Rick Drumm: Seizing the Day
It's good to have dreams, but it's even better to follow them, to see them take shape before your eyes and to live them. Rick Drumm has lived more than one dream. Three years as drummer with NORAD, the North American Air Defense Band, was followed by two years drumming in the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After over 1000 performances later, there was hardly a corner of the United States that Drumm hadn't visited. However, Drumm's talents were not confined to making music, and over the next quarter of a century, starting as a sales rep and working his way up to senior managerial positions, he significantly improved the fortunes of several major music-industry companies. This success led to his recruitment as President of D'Addario, one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of musical strings and accessories in the world.
Life, it seems, couldn't have been better. Then one day, in 2009, Drumm's world shifted on its axis when he was diagnosed as having non- Hodgkin's lymphoma. The sharp focus that this life-threatening cancer induced in Drumm made him realize that he still had an important dream to live out. That dream was to record a CD with his favorite musicians and closest friends. Six of his friends flew in from all corners of the world to play a gig with Drumm to raise his spirits, and the momentum carried over to produce Return from the Unknown (Rick Drumm LLC, 2012), a wonderfully vibrant, heartfelt recording of jazz fusion/jazz rock.
Drumm underwent six bouts of chemotherapy prior to the recording, though his playing, and that of his band, is energized. In a poetic turning of the tables, the musicians fed off the cancer, and their indomitable spirit shined through. Return from the Unknown is a personal triumph for Drumm and a highly satisfying musical offering. It's also an inspiring story whose moral is perhaps best summed up in the oft-quoted phrase from a poem by Horace: "Seize the day..."
All About Jazz Rick, you sound in rude health on Return from the Unknown. How are you doing health-wise these days?
Rick Drumm I'm doing fine right now, but it's one of those things that you have to watch. You have to watch it for five years or so before they say you're good to go. So far, so good; I'm just coming to the end of my third year, and I feel good. I'm able to travel; I'm able to play when I can, and that's great.
AAJ: That's great news, and we're all very pleased to hear that. The band's name, Fatty Necroses, suggests you have a developed sense of humor, but the CD name, Return from the Unknown, reflects a more sobering reality. Could you talk about the inspiration for the two names?
RD: Sure. The band's name evolved from the fact that I still have what is known as a fatty necrosis in my body. Fatty necrosis is a fatty dead tissue, and in my case it's a tumor that died from the chemotherapy. It's a small one, but it's located in a spot that the surgeons felt insecure about getting to. It's in a very tricky spot, but they claimed it would not hurt me and that I could do myself more damage with the surgery, and they asked me if I really wanted to do it. I said I was on board with that then. I found the name fatty necrosis somewhat humorous because to me it sounds like the name of an old blues singer.
AAJ: Or Huggy Bear's pal.
RD: Yeah [laughs]. So fatty necrosis is fatty dead tissue, and it's also descriptive of some of the guys in the band [laughs].
AAJ: The CD title suggests a fairly scary reality, no?
RD: Yeah. Any serious illness focuses you; it certainly focused me. I didn't know, and of course nobody knows what the future is going to hold, and in that sense it's unknown. But in this case, that future could be somewhat dark. I used to refer to it as the "great unknown," but when I received word that the chemo was successful, I had returned to my current state, so to speak.
That's the reason behind the title; it had personal meaning to me. [Guitarists] Fred Hamilton and Corey Christiansen wrote all the music, and I named the first tune "Fatty Necrosis Sings the Blues" because that tumor died. Corey wrote "Return," and that tune, which is the last cut on the album, has the theme repeat itself six times. Corey wanted me to represent musically essentially what was going on in my head each time I was talking to the doctors. They're giving you all this information, and you're trying to process it all.
Each time I went for the chemotherapywhich was six times, thus the six cycles of the tunethe playing, or at least my playing, becomes more chaotic because that was what was going on in my head, building up to those chemo sessions. Then things decrease a little as thing start to return to normal. The tune starts off with a happy little theme and then gets into a more melancholy theme that repeats six times. At the end of the tune, we're back to the happy motif, and life is okay again.
