New York City for many years has been the place that some of the greatest jazz musicians explored the genre. As Bryan Carter, a 25-year old drummer from Sycamore, Illinois grew up, his grandmother would force him up in front of the congregation at church to sing; Bryan was also put in front of the drums by his parents. He began playing drums from hearing church drummers and lulled to sleep by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Free For All. We met up on the day before Thanksgiving, when he had some spare time right after a recording session. Bryan’s big gig is touring with Kurt Elling.
Tell me about yourself
“I live here in New York City (moved here in 2008) when I attended Juilliard. I got into music very early on (three years old) in church; I come from a somewhat musical family with a long line of musicians and minsters (M&Ms) and I fell in love with music in a unique way. In my house I didn’t only hear but grew up playing jazz and gospel, and I started Suzuki violin, which got me into classical music. I played top 40 on drums, which sounds different now than back then: it was Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton and I knew all of those tunes. My parents would also take me to the symphony to see Leonard Slatkin conduct the St. Louis Symphony and I would see the Chicago Symphony. I grew up with a really diverse group of musical influences around me that was unique then, but even more unique now. I was really lucky with my musical upbringing.”
“One of my direct influences is my dad, who was a college band director (and before that, a high school band director.) When I was really small, I got to hang around his then high school students and I was in awe of them and I wanted to play with them. My dad set up a tiny set of drums next to their drummer and let me play along — very poorly. In his high school band he had Montez Coleman, who has spent years on the road with Roy Hargrove. Charles Haynes (a Berklee grad) was in the band, and Terreon Gully, who is on the road with Dianne Reeves now. My all-time favorite drummer was Art Blakey, and when I was 3-4 I wouldn’t go to bed unless my mom put on Free For All; she said, ‘This is not music that children should sleep to, it’s kind of violent and scary to listen to’ but I wanted it played.”
Albums that inspired you to play drums
“Free For All was one of the big ones. I don’t know if there was an album that inspired me to play drums; I just always played drums. My parents always said, “We didn’t force him into music; it was something he chose.” There are pictures of them literally setting me down at the drums in my family home.”
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – Free For All
When you took formal lesson, what was an album that took you away from a bad habit at the drums?
“I can think of a few. I remember going back to my earliest lessons when I was about 6-7 and playing in church and just playing loud. That’s what it’s like in the tradition of the Afro-American Baptist Church. You have older drummers, there was two or three that was in their mid-20s, and then you had a slew of younger drummers. If you wanted to get by, you had to play really loud so that you could keep up with the endurance of the older drummers, who were clapping out at a very loud volume. You are sitting there and can barely reach the bass drum, so I got in a bad habit of playing really loud.
I remember that my first drum teacher, who still plays in Chicago, gave me Off The Wall by Michael Jackson and said, “I want you to learn every groove off this album.” That was the first time I was really introduced to the concept of transcription. I remember that we started with “Rock With You.” I played it for him the next week and he said, “OK, why are you playing so loud? I want you to listen to how John J.R. Robinson is playing it. Listen to the balance between the snare and the bass drum.” It was my first time really learning about balance.
I would say the next step was a book by Louie Bellson. He lived about an hour from where I lived so I would go up to Moline, Illinois. I can’t recall the name of the book, but it was red and had a big bass drum on it and had a picture of Louie in the middle. It was really unique and had these entire drum scores and a CD with Louie playing through these big band charts. I would practice with that every day, and that’s how I really learned how to read drum charts. My biggest lesson was when I got to college; in my first year of Juilliard, where I was playing in my lesson and my teacher Carl Allen said something like “We have to work on your orchestration.” I said, “My orche-what? What is that?” He said, “You don’t think about how you create or interpret melodies or create effect,” so he gave me Oscar Peterson’s West Side Story, with Ed Thigpen on drums. He told me, “I want you to listen to how Ed orchestrates for the ensemble, how he plays the short and long notes.” This was a really big help and the beginning of what I call playing grownup drums: really thinking about the instrument on another level.”