Last December, the drummers Chris Dave, 44, Eric Harland, 41, and Kendrick Scott, 38, found themselves on old stomping ground, milling about the hallways of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). They had returned for the annual holiday-season “DocFest” benefit, which raises money for a music scholarship fund, and decided to take a surreal detour down memory lane.
“We all went to the band room and just stood in there and looked at each other—like, ‘Wow,’” Scott recalls, chuckling. “And then everybody looked at the [wall of] plaques, and I’ll tell you the truth: I remember seeing each of their names on there, but I never made all-state. … To this day, that’s one of my motivating factors. That always irked me. I don’t even think I made all-region band.”
The absurd thought that the Kendrick Scott—Blue Note recording artist, rhythmic anchor for Terence Blanchard and Charles Lloyd—couldn’t cut it has an air of inspirational lore. But this is Houston, arguably America’s premier incubator for game-changing drummers. Survey forward-looking jazz, not to mention neo-soul and hip-hop, over the past couple decades and you’ll notice that several of the most fluidly virtuosic sticksmen have Houston roots. And as stylistically divergent as HSPVA alumni like Dave, Harland, Scott, Jamire Williams, Mark Simmons, and Reggie Quinerly can get, an aesthetic through line does emerge—namely, that their mastery of syncopation, odd time, and rhythmic filigree always feels grooving and flowing. So where does it come from?
“What we kind of call the Houston bloodline,” Dave tells me, “starts with this cat named Craig Green.” Now 64, Green is a renowned educator whose own mentorship came via another Houston great, Conrad O. “Prof” Johnson. As a teenager, Green powered Johnson’s Kashmere Stage Band, the strikingly precocious R&B and jazz ensemble featured in 2011’s award-winning, Jamie Foxx-produced documentary Thunder Soul. A thoughtful man with a firm but gentle demeanor in conversation, Green began teaching Harland when he was six, but inherited most of his famous pupils as their middle-school drum instructor and band director. To hear him expound is to go down a checklist of what makes Houston’s all-star drummers so soulfully state-of-the-art.
First there’s the mission statement: “[The drum kit is] an instrument that needs to be studied and respected as much as any other instrument,” he says. Concepts of polyrhythm and four-way coordination are bolstered by the fact that Green is a left-handed musician who can play and teach right-handed with ease. “That started the whole thought, in sixth grade, of ‘Anything you do with your right hand, you should be able to do with your left,’” Dave says, and Green adds that that dictum extends to feet. He also encourages students to accent and respond to the hidden nooks and pockets of 4/4 time. “I used to say, ‘It’s always good to play off the offbeat,’” Green explains. “‘Try to fill in that space that’s not common.’”
But even more important than any specific musical instruction is a general desire to empower, something else he inherited from Johnson. “My philosophy that I got from Conrad was to never underestimate the capabilities of young people,” he says. “Don’t expect them to sound like middle-school kids just because they’re middle-school kids.”
When asked why Houston is such a fertile jazz breeding ground, Green underscores a comprehensive system of formal instruction that follows gifted students from elementary school through junior high, Houston’s venerated Summer Jazz Workshop and HSPVA, which functions like four years of elite college prep. “Once I got to New York, once I got to the New School, I was like, ‘Oh, this is just like high school for us,’” Williams says. Over the years, Green has told his promising students that they’d need to leave Houston for better opportunities—with some stipulations. For one, they should continue to respect the kit and develop their skills. “My greatest concern for them was that they’d get to New York and get snatched up [for a gig] and stop growing,” he says. And his other request: “Remember to leave me tickets at will-call, because I know y’all are going to blow up.”
Alongside that intensive public-school education was another institution that nurtured outstanding musicianship while building community. “We had to play in church,” Harland says, starting to laugh. “It was like, ‘Mom said you gotta come to church and you gotta play.’” “Gotta” is an understatement; Harland, like Scott and Williams, grew up with a mother who worked as a celebrated gospel choir and music director, making church and family life inextricable. “For me, music is always about purpose,” Scott says. “Playing music in the church gave us insight into what the music is about—before we even learned what we were doing.”
“There’s a lot of different music going on [in Houston]. But we all come up through gospel, and being able to support the band and choir,” Williams says. Indeed, Houston has long been a scene without the sort of musical/political baggage that separates one style from another, and the contemporary gospel that fostered these drummers pulled from a wide range of idioms. Underneath it all, however traditional or modern, is the notion that feel is paramount. Playing in church, Harland explains, formed a “foundation of just knowing how to groove.” The techniques behind that, he argues, have created jazz drummers who approach swing from within the kit rather than relegating it to one cymbal. “I think we hear swing like a style,” he says. “It doesn’t have to necessarily come from the ride. It’s an interpretation of the groove.”
“We definitely have an openness to our sound, a way of embodying a bottom-up mentality,” Scott says. “A lot of drummers jazz-wise think cymbals down. We still do think that way, but we [also] think drums up. That’s the way it feels when I hear cats from Houston, because you can hear the gospel influence, which is pretty much like drums from the bottom up. From the top down doesn’t have the same weight, and I think Houston drummers play with a lot of weight.”
When I told Scott that Harland expressed nearly identical thoughts earlier that day, he laughed but also seemed genuinely touched. “Really?” he asked. “My big brother said that? I’m on the right path then.” Which points up yet another integral element of Houston excellence: a constant creative rapport, laced with wisecracking tough love, that’s shared among peers or with drummers slightly older or younger. “It’s ‘Each one teaches one,’” Scott says. Dave recalls revelatory hangs with Sebastian Whittaker, a legendary Houston drummer who passed in 2016 at 49, and whose sightlessness allowed him to develop otherworldly ears—enabling him, for instance, to narrate the movements in Art Blakey concert footage with precision, based solely on what he was hearing. Whittaker could play “swing to where you’d think he never did anything else but just swing,” Dave remembers. “If he wanted to play reggae, he’d play it as if he only likes reggae. … I took that [concept] and kind of amped it up.” Likewise, Dave would shed with Harland, his cousin, when the former came home from college on breaks. Harland in turn worked with Scott.
Even beyond Houston, the city’s heritage has found ways to carry on. Case in point: Williams’ first teacher, Lester Grant, told him stories about Houston swing authority Michael Carvin, who’d left his hometown decades ago for the jazz life in New York. “So once I got to the city,” Williams says, “it was only right that we connected.”
Back in the band room at HSPVA, Scott still felt the sting of not seeing his name on those all-star plaques. That shortcoming inspired him to double down on practice coming out of high school, and after gigging three nights a week while studying at Berklee, things began to click. Then, as now, the plaques represented a lineage of greatness he aspired to join. “When we went back to the room, it hit me again. And of course, I had to be standing with [Harland and Dave]. So it refocused me.
“And then one of the young drummers, Joshua Green, had just walked in the room,” Scott continues. “I looked at him, like, ‘This is crazy.’ [Laughs] Because he’s about to come to Manhattan School of Music, where I’m teaching. So it’s really cool to see the continuum. It’s incredible.”