Johnathan Blake: Fascinated by Rhythm

A conversation with the highly in-demand drummer about his creative evolution and most recent album, Trion on Giant Steps Arts

Johnathan Blake (photo by Jimmy Katz)
Johnathan Blake (photo by Jimmy Katz)

Despite his roots in Philadelphia, Johnathan Blake is the quintessential New York City jazz drummer. He’s played with a virtual who’s-who of the jazz scene; the list is too long even for online reproduction but includes Tom Harrell, Kenny Barron, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. The son of the late violinist John Blake, he grew up in a very musical household and community, nurtured by veteran jazz musicians like Shirley Scott and Mickey Roker, and he established relationships with like-minded artists like Jaleel Shaw and Questlove.

His newest album, Trion, was recorded for the label—or, more accurately, the organization—Giant Step Arts, a not-for-profit created by Jimmy and Dena Katz with an unusual structure through which the artist receives the albums and retains all rights to the music. The album, a two-disc set, was recorded live at the Jazz Gallery in New York and features saxophonist Chris Potter and bassist Linda May Han Oh.

Blake spoke with JazzTimes’ Lee Mergner about growing up in Philadelphia, establishing himself in New York, and recording the new album live.

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JazzTimes: What was your introduction to playing music?

Johnathan Blake: I always say that it originates with my father [violinist John Blake] because I was surrounded by the music. Through his guidance I was taking lessons on violin, starting when I was three years old. He was my first violin teacher. As things progressed, I went through the Settlement Music School program in Germantown, where myself and my sisters were raised. Jaleel Shaw, Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco and I all came through a program called the Lovett Hines Youth Ensemble at the Clef Club. That was another outlet for me and allowed me to get my feet wet in the jazz scene that was happening in Philadelphia at the time. It was a great experience for me. And I was playing at places like Ortlieb’s Jazz Club, cutting my teeth at night sitting in with people like Shirley Scott and Mickey Roker, who sometimes would let me take over the last set. The tutelage from those great drummers—Mickey Roker, Bobby Durham, and Edgar Bateman—they were taking the time to mentor me and several other up-and-coming musicians.

When did you get into playing drums?

I was always fascinated by rhythm as a young kid. My mom used to tell me that I would take plastic spoons and I would tap out the rhythms on whatever there was—pans or the table—to whatever was on the tape or was playing on the radio. I think after beating my mom’s pots and pans to death, they were like, “Okay, we gotta get this guy a drum set.” They started an afterschool music program at my elementary school where they would have a concert band and a stage band or jazz band. They also provided us with free lessons. There was a teacher who came in twice a week and gave students drum lessons or whatever other instruments that students wanted to play, but you had to take a proficiency test. I scored really high on the test. I was allowed to pick what instrument I wanted, and so of course at 10 years old, I said, “I want to play drums.” It took a while before my parents decided to break down and get me a drum set. But they did and I was relegated to the basement, with the doors shut.

Most drummers are sent to the basement.

My father had a studio built in the basement of our house, and that’s where I was. I would come home after school and go to town downstairs, probably even before I completed my homework, that’s how much I wanted to play. It was probably around sixth or seventh grade, when I moved from elementary school to middle school, that I really started playing in the jazz band. Around that time, my dad started teaching a small big band at the Settlement Music School. One day, an alto player comes in at 10 years old or something like that, and it was actually Jaleel, and I was just amazed that somebody that young was playing really well. I think it was his mom and him who invited me to check out the Clef Club Youth Ensemble, which met downtown in Philly. I went down that following week and I was just blown away, like, “Man, there are kids my age that are interested in the same thing I’m interested in.” It just felt like a natural progression. I started playing in a band. We would get called to do weddings or benefits or banquets and stuff. We were traveling all around New York and playing.

We ask a lot of musicians when interviewing them what their first paid gig was, and most remember it. But you might have trouble remembering because you started playing professionally so young.

I definitely don’t remember the very first one, but I know it was really early on. It was probably one of these banquets we did with the Youth Ensemble. But I also remember when I was about 16 my father drove me to do a gig with Charles Fambrough. It was somewhere in South Jersey and my dad drove me with my drums, and stayed there and watched me play, maybe in the early ’90s. I knew Charles all my life. He and my dad were playing with McCoy Tyner when I was like two or three, so he remembered me from when I was a small child. I remember him being one of the people that gave me one of my first professional gigs.

Philly was just such a rich environment to be around musically. You had the Philly sound, then you had the more straight-ahead jazz, you had fusion, you had the hip-hop thing with the Roots coming out, Jill Scott and neo-soul. There were just so many different types of music coming out, but we all seemed to run in the same circles. It just felt like a big family in a way. I did house parties with Questlove where he was spinning and I was playing drums. It was like we were all intertwined. It wasn’t like this big separation. At least to me it didn’t feel like that.

