Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Stan Levey: Straight-Ahead and Always Swinging [From The Archives]

I initially learned to play Jazz drums by sitting just below where this picture was taken at The Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California and observing Stan Levey do it for almost two years.

Driving down to the club through the fog on Pacific Coast Highway, I couldn't wait to get there and here the thrill and excitement of Stan's drumming with bassist Howard Rumsey's [also pictured] Lighthouse All-Stars.

And I can't imagine having a Drummers Rule Week on JazzProfiles without a reprise of this early piece on Stan.

He was my hero.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“En fait, Stan a été influence par le jeu de Kenny Clarke sur la cymbal ride en accompagnement et par Max Roach pour les solos.”
Georges Paczynski, Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz, Vol. 2

“The art of jazz drumming has come a long way since the days of the bass drum player in the marching bands of ole New Orleans. Today we have come to expect a drummer to be an excellent technician, a well rounded percussionist, capable of improvising as well as any solo instrumentalist in any musical aggregation. It would take a very thick book to discuss the requirements of being a jazz drummer, and even then, it would be necessary to interpret the printed word through skins, sticks, cymbals, and mechanical contrivances in order to express yourself and your feeling for the music.

No doubt about it, drums and drummers are popular subjects; whether you're an avid jazz enthusiast or a bandleader, it is always interesting to hear and compare notes on the way different drummers play.”
-Howard Rumsey, Bassist and Jazz Club Operator

“You could set your watch to his time. It was one less thing for me to think about when I was playing.”
- Victor Feldman, Jazz pianist, vibraphonist and drummer

“Mechanical, my foot. You try playing his stuff and see how ‘mechanical’ it is.”

The late drummer, Stan Levey, is the fellow using the strong language [“foot” is substituted here for another part of the anatomy which was actually used by Stan in the quoted remark].

The context for Stan’s reply was his response to a statement that another drummer made about the playing of Max Roach to wit: “Oh, I don’t listen to Max much. He’s too mechanical.”

There is a reason why in his two volume Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz, which won the 2000 Prix Charles Delauney, author Georges Paczynski follows his chapter on Max Roach with one on Stan Levey.

Stan adored Max.

Indeed, Paczynski subtitles his chapter on Stan :”Stan Levey le virtuose: à l'école de Max Roach.”

Stan was a gruff, no nonsense guy who, at one time, was a prize fighter. He left school at fourteen to make his way in the world, taught himself how to play drums, and did this well enough to be playing with Dizzy Gillespie in his hometown of Philadelphia at the age of sixteen.

Four years later, in 1945, he was working with Diz and Charlie Parker on 52nd Street along with Al Haig on piano and Ray Brown on bass.

Not a bad way to begin a career as a Jazz drummer before even reaching the age of twenty-one [21]!

The early 1940s was also about the time that Max Roach was coming up in the world of bebop and he and Stan were to become lifelong friends. As Howard Rumsey, Jazz bassist, who also was in charge of the music at the Lighthouse Café for many years, explains in his insert notes to Max and Stan’s Drummin’ The Blues:

“Ever since they first met on New York's famous 52nd Street in 1942, Max Roach and Stan Levey have felt intuitively that each was the other's personal preference. Their professional careers are closely paralleled, starting with almost four years on the "Street" with "Diz" and "Bird". In fact, Max was with Diz at the Onyx and Stan was across the street at the Spotlight with Bird when the modern period of jazz was officially born. Since then they have exchanged jobs many times with many great bands.”

Max would eventually recommend that Stan take his place with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars at the famous 30 Pier Avenue Club in Hermosa BeachCA and Stan stayed at the club from about 1955 to 1960.

Stan described his early years in the business this way to Gordon Jack in Fifties Jazz Talk, An Oral Perspective:

“I was completely self-taught because we couldn't afford a teacher, and that's why I play left-handed although I am right-handed; it just felt easier that way. I didn't learn to read really well until I joined Kenton's band in 1952, once again teaching myself. By the time I was doing studio work in the sixties and playing all the mallet instruments, I had become an accom­plished reader. My first big influence was Chick Webb, who I saw with Ella when my father took me to the Earle Theater when I was about ten years old.” [p. 129]

And, about his first impressions of Max Roach’s drumming, Stan had this to say:

"The ferocity of the playing was new to me. I had never heard time split up like that. Max's playing had music within it. . . he changed the course of drumming." [p. 130]

I got to know Stan quite well during the last three years of his stint at The Lighthouse and I came to understand that he always had a chip on his shoulder about being self-taught. 

Young drummers bugged him; they were always asking him technical questions about the instrument.

And because he couldn’t explain his answers in terminology or “drum speak,” he usually mumbled something and walked toward the back of the club.

What were you going to do, chase after him? The man was huge. He blocked out the sun.

Stan was never menacing or unkind in any way, he was just self-conscious about the fact that he didn’t have a studied background in the instrument.

Even though he was self-taught, Stan took the most difficult path to becoming a Jazz drummer.

By this I mean that he played everything open; he didn’t cheat or fudge. He didn’t press; didn’t finesse; didn’t adopt shortcuts.

Ironically, for someone who had never formally studied drums, he played them in a more “legit” way than most of the other Jazz drummers in the 1940s, 50s and 60s – many of whom were also self-taught.

To comprehend an open or “legit” sound, think of the crackling snare drums that almost sound like gunshots while listening to a Scottish Black Watch fife, bagpipe and drum corps or, most other drum and bugle corps.

Every drum stroke is sounded; nothing is muffled; nothing is pressed into the drums. Everything is struck. Art Blakey’s famous snare drum press roll would be unacceptable in such an environment.

To play in this manner, one’s hands need to be strong and they need to be fast.

Enter Stan Levey.

Enter Max Roach.

Although they came to their respective styles from different directions – Max had taken lessons - both approached drums the same way. Each relied on open strokes.

In Max’s case, because he had a sound grasp of the basic, drum rudiments and learned to cleverly combine them in a syncopated manner that particularly fit the Bebop style of Jazz, his playing could be described as a “mechanical” in the sense of structured or fundamental.

This is especially the case when Max’s solo style is compared to that of other bebop and hard bop drummers such as Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.

But Stan didn’t hear the loser and freer drumming of Blakey and Philly Joe when he was putting things together, he heard Max [and also Kenny Clarke, Sid Catlett, & Chick Webb].

And even though he didn’t know the technical names for them, he learned to play solos in a manner similar to Max’s “mechanical” or rudimental style.

I knew Stan to be a fiercely loyal person and a very competitive one.

