Remembering a Wonderful Drummer: J.C. Heard

41slkRmVO2LThe cement basement (a.k.a. practice room) in my Connecticut rental cottage was just big enough for a 3-piece drumset. To my right, was the old wooden staircase leading upstairs to the kitchen. In front of me, an oil burning furnace. I spent many basement hours playing brushes along with piano trio recordings of “standard” songs, i.e. The Very Thought of You, Witchcraft, and Darn That Dream.

My goal was twofold. One, to memorize the lyrics, the words to the standards. Long before, I had read musicians I admire – such as Lester Young – say musicians can’t really play/interpret standards without knowing the lyrics. That’s true.

My other goal was to practice playing strictly as timekeeper; supportive, not getting in the pianist’s way; playing true to the song lyrics, and drumming musically. It’s not easy. The tendency is to toss bits of glitter here and there to make the drums interesting.

Practicing brushes in the basement, I most often played along with three albums, including a Prestige album, Nice N’ Tasty by pianist John Wright, with bassist Wendell Marshall, and drummer J.C. Heard. No bar burners. Just a collection of easy swing tunes and ballads.

Mr. Heard, whether it was swinging a big band, a quintet, or a trio, was a complete drummer. I don’t think we’ll hear or see the likes of J.C. Heard again. Music is always changing, Miles Davis said in his autobiography. It changes because of the times and the technology…available, the material…things are made of, like plastic cars instead of steel. So when you hear an accident today it sounds different, not all the metal colliding like it was in the forties and fifties. Musicians pick up sounds and incorporate that into their playing, so the music that they make will be different.

And so, Nice N’ Tasty, released in 1960, has Heard playing 1960 instruments, recorded with 1960s equipment, with a 1960 sensibility. Relying mostly on his hi-hat and ride cymbal. Sweeping brushes on the ballads. Cross-sticking the snare on swing tune backbeats. A few eighth note/broken triplet snare accents. No solos. Except for one Latin flavor tune – You Do It – it’s entirely possible Heard played this date with a 2-piece set. Snare, bass drum, no tom-toms. I can’t tell if he’s turning his snares on/off, using a tom-tom, or tapping a drumstick against his bass drum beater head.

Today, any number of drummers with a 2-piece set could remake Nice N’ Tasty. No one can remake its sound and feel, nor J.C. Heard’s sound and feel. Nor his touch. Joe Morello surprised me during an interview, saying – with no prompting from me – how much he admired Heard’s cymbal touch. (Heard’s was not a name that came up often, if ever, in drum interviews.) That touch is evident throughout Nice N’ Tasty.

That’s really what makes this album valuable. A moment in time. A wonderful drummer playing classic songs in an elegant setting.

Nice N’ Tasty‘s cuts are available as MP3 files under the album John Wright: Essential Jazz Masters. The songs on Jazz Masters are not in order, so the original Nice N’ Tasty tracks in order are: Things Are Getting Better, The Very Thought of You, Witchcraft, Pie Face, You Do It, Darn That Dream, The Wright Way, and Yes I Know.

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