That was in 1966 when I was six years old.
I remember seeing the Beatles on TV and immediately fixating on the drummer. Immediately thereafter I started fixating on persuading my father to buy me all of the Beatles’ albums. When I wasn't listening to these, I was at the dime store buying 10¢ rings and drawing pictures of Ringo’s drum kit and the Beatles logo in my school notebooks.
I didn’t want to just admire Ringo, though. I wanted to be like him, and I wanted to be a drummer. My father, divorced from my mother, encouraged me by buying me a drum set. My mother, undoubtedly irritated by my father, discouraged me by forbidding me to practice it, for the very reasonable reason of not wanting to get kicked out of our rental home for what she thought would be a passing fancy.
I continued to listen to and obsess over the Beatles until shortly after the White Album was released in November of 1968. Their music, it had turned out, had perfectly traced the social milieu of the youth culture of the 1960s: from innocent exuberance (early albums) to LSD-fueled creativity (Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour) to nihilistic burnout (White Album). Songs like Helter Skelter and Revolution 9 were more than enough to give a child nightmares. It was time to move to something different and a lot more innocent.
Fortunately for me, my best friend at the time had been forbidden to listen to rock by his parents, who instead directed him into the lighthearted music of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. I was certainly prepared to be receptive to this! This life-affirming music provided a perfect soundtrack to the remainder of my childhood.
Herb Alpert not only made a mark in music as a bandleader but also as the CEO of his own record label, A&M. Among the artists he promoted was the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. At age 12, I moved from the easy-listening pop of Alpert’s music to the pop-infused jazz of Montgomery; by 13, I had followed that musical bridge to the less-commercial jazz of Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard, subscribed to Downbeat Magazine, and, at a Duke Ellington concert, met a lifelong friend, jazz scholar Mark Gridley, who invited me to audit a course he was teaching, History and Styles of Jazz, at Case Western University.
These were amazing times for me. Jazz was still alive culturally, and jazz clubs like The Smiling Dog Saloon, The Theatrical, and the Easttown Motor Lodge were still thriving in my hometown of Cleveland. Thanks to my supportive and jazz-loving father, every week, from 1972 until the scene diminished around 1975, I was able to listen live to everyone from Earl Hines to Miles Davis. Each new listening experience, whether in the form of a new album or a new performance, was a revelation to me. My musical tastes, as well as my personal favorites, developed rapidly: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Keith Jarrett as bandleaders, and Paul Motian, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams as drummers. They remain my favorites, along with all of the music of my childhood, to this day.
While my friend Mark Gridley was teaching his course in jazz history, he was also in the process of writing what would become America’s top-selling jazz history textbook, Jazz Styles. I, along with several of his other students, became informal editors of this work. Eventually, I would become employed, at Mark’s request, by the book's publisher, Prentice-Hall, as the only editor. It turned out that I had a flair for both writing and analysis. At sixteen, I put both skills to work by becoming the jazz critic for several local newspapers.
By far the most memorable experience of this time was taking a day off from High school in 1976 to spend an afternoon interviewing Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, and Jaco Pastorius, members of the preeminent jazz band of the time, Weather Report. (I was also able to rope my friend Mark into this, which provided him an opportunity to further research his book. He, in turn, rewarded me with an unforgettable experience by taking me and Jaco out to dinner at a local health-food restaurant afterward.)
I’ve continued my writing on jazz since then, contributing articles to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and Percussive Notes among other publications. But despite my aptitude for writing about music, my real interest was to learn how to play it.
By 16, I was determined that I would learn to play drums whether or not I was allowed to practice them. I began lessons with Cleveland’s top instructor (and the former leader of the house band at The Theatrical), Bob McKee, while practicing on a nice, quiet drum pad for four hours a day after school. That summer, I got a job and used the money I earned to buy a Gretsch drum kit. My solution to being able to practice on it was to offer to paint my neighbor’s garage in exchange for the opportunity to use it as a practice space. By the time I graduated High School, I was practicing 8-10 hours a day.
My mother, impressed by my seriousness, and being something very close to an actual angel, finally relented and let me practice at home (the garage tended to get quite cold in the winter and quite hot in the summer). To this day, I can't begin to imagine how she or our neighbors were able to endure it, but I will forever be grateful to them.