When your hero and your friend is being “put down” or “disrespected,” isn’t it all the more reason to be defensive and perhaps curt with those implying such disapproval?

Stan knew that what Max was playing wasn’t easy to do. But to his ever-lasting credit, he broke it down and incorporated many elements of Roach’s approach into his own. And, he did it all by ear!

Stan didn’t like to solo. He loved to keep time. He referred to it as: “Doing my job back there.”

And “keep time” he did, with the best of them.

Louie Bellson once said: “Stan’s time is alive. It has a pulse that you can always feel.”

Ray Brown declared him to be – “A rock, and a magnificent one, at that.”

Ella Fitzgerald said: “He never strays and never gets in the way.”

Peggy Lee “loved the intensity [of his time-keeping].”

The other thing that Stan loved to do was keep time FAST!

Few could rival him, and this from a naturally right-handed guy who was playing an open, three stroke cymbal beat with his left hand!!

Some of the best recorded examples of Stan’s time-keeping speed can be found on the Bebop, Wee [Allen’s Alley] and Lover Come Back to Me tracks on Dizzy Gillespie’s For Musicians Only album [Verve 837-435-2].

Monday, December 30, 2013

Tiny Kahn: Over 300 But Less Than Thirty [From The Archives]

Among the tragic stories in Jazz, a music that has had more-than-its-share of sad stories, is the tale associated with the subheading of this piece on Tiny Kahn.

The fact is that there was nothing "Tiny" about Tiny Kahn.

Perhaps it wasn't the only factor,  but what is indisputable is that he weighted over 300 pounds and it may have very well contributed to the death of this talented and skillful drummer by the age of thirty.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would be nice to remember him again on these pages during Drummers Rule Week.

Noal Cohen has created an excellent discography of recordings on which Tiny performed and you can located it by going here.

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Tiny's ears are what really got to me. I don't know if he had absolute pitch. Very likely he did—or came very close to it. He instinctively knew how to read an arrangement. Right off he would find what to do with a chart. Another thing—Tiny tuned his drums assiduously. He was concerned with the pitch of each drum. And he was very particular about cymbals; each one had to serve a particular purpose. He was like a modern Sid Catlett. He would have had that kind of influence, had he lived.

Tiny was very advanced harmonically. His arrangement of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" for the Barnet band indicates where he was going. He wrote it in Salt Lake City in two days.

The loss of Tiny Kahn was devastating He meant so much to music and to those who knew him. Everybody learned some­thing from Tiny. If you talked to or hung out with him, played in one of the bands that employed him or analyzed his writing, you came away with something.”
- Manny Albam, composer-arranger

“Tiny was melodic on drums ….. He probably was the most melodic drummer of all time. And the most economic. He made every stroke mean something. A whole school developed around his style.

Tiny could do so many things easily. When I was in the Army, the leader of the dance band at my base in Dallas told me he couldn't buy the "Jump the Blues Away" and "Wiggle Woogie" Basie stocks anywhere. I wrote Tiny about the problem—how all the cats in the band, including me, wanted to play this music. What did he do? He just copied all the music off the record­ings and sent the transcriptions to me. And that was an eighteen-year-old guy who had never taken a lesson.

How about this? When I came home on furlough, as World War II was winding down, Tiny hipped me to what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing and explained their music in detail. He knew every note and what to do with it. He would sit at the piano and play complete tunes for me, in some cases including all the solos. He always knew what was going down before anyone else.”
- Terry Gibbs, vibraphonist and bandleader

“Tiny Kahn was really a gigantic influence to all of us. Es­pecially all the young white players who were in the big bands and still trying to play jazz. He was such a marvelous musician. He was a dy­namic drummer with great time. He didn't have great hands, great feet, he wasn't really a showy drummer. He was just a real father time-type drummer. And he was a self-taught arranger, piano player, ….. Tiny knew how changes went from one to another. He was a tremendous influence on me and many others too.”
- Red Rodney, Jazz trumpet player and bandleader

“He was a very rare talent. Completely natural. He was the most unstudied musician in the whole world. And yet he wrote some excellent charts. He was a swinging drummer. A very unstudied one. But yet a natural swinger. He really wasn't a pi­anist. He would just sit down and kind of noodle away in the most illegitimate, unschooled way. But what came out was beautiful.”
Frankie Socolow, Jazz saxophonist

“Tiny, believe it or not, was with Kenny Clarke, I believe those were the two distinct changes at that time. Tiny changed it from the Buddy Rich sound, from Gene Krupa, Louis Bellson. He came in with an opposite sound, and Mel [Lewis] came in right on the heels of Tiny, every one of us knew that.”
- Chubby Jackson, Jazz bassist and bandleader

“ Tiny never let anything deter him. He wanted to know! And he wasn't shy about it. He was curious about certain fills that I used when I worked with Parker and Dizzy. He dug their sound and feeling. So he just came up and asked. ‘How do you do those things? Show me how to play them.’

“Tiny was the one who led the way into the soft pulse—not a hard edge to it, [Ed. note — Stan more than suggested this concept in his own work, partic­ularly with small bands.] Drummers changed because of him, making their approach to sound and comment more musical, less percussive. Tiny had a rare understanding of the inner workings of a band because he was a writer. He knew how to control the time feeling, the tempo, how to take hold of the sections, the entire orchestra.

Everyone borrowed or stole from him. For a guy to die at the beginning of a great career is criminal. I know musicians who can't play or write who live into their nineties.”
- Stan Levey, Jazz drummer

[All of the above quotations by musicians and friends of Tiny are excerpted from Ira GitlerSwing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s or Burt Korall, Drummin’ Men, The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years].

The subtitle in our feature about Tiny Kahn refers to the fact that for much of his brief life, this terrific composer, arranger and drummer weighed over 300 pounds [at one point, he topped out at 415 lbs.!], but didn’t live to reach the age of thirty [30].

Perhaps the two were related?  It would seem so for according to Johnny Mandel: “Tiny had warnings before he passed. He almost died in the late 1940s of a bad blood clot in his leg. Coronary problems, difficulties within the vascular system, were common for several years”.

During his tragically short lifetime, Tiny Kahn influenced and impressed just about everyone he performed with during Bebop’s nascent decade [1943-53].

So much so, that when news of his death reached drummer Stan Levey, a big, brute of a guy whom I never knew to fall prey to easy emotion or sentimentality, it caused this reaction:

“The day he died I was in Europe with Stan Kenton. We were about to begin a concert in Copenhagen for a tremendous audience. Somehow the word got to us that Tiny had died. Well, I just totally broke down. I finally pulled myself together and thought: ‘I'll play this one for Tiny. He gave me and other musicians so much.’”

