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Overdue Ovation: Billy Drummond, True Chameleon and Professional

A look back at the drummer's four-decade career

Billy Drummond
Billy Drummond (photo: Roberto Cifarelli)

At 62, Billy Drummond has certainly earned the title of elder statesman, though the sobriquet in this case has little to do with lifespan. Chalk it up to experience—he’s been playing since he was four, and has accumulated well over 350 album credits—and to his influence as an educator through his tenures at Juilliard and NYU. In that role he serves as a conduit for some of the music’s defining voices, having played with such legendary figures as Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, and J.J. Johnson.

Still, the unassuming drummer hardly plays the role of sage on high. “The older you get, the less you know,” he insists with a laugh, over Zoom from his home in West Orange, New Jersey. “I wish I could go back and [relive those experiences] with this headspace. When you’re involved in something like that, you’re not necessarily thinking about the historical importance of the person you’re playing with—you’re just involved in the work. But later on you look back and realize, ‘Pinch me, I’m dreaming.’

Humility aside, Drummond’s playing has been a dream come true for countless bandleaders over the past three-and-a-half decades. He plays with a quiet authority, akin to the radiant strength of someone who can command the attention of a room without saying a word. The potential for ebullient swing is ever present, and occasionally bursts joyously forth, though never in quite the form one might expect. But Drummond’s focus tends more toward nuance and dynamics, which has made him an attractive collaborator for some of jazz’s most idiosyncratic voices, including Andrew Hill and Carla Bley. He’s a chameleon in the true sense: one whose colors change to fit the situation while his essence remains the same.

“I’ve come to believe that ultimately a musician’s value resides in his or her values,” wrote bassist Steve Swallow, who’s played alongside Drummond in Carla Bley’s Lost Chords and Remarkable Big Band. “Billy Drummond is a principled, compassionate man, and these attributes shine in his playing. Jazz drumming is rooted in cooperative ensemble playing; Billy’s impulse to serve the group makes his presence on any bandstand a reassurance and an inspiration. His devotion to the commonweal may not attract the attention of some critics and fans, but it moves the people he’s playing with deeply.”

If Drummond has been overlooked at times, it can be blamed in part on the scarcity of his work as a leader, limited at this writing to three releases on the Criss Cross label between 1991 and 1996. But if all goes according to plan (never a given in this age of viruses and variants), the appearance of this story will coincide with Drummond’s long-overdue return to the studio with his Freedom of Ideas quartet.

Drummond has been leading versions of Freedom of Ideas for the last decade; when he convenes the band in the late Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., in November it will consist of saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist and former student Micah Thomas, and bassist Dezron Douglas, a mainstay of the band since its formation.

“It’s called Freedom of Ideas for a reason,” Douglas says. “Billy’s a great composer and hears melody almost in a classical sense. He can swing his ass off, but he’s hearing the combination of classical with modern harmony. His tunes always have the same DNA. He brings in beautiful music, but that’s just the beginning. We take it everywhere.”

“I want it to be as democratic and as open as possible,” Drummond explains. He credits Wayne Shorter with inspiring the group’s name, drawn from an interview referring to Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet. “Miles let everybody in the band be who they were and play the way that they play. Miles being who he was, he was still the leader, but he wasn’t putting the handcuffs on anybody. I see any band that I would lead as a complete open book. Let’s play as open and as true to character as possible while not sacrificing the musical integrity.”

It’s as near to true as can be that Billy Drummond was born with drumsticks in his hands. His father was an avid jazz fan and amateur drummer who clearly passed his enthusiasm on to his son. “I never fancied the idea of being a fireman or an astronaut or any of those things that little kids say they want to be when they grow up,” Drummond says. “I had that figured out. I was lucky, because some people live their whole lives and haven’t figured that out. So I feel blessed that I knew what I wanted to do and even more blessed to have been able to do it all this time.”

