Andrew Cyrille is one of the key figures involved in the expansion of the musical tradition and innovation of composition. He helped usher the “once” vocabulary into the “now” vernacular of the language of “jazz” and drumming. He has significantly contributed to the evolution of art. Mr. Cyrille’s experiences run the gambit of marches, two-feels, gospel, bebop, Philly Joes and Cecil Taylors on down to dances and synthesized improvisation. At a soon to be age 72, he has performed-and continues to perform-with a host of musicians across the world documenting, assimilating and communicating the factors of his existence and environment through sound. The culmination relates sound as historically valuable in the evidence and celebration of the human experience. This interview is an attempt to look at Mr. Cyrille’s ideas about composition, improvisation and the current and future state of art. It will be released in two installments. Part one deals mainly with Cyrille’s experiences and the development of his playing style. Part two will dig into the concepts which inform, affect and shape his playing and musical sensibilities.
Dominic Fragman: Can you talk about your thought process and actual physical process regarding your path to finding your individual voice as a player? When did the idea start in your head that you knew it was important?
Andrew Cyrille: Well, the first thing you have to do is you have to learn some rules. The first basic rules that I learned about playing drums were to play rudiments. The rudiments are like vocabulary. With the vocabulary, you make sentences. With the sentences you make paragraphs and the paragraphs become chapters and chapters become books, etc. etc. So, in so far as learning to conceptualize your inner person, of course, you have to have the technique. And you need to learn about what you’re going to do with those techniques. So, if you’re in the drum and bugle corps you play marches, you see. It’s for parades. Actually, this stuff comes out of the military. I started in grade school and played in high school. I didn’t play in any kind of marching band when I was in college because the first and second college I went to had no football team. Grade school was just something that a gentleman named Obdulio Jansen organized. He resuscitated a corps that had been in existence some time before at that school. He just thought he wanted to do something for the kids and at the particular time he came through, as luck of the draw goes, I just happened to be one of those kids who joined the corps.
Therein, in and around the neighborhood of the school were other musicians who wanted to come over and help the kids. Some of them were people who had been in the corps years before and then there were also people who were professional “jazz” musicians. Some of the people who had come around were musicians like Willie Jones, who had been working with Lester Young. I think he also worked with Monk. There was Lennie McBrown, another drummer who was really very good. I think he used to work with Paul Bley. There was another guy named Lee Abrams. He worked with Dinah Washington. As a result of them being around, they told some of us kids, there’s another way to play drums too, and that had to do with playing jazz because they were into jazz. They started talking about people like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson. Also, Max Roach used to practice around the corner from where my grade school was about a block or so away.
On occasion, after drum and bugle corps rehearsal, someone like Willie Jones or Lennie McBrown, would take us around to this studio, it wasn’t really a studio it was like a bar and grill on the first floor and Max would practice up on the second floor. I never really saw him playing but I would hear him. And the reason I think we couldn’t go up there was because we were too young and there could have been alcohol sold in there or something like that. So anyway, we used to stand out there and listen to him play. After a while, I would go over to Willie Jones’ house and I got to play as they call it, the multiple percussion set, the drum set. That sparked an interest in me to learn how to play with my hands and feet and make these things work together the way the older guys were doing–the way that Willie would show me: and the ride beat and the left hand, independently.
I also had another little buddy. His name was Bernard Wilkenson. Matter of fact, his sister, Mildred, married Max. That was Max’s first wife. Bernard and I would practice together and since Max was around it influenced Bernard, it influenced me. When Max was on the road or something like that, he’d still have his drums set up in the basement of the house. Bernard and I would go practice, play with each other, compare notes, etc.
Now, at that time, I had gone to high school and I was in the high school band. In the high school band was another musician who became noteworthy as time went on, and that was Eric Gale. A guitar player who eventually played with this group called, Stuff. They had made some recordings with CTI Records. It was a pretty popular group at the time. That was of course, after we had left high school. But, during the time we were in high school, we used to play jobs outside of the school band. We would play at dances, proms, etc. or whatever. So then, we thought about trying to get at little trio together on a permanent basis to play around the neighborhood. We found a young piano player, around our age, named Leslie Brathwaite. He was really into jazz, too. We began rehearsing every Saturday. Leslie was into cats like Horace Silver and Charlie Parker so we started learning those tunes, “But Not For Me,” “Senior Blues,” “Now’s The Time,” “Night In Tunisia,” you know, those kinds of tunes, and we started to work around the neighborhood.
Around that time too, I began meeting other musicians, older musicians and finding out about things they were doing and what the music was all about, not only the musical value but the political and social situation that the music was involved with, where the music came from. They pointed us to the past to people like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton. Those names would come up. They were trying to inform us about the history of what it was we were about.