Other than such references about his reputation from other musicians, I never knew much about Norman “Tiny” Kahn. I had heard him on the 1951 recordings that he made with Stan Getz Jazz impresario George Wein’s Storyville nightclub then located in Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel and I had even played on a few of his big band arrangements such as T.N.T and Tiny’s Blues.

So when the marvelous Dutch Jazz drummer, Eric Ineke, suggested Tiny for a feature on JazzProfiles, I thought it would be great to do a bit of research into Kahn’s career and to “get to know him better.”

Here are just a few testimonials about how Tiny was universally loved and respected:

Johnny Mandel: “The first time I came across Tiny Kahn was late one night at Child's Paramount, after we had finished the last set. There he was, standing around in an overcoat, indoors. Tiny sat down at the piano and started playing some funny stuff. I said to myself: ‘Oh, what's this?’ Then he got into some good things, and I was really impressed. I remember mumbling: ‘Oh,  my God!’ I didn't know until later that he was a drummer and arranger. I so admired Tiny's ideas and musicality and his qualities as a person that we were pretty much inseparable for eight years—until he passed.

He probably was one of the most honest and humorous people I ever met. Certainly that came out in his playing and writing. He was unlike anyone I've ever met. You can't compare him to anyone else. He was just different.”

Stan Getz: “Tiny was one of my favorite drummers of all time. He was the closest thing to Sid Catlett. He would musically get underneath you and lift you up. Most drummers batten you down from the top. And he wrote as well as he played. He was just the best!”

Elliot Lawrence: “Everyone insisted I hire Tiny. He was a great, ego-free player and a writer who knew how to develop material in the most meaningful I way. His charts almost played themselves. Everything swung.

He and Buddy Jones, our bassist, laid down what felt like a new kind of time. It was light and flew along. It didn't feel like the band touched the ground. The band was marvelous and wanted to make a new statement. Tiny, Al [Cohn], Johnny Mandel, Al Porcino, Nick Travis—a whole bunch of wonderful guys—had so much to say. This was a band that wanted to roar every night.

Tiny and I were together the better part of four years, …. It was going so well for him. And suddenly he was gone.”

[All of the previous quotations excerpted from Burt Korall, Drummin’ Men, The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years].

© -  Burt Korall, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Burt goes on to give this overview of the prominent aspects of Tiny’s brief career:

“Norman "Tiny" Kahn, one of Brooklyn's major gifts to jazz, has assumed legendary proportions since his untimely death in 1953, at twenty-nine. The drummer-composer-arranger-pianist-vibraphonist-humorist was a natural— a musician who had great instincts and a well-developed sense of what worked best in every circumstance. Had he lived, he certainly would have had an increasingly meaningful career in jazz and very possibly in other areas of music as well.

His sudden death was most deeply felt in New York, where he did some of his best work. But the impact extended through the country to Europe, where his recordings with George Auld, Stan Getz, Serge Chaloff, Red Rodney, Chubby Jackson, and Charlie Barnet and Lester Young certainly had more than a passing effect.

Kahn is remembered not only for his talent but for his warmth and sensitivity as a person. He was liked by everyone. He didn't have an evil bone in his rather large body.

Music consumed his waking hours. All kinds of music. He listened, then analyzed and evaluated what he heard. He had his own concept when it came to drums. Outside of instruction with drum teachers Freddie Albright and Henry Adler, covering sixteen months in all, at different times, Kahn was self-made—as a drummer, composer and arranger, pianist, and vibraphonist.

His drumming made bands sound better than they ever had before, particularly during his last years when he had all the elements of his style in enviable balance. His time was perfect—right down the center. He wasn't too tense or too laid-back. Kahn had his own sound and techniques on drums and could be quite expressive, using his hands and feet in a manner that was his alone. Certainly not a technical wizard, he transcended his relative lack of technical ability by developing a manner of playing that not only made up for this but raised his and his colleagues' performance level.

His primary contribution as a drummer was the inspiration he provided, motivating musicians to feel good and give the best of themselves. He played a classic supporting role in small and large bands, bringing a small band approach and flexibility to his work. He concerned himself with giving players the security and the wherewithal needed to free them. Kahn had so much going for him that was not immediately apparent. You had to listen and listen some more before it became completely clear what he could do for music. Then the revelation came in a rush.

Kahn the writer gave you much to hear and think about. Often his compositions and arrangements practically played themselves. Musicians remember how easy his charts were to perform; they felt right for all the instruments and never failed to communicate and make a comment. His unpretentious writing mirrored his concern for expressing ideas in an economical, telling, swinging manner.

It was immediately apparent to all who knew him, as a kid in Brooklyn and later on as well, that Kahn had music within him. As he grew older and ad opportunities to share his views and ideas with others, he became a great source to the many musicians drawn to him. He was a leader without ever desiring to be one.

Kahn set an example not only when it came to playing and writing but i how he lived. While others turned to hard drugs, drink, and an underground life, he moved ever more deeply into music. His only harmful habit" was food. A food junkie, he ate often and excessively. His need and great capacity for food could well have been the basis for more than a few sessions with a therapist. Many of his close friends feel he would have lived much longer had he managed to deal more logically with this problem.

Tiny Kahn's life had unusual consistency. He immersed himself in music early and did everything he could to further his knowledge and under­standing of all of it. …

Kahn hung out where the music was happening. He got to know players and writers in all the bands. Many of his friends around town loved Basie, Lester Young, and Jo Jones — the Basie band of the 1930s and early 1940s. A little later, they became fascinated with the innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Bud Powell. They sought a rapprochement between the floating rhythm and musicality of Pres and Jo, the economy of the pianist Basie and the relaxed swing of his band, and what the modernists [i.e.: Parker and Gillespie] were doing. …

1949 was a key year for Tiny Kahn. He helped organize and rehearse the Chubby Jackson band, for which he wrote almost the entire library of arrangements. The band lingers in mind, even though it didn't last too long. Kahn played and wrote for the Charlie Barnet modern band that year. He also briefly became involved —because of Gerry Mulligan's strong recommendation — with Benny Goodman's bebop band. But the leader's peculiarities, when it came to drummers and things in general, negated a regular working relationship with the drummer-arranger. …

‘The Chubby Jackson band was the greatest band I ever played with,’ Kahn told Pat Harris. "The records give you a poor idea of how it sounded. Columbia didn't put as much effort into the record date as it could have - poor balance, etc. The idea seemed to be to get the date over as soon as possible. The band did ... the date before it ever had a job… .

