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Chris Smith: At The Intersection Of Scholarship, Performance and Pedagogy


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In the introduction to his book Jazz Matters (University Of California Press, 2010), David Ake writes about bringing "together the practical side of making jazz, the pedagogical side of teaching it, and the academic side of writing about it." (p. 12) "Nothing but good," Ake adds, "can come if we increase the numbers of scholars who can play, players who can cite the music's sociocultural history, and instructors who can do both." (p. 12)

Ake's exhortation to reach for excellence in a variety of musically related endeavors brings to mind Chris Smith, a young scholar, drummer, and educator. In the fall of 2014 the University Of North Texas Press published The View From The Back Of The Band, Smith's scholarly, accessible biography of drummer Mel Lewis. In addition to amassing a notable discography as a sideman, Smith is beginning to make a name for himself in New York City's notoriously competitive jazz scene. With an eye to eventually securing a full-time teaching position in academia, Smith teaches privately and gives clinics and master classes, as well as performing as a guest artist, in colleges and universities across the country.

All About Jazz: Did The View From The Back Of The Band originate as your doctoral dissertation from the University of Northern Colorado?

Chris Smith: It did. I graduated in 2012.

AAJ: Why did you choose Mel Lewis as the subject of your dissertation?

CS: A couple of main reasons, really. He was a drummer I had always admired, yet I knew that I hadn't really checked him out enough. I loved his playing, but I knew that I had a lot more recordings of his to check out. I didn't know anything about him—sort of the trajectory of his career. I didn't know anything about him as a human being. I also knew that, as a drummer, I didn't sound like him at all. I had been trying to work on getting a more legato sound out of the drums and cymbals. And I had really been working on my ride cymbal beat. And so who can you really get into to improve those aspects of your playing? Mel is an obvious choice.

The other thing is that there had been no major research on him. That was obviously a rule in academia for doing the dissertation—doing original research. It was kind of obvious, but it was a major reason, as well. The ten or fifteen pages that Burt Korall wrote in Drummin' Men were the largest single source of information on Mel. There seemed to be a need out there.

AAJ: Was it difficult to engage the support of the university and your dissertation advisor in terms of researching and writing about this particular topic?

CS: Not at all. I did this at the University of Northern Colorado, and I was actually the first person to graduate from there with a Jazz Doctorate. So I have a DA in Jazz Studies. It was a jazz research project from the get go. My committee included an English Professor—because there had to be an outside professor on the committee that's not from music. And even though he was in the English Department, he had lived in LA in the 50s and was an amateur jazz pianist. How great is that! Everyone else on my committee was a Jazz Studies faculty and completely on board, I was lucky in that regard. Jim White, who I was studying drums with there, was very helpful. The English professor, Dr. Norm Peercy, out of the goodness of his heart and because he really cared about the research and information, edited the entire dissertation with me for free. He wanted to make sure that it was really great. So I had all the support in the world from Northern Colorado. No one was trying to make me write the research they had always wanted to do. It was my project and everybody was on board.

AAJ: Generally speaking, what were the primary challenges of doing the research for the dissertation?

CS: At first, the primary challenge was putting together Mel's life before he joined Stan Kenton. Basically, everything from 1929 to about 1955. That was difficult at first, but then one morning I got an email from Adam Nussbaum and then twenty minutes later I got an email from Ed Soph. It was circulating around this bootleg audio interview Mel did with Loren Schoenberg. Mel did all of those famous interviews with Loren about the history of jazz drums. There was one episode where Mel talked about his own life. When I got that it was like I had been racking my brain trying to put all of this together, and the next thing I know I'm sitting in my living room hearing Mel tell the whole damn thing! It was almost a two-hour interview with Mel talking about his career from birth to 1955. This sounds weird, but I kind of felt like Mel knew what I doing and, somehow, he got that into my hands. Then it was a matter of transcribing and digging into that information. So, initially, that was the biggest challenge. And it got sorted out, miraculously, by hearing Mel tell it. That was a remarkable thing.

