Before & After With Sherrie Maricle: Reflecting on Big Band History

The drummer sits down for an all-big band listening session


Sherrie Maricle (photo by Garth Woods)

On March 30, 1993, drummer Sherrie Maricle and the DIVA Jazz Orchestra gave their debut performance at the Loeb Student Center at New York University, where Maricle was then on the faculty. They spent nine months holding auditions, perfecting new arrangements and rehearsing under the direction of Maricle and DIVA cofounder Stanley Kay, the longtime manager and onetime backup drummer for Buddy Rich. After more than 12 albums and numerous national and international tours, the all-women orchestra will celebrate its 25th anniversary at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center from March 29 to April 1. The ensemble will mark this milestone with the release of a new album, DIVA: 25th Anniversary Project (ArtistShare), consisting entirely of original large-ensemble compositions by DIVA members. This summer, Maricle will realize a career goal of bringing the band to the Newport Jazz Festival.

The 54-year-old Philadelphian has been DIVA’s dauntless leader for most of her career, also performing with the DIVA Jazz Trio, 3Divas, Five Play and with vocalist-tap dancer Maurice Hines. The drummer, bandleader, composer and educator recently sat down at Ronald McDonald House New York, where she holds regular workshops, for an all-big band Before & After, ruminating on the genealogy of large-ensemble playing, composition and arranging: Count Basie, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Mary Lou Williams (Maricle was a 2009 recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival), Gil Evans and Maria Schneider. Before becoming a part of it, Maricle often converged with that history, collaborating with Slam Stewart, cutting her teeth on Mel Lewis’ drum set at the Village Vanguard and hearing the Buddy Rich hi-hat mastery that first inspired her to sit down at the kit.


  1. Andy Kirk & His Twelve Clouds of Joy Featuring Mary Lou Williams
    “Walkin’ and Swingin’” (“Until the Real Thing Comes Along”/“Walkin’ and Swingin’,” Decca). Kirk, bass saxophone; Williams, piano; Paul King, Harry Lawson, Earl Thomson, trumpets; Ted Donnelly, Henry Wells, trombones; John Harrington, John Williams, Dick Wilson, reeds; Claude Williams, violin; Ted Robinson, guitar; Booker Collins, bass; Ben Thigpen, drums. Recorded in 1936.

BEFORE: Naturally, it’s one of the songs that I’ve played 10 million times and I can’t think of the title right now, or the band. I play this all the time when DIVA does our dance concerts. [following the melody line Thelonious Monk repurposed for “Rhythm-a-Ning”] I love that unison line. Is that a Mary Lou Williams composition?

AFTER: I actually recorded that with DIVA at the Kennedy Center on the Mary Lou Williams compilation CD they did [2011’s Walkin’ & Swingin’: Highlights From the Kennedy Center Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, Volume 2]. I love that straight-up-the-middle, just endless groove. It’s got a very certain pop to the beat that’s different than playing progressive, contemporary swing. Mary Lou Williams was so amazing, and I’m not going to say she’s underappreciated, especially in recent history, but throughout her career certainly. She had so many problems and issues overcoming sexism and racism, poignantly described in the documentary The Girls in the Band. Thankfully, we still have her music today.

  1. Buck Ram’s All Stars
    “Twilight in Teheran” (“Swing Street”/“Twilight in Teheran,” Savoy). Ram, arranger, director; Shad Collins, Frank Newton, trumpets; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Earl Bostic, alto saxophone; Don Byas, tenor saxophone; Ernie Caceres, baritone saxophone; Remo Palmieri, guitar; Red Norvo, vibraphone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Slam Stewart, bass; Cozy Cole, drums. Recorded in 1944.

BEFORE: My man, the Slam! I was so blessed to play with [Slam Stewart] in my career, and have him help me so much when I first started out. When [the track] first started, my impulse was Lionel Hampton, but then the big-band writing of the Lionel I’m familiar with wasn’t exactly the same kind of vibe. It seemed like the big band was definitely submerged, as this was definitely a vehicle for all the major soloists. The sax player reminds me a little of Illinois Jacquet.