The Jackson band had extraordinary impact for its size - fourteen piece - and swung with unusual ferocity. It really communicated! Kahn's charts were among the best examples of bringing together elements of bop and Basie. The soloists - tenorist Ray Turner, altoist Frank Socolow, trumpeter Charlie Walp - were unstintingly pulsating and creative. Kahn brought unusual life to the band from the drums. Jackson was a supportive, enthusiastic leader. He had all that was needed to make it. Unfortunately, poor business practices and the time [late 1940s] - which was notable for the decline of interest in big bands - denied the band the success it deserved. …

Swing Idol Charlie Barnet also hired Kahn in 1949 …. The Kahn-Barnet legacy is small – six Capitol recordings - … - 5 are arrangements by Manny Albam and the sixth is the imaginative ballad treatment by Kahn of “Over the Rainbow.”

All these Albam charts have a number of things in common: modern coloration, warm voicings, unfolding, developmental linear qualities. The rhythmic line provided by Kahn is uncluttered. His comments around the drums provoke yet remain a matter of telling simplicity. He's inspiring without disturbing the balance and forward motion of the band. …

Phil Brown, who replaced Kahn in the Stan Getz group in 1952., has an excellent grasp of what Kahn did as a drummer. He loved his playing back then and remains fascinated by it to this day.

Tiny was the first drummer to play matched grip almost all the time. He deviated only when brushes were called for; then he would revert back to the traditional/French grip in the left hand. Tiny was more comfortable with matched grip because his hands were on the fat side and he couldn't easily accommodate to the traditional grip in the left hand: the stick is lodged a fulcrum between the thumb and index finger and extends through the opening between the second and third finger.

Matched/timpani grip really worked for him. He was able to get around the drums more easily. His solos had their own sound because he used the tympani grip. Many of the guys performing back then didn't get the strokes  [Ed note: —in Tiny's case, mostly singles] to sound as even as Tiny did. He played some unusual things, and they were drummistic to a certain point without being technical.

What made him different? He let the time flow and roll along. He didn't play "four" on the bass drum. He didn't emphasize the "2-and-4" clicking sound of the hi-hat.

I got the best shot at him, in person, at the Showboat in Philadelphia, shortly before I joined Getz's band [Ed. note—Al Haig (piano), Curly Russell (bass), Jimmy Raney (guitar)]. I noticed he left beats out of his right-hand ride rhythm. It made it possible for him to rest, particularly on up-tempos, and add to the fluidity of the pulse. He was a precursor of today's rock drum­mers; they also skip beats in the ride rhythm.

To balance things out, he would comment with his left hand, on the snare or a tom-tom. He divided the ride rhythm while bringing into play other elements of the set. By breaking up the rhythm, he made the time more relaxed, more exciting and provocative. The way he used his left hand on the snare and how he played accents increased the rhythmic interest of his performances.

Some drummers said he played the way he did because he couldn't execute the traditional ride rhythm in fast tempi. But what he did was better, different. He was the first free drummer—in that he didn't strictly stick to playing time. What he thought and how he executed his ideas may have been dictated by lack of technique, but he proved necessity is the mother of unusual invention.

There was great honesty in Tiny's playing. He wasn't trying to copy. He wasn't into commenting on Max Roach or being like him. So many other people did that. He was just pure Tiny Kahn. He was one of truly great drummers. I'm including everyone in this comparison.

Tiny was the embodiment of a very singular time in jazz. He personified a generation of guys who grew up listening to Basic and Pres and then shifted a little bit to Charlie Parker and started to come up in the bebop world.

I was very conscious of the way Tiny sounded in Stan Getz's band and how effective he was. I wanted to see if I could perpetuate that tradition.

Others worked in this tradition. Osie Johnson is frequently mentioned as someone who took this manner of performance and brought to it his own vision. But Mel Lewis was Kahn's most widely listened-to disciple. He found himself within Kahn's style and enhanced and built upon it in a major way, emerging with something that had his stamp on it.

“My relationship with Tiny began when I came to New York from Buffalo with the Lenny Lewis band in the late 1940s. I heard and liked the recordings Tiny had made with Red Rodney for Keynote. We got together frequently. He came to hear me at the Savoy Ballroom. Soon after that I returned the compliment and went to hear him with the Boyd Raeburn band.

We got a chance to really talk during the afternoons we spent drinking egg creams on Broadway. I realized we liked the same drummers and the same sort of music. Apparently we were two of a kind. He even used low-pitched cymbals—same as I did. He tuned his drums in a highly individual way. I came to realize, by hearing Tiny, that I needed nothing larger than a twenty-inch bass drum.

Tiny was an innovator in so many ways. He brought a looseness and the improvisational feeling of small band drumming to the big band. I heard him every time I could. I loved what he did. He played great fills and lead-ins to explosions that kicked a band along. I must admit I even stole a few.”

My thanks to Eric Ineke for without his suggestion, I might never have looked into the creative brilliance of Tiny Kahn.  After reading about his story, is it any wonder that those musicians who knew him during his relatively brief lifetime were crushed by his untimely death?

Here’s a video which was filmed at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s 4-day East Coast Sounds May 30, 2010 concert of The Terry Gibbs Big Band Plays the Music of Tiny Kahn. The audio is Tiny’s arrangement of his original composition of Father Knickerbopper.

And this single slide video has an audio track featuring Tiny’s drumming that is taken from Stan Getz’s 1951 Storyville recording. The title of the tune is 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Kenny Clarke, No Flash, Man [From the Archives]

What would Drummers Rule Week be like without revisiting Kenny Clarke, The Father of Modern Jazz Drumming?

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

 “Of all the rhythm section instruments, the drums are the most difficult to learn from books and even records. With drums, you have TO BE THERE … one has to see and feel the music, more so than for other instruments whose techniques could more easily be assimilated by studying available recordings … .”
Dave Liebman, Jazz saxophonist and composer

‘He had one cymbal; it wasn't very big. We used to call it the magic cymbal because when somebody would sit in on drums and use his set, it would sound like a garbage can. But when he played it, it was like fine crystal. He kept the cymbal level like a plate and played with a short, side-to-side wrist motion. It was a very graceful thing to watch.”
- Dick Katz, pianist

“Kenny Clarke virtually invented modern jazz drumming, as the first player to use the ride cymbal for timekeeping and the left hand and right foot for accents, as early as 1937 when he was with the Teddy Hill band.

