During this interview, Les DeMerle voiced slight annoyance and perplexity at reviewers who “always” refer to him and/or his music as being “eclectic. ” I believe that the commonly misunderstood definition of eclectic music is that it’s weird, hard to categorize, or esoteric. But the proper definition of “eclectic” is: “Choosing or consisting of what appears to be the best from diverse sources.” In that context, Les DeMerle’s music is eclectic. He’s certainly not playing music that is weird or esoteric.
Had he concentrated his skills on being just a jazz drummer, just a rock drummer or just a studio drummer, Les would have had an easier to define career and, perhaps, more attention than he now gets. But by being an exceptional all-around drummer, DeMerle is consistently throwing musical curveballs at listeners. His is the type of career that offers musical excitement to fans, and nightmares for music marketing people. Perhaps that’s one reason why Les has become an expert in promoting and marketing his own records, clinics, concerts and books.
Les is a most versatile drummer. He has lightning-fast hands and feet. He can play the busiest drums at the fastest tempos with the articulation and precision of a diamond cutter. At the same time, he can lay back and groove simply on a medium tempo. And his ballad playing is second to no one. In the course of this interview, Les offers sound, practical advice to the most novice drummers, to the drummers who have it together musically and want to know how to get their careers off the ground, and to every type of drummer in between.
SF: Your career began in New York, then you moved to the West Coast, and now you’re back in New York again. What prompted those moves?
LD: The first move to the West Coast came about because I was traveling with acts that were mostly based in L.A. I first went out there in around 1965. I was with a singer named Lenny Welch, who I showcased with in Caesars Palace. We went out with about three musicians from New York and played with the 17-piece house band. The vibe I got from them was so good. The drummers that they talked most about—that they were most impressed with—were East Coast drummers who were traveling with acts that would come into Vegas.
From this one showcase I did with Lenny Welch, I got a call to do an album with Wayne Newton, which was very unusual for me. By 1965, I had already established a jazz reputation in New York. I’d already been with Lionel Hampton by that time. I’d played with Joe Farrell, Walter Bishop, Jr., and a lot of the bebop musicians. The fact that I went with Wayne Newton still blows people’s minds! But it was my ticket—so to speak—to get out to the West Coast. Even then, Wayne had that Vegas charisma. He was one of the hot acts. It was nice. I started to work 30 weeks a year in Nevada with just him. I was still maintaining an apartment in New York.
I only did the gig for about a year. Musically it wasn’t really very satisfying. It was strictly show-biz. But Wayne did give me a chance to stretch out; I had a solo in the show. I even had billing. For about six months, instead of putting the comedian’s name on the marquee, he put, “With Les DeMerle On Drums.” And I got along personally with Wayne very well.
The same night that I gave Newton notice, I was offered Ed Thigpen’s job with George Rhodes’s Orchestra, which was a way to get with Sammy Davis, Jr., because George was Sammy’s conductor. Ed was going to move to Copenhagen. That gig’s home base was in L.A. I’d just bought a beautiful Lotus Europa with the money I’d made with Wayne, so I just hopped in my car and drove to L.A. When I moved to the West Coast, things started happening and there was no reason to move back.
SF: While you were on the West Coast you opened up your own jazz club, The Cellar Theater.
LD: When I took the George Rhodes gig at the Coconut Grove, I got a house up in the hills. For three months, six nights a week, I drove the same route to work down Vermont Avenue. Even back then, I was in touch with Don Ellis, Milcho Leviev, Ralph Humphrey and all the players in the early Don Ellis band. We needed a place to play. My big help was Shelly Manne.
The very first Transfusion band started out there in 1970. Shelly had heard of me, and I had one album out as a leader at the time. He said, “I’ll give you Monday nights at the Manne-Hole.” We worked for union scale in his club for about eight weeks to break the band in. From Shelly’s Manne-Hole, we got all of our reviews on the West Coast. Once we got those, that led to the jazz festivals, which was exactly what we needed. But we needed something more: a place to rehearse. I remembered all the workshops that were always going on in New York. On the West Coast there were more actors’ workshops and artists’ workshops, but there weren’t really any music workshops at that time. This was before Dick Grove and P.I.T.
There was a little theater on First and Vermont that was for rent. I kept thinking, “It might be wild to check into this,” so one day I called. It was a legitimate theater—like an off-Broadway theater. It sat 90 people. The rent was so low that I couldn’t pass it up. It was kind of a rundown area in the beginning, but now it’s built up beautifully and the rent is like ten times what it was then.
I just took a shot at it. I had no idea about running a nightclub. I didn’t even know that it was going to be a nightclub. I made the front room a drum studio where I taught. The back part was a theater, and I acquired a beer and wine license. A lot of times we just used it as a coffee house and there was no alcohol at all. Other times, it would be used for private parties. Louie Bellson used it several times for certain projects. Louie even used the stage to shoot the photos for one of his several poster campaigns.
When I moved to L.A. in 1970, I was really hot and very, very determined. Since then, I’ve been very determined too, but that was one of those three-year stretches when I said, “I’m finally going to do my own thing. I don’t care if I starve to death. I’m going to put a band together and do as much of my work as I can. I’m going to take all the money I have saved to open up a jazz club, so I’ll have someplace to do it in. I’m going to write drum books and put out records of the music that I want to play. If I starve—cool. If I don’t—cool.”