The University of Missouri, Kansas City, has a Mel Lewis Special Collection at the LaBudde Special Collections in their Library. Mel's wife, Doris, and daughters, Lori and Donna, donated it to the Library. Danny Gottlieb was instrumental in having the family take what they had as far as Mel's belongings, date books, old reviews, articles and contracts, and donate it to the Library. All of these things were just sitting in this Library, basically waiting for someone to dig through them, organize it, and write. And so the organization for me was a challenge. There was a lot of material. It's easy to get overwhelmed!

I think that the other primary challenge was the conducting of a lot of phone interviews. I had never done that before. So for me that was a pretty big challenge. Asking clear questions and not having too much of a written agenda. Listening to what the person had to say if they went in different directions, because they got off on a story about Mel doing something—to just kind of let them go. So really learning how to conduct a good phone interview was a challenge for me.

AAJ: I think that you were wise in choosing a subject who had strong connections to more than one generation of jazz musicians, including many figures that are currently active on today's scene. What was the process of getting people to contribute interviews for the book?

CS: I studied with John Riley at Manhattan School of Music. I've known Dick Oatts for years, because I'm originally from Iowa, and he's from Iowa. Those are two pretty big figures in the continuation of Mel in the New York scene today. When I told them that I was thinking of doing this, they were totally on board with me doing it. Between those two guys I pretty much had a good base of getting in touch with people in New York City. They helped me get in touch with Joe Lovano, John Mosca, and everybody else out here that I needed to talk to. Then in Los Angeles I'm friends with Jeff Hamilton, and he helped me get in touch with Bill Holman and Terry Gibbs.

Word of mouth started spreading that this guy was writing a dissertation on Mel, he's a player, he knows the deal, he's my student, and he's my friend. And he's somebody you want to talk to. So that's how I had my New York base covered, and Jeff Hamilton helped me with LA, and it kind of took off from there.

I knew that if I was going to do this research, I didn't want to just collect old newspaper articles. That's not interesting to me. None of the real good stuff is in an old newspaper article. No offense to the newspaper articles, but the stories about the band bus, and the stories about Mel as a human being are going to be from actual people. I knew that there was a strong network of people that I knew, and people I wanted to get to know, that knew Mel. It would have been more of a challenge if I had written about someone like—another drummer I love—Bill English. I wouldn't even know where to start.

When I started calling people, I didn't know how they would react. Many of them I had never met in person. I introduced myself on the phone. At that point I was living in Colorado, a random kid calling them up wanting to talk about Mel Lewis. I was overwhelmed how much people wanted to talk about Mel. I'm getting done talking to Joe Lovano, Rufus Reid, Marvin Stamm, and all these people that I look up to so much, and at the end of the interview they're thanking me! You know? And I'm like, "What are you talking about? Thank you! You just gave me an hour or two of your time, and you gave me all of this great information!" But they were just so thrilled to talk about Mel. That was something that surprised me about the interviews and the process. Everybody talked about him like they were talking about their Uncle. Or, their grandpa. Or, their dad. They were just thrilled to talk about him. It was pretty cool.

It was funny how so many people had the same experiences. I guess it's not odd. They're all talking about the same man. It didn't matter when they knew Mel. Gene Cipriano played with Mel in Tex Beneke's band, and that was in the early 50s. The same stuff he said about Mel from then, the way that Mel would talk forever, and go on and on. His personality and the way he handled himself musically was exactly the same way that Ted Nash talked about Mel in 1984. Thirty years later. The same exact thing. Which is kind of cool to hear.

AAJ: You obviously put a great deal of care into transcribing and analyzing some of Lewis' key recorded performances. What kind of discoveries did you make about his playing during this process?

CS: That's a great question. I'll try not to make the answer too long. I discovered so much. To me and a lot of drummers, Mel is a magician. He's so subtle and so tasteful. Everything that he plays is the perfect thing for that musical moment. At the same time, if you're not really listening to what he's doing, it's easy to gloss over it and not realize what a big musical contribution he's making. When I really started digging in—and this is really why I started doing the research because I really wanted to dig in—things like, when he was playing with an ensemble, whether it was Marty Paich's Dek-tette, an octet, big band, or even a quartet, how he matched pitches and articulations with the written ensemble. It seems simple, it seems easy, but it's not. He was so good at it. It just came out of him unconsciously. The ensemble plays a short note; Mel plays a short sound. The ensemble plays a long note, and Mel plays a roll on the tom or plays an open hi-hat, so there's a long sound. If he sets up a low brass figure, a lot of times he'll play on his floor tom. If he's playing a counter line with the saxophones, he's playing on the snare drum. He was constantly orchestrating. It was perfect. It was unbelievable how somebody could play that musically—and it had to have been unconscious. There's no way he could be up there thinking or memorizing—like, in bar thirteen, the bass trombone plays the and of three and the and of four, so I'm going to play on the floor tom. It's like he internalized it after hearing it once or twice, that was part of the arrangement, and that's what he did.

