Confessions of a U.S. Ethnic
Drummer (part 3)
MD: Can you go through the
decades and name the major "drum star" from each
SS: I guess the
earliest drum star... I don't know if you could
use the word "star" in the early days... there
probably were not any what we call "drum stars."
But from the early days of the drumset the
name that has really lived on is Baby Dodds.
Because he's on so many of the earlier
recordings with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong,
Jelly Roll Morton, his name has really lived on.
Baby Dodds was great player and he was involved
with a lot of important work.
also a drummer named Tony Sbabaro, the drummer
with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the group
that did the first jazz record in 1917. So his
name lives on because of that. There were some
drummers from the early days that bridged some
gaps, like Zutty Singleton. He played the early
New Orleans style but he played the swing style
too later on.
Then Chick Webb was the
drum star of the early '30s while Gene Krupa was
the drum star of the mid '30s, later '30s. In a
way, drum star versus influential... there is a
difference. Gene Krupa was influential and a
star whereas Baby Dodds was influential though I
wouldn't call him a star. Baby is probably more
famous today than when he was alive.
Other influential drummers in the '30s were Jo
Jones with the Basie band, the way he played
time, the way he played the hi hat was very
influential. And then another drummer that was a
bridge between eras was Big Sid Catlett. He
could play swing style but he also played bebop.
He played on the original version of "Salt
Peanuts" with Dizzy Gillespie. And he played
with Louis Armstrong. So he could play with
MD: I've seen
films of some of these guys and they're all
entertainers on top of being such great players.
SS: Right, with the looks
and the tricks. Very showy but still playing
great music. Yeah, the "serious" jazz musician
concept didn't really start until the '60s
with Miles and Coltrane. All of the jazz
musicians were also entertainers up to that
Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and all of the early
cats. Then in the '40s the guy that changed the
drumming concept was Kenny Clarke with the bebop
concept. And then right on his heels was Roy
Haynes and Max Roach, who were young but picked
up on his innovations, particularly the
syncopation between the snare drum and the bass
drum and really focusing on the ride cymbal to
And then I think the
influential drummers of the '50s in "popular"
music would be the players involved in the rock
'n roll thing...I know who a lot of those
drummers are now because I've done a lot of
research but most of them never got any credit
at the time because there was no Modern Drummer
magazine and they didn't get their names on the
There were a lot of studio
drummers that influenced the direction of rock
drumming but didn't get any credit at the time.
Now we know they were primarily jazz drummers
who were doing studio work like Earl Palmer, who
played on the Little Richard and Fats Domino
records, or Connie Kay, who played on the
original version of Big Joe Turner's "Shake
Rattle 'n Roll." Here was the drummer with
the Modern Jazz Quartet playing on a seminal
rock 'n roll recording! Panama Francis played on
a lot of rock 'n roll sessions. To me, one of the
greatest tracks he ever played was Dion's hit
tune called "The Wanderer," where he played this
really great shuffle with the hi hat (with his
foot) playing all the upbeats.
a guy who played with Lucky Millinder and Cab
Calloway in the 30s and 40s playing on a classic
rock 'n roll hit record. And then you have more
well known guys like D.J. Fontana as a big
influence in the '50s because he played on the
classic Elvis records and toured with him. You
also have to look at the other genres and talk
about guys like Fred Below, who was the house
drummer at Chess Records. He played on a lot of
hits like "Johnny B. Goode" and on some of the
Muddy Waters records. Buddy Harman was another
influential drummer during the '50s because he
was THE country drummer throughout the '50s.
MD: What about Art Blakey?
A lot of drummers I've interviewed have said
they were hugely influenced by him.
SS: To me he's associated with
Kenny Clarke. He was probably about the same age
as Kenny, he was older than Max and Roy so he
came along a little earlier. He developed the
bebop concept but he had a rawness that didn't
come along again until Elvin. Art had a drive
that few players had and I can see why people
point to him. But many times the influences are
who you are exposed to and I wasn't exposed to
Art until later after I had already listened to
a lot of Kenny Clarke, Max and Roy. I did get to
see Blakey play live and I loved him and his
band. Yeah, he definitely was a key player in
the bebop movement.