It ended up being a happy medium. There were a lot of tough years, but there were a lot of rewarding years—even financially. And in playing jazz, that’s not easy to do. But we mixed it up. Certain nights I had things at The Cellar Theater where friends like John Klemmer and Chick Corea would do concerts and get us out of the hole. Then we could do another series of three or four concerts where we could afford to lose money. People like Carmine Appice and myself would do clinics for free there if we could afford to. We did one Latin clinic where we had Manola Badrena, Alex Acuna, Lee Pastora, myself and my regular group, which included Don Menza and Bobby Shew—all playing at the same time. I wrote a Latin piece called “Percussion Orgy.”
But with the library of original tunes that I was writing for my band, a lot of them were built on odd-time signatures. I had this one tune called “A Mouth Full Of Sanctified Choke” based on a Bob Dylan concept that I had. It was a bar of seven and a bar of eight. In my first book. Fusion One, I wrote about two pages on that concept. I taped the tune in concert and then took all the rhythms off the tape. That was two pages in a drum book.
Then there was another tune called “January 13th” which was in 10/8, and I wrote another two pages on that tune. When I moved back to New York, Jerry Ricci bought the first volume from Bob Yeager, and then Jerry asked me to do a second book, so I wrote Volume Two. And Volume One was so popular that I revised it not too long ago and added 29 more pages to it.
Now I’m writing a beginner’s book that I hope to have out soon, and I’m also writing a big band book that will show all the stock charts the way they’d be written, with no drum fills. On the second page, I wrote out the way I would interpret the chart.
SF: So what prompted the move back to New York?
LD: One of the main reasons was that the lease was up on that building. I was either going to have to buy it or go someplace else. I’d put so much time and energy into it over the years that I didn’t want to try another thing like that in L.A. Also, over the years, I was on the road so much from L.A. that I was maintaining the chair with Harry James as well as my own projects. My clinics through the years have been developing. I’d never really gotten involved in the L.A. studio clique. So, without The Cellar Theater, there was really no need to be there. I’d been playing a lot in New York through the years anyway. It just felt like another change—another period.
SF: Did you want to get involved in the L.A. studios?
LD: Yes and no. You have to stay in L.A. to be active in the studio scene. That’s one of the main things. The contractors call you. If you’re not there, they don’t call you back, unless you can really call your ticket. With a guy like Jeff Porcaro, they know that he’s out on the road with Toto. He’ll tell them what months he’s available. I wasn’t getting those kinds of calls. I was getting jingle calls, a few things with Jack Sperling, a few soundtracks to movies, dates with singers, and my own albums. But through the years I’ve always maintained being a live player. That’s still what I really dig doing the best.
SF: That’s your bread and butter?
LD: So to speak, yeah. Between playing live, keeping my own groups going, the Harry James gig—that mixture was always very rewarding, both financially and musically. The studios are a whole different thing that’s hard to explain.
SF: It’s intriguing that you can remain so active in concerts, in teaching, in clinics, seminars, recordings and in other areas of the music business, like owning and operating your own nightclub, and still grow on your instrument. How do you find the time to do all that?
LD: I have to make time for it. I openly admit that I’m totally dedicated to drumming and music. Never in my life have I had to do anything other than play drums to make a living. So many people have to do other things. Here’s one of the reasons why I think I’m able to maintain my career: Right now we’re doing this gig at the Sheraton in New Jersey. Something could go wrong next week and they might tell me that I’m off for a month. Okay. Then I can teach or do a clinic. Later this month I’m doing a clinic w i th Gary Burton at Berklee. Then I’m going to play two dates at a jazz club in Cambridge using all of the teachers at Berklee. In other words, I keep enough things going so that if one falls through, the other one happens. Right now in New York—and I’m very excited about this—I actually have three bands going at the same time. I’ve got the rhythm section with Dave Lalamma and Ron McClure. We call that group DeMerle and Company. Then I have the band that’s appearing with me here tonight which is an offshoot of Transfusion. It’s a little more commercial, in that it utilizes fusion and funk and all that. And I just started a brand new big band with 15 people. I hadn’t done that since I left New York. I don’t know why, but I never wanted to do that in L.A. As soon as I came back to New York, there were so many good players that I said, “I’ve got to get my big band book out.” Now, I’ve got this big 15-piece band that’s going to start working in the City. The players are so good and so busy that you could never take the band out of New York. But as long as we stay in New York we’ve got a bad band. It’s all first-call players. I made about 16 phone calls and 15 guys said, “Yeah, I want to do it. “That was very inspiring.
SF: What’s the lure to do something like that?
LD: Well, the music is very, very strong. It’s partially because I’m very excited about it and it’s a different concept. It’s like an R&B jazz band, and the band lines up in one big line. I don’t set it up traditionally. The drums are on a riser and I give all the cues from the drums. But it’s like all horn players in a row, right across the front of the stage. It’s kind of like Wayne Cochran & The C.C. Riders. We played a club out in Amityville called Dakota Rose, and we’re shooting to play places like The Red Parrot in the City. We’re making that crossover to play the kind of places that James Brown can play. And we can play the jazz festivals too. But it’s a real fun band and everybody gets a chance to stretch. The writing is by a trumpet player in L.A. named Darryl Leonard. He’s doing a similar concept on the West Coast. Nobody was doing it here, so I figured I’d try it. Why not? The response has been great from musicians and critics alike.
