January/February 2010

Ed Shaughnessy: One More Thing to Get Right

Drummer Ed Shaughnessy celebrated his 80th birthday early in 2009 by having knee-replacement surgery. “And now,” he says, “I tell everyone I have a Tony Williams hi-hat … ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.”

The drum great is upbeat, outgoing, quick with a story, and comfortable in every imaginable musical setting, but his performance schedule has been diminished lately by the need to care for his wife of 46 years, Jacquelyn, who has Alzheimer’s.

“I’ve been staying close to home,” he adds. “But I’m the kind of guy who is always playing. I play every day at home. And I do a lot of local diddly doos, but I had to cut back on my road work. I’m fit as a fiddle, my general health is great, I exercise all the time and I’m very lucky, I think, at my age to be feeling good [and] playing good. But I have this responsibility and that has to come first.”

“Always playing” may be the best capsule description of a player whose more than six-decade-long career has been a virtually continuous montage of musical images—each one featuring Shaughnessy sitting confidently behind his double-bass-drum setup. Yet, although Leonard Feather once called Shaughnessy and Buddy Rich the “two best-known drummers in America,” his visibility has largely been associated with his 30-year stint with the NBC Orchestra on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “When you’re around that much,” he notes, “you tend to get taken for granted.” Surprisingly, he initially turned the job down.

“It was the early ’60s in New York City,” says Shaughnessy. “I was happy being a freelance guy, and I was working a lot of jazz clubs at night. But then, in a few months, about four jazz clubs closed down, just when I was doing a sub or two on the show. Plus, my daytime studio gigs were getting slower, too, because it was the advent of the electronic drum machine. So I saw the handwriting on the wall. And when I went in to sub for two weeks on the show with the band, there I was sitting next to one of my oldest friends, Clark Terry, with Snooky Young next to him. And the band sounded good. So I took the job. And it was always a great band to play with, but, frankly, I originally took it for security. I didn’t take it because I was hot to get on television. I took it because I wanted to make a good living for my family. And it enabled me to do that.”

By the time he began his long run on the Tonight Show, Shaughnessy had enjoyed an impressive career, playing with everyone from Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey to Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus. Born in Jersey City in 1929, he was already taking the subway into Manhattan to go to jam sessions when he was 16. It was the mid-’40s, a great time to be a young musician, when jazz of various styles and manners was available for the hearing. And Shaughnessy’s ears were wide open to all of it.

“I listened to the radio a lot,” he recalls. “Woody Herman’s band, and Basie and Duke, of course, and occasionally someone like Boyd Raeburn. When I started going into the city, I heard Bird and Diz and a lot of the beboppers play, mixed with swing players. I got very much into bebop, but I never gave up my interest in the mainstreamers—Ben Webster was my favorite tenor player. Then, when I was lucky enough to become friends with Sid Catlett, he used to let me sit in with Ben and Erroll Garner and his little group. I loved those guys; they were so good to me. But I also was learning the bebop style by listening to Max and Klook [Kenny Clarke] and Blakey. And that’s how I got the job with Charlie Ventura and his Bop for the People band when I was 18.”

Shaughnessy’s omnivorous musical taste, combined with the full banquet of music available to him and his impressive natural skill, produced what he describes as a “conglomerate of styles.” And yet most drummers find his playing on a recording to be immediately recognizable, whether he’s playing bebop or mainstream, big band or small group.

“I don’t have a strong, completely original Ed Shaughnessy style that’s as individual as a Max Roach or Elvin or Blakey or Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson,” he says. “But I’ve never copied. I’ve always considered that low. I guess it all traces to the fact that when I was young I liked Dixieland music, even though I liked bebop the best. And I listened to older drummers a lot, like Kansas Fields and Zutty Singleton and even Baby Dodds, even though I never got to hear him live. But when I went into Eddie Condon’s to play Dixieland, I didn’t try to play like those guys, I tried to play the style. If I ever compare myself to anyone, it’s Sid Catlett. I’m not quite as good as he was, but I think he was the best generalist we ever had, and yet he had an individual style.”

“Generalist” is an intriguing tag for a style that so comfortably embraced the gamut of jazz drumming. But whatever the label, it was well regarded no matter what band Shaughnessy was playing in. Five recordings with Count Basie prove what great respect the pianist and bandleader had for his drummer. But there was also at least one occasion when Basie was a little more outspoken about why Shaughnessy was sitting in the middle of the rhythm section.

“When I made the first album with Basie,” says Shaughnessy, “we ran the first tune down, sort of a medium-hard swinger. I’m playing what I think I should play for the Basie band, because with that band, if you don’t play with heart and soul, it’s not going to happen. But when we stop, the guy who was in the control room says, ‘Well, that was very good, but we think maybe we could take a lot less drums.’ And Basie, who’s sitting at the piano, wearing his yachting cap, takes his fist and hits it on the piano and roars like a lion. Like this: Rrroarrroow! And everybody just froze. I asked [Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis] later, ‘Does he do that often?’ And he says, ‘No, maybe once a year.’ Anyhow, Basie picks up a mic and says, very quietly, ‘I have Mr. Shaughnessy here to play with my band because he knows how to play with my band. Your job is to get it. Do you get it?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Shaughnessy’s quick sense of humor and endless curiosity also served him well in avoiding thorny situations. He may be the only musician to ever have worked with both Benny Goodman and Charles Mingus—two of the most famously crotchety bandleaders.

“Guys call me a weird son of a bitch because I got along with both of them,” recalls Shaughnessy. “But it took different techniques. With Mingus it paid to be just straight frank with him, without getting heavy. With Benny, Lionel Hampton told me, ‘If he gets out there, you go further out and he’ll leave you alone.’ And that’s what I did. When I was late for a rehearsal in Paris because I couldn’t catch a cab, I came in, and he’s looking at me over his glasses like he’s going to kill me. So I said, ‘What the fuck are we going to do, Benny, sit around? Or are we going to play?’ He looked up, obviously thinking, ‘I’ve got a crazy drummer on my hands,’ and said to the guys, ‘The kid is right, let’s play.’ And he never bothered me after that. I think he really thought I was out of my brains. And when I asked Lionel about it, he said, ‘Benny always thought I was out of my brains, but he left me alone.’”

Shaughnessy’s own attempts at big-band leading have focused on his Energy Force orchestra. And it was at the 1976 Monterey Jazz Festival that he introduced Diane Schuur, then in her early 20s, to the jazz world. Since that time he has led various ensembles, played in far-ranging settings and continued to follow an eclectic musical muse that has led him to Indian classical music and the tabla, the tympani and various mallet instruments (although he insists his vibraphone skills are limited). It’s only been in the past few years, when his family responsibilities have increased, that he has had to place a narrower focus on his goals. But drumming and music remain front and center.

“Look,” concludes Shaughnessy, “the first thing that goes for a drummer—and for a bass player, too—are the fast tempos. But I tell myself that’ll never happen to me, because I practice those tempos every day with those play-along recordings—‘Cherokee’ at high speed, things like that. You know, I can do things this year I couldn’t do last year. And I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing until I get it right. And, of course, there’s always one more thing to get right.”

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