Hosted by Les Tomkins in 1964

Tomkins: To kick things off, here’s a talking point: Drummers tend to get known for fulfilling a certain function; one is a “jazz drummer”, one a “session drummer”, one a “show drummer”, and so on. Is this kind of pigeon–holing welcome to you?

Morello: In the first place, drummers are known to be a race on their own. They seem to make a point of meeting and discussing things more than other instrumentalists. As for the pigeon–holing, this all depends on the situation. Many prefer not to be jazz drummers. They go to school and learn mallet instruments; they go at it from a different approach. The person who is known for jazz drumming—this is what he wants to do. Not with the intention of making a lot of money, because there isn’t that much money in jazz music. He wants to express himself. The other drummer is content to play exactly what the leader wants, whether it be a Mickey Mouse/ rock ‘n ‘roll thing, or a Viennese waltz, with brushes, with rolls or with sticks. He’ll do it—he’s flexible enough. Whereas the jazz drummer channels his energies mainly towards improvisation and self—expression. I think there’s a need for both. And some of us are capable of doing both reasonably well.

This is good, too—but you can’t be a master at both, or a slave to both. Jazz drumming requires a certain amount of specialisation. You have to live it, surround yourself with it. It takes a lot of jazz listening, and a lot of work, to attain this complete freedom. Phil—you know what I mean.

Seamen: Yes. The trouble in this country is that everybody wants to be a jazz drummer. I say to some of these guys: “Look, not everybody can play jazz drums. You might make a good teacher, or a good straight man, or a good session man.”

Morello: It’s true. Even the rock kids want to play jazz—but a lot of them can’t, like you say, You have to develop a feel for it.

Seamen: But I will say this: we do have some drummers with the ability to cover a lot of ground, but playing it in a jazz way—as against the straight players. People in the States like Chauncey Moorehouse, even though they’re legitimate musicians, can make the beats bend more than our straight men can.

Morello: Sure. You can play all the notes, but it won’t come out the same. You could play the identical cymbal rhythm to Kenny’s, but yours will sound different to his.

Thompson: There’s lots of session drummers that can read well, and play all types of difficult parts. But when they play jazz, they don’t get the feel that a proper jazz drummer would get. And that feel is very important.

Morello: I’m glad you brought up reading, because a lot of dyed–in–the–wool jazz drummers can’t read. They’re not that flexible.

Thompson: And, I think, if they could read they wouldn’t be good jazz drummers.

Seamen: Excuse me, but—rubbish!

Thompson: There are a few drummers that have that feel—and read. There’s two in the room now.

Morello: These are the people that can really make it—the guys that can apply a good jazz feel to anything. You can make a polka swing. But the non–readers that I’m familiar with don’t want to do anything else. They’re content to play in one groove.

Thompson: Exactly. If a jazz drummer has the need to read any time, he always finds it doesn’t swing half as much as when he’s not reading. He’s impeded, because he’s trying to concentrate on sight reading.

Seamen: No, no, no. I like to see an arrangement in front of me, because I know where the stops and starts are and, boy you can go! Any time.

Clare: You can look at the part, and know exactly where you’re going. I did a night with Duke Ellington and it was sheer murder. No parts! I had to feel very carefully.

Seamen: It’s not like a small group down a club; it’s obvious you’ll get more freedom there. But when you walk into a studio, as Kenny will agree, it don’t half help when you’ve got a part there, and you can see where your solo is.

Morello: But still, everyone can’t be that flexible—so God bless the man who does his one thing right. Respect him for it. You can’t blame him if he doesn’t want to do studio work. It’s not only reading—you have to be able to interpret the thing. And do it quickly. A lot of drummers wouldn’t be interested in doing this. With me, I love to read—whenever I get the opportunity. And, of course, with this visual problem that I have, it’s a challenge to me. I pride myself on being able to read anything that I can see.

Clare: Studio work is always a challenge. Fitting–in can be hard. You’ve got to swallow your own personality completely.