AFTER: Red Norvo was my second guess, because I know he and Slam worked together a lot. And I know Slam played with Benny Goodman’s big band for a while. But I could even tell it was Slam from the pulse of his beat. One of the greatest recordings is Don Byas and Slam playing [“I Got Rhythm”] on The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. I love that piece so much, and just hearing this now, it all kind of places it together. That beat is a little bit more aggressive and edgy than the first track we listened to, but with that same kind of hardcore, driving swing.

I went to college at Binghamton University, and Slam lived in Binghamton with his wife Claire, at 80 Chestnut Street, and he was affiliated with the college music program. He’d come over once in a while, and I got to meet him and play with him once or twice. And this is still miraculous to me, but my first professional [release] was Slam’s last. It was called The Cats Are Swingin’. I spent a lot of time playing with him, and just saying, “Slam, but how would Gene Krupa do it? Or Cozy Cole?”

  1. International Sweethearts of Rhythm
    “Lady Be Good” (International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Rosetta). Anna Mae Winburn, leader; Ray Carter, Tiny Davis, Mim Polak, Johnnie Mae Stansbury, trumpets; Ina Belle Byrd, Helen Jones, Jean Travis, trombones; Grace Bayron, Vi Burnside, Ros Cron, Helen Saine, Willie Mae Wong, reeds; Johnnie Mae, piano; Margo “Trump” Gibson, bass; Pauline Braddy, drums. Recorded in 1945.

BEFORE: Is this Gene Krupa’s band? Is it Chick Webb? I’m striking out here. This is an off-the-wall guess, but this isn’t Art Blakey playing, is it? It would have to be really early, ancient Art Blakey in some weird format. I love this [drum] solo.

AFTER: Oh, it’s the Sweethearts? Oh, man! Super cool. Wow, I’m totally blown away. I’m kind of disappointed that this isn’t in my reference library of sounds. When I was in college, nobody studied the Sweethearts of Rhythm or talked about them, or any of the other great women instrumentalists. I’m so glad there are historical documents and films and books out there now that really talk about some of those things. But this is the first time I’m ever hearing this drum solo right now at this moment, and it was every bit as good as everything that I’ve ever heard in my entire career. Similar to when I hear Viola Smith—she turned 105 this year—who’s still around and kicking, and having known some of the Sweethearts, like Carline Ray, the great bass player, and [saxophonist] Roz Cron, who’s still with us too.

And I really love that drum solo. Pauline, the drummer, she did this one really cool lick that Max Roach and Art Blakey do all the time. When I heard this [taps out 16th pattern], that’s why I was like, could that be some ancient Art Blakey?

  1. Miles Davis
    “Gone” (Porgy and Bess, Columbia). Davis, flugelhorn; Gil Evans, conductor; Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal, trumpets; Joseph Bennett, Jimmy Cleveland, Dick Hixson, Frank Rehak, trombones; Willie Ruff, Gunther Schuller, Julius Watkins, French horns; Bill Barber, tuba; Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque, flutes; Cannonball Adderley, alto saxophone; Daniel Bank, baritone saxophone; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: Is this Gil Evans and Miles Davis? I’m totally familiar with this drummer. I’m not sure if it was a deliberate repetition of some of those fills, but I like the fact that the fills are repeated surrounding some of the melody.

AFTER: Unbelievable. I always put [Philly Joe Jones] in the context of Miles. His left-hand comping is very distinct compared to other drummers. Now that you said it, some of the licks are familiar, but it doesn’t sound as flowing or free. It sounds more structured and planned, probably because it’s a big band.

You know how sometimes there’s music in your life that you listen to because it’s brilliant, incredible music, and for your own education, you have to listen to it? And then there’s other music that’s all that, but you listen to it because it moves you deeply? I listen to Gil Evans from the head up more than from the head down.