AAJ: That's a great answer; thanks for that. The tunes, as you've mentioned, were all written by the two guitarists, Hamilton and Christiansenwho really play fantastically wellbut did the arrangements change much in the rehearsals prior to recording?
RD: The guys flew in from different parts of the States, and we rehearsed those tunes the day before we went into the studio. We hadn't played them before. There weren't a lot of changes. Both Corey and Fred had a very solid idea of what they wanted the tunes to do. The one exception might be "Detours," and there we experimented during the rehearsal how to take it to different places. But everything else was already pretty strong and provided a lot of space for the guys to play, and that's what I wanted. I wanted an environment that would give the guys room to play and room to take risks. What I was aiming for on this album was the feeling that not everything is perfect, and that was okay with me. One of the things that I have observed in almost all recordings is that everything is just perfect. It's too filtered. To me, that's not reality. That's not life. It's okay if the tempo moves a little bit here or there or if there's a bit of an oops during a solo, because honestly, if someone comes to see a band in a club, that's what you experience. But to me it brings an energy to the music.
One of my favorite albums is trumpeter Miles Davis' Four and More (Columbia, 1966), and if you listen to the tempo on those tunes, they start in one place and they end in a very different place. That was the energy of that night.
AAJ: There seems to be quite an element of Miles on this album, particularly on "Fatty Necrosis Sings the Blues" and on "Out the Door," which has a very, well, Joe Zawinul/Miles Davis vibe reminiscent of "In a Silent Way."
RD: Yes. I said to Fred and Corey as they were writing the music that one of the vibes that I wanted to obtain was like a Weather Report, Miles Davis thing, that era of In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) meets The Crusadersthat type of mix.
AAJ: There is tremendous energy on the album and a very live feeling in the playing. Are these all first or second takes?
RD: Yeah, exactly. "Not Whatever" was a first take; "Out the Door" was a first take; "Indi Funk: was a first take; "Gentle Spirit" was a first take. Four of them were first takes, and I honestly don't think we had more than two takes.
AAJ: Saxophonist Frank Catalano is someone you play with live quite regularly. He plays superbly on this album, particularly on the slow-burning blues "Not Whatever." What do you like about his playing?
RD: What I've always loved about Frank's playing is his energy and his go-for-broke style of playing. He captures a lot of the spirit of [saxophonist] John Coltranewhich I personally lovethough in perhaps a more modern context. On "Not Whatever," he channels that energy in a different way. You still feel the energy, but he's holding it back, especially on the end of the tune, which we wanted to end in a very mellow way. People that hear Frank play a lot have said to me that they've never heard him play that way in that style. He's a great talent, and he has a great range of techniques that he can tap into that he doesn't often tap into on the music he normally plays. To have him tap into some of that depth on this project was just great.
AAJ: Another really great track is "Pulled Pork Sandwich," which has a lovely James Brown-meets-The Meters groove going on. Can you talk us through this track?
RD: Corey [Christiansen] wrote "Pulled Pork," and the song is named after my wife Betsey's pulled-pork sandwiches, which Corey is a huge fan of. We wanted to have that really greasy New Orleans feel on that tune, and I think Corey pieced that together really well.
AAJ: Is Zigaboo Modeliste a drummer who has inspired you?
RD: Oh, absolutely. I love The Meters, and I absolutely love Ziggy's playing. I should probably send him a royalty check [laughs].
AAJ: Rick, you're President of D'Addario & Company, which is one of the biggest string and accessory manufacturers and distributors in the world. How daunting was it for you to take on such a position in what is essentially a very long- standing family business?