Also in the jazz
world in the '50s I'd have to say Philly Joe was
one of the most influential jazz drummers -- a
real amalgamation of Max and Kenny Clarke and
Buddy Rich. He really put so much of it all
together... the consummate modern bebop drummer.
And then once we get into the ‘60s things start
to get a even more dense because then you have
Tony Williams and Elvin Jones but you also have Ringo and Charlie Watts and later on Ginger
Baker, Mitch Mitchell and Bonham... all of these
guys who are hugely influential in different
And then you have all the largely
unrecognized studio guys from the '60s like Hal
Blaine and Gary Chester and in England Bobby
Graham, Clem Cattini and Brian Bennett. And
always throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s, Buddy
Rich was a constant presence as an inspiration
and drum star. When he started his big band in
'67 he transcended all age and musical style
categories and appealed to people simply because
he was so excellent. He played Beatles tunes, boogaloo tunes, rock tunes, jazz tunes, suites,
became a mainstream figure in popular American.
SS: Yeah, he appeared on
Johnny Carson's show and everyone went to see
him whether they were a rock drummer or jazz
drummer... they went to see Buddy Rich, drum
virtuoso and personality. And then in the '70s,
when Billy Cobham hit with the Mahavishnu
Orchestra he became the king of the hill in the
early '70s -- just out of nowhere.
that happen firsthand. What he did was a
revelation to me and most of the drummers of my
MD: And he
also physically altered the kit.
SS: He introduced a large kit and the
use of multi toms, the gong drum and double bass
drums. Even though earlier Louie Bellson, Keith
Moon, Carmine Appice and Ginger Baker and others
used double bass drums, it wasn't until Billy
Cobham used them that they became standard
equipment for all drummers, jazz/fusion drummers
or rock drummers. After Billy just about
everyone wanted double bass drums and multi
MD: He didn't get
the double bass drum going until "Birds of
SS: Right, and
then when he started touring with his own band
many people saw him with that huge kit, and that
really influenced a lot of people. Plus, he was
the first virtuoso matched grip player. Before,
matched grip used to get a bad rap. When Ringo
or Dave Clark played matched grip, people really
put them down. But Billy proved that you could
play matched grip and be a virtuosic player. He
innovated a lot of other things, like the
upside-down China cymbal.
thinks that's a standard way to play a China
cymbal but in the early days of Mahavishnu he
had the China cymbal like Mel Lewis would play
it with the big band, and then eventually he
turned it over and became known for that. Now
everyone plays China cymbals upside down.
And then there were all the other great
fusion drummers at the time like Lenny White,
Alphonse Mouzon and Mike Clark, who were all
essentially great jazz drummers but playing the
music of the time. You had Steve Gadd shortly
after, who again turned everyone around with his
concept. I think after Gadd it was the Linn drum
machine that became the new drum star of the
‘80s. After that, people were actually saying,
"Yeah, I want to sound like a drum machine." And
it has had a certain influence.
players like Dennis Chambers and Carter Beauford
and guys that play some really funky and
displaced hi hat things that were really, more
or less, conceived on a drum machine. Certain
writers and producers in the '80s would program
drum parts that weren't even physically possible
to play at that time, a drummer would've never
thought of playing those things. But then after
hearing the ideas and then sitting and working
with them for a while you figure out how to play
them, how to make that work. So the drum machine
actually had an influence on the vocabulary, I
think, because you get guys that can play like
MD: And isn't that
what drum 'n bass is currently doing?
SS: Yeah, they're trying to
play like machines, exactly. Guys like JoJo
Mayer, Zach Danzinger and Johnny Rabb... there's
a few of them who are really good at emulating
machines, but they also bring something to it.
They really bring some humanity to the whole
MD: It was
interesting to see in the DVD how you explained
the evolution of the kit from playing wood
blocks and cow bells to the cymbals and hi hat.
And then you get a cat like Sonny Greer who had
this amazing array of sound devices that he
would hit, and Chick Webb too. Maybe that's
coming from that pre-cymbal setup era.
SS: I think a lot of that had
to do with visuals as well. I mean, they played
great but some of it was for show. Sonny Greer
had the tympani and chimes, as things went along
he added more and more percussion, and it looked
MD: Maybe that's
what Cobham was hip to... a fusion era version
of Sonny Greer with Duke.