Morello: Like I say, you have to want to be able to please the leader—otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it. But a lot of drummers go into the profession with the idea of becoming studio musicians. And they never did acquire a swinging feel. Probably they never had or wanted one. It’s strictly a business thing with them. They can keep time—but, as we all know, there’s a difference between keeping time and generating a good feeling. They’re very capable—but they couldn’t swing anything if you hung them from a rope!

Clare: But even in jazz you need this ability to fit in. I mean, you wouldn’t accompany Stan Getz the same way you would Johnny Griffin. It’s a different field completely, but you still have to compromise.

Seamen: Yes, I agree with you, inasmuch as you’ve got to bend. That’s a matter of flexibility. On the other hand—you listen to Kenny Clarke. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing with—he’s always Klook. And he’s booked because they know that he will produce a certain sound.

Clare: Sure, but if the soloist who was doing the date hated that kind of sound…

Seamen: Then he wouldn’t have Kenny Clarke.

Clare: Agreed—if you’re somebody like Kenny Clarke you’re expected to play. But a rhythm section is supposed to accompany a soloist, and unless the guy feels good when you do certain things, you don’t do them. You don’t want to hang him up. And, in this country, when Stan Getz comes over and doesn’t know who he’s going to get on the date, he’s got to try and tell you what he wants.

Seamen: All right—now you take three front–line men. Stan Getz plays what I call seductive music. Johnny Griffin really lays it down—he’s a little monster. Sonny Stitt is another ‘whanger’. They don’t change their way because they’re playing with a drummer—we’re not asking them to. But the point is—what the drummer plays during the set either takes away from or adds to what this guy is doing. Basically, though you may broaden your scope, you must remain within your own style.

Clare: I think you can be yourself as much as you can, but you still can’t overdo it. It’s no good, if you’re going to work with Stan Getz, to go crashing away as if you were making like Art Blakey, for example. Because he’d just dry up.

Morello: No, he wouldn’t like that. One player will like a delicate, straight rhythm, and won’t want you to play ‘hot’. Somebody else—such as Sonny: or Phil Woods—is right up on the time, and you can just goose the whole thing right along. You can play full, and they’ll love it. Naturally, it’s got to be done in taste, or it’s pointless. Within reason, you should only do what he finds acceptable.

Dougan: Who wants to listen to the drums playing on their own? When you work with somebody you’ve got to join in exactly with what’s going on.

Morello: But without losing your own identity. I’d hate to bend to the point where I’m a complete idiot. However subdued I played, I would still have to do my own thing, to a degree. I mean, I don’t play with Dave’s group the way I would with another group, but I have freedom.

Dougan: What I’d like to see, Joe, is you appearing for a spell at the club. Then we’d see how you play with Ronnie Scott, and whatever other British artists were brought in.

Morello: I’d love to do that. But when you start playing these fast tempos—I used to do them. What I’d do is play ‘em in half!

Thompson: Joe, there’s something I’d like to ask you.

Morello: Go ahead. Incidentally, I enjoyed your radio show I heard (with Billy Cotton). I really did.

Thompson: Thanks very much. The question is—what do you think of Buddy Rich? I was on the Queen Mary for two years and I heard him about ten times.

Morello: Okay. Let me ask you. What do you think of him?

Thompson: He’s the greatest soloist I’ve ever heard.

Morello: Well, if you think he’s the greatest soloist—in your mind that’s what he is. It’s as simple as that. Now, I know Buddy very well. I’ve grown up listening to his things. I’ve practised with him, sat in with his band at Birdland. I feel he’s a very close friend of mine. And I think he’s a genius on the drums—a fantastic drummer. What I admire most about Buddy is the way he constructs his solos. I’m not completely overwhelmed with his speed, or the technique, because there are several drummers that have a lot of technique. In fact, technique doesn’t gas me that much. On its own it’s worthless—it’s how you use it. Just to rattle off a series of single strokes at some God—forsaken speed is nothing, if it doesn’t have a pulse and a meaning.

