When two or more drummers get together, traditionally, it’s a battle. Or is it? What about in Africa, where a great deal of the music is performed by large drum ensembles, in which each member has a specific part to play and all of the parts fit together into a cohesive whole? And what about Latin music, which has a similar percussive structure? Even in European orchestral music, there is traditionally a percussion section. So where did this idea of the battling drummers come from?
It came from right here in America, where the emphasis is on competition, and drummers are often judged by “athletic” standards, such as, “Who’s the fastest?” Other instruments are not viewed in such an aggressive light; when two pianists get together it’s called a duet. So why are drummers so prone to do battle with each other?
Maybe they’re not. Maybe it’s a role they were forced into by promoters who couldn’t conceive of drummers playing music together, so there had to be some kind of gimmick to draw an audience. But most of the drummers themselves knew better, and they were always getting together—not to “out-chops” each other, but to play music. If the onlookers didn’t understand, well. . .
When the members of M’Boom get together and play, the result is music. After a joint concert with the World Saxophone Quartet a couple of years ago, one attendee remarked, “M’Boom was more melodic than the saxophones!” Anyone who goes to hear this group expecting a drum battle is in for a surprise. Anyone who goes to hear M’Boom in order to hear percussion explored in new ways is in for a treat. Anyone who goes to hear them for any reason is in for an experience.
Note: Because Max Roach founded this group, and because of his stature in the music business, he has understandably been recognized as the group’s spokesman. Indeed, the esteem in which he is regarded by the other members of M’Boom was evident to us throughout this interview. But Max considers each member of the group to be equal, and so, in order to redirect the spotlight away from himself, he chose to not be present for the first half of this discussion.
SF: Let’s start with the concept of M’Boom. The group has been around 12 years. How did it start?
Waits: For me, what started M’Boom was a call from Mr. Roach, asking me if I would be interested in something of this sort. At the time, he didn’t have a knowledge of exactly what we would be involved in musically. But he knew that it was something that, in the future, would be very valid. He asked me if I had any ideas for being part of it, and I said, “Certainly.” We set a date that we were all going to get together. Max had that vision, and we all came together in this very room and sat down and began to work out, verbally at first, what we thought this kind of situation could do. What would be the first step? How would we go, step by step, to make the whole picture come together?
What you see now is the result of the last 12 years. It has taken that length of time because of the activities of every individual in M’Boom. As you know, everybody here has his own working situation as a leader, and we are all involved in a lot of sideman work. M’Boom was never put to us as something that we would depend on for an income.
To me, M’Boom is a vast institution, and since I’ve been involved in it, it has been a tremendous help to me musically. It’s probably been my most inspirational musical point over the last 12 years. There are so many directions to go in, because I’m dealing with the most powerful musicians on the planet. From an educational vantage point, I can ask these people for information and study with them. All of these people are just incredible musicians.
To have the perception that Mr. Roach had to bring all of these people together into an organization like this is incredible. I don’t know how he came about it. You’ll have to find that out from him. But, I guess you can imagine how ecstatic I felt about receiving a call like that. He had been my childhood idol, and that call was the first time I had really spoken to him on a person-to-person level. Not only did he call and ask me to be part of his organization, but he was also saying that it was supposed to be a cooperative organization. He did not want to be the principal figure, although we accept him as that because of who he is and what he has done. To watch a man of that humility accept all of us as equals on the bandstand is another incredible thing.
Mantilla: You said it all.
SF: Are these all the same people who were here 12 years ago?
Waits: M’Boom was started with the exact people you see here now, except Mr. King. He was the latest…
Brooks: And Mr. Mantilla.
Waits: Mr. Mantilla was added so soon afterwards that we all think of him as being an original member. When we sat down in some of our first meetings, I remember Chambers saying, “You know, we don’t have a proper representative of Latin percussion.” And I think it hit everybody at the same time. I knew I didn’t want to step out there on the Latin percussion, and nobody else did. [laughter] All of us had a working knowledge of it, but we looked at who we were and decided that we needed somebody who could fill that spot, and still be able to function in the other situations. So that brought about Mr. Mantilla.
Mantilla: This group was already two years old, and I was working with Art Blakey. I had known Max Roach for 20 years; I worked with him on the Freedom Now Suite. So what happened was, Mr. Chambers came down and saw me with Art Blakey, and they just happened to need a percussionist. He was the one who brought me in after they got the okay from Max. So I came in to deal with these people.