Or Neil Peart with Rush. He's got a big Sonny
Greer kind of setup too. John Bonham used to
have a couple tympani on stage. And it's
incorporated into the music but a lot of it, I
think, is for show. But you know I'd like to
clarify something here. The concept of running
through the decades and naming different drum
stars and influential drummers is interesting
and fun, but it definitely downplays the
contribution of so many other guys that have
been influential on their own terms or because
they influenced a more famous player, for
instance Alan Dawson, or players time has
forgotten such as Roy Porter or even Shelly
Manne to a degree.
That's the exact criticism that people have had
about Ken Burns' "Jazz," that he chose to focus
on "the great man syndrome" at the expense of
many other key but lesser known players who
helped shape the music along the way.
SS: Yeah, right. Like I
mentioned... Steve Gadd was a big influence. But
his concept is based on so many other people,
like Vinnie Rigerio, Bernard Purdie, Dave
Garibaldi, Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. There are
so many guys. It's a disservice to name just a
few and leave out guys like...
interviewed him! I have a video I can show you
of Sandy that will blow your mind! He is a trip,
MD: Well, he was
influential as an ambassador for drums in that
Oh yeah, '59 to '61... Let There Be Drums, Drums
Are My Beat, Teen Beat. He was definitely a drum
star. He holds a unique place in drum history.
He really is the ONLY rock drum star that wasn't
part of a band, he was a star on his own. He's
the one and only. He had hit songs with drum
solos in them that were like surf music and were
based off of Cozy Cole and "Topsy, Part 2."
Topsy was 1958, then a year later Sandy Nelson
came out with "Let There Be Drums"... almost the
same solo as Topsy but with a surf guitar as its
foundation. I definitely wanted him included in
the history of rock drumming project I'm working
on with Hudson Music, I found him in the desert
outside of Vegas. He's out in the middle of
MD: He's a
neighbor of Captain Beefheart?
He's out there too? Well, Sandy's there. And
he's not that old. He's only around 62, because
he was a kid when his success happened. His hero
was Earl Palmer. He talks all about it in the
interview. He wanted to be a session drummer
just like Earl Palmer. He loved everything Earl
ever did because Earl was making those records
in '49, '54, '55, '56 and Sandy was growing up
listening to the Fats Domino and Little Richard
records and living in L.A. and then eventually
Earl moved to L.A. in the late '50s. Sandy got
to meet him and that's what he wanted to do. But
then he got into the solo artist thing and had
some hits, so he went in that direction.
He had an inclination to have very creative
ideas and then he hooked up with a producer,
Richie Podolor, and he had his first hit in '59.
Unfortunately in 1963 he had a motorcycle
accident where he lost the lower part of his
right leg. He still made about 20 albums after
that and he plays the drums by putting his left
foot on the bass drum pedal and doesn't play the
hi hat. He wrestled with a lot of demons after
that and dropped out of the scene. But he's
still around and playing great, he has a
part of U.S. drum history.
Yeah, he really is. And when you talk to
drummers like Carmine Appice and drummers of the
‘60s, they all name Sandy as a big influence.
When they were kids, he had hits on the radio
and records in the stores with pictures of drums
on the cover. So he's really the first rock drum
star. He pre-dates Ringo by five years.
To take a detour from Sandy, I was just thinking
about something that has influenced the younger
generation that thankfully I didn't have to deal
with which is punk. Shortly before the drum
machine we had the punk influence. Basically in
1977 bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols
embodied an aesthetic of "you don't have to be a
good musician to succeed in music business," how
it was actually "hip to suck," hip to not really
know how to play well, as long as you played
with a lot of attitude. I never had to deal with
that when I grew up and I find that it confuses
a lot of young people, the idea that if they
study too much there's a negative side to that,
some people look down on really knowing your
instrument, really studying music and knowing
what you're doing. There's a pretty strong voice
that says that's not cool, that's not hip. This
is a confusing element and it's affecting the
quality of many of the young players. At the
time that punk came out it was very much a
sub-culture but at this point it's become a
large part of the predominant culture, with the
rise of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and bands like
that that actually took that punk ideal and
highly commercialized it.