RD: That's a great question. For me to be able to answer that question, I've got to give you a bit of the history of how I got there. My goal is life as a youngster was to be a studio musician. My father was a professional musician, and he had a music retail store. I grew up inside that retail store, and I grew up around music my entire life. My father had a big band and taught music. I got to perform in a lot of different bands, growing up. I studied locally in Springfield with some great teachers, and then I studied with Ed Shaughnessy, who was the drummer for the Tonight Show in New York. So I got to go down to New York every other week for my drum lesson, and after the lesson I would walk over to NBC with Ed for the Tonight Show band rehearsal. I would sit behind the band, behind Ed, and the band at that time was [trumpeter] Snooky Young; [trumpeter] Clark Terry was subbing a lot, and Richard Davis was on bass. These were big musicians. They saw me there every other week, and they started to talk to me. I got a tremendous amount of insight from those guys.
I also learned a lot of stuff at the Tonight Show rehearsals about what went on behind the scenes and what it took to put that production together. I was just observing. You don't know that you're learning something at the time, but you're just kind of filing this stuff away. I was still pursuing my dream of playing, and I spent four years with the Air Force band.
AAJ Was that military service?
RD: Yes, it was. I was with NORAD, the North American Air Defense, but I was in the band. My time there was 1974 through the end of 1977. That's where I first met Fred Hamilton [right]. Fred and I were stationed together in Colorado Springs, and also Mike Brumbaugh, who had just come back from Vietnam. We ended up living together, and the three of us formed a fusion band, in '74, that was called Hosanna. Fred wrote most of the music in that band.
RD: Continuing with the career, I spent two years playing with Ringling Brothers circus as their drummer. My father was the musical conductor on that, having closed up the music store. Again, I was learning a lot about production, logistics and that type of stuff. I eventually moved to Los Angeles. I had a wife and a newborn and a day gig. I was trying to establish myself in L.A. With the circus, I received endorsements from REMO Drum Company, who would send me products to test. It was a great test environment because I was literally playing more than 40 hours per week. They would send me all these different drum heads. So when I moved to L.A., I approached REMO for a job. They were going through an expansion, and I started entry-level customer service. Through the course of a number of years, I ended becoming Director of Sales and Marketing globally for REMO. At this point I didn't have any formal college education, but I received a lot of on-the-job education.
I was with REMO for 13 years, and then I made a move to become Chief Executive Officer for one of our customers, MIDCO, which was the fifth-largest distributor of musical instruments and accessories. I was CEO with MIDCO for three years, and then Vic Firth approached me to become President of Firth Drumsticks, which I accepted. I worked with Firth for nine years. It was halfway through my tenure at Firth that I made the decision that I wanted to go to college and get my undergrad [degree] in business. I realized I had some holes in my knowledge that I wanted to fill in, so I went to Southern New Hampshire University and did primarily online courses and a little bit of brick and mortar.
What I found out about myself was that I really enjoyed learning and that really I'm a life-long learner. I also learned that everything I was taught I could utilize the next day on the job something I could apply to managing a company. So, after I got my undergrad, I made the decision to pursue my MBA, which I did at Babson College. I was still in my first year managing Vic Firth and playing gigs when D'Addario approached me and asked me to move to New York and manage D'Addario.
I took a very long route to answer your original question, but by the time Jim D'Addario and the Board of Directors approached me, I already had a lot of experience managing family businesses. When I first joined REMO, it was an 8-million-dollar business, and when I left, it was a 20-million-dollar business. With MIDCO it was a 12.5 million dollar business, and three years later it was a 20-million- dollar business. With Vic Firth, it was a 10-million-dollar business, and when I left it was a 20-million-dollar business. So there was a trend. When I joined D'Addario, it was 95-million, and right now we're about a 165-million-dollar business.
AAJ: That's an awful lot of guitar strings.
RD: In the interview, Jim D'Addario said, "You've made a career turning these companies into multi-million dollar businesses; if we hired you, how would you manage D'Addario?" I said I'd run it like a 20-million-dollar business, because one of the things that happens in larger companies is that there are a lot of levels of bureaucracy, and you start to lose touch with your employees, and more importantly, you start to lose touch with your customers. The first thing I would do is just flatten out the organization as much as possible. That is what he wanted to hear. Part of my responsibility, along with managing the company, is mentoring the next generation of D'Addarios to become the future managers.
AAJ: Do you think any of the skills you learned playing in different bands are transferable to running a business?
RD: Absolutely. Now that the recording industry has changed so much, if you want to be successful then it's just not enough to be a talented musician; you also have to be an entrepreneur. Everything I have learned as a musician I apply to the business side. If you think of all the great bands down through history, without exception what it comes down to are people, and how you mange those people and how you get the best out of those people. Look at Miles Davis and [drummer] Art Blakey; how many great musicians did they have go through their bands? First of all, you've got to have an eye for picking out that talent, and then you have to have the ability to manage that talent. You've got to be able to bring together something musically that is greater than the individual parts. That's what those guys were able to do, and that's what I try to bring to management.
I remember walking around the factory with Remo [Belli, CEO and founder], and Remo and I used to classify people in musical terms: "See that guy over there? He's you're lead player. That guy over there's a section player; that guy's your improvisation guy."
AAJ: That's an interesting analogy. Coming back to Return from the Unknown, 25 percent of the profits are going to the non-profit organization Strike a Chord. Could you tell us about this organization and why you chose it to benefit from the CD sales?
RD: Strike a Chord is actually an Australian- based charity that now has a U.S. chapter. It was actually started by a gentleman who worked for our distributor in Australia and who had cancer himself. While he was going through his chemotherapy, he came into contact with a lot of kids. Music helped this guy get through his cancer, and he thought that if he provided music to kids going through their battles with cancer and other serious illnesses, it would help them. It's not actually easy to provide this help because of all the different laws to protect kids. In many cases you have to go through social workers to contact the families of the kids. Bringing the guys together for this album really helped me get through my ordeal, and I saw what John was doing in Australia, and it was something that I could really relate to. I wanted to help in some small way.
AAJ: It's a very worthwhile cause, indeed. Are there any plans for a follow-up CD or gigs with this lineup?
RD: We'd like to do some live gigs, though the challenges are geographic, as well as fitting it in around general life and business. Everyone has their own projects going on. It's tough to get everybody together, to find a time when everybody's schedules can come together. I've got my own situation managing a national company with 1,200 employees [laughs]. We hope to do another CD sometime soon.
AAJ: What has your experience battling cancer taught you above all else?
RDL We get tied up in our day-to-day activities; we all do. When you get the news that you have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, you know that if things go the wrong way then your time on this Earth could be shortened dramatically. It's a life review of what is really important [laughs]. Of course, we divert back to family first. I've maintained a fairly high level of music even though I've been managing these companies, but I'd always put on the back burner some creative aspirations, things that I really wanted to do. The cancer made me re-look at the priorities list. I knew that if my life was going to be shortened, I wanted to have this opportunity to play with the people I really wanted to play with and leave something behind that was a part of who I was. That's what this project meant to me.
AAJ: You must get a lot of satisfaction from providing strings and other musical accessories to millions of musicians around the world, no? That's a vast, lasting legacy.
RD: We have a lot of very good musicians at D'Addario, and it's what got us here. A lot of us are driven to provide products that we ourselves want to play. Part of what brings me to work every day is the opportunity to create the products to try to provide better services for musicians. I love sharing that passion and passing it along to the next generation. I got that from my father. He's 78 years old, and he's teaching music at a Montessori School, grades three through eight [laughs]. Bless you, Pops! He still enjoys giving that gift of music to the next generation, and I think that's important. It's a big part of what D'Addario is about.
What I appreciate about the D'Addario family is that they recognize the fact that it's important for me to play. We do that because it's part of our DNA. It's part of who we are. I have the ability to go out and play with my customers, and my fellow musicians are my customers, and I have a good connection to everything they're going through in their lives right now. Having gone through this CD project, it has given me a real-life perspective on what everybody is going through right now in the world of music: what it takes to create the product, to promote the product and to try to sustain it. It's different to how it was 10 or 15 years ago.
AAJ: It is. Your story has been a real labor of love.
RD: I've been very fortunate and blessed to work in an industry for which I really have a passion.
Rick Drumm and Fatty Necroses, Return From the Unknown (Self Produced, 2012)
All Photos: Courtesy of Rick Drumm