SF: Do you find that jazz musicians are generally unwilling to make a long-term commitment to get a band off the ground?
LD: There are several different things that can happen. I’ve never really had co-op groups. I try to run my bands in a manner similar to Art Blakey’s concept. I like to have one person in the band as a musical director. I can write and play a little bit of piano, and I look over all the charts. But when it comes down to it, I’m a drummer first. I try to find piano players as musical directors and I give them the credit. If I record, I’ll give them production credits. Then they’re involved, but it’s still not a co-op group. For me, this is the best way to work.
One of the biggest problems is that a lot of jazz groups don’t have work. I’m very lucky to have work almost always. I’ll call someone like Don Menza and tell him that I’m coming to the West Coast. I’ll tell him the dates I have, how much they pay, and ask if he can do them. We all have to make a living, so if Don has something more lucrative, then I’ll call somebody else. But Don Menza gave up a week of The John Davidson Show to do my On Fire album. I do that too. A lot of times I’ll say no to a commercial date and take a lesser paying jazz date if I want to play jazz. To me, that’s soul music. It makes my heart feel good.
SF: After you’ve recorded an album with seasoned pros, is it frustrating not to be able to use the same players on your gigs?
LD: Yeah, but I get a big kick out of that in a way. The band on the On Fire album is Don Menza, Bobby Shew, Lanny Morgan, Jack Wilson and Bob Magnusson. I told them to block two weeks’ time, and I did all the business with the record company, which is unusual for a jazz record. We rehearsed a lot for it, and afterwards we booked a lot of work to promote the album with the same band all over California. It wasn’t like just going in the studio and never seeing each other again. We even did a project where Don and Lanny were both on the same label as leaders. I proposed a thing to Herb Wong to call it the Palo Alto All-Stars, and I booked a couple of gigs like that using all our names. We got a nice run out of that album.
With my East Coast band, there’s a certain joy that is even more fulfilling to me, in getting players who are lesser known. These musicians come in like they’re really honored to work with me. There’s a certain beautiful feeling about that. They’re younger. They get written up. They use the press they get. They make contacts. Last night, Les Paul came in. You should have seen the looks on their faces when I said, “Come on over, guys, and meet Les Paul.” These are young musicians, and they wouldn’t normally have Les Paul come out to hear them on a gig. Joe Morello came by and sat in with my band. He played great. Something like that is so rewarding and great.
SF: I keep looking for that new generation of jazz groups with the longevity of the Modern Jazz Quartet or the Oscar Peterson Trio.
LD: I think the business today is so much more complex. With the trio of Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, each one contributed to that sound. There were the venues to play all the time and it was a first-class ticket. I’m sure Oscar had a nice agreement with them to keep them that long. It wasn’t like so much of a fad then. Nowadays, if you look at groups like the Jeff Lorber Fusion or Spyro Gyra, these groups have a good, strong two years and then something else happens. One of the strongest groups is Weather Report. And look how many personnel changes that band has been through over the years! But Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul have that concept, and they’re the leaders.
SF: I hear a lot of jazz players making bitter remarks about how, if they only had the financial backing that the rock players had, they could really do something. But, for example, they’re not willing to tour the U.S. with eight people in an Econoline van, 265 days a year for two years like the Allman Brothers did before they started getting recognition.
LD: One of my favorite Modern Drummer interviews was the one Roberto Petaccia did with Roland Vazquez. Roland was involved with my Concerts By The Sea album. He and I collaborated on a few charts. I still play a lot of his music, and we’ll be doing something again. Roland had a great alternative for finding work for a band. In the late ’70s, he outlined a grant idea through the National Endowment For The Arts. He got the grant and went up and down the whole coast, very comfortably, doing a college tour. So, you can do something like that for not a lot of money if the music is good. Roland’s music was good and very challenging, so he could get good players. Then, the main thing is that you’ve got to shy away from musicians with attitudes.
You get a lot of good players in both rock and jazz who have attitudes that are not good for a band. I always hire people I really dig personally. Then they usually really hit it off with each other. It is a lot easier when you don’t have any friction. In Harry James’s band, for years, they never hired players like that. It was such an institution that, based on recommendation from other players, Harry’s manager would get on the phone and not take a lot of time in hiring musicians. I mean, it’s hard anyway to get a 17-piece group to really feel like a family. But with my smaller groups, it’s easy to feel like a family. When you have people who mutually admire each other, it comes out in the music.
One of the keys to success in a band is basic communication. If you’ve been around the block, you know how to act on stage. Another thing about Blakey’s groups is that they’ve always been presented right in jazz. One of the reasons I’m so knocked out by Wynton Marsalis is because he really presents his music correctly. They dress well. They draw crowds. They play their music. They’re not just jiving. They’re not up there in skirts and wigs. They look like they’re paid well.
Down here at the Sheraton we have an exclusive uniform: Slingerland T-shirts on Mondays and Wednesdays, and Zildjian T-shirts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But the guys come in and they look right. Their shoes are shined. They know how to act. I don’t have to worry about them saying dumb things to the management.