Growing up in Newport News, Virginia, Drummond found himself surrounded by talented young musicians (including the Wooten brothers) and older hobbyists with whom he could hone his craft in neighborhood garages. At the same time, he was playing in school bands and in the pit for drama department productions; he went on to study at Shenandoah Conservatory as a classical percussion major.

Throughout his college years Drummond moonlighted with the Squares, a Top 40 band that covered the hits of the day in several local dance clubs. The gig funded regular visits to New York City and eventually, in 1986, a move to the city encouraged by newfound mentors like Al Foster and Art Blakey.

Shortly after his arrival he joined a group of then-rising peers in Out of the Blue, just in time to record the group’s final album, Spiral Staircase. In parallel, a call from Horace Silver to join the legendary pianist’s sextet led to his association with a number of iconic figures, including a three-year stint touring with Sonny Rollins.

“Just hearing Sonny play is enough to inspire you,” Drummond says. “That’s like going to the mountaintop, and I’ve been fortunate enough to share music with a long list of these people on a regular basis. Bobby Hutcherson, Steve Kuhn, Andrew Hill, Ron Carter—we’re talking about people that shaped this music. That’s the true mark of greatness: If you take them out of the equation, everything shifts and music would not be the same. There’s not too many people you can say that about.

In 1991 Drummond made his leader debut with Native Colours, a quintet featuring Out of the Blue bandmates Steve Wilson on sax and then-wife Renee Rosnes on piano, along with vibraphonist Steve Wilson and bassist Ray Drummond (unrelated, though he would go on to form a collective called the Drummonds with Billy and Rosnes).

The Gift followed in 1993 with Rosnes, saxophonist Seamus Blake, and bassist Peter Washington, and then the stellar Dubai two years later, featuring a chordless two-tenor quartet with Washington, Chris Potter, and Walt Weiskopf. “A lot of the drummer-led bands that influenced me didn’t have a piano or guitar,” Drummond says, citing the likes of Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. “I like that openness. There’s that word ‘freedom’ again. You play a little bit differently because there’s so much space there.”

Despite the acclaim with which Dubai was met, it marked the last time to date that Drummond would serve as sole leader on a recording date until this November (fingers crossed). The Drummonds released four albums as a collective; in 2006 Drummond joined Nicholas Payton, Bob Belden, Sam Yahel, and John Hart for the Mysterious Shorter tribute date; and in 2016 he co-headlined with Ron Carter and Javon Jackson as Three’s Company on the intimate We’ll Be Together Again.

“I see any band that I would lead as a complete open book.”

Glancing over Drummond’s discography, though, it almost seems like he’s simply been too busy to do his own thing. He’s recorded and toured constantly over the past 25 years in a staggering variety of settings. Whether navigating the eccentric contours of Carla Bley’s compositions or the quirky bop angles required by accompanying Sheila Jordan; providing a foundation for Steve Kuhn’s Evans-inspired piano trio without shattering its gorgeous fragility or propelling the individualistic swing of the late Stanley Cowell; or in countless other, vastly different situations, he’s always identifiably himself while always providing exactly what the moment requires to create captivating music.

“If someone calls me, my job is to bring their music to fruition as best I can,” Drummond insists with an enormous degree of understatement. “If they have detailed instructions, I try to use whatever musical craftsmanship I have to help them with that. But most of them don’t say anything. I think if they see something in you, they let you do what you do and probably have confidence in the fact that you’re going to be a professional. They do what I would do: pick people that have the same musical integrity and abilities that you do and it’ll take care of itself.” 

Recommended Listening

Billy Drummond Quintet: Native Colours (Criss Cross, 1991)

Billy Drummond: Dubai (Criss Cross, 1995)

Andrew Hill: Dusk (Palmetto, 2000)

Carla Bley: The Lost Chords (Watt/ECM, 2004)

Steve Kuhn: Pastorale (Sunnyside, 2007)

Three’s Company: We’ll Be Together Again (Chesky, 2016)

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.