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Grady Tate: The Art of the Singing Drummer

By Published: October 22, 2008
AAJ: Let's go from when you were 13 to last year: Roy Haynes at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola. Grady Tate and Ron Walker [Grady's manager] sitting right up in front. Haynes acknowledges you, and has you come up to sing a song. What was that like?

GT: Like everything else—wonderful. He can play the simplest phrase, and it sounds different from anyone else who plays that phrase specifically. There's a touch behind all of that.

AAJ: Is there a fraternity among jazz drummers?

GT: It's not so much that. There are people out here who play, and love playing so much, and could play well enough that you became friendly with them. Maybe they weren't as good as you were, or maybe sometimes they were better than you, but the two of you would just sit there and just talk about drums and smile. If there's anything I can do for a drummer or a singer, I'll do it.

AAJ: Seeing you perform live, and on record of late, I've noticed that you're fond of playing with Asian musicians. Why?

GT: For one thing, they can play. They can also take instructions as to what I want, and need, and what I must have. I want someone that I can build, and who I can tell what I want. But with Kenny Barron, who's playing with me at Birdland in New York in December, I don't tell him shit. One thing I do tell him is: Kenny, if I'm wrong tell me what to do. [laughter]

Grady TateAAJ: You've taught at Howard University since 1989. What do you try to impart to your students?

GT: If they are drummers, I try to get them to listen to every drummer they can find. Then you tell me what you like about whomever you're listening to. Then we have you sit down and play, and see how close you can come to that which you like. If it's something that I don't like, I say, "I wouldn't do it that way if I were you, let me just show you this." And they say, "Yeah, why didn't I think of that?" I say, "Because you're young." But from the beginning, you've got to be able to keep time. [Tate pats the table with a steady beat, while scatting phrases around it.] And brush work is the most difficult thing to play because they almost always sound alike.

But there are other things you can do with them. I tell the students, "These aren't sticks, these are brushes. But you can play as powerfully with them as you can with sticks." Everything has to be in cooperation. If you play the bass drum too loud, the brushes are wiped out.

AAJ: The art of jazz drumming. What are some of the other things that can be done with brushes?

GT: To me, the brushes are so unique that it's almost impossible to tell one what to do or how to do with them. Because the brushes are not supposed to be loud; usually they are used on ballads. On up-tempo tunes, the reason the cats didn't use them is because they couldn't maneuver that fast. [He mouths how the brushes sound when played fast properly.] It's the way you scrape with them.

AAJ: When you were coming up, who was your model on brushes?

GT: Jo Jones. He played allthat shit, and it created a whole different sound, based on the way he moved his hands back and forth. Cats ask, how do you do that? I say, "I don't know but if you stand here and watch you might be able to get it." It's about a touch. [Next he discusses the hi-hat and sock cymbal, vocally replicating the sounds.] We had to figure all that out.

AAJ: What do you like to impart to vocalists?

GT: I tell them to bring a stack of recordings by singers. And you pick out the things that are most important: the introduction, the first chorus, and how to go from the first to the second. And for drummers playing with singers, you follow the singer, you don't overplay, playing a damn solo while they're singing. You go just beneath where the singers go.

AAJ: Aren't you managing a young singer, D. Lloyd? How did you come across him?

GT: My manager brought him to me, and I said damn. Who's this? What I like about him is that the edge is on the bottom and the top of his register. It's all even. He's a bass-baritone. He's very unique. I call him, de Lawd! When the women hear him, they go "Ooooh."

AAJ: What was it like producing his recording, For You (Per-Voc, 2008)?

GT: That was my first recording as a producer. The recording had some great musicians: James Genus, Paul Bollenbeck, John Di Martino, Aaron Heit. But they needed direction. I helped them with their openings and closings especially. Beginnings and endings will wipe you out or make you a star. The stuff in the middle is for you as a singer and instrumentalist, but the beginnings and endings are for the listener. And with a deep voice, there's nothing more boring than a deep voice without nuances. And with a deep voice, to get to a woman at the end, you give them the sense that you're almost crying. That's what they want. They want to hear you about to cry, so they can cry legitimately. You gotta lay it on right.

Grady Tate

AAJ: The art of male singing. Any closing words of wisdom?

GT: Think very closely about what you want, and go get it. It's out here, so go get it. But always remember that you can find people—musicians, arrangers—who are with you. They have to play according to what you want, especially as regards dynamics, how soft and how loud. And look like you're having fun. If a musician wants to pretend that "this ain't nothin,'" he can either get with it, or he's immediately released. Just go with me, and everything will be cool. I want everybody to be comfortable, and to have a good time.

Selected Discography

Grady Tate, From the Heart: Songs Sung Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2006)

Gato Barbieri, The Impulse Story (Impulse, 2006)

Grady Tate, Windmills of My Mind (Passport, 2006)

Grady Tate, All Love (411 Records, 2003)

Aaron Neville, Nature Boy (Verve, 2003)

Brother Jack McDuff, Bringin' It Home (Prestige, 1999)

Grady Tate, Feeling Free (Pow Wow Records, 1999)

Grover Washington, Jr., Prime Cuts: The Greatest Hits 1987-1999 (Columbia, 1999)

George Shearing, Walkin': Live at the Blue Note (Telarc, 1995)

Billy Taylor, It's a Matter of Pride (GRP, 1994)

Grady Tate, Body and Soul (Milestone, 1993)

Grady Tate, TNT (Milestone, 1991)

Michel Legrand, After the Rain (Fantasy, 1982)

Jimmy Smith, Off the Top (Rhino/Elektra, 1982)

Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington Songbook One (Pablo, 1979)

Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington Songbook Two (Pablo, 1979)

Ray Bryant, All Blues (OJC, 1978)

Quincy Jones, Walking in Space (Verve, 1969)

Stan Getz, Sweet Rain (Verve, 1967)

Bill Evans, Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra (Verve, 1965)

Jimmy Smith, Organ Grinder Swing (Polygram, 1965)

Johnny Hodges, Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges (Impulse, 1964)

Oliver Nelson, Guitar Forms (Polygram, 1964)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Wayne Tucker
Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Grady Tate

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