Sometimes, we look to others for inspiration, guidance, an example. I’ve had a lot of “heroes” throughout my life, but one stands out the most, one who I’ve returned to time and again: Bruce Lee.
At the mention of the name Bruce Lee, most people think of his dynamic martial arts movies, but a further look reveals a lot, lot more.
In 1985, I was an impressionable teenager and the VCR had just become a standard fixture in American homes. Kung-Fu Theater and Ninja movies were all the rage and my friends and I rented them all: 9 Deaths of a Ninja, Revenge of a Ninja, etc… And they were very entertaining, especially all the weaponry and gymnastics. But when we watched Bruce Lee, it was apparent to me that he was something very different, very real and absolutely riveting.
I watched Bruce’s movies over and over, despite my folks and my girlfriend’s dismissive eye-rolls. I mean, I had to admit that the fights were not real, but remained a believer. There was something totally real about Bruce Lee, his intensity jumped through the screen and gripped my imagination. He seemed super-human. And, maybe he was. Looking back now, watching Bruce was an experience for me, a visceral and engaging emotional experience.
In my 20s, I revisited Bruce again, this time buying his book “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” and actually studying martial arts with a teacher. I read the book over and over and was really impressed with his philosophical writings and most of all, his absolute dedication to the development of his art. It began to dawn on me that Bruce was more than his movies. He had been a dedicated teacher also. A philosopher. Whatever he chose to do, he did it all the way and most importantly, he did it HIS way.
Upon reading The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, I realized that Bruce Lee had invented his own way of martial arts. The meticulous study, hand written drawings, thorough and no-nonsense thought that he put into Jeet Kune Do was beyond anything I’d imagined. But it all made sense. I mean, you could see it in his films; his preparation, choreography, creativity, drive… all of it. No wonder this guy was so amazing.
Martial arts, as appealing as it was at the time, was not in the cards for me as my passion was/is in music. I did study at a local kung-fu studio for a while, but I knew I couldn’t do it all the way, and if I couldn’t do it fully, then I decided I wouldn’t disrespect the art, or myself by taking valuable time away from my music. So, I went on about my life, with Bruce Lee still there, in the back of my mind.
Somehow, Bruce kept coming back into my life and again in my late 30s I became somewhat obsessed with him. At the bookstore one day I picked up a copy of John Little’s “The Art of Expressing the Human Body” which detailed how Bruce trained every part of his body. It was and still is one of the most inspirational books I own.
At this point in my musical development, I was looking for a way to get closer to my own identity. Musically and personally. I’d gone through all my musical heroes and just needed to embrace myself at this point. I’d tried to play like all my heroes: Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey, but in trying to emulate them I just found myself further and further away from myself.
So, I thought hard about it and I wondered, who is somebody who did their own thing and was successful with it? Bruce came to mind, of course. I re-read his books and it was striking how much he traveled his own path. I mean, he'd even created his own way of martial arts! Jeet Kune Do. It wasn't easy for him to do this and at first, he wasn't liked or accepted by the martial arts establishment for telling them that he thought most martial arts were not practical and were a "classical mess" and "organized despair". But, he stuck with his believe and now he's seen as the "father of mixed martial arts".
Instead of trying to study martial arts or try to be like Bruce, I decided to be like me. To do what I do and to commit as much to myself as I could.
I had to be able to look in the mirror and like what I saw. I mean, not in a narcissistic way, but in a human way. And when I could do that, which took some work, but when I could do that, everything started to change. I had drifted away from physical wellness and getting back to it was key to finding myself.
One of the first things was that I stopped drinking alcohol and began working out regularly. Not Bruce Lee style, but Matt Kane style, meaning that the inspiration from Bruce was there and put a lot of wind in my sails, but I wasn’t naive enough to embark on his path as everyone has their own path to follow. So, I jumped rope, lifted moderate weights and kept my body healthy. Once my body was feeling good, I re-focused all my attention to my music. I practiced my drums every single day until it became as much of a habit as brushing my teeth. I wrote in my journal a lot. Things got on track.
Another thing that happened was that I wrote down my dreams. Bruce had done this, so I figured if it worked for him, it could work for me. And it did! Soon, the things I wrote down not only happened, but more than what I’d written down happened. Surprises and successes began to build up. Then, I wrote down bigger and bigger dreams and they happened, too. They didn’t happen overnight, some took many years, but they did happen. Some of them are still in the process of happening and I revisit and re-write them from time to time to breathe fresh life into them.
Teaching came into my life next. I embraced my students with as much intensity as I did my own career. It started with one student, at a strip mall music store. When I left the music store after a disagreement with the owner, one of the students followed me and thus began the Matt Kane School of Drumming. More students followed until I had a roster of 20 young drummers I was coaching. To teach something, you must know it inside-out. And, you must be able to convey it, to shine a light on the path that the student has to travel. Only they can travel the path, but it is my responsibility to lead the student to the realization of their dreams.
As all of this was coming together, career and teaching, I began to get a much deeper realization of what Bruce Lee had left for the world. I mean, when you think about the dedication he put into his martial arts, teaching, philosophy and acting, just consider that he did all this without a coach, without a trainer. He did most of it virtually alone.
While it’s true that he had a teacher in Hong Kong, the great Yip Man, once Bruce came to the states, he was on his own. To me, this is probably the most impressive aspect how Bruce lived his life.