Being a percussionist from the Latin community who played with different jazz drummers, I considered myself as having played with the top jazz drummers in the world, you know. Now I’m with the greatest of them in the world. These are the cats. Max is, to me, the super drummer of the world.
You see all this percussion here? If it hadn’t been for the hand drums in the beginning, and the guys beating on logs, we wouldn’t have all these sounds that came out of that. So we have to have the hand drums represented here. So they have their tom-toms, and I have my low drums called tumbadoras; they have the snare drum and I have my quinto; they have their metal sounds, which come from playing on the sides of the Latin instruments. They used to play on the sides of the bongos before they had timbales. The bongo was the first actual drum to come out of Africa.
Chambers: It wasn’t called a bongo.
Mantilla: Right. It was just called two hand drums; a low drum and a high drum.
Brooks: It was a congo. [laughs]
Mantilla: Don’t you start giving me that! [laughter] I get really dragged when they say congos. That sounds like…I don’t want to say. [much laughter]
Brooks: Let me say one thing: The multiple percussion set—the drum set—is the only original American instrument.
Waits: You know, one thing I remember was that in some of our first rehearsals, we began to ask each other, “What do you think this is [pointing to a drumset]? What is this thing, or these things, or whatever?” So out of that came the name “multiple percussion instrument.” Mr. Smith, I believe, thought of that.
Chambers: My concept of the drumset is that it’s supposed to give the illusion of four people playing. Now, that came out of the marching band, right? Could it be that using one drummer to play all this stuff was economically practical in New Orleans? Maybe they said, “Let’s just use one guy because we can’t afford four.”
Clay: Maybe some of the other guys didn’t show up and one guy got creative—”I can do both gigs!”
King: The idea of the one-man band had a lot to do with it.
Chambers: Yeah, the one-man band.
Brooks: Buddy Bolden and those people used three people to play all the instruments.
Clay: It started with the bass drum that had a cymbal mounted on top, back in the 1800s, I think. That was one of the things that was used in the New Orleans marching bands.
King: I think you’ve got something there.
Waits: [to Mantilla] I was wondering, what were your feelings when you first came here? Because we had no idea what you were going to do.
Mantilla: Neither did I.
Waits: None of us did.
Mantilla: See, for me, this is something that opened me up completely. I’m bringing this Latin thing to what these gentlemen do. For me, this is like a school. I’m using my culture, and I’m expanding into the mallet instruments and the timpani. I feel like I’m coming from the real floor, and working up. Like the man with the shovel who starts with a strong foundation. The conga drum—that particular type of instrument—is a very physical instrument, and it’s also down to earth. We have to have our bottom. So the congas are my bass line, and I’m building from there. So my thing is expanding more and more, and I think it’s making me 100% more musician. I’m growing within the group and with these gentlemen, and I can see this thing going on for a long, long time. You know, we all work together. Joe works in my band, Mr. Smith works in my band, Mr. Clay writes arrangements for me and the other gentlemen. We will keep helping each other in the future and working together.
As far as my particular input in here, when I came in they already had the idea of what they wanted to do. All I did was add my little bit of knowledge. We’re all learning from each other. I’m learning from them, and they’re learning from me.
SF: So everybody has to play everything?
Chambers: That’s an important key. Everyone is supposed to be able to play all the stuff eventually, if they don’t already.
Brooks: I’m learning timbales right now.
SF: Warren, how did you develop that timpani technique you use on “Epistrophy”?
Smith: Well, it wasn’t so much a matter of developing it as it was that Joe Chambers asked me to play it. So I played it. [laughter]
Mantilla: When Joe says “Play it,” you play it!
Waits: Over the years, I think each individual in M’Boom has grown. I remember how we would get into one piece of music at some of our first rehearsals. Joe brought in a piece, and we worked with it, and worked with it, and extracted from it, and added to it, and put hours into it. Prior to M’Boom, I hadn’t really involved myself in a great amount of other percussion instruments, other than the multiple percussion instrument. I had played some of them, but never with any degree of seriousness. M’Boom immediately dropped on me the fact that I must get quite a few things together to deal with these guys. First of all, on a compositional level, Chambers right away began presenting his compositions, which were on a very high level. It wasn’t anything you could expect to deal with on an instrument as a beginner. That meant that I had to do the beginning work on one spot, and come to the rehearsal with a whole other attitude, just to comply with trying to play the vibes. After doing that, then I had to learn how not to play too much, how to leave space, play softly or be loud at the right time. I came with so many problems, that I couldn’t understand why Mr. Roach had called me. I had so many things that I felt I had to get together, but in these 12 years, it’s helped me so much outside of M’Boom, that to come back to M’Boom is gratifying.