One of the top figures in be-bop's development, he is responsible in some way, shape and form for the way every percussionist plays today.
- Dr. Bruce Klauber

“What he did made the most complex things sound simple. This was his genius. He was an absolute monster. I loved him to death.”
- Grady Tate, drummer

For those of you with a literary bent, the “Flashman” allusion in the above subtitle does not refer to the Rugby bully in Tom Browne’s School Days, nor to the fictional continuation in the novels by George MacDonald Fraser of what may have happened to Tom after he was expelled from Oxford in disgrace.

Rather, it refers to Kenneth Spearman Clarke, who is almost universally acclaimed as the father of modern Jazz drumming.

In Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Bebop Years ,Burt Korall noted in summarizing a key element of Kenny’s style:

“… the Clarke-Boland Big Band albums – a laudable legacy – contains some of his most inspiring performances. Playing softer than most drummers in a large ensemble, feeding the surge, doing the work of the great accompanist he has always been, Kenny Clarke consistently proved that flash is totally irrelevant.

My early years in the World of Jazz drumming were pretty much as described by Dave Liebman in the opening quotation: full of observations and an incessant flow of questions to any drummer I could get within two feet of.

I mean, you gotta be young and very naïve [stupid?] to pump Stan Levey full of questions. Stan was a bear of a man who hated, and I mean absolutely hated, to talk about technique, basically because he was self-taught and very self-conscious of the fact that he was limited in “drum-speak.”

He shouldn’t have been because what I found out later from many other teachers who were a lot more conversant with the language of drums was that Jazz drumming can be learned, but it really can’t be taught.

Not surprisingly, as a young drummer, I was caught up in the flash associated with the instrument.

I mean, faster was better, louder was better. My motto became: “Play every lick you know in the first four bars of every tune.”

It got so bad that one night I inserted Art Blakey‘s famous press roll after the 4th opening note of the ballad, Laura, coming down with a cymbal crash on the 5th. It was a trio gig and the piano player got up and walked off the bandstand!

The man who saved me from myself and from inflicting any more of this kind of pain on others was Bill Schwemmer, a gracious and soft-spoken man, who somehow found himself in the role of my first drum teacher.

Bill was newly married and lived in a modest little house in Santa Monica.  I drove down to his place, set-up my drums and turned on the “flash.” After a few minutes, he signaled me to stop and to come and listen to an LP that he had on his turntable.

I didn’t touch the drums again that day.

The album was Walkin’ The Miles Davis All-Stars [Prestige P-7076;OJCCD-213-2].

After we had listened to the opening track, a 13:26 minute version of Richard Carpenter’s Walkin’, Bill asked me what I had heard in drummer Kenny Clarke’s playing and I responded that “He hadn’t played anything; he just kept time.”

Bill loaned me the LP and also his copy of Miles Davis and The Modern Jazz Giants [Prestige P-7150; OJCCD-347-2] and suggested that I try to spend as much time as possible listening exclusively to them.

He specifically suggested that I concentrate on Kenny Clarke’s ride cymbal beat.

Thanks to Bill, Kenny Clarke changed my life [and probably saved it, too, from irate piano players].

It was almost as though Bill had become a Zen drum master who had imposed a insoluble intellectual problem for me, kind of like the “What’s the sound of one hand clapping” or “What was your true nature before your mother and father conceived you” koans or riddles that Zen is famous for.

The quest to find a way to solve the riddle of Kenny Clarke has continually been with me since Bill Schwemmer first posed it and I have taken great delight over the years in finding how others have explained what makes Kenny’s drumming so special.

It does begin with Kenny’s ride cymbal beat which many have tried to copy, but very few have mastered.

Here are some descriptions of how other musicians perceived it, as well as, Kenny's special qualities as a drummer.

Jake Hanna [drummer]: “It sounds like a straight line—"1-1-1-1." But the skip beat is in there—but very light. The Miles Davis records with Kenny Clarke were the first things I heard where the rhythm section sounds as if it's airborne, Nobody's doing anything. Kenny puts his left hand in his pocket; the bass and piano also are into a sparse thing. And they're off the ground.”

Burt Korall [drummer, author]: “Clarke's right hand is truly blessed. Playing on a relatively small ride cymbal—very likely a seventeen-inch Zildjian—set flat, he makes magic with his wrist and fingers, and the time unfolds as naturally as a flower in spring.”

Dick Katz [pianist, author]: “I didn't really pay much attention to Kenny Clarke until one day in 1953 or 1954. I was riding in the car and a record came on the radio—a tune from one of the first MJQ albums. I damn near fell out of the car. I had never heard a cymbal beat like that in my life.

When we worked together at the Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village in 1955, I got a chance to see just how Kenny played on the cymbal. He held his arm straight, horizontal over the cymbal, and used this side-to-side wrist motion. The way he used his left foot also was quite unusual.”

Ed Shaughnessy [drummer, percussionist]: “A good deal of the time, Kenny closed the hi-hat lightly, four beats to the bar accenting "2" and "4" slightly. He was very skillful. It took quite a bit of control of the left foot to make it work just right. Kenny's time technique was in direct contrast to what most of the other drummers were doing. They closed the hi-hat hard, on "2" and "4," to push the pulse along. What Kenny did was quite sophisticated—remember, it was the 1940s.”

Interestingly, Georges Paczynski begins the second volume of his prize winning Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz with a feature on Kenny Clarke under the subheadings - L’Histoire de la Cymbal Ride and Un Art de L’accompagnement – two phrases which neatly sum up Kenny Clarke primary roll in Modern Jazz drumming.

Kenny Clarke’s approach to drumming was marked by “clarity, economy and unity of conception [Burt Korall].”  Kenny didn’t play the drums, he accompanied others on them.

Since so much of what was Kenny Clarke’s style of drumming was encapsulated, the editorial staff thought it might be fun to honor the memory of this pioneering musician with a series of short quotations by other Jazz players who worked with him over the years about his significance.

Perhaps, the place to start would be with the manner in which Kenny viewed his own approach to Jazz drumming.

“I never was a soloist. I thought it was stupid. I concentrated on accompaniment. I always thought that was the most important thing.  I stuck with that. And I think that's why a lot of musicians liked me so much, because I never show off and always think about them first.”

Jimmy Gourley [guitarist based in Paris for many years]: “I had a seventeen-year tenure with Kenny. He got a beau­tiful, musical sound on the instrument and played for the music, the soloists. He was the best drummer I ever heard or worked with. Just about everyone performed on a higher level when he was back there on drums. He locked in behind you, and his tempo remained unchanged from beginning to end. That's tough, believe me. You could count on him in every circumstance.”

