The Well is Deep-Part I

The drumming community is unlike any other.  Go to any drum festival, conference, or event and you’ll hear countless stories of the great drummers of the past and present sharing the tradition with younger players and how the art form has been passed down through the many great teachers.  There is a camaraderie among players of all levels that seems to go unmatched.

We are fortunate to have a wealth of inspiration and rich history to draw from.  So many beautiful players with unique voices, expressed through a vast array of tones emanating from cymbals and drums.  Drumming is unique in that one person’s sound is greater than the sum of its parts – it’s the combination of that person’s touch on the cymbals, hi-hat, snare, bass drum, and toms.  In this case, 1+1+1=4. When asked “what drummers have influenced you most,” I think all drummers would agree that the list is long.  When I think back on my development as a drummer, there are a couple that stand out like signposts.

I played in the school band from fourth grade through high school.  While in middle school, my band director said, “Check this out,” as he moved the needle over a spinning piece of vinyl.  When he dropped that needle, everything changed.  It was David Garibaldi playing on Soul Vaccination with the Tower of Power.  Drumming was already a huge part of my life, but now it was something I had to do.  At this point David had left the band and so there was little hope to ever hear this live.  Many years later, however, I got my chance to hear him with the Tower of Power when he rejoined the band for their 30th Anniversary Tour.

A couple years later, when I was in high school, I had the radio tuned to a regular evening jazz program.  It was a decent program, featuring a good number of different artists from various periods, the majority of which sounded very “safe.”  Then came a sound that grabbed my attention and moved me closer to the speakers.  It was like raw expression, unhindered and not smoothed out and polished for commercial appeal.  What needed to be said was more important than industry conventions and traditional forms.  John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was recorded in 1964 and featured Elvin Jones on drums, with his fantastic open, rolling sound that was as nuanced as it was powerful.  I was fortunate to catch him on a couple occasions and his sound, his movements and his smile are permanently seared into my memory.

Another signpost for me was a Miles Davis album recorded live at Philharmonic Hall, also in 1964.  It showcased the talents of another voice that has shaped jazz drumming.  A young Tony Williams, student of the highly regarded teacher Alan Dawson, was only 18 years old when this was recorded.  The tunes were split into two albums – all the up-tempo tunes were released as Four’& More and the ballads were assembled into My Funny Valentine.  These have since been combined and became available as The Complete Concert.  It’s impossible to summarize the influence of Tony’s playing.  I’ll just say this: he had a seemingly endless spring of well-developed musical ideas, and his phrasing and sound are unparalleled.

Peter Erskine’s appearance on over 500 recordings (not to mention an untold number of concerts, clinics, educational books, DVDs and more) has certainly cemented his place as one of the most influencial drummers of our time.  My first introduction to his playing came long before I ever picked up the sticks as my dad kept the Stan Kenton Orchestra in heavy rotation at our house.  I discovered one of the great drummers who occupied that chair years later when I heard 8:30 – a live recording by the legendary group Weather Report.  Peter’s time playing is beautiful, agile, amazingly expressive and full of creativity.  He has also graciously given me feedback as I’ve worked with Gary Chaffee to bring back his patented bass drum muffler.

And there are so many more.  I could share countless stories of how others have influenced me and I’m grateful for their passion and commitment to the art form.

Next time, we’ll look at some of the great teachers that have dedicated themselves to passing along the language to the next generation.  In the meantime, what artists stand out as your musical signposts?