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Michael Carvin: The Making of a Master

By Published: July 30, 2012
Very shortly after that experience, though, Carvin's luck changed for the better—almost incredibly so. "I came in to Saigon one day; we were going to an ammo dump to get some ammo. And I heard a band playing. An army band was giving a concert—a jazz quintet. I hadn't played in six months, but I asked the drummer, 'Can I sit in?' He said, 'Yeah,' and then, 'Man, you can play!' He asked me if I could read, and I said, 'Of course.' He said, 'Well, wait a minute.' So he went and got the warrant officer, and he said, 'Well, hey, man, this cat can play, and he can read. I'm getting ready to leave in three days; I'm going to rotate back into the states.' He said, 'Look, instead of getting another drummer from the States, this cat is already in Viet Nam. Why don't you just put some orders on him?' That's when I just saw a whole 'nother United States Army.

"In three days, I was in costume medals, and we were in Westmorland's private band, an 18-piece dance band." General William Westmorland was commander of U.S. military operations at the height of the Vietnam War. "That guy—the drummer who let me sit in—his name was George Suranovich, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I will always mention George's name. I said, George, if there's anything I can do for you, man, when I get out of the Army, you come to see me California. And he came to California, but he didn't really ask for much. I hooked him up with some musicians out there."

Despite the shock of going from the stage at the Playboy Club in New York and landing at Fort Benning in a matter of days, Carvin actually adapted to the military relatively easily, starting in boot camp, thanks to his early musical experience growing up in Houston. "They made me an acting sergeant, what they call an 'acting jack,' because I knew how to count cadence and I knew how to march, because of my work in my school marching bands. That's when my drum skills kicked in again. I was back in my world, and I called the cadence, and I marched us to all our classes, and I brought us all back. I marched us to chow.

"John Phillip Sousa was the first composer who I got really into, because I was the drum captain in junior high school and senior high school. We marched ten deep, and we'd be ten across. To move a hundred people up and down a football field with the sound of my drums and my rhythm, to stop them on a dime and start them up, to stop everybody on their left foot or their right foot—that all gave me a sense of power that I had to really understand and get used to. I never wanted to play in a jazz band or night clubs as a kid. If it would have been left up to me, I'd rather still be in high school. Football in Texas when I was growing up was huge. Our high school football team played in Jefferson Stadium, where the Houston Oilers played when they first started and Rice University finally bought. And people would bet a lot of money on high school football games and also on high school marching bands. We would have competitions, and people would bet to see who had the best drum sections, who had the best march. Marching bands in the state of Texas and Louisiana and that whole area was very, very important during that time because it was one of the only entertainments that the African-American people really had. That was a big deal. What I learned was how powerful the drum is at a young age."

Considering Carvin's strong training in drum rudiments and the discipline he learned as drum captain and in the military, there's no wonder that he has a reputation as a strict disciplinarian in his teaching, as he puts it, "all the time." "If you want a friend," says the drummer, "I'm not him, because he will create a failure. You want somebody to hold your hand and change your diapers, go back home to your mama."

But Carvin's method in teaching isn't firmly set; it's quite individualized, and this ties in with a motto he repeats often "each one, teach one"—which also happens to be the title of his 1992 album on Muse Records, one of four he recorded as a leader for the label. "My father taught me, and I've taught over 300 drummers. But I only taught one. That's why none of my students sound the same. None of them sound like me, because I don't play in the lesson. You will not mimic. No 'monkey see, monkey do.' You have different fingerprints. You will act like it. I will force you to act like that. You will honor your birthright. You will honor your DNA. If not, you must go. Each one, teach one. In my opinion, you can't teach two people. You can only teach one. And so it goes, you teach one, and that one teach one, and that one teach one, and that one teach one, and on and on."

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