Now Buddy takes these different rhythms, and he has such control of the instrument that he can do pretty well what he would like to do with them. If he hears a rhythm, he can play it—and most of the things come off very good, in his style. And as a person he’s great. We’ve always respected each other. He’s been very nice, very encouraging to me. But would I like to play like him? No. I’m probably influenced by him to a degree, because I’ve listened to him for so long. But I don’t hear it his way. So I’d be a fool to pattern myself after him. There are drummers in the States who have wasted a good deal of their time, copying every Buddy Rich break or lick they’ve ever heard. And they’ve all ended up in his shadow.

Years ago—when I was about 18—I used to copy things I heard. Fortunately I can hear rhythms fairly well. When drummers were saying : “My God, what is that?”, I’d say: “This is what it IS”, and I’d play it. Today I listen more to the overall music, rather than just hearing drums like I used to. But in those earlier years I realised that I had to express myself—not go through life playing yesterday’s news.

Dougan: I think you can say that about practically every guy in the business that’s got a reputation. You don’t play like Buddy Rich.

Morello: I haven’t had his experiences, his hardship. I don’t have his mentality. We’re different temperaments. Now, this has a lot to do with playing. It’s the make–up of the character that comes through. If I’m feeling bad, I play lousy. And then kids will come up and say: “Boy, you sounded great! ” And you can’t say: “No I didn’t”, because then you’re insulting their intelligence. So you say: “Well, thank you”, and walk away and cry! Then at times—very rare—but I’ve walked out of a place and thought: “Yeah—I set something down.” One of them was on that Carnegie Hall concert—the drum solo there. I happened to be lucky, and I thought it was fairly good for the little nonsense that I do on drums.

It was one of those nights where everything came off. Everything was just rolling out. No worrying about it. One of my biggest things is that I do have a little facility—but I hate what I play most of the time. Because I hate to go racing around the drums—this is a bug to me. You know, bass drums and cymbals and everything. That’s just an escape. Thank God I can do that. if I’m really hung up. But I’d rather play one note and have it mean something.

Dougan: You do have the advantage, Joe, of having played mainly concerts in the last few years. But we don’t play a lot of concerts, and when we do we’ll probably play three tunes. And, in those three tunes, you’ve got to put down what’s expected of you. So you’re liable to play safe, and just try something that’s within your capabilities. As Joe says, it’s rare that you get on a concert, and it’s like playing in the best place you’ve ever played in your life—and it’s the best eight bars that’s ever come out. This happens rarely.

Morello: You see, I prefer spontaneity in playing. And surprise.

Clare: This is the great thing about Buddy, isn’t it—the surprise element? This is why you could never copy these people.

Morello: You can listen to the record, and work the tricks out.

Seamen: Yes, but you put ‘em together, man—sounds entirely different. I went over to France for a holiday, before I’d ever met Kenny Clarke in person, and I missed him for a few days. I heard a whole heap of French drummers and I thought: “Something’s wrong here”. I soon found out what it was: they were all trying, not only to play like Kenny Clarke, but to tune their drums like him. Kenny used to get the dead needle. He’d say: “Use your own brains, man! Don’t pick mine.”

Clare: Don’t you think it’s the same in this country?

Seamen: No, here it’s trial and error. The way I learned personally was: right, wrong, right, wrong, wrong, right.

Thompson: I was fortunate enough, when I was on the Queen Mary, to hear the Americans in their own field. And it was really something. That’s the only way you can really learn.

Dougan: But I’ve heard a lot of bad American drummers, too.

Seamen: And when they’re bad—they’re bad, man.

Thompson: No, I was in New York. I mean the top men. Just in Birdland.

Morello: Listen, jazz is not restricted to any one race or nation. You can be in Batavia —if you can play, you can play. It’s the only art which we can say is truly American, I suppose—which was given to us basically by the Negro, and so on. But, you know, this is the thing that’s going on m the States now—that white musicians don’t get the true jazz feel. This is wrong, in my opinion. Then you have the argument that, if you listen to a record, you can hear if it’s a white or a Negro drummer. Yes, you can tell, to a degree. But, I don’t know—I know some white drummers who can play pretty funky and down home.