That makes it hard for us to go out and work with other people sometimes, because of the kind of intelligence we acquire here and the understanding we have for music itself and for the basic rhythm concept. I mean, all of us laugh about how we hate to leave M’Boom—especially after that month we spent in Europe, where we had an opportunity to really be together as men and as musicians—and have to go out and work with other people. It’s never the same level as what we’re trying to do.
To look at it in another aspect, it’s human. We’ve learned so much about just being men around each other, and about how to accept each other. I’m sure that probably happens in other groups, but I can only speak about M’Boom because this, at this point, is my most interactive project.
Brooks: Most groups don’t stay together 12 years.
Waits: Right, and do the fighting that we have had to do. I mean, these things have come about out of necessity. There have been times when a fight was necessary, and I mean fighting just to get across an 8th note maybe, or to get across a texture or a color. And once it’s done, and the fighting is resolved and the color comes out, everybody says, “Wow, that’s right!” It’s not anything that anybody has to convince you about; the intelligence of each individual accepts it. So, as I said, leaving that and going into other situations is very hard. But everybody here has their own individual situations that they deal with, and it gives each of us another kind of strength and brings another kind of expression into this group.
Brooks: The concept of drummers playing together is the only way to go, if you check it out. When I first came to New York, and I’d be with Ed Blackwell and Idris Muhammed and certain other guys, we’d always talk about playing. “I like the way you play, man. We should play together some time.” You know what I mean? That’s another facet. It’s not the battle of the drums kind of stuff, but drummers playing together, making music.
King: I’d like to say something about the concept of M’Boom that excites me the most, and that is—as Mr. Mantilla and Mr. Waits have already said so eloquently—that it is a school. And there’s a spirit here. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you bring with you—you’re going to have to go to school. And there’s an attitude that you will go to school. You will take criticism, but you always know that the criticism is given because you’re seeking to grow. It’s not someone just saying something, as it was implied that a horn player might just say something. There’s a camaraderie here. And the thing I want to emphasize—what I find so exciting—is that unlike any other musical group I’ve ever been in, whether it was a jazz group, symphony orchestra or studio band, there was never such a spirit of wanting to grow, and also, having around you the masters to help you grow. I think Mr. Waits is being very modest when he says that he doesn’t know why he was asked to be in the group, because for years he’s been a musician I’ve admired immensely. I think what he said really illustrates what I’m saying; that’s the attitude of anyone who comes in here. They’re willing to learn and they want to learn. And everybody here brings in something different. Mr. Mantilla brings, as he pointed out, Afro/Latin traditions. Mr. Brooks here brings in something so unique it almost defies language. He brings in a musical saw, he plays steel drums, he brings in such a unique dimension—apart from the technical factors, there’s always so much distance to go within each idiom. Each man brings that in here, and no matter what you bring in, you’ve got to learn.
SF: Are you all learning the musical saw?
King: His musical saw is just an expression of something that’s inside him, and that’s what he communicates with us. That’s what I mean by it being such a deep experience. It’s not just somebody coming in here and skimming across the surface. It’s a school, as I view it, that can go on infinitely.
Mantilla: Just to get into Mr. Brooks’ thing will take me a lifetime, maybe. Let me hang out with him for a while. It’s nothing where you can just say, “How do you do that?” He’ll show me, but in the long run you’ve got to be with these people and see how they’re playing, and we have to hear each other. So, like he says, it’s an infinite thing; you keep growing and growing.
