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Chad Taylor: Myths and Music Education

Jakob Baekgaard By

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We need to keep building the audience for this amazing art form. More money and resources need to be put in music education. I’m not talking about music school for jazz musicians, I’m talking about music appreciation for the masses. —Chad Taylor
Few drummers know how to use rhythms like Chad Taylor. He makes the drum set sing melodies and paints different hues and shades on the cymbals and skins. He can play inside and outside and has performed with musicians like saxophonists Fred Anderson, Pharoah Sanders and James Brandon Lewis, pianists Cooper-Moore and Angelica Sanchez, guitarists Jeff Parker and Marc Ribot, bassist Joshua Abrams and trumpeter Rob Mazurek, just to name a few.

Back in 2009, Taylor released Circle Down as a leader. That recording showcased a piano trio and received wide acclaim. While the role as a leader is not new to Taylor, this is the first time that he has recorded a solo record. Myths and Morals is an adventurous and yet accessible take on the difficult art of the solo drum record, but it is much more than just that. It is a journey in melody, rhythms and sound. In the following interview, Taylor, who is also a composer, scholar and educator, speaks about his solo record, the paths he has taken as a musician, his philosophy of playing music and not least the importance of educating an audience in the appreciation of music.

All About Jazz: Did you grow up in a family surrounded by music? Did anyone in your family play an instrument or take a special interest in music?

Chad Taylor: I was born in Tempe, Arizona. My father played the piano. It was his dream to be a concert pianist. When he was in the army, he was able to study at a conservatory in Frankfurt. Unfortunately he got transferred to Alaska, so he eventually stopped playing and focused his energy on electrical engineering. Growing up, there was always great music being played in the house: Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Handel, Brahms, Liszt and Oscar Peterson. My dad is a huge Oscar Peterson fan. My older sister played piano and took an interest to playing ragtime music. My mom mostly listened to country and gospel music.

AAJ: What led to your own discovery and interest in music? What kind of music did you listen to early on and how did you develop your taste in music?

CT: My dad started giving my sister piano lessons. My parents decided that she was going to be the next musician in the family. I got extremely jealous and told my parents I wanted to play music too. They didn't take me that seriously. I remember one day when I was five or six my parents threw a party and had my sister perform a few pieces. Everybody clapped and cheered afterwards. I yelled out that I wanted to play something too. I had a toy guitar and strummed it as hard and fast as I could. Everybody chuckled and laughed at me. I decided then and there that I was going to prove to everybody that I could be a musician too. I convinced my parents to let me take some lessons. I didn't have that much talent but I had a lot of ambition. Eventually I got pretty good. I became fascinated with classical guitar. I listened to Barrios, Tarrega, Sor, and Giuliani. By the time I was thirteen my teacher told my mom I needed to get a new teacher because she didn't have anything else she could teach me. What started off as a need for attention eventually turned into a real love and obsession. Every penny I earned went to buying classical and jazz records. I only listened to classical music and jazz until I moved to New York when I was nineteen.

AAJ: So you started out as a guitarist. What made you shift to the drums?

CT: My parents split up when I was ten and me, my mom and sister moved to inner city Chicago. Wow, talk about a culture shock! I wanted to play music in school so I joined the concert band. I started off playing clarinet but I couldn't really get a sound out of the instrument so my band instructor suggested that I play percussion. When I went to high school I joined both the Orchestra and Concert band which were both outstanding. I took weekly lessons studying classical percussion. Then I met Matthew Lux. Matt Lux turned my life upside down. He played bass in the orchestra and asked me what sort of music I liked. Other than a ton of classical recordings I think I had a New Edition record and a Kenny G Live record. Matt was not impressed. He began to school me big time. At fourteen, Matt was already a jazz aficionado. He told me about Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He convinced me to start playing the drum set and got me to enroll in the Bloom school of Jazz. After high school was done around four in the afternoon, we would go down to the Bloom school and take classes in improvisation. David Bloom's method was really conceptual. He talked about how to shape a solo, how to get the music to swing. I learned a lot from him. Around the same time I met a bassist named Dennis Carroll who performed with Bobby Broom. He was my first real mentor. He helped get me on gigs and played all the classic recordings for me. During this time though I thought of jazz as just a hobby. My real passion was still classical music so when I got offered a scholarship to study classical guitar at Milikin University, I took it. I was miserable there. I had to do a recital every other month and I couldn't take the pressure. I would get serious stage fright. One day I just gave up. I stopped going to class and would just hang out in the library listening to records. I found this Henry Threadgill record with Steve McCall and after listening to that I decided that I wanted to focus all my energy on playing the drums. The next year I enrolled in the New School of Jazz in New York. I haven't really played the guitar ever since.