I was talking to another drummer the other night about how Mel could make such simple texture changes, and it would make such a huge difference in the music. In the book I was talking about Joe Lovano's album, Tones, Shapes, and Colors. There's a song titled "Chess Mates" where Mel accompanies Lovano's intense solo for about three minutes, and at the point where most drummers would have started overplaying, playing too hard, getting bad sounds out of the drums, all Mel does is go from his main ride cymbal to his Chinese cymbal. And it sounds like the music just got shot out of a rocket. If I could think on that level, and have that much sensibility about what's happening in the music, that's the shit! That was a huge discovery.

And his cymbal beat. Listening to the feel of his quarter notes on his cymbal beat, and his consistency of where he put his skip beat. Hearing his ride cymbal beat is swing. There's always a debate on what's swing and what's jazz. Well all I know is that when I hear Mel Lewis play his ride cymbal beat that's swing and that's jazz. There's nobody that's going to tell me otherwise.

AAJ: Throughout the book you do an excellent job of outlining some of the major changes in jazz during the mid-to-late twentieth-century—such as the decline of the big bands, the abundance and then the drying up the lucrative studio work for some jazz oriented players, and the gradual decline of club work and increased performance opportunities in colleges and universities—all of which had an effect on Lewis' career. Was it your intention to write a partial history of jazz during these years?

CS: It was not my intention, but it turned out to be one of my favorite aspects of the research. My intention was to codify Mel's life and his career. And if it turned out that he had worked for ABC Studios for forty years, then that's what it would have been. But he was always on the move, and it was interesting to me how his life really did reflect so many changes in the history of jazz. I'm sure that if we dig into the majority of great jazz players, it would be the same type of thing. Adapting to what may be popular, and adapting to how to make money in addition to just playing, or where they played. It was never my intention, but it was really enjoyable how that did work out, and how much I learned about jazz history because of Mel's history.

AAJ: Was it difficult to find a publisher for the book?

CS: It was not, actually. A lot of things in this process worked in my favor. And a lot of the things that worked in my favor were not necessarily an accident. My teacher and mentor at Northern Colorado, Jim White, is a former student of Ed Soph at the University of North Texas. They are friends and still stay in touch. Through Jim I got to know Ed and I interviewed him for the book. So I think that Jim put a word in his ears that this was going to be a really great dissertation, and it would read as a book. Initially I was going to do research from Mel's career from 1955 to 1963. That was going to be the whole dissertation. My committee was like, "No. If you're going to do it, you're going to do it all." At the time, I was like "You're kidding me. I can't bite that much off." But I did, and I'm eternally grateful that they suggested that I do that. So when the dissertation was done it was really the whole story of Mel's career, at least from birth to death. There were no missing sections. So I sent it to Ed Soph, he read it as a dissertation and passed it on to the University of North Texas Press. They read it and had some suggestions. It was another year-and-a-half of changing some things, adding things. I didn't have to shop it around.

There's so much great research out there that needs to be published. I'm so grateful to Ed and UNT Press. They were amazing to work with.

AAJ: One of the many things I find interesting about the book is that it's free of academic jargon. I believe that's one of the things that make it of genuine interest to a wider range of readers than just jazz scholars or jazz aficionados. Was it your intention to try to attract different kinds of readers?