Waits: I don’t know how long we were together before we made our first European trip, but as much as we had rehearsed here, and been on each other’s case, and argued, and been through the growing pains, I think that trip really brought us together. It was a short trip, but we lived together for ten days. I can only speak for myself, but prior to that trip, I knew we had something to do, but it wasn’t clear in my head. I was still grasping for what to write, and what to do when, and how to make this whole thing happen. By us being together, we began to get up at eight o’clock in the morning together, we began rehearsing from nine in the morning until six in the afternoon together; we began to get into what Brooks was doing with that saw together. At the end of that ten days, I think everybody felt, “Now I know what we are doing together. Now I know where we’ve got to go, and some of the steps we will have to take to get us there.” That commitment, I think, came at that point. We went to Europe for the first time in ’73, and we had been together for about two years. That trip really brought us up. It happened at the right time, because no matter how much we rehearsed and played here together, we had to get out and try it. We had to get out on that concert stage and see if it would work, and convince ourselves that we could do this. That trip did it. Every body said, “Yes! We can do this. Let’s get on the case a little harder now.” This trip that we came back from recently really put it over again. I think we have rejuvenated ourselves. Every time we do some thing, we move to another level because it’s like, “Okay, we’ve done that, now let’s do something else.” The whole thing is moving so each time there is something else to do. That’s why we all feel that this is vast; it’s limitless.
This is a very unique situation; something I think needs to be seen and heard, because it has so much to offer on so many levels—musically and aesthetically.
Mantilla: Excuse me, I ‘ve got a question. Have you guys seen M’Boom before?
RM: Today was the third time I’ve seen the group live.
Mantilla: Three times. Okay. It’s important that you see it, you know? You too?
SF: Today was the first time I’ve seen the group live. But I saw M’Boom on TV about ten years ago.
Smith: Oh yeah, that thing on Channel 13. [New York Public Television]
Waits: That was another thing that happened to M’Boom. I was doing the contracting for a show called Soul, and I was asked if I had any ideas for anything that would make a good presentation on that show. Immediately, I said “M’Boom.” At that time, this thing had only been going for maybe a year and a half, and our whole concept hadn’t totally formed yet. The concept of M’Boom as a form has evolved over the 12 years to the point where we are comfortable with each other and we could walk on the bandstand in any given situation and do what we think would be a good performance.
Musically about M’Boom, I’m sure Mr. Chambers probably could say some things about how we come about our arrangements, and how we project our . . .
Brooks: Musical concepts.
Chambers: Well, along with what you said about the phone call and all of that, I think Max wanted to get guys who were basically drummers—who had built their reputations as what we call set players—but who were also arrangers and composers and who were willing to explore the possibilities of percussion in order to develop a knowledge of percussion. That was the basic premise of M’Boom. Of course, there are individuals here who were already involved with total percussion, like Mr. Smith and Mr. King. They had a knowledge of mallet instruments and timpani and things like that, and were working professionally as percussionists. So it was a learning experience for the original six, learning the percussion family—vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, timps, various metal instruments, Latin percussion, and drumset, which we already played. So it was basically like a workshop for us. We came to this studio every Saturday and just played, feeling our way around, trying to figure out how we were going to develop this concept. It gradually developed with arrangements that we all brought in from time to time.
SF: What were some of the original concepts that you were using as a framework?
Clay: Well, basically we wanted to adhere to some of the basic tenets that have been associated with what is known as “jazz” to the masses. It should swing, you know. But swing is not necessarily beating you over the head. We definitely want to get beyond the concept of having a drum battle. I think a lot of people who have heard the names associated with M’Boom assume it must be a big drum battle. “It couldn’t possibly be anything else because they don’t do anything else.” Lo and behold, it has subtleties and nuances—taste. “Wait a minute! Hey, this is beautiful!” That was something that we sought within ourselves, and we’ve taken very harsh criticisms from each other. But those criticisms are always given with love. That’s why we’ve been so receptive to each other and willing to believe that we have something worth sharing. In this way, it’s been very spiritually uplifting to be able to hold back some of the tension that you would normally feel when someone criticizes you in certain circumstances.
Brooks: As long as he’s another drummer, he can get away with it.
Clay: Some of the things we say to each other—if a leader, or horn player, or somebody else were to say those things, they wouldn’t get the same response. We know that we’re only as good as we all are together, and whatever we say to each other is for the greater productivity of the whole. We always want to make it good for all of us, and that’s the only reason for it.
SF: Who are the role models for this kind of group?
King: The concept is the role model.
SF: I mean as far as playing jazz with a percussion ensemble. Were there any others in the history of jazz who did it?
King: Not like this.