John Lewis [pianist, on Kenny with Dizzy Gillespie’s 1948 big band]: “Clarke's head was really in the music, his senses very much alive. He hit hard with the band, enhancing its sound and impact. He danced and decisively punctuated on the bass drum. Openings in each arrangement were imaginatively filled. His conception and execution of what was central to each arrangement made for rare performance unity.”

As a participant in one of three influential Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions for Capitol, he played with a memorable nine-piece group—a miniature of the Claude Thornhill band—on Gerry Mulligan's "Venus de Milo," John Carisi's "Israel," John Lewis's "Rouge," and the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration "Boplicity." Clarke's work on this project—and many others during this period—brought together, in appropriate ratio, intelligence, emotion, and instinct. He quietly gave the music a sense of design and swing.

John Carisi [trumpet player, composer-arranger]: “The most important thing that Kenny Clarke did was to involve himself in the color aspects of drumming. Another thing. Kenny’s time was really something; you could sit on it! Keeping your own time wasn’t necessary. You just stayed with him.”

Walter Bishop, Jr. [pianist, composer]: “His name was one that rang among drummers. I was impressed by the way he conducted himself on and off the bandstand. He was my role model when I was coming up. There was something classy and very likeable about Kenny, his deportment, his image. Bebop and all who played it were struggling with image.”

Rudy van Gelder [recording engineer]: “I benefited from his expertise. He was so subtle, delicate, musical. He just knew how to hit the drums to make them sound beautiful and make life great for me.”

Billy Higgins [drummer]: “I really liked the sound Kenny Clarke got out of his instrument. He was not only an accompanist, he integrated the drums into music.”

Benny Golson [saxophonist, composer-arranger]: “The thing that was outstanding about Kenny Clarke was his ability to swing at any tempo. There are many drummers who are good time-keepers – but it’s not the same thing. I can’t conceive of Kenny Clarke playing and not swinging. It was an intuitive thing.”

Benny Bailey [trumpet player]: “He was a neat, clean player and if you hear him on record, you know immediately that it’s him. There are not too many drummers who are that identifiable.”

Ray Brown [bassist]: “As a drummer he was totally distinctive – you can always recognize Klook [Kenny’s nickname] immediately; his style and his sound were as personal as a human voice.”

Donald Byrd [trumpet player]: “Kenny was the bridge between swing and bebop. He was the first bebop drummer and a fantastic musician. … Kenny was the drummer who turned everything around. And his time was impeccable.”

Joe Wilder [trumpet player]: “The thing that impressed me most about Kenny was that he was one of the first guys I heard play a drum solo in which you could follow the melody; you could hear by what he was doing that he always had the melody in mind, and you could always tell where he was in the tune.”

Ronnie Scott [tenor saxophonist and club owner who performed with Kenny in the Clarke-Boland Big Band]:  “It didn’t matter what the tempo was, he always swung. He had incredible poise and a marvelous sound. You can always recognize that cymbal beat.”

Horace Silver [pianist, composer-arranger]: “Way back when, during an intermission break I asked him – “Klook, how did you get your style, the unique way you play?’ And he said: ‘When I was living in Pittsburgh, as a young guy I used to practice all the time with this bass player who kept telling me to stay out of his way. That’s how I developed my style because he was always on my back about staying out of the way.

Kenny Drew [pianist]: “Kenny had a fantastic musical concept and was his own special kind of drummer. His swing and the lightness of touch were his own. He could make music swing like nobody else and he had a feel for the dynamics that gave a great lift to the music.”

Milt Jackson [vibraphonist]: "He was one of the most swinging drummers I ever met. He had a perfect concept of swing – and that’s what Jazz is all about. When he played behind you it was inspirational – he made you play the best you possibly could.”

Pierre Michelot [bassist]: “I worked with Kenny regularly over a period of fourteen years. When we played together we achieved a kind of creative complicity that made it so satisfying. He would have this marvelous smile on his face and he would give a little wink from time to time to indicate – On est bien, on est heureux; tout va bien. [literally “It is good; it is happy; all is well;” figuratively “It doesn’t get any better than this.”].”

Shelly Manne [drummer]: “I can always recognize him, in whatever company, just by the sound of his cymbal. A true master.”

Gigi Campi [producer and organizer/sponsor of the Clarke-Boland Big Band]: “Father Klook – I called him that because there was always a reassuring, paternal element about his presence. He was so well-balanced – both as a man and as a drummer. He became part of the drums when he sat behind them. To me he was, by far, the greatest drummer ever. I don’t know anybody who could play the cymbal like he did.”

Francy Boland [pianist, composer-arranger and co-leader with Kenny of their big band]: “He was very special.”

Grady Tate [drummer]: “What he did made the most complex things sound simple. This was his genius. He was an absolute monster. I loved him to death.”

Over the years, my main observation of Kenny was that he was able to cut through the murky process by which a drummer and the horn players build a bond of mutual trust.

The currency of this trust is listening.

Jazz musicians need to believe that their drummer understands what they are doing, and that their drummer will do what’s necessary to help their individual efforts make a difference.

The drummer needs to live in the music, listen and contribute so that it feeds back into how the horn players hear each other.

While it can be awe-inspiring to watch technically gifted drummers spin their magic on the instrument, when it comes to laying it in there and making it happen, no Jazz drummer has ever done it better than Kenny Clarke. No flash, Man, indeed!

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is indebted to the following as the source for the above-referenced musicians quotations about Kenny: [1] the drummer world website, [2] Modern Drummer magazine, [3] Mike Hennessey, Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke, [4] Burt Korall, Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Bebop Years, [5] Georges Paczynski Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz and [6] Downbeat magazine.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tony Williams 1945-1997: The Unpredictable in Jazz Drumming [From The Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

To put it mildly, Tony Williams' drumming on Miles Davis' 1963 recording of Seven Steps to Heaven shocked the Jazz world in general and Jazz drummers in particular.

No one had ever played Jazz drums like that before.

Bar lines disappeared; solos stopped and started everywhere and anywhere; drums crackled, popped and exploded; cymbals splashed and crashed in unexpected places; the hi-hat was played on four-beats-to-the-bar almost as though it were being danced on; the metronomic pulse that underscores Jazz became heightened and unrelenting.

Tony pushed, shoved and pulled the momentum of the music unceasingly, almost unmercifully at times.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Pianist Victor Feldman, who was himself a master drummer, and who essentially wrote the title tune with a few additions by Miles, was scheduled to play on that date along with Los Angeles-based drummer, Frank Butler.

