We recently sent a few questions to drummer Abbey Rader, and we were pleased to receive a very detailed set of responses that illustrate his contributions to the U.S. and European jazz scenes.
Free jazz has become quite an expansive term, perhaps even an overused moniker. Nonetheless, if we were to agree that your music falls into that category, where would you put yourself among other free jazz practitioners, past and present?
In the late 60s I had the opportunity to hear John Coltrane’s quartet at the Half Note with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. I was taken over by this group and my musical mind towards spirituality and improvisation really opened up. I also heard Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, and Albert Ayler. At that time the free jazz movement was happening. Later on, I saw Coltrane when he added Rashied Ali on drums. Even though Elvin Jones was my all-time hero, I understood that he was searching for more and more freedom. So I was deeply influenced by that period of free jazz music, and I see myself as a disciple of that free jazz genre.
I can trace your recorded output back to about 1979 or so, but most of it seems to be focused in the last 20 years. What were you doing before and leading up to the 1990’s?
I started playing around 1960. For many years I played straight ahead jazz style gigs, which were prevalent at the time. I worked in many piano / bass / drum trios and saxophone / organ / drum trios. Lots of gigs were available and I played in many places, developing the jazz style that I was playing in. During this long period from 1960 to the mid-70s, I worked countless gigs and was influenced by the many great musicians I played with.
I spent two years with the great Herman Foster trio with Peck Morrison on bass. Herman Foster was blind and recorded many albums with Lou Donaldson and others. Peck Morrison had worked with Duke Ellington. I learned a lot as an apprentice during these years. Herman taught me about feathering the bass drum so it could be felt and not heard. That was something done by Max Roach and many drummers of the earlier era.
I worked with the great trumpet player Bobby Johnson Junior in quartet with pianist Bill Rubinstein and bassist Hal Sumter. Bill Rubinstein was a genius pianist who accompanied Carmen McRae for eight years and played solo piano opposite Bill Evans at the top of the Village Gate. Bobby Johnson was sometimes called “Little Louie” because of his sound and approach. He was an early member of the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. Although we were working in the Nevele Hotel in the Catskill Mountains, we played jazz five or six hours a night. The music dated back to the early Kid Ory/Louie Armstrong style and progressed up to later swing styles. Bobby was a great influence and exposed me to music I had never heard before.
I worked opposite the Martin Rivers Trio in another hotel. Martin Rivers, a bassist, is Sam Rivers’ brother. He had William Boone on piano and Clarence Scoby Stroman on drums. We became very close, especially Scoby and myself. Scoby and I spent many, many nights delving into the spiritual realm. He introduced me to two books: the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda and Light on the Path, which was a wisdom yoga book. He was my first exposure to the spiritual practices. He also influenced my confidence. My music reading skills were not very good, but Scoby had lots of faith in me. He stood behind me on the bandstand one night as I started to play acts with lots of music to read. Scoby said, “That’s not a problem for you. That’s nothing for you.” I played remarkably well that night. I said to Scoby, “Did you see those difficult charts I read?”, and he said he couldn’t read a note. So I learned something else about the spiritual power and the power of the mind.
Scoby introduced me to Charlie Persip, who came up in a trio with Billy Eckstein. Mr. Persip used my drum set. I had the cymbals tightened way down. He asked me if I minded if he loosened the cymbals to let them breathe. Then he played the show with the same band I was with and tore it up. So I learned a lot about relaxing and opening up. It was a great lesson from Mr. Persip.
These stories are not in chronological order; I don’t remember dates, but they reflect some of the influences on a young drummer playing in that era and receiving lessons directly from great musicians.
I was the house drummer at the Playboy Club in Miami, Florida with Eddie Stack on piano and Walter Bernard on bass. Eddie stack was a McCoy Tyner style pianist. My boss, Conti Milano, was from Chicago and he was downstairs with another trio. He loved my swing feeling and treated me like a gentleman. He made it clear to the staff at the club that we should all be treated with respect.
In Miami, holding forth at the Rancher Lounge was another great Chicagoan by the name of Ira Sullivan. Ira Sullivan was a very hard core bop trumpet player who played with Bird and was famous for his work with Red Rodney, another trumpeter in their quartet. Ira played 6 hours a night at the Rancher Lounge and influenced all of us younger players to grow musically. He was a great force for those of us in Miami at the time and another teacher for me.
I worked with a group of improvisers in San Francisco for about a year. The band included a close friend of mine, Peter Ponzol on sax, George Cohler on guitar, Ron McLure on bass (who had just left Charles Lloyd’s band), and the great Airto on percussion. Airto was working with Miles’ funky group at the time. We played free and he hated to leave and play “club dates” with Miles.
It was difficult to get many gigs in San Francisco playing this freer music. So I went back to New York City. After driving straight through from California to New York, I arrived at the bassist Billy Fry’s house. He told me about a man who could really play who was looking for a drummer. I immediately went to Central Park West and auditioned for Herman Foster, who after one tune said, “I got myself a drummer.” That’s how I got started with Herman Foster and Peck Morrison, as I mentioned earlier.
