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Do The Write Thing: Drummer-Composers Trade Their Sticks for Pens

Bill Stewart
Jack DeJohnette

In the gospel according to conventional jazz wisdom, certain wrong-headed stereotypes live on, despite their irrelevancy. One of these is the notion that drummers belong in the rhythm kitchen, leaving the “serious” business of composing and arranging to instrumentalists in the harmonic/melodic zone.

It may be true that, proportionally, far fewer drummers have ventured into writing and bandleading than other types of players. But it is also true that, especially in the last 25 years, some of the fresher and more intriguing jazz has come from the pens and minds of drummer-composers, including Paul Motian, Jack DeJohnette, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Matt Wilson, Terri Lyne Carrington, Bill Stewart, Jim Black … the list goes on.

Often, because of their unconventional pathways into writing, driven by creative fire and unburdened by traditional musical training, drummers have come up with bright new ideas and angles in music. Take the example of Motian, at an artistic high point at age 76. A prolific writer with well over a hundred songs in his book, Motian didn’t even start writing until his mid-40s.

Watts and Stewart established themselves as bold players on the scene, and then surprised us with the added bonus of an obvious gift for writing. Carrington has expanded her creative purview from drumming into writing and producing, inspired by a close proximity to greatness, having played with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

In a way, the historical path of the drummer-composer and visionary was laid out in earlier decades by rare birds like Max Roach-whose vast influence is being reappraised since his recent passing-and Tony Williams, who wrote and led bands from the time he was barely out of his teens until his premature death at 51 in 1997. Both Roach and Williams were restless, dynamic leader figures and thoughtful creative spirits.

Another artist with deep roots and wide creative instincts is Jack DeJohnette, who has amassed a huge-and hugely diverse-discography over the last nearly 40 years. When it comes to considering the supposedly anomalous subject of drummer-composers, DeJohnette shrugs, saying, “I don’t see what the big deal is. Drummers are musicians. No matter what instrument, we are musicians, whether we write or not. You are a spontaneous composer if you have to play fours and you have to play fills, and you have to set up the arrangements, aside from actually writing.

“Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones wrote. Louie Bellson wrote quite a lot. Max was a great one, if you think of Percussion Bitter Sweet, and work with other percussionists. He was amazing. Kenny Clarke was another one. He played piano well, too. Joe Chambers is another composer who plays great drums and is also more than a good pianist.

“Actually, Tito Puente wrote a lot of the music for his bands. He wrote ‘Oye Como Va,’ and a lot of big hits. Most of the drummers now are great writers: Bill Stewart, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, Louis Nash, Nasheet Waits, Terri Lyne Carrington, Cindy Blackmon and Paul Motian. There are a whole bunch of them who compose.”

Further, DeJohnette poses the question of how to define the term and the process of composition. “Composing from the drums may have some advantage, if you know how to set music up to the best advantage. Art Blakey, I would say, was a composer. From what I understood, he participated a lot in the arrangements of the songs by the Messengers. Even though the guys in the band wrote them, he orchestrated a lot of them. He made suggestions and set them up to his particular needs.”

David King, the energetic and inventive drummer for the Bad Plus, has shown his might as a composer in both that trio and his longstanding “other” trio, Happy Apple. As he points out, “Sometimes drummers have that stigma as guys who just play drums and don’t know what’s going on, which I think is a lot of bullshit, especially in jazz. Any drummer that I’ve ever met knows melody, harmony and all these things, whether it be from an intuitive or a studied place.”

Exhibit A from the (mostly) intuitive camp: Motian.

You won’t be catching Paul Motian coming to your town anytime soon, unless you happen to live in New York City. “I won’t travel anymore,” he says plainly. “I gave that shit up. I got burnt out.” He officially retired from the road a few years ago, and says he hasn’t been on an airplane for almost four years. He jokes, “I won’t even go to New Jersey.” As a result, though, Motian has been doing the opposite of retiring. “Now that I’m home, I’m doing more writing and I’m busy,” he says.

