Ed Thigpen Blindfold Test 1959

SKF NOTE: Interesting comments from one of the great drummers, Ed Thigpen, on Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Buddy Rich and others. This article is from the 10/29/1959 Down Beat.

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J.R. Mitchell – I Didn’t Want to Play Left-Handed

SKF NOTE: Here’s the back story on my interview with J.R. Mitchell. In this excerpt, Mr. Mitchell discusses some of the challenges left-handed drummers face. Once I on an Iowa gig I had to share my right-handed drumset with the other band’s left-handed drummer. This was a deal my bandleader had made. I very reluctantly went along with it, but I was angry. Finally, I was tired of having my drums changed around all night, so I left them set up left-handed and played them that way.

So I am quite empathetic with what J.R. Mitchell says here.

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SKF: Did you find any challenges in being a left-handed drummer?

J.R. Mitchell: Yeah. I really didn’t want to play left-handed because I was concerned about sitting in. I told my teacher, “I won’t be able to go and play. I’ll have to be changing people’s drums around.” He said, “Well, if you play well enough you won’t have to sit in with other people.”

It made alot of sense.

I knew a guy in Philadelphia named Richard Easley. He was left-handed, but he set his drums up right-handed. It was so goddam awkward. He played with [jazz organist] Jimmy McGriff for the longest time.

My teacher told me that whatever hand you use the most should be the hand that you use the most should be the hand that you use on your ride cymbal. The muscles have been used more in that hand — and it’s stronger.

I can play right-handed but the feeling is so much different. I’m ambidextrous because I write left-handed, play baseball right-handed.

I found that most cats don’t mind you changing the snare and the sock cymbal. If I was going to sit in and saw that a guy had his drumset tied down — I wouldn’t even ask him. Alot of times I really don’t want to sit in. I think there’s a period of time in a musician’s life where they do alot of sitting in. I’ve done that.

Now if I’m going to play it’s serious business. I don’t have to play to let other musicians know that I’m a drummer. You’re not proving anything to yourself and you shouldn’t have to prove it to the other musicians.

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Jimmy Davis – The Killer Drum Roll

SKF NOTE: In my junior and senior high school years I had a core group of musician friends who hung out together, listened to records, attended concerts, and reshuffled ourselves into a few band configurations. Clark played piano. George played bass. Our alto sax player was Chris. I didn’t own a drumset until I was 18, so I was usually lead singer. And Neil was the best musician among us, usually handling lead guitar and some lead vocals.

Our usual drummer, Cliff, was a couple of years older than the rest of us and had attended a different high school.

In time, Cliff moved on, and we called a rehearsal in my parents’ garage to try out a new drummer. Jimmy Davis, who was also in our high school, was younger than the rest of us by a grade or two. A shy, unassuming kid, Jimmy owned a four-piece silver sparkle Gretsch drumset with one or two cymbals. Certainly a ride; maybe a crash cymbal too.

I remember Jimmy as a guy who was active in school bands, but not a guy who played in garage bands. In a real way, while this rehearsal would tell the rest of the band if Jimmy was a good fit, Jimmy was checking us out to see if we’d be a good fit for him.

Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood” was identified as a song we all knew. We kicked off the tune and when we reach the end of the second verse —

It’s like thunder, lightning
The way you love me is frightening
You better knock, knock on wood, baby

— we expected to hear Jimmy play the standard four eighth-note drum break. Instead, he went in and out of the break playing an accented drum roll that stopped us cold. It was a beautifully played break that impressed the rest of us. It impressed lead guitarist Neil in a way none of us expected.

“I’m going to have to get alot better to play with a guy like that,” said Neil. He returned his Telecaster to its case and left the band, basically going back to the woodshed.

Whatever happened to Jimmy Davis? I don’t know, but I think about him from time-to-time. Even though he turned my musicial world upside down, Jimmy was a good guy and an excellent drummer with a natural flair for the instrument.