Smith: No, but I think this follows in tradition as far as percussion ensembles go. We feel that as a group of musicians in this particular condition, we have a responsibility in the sense that we influence most of the musics. I think the whole universe is listening to black American music at this time, and particularly to the drummers. We have absorbed the whole history of what is known as jazz in this country, from slavery up to the present. Each one of us brings something from our heritage as well as something from the present. We’re involved with different facets of everything that’s happening. It’s a style that is unlimited in possibilities. It’s sometimes difficult because each one of us is a drummer, and a drummer is like a conductor, so each of us is used to taking the responsibility of saying “It goes this way.” Then you bump heads with seven other strong personalities and it has to mesh in such a way that you accept or give up your authority. It gets assigned to people in certain ways. If it’s your composition, you just assume that role.
RM: Have you dealt with original material from the beginning or did you start out trying to play music which already existed?
Smith: Everything has grown as a result of our coming together, in the sense that anything that was out of our concept, we wouldn’t have been able to do. There were certain facets of other people’s concepts that we wanted to incorporate. If you like the way that Max Roach plays the drums, then you instruct yourself in that style.
RM: What are some of the considerations that you have to deal with when writing for this group?
Chambers: Well, one conclusion that we came to was that we would just try to stay in the jazz continuum—the small bands, the big bands, and what they were trying to do. We looked at what we had—the possibilities—and said, “Alright, how are we going to set this up?” So, for myself, I just broke percussion down into three or four different categories. I looked at it and said, “How do I get a bass line? How do I get chordal accompaniment? What do I use for melodic possibilities?” And there it is. You’ve got rhythm, so you break it down. Timpani and low marimba give you your bass line possibilities. The mallet instruments give you chordal and melodic possibilities, and of course you’ve got the drums. So that’s one way to approach it. There are also textural concepts. You could have all wood sounds, or all metal sounds, or all membranes, or different combinations.
Clay: And of course there are polyrhythms. That’s a given that we can expound with all our basic concepts. We can build a “one” that’s infinite in terms of where we want to put the swing for any given section and how long the duration will continue. We can use a certain volume level with a certain texture to expound upon a concept of light or dark or multicolor or however you want to project the aural image. That is, I think, another area of growth for all of us—how to blend colors. Not to be restricted to just technical displays on a given instrument, but also to paint.
Chambers: Yeah, I think it’s very important to get those combinations.
SF: Is this music duplicable? Do you think if you took this music to a college percussion ensemble, they could…
Chambers: Of course.
Clay: One thing about this music is that if you see two or three of our performances, where we might be doing basically the same material, it’s always fresh, because of the differences in the concert hall, or the number of instruments we can use, depending on the amount of space, or the adjustments we have to make so that we can hear each other, whether we have monitors or not. Sometimes we play much heavier than at other times. Today, I would think, was almost delicate. But nonetheless, I think we still conveyed our musical concept.
RM: There is a so-called “traditional” percussion ensemble literature . . .
Chambers: In terms of who’s tradition?
RM: Most of the percussion ensembles that exist in schools draw from the same basic body of compositions. M’Boom doesn’t play any of those pieces. What is different about the types of pieces you perform?
King: This relates to what was said earlier about our music being duplicable, and I have to take issue with the idea that what we do is duplicable. The percussion ensembles that have proliferated throughout the States are based on the Euro-American tradition. That is, they tend to lean more heavily on the notated music. There may be some open-ended pieces where you can do some improvisation, but I haven’t seen anything approaching what we do in M’Boom, where we improvise with all the elements. That’s not to imply that our music isn’t highly structured or highly technical at the beginning, but there is room for improvisation. And not only can M’Boom improvise with drums, but they’re able to get that same effect with all the percussion instruments. So I think a percussion ensemble in the States, as we know it generally, could read the music, but they would probably be no more successful in duplicating our overall effect than another group of musicians might be in taking Basie charts and trying to get the same effect that Basie gets.
Smith: I started out in college dealing with so-called “classical” percussion pieces, like Varese’s Ionization and Amadeo Roldan’s Ritmica, which were supposed to have been the first percussion pieces writ ten. But I had already been exposed to African music, which was essentially percussion ensembles of a very deep nature. There are also other cultures which have centuries of percussion tradition, which have never touched Europe for influence. When I first listened to Varese, I realized music. That music is very difficult to sight read, but there are several of us here who have done it. Now, that’s one tradition, but it’s limited by the fact that it is duplicable every time. Three hundred years from now, that music will sound essentially the same. What we’re doing now is going to grow. When people play this music and follow our tradition—when they improvise—it will be defining the temper of the times at that point. What we’re doing improvisation-ally is what we feel emotionally, and that’s going to be different ten years from now. It’s different from when we first started. That’s why it really can’t be duplicated in improvisatory form.