A Manhattan homebody, Motian’s creative regimen includes regular visits to his piano, sometimes for only five concentrated, productive minutes at a time, and running around the reservoir in nearby Central Park early in the morning. “Somebody told me that’s true-your brain is more active when you’re exercising, somehow. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas that way,” he says, laughing.

Motian’s first brush with writing came in the ’60s during his stint playing with Bill Evans, when he came up with a short tune on “an old beat-up upright piano I had. I remember showing it to Bill Evans and asking him what I should do with it, what he thought about it and if I was on the right path. It was just a little melody. He wrote some changes to it, and taught me a bit about changes.” Composing was off his radar until the late ’70s, when ECM Records offered him a record date while he was in Keith Jarrett’s group. “I figured, ‘Well, I have to come up with some music.’ That’s when I really started to get into it a little bit,” says Motian. He studied piano a bit to expand his harmonic and theoretical knowledge and, voilà, a composer was born.

Having played with many great musicians, including pianists Evans, Jarrett and also Paul Bley, Motian has had close inspiration to draw from as a writer. “I’m sure everything I absorb influences me, like people I’ve played with. All those years playing with Keith Jarrett-that music helped me a lot. That sort of put me on the right road, I think. I learned a lot from him. A lot of my stuff sounds like folk songs. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t really plan stuff. When I’m writing, I sit at the piano and I try to get some ideas and play something that’s decent or valid in some way.”

Along with the hint of unidentified folk-song elements in his writing, Motian’s tunes can often contain the harmonic tensions and sophistications, however intentionally, reminiscent of contemporary classical music. “One time, I heard a Ligeti piano piece that sounded almost exactly like one of my tunes,” says Motian. “And that made me feel good. I love classical music. You could put on a Puccini opera for me anytime and I’ll sit and listen to that and be really happy.”

It can be said that Motian brings a compositional or a painterly feel to even his playing. With his remarkable trio featuring saxist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell, he says, “The way we play now, on some songs, even standard songs and ballads, I might not even play any time at all. Somebody might think, ‘Oh, anybody can do that, play anything you want.’ But it’s not true. What I’m doing has to fit with what’s going on. I’m playing phrases and I’m playing with the person who’s playing the melodic instrument or the melodies, and I’m playing with it. I’m just trying to make music out of what’s happened. I’m trying to play phrases and to play the between areas to make sense of it.”

Never one to over-analyze or wallow in pretension, Motian tends to give simple accounts of his musical process. “My stuff is easy, man,” he says with characteristic understatement. “It’s simple: come up with a simple melody, give it to some good players and they make music out of it [laughs].”

For David King, whose unusual tunes are among the more memorable pieces in the Bad Plus’ original songbook, writing is a natural extension of his creative impulses. “Writing music has been an important tool for me, my whole life. I’m trying to come at it from a natural quirkiness that I have. Since I was young, I always pursued not going down that normal path.

“In many ways, I write cinematically. That’s why sometimes there are stories going along with what’s happening.”

In what may be another common trait with drummers who write, perhaps linked to the highly collaborative and attuned nature of a drummer in music, King is flexible about their interpretive fate. “When I hand my music over to people to play, it’s not mine. I don’t want it to be like, ‘This is my song.’ I leave a lot of room for people to interpret things and I feel that makes it stronger. I try to get people in the right mindset. Of course, lots of people do this, like Wayne Shorter.

“When I show people music, I tend to want to just show it to them. I tend to not write it down. I will if it’s absolutely necessary. The luxury of working in working ensembles is that we’re together all the time, so we can internalize the music quickly that way, by rote.”

On Bill Stewart’s ’90s-era Blue Note albums Snide Remarks and Telepathy, the drummer demonstrated a confident and witty way as a tunesmith. After a hiatus from his solo work, he put out the funkily fascinating Keynote Speakers on his own label in 2005, with a drums-and-two-keyboards group.