You’re right that the scene was very open. Derrick Hodge talks about how that openness helped to shape him creatively.

We weren’t taught to just play jazz music, we were taught to play the drums. I don’t like to say, “I’m a jazz drummer.” I like to say I’m a drummer, because I’m able to adapt in different situations and cross over, for lack of a better word. That’s what I grew up in. The mere fact that when I was born my dad was playing with Grover Washington, Jr. just goes to show that there was a lot of different things going on. I was hearing so many genres of music, but equally loving all of them.

The thing that sometimes hangs over Philadelphia musicians is that New York issue—the guys who stay vs. the guys who leave. How did you come to that decision?

I knew I wanted to be in New York or closer to New York. I got accepted into Manhattan School of Music and also William Paterson University [in New Jersey]. I decided to go to William Paterson, where I was close enough to the city where I could go in pretty much any time I wanted. I did go to college with the idea that I wanted to stay up there and kind of cut my teeth on the New York scene. I had done a lot in Philly and played almost everywhere I could play, and that really helped shape the musician that I am now, just from being there. But I also wanted to have a different experience and meet other musicians—some of the older musicians who were still around when I was there. Getting to hang with Joe Williams and meeting Betty Carter, there were just certain things that I could get up there that I wasn’t able to get down in Philly. When I finally graduated from William Paterson, I wasn’t looking to move back to Philly. I was like, “I’m going to stay in the area and hopefully be able to make a living doing what I love.” I don’t think that my path would’ve been the same if I hadn’t stayed up here—good or bad. But I’m happy with the decision. I feel like I haven’t lost my Philly roots, because every time I go back I’m still checking out the musicians or there are still people who come to check me out when I’m playing. I just played down there recently with Alexander Claffy.

What was one of the first great sideman gigs you had? What was the first one that you felt, “Wow!” when you were on the bandstand?

I remember getting the call for one of my first gigs when I moved to New York, which was playing with Roy Hargrove. I was still in college, and he actually called the apartment that I was staying at and I wasn’t home. I think at the time I was at school. He called to get me to audition, so that was a wow moment, and then getting to share the stage with him when I’m 19 or 20. Going from there to playing with people like Oliver Lake and his big band and his small groups, which turned into going on 10 years with the Mingus Big Band. A lot has been by word of mouth, etc. But with all of these experiences, I still have to pinch myself sometimes because I feel like never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d be playing with the people who I do now. Sharing the stage with Kenny Barron—he played on my father’s first record, Maiden Dance on Gramavision [1984]. Sometimes I have to take a step back and say, “Man, I can’t believe it.”

Or Tom Harrell. One of my best friends, a great trumpeter named Daud El-Bakara, came up in the Clef Club Youth Ensemble with Jaleel and me. He was the first guy to hip me to Tom Harrell. Tom had this record Moon Alley on the Criss Cross label, which also had Kenny Barron, Kenny Garrett, Ray Drummond, and Ralph Peterson. And we wore that CD out. I think I had to re-buy it three times. That’s still one of my favorite CDs. Whenever I’m playing with Tom now, I revert back to that because I’m like, “Man, I was sitting in my friend’s living room listening to this guy on the CD and now I’m on stage with him.” I have a lot of those moments now, playing with Ravi Coltrane’s quintet, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Pharoah Sanders. And most recently with Maria Schneider’s orchestra. All these experiences have been, in a way for me, just mind-blowing.

How the heck do you manage all the different gigs?

There are times where stuff overlaps and I’m like, “Oh man, I can’t do this.” One of the things that has helped me is that I always try to think a year ahead, and I contact all the managers or whoever of the bands that I play with, and I say, “Okay, what do you guys have on the books now?” I try to plan ahead and just say, “Look, what’s happening this month?” Or, “This is what I have so far, is there anything else?” And then that way I feel like I’ve given everybody an equal chance. And whoever gets back to me first and says, “Okay, this is what we need you to hold off, hold this time frame off,” I try to do that. I try to honor it. I haven’t really run into too many problems.

Let’s talk about Trion, your recording with Giant Step Arts, the organization created by Jimmy and Dena Katz.

