SKF NOTE: This is the first installment of the complete transcript of my 1983 interview with Dave Weckl for Modern Drummer. MD published a much shorter version of this interview in April 1984 as an Up and Coming profile of Dave Weckl, which still holds up well. Here’s the back story.
Dave Weckl was age 23 when we met for this interview. He was living in Bridgeport, CT getting ready to go on tour with Simon and Garfunkel — arguably the first major gig that put Weckl on the map. As of this writing, Weckl is age 56, making this a full-length discussion with one of today’s major drummers more than half a lifetime ago.
Perhaps all the Weckl points of interest here have already been covered in subsequent interviews with other music writers. Perhaps not.
Thanks to the internet I am able, for the first time, to include in this interview linked references to people and music Dave Weckl mentions.
Scott K Fish: What brought you from St. Louis to Connecticut?
Dave Weckl: I was in St. Louis playing in show bands, Top 40 bands, working 6 nights a week since I was, like, 16.
SKF: How old are you now?
DW: Twenty-three. My best friend, keyboard player — a friend of mine — we were always in a band together. He left on the road to go with Maynard Ferguson. He was, like, 19. So when he split there was, like, nothing else left in town for me to do.
SKF: There was nothing happening?
DW: I was 18 at the time. There was, like, nothing happening at all. No.
I had to do something, so I wanted to go to school somewhere. I was checking out a lot of places: Berklee, Arizona State, different places on the West Coast. But, I mainly wanted to get where some action was. Either New York or the West Coast — or somewhere close to that.
But I mainly wanted to get to where some action was, either New York or the West coast, or somewhere close to that. But, I wanted to go somewhere where there was some connections happening, where I knew some people.
So, Bridgeport University. I went up there because of Neil Slater, basically. He was a jazz director up at Bridgeport when I first went up there. I had talked to him and I had sent him a demo tape and everything. [Neil] said, “If you can read as good as you can play, you can have the spot in the band. And I’ll help you try and find some work.” Which he did! He was great. He helped me out alot when I first go there. He got me into Sal Salvador’s band right away.
SKF: Joe Morello’s old chair.
DW: Right. Exactly. I got to meet Joe [Morello] because of that — which was great.
So, Neil got me into that thing and whatever else he could do for me.
But that was one of the reasons for that choice [attending Bridgeport U.]. Another one was because Ed Soph was teaching there.
SKF: Did you know Ed or did you know his playing?
DW: I knew Ed’s playing. I’d been following it for a while.
SKF: With Woody Herman?
DW: Woody Herman….
SKF: Clark Terry?
DW: Clark Terry. Right. So I was really interested in studying with [Ed Soph]. It turned out when I got there, that Randy Jones was actually teaching — which turned out to be real nice too. Randy is great. He’s not the book type teacher like Ed is — to a point. [Randy] was real good for my head. He’d tell me things.
If I had some problems about, thinking, like, “Why isn’t this swinging the way it’s supposed to?” Or if I had problems with other members of a band. Or something in trying to figure out a time problem or something. Or why it wasn’t happening. And [Randy would] always have something to say that was real good. We’d just sit there and talk for a long time, and he’d show me a lot of nice things about straight-ahead playing which were good. Because he’s really into that.
SKF: When you came to Bridgeport were you already well-rounded in all styles of music?
DW: Yeah. I had started learning about all kinds of different styles real early — when I was about 13 or 14. I started studying in St. Louis and I had a few teachers there. Bob Matheny and Joe Buerger were really the two who were responsible for the foundation of where I was going. They were two local teachers our of St. Louis who taught me how to read, taught me all the basic styles, and everything.
From that, I just took it upon myself to, like, do a whole lot of listening, and a lot of copying from records.
That’s how I started when I was real young. I started playing when I was 8. And that’s all I did was play records and play to rock n’ roll records like The Monkees. My dad got me into the straight-ahead thing. He’s a piano player. He was always turning me onto Pete Fountain. And Jack Sperling was the drummer with Pete Fountain. Jack was my number one influence — when I was first starting — for straight-ahead. I listened to him, and then, of course, came Buddy [Rich].
SKF: Sperling’s great.
DW: Sperling is dynamite. Really, I’ve always loved the way he played.
SKF: Did [Jack Sperling] ever inspire you to want to study double-bass drums?
DW: No. I attempted that once. I sat down and was messing around with it. But I said I’ve just got so much stuff to do with one bass drum in trying to figure out actual foot coordination with the hi-hat and stuff, and in actual technique, just to play one [bass] drum. And I like to use the hi-hat too much.
I like to do different things with the bass drum and hi-hat. Different interacting rhythms with everything combined.
I’m getting into, like, doing…. If I want the double-bass drum sound, to [use] the floor tom and the bass drum — which is a lot of the things that Gary [Chester] is teachning now. That works out neat because you can get that sound happening, and if you work up real fast singles between the floor tom and the bass drum, you’ve still got the other foot free to do stuff with the hi-hat. I’ve never had a time where I had to sit down and say, “Wow. I really want that other bass drum.”
