from one side to the other with no wasted motion, just like a dancer. That’s something drummers have to work very hard at: break a sweat, concentrate on your body. I see so many drummers who just have a terrible posture at the drums—you have to keep yourself centered. Otherwise that makes for some strange drumming, to me. You can’t get to things fast enough, and you end up dissipating all your energy. I’ll see cats like that and they’ll be overplaying like crazy, just trying to move around. I sit up real straight, and try and feel the center of my power in the small of my back; then I have control of all my extremities.
CS: Were there any specific exercises you worked on to develop power?
PW: I used to have these two hard rubber balls, and I used to work with them all the time until my forearms got real strong. Used to do 200 pushups a day, to build up the shoulders and back. Because you need that to play for two or three hours at a stretch.
CS: What is it that annoys you or comprises the biggest fault among the drummers you see today?
PW: These guys who have so much hands but no feeling. That annoys the hell out of me. All that technique but no feeling, and you cannot teach feeling at school. It’s a shame that there’s no place you can go and learn it, because a lot of that source material is dying, like the music of the South we were talking about; going down there and learning what the music really is; playing in jam sessions with different people and just trying to learn about different music.
Most of the young guys . . . I don’t know, they just don’t listen to older people. You talk to the young musicians today, and they don’t listen to the older musicians—what they have to say or what they have to play. Everything is about what’s happening right now, right now, right now, and it’s a shame. Talking about jazz-rock, fusion and all but not knowing anything about the blues or gospel, or the real classical music or the beginnings of acoustic jazz. It’s all interrelated, and yet when they get you into the schools all they be talking about is classical music. They don’t have nobody out there teaching the kids about blues music. They’ve lost touch with where the music’s coming from. And that makes me sad, it truly does.