CS: Yes, absolutely. Before I wrote a word I was doing a lot of research but I wanted to get a firm grasp on who I wanted to read it—even if it was a dissertation. I was never writing it necessarily to be a book; it turned into a book. I was writing it as a dissertation. But I wanted to give the dissertation to anybody from a musician that played with Mel, to a jazz connoisseur, a New York City jazz musician. I wanted them to read it and learn from it, to be into it and be inspired by it. At the same time I wanted a person who maybe played in their high school jazz band, who is a banker or a lawyer, or a nurse; that he or she was on Amazon one night and saw this book about Mel Lewis, and they remember playing "Big Dipper" in high school, and check out the book. And they get as much out of it as somebody with six hundred Mel Lewis CDs. I know that it's probably impossible to serve both equally, but it always was my intention to make it an enjoyable read for professional musicians and, like I say, people who played in high school jazz bands.

AAJ: I've been listening to your playing on a couple CDs, Good Rattle's The Right Riot, and Ben Haugland's Point Of No Return. It seems to me that your style of drumming is, in some respects, rather different than Lewis.' What is the relationship between Lewis' work and your drumming?

CS: That's a good question. Mel Lewis is a huge influence on my playing. At the same time, he's only one of many influences. I hope that when people hear me play, they can hear that I've checked out Mel by my swing feel, and by the way I support an ensemble. How I, hopefully, play musically and play in a giving fashion. I hope they can hear that I'm coming from Mel Lewis in that regard. But the last thing I want to be is a Mel clone. It would be impossible to be him, anyway. My musical life and his are so different. I want to be me and tell my story; and Mel would want that, anyway. I know from talking to everyone he worked with and reading so many things he said, that he would be mad if I wrote a book about him, and then I sat down and played and it was like a Mel Lewis transcription. It would be the worst. I think I do sound similar to him in certain regards, more and more. The stuff that I checked out while writing this book probably won't come out in my playing for another five years. Who knows? But it's in there. So I know it comes out. And at the same time years of playing in different ensembles. Playing in seven, playing in a hip-hop band, and all of these things that Mel never did. I'm going to sound different. As long as my influences are in there enough so that if somebody is listening to me, and like, oh, that's kind of coming out of Philly Joe, or he just played a little rub-a-dub like Mel would have played. Certain things. A tip of the hat is always what I'm going for always in my influences—and Mel's one of them.

AAJ: When doing the research and writing the dissertation and the book, were there times when you wrote something about Lewis and it subsequently affected or had an impact on your drumming? Conversely, are there times when you're playing and something comes to mind that you've written in the book?

CS: There's never a time when I'm playing something, and something comes to mind that I've written in the book. If I'm playing music it's subconscious. I can definitely say that things that I researched and wrote in the book affected my playing. The other day I played a big band gig. We had a rehearsal in the afternoon and then we had the hit at night. I recorded the rehearsal and I listened back to it. Ninety-five percent of the time, I'd hear what I'd played and I didn't like it. And I'd be like, "What would Mel do?" Generally, if I think along those terms, I'm going to be doing what's right for the music.

Never in the moment do I think about things I wrote in the book. But I do have to say, along the same lines, doing the research and the writing of the dissertation and the book has definitely affected my career. I lived in New York City and left to move to Colorado to do the doctorate, not thinking that I was ever coming back to New York City. I was thinking that was kind of done, and on to the next thing. Doing all the research on Mel it seems that—not that my career is anything like his, necessarily—he never stopped being a jazz drummer. He never stopped working at it. He always stuck to his guns. If he didn't want to play some corny, bullshit music in the studio, he didn't. I don't know how that affected Doris [Lewis' wife] and the girls at home. He didn't take the Basie gig because of the money, because he was helping his parents. How many people would do that? He allowed Stan Levey to leave Kenton on Levey's terms. He waited years for that thing to come through. His story has really inspired the way I carry myself and try to be a jazz drummer, and to get better and move back to New York and do it. You want to be a jazz drummer? You have to do it. And Mel Lewis always did it. That was a huge inspiration.

AAJ: You're living and working in an era when gigs are scarce, and many excellent musicians are making a living outside of music. What was it like for you to research and write about periods during the mid-to-late twentieth century in particular, when it was not uncommon to be fully employed playing jazz or music in general?

SC: It was an eye opening experience. Prior to doing the research on Mel Lewis I read a really excellent book written on Shelly Manne. It was only published in a limited number—maybe they published a thousand of them, and that was it. That was really an eye opener. Checking out everything that Shelly did was, holy cow!