Stewart was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but made the natural relocation to New York City, and made a strong impact on the drumming scene in the early ’90s with John Scofield’s popular band featuring Joe Lovano. But composing had been an ongoing creative concern for the drummer for many years, having studied composition at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and later with Dave Samuels at William Paterson University. Thus prepared, he says, “When it came time for me to write some music, I had enough knowledge and also some piano skills to get the ideas onto paper.”

As he notes, “I found that I had musical ideas that couldn’t be expressed on the drum set, and I wanted to express them. For instance, though you can certainly imply harmony on a drum set, you can’t play a progression of chords. I have become more comfortable writing less conventional things: chords that are difficult to name, odd phrases. I am excited to find these.”

Citing his influences as a composer, Stewart is expectedly broad-minded, naming “Monk, Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, Carla Bley and a lot of classical music, too, like Messiaen, Stravinsky, Brahms, Ravel, Mompou. Also I enjoy James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin-classic soul music, I guess you would say.”

As for the question of whether a drummer brings a unique perspective to the compositional practice, Stewart offers, “I don’t think that drummers have a certain way of writing, like being more rhythmic or something like that. I think many of us are looking to express melody and harmony, actually, since that’s more limited on our instruments. I would say that drummers are sometimes less conventional in their writing.”

Says Jeff “Tain” Watts, “It’s a difference that’s hard to measure, as drummers learn more harmony and non-drummers embrace more rhythm.” He poses a rhetorical question: “Who is more lyrical, and who more rhythmic, between Paul Motian and Steve Coleman?”

Watts falls into the late-blooming composer category, but he’s going strong now, having written many tunes for Branford Marsalis’ library, and expressing himself on his own albums, up through his new Folk’s Songs (on his own label, Dark Key). “Writing was never a priority for me until probably the middle of my career,” he says. “I had been consumed with simply trying to learn the history of the music, and trying to become a better player. I now enjoy writing almost as much as performing.”

In Watts’ case, the instrumentalist informs the composer and vice versa. He says, “I once read a piece on Dave Holland where he described a circular type of process where you compose something, then perform the music for awhile to optimize your instrument’s contribution to the tune. The juice you get from that then informs future compositions. I’ve adopted some of that philosophy, and also believe in tunes coming from anywhere, including the drums. ‘Vodville’ was once a drum solo.”

He admits that his lack of harmonic knowledge early in his career “made me shy about writing, as my peers were mysteriously so proficient. Encouragement came from Wynton, Branford, Geri Allen, John Hicks and others.”

Ironically, his prodigal-son period, when he went Hollywood from 1992 to ’95 to play with Branford in TV’s Tonight Show band, inspired him to explore writing, “to compensate for my perceived cultural void from working in entertainment in Hollywood. Most of Citizen Tain and some of Bar Talk was written during that time.” He asserts that the late keyboardist and ally Kenny Kirkland “gets the bulk of the credit for helping me to trust my musical instincts. Although my traditional knowledge is limited, my ears are very good.”

Terri Lyne Carrington shares with Watts a period spent day gigging for TV, in her case with The Arsenio Hall Show in the late ’80s and early ’90s. While keeping busy playing for numerous high-level artists in jazz and pop, Carrington has funneled her interest in writing onto occasional solo albums, starting with her 1989 debut, Real Life Story, and including the new Real Life Story: NextGen (Sonic Portraits). Here, she admits, “I wanted to make a CD that makes you want to move your body, but still has a high standard of musicality.”

A child prodigy at the drum kit, she has also been a songwriter since childhood, continuing into her studies at Berklee. She says, “I remember one of the first songs I wrote when I started studying composition at Berklee, I got a B on because there was this major-minor chord that seemed a little weird to the teacher, then I played that song with Woody Shaw. He loved it and said that the major-minor chord was his favorite part of the song. It was then that I knew I had to follow my instincts about writing.

“I always have felt that I express myself musically three ways: playing drums, writing music and singing. Somehow the writing has the strongest reward for me.”