Immediately before I was to graduate high school my dad somehow talked a local bar owner into hiring me as the leader of an as-yet non-existent band. Soon a beginning drummer was on the phone putting together a band of professional musicians. Amazingly, the night went well and was repeated weekly. I recorded a few of these gigs and used the recordings to go about hunting down further gigs, which, also amazingly, I was able to land at most of the top local jazz venues.
Cleveland, at that time, had a great local scene. There were true master musicians, a generation older than me, who I was honored to watch, learn from, and perform with. Without exception, these great musicians, who were my heroes, we're also real gentlemen who were patient with my shortcomings and encouraging of my talent. Despite my beginner status, they seemed happy to play in my bands and hire me to play in theirs.
Thus began my career as a drummer-bandleader.
I knew that I was extremely lucky to have the goodwill of my betters. But luck can only last so long, and my desire to match the maturity of the musicians I was playing with created an urgency to quicken the pace of my development. So, in addition to practicing, I began transcribing the playing of my drum heroes off of record albums, which I would subsequently practice until I could match the tempo of the original. But the essence of a great drummer can’t be fully grasped aurally; you also have to watch them play live. So when I wasn’t practicing, transcribing, or playing, I would be flying out to Chicago, New York, and Boston to see my heroes play live, preferably for a week at a time, and preferably sitting right next to them. This, rather than school, is how I learned how to play my instrument.
By going this route, I missed out on a lot of information that would have made me a better-rounded musician. But, on the other hand, I believe that I am the only drummer to accurately transcribe, and learn to play, some of the most intricate drumming ever recorded. (That was brought to my attention by Chick Corea, among other people, who remarked to me that he had always assumed that it would be impossible to notate Roy Haynes’ drumming on Corea’s seminal recording, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.) Furthermore, since my transcriptions were limited to music that I loved, so was my knowledge. Rather than being told by a teacher what to think, what to do, and who to admire, I followed my own path.
Over the years I’ve made a few passes at getting my transcriptions published, only to be stopped by the prospective publisher’s concerns about copyright laws. (Not concerning the drumming, which can’t be copyrighted, but the melodies of compositions that the drumming are recorded on—a bizarre legal injustice, since if there were royalties collected, they would be going to the wrong person.)
So to finally share them with the rest of the world, I’m planning on making PDF scans of them available for free on the blog of a website I’m in the process of redesigning and updating, DrummingPattterns.com.
Like most young musicians, for the first years of learning to play my instrument, I immersed myself in technical studies. As I became familiar with all the classic drum books, I noticed a baffling failure on the part of the authors to grasp obvious logical relationships among the technical and rhythmic patterns they presented. The accepted approach to learning drums was equivalent to learning to play the piano with no knowledge of scales, chords, or arpeggios. Most of the material, and its presentation, was chosen arbitrarily. It became clear to me that there was a grammar of drumming and rhythm that remained to be discovered and developed, so for the next few years, I set out to do it myself, and to self-publish what I discovered, in order to have control over the content and its presentation without compromise.
For several hours each day, I would work out the content and design of my book while simultaneously learning how to use the original MacIntosh computer. (At night, I’d play my gigs.) Given my ambitions, I had to find creative solutions to the limitations of software and hardware of the time, for example, by creating music notation one dot at a time using the primitive MacPaint software and smoothing out jagged edges with the “smoothing” settings on the original Apple laser printer. When the book was finally finished, I found a printer with an old-fashioned printing press, chose the paper and the ink, and had a thousand copies printed and bound. It was an incredible thrill to watch the pages the resulting 176-page book, Drumming Patterns, literally rolling off the presses in 1988.
While Drumming Patterns was very well-reviewed by the top drum and music magazines of the time, including Downbeat and Modern Drummer, and endorsed by several celebrities in the drumming world, because it was self-published and without a distributor in the days before the Internet, and because I moved to New York City within a few months after its publication, became consumed with survival, and lacked the time and resources to further promote it properly, it has largely remained undiscovered in the intervening years. It is only now that I have determined to present the book, and the concept underlying it, properly on the web, where I expect that it will finally gain the audience that it deserves. If you would like to learn more, visit DrummingPatterns.com (currently in the process of an expansion/redesign that will be completed in 2020).
