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  • Jon Sheckler

Flock to Shepherd: Part I - The Old System

Bandleading was once a reward for the most prestigious sidemen. The move to the front rarely required the band leader to be a creative force. For the drummer, this meant that material was not as important as star power. Buddy Rich is the most prominent example. He was a drumming star for decades while making regular television appearances with Jerry Lewis, Jackie Gleeson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson6, even hosting his own one-off program which featured the multi-talented tap dancing and singing musician. Even the sidemen of less visible drummers were acutely aware of their bandleader’ fame. “I had to pinch myself to really get with it,” says Dave Liebman, echoing the sentiments of many of Elvin Jones’ sidemen. “This guy is the guy I loved most of all. I’d seen him play a million times in the clubs as a teenager. He was on pivotal records. . .” Gene Perla, who played with Jones regularly through most of the early 1970’s, stated the matter more plainly:

What did he achieve prior to me joining his band? He was John Coltrane’s drummer. I mean, look at the music these guys created. So, all of the sudden, now you’ve got this drummer whose looked at like a god. . . I saw. . . Joe Chambers, Tony Williams. . . Art Blakey was his own man, Roy Haynes was also his own man, but these guys had tremendous respect and I saw it over and over again with these guys. Tony Williams was like a little kid with Elvin. Anyway, if you’ve got that kind of persona and you’re a bandleader, people are going to come to you and that bandleader is going to be able to run it the way he wants.

Likewise, bandleaders were keenly aware of their place in the jazz scene by the 1970’s. Max Roach was lauded as one of the creators of modern jazz music. Billy Harper simply said about Max, “He created some of this stuff.” Blakey was even more aware of his authority among the musicians who would audition for him. Harper, who also played with the Jazz Messengers, said, “Usually anybody who was going to play with him [Art Blakey] usually knew the songs anyway. . . You had to know them. . . And I think he assumed, because he played so much and recorded, you knew the tunes if you came in to play with him.”0 Even Tony Williams was sensitive to his role as the drummer of the Mile Davis‘ Second Great Quintet to his deep frustration according to pianist Tom Grant:

"He [Tony Williams] hated it when somebody would introduce him at length as part of the Miles Davis band. He would get mad. And he would ask them ahead of time, if he thought of it, he would ask them, you know, “Please don’t dwell on me as Miles Davis’ drummer”, and that sort of thing. He really wanted to change his whole vibe, and everywhere we went, people, you know, asked him why he didn’t play any ‘real jazz’ and shit like that, you know, and it got really frustrating."

Creatively, most of these band leaders were present even if they were only indirectly so. It was expected for all members of the Jazz Messengers to supply new music. Although Buddy Rich did not read music, he still was the final creative decision maker, even going as far as to dictate arrangements. As Pat Labarbara recalled:

"It came from a combination of [producer] Dick Bock, Buddy, and I think [daughter] Cathy Rich pushing all these rock bands. Which was good for him because we ended up playing at all of the big rock venue. For Buddy, that was fantastic, we would get lots of exposure playing opposite the Cream and The Who and all of these different bands. . . [but] most of the decisions were his. . . There wasn’t a musical director at all when I was with Buddy."

It would be inaccurate to assume that these drummers never wrote music. Tony Williams was regularly the only featured writer on his albums and Max Roach studied composition at Manhattan School of Music. Roach not only wrote original compositions for his groups, but he famously wrote compositions for drum set. Both their ensembles had prolonged periods of performing a wide spectrum of music. In Tom Grant’s time with Tony Williams, the ensemble went from a fusion quintet to a trio, eventually recording the album Play or Die which included multiple layers of overdubbing. Williams' frustrations during the recording of Play or Die and subsequent change in creative direction afterward is an example of the experimental quality the more organized bandleaders possessed as well as the role of the producer during that time period. After Williams walked out of the recording studio in anger, producer and bassist Patrick Hearn initiated the process of piecing the unfocused material into an album.

Even if the prolific nature of Max Roach and Tony Williams’ bandleading is considered a rarity, both Elvin Jones and Art Blakey gained several credits as composers, though many came later in their careers. But it would be a mistake to assume such control regularly extended into the notes and chords. Dave Liebman said, “It was mostly learning on stage. He [Elvin Jones] didn’t say ‘play this chord’ or ‘play that chord’. He didn’t say ‘you solo first, you solo second,’ he just let things happen,” following the tradition of bandleading of previous musicians. Even those who were more organized rarely spoke to sidemen about specific notes or chords. And, except for Max Roach, these band leaders were open to any piece of music. According to Gene Perla:

"He [Elvin Jones] was open to everything. It didn’t matter what it was. Whether he would go for it or not would be another story, but he always was open about whatever. Politics or religion or, you know, certainly discussions about music or musicians. He wasn’t a big talker, but he was open to everything, man."