Carrington is one of many drummers who point to Max Roach as a role model. Appreciating Roach, she says, “really helped me to see that drummers could be more than drummers and could make long-standing impressions in the compositional area as well. Jack [DeJohnette] became a mentor of mine and I watched his writing process. He is a great piano player, as most people know, and he can sit down and play what he wants to compose, as a lot of us cannot.

“I hear the music in my head first, then go to the piano and figure out slowly what I am hearing, then write it down on paper. After that, I cannot play it on the piano really and I forget it. Sometimes it is great when you can’t play piano because you may rely more on an innate melodic sensibility, and translate a great melody that is inside you, like [Tony Williams’ ‘Sister Cheryl.'”

As someone who has played with Hancock and Shorter, Carrington sees in her writing the earmarks of those legends’ sounds. “I hear Herbie in my head always-his voicings, his melodic lines, but especially his harmony.

“If you play Wayne Shorter’s music, you cannot help but be influenced by it and by him. He is, to me and to others, the contemporary jazz composer of our time. I once wrote a song that had an intro that reminded me of something of his and played it for him. He kind of smiled and thought it was cute, I believe, not really hearing his influence. But that is the beauty of influence. It is not always for others to even notice.”

Like many other drummers, DeJohnette uses the piano as a writing tool, but he has also played it on his records, in a lyrical style redolent of his longtime collaborator Keith Jarrett, if with humbler technical stakes. As DeJohnette says, “Having played piano with drummers helped me know what that feeling is like from the other side. When I write, I usually write for the players first, and then I figure out what I’m going to do next, after that.”

Players and concepts figure heavily in the style and content of what he has chosen to write. Over the years, DeJohnette’s projects have included New Directions and multiple different incarnations of the band he called Special Edition, from the chordless acoustic band with two reed players of the group’s eponymous 1979 debut and Album Album (1984) to the fiery semi-electric, M-Base-inspired band with Greg Osby, Gary Thomas and guitarist Mick Goodrick on the potent double-LP from 1988, Audio-Visualscapes.

Often, DeJohnette will channel various stylistic influences in a piece, while also making a dedication. Discussing Album Album, he says, “In particular, ‘Third World Anthem’ was sort of a tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and there’s a third A/B/C movement that’s sort of dedicated to South African township music, like Hugh Masekela. That set the drums up nice. There’s also a center section in there dedicated to James Brown. So there’s a lot of other musical influences that inspire my writing, especially on that particular record.”

Another album of special personal interest for DeJohnette, whose heritage is partly Native American, was 1993’s Music for the Fifth World. The project was inspired by drummer and Native American elder-writer Twylah Nitsch, who recently passed away. “I wrote the words for that and brought in a Native American woman, Joan Henry, who wrote down Native American translations, and I wrote vocal arrangements for a group of us,” says the drummer. One of that album’s tracks, “Miles,” was also a nod to DeJohnette’s old employer, Miles Davis, who had just died. “I was happy with that piece,” says DeJohnette, “because I use a little segment of Miles’ ‘Get Up With It.’ I just put a little tag on there, but the rest of it is a nice musical epitaph about Miles.”

Alas, he says, “It was one of those records that the record company didn’t really know what to do with. There was no straightahead jazz on it.”

DeJohnette’s albums haven’t always made noise in commercial radio airplay terms, or even critical consensus, but the creative output has been impressive and varied in palette. He made more albums for ECM in the ’90s and early ’00s and, at present, DeJohnette has his own label, Golden Beams Productions, which so far has focused more on improvisational and meditative projects.

Does the compositional urge still tug at him? “It is still tugging at me,” he says. He explains that he likes the idea of following Tony Williams’ lead: Later in his career, Williams pulled away from the road to study composition in college and expand his base of musical knowledge, writing from a deeper understanding in the last phase of his life.

“I’m so busy,” DeJohnette comments, “but at some point, I want to be able to have the time to study the piano, to study harmony and ear-training, sight-singing and orchestration. Yeah, I’ve got a lot to learn. I’ve picked up a lot just through osmosis, by playing with so many great musicians. But it’s a different thing when you sit down and work on your own concepts.”

Originally Published