Then I started to play again with Peter Ponzol, Kenny Simon on tenor sax, and David Wertman on bass. We played in the free jazz loft movement of the mid-70s in NYC. Another setting I played in was the David Wertman Ensemble with Steve Swell on trombone, John Hagen on tenor sax, and Ryuchi Homma on trumpet. Naturally, the lofts didn’t pay any money and we were still forced to play lounge gigs or club dates to stay alive.
In 1978 I made my first master recording with Peter Ponzol and Bob Lenox, called “The Thing”. It was Peter Ponzol and I who decided that we needed to go to Europe to be able to play the way we like to play. Many of the club date lounge musicians I played with said I wouldn’t stand a chance in Europe and that I shouldn’t go. They would say that I was making a living, sort of, in New York. But I left NYC with Peter Ponzol, a trap case, a drumset and 500 dollars in my pocket.
First, we flew to London. Then we went to Paris where I met Enzo Hamilton, who bought masters from some great improvising musicians. After a long night of drinking, he pulled out a contract and offered me royalties, but I realized that I would never see the money. So, I took 1,000 dollars up front and he released “The Thing” on Atmosphere Records, Paris. That was my first recording as a leader.
From there I went to Germany where I was introduced to a company called Aries Music, run by Gerd Hahn and Sigi Schaefer. I lived in their house and they booked gigs. At this point Peter Ponzol decided to return to NY and they asked if I knew anyone who could sing, write and play various styles of music. I brought Bob Lenox to Germany. For about a year or so I played with my friend Bob playing his original, sometimes rock and funk oriented pieces. We did quite well, but I needed to return to my true love of improvised free jazz music.
I was joined by George Bishop, a great saxophonist and bass clarinetist who was in Paris working with Joe Gallivan. We started to work some very beautiful improvised duet gigs. During the 80s in Germany I started to play with John Handy, an alto saxist from Mingus’s band. One setting included Dr. Subramaniam on violin. Another was in trio with Sigi Busch, a great German bassist. John taught me another lesson; he played very powerfully, had a beautiful sound, and was very competitive. In 1981 we played a festival in Italy for alto saxophonists. We had a trio. Opposite us was the great John Tchicai. There was another group with Charlie Mariano, who was an expatriate saxophonist, and an Italian group with Flavio Ambrosetti on sax.
John said to me that Tchicai had beat him in a Jazz Downbeat poll and that he was going to burn them down. So my lesson from John was, “Abbey you do great solos and I want you to play those drum solos all the time behind me while I’m playing.” That really gave me the chance to open up. We also worked opposite the Mingus Dynasty with Clifford Jordan and Sir Roland Hanna, and forgive me, I forgot the bassist. I toured all over Europe with John Handy.
I also played with Gunter Hampel for 4-5 years. He was the German free jazz stylist. He was sponsored by the government and had many great gigs for improvisers. I played in his big band with Marion Brown and Jeanne Lee, a great vocalist who was Gunter’s wife. I also played in quartet and trio with Gunter.
I played with the great Mal Waldron on piano and Marc Levin on trumpet. Marc was an old friend from NYC who lived in Denmark at this time. Mal also gave me lessons. I used to drive while he sat in the car smoking black cigarettes and playing his handheld chess game. I would complain a lot and over the years Mal told me many stories. One was, that if I took all my neurotic energy and put it into the drumming that I would be the greatest. He told me about touring with Ed Blackwell who had kidney disease and needed to use these bags to relieve himself. Mal told me the only complaint he ever heard from Ed was that the bags were late coming to Italy, and he was concerned he might die. Well, that really put me in my place. Mal also told me about his story when he almost died and woke up in a hospital and couldn’t remember how he had played before. He spent a couple of years relearning to play. After his recovery, his style was very different, very angular, while he used to play very lyrically before. But he played great. He told me that he was given a second chance to live and he made vows to play music all the time, to improvise freely and to dedicate his life to playing. He lived in a small apartment in Munich, had no car and played all over the world. He was a great influence.
During the years in between these gigs, I also had my own group called Abbey Rader’s Right Time. I recorded with my band and started my own record label called Abray Productions. I also taught jazz drumming at two universities, which was the first time they had a jazz drumming course in Germany. The first schools were the TU Braunschweig and the PH Goettingen, and later on, I added the Detmold Musikhochschule. I also performed many clinics all over Europe for Sonor drums and Tosco cymbals. When Tosco closed, I worked for Sabian cymbals. In my clinics, I would often invite someone like George Bishop to play duet with me freely and then explain how to solo or improvise on the original head we were performing.
So the many years in Europe were quite successful. I met my wife there and we had two beautiful sons. At the end of the 80s we decided to move to America because of my children. I was raising them without being exposed to my original culture. Mal Waldron told me that there was no culture left in America and that my sons would get a great education in Europe. He said it would be almost impossible to play what we were playing in America. But being stubborn, I brought my entire family to my father’s house in Florida. My father was my very dear friend and a club date drummer all his life, and this brings me up to the 90s.