When you take a look at Lee’s obsessive training logs or his writings, imagine a guy doing all that with no coach. I mean, think about it: Mike Tyson had Cus D’Amato. Muhammad Ali had Angelo Dundee. Bruce Lee relied on nobody. To me, that maybe the most impressive aspect of his life and the most inspirational. While it’s true, that many great artists work alone: authors, visual artists, musicians… athletes typically have coaches and trainers, especially nowadays.
Think of Bruce Lee, reading thousands of books on physical training, martial arts of every kind, boxing, fencing, philosophy and nutrition. Think of him waking up every single day at 6am and training to the edge of his ability, all while maintaining a family, a kung fu school and an acting career. Think of the impression he made on the world and how he is still the number one martial arts actor of all time.
My biggest take away from Bruce Lee is that you can do it, it just has to be done. You can dream, you can make it happen. But the main lesson is to be yourself and to be believe that you can do it. Time IS of the essence. We have to decide what’s important, where the priorities are. Sift out the unimportant, give it no time, and dedicate yourself to living a life that is worthy of YOU.
Thank you, sifu, Bruce Lee.
I was performing at a jazz series in West Orange, NJ with a trio and the leader had told me to bring a small kit, so I brought the "truth kit" which is a bass, snare, hi-hat and ride. No toms. I call it the truth kit because there is no hiding behind a bunch of toms and cymbals. You're totally exposed, musically, especially your snare drum control.
When I arrived I noticed that there was a lot of room for us to set up and I thought, dang!, I could've brought my whole kit! But, you got to work with what you got to work with, so no complaints, just do your best.
All night long I was called upon to solo, either trading 4s, 8s or taking choruses. Now, doing this on a the truth kit exposes your snare drum ability quite dramatically. I'd played the truth kit around NYC for 10 years, so it wasn't a big deal. But even at that, soloing on that small kit forces you to mine deeper, to draw more sounds and vocabulary out of the snare.
I also had the training of Michael Carvin, who had me go back through the Wilcoxon book and really deal with the rudiments. I'm thankful for that experience. It gave me a much deeper well to draw from.
As the last set came to a close and I began packing my drums up a man came up to me, quite excited. I recognized him, it was T.S. Monk. Son of Thelonious Monk. "You're an old soul!" he said. I didn't know what he meant exactly.
"Yeah man, you are an old soul. I haven't heard anybody play a snare and bass drum like that since I heard Ben Riley with my father!" he said, quite excited.
Now, this is maybe one of the highest compliments I've ever received and I tried to figure out why he would say something like that, but I realized he had no reason to gas me up, he was sincere and I was really taken by it. Any comparison to Ben Riley was very humbling and also exciting to hear, but even more, it was gratifying to meet someone who truly appreciated the challenge of making music on the truth kit. Especially soloing on it, which is really tough.
"Art Blakey gave me my first kit and Max taught me the rudiments." he told me and we started a wonderful conversation about the rudiments and how the snare drum is the key to it all. T.S. was all about the rudiments. Max had him dealing with the rudiments first, which is how it should be.
He went on to tell me about Ben Riley and Max Roach and mastering the snare and we vibed for quite a while. It got me thinking about how the drum kit started with bass drum and snare drum in New Orleans. And how, if you listen to the truly great masters of comping, like Billy Higgins, the dialog between the snare and bass drum is always happening. This is a staple of be-bop playing that Kenny Clarke brought into play.
I mean, if one can't make it happen with the snare and bass drum, then how are a bunch of toms and cymbals going to help?
I was really feeling good to think that T.S. liked my playing and that all the years of playing the truth kit had paid off by giving me a deeper control of the snare drum. Not many people had noticed but he did. Not only knowing the rudiments, but getting a great sound from the snare is so, so key. We spoke about that at length. His excitement was palpable and it doesn't take much to get me going, so I really dug T.S. for being so positive and enthusiastic for the snare drum.
I later looked up a video that T.S. did called "Bid 'Em In" in which he plays brushes and I wasn't disappointed. His hands are clean, strong and swinging! And what a heavy composition and subject. Check it out.
I took a lot away from meeting T.S. Firstly, you never know who's out there listening. Every performance is Carnagie Hall! There are no little performances. I've looked out into the audience and seen people like Al Foster or Roy Haynes or Ginger Baker listening. Secondly, the rudiments are not nerdy, nor is practicing. Third, it's nice to be appreciated by someone great like T.S., but it's best to be appreciated by the music itself. The drummer who controls the snare will have a much better chance of controlling the kit, therefore, the kit will be more agreeable to you and thus, the MUSIC!
Yesterday, Ginger Baker died. He lived as only he could, as only a drummer could, following the rhythm to wherever it took him. And it took him to some pretty amazing places.
As a big fan of rock and roll and jazz, I always wanted to infuse the two and create my own sound. Well, Ginger did that before I was even born. It's really interesting, Kurt Cobain once wrote in his journal "Rock and Roll and jazz drumming do not mix". Well, I guess they forgot to tell Ginger Baker.
Much has been documented about Ginger in recent years and I'm glad the public at large got a chance to learn about him. I do have something personal to add that might be entertaining, so here's my Ginger Baker story...
I was loading my drums into a beautiful mansion just outside of Kansas City to play with a jazz group for a wedding. Not expecting anything eventful, I was pretty relaxed and just looking to make some good music and maybe eat some good wedding food.
As I walked in, the band was buzzing about something, or someone. They all looked at me and came running up with excitement. "Guess who's here!" they asked with grins on their faces.
"Ginger Baker!" They searched my face for a reaction.
"Oh!" I thought, Ginger Baker... wait a minute.. "THE Ginger Baker?"
"Yeah! His buddy is a bass player and that's who's getting married and Ginger is here for the wedding." (The bassist wasn't Jack Bruce, he was playing in a band with Ginger in LA, circa 1991 or 92)
As I set up my old vintage yellow, satin flame Gretsch drum kit, my mind started working on me. Part of me thought it was no big deal. The other part thought it was a very big deal. I thought back to listening to Ginger's drum solo on Cream's "Toad" and thought, oh man, this dude is a legend. And he's here. And I'm the one playing.
I looked out upon the wedding party and Ginger's red hair caught my eye. It WAS him. My nerves kicked in. Damn!
Trying to forget about it, I started playing and kept my mind on my work as best I could. Don't let anybody tell you that musicians don't get nervous or rattled when there's another musician in the house checking them out. The best of the best take notice when another player, especially if they play the same instrument, is in the house.
Somewhere during our first set, I looked up from the drums to see Ginger Baker standing across the room, looking directly at me over his glasses, his eyes were a bright blue and there was a kind of manic energy behind them. Keeping his stare, he looked at me hard, almost glaring, and would not look away. I was too young to decipher what this look was all about; intimidation? interest? Can't say.
He stood there for a long time, uninterested in the wedding and not really hanging around with anybody, he was just standing there alone, watching. The longer he watched, the more uncomfortable I got, I could feel his stare and his bright blue eyes felt like they were burning holes right through me.
On the break, all the guys in the band pushed me to go speak with Ginger. I honestly didn't know much about him or his career. I didn't want to approach him, but then something in me thought I'd never get the chance again, so I better go do it.
I popped the drum head off my bass drum, got a magic marker from the bartender and went to ask Ginger for his signature. It was the only way I could think of to go speak to him.
I walked up to the table he was at with the drum head and asked him if he would sign it. His reaction was one of disdain, as if he was gonna throw up. "Oh God!" he said and rolled his head away from me like he was really gonna puke. I mean, they guy was disgusted with me. I was ready to walk away in shame.
"It's ok" I said, "I didn't want to bother you." My shame turned into a little bit of anger and hurt. I mean, Buddy Rich had given me an autograph AND a photo and all he said was "Make it snappy!" Elvin Jones has shaken my hand and thanked me for being at his show. Tony Williams had thoughtfully answered my question at a drum clinic. Louis Bellson had been an absolute gentlemen towards me when we met. Roy Haynes had taken his whole break to talk to me about boxing with me once. But this, this was waaaaay different.
But then, the people at his table chimed in "Awww, go ahead Ging... you're a celebrity! You're famous!" They goaded him on. "Go ahead Ging!"
Then, he reluctantly toned down his disgust, took the drum head and marker from me and asked "What's your name?" His eyes bore straight through me once again.
And then, in that beautiful British accent, he asked "Two T's??" his voice lilted, almost in a mocking tone as if I were a little boy, which hey, I was only 20 or 21 at the time, so yeah, I was a boy to him.
"To Matt. Ginger Baker" he signed carefully and slow, not just scribbling it down. I thanked him and went back to my drums somewhat mortified and wondered if I'd just done the dumbest thing possible. The autograph was really cool looking and I dug it, even tho it was totally illegible, it looked awesome.
As years passed, I actually felt some embarrassment about having the autograph, I felt it was "un-hip" because I really didn't know Ginger's playing that well and I gave it to a friend to keep. He had it for about 20 years. Then, I saw the Ginger Baker documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker" and I learned a lot about him that I didn't know; Ginger's reverence for Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, his love of African rhythm, his experience with Fela Kuti... and I now wanted that drum head back. My friend obliged and I got it back. Now, the head meant a lot more. I listened to all his recordings with a fresh ear and his playing and contribution to music took on another meaning.
Yesterday when I heard of Ginger's passing, I thought of that day, of his firey stare, his reaction to me and of what this guy must have lived though. I don't blame him for reacting that way, it's really in line with who he was. Autographs only mean as much as you ascribe to them, it's the playing that counts. But, I'm keeping the drum head, it's just a cool thing to have and it reminds me of a surly old drummer named Ginger Baker who lived full out, didn't pull punches and did his thing all the way.
Rest peacefully Ginger. And thank you for the autograph.
The school has recently moved to North Plainfield and we are excited and energized for the new semester in our new location!
Matt has been hard at work on a text book for the school which is almost finished. This is exciting because he has put 33 years of experience in performing and teaching into this book which starts at square one with holding the sticks and goes all the way through beginning, intermediate and advanced concepts.
The school had an amazing "Day For Drummers" performance in June, our best one yet! All the of students played GREAT with our house band of pro musicians. It was a win for all.
We had visits from some of our alumni over the summer. Joe Taurone, who is attending St. Rose in Albany to study music, took a break from his performance and touring schedule to stop by and fill us in on all his recent news. Tal Berenfeld, who is studying music at William Paterson, stopped by for some tune-up lessons. And, we saw Whisper McRae, who is teaching at Jazz House Kids and about to graduate from SUNY Purchase with her degree in music.
We are very excited for this year and to see our great young drummers make their dreams come true!
This is my first blog on cycling this season, excuse my absence, but a lot has happened and I'm excited to fill you in!
Last season, I ended with a 75 mile ride, which is the Twin Lights ride. I was really hoping to do 100 (a Century, as it's known by cyclists) but opted to do 75 because I didn't think I could handle another 25, especially if it had a lot of climbs. Anyways, the 2018 season was a success and changed my life significantly by having an outlet for my body and mind. A good long bike ride really clears the mind. Especially if you suffer a little and grind out to the end. You can't be obsessing over menial life issues when you're out on the road in the hot sun, your legs are gone and you've still got 15 miles to go. Then, the mind goes into a kind of survival trance and all your problems fade away. I found that I needed this. Needed it at least two or three times a week.
In the off season, I discovered the spin bikes at the gym and had never done spin before. There's a big screen, video tutorials and rides thru Corsica, Belgium and other Euro landscapes. It's cool! So, I did those thru the winter. Spin is challenging because the bikes don't have freewheel, so you have to pedal all the time, no coasting.
So, after a winter of spin classes, I hit the bike fresh in March and bested all my previous times on the first day out. I was shocked. The spin classes had put me in "go mode". My average speed increased about 2 or 3 mph. that's big!
Also, I made the switch to real cycling cleats and clip-in pedals. Another game changer. Being clipped in connects you to the bike and gives you power on the up-stroke of your pedal stroke and uses more muscles. Not to mention, now I feel like a real cyclist!
Another thing that has helped is weight training. I decided to start doing squats in the gym and as awkward as they feel, eventually I can do them comfortably and man, they make a big difference. The power in your legs in key for cycling and by adding some strength to your lower body; quads, hamstrings, glutes, the power you can generate dramatically increases.
The length of my rides went up. Last year my norm was 25. Now, this season the new bench mark became 45. After several 40 mile rides this season, I felt like I could do a century. My goal was to do one in June, but the wife and I moved into a new house and my riding took a backseat to packing, moving, unpacking. That's ok, because we love the new house and life is much better. But, the Twin Lights ride was approaching and now I gotta do make the dream come true. The century!
Oh yeah, a week before the big ride, I got a different bike. The 1981 Schwinn I was riding just wsan't cutting it. It weighed 28 pounds, was squeaky and the gearing was getting worse and worse. So, Steve at the local North Plainfield bike shop, The Bike Stand, hooked me up with an aluminum frame Trek from the 90s. A huge improvement. Who knew that indexed shifting was so awesome! It's not totally modern brake lever shifting, but still, a big improvement. But, I was really apprehensive about riding 100 miles on a bike I'd not ridden that much.
So the Twin Lights Ride was upon me. I was nervous and wondered if my legs were gonna have it in them. But, I figured, what have I got to lose? Nothing. Let's go for it.
All shapes and sizes of riders were out there doing the century. Teams of guys with matching jerseys flew bike in single file as if they were sprinting for the yellow jersey in the Tour De France. People in their 60s who clearly have experience, were just clicking along like it was nothing. And, there were some pretty big folks out there, with big bellies, sweating it out and I was frankly amazed at their resolve. It was a reminder that everybody has their place, and as long as you're out there going for it, then more power to ya.
Somewhere around 57 miles, my hamstrings locked up and at a rest stop I wondered if they'd open up again. And, that wasn't the worst of it, the worst was my shoulders, they were just killing me, my neck and shoulders were in serious pain and no amount of stretching and moving around was helping.
At mile 75 I took a rest and laid in the grass, staring at the blue sky. 25 more miles.... and there are a few big climbs at the end... shit! Well, ya do what ya gotta do. I got on the bike and continued.
I don't have a bike computer, by choice, I ride to escape technology, I don't wanna know the mileage, I just wanna be out there. So I was estimating where I was. Around this point I got a second wind. My legs opened back up and I was able to climb a lot faster than most the other riders. People were cramping up and pulling over. I felt bad for them. I just kept my gear low and kept "spinning" at a high cadence, surprised at being able to even pedal that fast, but it kept the legs open.
At mile 93 I stopped at a rest stop. I heard a guy say "Only 7 more miles" and I got excited. I'm gonna make it! I ate some cookies and drank a bunch of "Nuun" hydration water. The "Bike New York" organization really has your back on these rides, there were mountains of peanut butter sandwiches, energy bars, trail mix, bananas, oranges and good stuff. They were cheerful and supportive. I needed it. One woman saw me and said "Have some of this Nuun water... I can see it in your face, you need it."
The final two climbs that everybody was dreading were not that bad. Nothing close to the climbs in the highlands down by Sandy Hook I'd been training on all summer. To my surprise, they felt easy. The training paid off.
At the finish line my wife Laurie, who did the 30 mile ride was waiting. She'd been training too. Her ride had finished four hours earlier. She'd been at the park at the finish line hanging out with the cycling people. She knew it meant a lot to me. It was a happy moment that I'll never forget. I'm happy she's into cycling now, too. It's a great thing, a wonderful community of people.
We took photos, listened to the band, sampled some of the health foods and watched riders come in, exhausted and happy. Groups of riders were taking selfies and smiling and celebrating. What a scene.
Having now ridden a century I feel a sense of accomplishment that I've never felt before. It took two seasons to do it, but it was worth it. I'll do more of them, maybe in some different locales. Cycling has changed my life and after 33 years of being a professional musician has given me a new outlet. Now I feel more confident. And happy.
As I gain more and more experience working with young drummers, I notice different trends. One major factor that influences everything is weather or not there is passion for the music. It is the fuel that powers it all.
If a student has true passion for the music, it is immediately apparent in all that they do: their pursuit of the music, the passion and "go for it" attitude, having fun, not getting discouraged when things do not go their way.
Here in NJ where I work with students, the atmosphere can be very competitive. It's the most densely populated state in the country, therefore, the competition is thick and fierce. Band directors put a lot on these kids and auditioning can be really stressful, it can become so much of an "end-all be-all" experience that the music itself gets lost.
I've seen kids get crushed by not getting into a certain band at school or not getting a fair shot at a position because a band director decides to change the rules of the band so that their star player gets all the attention, leaving the less experienced players to sit out. I've also seen kids schedules be overwhelmed by a high demand of their time by band directors and what gets lost in the middle of it all? THE MUSIC!
I've seen some of the older students in college get discouraged when they haven't become a wunderkind by a certain age and they feel like they'll never stack up against the prodigy type kids out there.
So, I see all this and I think, If they could just keep the music front and center, all that other stuff would just fall away. It really would.
It's gotta be about the music.
Love of the music makes time stand still. "Practice" is not a chore. "Achievements" are really secondary to the actual music itself.
I've seen some students absolutely obsess over the achievement part of music. Then, others could care less and love music purely because... well, they LOVE music. The ones who really love music seem to be the ones who have longevity and a healthy attitude.
I've had to tell students over and over... "Music does not live under the fluorescent lights of a school classroom. It lives in you!"
For instance: a student came to me about a year ago wanting to switch from piano to drums in their school jazz/concert band, yet had never held a pair of sticks! And, they'd set some lofty goals: to be the #1 drummer in the jazz band and also to make the "regional" concert band (which consisted of a big audition on snare and a battery of percussion instruments.)
OK. I love the ambition, but I warned them that there was a lot of work to be done on their basics and they may not get into those band with only a few months to prepare.
We dug in. Hour lessons. Hard work. And we made it happen. They got into the regionals, they made the school jazz band. Yay!
Something was missing though. I kept asking questions like "What's your favorite song?" No favorite songs. "What do you love about jazz that makes you want to play it?" No real answer there either. "What's your favorite jazz song?" No answer there.
So then, the student goes to high school the next year and is totally overwhelmed by how good the drummers are. Discouragement sets in. They do not make the drum set chair in jazz band because the audition required skills that take YEARS to develop, not something you can just practice up in a few weeks.
The wind goes out of this student's sails. I spend most of a lesson trying to explain the situation. Finally I ask: "Well, are you going to quit loving music then?"
Oh! Now we get to the crux.
Of course they're not going to quit. They just got so enamored with the "achievement" that the music got lost, if, in fact, the love of the actual music was really there. Time will tell.
If you love the music, you're unstoppable. If you don't, and you're just in it for the "achievement", then you're going to hit a wall and it won't be enjoyable.
My advice to young musicians is simple: "Drink from the well of the music and you can't go wrong."
The Other Side of the Story
No story is complete when you just hear one side. The great philosopher Herbert Spencer in his book “First Principals” speaks of the truth as being “two truths” meaning that no one side of a truth is wholly true. I find this highly intriguing!
“If both have (truths) have bases in the reality of things, then between them there must be a fundamental harmony”
“Fundamental Harmony” I like that.
One side of my story is that I am known as a drummer. I started playing as a sideman, supporting the band, when I was fifteen. When I was 25 I led my first gig at a jazz club in Kansas City because I wanted to play the music I loved, the stuff that excited me most. I wanted to play what I wanted to play. So I did.
There was only one problem: I hadn’t written any of my own music. After a while, I became uncomfortable with playing covers, even if they were the hippest, coolest songs I could find. I felt incomplete as an artist unless I was out there presenting my own musical vision.
I wanted to present the other side of my story.
I’ve always been writing. Luckily, I documented most of it. Either on cassettes, mini-discs, hard disc recorders or just plain ol’ pencil and paper. By 2016 there were an enormous amount of ideas. So I sifted through them all, finding the most promising stuff. Most of them were grooves or vampy ideas.
I desperately wanted to finish these ideas and hit the bandstand with all my own original music. The distance between where I was and where I wanted to go was vast; melodies and arrangements needed to be written, charts for the band (ones they could read easily)
I knuckled down and started working; piano study with a local great, Bob Himmelberger, made a huge difference in the possibilities I could realize as a composer and after two years of piano lessons, several rough drafts and revisions, I had 13 new songs to record.
Before I recorded them though, I took them out to KC and played a show of my music with a great group of young cats. The response was amazing. People liked my music! Not to mention the band played my stuff well, and that was a great feeling. The show went really well and I found the confidence to go record the music with my NYC band.
I chose to work with Michael Carvin as the producer. As soon as Carvin signed on, the project took on an intensity. He picked Systems Two studios in Brooklyn, a legendary studio with amazing people running it. We sat down and read through the music, discussing the concept. A lot of planning went into it and we left no stone unturned.
These days, especially in NYC, when you want to work with great musicians, you’re usually going to have one or two who are busy and can’t commit. It’s the bandleader’s quandary. Luckily, all of the musicians I wanted to work with were available.
Mark Peterson: A wonderful spirit and human being. He's played with Stevie Wonder, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Sharrock.... how's that for a resume? Being around Mark is always elevating and optimistic. Mark plays incredible electric and upright bass. I knew he’d bring the anchor that I needed. Oh, and he’s from Missouri, too, so we have that geographical connection which is an intangible that's difficult to find..