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SKF Really Likes Mandolin Orange

SKF NOTE: Most of Mandolin Orange‘s tunes have no drums. But, so what? For undefined reasons this duo’s music hits home with me. Turn around and I’ve purchased all their albums.

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Max Roach and Steve Gadd Onstage? Sorry I Missed It

SKF NOTE: A DrumForum.org member posted an SOS regarding Max Roach. Paraphrasing, the member asked, “What’s the big deal about Max Roach? I know he’s famous. But from what I’ve seen and heard of his drumming on YouTube, I don’t understand why he’s famous. What’s so special about his drumming? So far, I’m unimpressed.”

Thinking back to the first time I heard Max — it was the self-titled Clifford Brown/Max Roach album on the Emarcy label — I was transformed. Max’s style was compositional, musical. What sounded, at first listen, simple, was not simple at all. It was the style of a drummer with a firm grasp of all aspects of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, and where they applied, song lyrics.

What’s more, Max understood and respected the history of drummers. He knew what the better known drum pioneers — like Papa Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett — contributed to how the drumset is played. He also knew and respected drummer pioneers who were not so much in the limelight. Drummers like O’Neil Spencer.

I’ve listened to many Max Roach recordings. I’ve seen Max perform twice. Once with his quartet and once with his percussion ensemble, M’Boom. And I was blessed to have interviewed both Max and M’Boom for Modern Drummer cover stories.

If my experience with Max was based solely, or mostly, on his YouTube fare? I would be missing out on the Max Roach musical experience. Fortunately, Max’s digital recordings are plentiful; a must for any serious drummer.

Now, I have to admit there was a moment when I thought about Max similar to the DrumForum.org member. I’m embarrassed remembering it — but it’s true, and at least I learned a good lesson from that incident.

I was having a phone conversation with Max during what was, to the best of my recollection, very preliminary plans for the first Modern Drummer Drum Festival. This was probably in 1983 when I was still on staff at MD. The phone conversation took place in my MD office.

I remember giving Max a general idea of the festival — to which he was receptive. But when I told him we were thinking of having Max and Art Blakey together, I could see Max wincing. Promoters always want to pair Max and Art or Max and other drummers of that era. The idea was old hat.

Why not, said Max, have he and Steve Gadd together onstage?

True confessions, drum colleagues. My heart sank when Max said that. I thought, “Steve Gadd will carve up Max. He doesn’t stand a chance.”

That was when Steve Gadd’s career and popularity were on the steep ascend. He was the new kid in town.

Max told me how interesting it could be to take two such different players, put them together, and see what they could create.

At that moment all I could see was Max Roach, my drum hero, getting demolished onstage, in public. I wanted to avoid that, but I had no idea how to share my thoughts with Max.

Sometime after my phone conversation with Max I left MD, went to work for the Gretsch Musical Instrument, Co., and had no part in planning MD’s drum festivals. Who knows how that festival — which ultimately featured Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, and the Buddy Rich Big Band — might have turned out if I’d stuck around.

Today, I recognize how shortsighted I was and how wrong I was about Max. Leaving Max Roach and Steve Gadd to their own creative devices in producing an onstage event would have been a gas. I’m sorry I missed it.

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Les DeMerle – It’s Not the Notes, It’s the Rests

SKF NOTE: More words of wisdom from drummer/bandleader Les DeMerle. The back story to our interview is here.

Scott K Fish: Is it possible for a drummer to become so technically exact and proficient that the naturalness of his playing suffers?

Les DeMerle: If the music is super, super technical — then that might apply. But if you learn to master the music and relax with it, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t swing.

For years, Harry James used to tell me that it’s not the notes, it’s the rests that count.

In order for a band to really get a lilt and a groove everybody has to contribute just a little bit, and be aware of what notes the other guys are on. That’s what makes it really happen.

You could have a phenomenal drummer, but if there’s a busy piano player and guitar player the band’s going to feel like a sinking ship. It’s going to feel like lead.

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