An Interview with Billy Drummond

Billy Drummond 2015 © Roberto Cifarelli

Billy Drummond took an interest in the drums as soon as he could pick up a pair of sticks. He seems predestined to have made a humble home for himself in the pantheon of the instrument, playing on over 350 recordings alongside such pillars as Horace Silver, Bobby Hutcherson and Sonny Rollins, among many others. His 1995 leader date, Dubai, was named a New York Times #1 Jazz Album of the Year. Before and since then, Drummond has contributed to projects too numerous to mention in full, including his “Freedom of Ideas” quartet, which is preparing to step into the studio. This will mark his first leader record in more than two decades, heralding a welcome return to the helm for this much sought-after musician. Most recently, he was invited by Gábor Bolla to join the Hungarian saxophonist’s own quartet under the auspices of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, where a 10-day stint culminated in two days of recording. In this interview, we check in with Drummond to get his thoughts on the past, present and future. 

Tyran Grillo: Did you ever have a “eureka” moment with the drums? 

Billy Drummond: As soon as I discovered the drums, before I’d ever played with anybody, I knew that was what I wanted to do. It might seem fairytale-ish to people, but the only person I know that knew me before the drums is my older sister, Sheila, and I was just a toddler. That being said, I don’t remember my life prior to playing the drums. 

TG: Does that mean you took to the drums naturally or did you struggle like everyone else? 

BD: It may sound like a cliché, but you could say the drums chose me, or mutual love at first sight, I don’t know! Every instrument has its idiosyncrasies that have to be dealt with; that’s the nature of the beast. Brass musicians, for example, have to deal with their embouchure, which is a constant struggle no matter who you are. It’s a choice and depends on what you’re trying to achieve and bring to fruition. So, of course, I had struggles and still do. You’ve got prodigies like Buddy Rich. Then there’s Tony Williams, who played at a level that was quite remarkable at such a young age. But he also had an incredible work ethic and dedicated himself to emulating the drummers he loved and studied as much as he could about playing the instrument. There were a lot less options and distractions, especially during that time [the mid ’50s] to keep one from pursuing such passions once they were decided on. You could focus on one thing all day. By the time he was 18, he had become one of the very greats he aspired to be. And he wasn’t the only one. Think about others like Clifford Brown, who started later in life and developed rapidly. The challenges were there then and are still present today. It’s hard work and most musicians have to stay up on the instrument. At least I do. If I take a break, I’m reminded of it the next time I sit down and play. I tell all my students: practice now while you still can before all the obligations and commitments of life start piling up. 

TG: I imagine that COVID-19, though, was an unprecedented type of struggle for everybody. 

BD: The rug was pulled out from under us overnight, so our livelihood suffered greatly because of that. Fortunately, for me, I teach at two major institutions for music [Juilliard and NYU], so during the school year, that kept the wolves a little farther from my door in that regard. Teaching helps subsidize my performing career and vice versa. I was able to keep my head above water, but a lot of things just vanished. I had tours, residencies, record dates and numerous gigs. When you have those things on your calendar, you plan accordingly and all of it went up in smoke. But here I am. Things are slowly coming back, but it remains to be seen what’s going to happen with different variations on the theme, so to speak, of the virus. I got on a plane for the first time in July, went to Europe, did a festival, a bunch of gigs and a recording. It felt like the way I used to feel as a working musician from day to day. The travel part of it is not for the faint of heart. It was never really that luxurious, to say the least, but as musicians, that’s what we have to do. We can’t just play in our own back yards and expect to survive. For most of us who rely on performance, you have to get on an airplane for it to be at least somewhat lucrative. 

TG: Would you say this speaks to the adaptability of those who make music? 