All these [Giant Step Arts] records are basically artistic statements, and they really want to showcase new artists themselves—promote them, get them out there. Which I think is brilliant. They don’t get involved as far as picking the songs. They allow the musicians to have that freedom, to play what they want to play and use the musicians that they want to use. Sometimes when you’re dealing with larger labels, they want to have more control over what you say and do and what you play. To have that freedom, and then at the end of the project you own your recording and can do what you want with it, is just unheard of. People like Dena and Jimmy don’t come around all that often. To have them in our corner is just a beautiful, beautiful thing. They’ve always been such heavy advocates for the music.

Given how hard it is to sell records these days through the traditional outlets and channels, it seems that they’re taking a pro-active approach.

Putting the power back into the musicians’ hands is something that I feel has needed to happen for a long time. People like Maria Schneider are really advocates about having more rights for the musicians. And it should be that way, where the ones that are creating the music and putting the time into rehearsing the band and all this—why should we give this away for free? This is our blood, sweat, and tears. I really appreciate people like Dena and Jimmy for giving us the control back, so to speak. It’s been very tough for a lot of us out here.

I know that Jimmy prefers to record jazz live. Was that the reasoning for doing the album live at the Jazz Gallery?

I think that as an engineer he’s recorded so many things there so he’s comfortable with the surroundings and the settings. Also, I feel like the musicians—I can’t speak for everyone, but at least for myself—I’ve played that room so many times that it’s become almost like a second home. I know what to expect, and in turn I think most of the musicians that have played that room feel comfortable there and know how to get to their sound. For us it’s one less thing to think about.

Rooms do have their own sound and that can be a consideration.

Right. For me, recording there just felt so easy. We all know what that room sounds like when we take our instruments out and play.

Chris Potter, Linda May Han Oh and Johnathan Blake (photo by Jimmy Katz)
Chris Potter, Linda May Han Oh, and Johnathan Blake (photo by Jimmy Katz)

How was it that you came to do this project specifically with Chris Potter and Linda May Han Oh?

Chris and I go way back. I played with Chris when I first joined the Mingus Big Band in the late ’90s. We played a couple of times at the Fez [a now-defunct club in the basement of Time Café at Lafayette and Great Jones Streets in lower Manhattan] when he was really young and I was super young. Then, a few years ago, Chris put together a trio with Larry Grenadier and myself and we toured Europe for a couple of weeks. We took maybe about a month or so off and then we did a tour of the States, and this time it was with Scott Colley. I got used to playing with Chris in the trio setting. Linda and I had played some with Jaleel and his groups.

A few years ago I had the idea of putting that band together with Chris and Linda, because I had played so much with them both, but they had never played together. I said, “I want it to be more of a collective group. Let’s all bring music.” There were a couple of tunes that I had played with Chris on those trio tours that I felt would really work with the band, and I had a couple of tunes that I had been playing in a trio setting with Scott Colley and Donny McCaslin, and I brought them to this group and I was like, “Man, this’ll work.” And then Linda brought a couple of tunes. We were at first going under the collective name “BOP” for everyone’s last name—Blake, Oh, and Potter.

When Jimmy approached me, he said, “Man, I really love that trio but …” He wanted me to be more of the leader. I said, “Okay, well, I can ask them and hopefully it’ll be cool.” They were willing and decided to do the project, so it turned out to be the Johnathan Blake Trio, but a lot of it was the music that we had already played. And there were some other things that we tried that when I listened back to it, I was like, “That might not work for the record, but maybe for something else.” It was just a beautiful experience, having the opportunity to play with Linda and Chris. I think Linda was really excited to be able to work with Chris for the first time. It felt like they had a great connection immediately. It just made everything flow so much more smoothly because we weren’t thinking about too much, we were just there to play. When you don’t have so much pressure, that’s where the music takes shape and the magic happens and it really comes to life. I feel like this project is really an honest moment of some great music.

Each of you is a musician’s musician, so it’s great that it would all come together. You also did a tune by your dad—“Blue Heart.”

That’s a song that’s never been recorded before. He did a demo recording of it years ago, but it never manifested itself on one of his records. After he passed away in 2014, I made it a point to either play one of his songs in a live setting or try to record a song. I try to do that now, when I have my own gigs, because I feel like it’s a way of continuing his legacy and keeping his music going. And also to introduce people to his music that might not be familiar with his work. That was one of the things that we hadn’t really played before, but I brought it especially for this session and I was really happy with the way it took shape.

What do you think is special about the chordless saxophone trio?

I love the space that’s in there without someone playing chords—whether it be guitar or vibes or piano. It just feels like there’s freedom within the music, like you can treat a Cmaj7 chord in a different fashion when there’s just a bass and no chordal instruments. You can take more liberty. When you have someone whose harmonic sense is so advanced, like Chris Potter and Linda, the music can just go so many different places. They took my original music and took it to a whole other level that I didn’t think was even possible.