A lot of people ask, “What’s the difference between playing in a big band and in a small band when you’re a drummer?” Mel Lewis used to say there’s no difference whatsoever, but that track sounds completely like a small-group drummer kicking a big band in a very unique, extraordinary way. He’s playing as more of a soloist within the band, versus “Let me try to fill up this space and support the band.”

  1. Buddy Rich
    “West Side Story Medley” (Swingin’ New Big Band, Pacific). Rich, drums; Walter Battegello, Yoshito Murakami, Bobby Shew, John Sottile, trumpets; John Boice, Dennis Good, Jim Trimble, Mike Waverley, trombones; Jay Corre, Marty Flax, Steve Perlow, Gene Quill, Pete Yellin, reeds; Barry Zweig, guitar; John Bunch, piano; Carson Smith, bass. Recorded in 1966.

BEFORE: Buddy Rich, “West Side Story.” This is one of the pieces that changed my life. I love this piece—Bill Reddie’s arrangement. There’s always so much to say about Buddy Rich, and Stanley Kay, the man who founded the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, managed Buddy on and off until Buddy’s death. He met Buddy in 1947 in Chicago.

When I heard Buddy Rich when I was 11, I saw him and his Killer Force orchestra at the Forum in Binghamton. I’d never heard jazz before, and my teacher took me. I ran home and told my mom I was going to be a drummer. The band was in tuxedoes and Buddy was in a black T-shirt. I’ve relived the goosebumps I had when all your hair stands up. Of course he had some of the greatest, most creative chops in the universe, but in a really complicated piece of music like this, in some spots he just lays back and swings on the hi-hat the most subtle, integrative part to support the arrangement. And other times he cuts loose like a complete madman and maniac. That fill right there, those triplets—that is one of my favorite fills in the universe. I have been forced to play this once or twice, and I actually can’t stand playing this, because no one can play it like Buddy Rich.

  1. Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra
    “Tiptoe” (Consummation, Solid State). Jones, flugelhorn; Lewis, drums; Danny Moore, Al Porcino, Marvin Stamm, Snooky Young, trumpets; Eddie Bert, Cliff Heather, Jimmy Knepper, Benny Powell, trombones; Eddie Daniels, Jerry Dodgion, Jerome Richardson, reeds; Roland Hanna, piano; Richard Davis, bass. Recorded in 1970.

BEFORE: Thad Jones and Mel Lewis! I hate when people ask, “Who are your top 10 favorite drummers?” But if I had such a thing, Mel is definitely way up there on that list. Is this “Tiptoe”? That’s got the great album cover too. When I moved to New York in 1985, Mel was my teacher at NYU for a year. My lessons with him would be at his house, but twice my drum lesson was playing the third set at the [Village] Vanguard. You’d think it would be fun, but I was 21 or 22. I knew a lot of this music, and I was just petrified out of my mind. That’s when they used to do three sets. Mel said, “What do you want to play?” And I said, “You know, I’ll play anything as long as there’s music,” because I’m a fairly good reader, and he goes, “Yeah, it’s all back there.” Of course I went back and sat at his drums and there’s no music anywhere. And I’d never played on [calf-skin] heads before, and it was really like playing on wet dishtowels. But what a life-altering experience that Mel gave me.

I don’t know what the word is for powerful and subtle—we need to come up with a better adjective for this. He swung so hard without ever being overpowering or overbearing in any way. When Mel hit that Chinese cymbal, in my mind it’s like when you’re shifting into the highest, most powerful gear that you have, just to send it over the edge. So I call it “Mel Lewis overdrive,” when he went to that. His brushwork too, so extraordinary and smooth as glass. Sometimes I used to think of it as an ice-skating rink or a hockey arena, when the Zamboni machine just glides over the ice and it’s perfectly smooth. Everything he plays on brushes sounds like that.