SF: In the MD interview I did with Max last year, he distinguished between a creative musician and a recreative musician, with a symphony player being an example of a recreative player. How do you classify yourselves?
Smith: We can do both. We can synthesize it, that is, we’re historians who are familiar with the traditional sounds of our profession, and we’re also experimenting and changing. We’re using bits of everything; it’s all put before us. If it happens to be European and we like the sound of it, we’ll use it.
SF: How much of a composition is usually charted out?
Clay: We have a couple of compositions that are completely written out from the beginning to the end; no improvisation whatsoever except the way we play it. Each performance will be different, even though it’s completely written out. Everybody has a specific thing that they’re supposed to fit in someplace in the time that we are reading it.
SF: Are any of these compositions on the record? [M’Boom. Columbia IC-36247]
Clay: One is: “Twinkle Toes.” All the pieces are written in terms of textures, combinations of colors, and rhythmic structure or rhythmic feel—where we place the emphasis. We can play a tune in a couple of multi-meters, and it can be conceived as a three, a four, a six or a twelve, depending on how we want to feel it at that time. Yet the same things are continuing to happen right along.
[At this point, Max Roach entered the room.]
RM: Is there anything that we’ve already touched on that we should go over again to give Mr. Roach the opportunity to comment?
Waits: You were asking about the beginnings of M’Boom, and we explained it from the aspect of us receiving a call from Mr. Roach. The other aspect would be Mr. Roach’s side of it.
Roach: I had met some of these young musicians around New York who were writers. I knew that Chambers played piano and I’d heard some of the work he’d done for big bands. I knew that Warren Smith did it all exceptionally well, as far as the whole percussion family was concerned. During the spring I’d go down to Puerto Rico and enjoy those wonderful Casals Festivals, and that’s where I met Fred King. He and I did some impromptu things and he would handle the total percussion family. I knew about Roy Brooks’ writing for bands, and I knew about the stuff Waits had done with Lee Morgan. So basically I said, “Why don’t we get a group of guys together?” I called up Warren, and he came to my place and we sat down and started talking about people who we felt could deal with this whole thing. Of course, we knew Omar Clay was a total percussionist. He was another person who did everything so well. I knew about his experience playing set with Sarah Vaughn, and all the other people he has worked with. Warren had this studio here, and he was very generous about sharing it.
So I figured, “Well, if we put everybody together and form a cooperative group, we’ll have to stay together.” [laughter] We’d have to stay together and we could develop an original personality in percussion, that would come out of our American musical experience. It could have blues and Gospel and whatever idiom you want to name, just as long as it has that attitude of open endedness—”Let’s try this and let’s try that.” What’s so important about us here is that we’re not bound to any traditions at all.
So we took advantage of the fact that we had all these different personalities, and we had all this to work with. I want to tell you, when we first started, we worked through all kinds of things. I mean, music was brought in here for us to play that didn’t resemble anything you’ve ever imagined. Some of it was really avant-garde, and we’re still doing it.
M’Boom deals with sound and textures, through the pieces that are brought in by Chambers, and Warren and Brooks. And when Ray Mantilla came to us later with all of his gifts, that gave us another personality. So that was it, basically. Warren and I went down the list of folks, and . . . I think we had Jack DeJohnette in mind at one point, did we not?
Roach: We called him up but I think he was involved with Miles. So that was how we put it together, and I want to tell you, every one of the personalities is as different as night and day. When I first realized what we had, I thought, “Woah.” But that’s what makes the thing. When you can get people who are that diverse, and who have that kind of talent, and that kind of integrity, and whose standards . . . you know, sometimes we’d spend hours just talking about one note, because everyone hears it differently. From that point on, everybody’s personality began to shape the group, and it’s still doing that. Although we’ve been together for well over ten years, we haven’t really dealt with it that much, but the fact that we’ve stayed together, I think, has been important. There were years when everybody had a lot of things they were doing. I think everybody has been involved in education, but that helped us. The group was founded, not as a group that we were going to deal with full time, but as something we would deal with at our leisure, in a sense. We’re not bound by the fact that we are going to use this group to support us. Everyone has to be self-supported; everyone has their own things going. That has been a Godsend to us.
I’m happy to be with these people. I’ve learned more about percussion in M’Boom than in all the years I’ve been playing—especially what I shouldn’t do.
SF: Since everybody’s involved in education, how does the next generation of drummers look?
Roach: It’s very gratifying. The people who are our roadies can cover for all of us. M’Boom is a textural kind of thing. You don’t have to play l i k e Waits or Brooks or Smith to fit into that textural sound. If any one of us, for some reason, is not on the scene, those roadies cover us. Those kids you saw today are exemplary percussionists. Some are students of Warren Smith or of mine, and they are really fine players. They do all of it. When we were on this last trip in Europe, and Joe Chambers had some other commitments at one point, the roadie went in and the hole was filled. Not Joe’s personality, but the parts were covered. So we have a group of people around us who are doing things that I couldn’t do at their age. I mean that. This is a crop of young players who are very, very fine.
Waits: I find that a lot of the young people who I’m working with are so aware of
M’Boom; a lot of people are coming to study with us because of what M’Boom has done. The young people are aware of what this is and what it means to the future.
They are aware of the concept that M’Boom works from, and they come in and start from there. And they’re looking at us . . . a student said to me. “You’re from Mississippi, you played the blues, you went to Detroit, you went through the whole Motown experience, you came to New York to work with McCoy Tyner and Lee Morgan—that’s a whole entity. And there’s Roy Brooks from Detroit, who worked with Horace Silver and his own groups, and that’s an experience. Fred King has worked with symphony orches tras, and there’s Mr. Roach . . . ” When you look at what M’Boom is, it’s incredible, and young people are aware of it, and I wasn’t aware of that. The young people are aware of what each individual is about, and to them, something like this has been around a long time.
Now, the question was asked, could our music be duplicated?
Roach: Well, that’s the point. We struggled with this too, you know, because these people can write and read anything, and if you write it, it can be dealt with. So that was no problem. But the music that came out of America that is so wonderful, to me, is democratic. Jazz exemplifies democracy because if you put a trio on the stage, they all play the head, and then each member has a chance to make the composition a reality. It’s not just under the dominance of one personality or one individual. That’s the premise of M’Boom. If Joe or Roy brings in something, we look at the piece and that gives us the skeleton of an idea. We’re all allowed a vote, so to speak, to make this what it is. That you can’t duplicate, unless you’ve got a person just like Waits, for example, who hears the way he does, to fit into that texture. The next person who comes in will bring his own individuality into the whole thing. So the premise of this is freedom, because to me, what jazz did was to free the musician from the tyranny of tradition. So we kind of said, “Okay, let’s use everything, and put it together,” which is what this country is about.
Chambers: People often say that music is the universal language. That’s true, but jazz is the universal music. It’s the music that everyone wants to play, because it’s the music that allows freedom of expression for everybody.
King: I’d like to add a personal statement to that, not because I want to talk about myself, but because I came this route that they’re talking about. I’ve spent time with the cream of the crop—people like Casals and Mehta—but I simply didn’t want to do that kind of work anymore. When I heard M’Boom, I was so excited. Everytime I got a chance to hear them, I would consider it a real blessing. I just really decided that I didn’t want to follow that other course— not to take anything away from it—but I felt that I needed the freedom that M’Boom was offering. It offered me more of an opportunity to explore my own creativity. With all due respect to the Zubin Mehtas and so forth, their music doesn’t offer that kind of involvement.
Roach: I think that’s what attracts mos t people who hear us. When people would come up to us on our European tour, they’d say, “You have such a chance to express yourself.” Everytime we perform it’s an experience, because I know it’s not going to be the same as the last time. It’s better.
SF: Are you trying to get the group out more?
Roach: Oh yeah, we never refuse work. Although we have to check with everybody to see where they are. I remember a concert in Madrid, and McCoy Tyner was on the same bill. He came up to me and said, “Max, you’ve got all the best drummers. We can’t get anybody.” So M’Boom is really an all-star creative force. As I say, it’s a heck of a group to be involved in. All of this independence of all of these strong personalities can be a headache sometimes, but I’ll be honest with you, I wouldn’t change them. The musicianship is at such a high level, and it’s all woven into the texture of the sound, which is what the essence of the group is.