That whole aesthetic has been absorbed into the
mainstream and it's almost a mistrust of
virtuosity, some kind of suspicion about craft.
It's almost like anti-virtuosity.
SS: It is.
And from that aesthetic sprang that whole stigma
about fusion music as being somehow evil.
SS: Yeah, right, that plays
in there also.
antithesis of punk... the highly crafted, ornate
Romantic Warrior type fusion.
Exactly. At this point I think the punk ideal
has been commercialized and it has lost it's
original energy and it's all industry driven
now. Instead of punk being a rebellion, it's a
commercial category. Punk isn't confusing to me,
I don't take it at all seriously. It was always
for kids that didn't want to do any work and
still participate in the music business without
being musicians. The punk idea is so silly I was
never influenced by it.
Because of when and how you came up.
SS: Yeah, it had come much
later after I had already developed a pretty
strong aesthetic and concept.
The whole point and aspiration of every musician
who came up in your era was to get better on
was. And it really transcended to all styles
too, whether you were a blues player, rock
player or jazz player, everyone was striving for
excellence. And the punk concept is a reaction
against that. I think it was born more out of a
backlash against the music industry and less
upon individual musicians. A lot of it had to do
with how the industry was promoting certain
types of music. It seemed like the backlash was
against that. But it definitely caused confusion
to the present day where it can seem as though
all you need is the baddest attitude and the
hippest tattoos and you can be a success in the
music business. And that may be true, but that
doesn't really relate at all to being a being a
There is confusion about
that because the media has to deal with the punk
musicians success. They have to justify it
somehow and say they are actually "good," which
is an oxymoron, a "good punk musician" back in
the late '70s that would have sounded ridiculous
-- the kiss of death to a punk.
drum industry puts these drummers in ads and the
young readers think they are good because they
saw them in the magazine. They do interviews and
they take themselves very seriously and the
interviewer has to say all these great things
about them so again the young drummer thinks,
"Oh, this guy is great."
But the problem
is the young drummer reading the interview
doesn't know the difference, he hasn't been
exposed to enough good music and good drumming
and he doesn't know the punk drummer really does
suck, but he is successful none-the-less. That's
why I say there is confusion for the young
players. Thankfully I didn't have to deal with
In my younger years the guys that
were drum heroes were actually great drummers,
it was before punk, before drummers were famous
and glamorized just because they are in a famous
band, before people confused fame with talent
and ability, before everyone had publicists
willing to say anything to keep their jobs and
before an overblown music industry that is
willing to say anything in it's advertising just
to sell more products.
Well, that punk attitude certainly did take hold
but then I felt like the pendulum was swinging
back a little bit in the '90s with bands like
Primus and Phish, where they were trying to do
something adventurous instrumentally. And I
think that may have spurred more people on to
wanting to play better on their instruments.
SS: Let's hope so.
[A break here and we watch a video clip of Sandy
Nelson at his home and "cave."]
MD: What were some of the other things
that you talked about with the master class you
just did at The Collective? Was it mainly about
technique or was it about life experience or
SS: I started off
by putting out the concept of being a U.S.
ethnic drummer instead of being a "rock" drummer
or a "jazz" drummer or some other sub-category
of U.S. Music. I went through that to give the
students a point of reference of how I think
about the drumset and the music I play. Then I
went through the rhythmic common denominator of
all U.S. Music...the swing pulse, the U.S. Beat.
I played my exercises with the bass drum and
hi hat playing the 3/2 2/3 rhythms. Then we got
into some of the technical ideas.
thing I got into pretty deep, which I didn't get
into at all on the DVD, is how people playing
rhythm evolved out of nature -- the natural
phenomenon of rhythm. I'll probably write about
it in depth in the book that I'll work on over
the next year.
Here is the idea: First of
all, let's look at why do we have 12 pitches, 12
tones to work with in music? The reason that we
have them is that they exist in nature. If you
got back to Pythagoras and how he discovered (as
far as the Western world is concerned) the
overtone series or what is know as harmonics, he
discovered that if you divided a string by
2/3rds you get the fifth (or the dominant). If
you divide that dominate by 2/3rds you get
another fifth, and so o; what we now call the
cycle of fifths. You go through the cycle of
fifths until you come all the way around again
to where you started, let's say you started at
C, you end up at B# and you've played 12 notes.