Apart from Elvin Jones, all the band leaders had keen business instincts. Buddy Rich’s foray into the rock and roll clubs expanded his audience and his cultivation of friendships in the entertainment industry - Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra made him a household name. Billy Harper separated the bandleaders he worked with into organized and unorganized categories, with Max Roach and Elvin Jones representing the two extremes:

"He [Elvin Jones] wasn’t thinking about being an organized leader like that. You just followed him. ‘We’re gonna play something and that’s it’. Totally opposite from Max. . . Max was more organized. Elvin wasn’t concerned with that. Max would get everything organized in his Capricorn type was."

Organized leaders tended to spend longer periods of time searching for a musical identity. Roach routinely led his bands into extreme variations of musical environments, sometimes adding vocalists, choirs, large ensembles, duets (most famously with Cecil Taylor), and his percussion ensemble M’boom. After the end of the original Lifetime band, Tony Williams embarked on a ten-year period where he recorded four albums, one of which was not readily available in the United States. Philly Joe Jones, former star sideman of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, supplied a unique illustration of the follies of each approach. Jones’ lack of artistic control and creative uncertainty led his touring ensemble, Le Gran Prix, to never record, making the band a jazz musician myth. Dually described as a straight-ahead bebop group and as an avant-garde jazz-rock fusion project, Le Gran Prix was neither, and changed its identity almost every night.

As with many band leaders of the era, rehearsals were rare and reserved for special events. As a big band leader, Buddy Rich was a notable exception, but even his band rarely rehearsed in full as section leaders took it upon themselves to rehearse new and existing music for recording dates and television performances. For the small group leaders, rehearsals related only to the new music. Not even new members were guaranteed a rehearsal before their first performance, as Pat Labarbara explains:

"That was on the gig [too]. I called him [Elvin Jones] and he said, “Come down early and we’ll rehearse.” He said, “Come down on a Friday, we’ll rehearse on a Saturday and a Sunday and Monday and then we’ll open up the Vanguard on Tuesday.” So, I flew into New York, they had arranged a hotel for me, and every day I called Elvin, he couldn’t rehearse. So, I called him on Monday, and he said “Ah, forget it. Just show up at the Village Vanguard, you can play. Show up.” So, I showed up on Tuesday night at the Village Vanguard not knowing any of the music except for the Coltrane tunes that he played. And he had Frank Foster there in the band, which was great because Frank taught me the tunes in the kitchen before each night."

While Jones was an extreme example, his methods were not uncommon. Hiring musicians was a simple procedure that only required a musician to be proficient and available. Most musicians interviewed auditioned for their bandleaders by attending a rehearsal or sitting in during a performance. As Dave Liebman explains, this style of leadership was supported by the music scene at the time:

"In those days, the jazz scene in New York was very. . . not as many people as involved now ‘cause you didn’t have all the colleges. There were no colleges, so the musicians, there may be 50 or 60 guys, mostly guys, who were on the scene and around and going to clubs, trying to play when they could and jamming and listening. . . In that period, there were still bands playing in clubs. Sometimes two sets, sometimes three. And that means you had a lot of opportunity to learn because you’re playing the same repertoire night after night. "

These musicians were uniquely intuitive which allowed rehearsals to be short, direct, and rare. Despite differences in personalities, band size, and complexity of arrangements, all these leaders were described as having astonishing intuition. Members of Elvin Jones’ quartet marveled at his ability to play a song after only one listen-through. Jeff Johnson remarked on the ability of Philly Joe Jones' to play tunes in differing styles by ear in Le Gran Prix. Former Jazz Messengers were likewise amazed that Art Blakey could not only remember a new arrangement after one listen, but could create a drum part that both fit that composition and felt like an “Art Blakey” song. Buddy Rich was able to play through a big band arrangement after a single listen and could even play through new charts without hearing the music at all beforehand. Art Blakey recalled seeing this same method from Chick Webb, one of if not the first drummer-leader in jazz history. This is even more remarkable considering that Art Blakey and Buddy Rich didn’t read music and Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones had limited musical education outside the purview of the drum set.

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