So, when I first left high school, I was interested in chemistry. I went to St. John’s University and was a chemistry major. While I was there I was still gigging at night, a lot. I had to make a decision as to what I was going to do with my life as far as a profession and being able to make a living was concerned. So, I couldn’t go to school, carrying 16, 17, 18 credits, studying all of that academic stuff and at the same time be out at night playing music. So I decided I had to make a choice. Along with the fact that the older musicians were telling us about those things I had mentioned before, they were also taking about music school. A couple music schools that were always mentioned were Juilliard and another was the Manhattan School of Music. So, I remember one night I was invited to play at what they called the University Talent Night at St. John’s. What I decided was to play a drum solo. After I played, a lot of the students came up to me and said, “Hey man, if you can play like that what are you doing here?” So I thought about that, and Leslie and Eric were talking about how they wished they could go to a music school. It was always a positive attitude about learning more about music. So, I decided I would take the test for Juilliard. I took the test and to my satisfaction and amazement, I was accepted.
The thing about Juilliard is that it was great insofar as me getting my technique together, learning about literature and the materials of music, theory, ear training. And of course, I was in the percussion department, that’s what my major was. I was playing snare drum–you learn on the snare drum–then there’s xylophone/marimba, timpani and you had to be proficient at each. I would have to prepare lessons on a weekly basis for my teacher, Morris Goldenberg. He was big time in the area of studio work and a lot of stuff like that. I was assigned to him at Juilliard. He was my major teacher there. But at the same time, in school with me were people like trombonist, Grachan Moncur, alto saxophonist, Gary Bartz, Bobby Thomas, the drummer, John Gordon the trombone player who did a lot of work with Lionel Hampton, and others. All of us were interested in playing jazz. We had this interest to learn about what Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach and all those guys were doing. But that was not the program at Juilliard. Their philosophy, at least in the percussion department with Morris Goldenberg, was that he was preparing his students to work in the studio, and symphony orchestras, which is not a bad way to make a living playing music.
You know, if you make something like The Tonight Show, that kind of thing is good because you make a lot of money, it’s steady employment, you’re playing the drums, etc. And with Morris, who basically said to me, when you go to take an audition with the Cleveland Orchestra or the Buffalo Symphony or the Denver Symphony, and they hear you do your audition stuff, they’ll say, yeah, he’s from Morris Goldenberg because we recognize whatever he’s doing and his technique. So, he’s qualified. Or at least I would be in contention with anybody else if I was applying for those jobs. But my head was to be able to play jazz, that’s why I went there-to expand my consciousness as far as playing jazz is concerned. But that’s not where their heads’ were. So as I was studying at Juilliard, I was also working on the outside with jazz groups. I worked with Nellie Lutcher from Lake Charles, LA. She wasn’t necessarily a jazz person but she had been moving around in those circles. I think she had done some stuff with Charlie Barnett, you know those kinds of people. And in a sense, even though it was like a very good and well-crafted club act with little or no improvising, she would sing the same songs with bass and drums accompaniment every night with prescribed arrangements. There would be a certain way I’d have to play certain things. So, with her I learned how to play in 2/2 you know. “COME-ON-DOWN-TO-MY-HOUSE-BABY-AIN’T-NOBODY-HOME- BUT-ME,” “Fine Brown Frame” in a swinging 1&2&1&2& . . . at different tempos. And you had to do that. That’s just another way of being educated in terms of how you think in certain musical situations as a drummer. So, I was doing that. Around that time I played with people like Illinois Jacquet as well.
Eventually, I met Mary Lou Williams and started working with her. Then, I used to see Cecil Taylor in studios and on the scene in clubs, etc. We would say hello to each other. We hadn’t started working together. But we would be like, “Hey man, how’re you doing? What’s going on? Yeah, well, I heard you were playing so and so! I like what you were doing.” We just talked about stuff like that. There were sessions at places like Count Basie’s. Basie had a club up in Harlem. I think it was up on 132nd and 7th Ave. There were a lot of clubs up there and they would have sessions. So that’s where I would go to meet a lot of the musicians who wanted or who were into playing jazz. People like Lou Donaldson used to come up there, trumpeter, Bill Hardman, saxophone players like George Braith and Junior Cook used to come up there to play, Bruno Carr, a drummer. So all those guys would go up there. There was a big mix and it had a lot to do with playing sessions. That’s how I began to build my business as far as jazz was concerned-when you met the musicians. There was really no Jazz employment office that you could go to like Local 802 on 52nd street. The employment office was when you would go to these sessions, guys would hear you, they’d take your number and when a job would come up they’d call you or you’d call them. That’s how the business was built. And it still continues that way because when we’re on the scene and we’re on the road and we see each other we take each other’s phone number, etc., and we get together.