  1. Frank Foster & the Loud Minority Band
    “Simone” (Well Water, Piadrum). Foster, Leroy Barton, Bill Cody, Doug Harris, Kenneth Rogers, Bill Saxton, Charles Williams, reeds; Sinclair Acey, Kamau Adilifu, Cecil Bridgewater, Joe Gardner, Don McIntosh, trumpets; Bill Lowe, Janice Robinson, Charles Stephens, Kiane Zawadi, trombones; Mickey Tucker, piano; Earl May, bass; Elvin Jones, drums; Babafumi Akunyun, percussion. Recorded in 1977.

BEFORE: Is this by chance Pat LaBarbera on sax? It sounds very much like the piano voicings McCoy [Tyner] played. I know he had a big band. Is it Elvin [Jones]?

AFTER: I was going to say Elvin at the beginning, because of his ride cymbal. One time I saw Elvin play at the Vanguard with his quintet, and I forgot what tune it was, and he was playing a solo on a samba, and he started with just the bass drum and half notes. And he added layer by layer by layer, and it was so riveting, all the different timbres and textures of the drum kit, and he’s the king of polyrhythms. It was like you were watching some amazing forest or botanical garden grow before your eyes. Really, the swing transcends the bar line and just flows through every phrase. It’s a totally different way of playing and listening to and perceiving what a swing feel is,
and it’s incredible.

  1. Count Basie & His Orchestra
    “Right On, Right On” (Me and You, Pablo). Basie, piano; Ernie Wilkins, arranger, conductor; Dale Carley, Sonny Cohn, Steven Furtado, Bob Summers, Frank Szabo, trumpets; Bill Hughes, Grover Mitchell, Dennis Wilson, Mitchell “Booty” Wood, trombones; Eric Dixon, Eric Schneider, Danny Turner, Johnny Williams, Chris Woods, saxophones; Freddie Green, guitar; Cleveland Eaton, bass; Dennis Mackrel, drums. Recorded in 1983.

BEFORE: It’s a modern-sounding recording. Is this a Basie recording? I’m used to that bass sound on a Basie record. Is that Butch Miles? I want to hear some drum fills. Is that Dennis Mackrel? I heard a couple of little pops there, and I’m like, “Dennis!”

AFTER: I guessed Butch Miles without hearing too much, but I think Butch is more in the ’70s. That’s when I heard Butch with Basie, but Dennis comes out of the same kind of vibe and school as Mel Lewis, kind of super swinging—a loose, big fat beat. Everything he plays totally supports the band, not from on top and not from underneath, but right from the center, like the way your heartbeat supports the rest of your body. He goes right from the middle and it spreads like an explosion through the band. I love Dennis’ playing. Every time I see him play, it makes me smile ear to ear. Such a nice guy, too.

  1. The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
    “Squatty Roo” (Live at MCG, MCG). John Clayton, conductor, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Gilbert Castellanos, Sal Cracchiolo, Clay Jenkins, Bijon Watson, Eugene Young, trumpets; George Bohanon, Ira Nepus, Ryan Porter, Maurice Spears, trombones; Lee Callet, Jeff Clayton, Keith Fiddmont, Charles Owens, Rickey Woodard, reeds; Randy Napoleon, guitar; Tamir Hendelman, piano; Chistoph Luty, bass. Recorded in 2004.

BEFORE: Very familiar. Is that Jeff Hamilton? If there is one package of somebody who has been such an inspiration to me on all levels, Jeff is really one of those players. Incredibly creative, explosively dynamic and he swings so hard.

AFTER: DIVA just recorded a record for the 30th anniversary of the MCG [Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild], so I’m really excited about that. There’s a certain approach to playing in a big band, and Jeff’s similar to Dennis and swings so hard from inside the band, with that incessant, very hard-driving swing that puts such an energy and pop into everything he plays. I love his trio, too. He’s one of my favorite drummers in the world. I love John Clayton, too.