Although Victor and Frank did play Seven Steps to Heaven with Miles, along with Joshua, another original by Victor, and the other songs on the LP [Victor's arrangement of Basin Street Blues remains a masterpiece of re-harmonization] during Miles' brief stint on the West Coast in 1963, Victor was too busy in the Los Angeles studios [and Frank had other stuff going on] and didn't make the trip back to New York to record his two original compositions with Miles for Columbia [CL 2051].

Enter Tony Williams' stunning recording debut on Seven Steps to Heaven.

The rest as they say is history.

Drummers Rule Week continues as the editorial staff at JazzProfiles combines two earlier features on Tony Williams, one of the most unique drummers Jazz has ever had, for this "From The Archives" posting.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Though regarded as one of the greatest drummers in the 20th century, in many ways Tony Williams remains un-credited with his contributions to American music. Speak to his collaborators and the musicians he has influenced about his music, and you often hear what amounts to mysteries and fables.”
- Ken Micallef, “Bridge to the Beyond,” down beat, November 2008

“Tony Williams was only seventeen years old when he joined [Miles] Davis in May 1963 …. Williams was so young that Davis faced problems with authorities when he was booked to play nightclubs where minors were not allowed. But Williams compensated for his lack of professional experience with an excess of power, passion and creativity – indeed no other percussionist in the history of Jazz ever played so well, so young.”
Ted GioiaThe History of Jazz, p. 333.

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Tony Williams literally walked into my life.

To digress for a moment, during most of the decade of the 1990s, I lived in San Francisco, but I could have lived anywhere because due to a dispersed, national group of clients, I traveled a portion of every week, every year for over a decade.

For a variety of reasons, all bad, San Francisco International Airport is a horrible place for the business traveler. Delays and flight cancellations are the rule rather than the exception, so I frequently found myself stranded following business meetings.

Fortunately, I worked for a major firm that allowed me to stay in a hotel of my choice while the company’s travel agents re-booked my flight home for the following day [hopefully].

One such incident occurred in October, 1993 when a cancelled flight to San Francisco found me staying over at the Palmer House in Chicago.

Of course, every Jazz fan has heard about Chicago’s legendary club – The Jazz Showcase. Founded in the late 1940’s by Joe Segal, it’s tenure as a club that featured top Jazz groups rivaled that of Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in New York.

Although I was aware of its existence, I had never been there.  Being marooned overnight in Chicago one autumn night gave me the opportunity to do so.

When I asked at the hotel’s Concierge Desk if they could help with directions to the club, one of the gentlemen there looked up at me, gently smiled and in a wonderful accented voice asked: “Fancy short walk do you?” I found out later that it was a Yorkshire accent in which the use of articles such as “the” and “a” are dropped.

Now, October is generally an absolutely gorgeous month in Chicago weather-wise, so when I said I did, he continued: “Out front door of hotel, turn right down Monroe for block to Michigan Avenue, turn left, you’ll find it ways up on right in old Blackstone Hotel.”

Piece ‘o cake. Twenty minutes later I was in the beautiful lobby of the historic Blackstone with its aged, wood paneling and marble columns. I gather that Joe Segal had been forced to move The Jazz Showcase from a previous location and it was now housed in one of the hotel’s conference rooms just off the main lobby that had been re-fashioned for this purpose.

On the bill that evening was guitarist John Scofield who was fronting a trio that included Larry Goldings on piano and Hammond B-3 organ and Bill Stewart on drums.

There were more marble columns in the club area, in fact, these seemed so ubiquitous that they blocked a number of views of the stage. I glommed onto a small table off to the side of the stage with a perfect view of Bill Stewart [old habits die hard for drummers].

Just after the set began, someone was at my shoulder and pointing to the other chair at the table while asking: “Is anyone sitting here.”

I was so engrossed in watching Bill and listening to the music that I didn’t even look up to the male voice asking the question.  I just held out my hand in the direction of the chair and said: “It’s all yours.”

When the tune was finished, I looked over at my table guest, smiled and in a flash of recognition said” “You’re Tony Williams!” And he said: “Yes, I am, and you’re a drummer.”  “How did you know that?”, I queried. Tony offered: “The whole time you were digging Bill, your left foot was playing the high-hat on 2 and 4 and your right foot was feathering the bass drum on all 4 beats.”

And that’s how I met Tony Williams. He bought me a drink “ …for being kind enough to share ‘my’ table with him….”  I found out that, while he had been born in Chicago and was in town on some personal business, he too, lived in the San Francisco Bay area.

We talked about drums and drummers until Bill Stewart came by our table, and then all three of us talked about – you guessed it – drums and drummers.

When Bill left us to get ready for the next set, Tony shared how much he was enjoying writing for his own band and continuing his studies to expand his knowledge of music theory and harmony.

I had to confess that while I had been very familiar with Tony’s musical travels with Miles Davis in the 1960s and the group Lifetime in the 1970s, I had really lost touch with his career after that. 

He asked for my address in San Francisco and a short while later two Blue Note CDs that Tony had produced with his then current group, and for which he had written most of the music, arrived in my mailbox.

Later he sent me a copy of the CD Marvelous on which he appears with pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Dave Holland.

In the ensuing years, my world became professionally busier and, as it is sometimes wont to do, LIFE skipped a heartbeat and three years later in June, 1997 Tony was gone having died from complications following a surgery.

While working on the Davy Tough and Papa Jo Jones blog features, the JazzProfiles editorial staff began reflecting on who amongst contemporary Jazz drummers have been similarly influential in terms of setting trends in drumming styles?

The name that readily came to mind was Elvin Jones as elements of his method of playing have had a far-reaching influence of drummers such as Peter Erskine, Bill Stewart, Adam Nussbaum and a host of others. The way in which Elvin accented eight note and quarter note triplets and inflected them with the bass drum is everywhere apparent in the phrasing of many of today’s Jazz drummers.

But what of the influence of Tony Williams?  It’s there, but why is it harder to discern as compared with that of Elvin?  The answer may lie in Elvin’s predictability as compared with Tony’s unpredictability.

Although he would reconfigured them by beginning and ending on different parts of the drum kit, Elvin essentially played the same “licks” over and over again to create, what many describe as a “polyrhythmic” feeling or sound to his drumming.

With Tony, you never knew what was coming next; the licks and phrases were not repetitive so how could they be copied? How does one mimic unpredictability?

Instead of rudimental phrases, Tony Williams offered drummers a whole new concept of playing Jazz drums based around what has been described as “controlled chaos.” 

Tony underscored this tendency by making tempos sound “elastic” and by playing with intense swiftness and a pulsating forward motion.  All of these qualities became more pronounced in his playing as the years moved along.