From what I've learned, Mel wasn't doing near the amount of studio stuff that Shelly did—for forty or fifty years! Mel was not that into the commercial scene, he was there for a short amount of time, and he burned a lot of bridges. Learning about Irv Cottler, Alvin Stoller, Shelly Manne and Mel, knowing that they played drums, and they played jazz drums to make money on almost a daily basis; yeah, I was envious. I don't know if I would have been good enough to be in the scene, or not. Who knows? It would be nice to have the opportunity to try, in the form of being able to play in a big band out on the road, for weeks at a time. I'm sure that had a ton of disadvantages, too. Being away from family, and being on the bus constantly. Just from a musical standpoint, knowing how busy they were, playing the drums and playing like a ride cymbal beat, was eye opening. I do wish I could have been living back then to be a part of it—to try to be a part of it.

But it's different nowadays, too. It's easy to think back and think to what it would have been, and I wasn't there. So maybe it was better than I think. Or maybe it was worse than I think. There are a lot of good things going now that those guys didn't have.

AAJ: It must be gratifying to be an extension of Lewis's legacy by subbing with The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and playing regularly with Dick Oatts. Did your work on the Lewis project help in getting into these circles as a drummer?

CS: I definitely wouldn't use the term "getting into the circle." I felt like I was in the circle in the sense that I had studied with John Riley and was friends with John. I was friends with Dick Oatts. I was friends with Jeff Hamilton. I was in the circle; but it definitely increased my circle. It motivated me to keep working and keep practicing. The research led me to figuring out my own musical path and plan, as far as moving back to New York City. I learned a lot about myself through it, it increased my circle of people I knew, and decided who I maybe wanted to play with, what I sounded best playing, and where I might fit in.

I'm incredibly lucky to sub with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, to sit on that stage on a Monday night and play those charts. I've only done it a couple of times. There are a couple of other great drummers who also sub, and I'm on the list. And that to me is a dream come true. I can't tell you how crazy it is to sit up there behind the drums and they call everything by the number. Number eight. Number forty-three. Number three seventy-four. Like, what the hell is three seventy-four? It's like all the stuff you've listened to, but to have "Don't Git Sassy," or "Groove Merchant" called, and you're sitting up there playing it—it's humbling, you know? Hands down one of the coolest experiences of my life, and it makes the hard parts of being a jazz musician completely worth it. Any hard gigs or money issues, any hardships that come with being a musician, in times like that, it's completely worth it. I'll be on my death bed thinking about playing at the Vanguard.

AAJ: You're based in New York City, an extremely competitive place to find work as a musician or teacher. How do you manage to survive in this environment?

CS: Well, I play as many gigs as possible. I'm lucky in the sense that I'm playing almost exclusively jazz gigs. I have one R & B gig that I enjoy doing. It pays me well, the people are good to work with, and they're good musicians. Other than that, I'm playing jazz gigs. I try to handle every musical situation that is presented. If the singer wants to play Bolero, I know how to play Bolero. If there's reading involved, I'm a pretty good reader. If there is a groove thing involved, I've listened to a lot of R & B music. So I think I'm well rounded enough where I don't get caught off guard too much musically. I think that's the key. There's so much competition. I think that's the hard part—especially as a drummer. There are so many styles and feels and things that you're asked to do. It's overwhelming in the sense that if you kind of sound bad at one thing, maybe sound bad for five minutes of the gig, there's somebody in the city who is not going to sound bad for the entire gig.

I'm playing gigs. The work is picking up. I'm working with singers and with big bands. Those are the two things I really enjoy doing. So I'm happy about that. I try to be on time and be polite and serve the music. I think that the music will continue serving me if I can continue to do that.

I teach Skype lessons, which more and more people are doing. From sort of a marketing angle, as a New York City musician, it's easier to get students throughout the country and the world. I have students that I teach on Skype that saw me at Smalls. Or, I've worked with them at a college clinic in Montana. And then we do Skype lessons. It's a great way to make money. I enjoy teaching. That's kind of a new thing. New things pick up where old things left off. I don't think that Mel ever taught a Skype lesson.

I've also survived by getting out of NYC where I increased my network of colleagues in higher education. I'm lucky to have a network of people who teach in colleges and universities all over the country. Moving away from NYC for several years allowed this to happen. In a couple of weeks I'll go to the University of Montana for five or six days. I'll be a clinician and guest artist at their jazz festival, and work with students there. I go to the University of Northern Colorado Jazz Festival, and I work with the students there. I travel and do master classes. I'm planning to do a master class at Temple [University] in the fall, and at Purchase College. Teaching at and traveling to colleges and universities is something I've really enjoyed. It's part of the pie of my career, as well.

AAJ: What kind of effect did the research and writing of "The View From The Back Of The Band" have on your pedagogy?

CS: I would say it definitely did. As far as the actual way I teach someone, I don't know specifically if I can say that writing or researching the book affects what I would teach in a drum set lesson. It definitely affects what I may teach in a drum set lesson. It definitely opened my eyes to a lot of weaknesses in my own playing. Weaknesses that I hear in my own playing, then we start hearing it in other peoples. I know that employing certain things that Mel played has helped me so I may pass it on to a student.

I do think that being in academia, having gone through the research process and writing, getting it done, which is probably most of the battle for the dissertation. Saying, enough is enough, and this is what I want it to be and I'm going to try to graduate. And then going through the pre-publishing permissions I had to do in order to get it to be a book. I think I have a lot of things to offer students, because of the experiences I had researching and writing of the book.

It's incredible to me that I never planned to write a book. To be honest, I never planned to get a doctorate. I'm a jazz drummer who loves the history of the music. So if I could do what I did, anybody who is writing their thesis or dissertation could turn it into a really great piece of jazz research that they share with the world, which is what we should be doing anyway. There's so much information out there. I think that my experience could affect my teaching in that regard. Putting students down that path.

AAJ: Has the publication of the book opened up any opportunities for teaching and playing?

CS: Yes, it absolutely has. I had mentioned doing a master class at Temple in the fall, and at Purchase College. I'm going to Colorado State University in April, as well as Northern Colorado. I'm going to do a master class on some of the concepts that I took from Mel's playing when I researched the book. I won't always to that. I do other master classes that have nothing to do with Mel, in regard to jazz drumming, or big band drumming, or jazz history.

Playing-wise it has opened some doors. If anything I think the coolest thing is that it's given me professional credibility with the people I want to play with, the people I really look up to, I've always dreamt of playing with. It's not like they're going to call me for a gig because I wrote this book. And it's not like because I wrote this book I'm going to show up and sound like Mel Lewis, or play well enough to play the gig. The goal is to let people know that I'm really serious about jazz drumming and I'm really serious about the music. They see that through the book, and when they get to hear me play they're like, "Oh, damn! He can play, too." The same is true for academia or getting a college teaching job. I do have a publication, which is great. The main thing is I can play. I'm working on my playing. And I can make music with people. So it has opened doors and I know that it will continue. I feel like I'm ready to go through the door when it opens.

AAJ: Do you aspire to a full-time, tenure track position at a college or university?

CS: I absolutely do. They're incredibly hard to find, and they're diminishing at seemingly every institution. There's less and less full-time, tenure track faculty. That's why I did my doctorate, because I want a full-time teaching position, teaching jazz music, teaching drummers. That's probably my biggest career goal. I love teaching. I like academia. I like it enough that I know I like it. I taught at the University of Northern Colorado for a short bit after I was done, and I taught while I was at school there. I've been to a lot of college at this point, and I feel that I'm well suited to be a professor. And I love teaching. I'm going to be patient, and keep my eyes and ears out for a position to open up that would be mutually beneficial, to the school, obviously, and to me. And I know that will happen. I think it's going to take patience, but so does everything else.

AAJ: What is your next scholarly project?

CS: It's a little yet to be determined. I have initially started digging into another book. I would love to write about Max Roach, which is a large project. A daunting project, frankly. Research on Max Roach needs to be written, too. I don't necessarily think of it as what I can do or what I should do, it's what needs to be done. Not that I'm necessarily providing some great service, but a book on Max Roach should be written so that a sixteen year old drummer, fifty-five years from now has some resource to go to, to get started knowing about Max Roach.


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