AAJ: Sometimes you hear a musician say that he or she plays a certain instrument because it corresponds to the sounds that he or she wants to express. Is it possible to say that playing drums involves another mindset than playing guitar? I'm also thinking of rhythmical versus melodic thinking, if there is such a thing. The reason I'm asking is because I think of your playing as being very rhythmical, but also very melodic and you also use melodic instruments to supplement the drums. So, basically, do you think of yourself primarily as a drummer or more like a musician who just so happens to play the drums?

CT: When I was sixteen I went down to the Jazz showcase to hear Elvin Jones and the Jazz Machine. It completely blew my mind. I was extremely shy at the time, but I really wanted to meet Elvin so I just sort of hid in the corner until the room was empty. He walked up to me and asked "Are you a musician?" I said "No. I'm a drummer." He put his arm around me and said "If you are a drummer then you are a musician! Never forget that!." Ha! I've always approached the drum set as a melodic instrument because that's the only approach I knew. I didn't grow up listing to popular music. My first experiences of the drums was listening to melodic drummers like Elvin Jones, Frankie Dunlop and Billy Higgins. Ironically they all played guitar too.

AAJ: How do you feel about the jazz tradition? What does jazz music and the jazz tradition mean to you and do you think of yourself as a jazz musician?

CT: I do think of myself as a jazz musician. For me what defines jazz is not the tradition of the music but the process of the music. I've always have been fascinated with jazz history. I did my masters in Jazz History and Research under the direction of Lewis Porter at Rutgers. It's a great program. Not only do you study historiography but you study the history of music theory, the history of songwriting and the history of peoples' musical perceptions. In my opinion, what are considered jazz traditions in jazz music have slowly changed over time. They have evolved. What has remained constant though is the process of creating jazz music. That process is taking musical elements that are known and putting them together in a different way to create something that is new and unknown. African-americans who were slaves had to embrace this process of creating something new out of what's available for survival. For me this process of creation in essence is jazz. It's creative music. For me the greatest jazz musicians are the ones who have created their own systems for improvising; musicians like Charlie Parker, Henry Threadgill and Fred Anderson to name a few.

AAJ: Could you tell about some of your formative experiences as a musician? What are some of the most import steps in your development as a musician in terms of people you played with, education and recording projects?

CT: I enrolled at the New School in 1992. I was a terrible student at that time but I learned a lot from playing sessions. I played all day almost every day in all sorts of situations. I played with great musicians and people who were absolute beginners. I hardly ever turned down a session because I knew there was something to be learned in every playing situation, I felt lucky to hook up with folks like Kurt Rosenwinkel, JD Allen, and Chris Lightcap.

I moved back to Chicago in 1997 and was honored to have Fred Anderson ask me to join his trio. I met Fred through Josh Abrams. Playing with Fred was a school all unto itself. Fred taught me a lot about phrasing and form in a free context and also about musical integrity.

During this time in Chicago there were also lot of interesting collaborations happening. Nothing seemed forced or contrived. I met producers and engineers who were amazing musicians. Their knowledge of jazz was massive. I knew several indie rock musicians who had double and triple the jazz recordings I had. It really blew my mind. I moved into the loft that the band Tortoise had. I started working with Sam Prekop from the band The Sea and Cake and Doug McCombs and Jeff Parker from Tortoise.

One of the big breaks me and Rob Mazurek had is that the band Stereolab sampled my drumming on one of their records. Instead of compensation they asked if we wanted to open up for them on a six week tour. Wow! The Underground Duo went from playing in front of twenty people to playing in front of five-hundred people overnight. It still baffles my mind the amount of records we sold playing unfamiliar experimental music.

I moved back to NYC in 2001 and hooked up with Cooper-Moore. I met Cooper-Moore through Tom Abbs. Cooper-Moore was another great mentor. One of the first things he said to me was "I've been asking about you. I heard you're a great listener." I said "Ah thanks Cooper Moore." He said "That's not a compliment." Ha!! I was completely dumbfounded. It took me a few years working with him to understand what he meant.

To be a great improviser you can't just be reacting to what you hear, you also have to simultaneously be giving people things to react to. I have also learned a lot about improvising from playing with Marc Ribot and Henry Grimes for many years.

I think one of my proudest moments was getting the opportunity to work with Pharoah Sanders. The first time I heard the mbira was when I heard Steve Neil play it in one of Pharoah's bands, so in a way things have come around full circle.

For me the learning process never stops. I'm always studying and learning from whoever I can.

About Chad Taylor
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