The following description by Peter Watrous is an excellent overview of the elements and evolution of Tony’s approach to Jazz drumming:

“Early in his career he was the master of the ride cymbal. He liked a clean spare sound evoking the slight sizzle of fat in a frying pan, and often moved abruptly between light and cluttered textures. And in his swing, Mr. Williams was utterly committed. …

As part of the Miles Davis quintet rhythm section with Herbie Hancock on piano and Ron Carter on bass, Mr. Williams radically changed the way a band worked. In his hands, tempos were pliable, ….

Along with his band mates, Mr. Williams took group improvisation further than it had gone before, developing structural improvisations that made the form of a tune seem finally irrelevant to the music. Thirty years later, his early playing is still striking for its audacity; his capacity to listen, to hear within the group and augment the musical conversation, seemed unbounded.” [New York Times obituary, June 7, 2009].

Before moving on, let’s be clear about what type of drumming is being discussed here. This is not the unobtrusive playing-like-the-wind style of Jo Jones, or playing under a band like Davy Tough; Tony Williams drumming is pure, unadulterated, bombastic explosiveness.

In a 1992 interview he have to Bill Milkowski for the Modern Drummer, Tony stated:

“I like to play loud. I believe the drums should be hit hard.”

Maybe the reason that Tony’s style is so idiosyncratic is that he did not come up into the world of Jazz through the typical big band route.  And the reason for that is easy to understand because when Tony was growing up, primarily in the 1950’s, for all intents and purposes, big bands were a dying breed.

Perhaps another basis for the stylistic distinctiveness of Tony’s drumming is because it embraced the new, more complex Rock ‘n Roll that was just coming into existence as he was reaching his majority in the mid-to-late 1960s.

The infusion or inflection of Latin rhythms also gave Tony’s drumming another element of uniqueness in combination with other sources that he drew from outside the mainstream of the Jazz tradition.

As is the case with many creative young people, Tony was in-step with the influences around him; the influences of his time. His temperament seemed to prefer the inclusion of these seemingly disparate influences, rather than drawing lines or creating categories based around mutual exclusivity.

Given this process of development, Tony’s impressionistic and fiery timekeeping made an enormous contribution to the landmark series of recordings made by the Miles Davis Quintet in the late 1960’s including Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, E.S.P., Nefertiti and Filles de Kilimanjaro.

What was apparent in the 1960s was that Jazz was changing and, according to many, not necessarily for the better.  But this was largely the opinion of those Jazz fans who preferred the understated swing of the 1930s or the straight-ahead rhythms of the post World War II be-bop and hard bop eras.

The former group heralded the tap dance-like drumming of Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson while the latter group preferred the driving propulsion of Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.

Tony along with drummers of his generation and those that would follow, while certainly respectful and admiring of the technical ability of all these drummers, heard the music differently and wanted to incorporate other elements into their drumming in response to it.

Drummer Terri Lynne Carrington explains Tony’s significance this way:

“Every time I hear Tony I remember how great he is. It’s always fresh and amazing. Tony brought the drums to the forefront more than ever. He took from Roy Haynes and moved it forward in his own way. I hate to talk in absolutes, but he made the greatest individual personal statement on the instrument ever. His technique was incredible and he had the most important element – time feel.”

Put another way from drummer Peter Erskine:

“Words seem inadequate to describe his work with Miles, and how new it was and yet completely tied into tradition. … all of a sudden the drums were right in your face, the visceral reaction was that it was one of drumming’s biggest shots across the bow.”

And this from drummer Bill Stewart about Tony’s seminal recordings with Miles:

“One of the things I love about Tony’s playing in this period is his listening ability, his interaction and timing. He plays these interactive things at moments in the music that propel the music forward. It’s about the spaces he plays those things in…. The other thing that crept into his playing was using the hi-hat on all fours sometimes.”

These late 1960’s recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet on which Tony appears as such a dominant force are a dividing line of sorts for those Jazz fans who prefer the group’s from the period from 1955-1965.

In this later period, Miles continued to push forward and explore new areas for his music through the use of electronic instruments, primarily keyboards and guitar, percussion instruments that are played either in Latin rhythms [including the newly arrived bossa nova] or freely to add tonal colors and cross rhythms and by using rock beats.  Add to this what has been described as Tony Williams “scorched earth campaign” drumming, and it is easy to understand why those who preferred more traditional Jazz styles could become disenchanted with this music, let alone overwhelmed by it.

As drummer Billy Hart explicates:

“When Tony joined Miles … he had been a prolific young student under Alan Dawson. Tony had figured out the bebop guys, and that they were playing Latin from Dizzy and Bird’s interest in Afro-Cuban. Around the same time, the Brazilian thing hit. Tony had the advantage over the previous bebop drummers in that he could compare the Cuban vocabulary with the Brazilian. … Tony was in a position to use all incoming styles as part of his vocabulary.”

What super-charged all of this was Tony’s whole-hearted embracing of rock drumming and the manner in which he infused it into Jazz, especially of Miles’ Filles de Kilimanjaro and one particular tune on this album – Frelon Brun.

Drummer Lennie White details the significance of this turn of events as follows:

“Tony plays Jazz-Rock, not Fusion. The connotation is different. Added to this was another innovation in the way he got a whole new drum sound with his larger kit and the way played eight notes and back beats. Tony played grooves and beats with a Jazz sensibility. He played his grooves on the sock cymbal. He’s got Papa Jo Jones up top with his back beat stuff on the bottom with bass drum and snare, playing in between like a great Jazz drummer would. He’s playing the history of Jazz drumming, because he is comping. He never forgot his roots.”

In 1998, the year following Tony Williams’ death, the Mike Zwerin published a feature for www.culturekiosque.com entitled Tony Williams: Finding His Beautiful Vase in which he commented:

“He would not be who he is without those he learned from. It’s a matter on universality. As he learned technique, he also learned that the drums are more important than he is.

He compares the learning process to a dusty living room. You’re comfortable there, it’s home, but one day you see something in the corner that attracts your eye. You never saw it before. To get it, you have to move everything and clean the dust.  Williams cleaned and cleaned and found his beautiful vase. Improvising is about being able to clean your dust, to find the vase and to recognize that it is beautiful in itself.” …

An optimist by nature, Williams does not believe in the good old days. He will not hold on to the past, he can envision the days when he will no longer play the drums.

The drummer never stops playing back there – there are aching feet, ankles, thighs, hips and elbows. He cannot imagine himself doing that forever. Plus, he loves being in his home south of San Francisco, even when he’s staring at the walls.

P.S. All hats off to Tony Williams. RIP.”