Seamen: Look at Tiny Kahn, Dave Tough—just to name a couple.

Tompkins: Well, as you know, I do Disc Discussion. And white have been mistaken for coloured, and vice versa, many times.

Dougan: I had a good example of that, not long ago. I was fooled myself. I went to a party one night, and they had the record on that Jimmy Witherspoon made with Ben Webster and Gerry Mulligan (“At The Renaissance”). And it was Mel Lewis on the drums—and for a while I was completely mystified. I’d never heard Mel play like this. Jimmy was singing the blues, Ben was blowing and Mel was weaving and strutting. He really was. It didn’t sound white to me at all, if you want to differentiate between one and the other. It just sounded very good to me.

Morello: Oh, Mel’s a very good drummer.

Dougan: And also, if we’re on this subject, as far as I’m led to believe, through speaking to the guys in the Ellington band. Duke thought that the sun shone out of Louis Bellson’s eyes. And he has never replaced him, as far as he is concerned.

Seamen: Count Basie said the same thing about Buddy Rich, that it’s the only time the band has swung.

Dougan: I thought Louis was marvellous with Duke. Not that any of the other guys were bad, but when he was there it sounded like a different band.

Morello: There’s an example of a real clean drummer. A musician. Fantastic technique. Now this guy has probably got the fastest pair of hands I’ve ever seen in my life—outside of Billy Gladstone, but we’re not talking about legitimate drummers. And Louis is the nicest guy. He’s not forceful. Again, this shows up in his playing. You know, Buddy is like: “Here it is—blap ! ” Louis is something else, man. Take away that other bass drum and this cat’ll wail just the same. If he wants to. But Louis now is interested in other things—he writes, he’s arranging, producing shows. He’s still a drummer, but he’s going for a bigger objective. Louis can write for a symphony. He’s studied this with various people. He learned about voicing, and so on, from Strayhorn when he was with Duke. He’s beautiful. But as for Buddy Rich—if you want to see him really settle down—the best he’ll ever play is when he gets with Basie. He doesn’t mess about, because he respects that band.

Dougan: But, to revert to the nationalistic aspect, I’d like to say this: I do think that the young guys in this country, apart from listening to people like Joe, should also listen to the top drummers here. There’s a lot of guys putting a lot of good things down. They should listen to them all, and not dismiss anybody because he happens to be British. Everybody’s got something to say, and we all say it in a different way.

Clare: It’s getting better, but even now, in this country, they don’t want you to be yourself.

Seamen: You must bear in mind that over here, you pay a drummer, or any musician, a compliment—and he thinks you’re taking the Mickey out of him.

Clare: Well, that’s only the British approach, isn’t it? But when a kid comes up to you and says you sound like Max Roach, you don’t thank him for it. But that—to him is the greatest compliment he can pay you.

Thompson: That’s true. These days they don’t think about what you’re doing—just who you sound like.

Clare: And, to be accepted, you’ve got to sound like one of the top–name American drummers.

Morello: Okay, let’s get to the bottom of this, then. You’ll all agree that the jazz scene started in America. You all started ofI playing by listening to the jazz records that came over here. And the first step in your development was to be influenced by Krupa, Rich, Dave Tough, Kenny Clarke, and so on. In the process of your evolution, you learned what Art Blakey was doing on the rivet cymbal, how he played the bass drum —all these kind of things. So this is what the people here are still hanging on to. What they haven’t realised yet is that you have all grown, and become individuals. You understand the idiom, and you can speak in your own right. I know you want to condemn a kid when he likens you to Max Roach. But you have probably played something in the vein of Roach, that he has heard him do. You did it unconsciously, because of the influence in your growth. But this kid who says this to you has not devoted the time and concentration that you have. so he’s not as educated about jazz as you are. Only now are you people starting to come into your own.

Copyright © 1964 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved