Charles Gray-And All That J A Z Z !
A conversation with Charles Gray, a superb jazz drummer who makes his home in Oaxaca, and Gloria Asbel of Zocalo magazine.
Gloria: When I was seventeen, I dated a drummer named Steve Rogers in the mid to late 1940’s. He had a comfortable job playing in the pit of the top musicals on Broadway, but his heart belonged to jazz. Steve’s hero was Buddy Rich. He called him “the drummers’ drummer” . On most of our dates, he would take me to anywhere Buddy Rich was playing, and then spend the whole time furiously writing what appeared to be hieroglyphics in his notebooks. He was always in awe of what Buddy Rich was able to do that seemed impossible for mere mortals. What were those strange signs he was writing down? They didn’t look at all like musical notes.
Charles: There are a whole bunch of ways of writing notes for drumming. That’s the problem. There are lead sheets, melodies, harmonies, changes, writing in special accents. With Buddy Rich, he was probably writing rhythms, and probably sticking techniques..
GA: Did you have a special hero like Steve’s Buddy Rich?
Charles: The first really good drummer I heard live was Philly Joe Jones. I was seventeen. He was great. Elvin Jones played with John Coltrane. Philly Joe Jones was a great influence on me.
Gloria: What got you started drumming?.
CG: I was in college. When I started playing I didn’t even have a drum set. I played with brushes on the back of records. Two of my roommates were in a band. They had an emergency situation with no drummer, but they had a set of drums. They tested me to see if I knew what to do on a 4-4 rhythm and on a 3-4, and said okay. It was a little swing band. It paid my way through college. We played Legion Halls, Elks Clubs, places like that. I had no ability at all, but decided to learn about it. I got to be a professional before I knew how to play. If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have finished college.
GA: Where was that, and what was your major?
CG: I first went to a little state college in Nebraska. Then I studied classical music with a master’s in percussion. It was at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. In 1963 I played a season with the symphony, and with the opera company. At night, when not playing with them, I was out playing. Then there were so many places to play, you could be a real doofus and still get a job. Now there aren’t nearly as many opportunities. Occasionally, if I didn’t need the money, I would play with jazz groups. Otherwise it was hotels, casinos, restaurants, shows with singers and comedians, you know the scene.
GA: In the late forties, when we were dating, my husband and I used to go down to Greenwich Village to Phil Napoleon’s place on 2nd avenue. Phil did Dixieland until midnight. After that, musicians would drift in from their other gigs and sit in. They really did some fantastic creative jazz. In the morning they would serve scrambled eggs and champagne to the diehards who were still there listening. It was the most spontaneous and thrilling experience we ever had. How did they make such wonderful music with no previous planning and no rehearsals?
CG: It’s not so mysterious. It’s based on strict mathematical principles. There are twelve measure blues, and thirty-two measure standards. Of course, there are more, but those are the basics. Once you know the forms and understand how the chords are built, nobody is making it up. You know the patterns and chords. So if somebody says “The same changes as ‘All the Things You Are’, you know what to do with a song. Within that discipline, though, there’s plenty of room for improvization.
GA: Have you often done that?
CG: Oh yeah. Sometimes I’d get together with three other guys and go crazy. This had to do with playing free jazz. But that didn’t go over in clubs. People couldn’t relate to it.
GA: I recently saw an ad for the music of a young jazz pianist, Robert Glasper. It said “Some young jazz pianists are content to repeat history, while others seem intent on clumsily upending it”. How do you feel about what’s happening with the new jazz?
CG: Well, one generalization I could make is a lot of it is directed to musicians.
GA: It seems to me that would put it out of the reach of the general public.
CG: What I buy and listen to at my house is not very modern. John Coltrane, I could just lie on the floor and let it go on and on. He changed the direction of things. Charlie Parker did too with bebop.
GA: How about Thelonius Monk?
CG: Oh, he’s one of my favorites. He had a great sense of humor, and listening to him made me laugh.
GA: Miles Davis?
CG: I could listen to him endlessly.
GA: I know it was a big band, and you don’t equate them with jazz, but what about Bennie Goodman?
CG: Yes, Bennie Goodman was a terrific clarinetist, and even though he played big band music, he also had Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. They could get together and do great improvising.
GA: Where do you put George Gershwin?
CG: He wrote a lot of jazz into his compositions, but it was all written down, no improvising.
GA: Since you’re a drummer, I have to ask this. The general conception about drums, especially African drumming, is that the appeal is erotic because drums are reminiscent of the beat of the heart, or the blood in the arteries. There is a persistent beat in current music such as Rap or Hip Hop. What do you think of it?
CG: There are no drummers in Hip Hop or Rap. It’s machine drumming. They do what’s called “sampling”. They take a chunk out of something that exists, and run it over and over….the same meter. That way they save a lot of money. They don’t have to hire a drummer.
GA: When I heard you play last night, it occurred to me that you must be exhausted at the end of a set. It’s a very physically demanding job.
CG: When I was younger it wasn’t a problem. I played professionally from 1958 to 1980. In the later years, I had to do a lot of weight lifting and exercise to keep up with the younger guys.
GA: During t years where did you play?
CG: A lot in Kansas City. Also in Las Vegas, San Francisco and L.A. I went on the road a lot, seventy percent of the time accompanying singers. Being on the road was boring.
GA: I guess the good old days with places like 52nd street in New York are gone with the people who played then.
CG: Max Roach played on 52nd street a lot. He’s still alive. And Roy Haynes, he’s got to be over eighty. I heard a recent recording of his, and he sounded like a twenty year old.
CG: I think Michael’s Pub is still doing it.
GA: I wonder if Woody Allen is still sitting in with them on Mondays.
Thank you, Charles. It was great reminiscing.