I hire a lot of players who have their own bands. I tell them right up front, “Look, on a gig like this, I know you’d like to work this room with your own band. But don’t solicit on this gig. That’s just not professional.” If you have that understanding up front, you won’t have any problems. And you say it in a nice way. But I remember hiring a guy one time. I walked into the men’s room and he had his fliers all over the place for a gig he was playing down the block the following week.
SF: Buddy Rich used the term “attitudinal playing” in a recent interview. Can you hazard a guess as to what he meant by that?
LD: I would think that he was saying that you should play with a good attitude. He hears everything. Just that alone is such a courtesy. Even though he’s such a force, he’s still one of the greatest sidemen in the world. I’ve heard him sitting in with trios playing as tasty as Marty Morrell did with Bill Evans.
SF: Do you ever listen to your first album, Spectrum! How do you feel about it in retrospect?
LD: I still really like that album. Now I have five albums out as a leader. There’s not a note on one of them that I can honestly say I really didn’t like. It’s a good feeling. All of them are really honest and they’re the best I could do at that time. Every one of them really features the drums; all of them are high energy. The Spectrum album was kind of a freak because it was way before its time. There’s a tune on there called “Fusion Pro And Con” that they still play on some stations. They even used it as a theme on an NFL game. It’s an atonal piece of music that Karl Milrock wrote for me. It’s got five saxophones playing at one time, with a heavy backbeat on 6. If you only heard eight bars of it, it would sound like it was just done yesterday. The personnel included Lew Tabackin, Arnie Lawrence, Marvin Stamm, Joe Beck and Sam Brown—all great players.
SF: What do you think are some of the greatest drum records ever recorded?
LD: I’ve got so many favorite albums for drums. One of my favorites for the camaraderie and the back and forth playing is the Rich Vs. Roach album. That’s one of the drum classics. There are several Art Blakey albums that I really dig. I love some of the things that Steve Gadd did on the CTI label, like the Chet Baker album She Was Too Good To Me. He was really swinging and playing great. I like certain things that Vinnie Colaiuta did with Zappa. The things Joe Morello did with Dave Brubeck are phenomenal. I love all the Tony Williams things with Miles. I still listen to that whole ’60s collection, from Miles Smiles, to Four And More, to ESP, to Seven Steps To Heaven. There are really so many.
SF: Fred Gruber told me that he once asked Buddy Rich what questions he would ask in an interview. And one of the questions Buddy asked Fred was “What’s the greatest four-bar drum break ever recorded? Believe it or not, Fred knew what Buddy’s answer was. I’ll ask you the same question, and then I’ll tell you what Buddy said.
LD: I would pick a four-bar break that Art Blakey does on the original recording of “Blues March.” I’m not even sure what album that’s on. The note placement on that gives me chills. Right where Art put the time is right where it should be. There’s a live recording that Buddy did with Sammy Davis, Jr. Buddy plays a four-bar break on “Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead” that kills me too. But, as a favorite, I would say the Blakey one.
SF: Buddy said the greatest four-bar drum break was played by Shadow Wilson on a Count Basie record called “Queer Street.” Now, let me ask you this: Are there any drummers you’d like to meet, including—if possible—drummers who are no longer with us?
LD: I’m 36 now, but I was already playing on the road when I was 16. I still have all the enthusiasm, I love to play, and I’m dying to see what’s going to happen from here. But, at the same time, I’ve always had a strong feeling for tradition, which is important in music. So when we talk about drummers, I think of nights like when I went to England and hung out with Alex Duthart, who came to a clinic and brought me a beautiful 100-year old bottle of scotch. We just told stories all night in a bar to the point where I was signing his drinks to my bill. We were having so much fun talking about drummers that I was signing the room number on my key upside down. In the morning I had no bills. Later on down the road, I realized that instead of signing 609, I had been signing 906 or something like that.
There’s such a wide variety of drummers. I got to know Gene Krupa very well. I still listen to Sonny Greer, Chick Webb, Baby Dodds and all the guys up to Vinnie Colaiuta, Daniel Humair, Bob Moses, and Jack DeJohnette. One of the things I’ve dug about MD is the history articles that you’ve done, like “The History Of Rock Drumming.” A lot of that I didn’t know. It’s really a turn-on to see those drummers get that kind of recognition. In so much of that music they never put the musicians’ names on the records.
The music that Chick Webb and Baby Dodds played was so much simpler. It’s really the same today, in a way. It was just where they put the time. And what made a Chick Webb so special? There was a certain magic and a certain fire that they could put to a band. And there was a certain amount of class that those early drummers had that I really respect, especially Sonny Greer.
Jack DeJohnette recorded a song called “Zoot Suit.” It knocks me out when a guy like that can show the tradition through very modern music. That’s the art form right there. That’s sort of what I tried to do on the song “Ellingtonia” on my last album. We really tried to capture the real Ellington feel; yet it’s modern in a way. More than anything, I love to keep the tradition. Like on this gig, I’ll play a tune that’s right out of the Basic tradition; then I’ll do a Crusader’s tune; then I’ll do a song in an odd-time signature. And I get put down a lot by critics. They call me “eclectic.” There’s not one review where the word eclectic is not in it.
SF: Eclectic is an ’80s cop-out word. If you don’t understand what a musician is doing, you say that it’s eclectic.
LD: Right. Most of the people who are narrow-minded can’t understand how you can play something funky like “Freedom Jazz Dance,” and follow it with “Waltz For Debby” by Bill Evans. To me, that’s the beauty of it.
SF: In 1984, why would it benefit a young drum student to become familiar with drummers like Baby Dodds, Papa Jo Jones and the other great players who were their contemporaries?
LD: In today’s market—today’s music— there are so many different influences. And it’s not all going towards new wave and electronics. No matter what the popular way to go is, I notice that there’s always some kind of a cycle which comes back to maybe a hit tune in the summertime with a New Orleans two-beat feel, or something from the ’60s in the style of Brook Benton, Lloyd Price or someone like that. Because of that you’re talking about swing. And when you’re talking about swing, you should know what swing is really about.
I was fortunate to have worked with Harry James, and he taught me a lot about the swing era and idiom. If I say to half my students, “Play a Lunceford two,” they don’t know what that means. You have to research it. It’s not easy to get the records or the history books, but it still is there and it’s very important. And when the students hear it, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s like the beat on ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’ years ago.”
Wynton Marsalis is one of the greats in today’s jazz. But it’s like watching a history course when you see him. If you play the instrument, you should know how it was developed, who invented it, and who did what first. With the drumset, we’re not talking about an instrument that’s that old—maybe 100 years at the most. It’s interesting to know all of those transitions and it’s all on recordings up to the most contemporary players. You can see from articles by people like Paul Motian and Ed Blackwell that there are roots even in the most modern players.
I was just with Chad Wackerman recently. He and I can talk about anybody. We can talk about Baby Dodds for an hour and Chad can talk about records that Baby was on. That’s beautiful. I mean, Chad is only around 22 years old.
SF: Is the problem lack of motivation on the students’ part, or is it because they don’t learn the history from their teachers?
LD: Probably a combination. With the music we’re talking about, the media isn’t exposed to it. For years we’ve heard that it’s America’s only art form. Yet if we asked all the people in this restaurant what America’s only art form is, they’ll probably tell you it’s an oil painting or something like that. They won’t know that it’s jazz, unfortunately.
But if you are intelligent and want to know all the styles—I’m not saying you want to be a jazz drummer, just that you want to know the styles—you can definitely spend some time researching and have it pretty well covered. I’ve got students who are very interested in it, and I think it helps their overall playing. A lot of drummers today are losing work because they can play rock—and I’ve noticed this a lot in Vegas since I’ve been back there with Wayne Newton—but most of them can’t swing. They’re losing the gigs because they don’t have the roots.
SF: What about the criticism that it’s impossible to play relaxed in odd-time sig natures because you have to think too much?
LD: I disagree with that. It’s either odd or even. One older style bass player said to me once, “Well, your heart beats in 4/4.” I said, “How do you know that? It could be going in 5/4. It depends on where the accent is.” A bar of seven beats can be counted 1- 2-3,1-2,1-2. All you have to do is understand where the bass pattern is, and then just make it flow.
SF: What made you get into odd-time signatures?
LD: Don Ellis’ band was a big influence in the very beginning. And I always dug Indian music too. I’ve gotten together several times with Allah Rakha, but I never really studied the hand drums. Our sessions were in reference to counting and subdivisions. It’s beautiful and wild. He’s incredible. Without drums, he could just sit here with his fingers on this tabletop and cook.
SF: I’ve always loved the fluidity of tablas. I wonder if that could somehow be duplicated on drumset.
LD: I think you could if you tuned a certain way. Tablas have such a different tuning, and the overtones have a lot to do with the way the notes go into each other, which develops harmonics. I saw a guy at a PAS convention do something with RotoToms set up very close. You could have a pattern going with your left hand against a right hand pattern, and maybe even have RotoToms bass drums, as well as soft mallets instead of hard beaters.
SF: When you’re sitting behind a drumset, how do you conceptualize all the drums and cymbals around you?
LD: Well, I use so many different sets now. I use a big 13-piece set for larger rooms and concerts. It’s double bass drums—20″ and 22″—and there’s a lot of range in the set, from the 6″ concert tom, all the way down to the 16″ floor tom. In the lounges I use a basic five-piece jazz set. And I have a bigger set for big bands. The concept behind what I’m playing has a lot to do with the amount of drums and tuning.
I hear and see a blend of the cymbals and drums; I see a big percussion section. I also use some Latin percussion instruments. I have a concept similar to Louie Bellson. He always sees the drumset as an orchestra—something like the snare drum as the violins, the tom-toms as the cellos and the bass drums as the basses. I’m not as exact about it; I almost like a looser approach. I’ll set up my drums differently on purpose, just to play differently. But I do think of the drumset as a full-range instrument.
SF: Is it possible for drummers to become so technically exact and proficient that the naturalness of their playing suffers?
LD: If the music is super, super technical, then that might apply. But if you learn to master the music and relax with it, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t swing. For years, Harry James used to tell me that it’s not the notes, but the rests that count. In order for a band to really get a lilt and a groove, everybody has to contribute just a little bit, and be aware of what notes the other players are on. That’s what makes it really happen. You could have a phenomenal drummer, but if there’s a busy piano player and guitar player, the band’s going to feel like a sinking ship. It’s going to feel like lead.
SF: Would you discuss the different concepts in using sticks, brushes and mallets on the drumset?
LD: Well, technically, you have to adjust. I mostly use sticks in the course of a night, but I really do work a lot on brush technique. I have one or two tunes, at least, in every set where I use brushes. Sometimes the tempos are fast, and that’s another technique. I also practice all the rudiments with brushes just to keep my stick technique up. That’s a thing that Alan Dawson showed me. He’s got variations on all the rudiments, and with the brushes it makes you work a little harder. I pass that on to my students. Then I use the combinations; a stick and a brush, a mallet and a brush, a mallet and a stick. I use everything—my hands, bending the cymbals. I really get off on all the combinations of sounds that you can pull out of a set. The mallets are the cleanest for tonality. You don’t get the note of the stick hitting the head; you get a pure sound. I’m using the Cana-sonic heads and I can really get a timpani effect out of my whole set. I use a coated head on the snare because of the brushes.
SF: What are some of the common questions you’re asked at clinics?
LD: One of the questions I’m asked a lot is, “How did you get your break?” That’s a good question. You really have to be interested in the music first. A lot of musicians will spend nine hours a day writing their resumes and an hour a day practicing. Do your musical homework first, have your credentials right, have a good tape, be on top of the auditions, show up on time, and look as good as you can. It’s unbelievable; I hire many musicians to work as sidemen, and no matter how well they play, if they come to the gig dressed sloppily, it still bugs me. I come from the school where, if you take a Saturday night gig and you’re going to hit at nine o’clock and be paid well, you should show up on time and look right. A lot of this has to do with the attitude of the playing.
SF: It drives me crazy when I hear jazz musicians say, “Well, you just don’t make a lot of money playing jazz.”
LD: That’s not true. Tell Grover Washington, Jr., that. When I hear negative things about my music, I just have to live with it. I know musicians who want to get out of the business because of bad reviews, especially young players who are just starting out. They panic. But you can’t please all the people all the time. You can only do your best. I groove on being flexible. It’s fun. When you can play out on the instrument, and people aren’t going to get on you about volume and taking chances, then do it. But if your gig is to do something more traditional, then you do that.
SF: Does the tuning of your drums change from live gigs to studio work, and from live playing without mic’s to live playing with mic’s?
LD: In my style of playing, I go for the speed of the drum—the amount of action that it will give me back. So I don’t go for a real dead tuning. I still mostly use traditional grip, and I depend a lot on the bounce and the rebound. Because of that, I might tune my drums a little tighter than a dead, rock tuning. But it’s not like a bebop tuning—that real treble-y sound. It’s somewhere in the middle. I tend to tune the tenor drums and the snare higher and tighter. Then I’ll use the lower toms for the looser, Happier, funkier sound. For my fast work I use those immediate drums that are closest to me. And for slower fills I’ll use the drums that are further from me.
SF: I’ve seen many young drummers trying to get a clean, crisp sound from a snare drum that’s all muffled. Did it take you a while to get that sound out of a snare that’s played wide open?
LD: No, because when I started playing, my teacher, Bob Livingston, tuned his snare that way. We didn’t use any mufflers at all. That was before it was fashionable to mute the drums and put your laundry in the bass drum. I use a white, coated Ambassador on my snare batter usually, although I’ve been using a black Canasonic head for a while and I like it. It’s a double-thickness head, similar to a Duraline. And when playing it, I’m confident that I’m not going to go through it. I have to work a little harder at times because it’s a different kind of tone quality, but it is still a projecting head. I use a Remo Ambassador snare head on the bottom of my snare.
SF: Give me a rundown on your cymbals and why you chose each of them.
LD: I’ve been using one basic setup for about eight or nine years now, although it varies depending on the job. I use a Rock 21 ride—and all of these are hand picked by Lennie DiMuzio—a 22″ swish, which I play upside down, a medium-thin 18″ crash on my left, and an 18″ medium heavy on my right. My hi-hats are 14″ New Beats. The bottom cymbal is heavy and the top cymbal is medium heavy. I also carry a flat ride for the jazz trio jobs, and a few extra rides of different timbres for different rooms and they’re all Rock 21 cymbals. All of my cymbals are A. Zildjians. I change them about every six months. Some I keep and some I give back.
SF: How do you feel about the “natural” player versus the “studied” player theories?
LD: There are a few natural musicians like Erroll Garner and Buddy Rich. But those kinds of talents come along once in a lifetime. As for the average person who doesn’t want to take lessons—who just wants to go out and take the gig—today it’s too competitive. There are too many great players who have studied, who know how to do it right, and who can tell you what they’re doing. I definitely encourage education—and more than just drumming. In the ’80s, it’s going to be important to learn piano, harmony, theory and chord changes. The groups I really enjoy listening to—like Pat Metheny, Weather Report and Wynton Marsalis—all have drummers who have gone through either Berklee or Eastman.
SF: Have you done any work with electronic drums or drum machines?
LD: I’ve played the Simmons drums, but I really see no use for them in my music. I’ve heard the things that Phil Collins and other guys have done with them, but they only use them on one or two tunes, and then they use the acoustic drumset. That’s good, but I couldn’t see playing all night on them, even though I know there are drummers who do that. And I haven’t done any work at all with drum machines.
SF: How about some hints for effective drumming behind vocalists?