[B]ecause most of the time the only time you can really use the double-bass drums is for a flashy fill, or a freight train type of effect at the end of a tune, or a shuffle-type thing — which is neat to do.
SKF: When Louis Bellson reads this he’s going to be crushed.
DW: (Laughs). Don’t get me wrong, man. I love Louis too.
SKF: Would you say you were a “natural” drummer? Did drumming come easy to you?
DW: At first, yeah, it did. Yeah. Before I started playing drums I actually wanted to play guitar. When I was 7 my dad bought me this little guitar and I started taking lessons right away. I said, “Nah. This ain’t it.” I couldn’t stand to practice. I couldn’t stand to go to the lessons. I wasn’t into it. So, enough of that. But I was always into the musical end of it.
So not too long after that I started putting boxes on the bed and grabbing my mom’s tin pans, or her pot covers, from under the sink. I’d sit in the room for hours just playing along with the records, beating on boxes and stuff.
My dad got me a drumset. A little cheap, snare drum, bass drum, one tom, one cymbal. I don’t even know if there was a hi-hat on it. I don’t even remember.
And I just started playing to these records, and it was sort of easy for me to pick up and copy these things. Even when I was 8 years old. It was easy to do that. It came easy to me and I loved the challenge to try to figure the stuff out. I was always really into that.
There came a time where it became frustrating — when I was about 12 or 13. I was at that point where I was sort of in a rut, practicing the same things, not really advancing. This was right before the period of time when I got thrown into a situation where I had to get it together.
I was 14 and I was in 8th grade. The teacher at my school, my high school, Al McEwen (sp?) — who has died since…. It was a real drag. But this guy was great. He really loved kids. He loved to like, really…. If he saw a talent, man, he went after it and really, like, tried to push it.
So I was 14. I wasn’t even in high school yet and [Al McEwen] asked me to come down and audition for the high school jazz band. There was a [high school] junior playing drums at the time. I didn’t know how to read a chart from nothing! I’d been reading, like, little snare drum things since I was in 4th grade. But to sit down and actually read a chart, and play with a big band? Forget it.
I did a god job of faking it, I guess. That’s what worked. Because [Mr. McEwen] said, “Yeah. I want you to do it.” So I said, “Man, I’d better learn how to read. And fast!”
SKF: Do you remember what the chart was?
DW: I think the first chart he ever put in front of me was Basie Straight Ahead. In fact, later on we actually went into a studio and recorded it on an album after we knew the charts. I still have it. It’s quite funny to listen back to it and hear that. But it actually wasn’t bad. For 14 it was kind of neat.
So, Al McEwen got me into that, and I was really nervous because I didn’t know how to read or anything. That’s when I started taking lessons, basically. I was taking lessons already. I’d started when I was 13, when my dad bought me my new set of my new Gretsch drums. Gold sparkle. I still have them. I use them as a practice set.
When I got into this band, my teacher was Bob Matheny, and he was responsible for getting me into the Roy Burns Big, Band, and Beautiful package. That’s really an excellent device for learning how to read charts. Roy plays good on the album. It’s good to listen to what he’s doing if you’ve never played big band material before. It was a great learning device. I don’t know if you can still get it anywhere. It’s a little dated in terms of the style of things that are going on. But it’s still real good.
SKF: Did you copy the fills Roy played?
DW: At first, yes, to understand what was going on. I wanted to see where [Roy] was coming from style-wise. Roy and Jim Petercsak — who taught me everything I know about my left-hand finger control — collaborated with Roy on that, and wrote out a lot of the fills Roy played. That was great. I spent a lot of time with that. That really got me started.
I was fortunate enough after that to always have an outlet to read. All through high school. In that period too we always use to do little kicks bands, very early, when I was still in St. Louis. He would just throw charts at us and we’d play. So it was a great learning thing happening.
A lot of my friends that play, and people who always come up to me and ask me, “How do you interpret that?” “How can you read that so well for the first time?” I ask them, “How much reading experience have you had? Did you ever get to go out and play with a big band or read some charts?” They’ll say, “Well, no. Nobody ever does that around here.”
That’s a drag.
I was lucky that I always had that outlet to be able to read. Once I started doing it I loved it. I didn’t even want to play in a band unless there was a chart. It’s not that I don’t like to rely on my ears — because that’s a lot of it too. But, that was important because when I got to college, I was already reading.
I went to the Stan Kenton Clinic for two years in a row. That’s where I met Neil Slater first. I went there when I was 15. I’d won a jazz scholarship to Drury College for playing the West Side Story solo by Buddy Rich. That was one of the tunes in the repertoire of the show that the band did. We always went to those contests. And I was really into Buddy [Rich] for years. I loved him.
My parents had an old stereo [turntable] that slowed down to 16 RPM. I’d play Buddy’s records at that speed and his snare drum would sound like a 20” concert parade drum. But you could hear every stroke he was playing. I never knew how he was sticking anything, but I figured out a few things. Technique was real important to me when I was young.
SKF: Do you remember the first time you heard Buddy?
— End of part 1. To be continued —