So, what I’m saying is that, at Juilliard I was doing these things, plus I was doing the stuff at Juilliard. Then I just decided that . . . well, my money ran out. Then I started working in the field and I was also learning from people like Jacquet, Mary Lou Williams and Babatunde Olatunji. I was in Olatunji’s band for a while and I learned a lot of things. I learned a lot about playing African rhythms. Playing with a lot of African drummers. Not necessarily from Africa, a couple were from Africa one guy named Ladji Camara, from Guinea, and there was Olatunji from Nigeria. We were playing African songs and at the same time, I was on the trap set in the midst of these guys playing hand drums, learning all about what they were hearing and playing and what Olatunji wanted. So I was learning how to play a lot of the African rhythms. In another sense, that’s where I learned another concept and the idea to give to the music what it needed from the drumming department in order for it to work.
So you experienced a lot of stuff and you were exposed starting early on to people like Max and the type of folks who were coming to the drum and bugle corps. When were you then introduced to the concept that it was about having your own voice and developing your own thing?
From the very beginning. I met Philly Joe Jones when I was about 17 and I spent a lot of time with Joe. As a matter of fact, I was really closer to Joe in a sense then I was to a lot of the people who were established in the music. I used to see a lot of the people when I’d hang out with him. Going to sessions with Miles, Cannonball, Coltrane all those guys right there like Bud Powell, Stan Getz. We went to sessions with all those guys. I used to go see Joe in a lot of places. He’d let me sit in sometimes with the bands he had been working with. So, I was getting a hands on experience and learning how to play that music. But, what I’m going to say to you is that, all of the time with all of those guys-and Max too-you know, I would go to the house and we used to talk. He was a good guy in a lot of ways. But anyway, they all would say you have to find your own voice, you have to find your own thing. I’ll tell you this, one time I went to hear Max play. It was at the club in Harlem called Small’s Paradise. Max had really played some extraordinary stuff that night, I mean he was really burning. And so, after the set, I went over to him and I said “Max, you played everything man! That was some out of sight stuff!” So, he says “Nah, I didn’t play everything.” He said “There’s still some more stuff out there. You just gotta go out and find it.” See, with that and the stuff like Philly Joe was telling me, you know, you don’t come out here to sound like somebody else. If you come out here to make a contribution, you gotta make a contribution from a vantage point of what you think, you know.
Paul [Murphy] has told me pretty much the same story in a situation with you. He was playing after you and you said the same type of thing as a response to him.
Right. See, and what I did was I passed what Max said to me on to him. See, and it could have been verbatim or in some paraphrased way. So, all of the cats, they would always tell me, Frankie Dunlop, Charlie Persip, Roy Haynes, all of those people, it’s always been: you find something to say, to contribute. And of course, too, another big piece of my life as far as drumming is concerned, which really contributed to my understanding of how to play drums in a way that was not in an ensemble situation, had to do with playing with dancers. I played for dance classes I don’t know how many years and with great dancers out there doing Broadway stuff. Like, Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, JoJo Smith, Claud Thompson, Herman Howell, etc.
These things all contributed to the way you played and technique supplied the command of the instrument in order to express what you thought.
Right, yeah the concept. And see, every time you play something, in other words if you’re speaking French you speak French, if you speak German you speak German, if you speak English you speak English . . .
What you put in your body, comes out. The experiences that you have from whatever playing situations and whatever “educational” thing, bandstand or otherwise, that’s what’s going to come out and what shapes your voice . . .
Yeah, well what comes out is your ability to solve problems. I played shows also. I was in a group called “Voices Incorporated,” in which the majority of the musicians in the ensemble were singers. They were like these operatic type voices. They were singing songs about the Negro experience. That was in the 1960’s, with the civil rights movement going on. They were singing “Amazing Grace” and different songs like that, “Lord Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” gospel type tunes. I can’t remember the names of all of them. It was just me and a piano player, and at the beginning of every show, there would be Ladji Camara, from the Olatunji stuff. He would open the show and then I would join him in the introduction and then the show would begin. Just speaking about the fact that our drumming in that sense and the experiences that we had as black people in this country, generally was from Africa and of course too with the combination of European culture, and here we are, American. The African, European and all the cultures that come to the United States make all of us who we are. So, as a result, playing with those singers, I learned in a sense, how to play shows.
I did another show with just me and a piano player. It was a show headlined by the actress, Kay Ballard. The show was called the “Rise and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes Of Cole Porter.” Something like that. We were playing all these Cole Porter songs and there was a whole stage cast. We were like the pit band. It was just me and the piano player. People were singing and moving. They had these gorgeous voices and they had scenes and, of course, we had to play what was appropriate for them to characterize what it was they were about. So, what am I saying to you? I’m saying that all of that stuff even sometimes when it’s a show and you cannot do what you want to do, whether it be in a jazz situation where you can express yourself in the moment with whatever it is that comes to mind, you still have to learn. You learn, you discipline yourself. Then when you learn how to discipline yourself in one way, you can also discipline yourself and think through problems in another way. It’s all in a sense lateral to some degree. It all depends on how you want to do it, what you need to do in order to get to the other side, in order to get to the solution.