By the late 1980s, I had established a great career for myself in my hometown. No longer a beginner, I was respected, had established three great working bands, and usually gigged several nights a week. During the day, I had the freedom to pursue fulfilling personal projects, like my book and transcriptions, while every evening I looked forward to playing the music I loved. But I had decided many years earlier that I had to take a shot at New York City before I turned 30, and in 1989 that deadline was looming. In March of that year, a few months before my birthday, I filled my car with as much stuff as would fit, and off I went to the Big Apple.
Sadly, the Big Apple was not exactly the “Gig Apple.” The same gig-hustling techniques that had served me so well in Cleveland utterly failed in New York. Within months, I was forced to put my computer skills to use in order to survive. For the next fifteen years or so, my main livelihood was as a temp, while my life-calling remained a struggle and a sideline. In retrospect, I should have stayed in Cleveland longer. (But not forever—New York, after all, has the greatest musicians in the world, and most of my favorites have become members of my bands.) Fortunately, two events would lead to things getting a lot better.
The typical way that jazz musicians like me who are not themselves composers lead their gigs is to perform the “standard” tunes that their sidemen already know in common. There are many of these, and they are fine tunes, but they get pretty stale over the years. One day, I decided I would never play any of them again. Instead, I decided that I would do whatever it takes to make every group I lead and every composition I play special. So I bought every single published book of jazz music on the market, then traveled to Brazil to buy a comprehensive library of the music of my favorite Brazilian composers, and then copied from all of these books every single composition that I found interesting.
These eventually formed an enormous stack, which I then organized into separate piles according to the lead instruments that best suited them: either piano, or guitar, or vibraphone, or saxophone, or trumpet and saxophone together. Those piles were then alphabetized and organized into multiple sets of books for the members of each band of each instrumentation.
As a result, the variety and quality of the bands I was leading suddenly increased dramatically. Now I had several distinctive bands, each with a unique repertoire of interesting and challenging compositions that weren’t being performed by any other jazz groups in New York City, and that were all tunes that I selected and I loved. Now I had something special and personal to offer. Many things, in fact! But where were the gigs?
A few years earlier, the Internet had come into existence, but the use of video on the Internet was still rare. But in the early 2000s, I chanced upon an obscure website that featured actual videos showcasing bands. What a great idea, I thought, and what a great opportunity! It was obvious that this would be infinitely more effective than trying to promote my bands with only sound files.
I wasted no time. My dad generously supplied the capital to pay a videographer to film all of my new bands, and to buy a new computer on which to edit those videos and create the website to feature them. This was cutting-edge stuff at the time; nearly no one before then that I knew of was editing videos on personal computers (they were barely powerful enough), and web design was still a new field. I had many more skills to learn but was eager to learn them.
It took me a while, but within a year or two I had created a website that was unlike anything else online. Now if I was cold-calling a presenter or a venue, I had a place on the Internet I could send them. Even better, prospective clients and employers started finding my site and calling me, a new and very welcome development!
Eight years ago I started a regular Sunday night gig at a wonderful venue called Hillstone. The catch is that they didn't want me to bring an instrumental band. They wanted a band with a vocalist. But not just one vocalist; many vocalists, rotating every week. I already knew one vocalist that I liked. But that was it. So I asked for recommendations from my sidemen for the rest. Eight years later, I’ve narrowed them down to the best of the best. These vocalists essentially become guest artists, accompanied by my bands. By now, between my instrumental bands as they are and with the option of adding these great vocalists as our guests, it seems like there is nothing much left that I can’t offer.
I would describe the present as finally having reached maturity. Maturity as a listener, maturity as a drummer, maturity as a bandleader, and maturity of my bands themselves; they have each been together for 10–20 years by now with the same core personnel, and are better than ever. I’m proud of each of these bands and proud to be associated with each musician that is in them. But I’m far from done. My next project is to shoot and edit all-new videos of every one of my bands. That means a lot of time, effort, money, and work that includes learning all of the latest video technology. But I can’t wait to do it, because the music is at its best now. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.