LD: The last thing you do is overplay. You use a lot of shading and dynamics. Let’s say that on a basic chorus you play strong on the intro with some nice figures. Then you come down to a nice blend to where no one instrument is predominant. Between the snare, the ride cymbal, the bass drum and the hi-hat, you’ve got a nice blend—a cushion. That makes the whole band feel comfortable. I really like to exaggerate dynamics and most of the singers enjoy that. It’s dramatic. I also use the exaggeration of dynamics in my groups all the time. It’s amazing how many groups don’t play dynamics. It’s either loud or soft.
SF: When you’re reading charts, how do you know when to use the snare, the toms—the right drum for the moment?
LD: I’ll tell you how I teach that. Before you know how to play the & of any beat, you’ve got to have an idea of what to play before it. So, if you area novice player, I’ll usually show you how to drop a bomb on beat 1 for starters. You’ll drop a bomb with the bass drum, maybe preceded by two grace notes on the snare drum. So, it’s the two grace notes, bass drum .on 1, and then the & of 1. Then I’ll show you how to do that with the 2 beat, and the & of 2, and the same with 3 and 4. Then I’ll mix it up so you’ll be playing that for the & of 1 and the & of 3 and so forth, until you’re playing that on every beat. I’ll then graduate to more complex fills preceding the & of each beat, and have you work that around the drumset. For a while you’ll be playing cliches, but at least you’ll get the idea of how to set up the & of any beat, even in odd time signatures. I might have you tie that in with listening to some Mel Lewis recordings of some simple, but perfect, fills. That’s how I teach chart interpretation.
Next, I’ll throw the basic chart in front of you and see if you can improvise your own fills. By that time you’ll know how many notes you can squeeze in to play an &. You can play flams, single notes, a fast group of single strokes—always staying within that time and not overshooting the fill.
SF: When you play drums, both as an accompanist and as a soloist, is there any time when you’re thinking more in rhythmic thoughts than melodic thoughts?
LD: Yeah. It’s a combination of both, depending on the tunes. I like to think more in melodic terms when I’m playing four bars, eight bars, or choruses. I really enjoy playing choruses. But it’s very important to know song forms.
I do something in my clinic that I always give Alan Dawson credit for. He sings the melody to “Green Dolphin Street” and simultaneously plays all these great things against the melody on drumset. I do the same thing, only I don’t use tunes that are that hard. I use “Milestones,” which has short phrases.
SF: Is it important for drummers to know the song lyrics?
LD: Yeah, to a certain degree. I think it’s more important for horn players to know lyrics. You can tell if horn players know the lyrics by the way they’re phrasing. That would help drummers in their phrasing as well.
SF: Let’s talk about rhythm sections in both jazz and rock. What makes for a blue-ribbon rhythm section?
LD: The most important thing is that everybody has good communication with everybody else. I’m not pushing Scientology or anything like that; I’m just saying that, if you have the smallest qualm with a bass player or a drummer, you should talk about it. Otherwise it’s like a disease that can spread through the band. I’m very lucky; I’ve always had good rapport with bass players. If you’ve got players with good technique, it’s even more of a problem, because then you have cats who want to play busy. Then you have to talk to each other and say, “Well, if I’m going to get hot here, maybe you could support what I’m doing.” If you’re both hot all the time, it doesn’t make it. A lot of drummers and bass players don’t do that. I’m just talking about the bass and drums now because they’re the most important. No matter how good the band is, if the drummer isn’t making it, it ain’t going to go anywhere. A band is only as good as its drummer, and the bass is second. You could have Jaco Pastorius in there, but if the drummer isn’t making it, it ain’t going to go nowhere. You’re better off telling the drummer to go home and try to swing the band with the bass alone.
On this particular gig that I’m doing right now with Newton, there are three guitars, two pianos, Walfredo De Los Reyes is playing percussion, and we have a great bass player named Frank Fabio. He can cover any field and he makes it very easy for me. We talk all the time and we hang together; we’re even going to work on other projects because of this meeting, and that’s the way it should be. The drummer and bass have really got to be in unison.
SF: How do you function with both a piano player and a guitar player in a rhythm section?
LD: That’s important. As much as the bass and drums have to be together, the relationship between a guitarist and a pianist is even more critical. First, they have to get it together harmonically, and then they have to be able to fit into the rhythm section. In my band, for years, I’ve used a guitar player. I’ve got a full guitar book. But unless the guitar player is very sensitive to the piano player . . . like once in L.A. I had Milcho Leviev on piano—a very, very busy piano player. Then I’d have a guitar player, when I could get one, like Robben Ford. Now in New York I use John Scofield and Dave Lalamma. Those guys know how to play together.
SF: Do you find it easier to play with just a guitar player or just a piano player?
LD: With a guitar, I think you tend to have a little more room because a guitarist is not constantly playing chords and notes; it’s either single lines or the chords. But my preference would still be piano, bass and drums. It’s a gas to play with just a trio, and it’s kind of fun to hold back dynamically like that—get that trio volume level but still keep the intensity.
SF: I know you have strong thoughts about music versus the business.
LD: There are so many cats in the circle of working players who go through a negative trip, in every instrument, not only drums. In fact, most of the time, the drummer is the most up member of the group. You’re coming to music because you love music. I can remember the first time I ever saw a snare drum in a store window. I didn’t think about how many dollars I was going to make playing it. I just wanted to play the drum and play music. If you can keep that attitude, no matter how successful or tough the times might be, that’s the core of the inspiration you need to keep the growth process going.