Klaus Mueller: I met Klaus at the New School in NYC. We were playing in the brazilian ensemble, playing a lot of Hermeto Pascoal and Jovino Santos Neto music. We made a connection immediately and I have always loved playing with him. His touch and rhythm are impeccable and his harmonic thing is quite deep. Klaus doesn’t miss a thing. On top of all this, he’s adventurous and daring in the music, but never to the point of dropping the ball. A real gem of a player.
Vic Juris: Vic is sometimes touted as "unsung" but if you ask any musician around New York about Vic, they will respond with respect and props. My first experience with Vic was when we recorded Steve LaSpina’s “Destiny” album on the SteepleChase label. I have been a fan since. In my opinion, Vic has created his own vocabulary, which is the ultimate for a musician and few ever get there. Vic’s experience and sensibilities were perfect for my music, especially since I wrote most of it on guitar. Vic brought life to the songs and added nuances that I could’ve never dreamed of. That’s why he’s Vic!
Peter Schlamb: I met Peter in Kansas City in like, 2013 or something like that. He was all over those vibes. Then I heard his album “Electric Tinks” and I loved his vision as an artist, so I called him to play my music when I debuted it in KC in 2017. He really brought a lot of imagination to the music and I couldn’t consider doing a record without him. Peter brought it all to the session and then some. I am extremely grateful that he was in NYC to be on the album. He’s a one of a kind, like all the cats on the record.
The Producer: Michael Carvin
In this session I learned what a real producer does. Carvin has made a lot of records. As a Motown studio drummer, he learned from Barry Gordy. We’re talking HITS! I 100% trusted him, yet I had didn't exactly what to expect, only that it would be all business and that we would have fun, too.
Carvin guided us through the music with a decisive hand. He kept us on point. Sometimes, musicians need a no nonsense decision maker who is thinking of the sound of the album, the way it’s going to make people feel. Keeping the musicians from getting too wrapped up in the minutia of their individual sound and thinking about the big sound, the group sound. With Carvin, it's all about SOUND.
Through two days of recording, Carvin worked respectfully, with intensity, with discipline, with humor, with love. It was really something else. After many years of studying with Carvin as a drummer, in the studio many of those lessons came to fruition. I learned what a real producer is. I learned how to handle musicians, engineers, studio owners. I even learned more about myself; how to trust myself.
Most of all, the session reinforced the maxim: Surround yourself with the best possible and good things will happen.
As the session came to a close and cats were packing up, everybody had a sense of “what just happened?” about them. In a good way. They all had a grin on their face. It hadn’t been like work. In fact, it felt like nobody wanted it to end.
Systems Two Recording Studio: A Family Affair...
We recorded "The Other Side of the Story" at Systems Two Recording Studio in Brooklyn. Nancy and Joe have been running this legendary studio since 1974. I met with Nancy before the recording and I could hardly contain my excitement and was awestruck at the vibe and layout. This studio had it exactly right. High ceilings, wonderful drum booth, visibility, breathing room... And talk about microphones, woah! Max Ross is also a beautiful cat, wonderful engineer and positive spirit to have in the studio. It makes a big difference.
Mixing with Dave Darlington at Bass Hit Studios, NYC
Every now and then you meet a person who has all the combined qualities you’re looking for: optimism, work ethic, cool personality, experience, creativity. Dave Darlington is the best engineer I’ve ever met. I don't like tagging him with the label of "engineer" because he's a composer and musician, too. His experience speaks for itself, winning Grammys with people like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Sting. He’s like one of the “secret weapons” of NYC musicians. Cats “in the know” go to Dave.
I have a 15 year history with Dave, I met him in 2005 when I was mixing a hip-hop record and his knowledge and depth struck me instantly. This dude knows music. After a few mixing sessions with Dave, my standards for sound were forever changed. I learned a lot from watching him and just being around such a craftsman of sound, I tried to absorb as much of that magic as I could.
Since then, I've work with Dave on several albums: "Acknowledgement" "Progressive Jump Rope Beats" are two of them. I also played drums on his album "D-Tour".
Carvin and Dave have a history, too, and they worked in tandem like clockwork. Dave took Carvin’s descriptions of the sounds he wanted and realized them into the mix. It was uncanny! No matter how abstract Carvin’s suggestions could seem, Dave turned into into tangible sound.
I’m beginning to think that mixing is my favorite part of making a record. It’s just so rewarding to hear that album come together and then sit back and listen to a beautifully crafted SOUND.
I could go on about Dave, but I’ll just say that when you hear “The Other Side of the Story”, you’ll know. Trust me.
Artist: Debra Marleen Smith
I didn’t know what I wanted for the cover of this album, but I knew what I didn’t want. Not another picture of myself! Something artistic, something interesting to look at. Something that can resonate with the music.
My search ended one day when I was looking at Instagram. A friend from high school who now lives in Kansas City, Debra Marleen Smith, had posted something that was infinitely interesting. I couldn’t stop looking at it. And, I’d never seen anything like it.
Debra has her own fingerprint as an artist. That’s difficult to realize, weather it’s in music or visual art or whatever… To get out of our own way and allow ourselves to be who we are, can sometimes take a lifetime. Debra has become true artist, all the way. She has an identity. She stands for something.
Just in the way Debra creates her art is intriguing; Textiles. Fabrics. All cut up and reassembled, composed. Statements. Improvisations. Embracing what she loves and going with it.
I asked Debra if she’d be interested in working with me on an album cover and she said yes.