SF: So this is a totally self-supporting organization?
Roach: Yeah. We would accept grants, [laughter]
Mantilla: We need a grant writer.
SF: That’s pretty amazing that you’ve existed 12 years as a totally self-supporting group. There are guys out there moaning the blues about how “If I could only get some funding . . . ”
Roach: Well, it’s always been like that, with the secular element of the music anyway. You know, if you go back and look at the history of it, it wasn’t until recently that the NEA began to recognize jazz, and throw money here and there to both institutions and individuals. But M’Boom, like all the rest of American music, has been standing on its own two feet. It’s a good thing that we were never led to believe that we had to have money from the outside to survive, otherwise, we wouldn’t have survived. We have always had to do it ourselves. If people don’t come through the door, we don’t get paid. But we grew up like that, so we were prepared for it.
The thing that I hope this group will do, more than anything else, is stimulate drummers not only to have a formidable drumkit, but also to add timpani and mallets and the other things, so that percussion will grow and grow and grow. I hope that people will be inspired by seeing all these great set players do other things. So that’s the kind of thing I hope we are instilling in the younger percussionists—to really get involved in percussion and to write.
SF: Do you see groups springing up as a result of this?
Roach: Yes! The percussion world should grow, like all the other musical worlds. Of course, the other percussion ensembles—Nexus and folks like that—are into the same thing. I think it’s wonderful.
RM: Mr. Clay mentioned earlier that one of the concepts behind M’Boom was that it wasn’t going to be a drum battle. Do you think that M’Boom is helping drummers see that they can play with other drummers?
Roach: I hope so, yes. Drummers are a special family; they kind of love each other. I remember when we did the thing in Central Park with Krupa. Guys came from all across the country to play, and it was a beautiful day for drums. History has kind of overlooked the contribution of the percussion players, and I’ve never understood that. So this has created sort of a family among drummers. It’s a special kind of “hello” when you see another drummer.
Performed and recorded with Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef, Charles Mingus, James Moody, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Stitt and others. Has also formed his own groups called Artistic Truth and the Aboriginal Percussion Choir. Mr. Brooks is living in Detroit, continuing to present the drumset and percussion in unique situations such as a drum/trumpet duet with Woody Shaw, and his own solo concerts.
Has recorded with Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Donald Byrd, Archie Shepp and others. Also has recorded under his own name. Excellent composer, arranger and percussionist.
Performed and recorded with Sarah Vaughan, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick and many more. He’s experienced in Broadway shows, opera and symphonic work. Mr. Clay has been leaching Afro-American Music at San Francisco State for the last two years. He is also working on his Master of Arts degree in Music Education and will be looking for a teaching position.
Percussionist/arranger/composer. Trained in theory composition, conducting and ethnomusicology. Advanced degrees from the University of Iowa and the Julliard School. He initiated a school of percussion while with Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica, and organized percussion studies programs for the late Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico as Casals’ first and only Professor of Percussion. Performed with distinguished jazz and pop artists, and as solo timpanist and/or principal percussionist with many orchestras, including the NYC Opera and the Festival Casals Orchestra. Also held professorships in Puerto Rico and CUNY Brooklyn College.
Presently, involved in research at composing and performing in a variety of settings.
Performed and recorded with Machito, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Gato Barbieri, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Mann and others. Mr. Mantilla has his own albums on Inner City Records. He is currently working with his own group called Ray Mantilla with Space Station. The band will be recording in Europe. He also has a soon-to-be-released video tape of a performance at the NYC jazz club Lush Life.
One of the founders of modern jazz drumming. Since ’72 has been Professor of Music at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, MA. Mr. Roach has appeared twice before in MD interviews. Once in Jan./Feb. ’79, and again, in June ’82.
Performs and records in all phases of African-American music plus Broadway shows, symphonies, television, and radio. Has worked with Aretha Franklin, Nat “King” Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sam Rivers and many more. Mr. Smith teaches at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
Performed and recorded with “Ivory Joe” Hunter, Percy Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Sonny Rollins, Lena Home and others. Mr. Waits was featured in a Colloquium III interview in the Feb. /Mar. ’80 MD. In addition to his work with Horacee Arnold and Billy Hart in Colloquium III, Mr. Waits is currently leading his own group with varied instrumentation.