BD: You have to go into every situation with an open mind and coalesce with everyone involved. The end result is making the music come to life. You’re presenting the music. It’s not about me as a drummer, showcasing my drumming. I can’t do that anyway! But there are those who can wow you and still be incredible contributors, like Tony Williams. Some are more overt than others. I’ve flocked around drummers for other reasons, like Billy Higgins, Al Foster and many others I could name who amaze but not overtly so. It’s all about musical conception, how the mind works in the moment. It gets beyond the rat-a-tat-tat physicality of all that. Why are they doing it and how did they come up with it? What are they listening to and for and how are they contributing to the big picture? They all have these audacious concepts and they bring them to fruition. And all that just by hitting stuff with two wooden sticks! It’s a question of how one does it completely differently while achieving musical greatness with a distinctive sound and style. 

TG: Going back to the topic of practice, how do you keep yourself sharp? Do you have a set schedule or just work it in when you can? 

BD: As you mature and are confronted with more of life’s responsibilities, it becomes more difficult to adhere to a schedule. That’s because you’ve got other stuff to do all the time. If you’re planning on practicing, things can interfere. When I do, I practice the same things I’ve always practiced, such as the things we drummers know as “rudiments.” Basically, these are combinations of doubles and singles in certain patterns. I also practice “time” because that’s what you’re doing 99.9% percent when playing with people. I play along with recordings, work on things I’d like to be able to do and all that. You have to stay up on these basic things to be able to bring whatever creativity that’s in your mind to fruition. You need to have a reasonable amount of facility to put your opinions out there. If you don’t, those ideas never come out. That’s what’s so remarkable about the thinking process of great drummers. We only hear the end result, but you can bet they worked on the nuts and bolts to move us with the music. 

TG: Who embodies that philosophy for you? 

BD: Pretty much anyone who played with Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Nancy Wilson, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean and all the others I grew up listening to. Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones…the list goes on. It’s all good stuff that I still find today to be the top of the heap in that genre of music. But you’ve also got to realize that, back then, you never saw these guys on television for obvious reasons. The star drummer in the public eye in those days was Buddy Rich, so I was enamored with him because he was billed as the world’s greatest and was more of an entertainer and a personality than some of the others I mentioned might have been perceived to be. So there he was, playing the drums and doing it really, really well. This being the early ’60s, I was attracted to what was on television. It was a natural thing. You had Batman, the Green Hornet and Buddy Rich. 

TG: Who were your more immediate mentors? 

BD: I would have to point to my parents and my father in particular because, being a former drummer himself, he’s the one who turned me on to jazz and the drums. As I look back on it now, he also had an incredible record collection. I was hearing all that music I mentioned as a youngster. I didn’t even know what it was, but at that age, you absorb whatever’s going on around the house. When I gravitated toward the drums, the two connected like that. Both of my parents were very supportive and encouraging of my endeavors. I was very fortunate in that regard. 

TG: How have you changed the most since then? 

BD: For one thing, I hope that I’ve improved as a musician who plays the drums and, with that, I hope that coincides with my improvements as a human being. Sometimes, I wish that I could go back and do things a little differently both on the personal and musical sides. For example, I think about being able to play with certain people I played with 30 years ago, only with the mindset I have now. When you’re in your 20s, you have a whole different thing going on when you arrive in New York. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s the way life is. As we grow older, we hopefully have a better understanding of things pertaining to life. I’m trying to understand by looking at things from a different perspective. You tend to do that when there’s a lot less ahead of you than there is behind you. Now it’s like, “I’ve got to get this next stuff as close to right as possible because I’ve got no time to waste.” 

TG: How does being a better person make you a better musician and vice versa? 

BD: You’re a human being first and foremost. You’re faced and blessed with all the things that humans have to deal with. When you’re a musician, especially one who has devoted your whole life to music, it becomes so intertwined with your vocation as such. As someone who has surrendered his whole life to music, music and everyday life are intertwined. You wake up in the morning and a large part of your thought process is about music: playing, rehearsing, writing, listening, all of those things. I don’t think people who do certain other things for their livelihood necessarily think that way. But we creative people think about it 24/7 and that could be a problem because there are other things we have to think about, too. Society isn’t set up for creative people because we don’t fit into that same foundation. 

TG: How does this relate to your life as a composer? 