Although Mal had warned me about America, I had some very good fortune in the 90s and 2000s. I recorded 4 CDs with David Liebman–one quartet and three duets–and we played quite a few gigs as a duet. In the late 90s and into the 2000s I spent almost 5 years with Billy Bang. We started as a duet, then toured as a trio with Frank Lowe. Billy reformed the Jazz Doctors and I replaced the late Dennis Charles on drums. We had Frank Lowe and Ed Schuller on bass. We played the Vision Festival dedicated to Dennis Charles and I had the honor of having his drum chair. We really smoked at that festival. At the sound check I got there early to set up. One of my heroes, Billy Higgins, was sitting there. Billy was conducting the drum choir dedicated to Dennis Charles. Billy told me to try the drums on stage and we started to play together. The sound lady came running over after a while and said this was the best performance she had heard at the Vision Festival so far. Billy assigned his roadie to help me with my gear. It was quite a blessing to have spent that afternoon with him. We went on with Frank Lowe and Ed Schuller to record “One for Jazz” in a studio in Bedford Stuyvesant. All the touring with Billy Bang and Mr. Lowe and Dave Liebman has made this return to America a lot better than was predicted.
It is clear from your web site that you’re an accomplished martial arts practitioner. How does that juxtapose with your drumming?
In 1961/1962 I started to study Nisei Goju Ryu, Okinawan karate. My sensei was John Giordano and our grandmaster was Frank Ruiz. The main school was University of the Streets on 7th and Ave. A in the East Village. In those early days of studying martial arts there were lots of traditional practices. For instance, meditation, bowing, and vow making were all used to strengthen your will to help you achieve. Naturally, I was playing in many places and I was in and out of the practice after I attained the black belt level. Later on, in the 70s when I was in the Catskills, I met Rick Joslin. He was known as Rick “The Fireman” Joslin for breaking burning boards with his head. He often performed at the Aaron Banks show called The World of Martial Arts. Rick taught me many self defense and street techniques. He didn’t offer rankings, nor did he use uniforms because he claimed in a fight you wouldn’t be able to run home and change into your uniform. One day I went to his house, and his wife said that Rick had disappeared.
In 1975 in NYC I met my lifetime teacher, who we call shifu, the great Chan (Zen) master venerable Rev. ShengYen. I became a disciple of Rev. ShengYen in 1975 and was given the dharma name Guo Hsing, which will be my name when I leave this worldly body. He taught the deep methods of Chan meditation, which has to do with emptying the mind and realizing that all is impermanent, therefore negating the sense of a permanent self. I attended many week-long retreats, which were difficult, before I left for Europe. The idea to me is simple. Stilling the mind or emptying the mind allows you to be open to receive. In music, if you have the technique well built, which I have, and want to improvise freely, you must empty your mind to hear and interplay spontaneously with the other musicians and allow the music to come through you. This to me is the correlation between the freer music and the Buddhist empty mind practice.
So the practice of martial arts, tai chi chuan, qigong and meditation all lead you to that empty and spontaneous interaction, whether it be in music or in daily life.
There’s a track on your upcoming release, “Reach for the Skies,” that opens with what sounds like traditional drumming. Is that an area of interest for you?
Seeing that I spent 20-plus years as an apprentice jazz musician, there is a lot of traditional jazz drumming in my playing. I don’t believe I was really playing traditionally on that track, but in the circular feeling I create, there is still a lot of polyrhythm between cymbals, bass drum, and snare drum and they do reflect my traditions. I play free jazz because of that tradition. You must have a tradition or a way of playing to free yourself from. So I play free jazz, if you would like to use that heading, because I’m getting free of the original way of jazz drumming and using my arsenal to improvise with the other musicians.
There are many styles under the heading of “free music” that I was exposed to in Europe. Some of those musicians were classically trained, some were not trained at all, some used effects or made sounds, but they had nothing that they were getting free of. To have no background and to just play anything lacks the beautiful ingredients that make up free jazz. The ingredients are sound, beautiful sound, a sense of swing, even in the freer forms, and a relationship with the blues, which is at our base. So in my many recordings with musicians such as Billy Bang, Frank Lowe, David Liebman, Keshavan Maslak, these musicians all have that warmth, that blues element deep inside of them. And all have practiced to develop a great sound.
Reach for the Skies is a totally improvised session, as have been all my gigs with this quartet. We are playing fully improvised, spontaneous music.
Any near or long term plans for recording, touring, or anything else?
Yes. I’m hoping to take my present quartet on the road. I’m planning to record shortly with my saxophonist, John McMinn, who is somewhat of a hidden jewel, a truly great musician. I’m hoping to return to Europe eventually, although nothing is organized at this point. I have a recording that hasn’t been released yet with Kidd Jordan joining my quartet. We’re hoping that with the release of this album, Kidd and I will be able to perform together, perhaps in different settings.