Photography and Design: Chris Drukker
Anybody who has an insight into life is going to have an insight into art. I’m typically impressed with people who are somewhat obsessed with life’s intricacies, especially when the obsession is music. I met Chris Drukker one time when he was photographing two of my students. When I saw the photos, I was knocked out because he captured them in such majesty, honesty, optimism and poignancy. He captured them as DRUMMERS. It was beautiful and I knew I wanted to work with him.
Through the past few years I’ve gotten to know Chris and come to be almost in awe of his knowledge of music and musicians. He knows everybody on the scene. He’s photographed ‘em all. And so, when I chose to have Chris come to the studio while we were recording, I trusted him because I knew he’d respect the vibe. And he did.
Chris captured the session beautifully. You could feel his respect for the musicians and the music.
It can’t be an easy job, to come into a dark recording studio and capture musicians on film while they are at their highest concentration. I don’t envy that. It takes a special temperament; a tenacity mixed with compulsion to create art, to capture the rarest of rare moments that tell the story.
And lastly, Chris Drukker has done the graphic design art for “The Other Side of the Story” and that’s the finishing touch. When I saw his design, it LOOKED like a Chris Drukker fingerprint. There’s a good reason he’s done 700+ albums in his time. He’s got the touch. That’s for sure.
Making an album is a very personal process and one reveals oneself; good, bad or otherwise. In my mind, an artist is one who realizes their creativity honestly and in alignment with who they are. That's what I set out to do here and I hope you all enjoy listening to "The Other Side of the Story".
A quick blog post on the cycling topic. If you're here reading this blog, there's pretty good chance you know I'm a drummer by trade and cycling is one of my hobbies. Recently I discovered something interesting on the effect of cycling on my drumming.
I found after a few long distance rides of 40 miles that my endurance had increased significantly and my mental focus and momentum could be held for longer periods of time while playing.
When you're cycling long distances, once you get out there 20 miles or more, well, you have no choice but to ride back. Unless you wanna call an uber. Which I don't. Anyways, cycling kind of forces you to deal with it. and that mentality, once you've broken thru a few mental walls that tell you to stop, you'll likely find that on the other side of that wall you can go a lot further than you might have thought.
Bring that mindset to the drums and holding a groove. Cyclists hold what they call a cadence for hours. It's hypnotizing. After a few rides, I sat down at the drums and that hypnotizing feeling was still there. It was like I was already totally in a pocket, and I think that's maybe because I HAD been in a pocket for hours at a time already.
I don't have any other major revelations to add. I'm still sussing it all out. This is my first summer back on a bike in many years. But Hey! Nevermind that, the important thing is that "groove sports" like cycling, jump rope, speed bag... that kind of stuff, is very interesting to me and I have found them all to be beneficial to my playing physicality.
More to come on this topic soon...
A breakdown of the songs from the album
People are often interested in where songs come from, especially the titles. They like to hear about the circumstances in which the song was written, or the inspiration. So here's a breakdown of the songs on "The Other Side of the Story"
Eureka Springs is a beautiful little village nestled up in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas. In the 90’s I performed there with Ahmad Alaadeen’s band, The Dean’s of Swing. The town had a magical quality to it and we were treated very well by the locals. I wrote this when I got back to KC, it’s actually the first "jazz" song I ever wrote. We played it a lot in my KC bands of the 90s and the cats seemed to really like it, it’s fun for them to solo on and has a few feel changes that are fun to play.
Viewpoints: is a song that I wrote on guitar and it came out in it’s entirety, all at once. I call it Viewpoints because the melodic theme is viewed from several different angles within the tune. I first called it “Wayne-ish” because it reminded me a little of Wayne Shorter. But I later renamed out of respect for Mr. Shorter.
Infinite Six: My favorite rhythms are usually in a three or six beat feel. I feel like triplicate beats have an infinite quality, meaning they can go on forever. With that as the basis I wrote the melody on guitar, which is my favorite instrument to write on, and it came out like what you hear on the song.
Hannibalian: The definition of that word would be “One who was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri” No matter how far I have travelled from my Missouri hometown, I will always be a Hannibalian. To be honest, for many years I didn’t even claim to be from Hannibal because nobody knew where it was and they’d make a joke about Hannibal Lecter, so I claimed KC as my home. Which, to me, KC is my musical home. Hannibal is my hometown and I claim it. To be from Hannibal IS special; to grow up on the river, running through cornfields, playing in creeks and streams, fishing for catfish… it was a dream.
Drive: This song has two main influences. I was playing the bass, just having fun, and the bass line came about and I really liked it. The melody came from an inspiration when I was watching the movie “Tron” which has a brilliant score written by Wendy Carlos. The melodies in Tron are very angular, which I love, so I used some of the intervallic ideas from Tron to compose this melody.
The Distance: Sitting in my NYC apartment in the days and weeks following 9/11, there was no music that would comfort me, so I wrote this on guitar and sang the melody, it was about the only way to make myself feel any better. I put the song away for many years because I felt it was too personal to play in public. I included it for this album because it really worked in the studio, thanks to producer Michael Carvin who guided us to the “Other Side”. The title, The Distance, refers to the distance I felt, personally, between myself and the horror of the event. Even tho we watched it from our doorstep in NYC, in an obtuse way life went on and there was a distance between us and the actual horror.
Jump Rope Dance: I have long been obsessed with the jump rope and the way it makes me feel. I especially love jumping rope to music. The bass line came first, written on bass, then the melody was inspired by a Horace Silver line, which also sounds like a lick I’ve heard some guitar player use and the bridge is a total departure melodically. The final result is this song Jump Rope Dance.