BD: I’m working at it. One thing I could look back on and regret is that I didn’t take the piano seriously when I had the opportunity to so now here I am at this age, struggling, just to put two notes together that sound listenable! I’ve had access to a piano for a large part of my adult life and childhood as well, but I don’t consider myself a composer. I’ve written some tunes. Horace Silver, Carla Bley, Andrew Hill and many, many others I’ve had the pleasure of working with: thoseare composers. 

TG: Have you changed at all as a listener? 

BD: I’ve always been a listener of recordings. No one plays in a vacuum. Listening is one of the things I consider that I do well. I can’t play anything if I don’t listen to what’s going on around me. I like to instigate and react to an action. The drummer is the de facto leader in some ways, controlling the tempo and volume, all of which can impede on or contribute to the proceedings. It’s also the loudest instrument on the bandstand, at least in an acoustic setting. But beyond that, the drummers that I admire and am influenced by are great musicians and listeners and that’s why they’re great drummers. I could name hundreds. 

TG: What is the best compliment you ever got? 

BD: Compliments said to me by people whose opinion I have a great deal of respect for. Beyond that, I’d say the greatest compliment is having people hire me to play with them. They could’ve had anybody, many of whom are pictured up on my own wall of drummers I admire. To be hired from that pool and the many other fantastic drummers out there? There’s no greater compliment. That’s enough to be grateful for and I certainly am.

(Billy Drummond can be seen and heard on his website here. This interview originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

“Music We Order Our Lives To”: The Masters Quartet Live Report

August 20, 2011
Birdland
8:30 pm

Steve Kuhn piano
Dave Liebman saxes
Steve Swallow bass
Billy Drummond drums

A brief dictionary perusal of the word master yields variations on a theme of dominance: one who uses, controls, even disposes of that which is mastered. It’s with this hierarchical vision of mastery in mind that I entered the hallowed doors of Birdland for a late-summer performance by The Masters Quartet. None could earn such a title, of course, without verifiable skills and the countless hours necessary to hone them. As longtime collaborators, Kuhn and Swallow are strangers to neither, having made their first recorded appearance alongside Liebman on the bassist’s 1979 debut, Home, with over a decade’s worth of friendship and gigging already between them. Listening with eyes closed, one could hardly guess that Carla Bley band regular Drummond is a relatively new addition to this veteran nexus. Their blend was so seamless that by the time I stepped out into the humid streets, dominance was farthest from my mind.

To be in the presence of all four was already an honor, but the venue made it exponentially more so. This being my first Birdland experience, I finally understood why Charlie Parker dubbed it “The Jazz Corner of the World.” From its candlelit murmur, non-invasive wait staff, and intermittent tick of silverware to its top-flight roster, carefully considered sightlines, and one-on-one feel, the setting was ambiance incarnate. Though nothing remains of Birdland’s original digs, one can glimpse those glory days in the monochrome gallery of talents that adorns its walls. All the more reason, then, to bask in the present, where four incomparable musicians filled our ears with concoctions both pungent and smooth—not unlike the French martini at my fingertips—as they took to the stage and eased us into the evening’s intensities with a pair of trios.

A lush opening surge as only Kuhn can elicit swept this heart away in the standard, “There is No Greater Love.” With a sigh and a smile, he made us feel part of the band, creating music simply by bearing witness to its spontaneous unfolding. Through peaks and valleys, Kuhn navigated every turn of Swallow’s unshakable bass lines and the cymbal-happy squint of an ecstatic Drummond. The latter’s locomotive rolls opened a lyrical path for Swallow before kicking up a bit of dust as he exchanged jabs with Kuhn. His increasingly frenzied snare, along with Swallow’s leapfrogging bass, wound us into a state of high expectations. Thus did these gentle beginnings feed a dancing conflagration which, rather than brazenly overstepping those expectations, passed lithely through them like ghosts.