I understand that if you don’t work at all and you’re constantly banging your head against the wall, that’s tough. But the thing is, even if you’re playing something that you don’t like musically, you’re still playing music and making a living. Today, that alone is an accomplishment. And I see so many people come to the gig with bad equipment and an attitude that says, “Aw, man—when is it going to be over?” It shouldn’t be like that. They’re making it harder on themselves when they think like that. There’s all this good music being played out there today, and if you want to play it, there are ways to do it.
I hear my students say, “Well, we don’t have anyplace to play.” I tell them to find a place in their neighborhood that has a bar or a backroom, and tell the owner that they’ll play for the door. Get musicians that you want to play with, and play the music you want to play. If the music is good, somehow people will hear about it and you’ll attract an audience. You’ve got to take those kinds of shots. It seems to me that a lot of musicians want the glory, but they don’t want to do the work.
I’ll use Chick Corea and Chuck Mangione as examples. I remember getting fliers in the mail every week from little holes in the wall in New York and Rochester, where they were playing. I still have one of those fliers in my scrapbook for a band that included Chick Corea and Steve Gadd, playing at a place called The Other Side of The Tracks, for the door money—no admission charge. But they believed in what they did, and now they’re able to sit back and pick and choose. But there are so many people who expect to do that overnight. You’ve got to work very hard to be able to do that. But if you keep looking at the music as the music, and the business as the business, it’s a much healthier attitude than, “How much money am I going to make on the gig?”
SF: Where are you teaching in the New York area?
LD: On Long Island, I’m teaching at the Long Island Drum Center in Little Neck and North Merrick. I’m also teaching in New York City between Drummers Collective and Drummers World, and in New Jersey at Joe Loria’s.
SF: What’s the greatest service you can offer a student?
LD: I have a lot of good success stories with my students. Most of them develop into being really good friends, because you develop a certain empathy with them. I use my drum books only as a reference point, and I teach such a wide variety of players. A lot of them have only taken two lessons and gotten great gigs, only on the strength of maybe getting their reading together. I work a lot with the four-way concept of coordination. I’d say that the best reward is just to develop a solid friendship that lasts through several years, and to see them get better jobs and play with better people. Some of them come to my gigs and I let them sit in. That gives me a big thrill.
SF: Do you find that often the students’ self-images are holding them back more than their lack of facility?
LD: That happens. You get a lot of students who don’t really have the confidence yet. That’s very important, especially in the stage-band idiom. I was just at a college stage-band competition with about 40 bands from all over the Midwest. The bands that really came on were the ones who seemed to be confident about the drummer. No matter how great the sections are, it’s the drummer’s presence and confidence that has a lot to do with the way the band comes across.
SF: Can you teach that confidence?
LD: Yes. I might tape myself and a student trading fours, almost like a rhythm game. I might play something very polyrhythmically, purposely, to try to throw the student off. I might even stop the time completely. Then the student will sharpen up. I’ll notice that the next set of fours is right in the pocket. Then I might play something really down the middle, like just a backbeat. Then the student will go a little abstract. There’s a tension and release thing happening. That, in its own way, is confidence. When I’m tightening up, the student is loosening, and vice versa. You get a kind of mature interplay going. That’s what it should be like on the bandstand.
SF: Besides your own books, what other books do you use in your teaching practice?
LD: I use Pete Magadini’s book and Gary Chaffee’s books. I still use the Charlie Wilcoxon books, the Morris Goldenberg book, the Podemski books, and the Gardner books. I’ve also been using the new Morello book. Since I moved back here, Joe has developed into being a real good friend.
SF: Let me backtrack for a moment. I asked you about the greatest service a teacher gives a student. What about the greatest disservice?
LD: Honesty is the key service. There are a lot of drum teachers out there who I feel aren’t really qualified. You can’t jump into teaching too soon. Even at the beginner’s level, you should really have a certain amount of knowledge, direction, your own style and be open-minded. There are a lot of teachers who are locked into a system, and they preach that one particular system. If it’s a technical approach, that’s fine. But on the bandstand it’s a different thing. You have to get the natural quality out of the individual and deal with the way that person approaches the instrument.
If I get a student who has only one way of approaching a certain thing because a previous teacher taught that for five years, it’s like untying a bunch of knots to get the student to be loose again. There might be one way to do certain things, but to me, the most natural players—which is what we strive for—do it several ways. Let’s use Buddy Rich as an example. I’ve seen him play a whole set with matched grip. He doesn’t always do that, but that night he felt like playing matched grip. Maybe it was with the butt-end of the sticks. Certain teachers would say that you should never do something like that. Usually those people’s students come in stiff. They are so scared, because they’ve been taught one regimented way for so long. The idea is to loosen it up.
SF: In closing, can you condense what it takes to become a successful drummer?
LD: There’s really no secret. The best thing to do is to play the best you can and work as hard as you can. If you’re persistent—which is very hard to do sometimes, but that’s one of the things that has kept me going through the years—and you constantly try, then it will always come around to where the phone will ring and something will happen. It might take longer sometimes, but it always happens. As long as you’re playing your best and doing the right thing, the good will come to you. If you have a negative attitude and you’re always putting things down, it won’t happen. And if it does happen under those circumstances, it won’t last. That’s basically my philosophy.