In those days the B# was a different note than
C, but after the scale was tempered they became
the same note.
The Western world
developed harmony so eventually the scale was
tempered so we could play chords and play in all
the keys on one instrument without retuning
between songs, in nature as you continue up the
scale the notes are sharper and sharper. The
twelve tone tempered scale is a man made
creation based on the fundamentals present in
nature. So the reason we have 12 tones is
because they exist in nature, they were
"polished" by man, but they are not an arbitrary
The reason that we have rhythm
is based on the same phenomenon -- rhythm exists
in nature as a result of the overtone series.
What is a pitch but a vibration that occurs at a
certain speed? A440 means a sound pulsing at 440
beats per second. If I could play 440 beats on
the snare drum in a second, it would sound like
the pitch A440. If you slowed that down, you
will start to hear the pulses present in the
overtone series. That's rhythm.
the same as pitch... but slowed down. If you
speed the pulses up fast enough you get radio
waves and even faster they become light. As you
slow the pulses down, you hear them as pitches
(well, the pitches us humans can hear) and as
you slow them down more they become rhythm. You
can slow them down even more but you can't keep
track of them unless you have a watch or a
With the overtone series first
you hear the fundamental, next you hear the
octave, then the fifth above that, then the
fourth above that, then a major third and a
minor third above that. When you slow them down
to a point where you hear them as rhythm, the
fundamental is beat one and the octave is twice
as fast. So you have "one" and then the octave
being twice as fast is "two over one" which is
basically "one" and "two." The fifth vibrates
one third faster than the fundamental, which is
"three over two," then the fourth above that is
another octave, which is four times faster than
the fundamental, it's the rhythm four over
three. And the major third is five over four and
That's why we have what we call
quarter notes, triplets, 8th notes, 5's, 6's,
7's, etc. again they are present in nature. But
they are not tempered, that is why African
drumming sounds so loose and funky to us. But
our Western ears are now becoming used to the
sound of "Tempered Rhythm" which is what
quantizing and having "perfect" time is all
about, tempered rhythm.
In the master
class we talked about this phenomenon, that
rhythm is essentially and naturally polyrhythmic
because it occurs that way in nature. The whole
concept of linear drumming is an intellectual
fabrication. It doesn't exist in nature.
Polyrhythmic pulse exists in nature. Or
polyrhythm is vibrations slowed down to the
point where they appear as rhythm and since
harmonics are multi-layered, they sound
polyrhythmic. So it's a natural principal that
rhythm and pulse is polyrhythmic... that's why
African music developed the polyrhythmic base
that it did, it was just a response to nature.
It wasn't a fabrication... "Ok, we're gonna play
three over two here." It's just the way pulse
is. It's the way vibration and frequencies work.
When we look at all the music that was
derived from the African diaspora, it's
essentially all polyrhythmic. The foundationary
rhythms are based on the most basic polyrhythm
that exists in nature, three over two... the
polyrhythm of the perfect fifth. So it all makes
sense. And we U.S. Americans have our
interpretation of that, which is the swing
rhythm. The Afro-Cubans have their
interpretation, which is clave, just as the
Brazilians have their interpretation of it and
the Africans themselves have their own
interpretation of the same phenomenon.
talked about that idea. I do demonstrations of
that on the DVD but I don't get into the theory
behind it. Paul, Rob (the DVD producers) and I
thought that was a little too much, but I may
pursue that in the book. Efrain Toro is the
person who has deciphered this mystery for me. I
had already derived that the nature of U.S.
pulse was polyrhythmic, the 3 over 2 polyrhythm,
but Efrain was the one that put the harmonic
series into the equation.