  1. Maria Schneider Orchestra
    “Nimbus” (The Thompson Fields, ArtistShare). Schneider, conductor; Greg Gisbert, Augie Haas, Tony Kadleck, Mike Rodriguez, trumpets; George Flynn, Marshall Gilkes, Ryan Keberle, Keith O’Quinn, trombones; Rich Perry, Dave Pietro, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson, Steve Wilson, reeds; Lage Lund, guitar; Gary Versace, accordion; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Jay Anderson, bass; Clarence Penn, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Is it Anat Cohen’s band? Great writing. Is it Maria? Is that Scott Robinson? I love Maria’s band. It kind of simultaneously brings you to weep and then have great feelings of overwhelming joy. It’s so moving, and it makes you feel so many different things at once—one passage of music can really take you on an emotional journey. And like I was saying earlier, it’s one thing to listen to music for the technical skill of it, which Maria has endless amounts of, but it’s the emotional impact that to me always matters most.

When I was getting my doctorate at NYU, Jim McNeely was the orchestration and arranging teacher, and Maria subbed for him one class. After like 15 minutes, I was so completely lost in her genius. She’s such a deep, deep writer, and congratulations to her for what she’s done to transform what a “big band” is, and for what she’s doing for musicians—especially as an advocate for [artists’ rights]. She’s really a gift to the music.

  1. Frank Perowsky Jazz Orchestra
    “Bouncin’ With Bud” (An Afternoon in Gowanus, Jazzkey). Perowsky, tenor saxophone; Seneca Black, Antoine Drye, Waldron Ricks, Chris Rogers, trumpets; Sam Burtis, Brian Drye, Jacob Garchik, Joe Randazzo, trombones; Jerry Dodgion, John Ellis, Bob Franceschini, Roger Rosenberg, Loren Stillman, saxophones; David Berkman, piano; Aidan O’Donnell, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: Is this Frank Perowsky’s band? And that’s Ben playing drums. I love Frank. … I knew Frank was in the process of doing a recording, and I know he loves to swing. A man after my own heart—straight up and swinging. I’m wildly thrilled that people are still doing this, more of the traditional, which is what I do in my band—straight up, they could be original arrangements or original compositions, but they really embrace the essence of big band as a dance form versus big band as a listening experience. Still challenging music for the musicians, and really fun, and when you hear it, you’ve got to snap, man.

  1. Alan Ferber Big Band
    “Late Bloomer” (Jigsaw, Sunnyside). Ferber, John Fedchock, Jacob Garchik, Jennifer Wharton, trombones; Clay Jenkins, Tony Kadleck, Alex Norris, Scott Wendholt, trumpets; Chris Cheek, John Ellis, John O’Gallagher, Jason Rigby, Rob Wilkerson, saxophones; Anthony Wilson, guitar; David Cook, piano, keyboards; Matt Pavolka, bass; Mark Ferber, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: Is this Andy Farber’s band? I like this bassline. This bassline is reminding me of a Buddy Rich tune called “The Rotten Kid.”

AFTER: Oh, Alan Ferber. You know what? I mixed it up with Andy Farber. Can’t mix up your Ferbers and your Farbers. I was thinking of Ferber. His writing has been so gorgeous in recent years. A few years ago, a record of his came out and it had a ballad, and I remember I had to write to him on Facebook and say, “I have not heard writing that stellar in so long.”

This has some of those sensibilities I was talking about before. You can feel the history of big band here, and you can hear all the extremely—I don’t like the word “modern”—world influences, a different way than you hear them in Maria’s music, but it still uses the big band in a very traditional way.

I just wish it was still the era when big bands were touring like crazy, 300 days a year, coast to coast and around the world, so people worldwide can experience this live, because there’s nothing like it. My whole life, I love trio playing and I love big band, my two favorite forms of playing, and just to see it and feel the power of a big band when you’re in front of it—nothing like it.

Read Jeff Tamarkin’s profile on Sherrie Maricle from the November 2016 issue of JazzTimes.