Ozark Flight: This song is me imagining what it would be like to fly over the Ozark Mountains. At the time this was written I was listing a lot of Pat Metheny’s album “Bright Size Life” and also Stevie Wonder. I wrote it on guitar way back in 1999 and put it away because it never sounded right with horns playing the melody, but now with vibes/guitar it really sounds the way I intended it to.
Ascent: The most recent of all the songs, Ascent was written completely on piano. After studying piano for a couple years, I began to understand harmonic movement better, so this tune came from that. I call it Ascent because it has this feeling of rising up. I like it when chords change, but there is one note that can work with all the chords. I plan on developing this concept further in the future.
Start of the Change: This tune was first written on guitar using minor 9 chords. I first recorded it as a hip-hop song, tricking it out with a lot of production to make up for the fact that it was only a couple chords. Recently I revisited it and wrote the bridge and melody on piano. The result is what you hear now. The title comes from a period in my life when I felt a big change coming on, getting away from playing jazz of the past and getting to my own music.
Vistas: The guitar has been a loyal and truthful friend since I first picked one up and began learning chords. Through guitar, I came to appreciate guitarists/composers. My favorite one is a guy named Toninho Horta. Toninho is a genius of music, pure and simple. His chord voicings are so cool. I learned some of them and put this tune together, it took a year trying to find the right resolutions and such, but eventually I got something I liked. I performed it as a solo piece on this album because the guitar is such a personal instrument to me and because the song represents the optimistic spirit in which I made this record. The title, Vistas, refers to an image I see of flying over mountain tops and across vistas into the horizon.
The Other Side of the Story: No story is complete when you just hear one side. The great philosopher Herbert Spencer in his book “First Principals” speaks of the truth as being “two truths” meaning that no one side of a truth is wholly true.
“If both have (truths) have bases in the reality of things, then between them there must be a fundamental harmony”
“Fundamental Harmony” I like that.
As a drummer, I always felt I needed to master the instrument before I considered working on anything else. Endless hours in the practice room dominated my time, seeking to get a hold on this "four limbed monster" called the drum kit.
At the UMKC Conservatory of Music, I took piano classes and began to experiment with my own ideas, but the drums called for most of my time and focus. My knowledge of harmony was pretty limited, although my ears were expanding every day, hanging with friends and listening to records, learning more and more tunes by ear.
My roommates had guitars around the house and I started learning chords. It was very difficult, contorting my hand into positions that seemed nearly impossible for a human hand. But, eventually, I could play major, minor and dominant chords enough to be able to begin assembling my own ideas.
It was liberating. I could play the guitar with no expectations. It was pure fun. Soon, a few tunes were born. Mostly country-ish jams that were super simple, yet very rewarding for me. Then a while later I took guitar classes at the New School and opened up my chord vocabulary. More tunes were born, but mostly the basic germ of the tune, just a foundational idea or starting point.
With help of friends who would suggest chords to go with my melodies, I completed a batch of tunes. But I wasn't really satisfied with them. I recorded them on a few occasions. Two of them are on my album "Suit-up!" which was produced by Dave Stryker and also featured Kyle Koehler on B-3.
The response to my tunes was very encouraging. One of them played on XM Radio and I got some royalty checks in the mail. Wow! OK. Let's do more.
I sat down with almost 20 years of ideas that I'd documented on cassettes, mini-discs and on the computer. Many of them were unfinished, but had potential. But, like Charles Bukowski said: Potential doesn't mean anything... You've got to DO IT."
So I searched and found a local piano teacher, Bob Himmelberger, who listened to my whole life story about never really getting my piano thing together and started me on a path to being able to finish my tunes. It was not going to be easy, but at this point, what else am I going to do? What's to lose?
I learned scales in all 12 keys. Minor, Major and Dominant chords in root position. This took a minute, but so far so good. Then all the chords using A and B voicings. The anty was raised and this took quite a while. Then 2-5-1 progressions in all 12 keys using the new voicings. Then 2-5-2 Tri tone subs. Then standards like "Lady Bird" and "Confirmation".
Soon, I understood how to use chord tones and I sat down with my collection of ideas and started adding melodies, then new sections to the tunes, then finally, finishing some of them. This was quite possibly the most rewarding thing ever!
I took the tunes to sessions and played them down with the cats. It was like going back to school! Some of the tunes clunked along like cars with a wheel missing, but at least now I knew what to do. I went back and fourth to the drawing board, until finally I had 12 new tunes!
This was quite a thing for me. Drummers are often stigmatized with not being complete musicians, which can be true in some cases if the drummer is not hearing the harmony. A drummer may not know the complete theory behind a 2-5-1, but if you can hear it, then you can play accordingly. But now really knowing what's going on, theoretically and sonically with the piano, I felt a big change in my playing and hearing.
Anyways, I write about all this because it has been such a journey for me and has opened up a lot of doors. I understand music itself much better now and even tho I have a long way to go, it feels really good to have my own book of music to play and record.
If you're a drummer and you're reading this, maybe you are thinking about those piano lessons, or wondering how to get started writing your own music.
One of the best ways to get started is to do just that: get started. And take it from there.
There is an artist inside you. Composition reveals that. Especially when you're absolutely true to yourself. Yeah, you could use someone else's chord changes and melodies, but when you're true to your ear, you'll have your own sound. I really believe that.
Anyways, that's a little piece of what I've been experience in writing. It's getting better all the time and there ain't nothing to it but to do it. Write. learn. And write some more.