You grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. What was it like from a musical perspective growing up there?
Atlantic City was nicknamed ‘The Playground Of The World’ and they had a lot of jazz and R&B clubs there. It was a very thriving music community and I began working pretty early when I was about 14. I was working and hanging out in clubs and got to meet a lot of great jazz masters and R&B people and everything. So I had a ball playing shows and playing all kinds of music. It was an amazing, amazing place to grow up in: there was so much music going on.
What led you to take up the drums?
Actually, when I was really small, my mother said I was banging on the floor and banging on oatmeal boxes with my hands and was always banging on something. In the third grade, they had a demonstration of music in the school and people would show you instruments and say who wants to play what. And I went right for the drums. I started public school music education and that was all I had. I never had any private lessons but I thrived immediately. That was the one thing that I could do better than anyone else. I didn’t think of any other way except gaining as much knowledge and playing as well as I possibly could. In my senior year, I read an article in ‘Downbeat’ about studio musicians like Larry Bunker. They went to work every day and they wore jackets and a shirt and tie. So I said to myself I want to become a session musician. Prior to that, I had no aspirations of being a professional musician and making money from it. But I was looking for a better life because I came from a pretty deprived background. I was looking for something stable. I used to see musicians coming through and see how they lived and it didn’t appear to be stable to me until I read that ‘Downbeat’ article. I went to college to get my degree but always had an eye towards being a studio musician and teaching was just a mere backup.
I know you play the vibraphone as well as the drums. Do you play any other instruments at all?
I play piano. Enough to write. I use a piano to write songs.
What prompted your songwriting? When did it start?
Actually I started theory classes in my junior high school. They had a very progressive music program in there. I stayed there and I went and had theory lessons and began writing back then. I wrote a couple of marches and things like that. I was into orchestration even then before I went to college. So my writing goes way back and then I went to Berklee for a year and a half and first studied improvisation and it encompassed writing. And then I went to New England Conservatory and I continued writing. After I graduated from New England and moved up to L.A. I was writing immediately. I started writing songs and stockpiling them and getting songs on different records. That was just automatic. Even today, when I’m not working, I write all the time. Fourplay is an outlet now. Every CD I have at least two songs on and I’ve had as many as four. I continue to write and on the new Chuck Loeb record, I’ve got two songs. Now a lot of my albums are being sampled, so the writing has paid off.
What was the first professional work you got as a jobbing musician? I believe you worked with the pianist George Shearing.
Yeah, that’s when I came out of college. I played with him. Prior to playing with George, after I graduated from New England, my first gig was with (jazz pianist) Erroll Garner and I came to Europe. I spent several weeks in Europe with Erroll Garner. Then when we were on a break, I went out to LA because I wanted to move there to find studio work. While I was there I heard George Shearing – who was based in LA – was looking for a drummer so I went to audition and got the job. But then I had to leave Erroll. That was perfect because it allowed me to move out to Los Angeles with a job.
So what did you learn from Erroll Garner? What was it like being in his band?
It was amazing. Everything was amazing – that’s a great word for me. My life has been amazing. But it was great because I worked with Erroll in Boston for a week or so as a sideman and so he knew my playing and he invited me to join his band. What I learned from Erroll Garner was how to accompany someone and how to swing – when you swing and accompany all the frills go out of the window. The most important thing is to swing and play with him. So that was the deal: play with him and wherever he went, I went, and we’d just make it swing. That’s it. It was a lot of fun. It was amazing playing with him and I had a great time. It was also the first time I’d been to Europe. I had a great time.
How did working with George Shearing compare with Erroll Garner?
That was a different discipline. We had a book of maybe 300 songs or so. It was a quintet initially and everything was very arranged. The playing was pretty subdued and very disciplined and you read a lot. You tried to swing it but it was very regimented – but it was still fun. George was a great musician and it was fun to be able to pull the music out and read it and perform it perfectly and hear his sound. He was clearly into that sound.