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Grady Tate: The Art of the Singing Drummer

By Published: October 22, 2008
AAJ: What was it like playing with Sarah Vaughan?

GT: I think this is the truth beyond truths. When I played with Sarah Vaughan [pauses, wells up] . . . she was doing things that nobody had done. She just sang the way everybody wanted to sing. When she sang, she'd put everything she had into it. She'd go backstage and say, "I walk out lookin' like Lena Horne, and come back lookin' like a [expletive deleted]." She would be writhing in sweat.

AAJ: You also performed with Ella Fitzgerald. How would you compare Sarah and Ella as singers and scatters?

Grady TateGT: They were both dynamite singers who were immediately recognizable. As I heard them, Sarah sang bop phrases when she scatted, but Ella scatted like an instrumentalist, with precision. Every time you heard her it was different. Certain songs she would do in both the first and the second sets, and her scatting would be totally different each time. She was unbelievable. Not that Sarah wasn't. She was just less a scatter and more a singer. It's horrible that people like that have to die.

AAJ: Well, thank God for technology. They'll be around forever on those records.

GT: Yes, but we won't be able to see them and touch them. After 125 years, I wonder what they would have been like.

AAJ: How did your experience as a drummer influence your conception as a singer and vice-versa?

GT: I didn't get those things from other people. At an early age, at five years old, I was playing jazz. When I was like nine or 10, I was the choice drummer in Durham, North Carolina. Some of the older cats would look askance, but I could play. And I could sing. From the time I was four years old I sang The Lord's Prayer. I didn't say, I'd like to do this, I'd just do it. All my life, I've loved good music and have been totally devoted to it. And not one person that I've played with couldn't sing.

AAJ: But you've not only worked with great vocalists, you've played with many of the greatest instrumentalists. How did you develop this flexibility, no matter the style? I listened to you playing straight swing with Gerry Mulligan and Lionel Hampton, and then with Stanley Turrentine, Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith...

GT: Turrentine. Whooo! He would just make you scream: Oww, Yea! When you hear him, you know it's him. No lie, it's the truth. I'd be driving, and would have to pull over, because I couldn't drive and listen to him. That's how tight he was.

AAJ: But what gave you such flow, such resilient adaptability?

GT: Basically, I studied by listening. I didn't just hear the lead instrumentalists, I heard their drummers, and I heard how they played with each group of people. The better the drummer was, the better that time-keeper was, with all of the fluctuations and complex things they did, it was still swinging. It didn't allow you to get away from that swing. And I thought about that. So that's where I went. I can tell you right off the bat—I'm not original at anything. Drummers today who say they're an original, they're liars. There are too many cats that could play extremely well, and none of them had all of it. So you pick stuff out that fits you most. Next thing you know I was playing it.

AAJ: Tell us about the time you met Papa Jo Jones, a pioneer of the trap drums, at the age of 13.

GT: Papa Jo? The craziest man I've ever seen in my life. And this extended until I moved to New York, and it would be me and Jo. We'd sit there and drink and talk. And he was just as crazy then as when I was 13. He'd grit his teeth, and say, "You got that?" I'd say, "You bet I got it, Papa Jo." We'd just enjoy ourselves. That was as good as the music, just talking about what we did [on the drums]. He'd play a lick, and would say, "When did you get that?" And I'd say, "Oh, about 20 seconds ago." [laughter]

AAJ: Would you say that Papa Jo represents that fine line between crazy and genius?

GT: I don't know if there was a line, he was always crazy.

AAJ: But on those trap drums, wouldn't you say he was a genius?

GT: Well, what do you think crazy is? [laughter] That's what it is. When you gotta think about it, it doesn't work. When you sit down and just say [his arms and hands demonstrating drumming, Tate scats Papa Jo drum riffs] It just comes to you. And the cats are playing so good, and you're accompanying them. You try to give them the best thing imaginable on your drums in accord with what they're doing on their instruments.

AAJ: And when you were 13?

Grady TateGT: There was a place called the Durham Armory. I wasn't allowed to go there until I was 13 years old, and then with my mom and dad. Jo Jones came through. I stood there and propped these little arms up on the bandstand and just looked at Jo Jones playing the drums. When he played, there was so much joy in his face and in his body. And during the break, I stayed parked right there at the bandstand. And they came back and did their last set. And I looked up at my dad and mom, and they weren't even concerned about me because I was comfortable and safe. At the end of it, I still watched Jo Jones. He began to break down the drums and he said, "Hey, boy." "Me?" He said, "Yeah. You a drummer?" I said, "Yes, sir." He says, "Come up here."

I was walking around on the stage, and he said, "Did you bring any drumsticks with you?" "No, sir." He said, "Well, you want a pair of mine?" "Yes, sir!" He said, "Hold out your hand." So I held out my hand, and he took a pair of drumsticks and bam!—hit my hand with those drumsticks, and said to hold 'em. Jo Jones says, "That's just a small, tiny bit of the pain that you're going to get if you're gonna pick these damn things up and use 'em." I said, "I got it."

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