Howard Levy had
deduced that as well, independently, and he
talked to me about it a few years ago, but at
the time I didn't "get" it. Since then I did
some more research into the actual mathematical
equations of the perfect fifth, perfect fourth,
major third and minor third, etc. I could see
that they are mathematically the same as what we
learn rhythmically when we study music. It's
about whole notes, half notes, triplets, quarter
notes, fives, sixes, sevens, eighth notes, and
so on. It's just another way of going up the
But the interesting thing
to me is that it all happens harmonically, not
linearly. It all happens at the same time so all
the rhythms vibrate simultaneously and work
together. That's why jazz works, and that's why
the early rock and roll rhythms worked. You had
somebody playing the three and then the two on
top of that. Straight eighths over swing is just
two over three, it works because it occurs in
MD: And you
build up vertically from that... like Dixieland
or Ornette's harmolodic theory.
SS: You'll have to figure that one out.
But I think it's interesting to point these
ideas out because it helps one's point of
reference as to what's important to focus on.
And so it takes polyrhythm out of the concept of
the intellect and puts it into nature.
MD: It's not a fabrication,
it's an organic connection.
Yeah, the idea that rhythm is not flat, that
rhythm is multi-dimensional, multi-layered.
Because it's especially mysterious and
problematic to players that are younger and have
grown up with the click track as the measure of
time, it seems like they learn patterns and then
they play the patterns in time to the metronome,
which is not the concept I'm talking about...
the concept being that you develop a pulse
that's based off of polyrhythm and like I point
out in the DVD, time is simply keeping the pulse
steady. As U.S. drummers the polyrhythmic pulse
I'm talking about is the swing pulse, all of our
music is based on that. You have to have a good
feeling swing pulse in order to have a good
feeling foundation to the music. And then, OK,
great, you want to keep that perfectly in time,
OK, we'll do that. But that's different than
just working on time, just trying to keep
patterns even. That concept won't have the
depth, the feel that you would get if you
approached it from pulse.
Like Rashied Ali or Milford Graves, whose
concept of playing is based more on pulse rather
than on metronomic time value.
...Just an energy that's flowing forward.
MD: There's a surging pulse
to their playing that defies the concept of bar
lines or metronomic time values.
SS: Yeah, and that reminds me of
something. I did a record that hasn't come out
yet...it's called Yo Miles! with Henry Kaiser
and Wadada Leo Smith. We did a studio
record...actually it's two double CDs. Henry
Kaiser needs to get a record deal for it. We did
it over a year ago and he still hasn't gotten a
record deal for it.
We did some live gigs
and we spent five days in the studio. Greg Osby
plays alto on it, the guitar players are Henry
Kaiser and Mike Keneally, Michael Manring is on
bass and Zakir Hussain played tablas on it. Karl
Perazza is on percussion, John Tchacai on Tenor
and Tom Coster on keys. It's really great, in
fact it's killing! Wadada is coming out of the
free jazz thing, as is John Tchachai. And one of
the pieces we do is completely free, so I was
playing what I thought was working and they came
over and said that it wasn't working and gave me
some direction. But the direction was... and
somehow I really got it... they said, "It just
needs to feel like water flowing in a river down
the side of a mountain. Just keep the momentum
happening so it feels like it's flowing and
moving forward. Just keep that underneath and
we're gonna play on top."
want any time, they just wanted a certain kind
of activity that felt like forward motion to
them, like this stream coming down a mountain.
And I was able to come up with something that
felt like that. I applied a bit of drum
technique to it, splashing the hi hat, playing
some fast rhythms on the cymbal and keeping the
left hand moving on the snare drum... trying to
get to what they were talking about. We ended up
recording it and it came out really nice. But it
was interesting how they described it to me.
Actually in January I played a duo gig with
Wadada, just trumpet and drums. It was very
unique and musical, he has the most interesting
charts, they look like art, you could hang them
on the wall! But they are more like "maps" that
you follow where he has sketched out the
geography of a piece of music -- very
description is very much like what Milford
Graves talks about the concept of his playing.
And when you talk to Rashied, he'll tell you, "I
got all my shit from Philly Joe." He felt that
Philly was free within the bar lines, coming up
with creative ways of dealing with time
erratically, cutting up the beat. And Rashied
took that idea and ran with it...took the bar
lines away and got deeper into time displacement
until the water was streaming down the mountain,
you dig? The pulse flowed from the beginning to
the end of the song, and he credits Philly for
opening him up to come up with that concept.
SS: Yeah Bill -- this is
all very interesting -- we're getting into some
deep shit here!!!
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