Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, a world-class drummer whose remarkably wide-ranging talents took him into the worlds of jazz, rock, pop, R&B, funk, disco and even country music, died Feb. 3, as reported by Rolling Stone. Chancler was 65.
If he’d done nothing else, his drumming on Michael Jackson’s 1982 multiplatinum “Billie Jean” would have guaranteed Chancler a place in the music history books. But that barely scratched the enormous surface. In jazz alone, Chancler worked with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Thelonious Monk, the Crusaders, Patrice Rushen, Hubert Laws, Stanley Clarke, Eddie Harris, Julian Priester, Joe Henderson, Harold Land, George Benson, Bobby Hutcherson, Jean-Luc Ponty and many others, including Weather Report (1975’s Tale Spinnin’). He recorded and toured with George Duke from 1972-80.
Chancler’s list of credits in pop, rock, blues and R&B is equally astonishing, and includes the Temptations, John Lee Hooker, Tina Turner, Carlos Santana (with whom he toured in the mid-’70s; the guitarist recommended him to Weather Report), Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Donna Summer, Frank Sinatra and, of course, Jackson (he also played on two other Thriller tracks, plus one on Bad).
A number of fellow artists took to social media to express their condolences and offer tributes. Guitarist Vernon Reid called Chancler “an incredible musician, a unique stylist … who left an indelible mark on me & many of my generation.” Questlove posted that Chancler “sparked a revolution of dance madness breakbeat mania.”
Leon “Ndugu” Chancler was born July 1, 1952, in Shreveport, La. He took up drumming at 13 and landed gigs with Latin-jazz percussionist Willie Bobo and Gerald Wilson’s big band while still in school. Upon obtaining a degree in music education from California State University, Dominguez Hills, Chancler turned professional, moving with fluidity between vastly diverse projects throughout the rest of his life.
A three-time Grammy nominee, Chancler played on a number of movie soundtracks, including An Officer and a Gentleman, Indecent Proposal and The Color Purple, and served as a composer (Santana, the Dazz Band, George Duke) and producer (Flora Purim, Bill Summers) for others.
He recorded several albums as a leader and co-leader, including Do I Make You Feel Better? (with the Chocolate Jam Co., 1980), Old Friends, New Friends (1989), The Meeting (with Patrice Rushen, Ernie Watts and Alphonso Johnson, 1990), Jazz Straight Up (with Stanley Clarke and Patrice Rushen, 2001), Old Friends Live (on which he played vibraphone, 2010) and 3 Brave Souls (with John Beasley and Darryl Jones, 2012).
As an educator, Chancler held a faculty position in the jazz studies department at the USC Thornton School of Music, and was on staff at the United States Percussion Camp at Eastern Illinois University, the Stanford University Jazz Workshop, Jazz America and the Thelonious Monk Foundation.