How do you like the touring life?
“I love it! It’s what I want to do; I want to expose young people to jazz music in a different way than done in the past.”
Practicing — and how you did it when you didn’t have time?
“There was never a time when I went into a lesson with Kenny Washington where he was completely happy, ’cause no matter what, he was going to tear me apart. Balancing is definitely a big thing in school because of the kind of person I am. I am a workhorse and I go and pile a million things onto my plate; that’s how I have always been. I have learned to let some things go. I remember practicing so much in my freshman and sophomore year of college that I would get tendonitis — where I would practice 3-6 hours a day, broken up over a day of course. Maybe not even practicing in the most efficient way, but trying to spend that much time in the practice room getting it all together. I felt that I had to learn it all right then or I was going to be a failure and end up having to work at McDonald’s or something. The best thing that I learned is that when you hit a wall, you have to stop. This has happened a lot and before I even got frustrated and have a “Whiplash” moment and punch a hole in my snare and bleed, I would leave. Instead, I would come back the next day and five minutes later I had it. It can be frustrating, so calm down, take a break and come back the next day; it will be there then, too.
The big thing now is finding the time to practice. Getting time at a drum set: that’s magical. My band went to Doha for three weeks and we were so excited because we had the chance to do three things: Sleep, practice and work out. This was vacation! Sure, we had to play at night. There’s airports every day and ‘no-schedule,’ and this takes away the routine. The only time you see your drum set is at the show — or before, at the soundcheck. I try to utilize my time with a pad; God bless Vic Firth and their rudiment application and the Wilcoxon books. Those are lifesavers that keep everything going.”
What do you enjoy the most about jazz?
“Jazz is kind of like the super-human music. It’s spiritual, expressive, and conversational. There’s no type of music like it. If I’m at a pop gig, I’m having fun, but I play with a click track that limits me to go into something, which you can do with jazz. It’s the same thing with classical music. In gospel you also have freedom, but lacks that structure, which is there in jazz. Jazz is all competent. It’s such a pure art form where you can show people who you really are, or you can completely shut them out. I compare it to being an actor or actresses where you tell stories — but with music, you do it through your instrument. That’s what I love the most about the music. I can make them feel good or terrible. Music moves you. It’s impossible to listen to “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday without being moved by it.”
Dedication to Ray Charles
“Singing is just something you do. Everybody sings in the black church. If you don’t sing you get hit in the back of your head by granny, “Boy, sing the song!” That’s the way I learned how to play music and deal with instruments. You’ll be there and someone in the family passes a note up to the pastor and he would read it: “Alright now I’m going to have young brother Carter come up and sing a song,” and I would say, “No, Grandma, I don’t know how to sing” and she would say, “Boy, get up there and sing for Jesus!” I would go up and sing; I had no other choice. I grew up with it so I didn’t do it in college, but I started in the past year since I realized what an important tool it is. It helps in terms of reaching an audience, especially the ones not familiar with jazz. It’s something we have all done, no matter if you are good or bad, we have all sung. It’s an automatic way to reach people and connect to it as well.
There was no real thought behind the Ray Charles thing. I was at home one day listening to Ray Charles, and I realized how truly incredible he was, especially his early music with Betty Carter, Milt Jackson, and the records with Connie Kay on drums. Everyone always just plays “Georgia on my Mind” and forgets everything else that he did. His big break was the fact that he was such a good imitator. There is this song called “Roll with My Baby” where he sounds just like Nat King Cole. If you listen to his first single that came out when he was in Seattle, he sounds like Charles Brown, which is very old school blues. I think he was supposed to be music directing and opening for Ruth Brown, but at the time she was pregnant; it was hard to build an audience and money would be lost on the tour, but that’s kind of how he got his big break, made his own albums, and built his own sound and personality.
When I got the music sorted out, we turned out to have a great preview run at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem and a ton of people came out and told us to do more of it, which led us to do it at festivals in upstate New York and later at Dizzy’s, where we sold out six shows. Many great people came, such as Taylor Hackford, who directed the movie Ray; he told me some Ray stories. “Man, Ray would have loved this! You completely put your own spin and changed the arrangements and he would have loved that.“
Plans for the future
“One of my huge goals — and I don’t think it’s just me but something lot of us want — there’s been a big gap since we last had a big drummer and bandleader. There are people like Brian Blade, who leads the Fellowship Band, and Kendrick Scott has the Oracle, which are incredible bands that make great music, but I am talking about bands that do it on an Art Blakey level. What is this person known for? Leading his band! That’s something I really want and didn’t discover ’til after some time being a sideman, which I first wanted about a year and a half ago. I don’t think I’m the only one who wants this. Jamison Ross has been leading his band and released a record for Concord, an incredible album that everyone should get. Sammy Miller is doing the same thing.
Our generation (as in, people who are between 25-27), we are re-thinking how we present the music especially audiences who aren’t used to this music. I designed the Ray show, scrapped it, and re-designed it in a very specific and intentional way so that it has a lot of musical integrity and musical substance. But at the same time, there is a ton of engagement with the people who aren’t familiar with jazz music; I think that is the way to “save the music” — and I hate saying that because there’s nothing wrong with it. The music is not going anywhere, but as we go on tour, we see audiences shrinking and getting older. Everyone in the audience is at least twenty years older than me, except for maybe one or two kids who were dragged there by their parents or by their high school. That’s depressing that young people don’t want go see this music. We were in Boston with Kurt Elling; the night before, my friend gave me tickets to see Tallest Man on Earth. The Orpheum Theater was jam packed with young people, sitting there being quiet while a guy was playing acoustic guitar and singing into his microphone. People were also going crazy for the opening act. We play more energetic music than this, but people were going nuts for this, which was a lesson for me: it’s not even what the music is, but how it’s presented to people. That’s my big goal now.“