A milky intro stirred us into the coffee-like consistency of “Dark Glasses” (S. Swallow), resolving itself into a galactic swirl. With organic care, the music loosed ribbons of bass amid Drummond’s delicate knocking. Kuhn’s Möbius strip of a solo titillated (as a tongue, it would have rolled every “r”) and brought us ever closer to the filmic imagery lurking therein. Like its titular accessory, this joint at once clarified and obfuscated, cutting out the glare while hiding choice secrets.

“All the Things That…” (D. Liebman) marked its composer’s entrance to the stage. Inspired by the standard “All the Things You Are,” this smooth excursion was a prime vehicle for that oh-so-sweet soprano. With the magic of a mirage shimmering into shape, it showed us a level of tonal acuity that one can only dream of producing. Drummond provided sympathetic response, matching each of Liebman’s calls with joyful paroxysms of his own. Such were the beauties that awaited us also in “Adagio” (S. Kuhn). Here, Liebman’s slide into resplendence fogged our view with a long exhalation. Meanwhile, Kuhn tumbled in careful somersaults, marking the swaying rhythm that caught this listener from the get-go. Swallow traced a wide embrace with an engaging solo turn that seemed to welcome us all into its arc.


(photo by Manuel Cristaldi)

We were then treated to an unfailing rendition of “Village Blues” by John Coltrane, a “mentor to us all” as Kuhn so respectfully noted before its trio intro buttered our bread like nobody’s business. This proved a solid launching pad for a dramatic color shift as Liebman’s tenor awoke from its slumber. It, too, spoke in wooden riddles and guttural dreams, but those gritty squeals layered on the sonic paint—Van Gogh to his soprano’s Monet—and added a new dimension to surrender. His blows were softened only somewhat by Kuhn’s detasseling pianism, diving instead into an epic exchange with Drummond.

For the standard, “My Funny Valentine” (the “romantic highlight” of the show, as Kuhn artfully quipped), we were back to the smoky grain of soprano. Here the pianist’s poetry shone at its brightest, dissolving into lute-like strains of bass, as if in watercolor.


(photo by Robert Lewis)

Liebman’s robust tenor then inscribed “A Likely Story” (S. Kuhn) onto the pages of our attention. Against a grounded bass line and deep piano digs, he was lively and on point. Kuhn held a steady clip across his tightropes, tethers to an inspiring synergy with Drummond, who dotted the sky with sparks as this log was cast onto the evening’s kindling. I couldn’t help but note how “keyed in” Liebman was as his fingers mimed on the sax during a sit-out before he dove back in for the final splash.


(photo courtesy of the Montréal Gazette)

Mastery revealed itself in many guises throughout the show, but chiefly by the adroit ways in which the group always held fast to the tightly wound spring that thrummed at the heart of every tune they played. Their thematic cohesion was due in no small part to Swallow, who electrified with his unparalleled anchorage and fluid anticipations. Kuhn, ever the picture of concentration, threaded each of his needles with mindful improvising, those unmistakable octave splits crying with such epic grace that captivation was our only option. With every run of his fingers he seemed to travel miles’ worth of emotional distance. Against such broad pointillism, Liebman’s richness came across as filamented, teetering on edge, and all the more visceral for it. He was every bit the vocal performer, untangling seemingly impossible knots in a fraction of the time it took to tie them. As for Drummond, he seemed to squeeze every last drop of soul from the most delicate gestures, treating each as a gig in and of itself. He positively stole the show in its final gasps.


(photo by Albert Brooks)

In short, the quartet put the “band” back in “abandon” and proved yet again what for me is the blessing of jazz, an art form that makes the immediate effects of improvisation feel as if they have been growing inside us all along.

Furthermore, I discovered that true mastery bleeds from art into one’s countenance, one’s approachability as a human being, one’s humility offstage. In other words, it is nothing without the light of graciousness that permeated each of these four men, their loved ones, and the fans in attendance. In the end, their performance might very well have been but a flash in New York City’s overcrowded pan, but their afterimages are safe with me.


Autographed CD of last year’s gig, purchased at the club