It’s The Work… Not The Skill

I’ve lugged my drums up to rehearsal on the Bellingham WWSC campus, my girlfriend Mickey landed me a job as jazz drummer for Walter Zuber Armstrong, who now was apparently about to replace me with a younger improved model. A young Black man from the Seattle neighborhood who’d studied with Tommy Joe Henderson and Wayne Bibb, both musical percussionists that transcended the label and ordinary skills of most drummers, my link with those two Masters of Rhythm was that I had once dreamed of being a studio drummer and percussionist. My expert instructors; Bruce Ford (Ford’s Music), Fred Zeufeld (Viceroys/ Surprise Package), ­­­­Bill Richardson, and some other highly skilled and sensitive mentors, not only taught me essential drumming techniques like, sticking , and accentuating beats. But also how to interpret the music on the page, so I could  artistically play Bolero in an orchestra with feeling, or jam to Cherokee in a large or small band. Again watching musicians like Kay Kuniyuki, Wayne Bibb, Tommy Joe Henderson, gave me a sense of timing and love for the music, my teacher Fred Zeufeld suggested I observe (sheet music and records) two famous drummers Elvin Jones and Ed Thigpin (Oscar Peterson Trio), but I was enthralled with all drummer stylist from around the world such as West African, Raga, Taiko.

Now at age twenty I was a moderate moving toward  heavy drinker*, who didn’t have any real ambition to put in the long hours of practice, and seek a gig in a band or try my hand at studio work. My girlfriend set me up to play with Walter Zuber Armstrong (John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Prince Lashay), a superior wind musician whom excelled in any wind instrument from saxophone to shakuhachi, and from the beginning taught me the difference in playing music and becoming a true musician.  I was used to listening to Trane, Bird, Ellington, and a host of excellent artists, but I didn’t know how to listen deeply for the purpose of joining and communicating with another musical family member. I didn’t understand that improvisation was not an act of musical independence, but rather a shared spiritual act of interdependence, not walking along my own musical path but dancing in the direction of a communal destination. I used to love going by Walter’s place to watch him practice, he would regale me with stories of being on the road, or getting jammed up when gigging with this or that famous musician. I loved him because he reminded me of my Uncle Lacey, handsome and talented saxophonist and pianist of the 1940 – 1950’s music scene; who excelled  at a time  in apartheid Seattle when black musician’s playing, were limited to “Chitlin Circuit” venues and local taverns. This tall strikingly handsome, immaculately dressed man similar  my father, was an image of what I wished to become and accomplish in order to achieve my goals.  My father and uncle were role models who took  different paths in life,  but both brothers were required to put in hard work, and accept any difficulties that tried to sabotage their progress.

I had struggled with Walter’s group as I learned fundamentals of jazz musicianship and deflation of my ego, I now wanted to be the best possible band member, no longer wanting to shine or be singled out for my prowess.

Walter assured me that the new drummer was just “an addition” to the group, but I’d been in this scenario before and expected to be eased out in due time, yet until that dismissal  I had some serious work to do. I spent my days in the practice  studio laboring over fundamental rudimentary sticking patterns and drum fills, I committed our playing repertoire to memory … mentally I brought the band to practice with me. I took to heart every criticism, suggestion, and unspoken concerns of my band members, I sincerely developed a spirit of cooperation regarding the new drummer, and I tried to admire and compliment his talents. At our next rehearsal Walter and the band surprisingly found me greatly improved, so it was decided that both drummers go on our scheduled gigs to British Columbia, Canada, most importantly my young drumming partner and I now respected each other’s skills and complementary styles. Our first stop was at Walter’s girlfriend’s teaching job, a secondary school in Burnaby, British Columbia, where we enthusiastically performed then entertained audience questions. As we were departing our appreciative young patrons, we were suddenly surrounded by the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, because “coloured people (me and Walter)” had been seen entering the campus and fowl play was suspected. I was livid and at first refused to be interrogated. Being Black I had been subject to this treatment since age five, seen my father bruised and beaten by Seattle Police for “being drunk while colored”, and later watched my single -parent mother  being terrorized by Seattle Police who were angry at her tenants.

A quick aside: Mom was polite and quiet during the haranguing, and then the next day she contacted our family lawyer Philip Burton, who threatened SPD with legal action if they even “think of harassing my client again!”

I jokingly said to other band members as we left, “Huh, Critics, guess that’s our first Canadian Review?”, we laughed because it was funny but were shaken because we’d been initiated into a racial bias, at eight I watched SPD night patrols beating up eight year old kids and raiding Seattle’s famous Black jazz club Birdland (Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Lacey Wilburn, Lady Rose, Ray Charles, Larry Coryell , Tiny Tony & Mary Lee Rush) to roust the Negros and assert their police dominance. I would be on my guard until we returned to Bellingham, where I could be serviled by Good Ole American Cops, I believed the band now had a healthier respect for the tribulations and “Dues” paid by Walter and other Black musical artists. Simon Frasier University and University of British Columbia were good gigs without incident, Vancouver BC was one of the cleanliest cities I’ve ever seen, Vancouver also had great tourist attractions; Stanley Park, Chinatown (which I knew from Kodokan Judo days), strong beer, and Cuban Cigars ( cough, cough!).  Our most important gig would be a special concert for the patrons of the Vancouver Art Museum, whom also supported Walter and his career as a performer and recording artist, so for this performance the group would be formally attired in suits and dresses. I was wearing a blue surge Brooks Brother’s suit, French silk tie, and highly polished black combat boots, at intermission Walter glared at my footwear choice and barked., “You go sit behind the drums!”.

But the Gig, The Gig was the best we had to offer, and it was six musicians playing as one, performing an eclectic blend of jazz songs rich in Japanese, Classical European, and African American traditional motifs. Last song before the break was entitled Gitano (Gypsy, I coined it after my nickname), reminiscent of a Kansas City – Dizzy Gillespie bebop feel, there’s a break near the end for the drummer, where the young drummer took a solo; I answered him with a classic jazz riff, responding in kind and we begin to talk to each other via our drums, each playing Gitano’s melody and urging each other to employ skillful replies, we crescendoed as a united driving force and then the  young drummer acknowledged me taking the  lead, and I played out the opening tune’s intro on my drums as a signal for the group to commence.   The audience went wild, the band looked at each other in acknowledged joy, and we two drummers knew that we been part of a magical event that we could have only accomplished as a team.

I wasn’t part of the group for much longer, but I enjoyed the Vancouver reviews we got, let’s be real I enjoyed the reviews I got, because I worked my behind off and was able to gain a sence of  humility in the bargain.  I was let go from the band before Walter’s album was created, consoled myself that I had gained in wisdom and musicianship, which was essential when I started on an eighteen month battle to become sober.

Yeah Right …really it hurt like Hell!

I did play in a couple of groups after that, but being a percussionist isn’t about “play” it’s about work and dedication, and my opinion is that being a great musician isn’t enough – if you are not willing to totally commit yourself, to the daily arduous task of preparation.   _____________________________________________________________________

* August 28th will be my 36th year alcohol and drug free! JNG

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