Grady Tate: The Art of the Singing Drummer


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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.
Grady Tate, 76, is best known as one of the most beloved, consistently dependable session drummers since the 1960s. He's the steady pulse on the famous version of Benny Golson's "Killer Joe," from Quincy Jones' Walking in Space (Verve, 1969), where his hi-hat groove and snare drum rim shots on the four, in tandem with bassist Ray Brown's big-toned walking, formed the backdrop for the head and solos by Hubert Laws and Freddie Hubbard.

He was the house drummer for many of Creed Taylor's CTI Records, and for six years drove the rhythm section of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show Band. He performed with the orchestras of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and was the drummer with the Billy Taylor Trio for several years. A complete percussionist comfortable in any style of jazz, Tate's mastery of brushes can be heard on "My Shining Hour" on Sensitive to the Touch: The Music of Harold Arlen (Groove Jams, 1999), with Jay Leonhart, Ken Peplowski and Ted Rosenthal.

Although the trap drums were his claim to fame and the basis for a highly successful career as a sideman accompanist to a plethora of the best vocalists and instrumentalists in jazz lore, voice was his first instrument, and his first love, singing. He began singing at the age of four, a year before he began playing drums. He grew up in Durham, North Carolina, very near North Carolina Central University, where, at a RC Cola-sponsored talent show, the budding prodigy—just five years old—bounded to the stage as the emcee began to say good night.

The emcee asked, "What do you want little boy?" "I wanna sing, that's what I want to do," he answered. To the musicians onstage, the emcee said, "Well, wait fellas, don't break down yet. What do you wanna sing?"

"I wanna sing a song called 'One Rose,'" said the boy. Pianist Lanky Cole knew the song and found a key for little Tate, who sang: "You're as sweet as a red rose in June, dear/I love you, I adore you, I do/Each night through love land, we'll wander, sweetheart/telling love stories anew/Out of the dark—out of the blue clouds, a dark sky came rolling/breaking my heart in two/but don't leave me alone, 'cause I love only you."

This first public vocal performance was a potent portent to the subject matter of the songs he adores. He has been nominated for a Grammy Award several times, once for his work on the famed Multiplication Rock series that aired on broadcast television from 1973-1986 on ABC. Tate sang "I Got Six" and "Naughty Number Nine," tunes by Bob Dorough. In 1986 he was nominated as Best Male Jazz Vocalist for "She's Out of My Life," a ballad popularized by Michael Jackson's rendition from Off the Wall (Epic, 1979).

Others have recognized Tate's vocal prowess. Renaissance man Gordon Parks composed "Don't Misunderstand" with Tate in mind. (He performed Parks' "The Learning Tree" movingly at the memorial service for Parks at the Riverside Church in New York City on March 14, 2006.) Grover Washington, Jr. chose Tate to sing "Be Mine Tonight" on Come Morning (Elektra, 1981). Those who listen closely to Al Jarreau's scat style will recognize Tate's influence. And with respect to his overall vocal talent, jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote in The Village Voice that Grady Tate is "the best singer to emerge from the ranks of instrumentalists since Nat Cole."

Tate showcased his velvet baritone on October 4, 2008, with a quartet at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In December, Tate and virtuoso pianist Kenny Barron will headline a small ensemble at the Birdland jazz club in midtown Manhattan.

Grady Tate is a genial and generous man, with an impish sense of humor. He's also got much to share with aspiring singers and drummers.

All About Jazz: Do you miss playing the drums?

Grady Tate: Yes, I miss playing the drums. I don't miss the traveling with them. They were really very difficult to handle. You want them in tip-top shape. All of us drummers, we took care of our instruments. I just wanted to try something else that I happen to have been doing all of my life, to see if I could get to the same level of singing as the drums I was playing. I find it difficult to sing about anything other than love.

AAJ: Yes, your recording titles show that: All Love (411, 2003), From the Heart (HalfNote, 2006)...

GT: I love to talk about love. Not about the devil and the deep blue sea. I don't like that. It's me, God and you. There's nothing in life to me more important than having a person you're in love with, and a person that loves you. And, if possible, to have some children that you love.

AAJ: Your first recording session as a vocalist was Windmills of My Mind (Skye, 1968), forty years ago. How did that come about?

GT: Gary McFarland was a part of it. He did most of my arrangements. I recorded three albums as a vocalist on his Skye Records.

AAJ: I've read that when you worked as a drummer with Peggy Lee, she heard you sing and began introducing that aspect of your artistry to audiences. What would you say about her?

GT: Peggy was just sultry, not nasty or rowdy. I enjoyed playing with her. I guess I've tried to do some of that with my singing. One of the reasons I've played with so many singers was to see and learn what they were doing. You have to listen to all of the people who are successful at it. Find those that do it to the most of what you like. Key in on that person, not to sound exactly like them, but to get the essence of their feeling. Like Peggy Lee, she'd go [Tate imitates her understated, bluesy style] and I'd think: Where did she get that from? She was soulful.

AAJ: What was it like playing with Sarah Vaughan?

GT: I think this is the truth beyond truths. When I played with Sarah Vaughan [pauses, wells up] . . . she was doing things that nobody had done. She just sang the way everybody wanted to sing. When she sang, she'd put everything she had into it. She'd go backstage and say, "I walk out lookin' like Lena Horne, and come back lookin' like a [expletive deleted]." She would be writhing in sweat.

AAJ: You also performed with Ella Fitzgerald. How would you compare Sarah and Ella as singers and scatters?

GT: They were both dynamite singers who were immediately recognizable. As I heard them, Sarah sang bop phrases when she scatted, but Ella scatted like an instrumentalist, with precision. Every time you heard her it was different. Certain songs she would do in both the first and the second sets, and her scatting would be totally different each time. She was unbelievable. Not that Sarah wasn't. She was just less a scatter and more a singer. It's horrible that people like that have to die.

AAJ: Well, thank God for technology. They'll be around forever on those records.

GT: Yes, but we won't be able to see them and touch them. After 125 years, I wonder what they would have been like.

AAJ: How did your experience as a drummer influence your conception as a singer and vice-versa?

GT: I didn't get those things from other people. At an early age, at five years old, I was playing jazz. When I was like nine or 10, I was the choice drummer in Durham, North Carolina. Some of the older cats would look askance, but I could play. And I could sing. From the time I was four years old I sang The Lord's Prayer. I didn't say, I'd like to do this, I'd just do it. All my life, I've loved good music and have been totally devoted to it. And not one person that I've played with couldn't sing.

AAJ: But you've not only worked with great vocalists, you've played with many of the greatest instrumentalists. How did you develop this flexibility, no matter the style? I listened to you playing straight swing with Gerry Mulligan and Lionel Hampton, and then with Stanley Turrentine, Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith...

GT: Turrentine. Whooo! He would just make you scream: Oww, Yea! When you hear him, you know it's him. No lie, it's the truth. I'd be driving, and would have to pull over, because I couldn't drive and listen to him. That's how tight he was.

AAJ: But what gave you such flow, such resilient adaptability?

GT: Basically, I studied by listening. I didn't just hear the lead instrumentalists, I heard their drummers, and I heard how they played with each group of people. The better the drummer was, the better that time-keeper was, with all of the fluctuations and complex things they did, it was still swinging. It didn't allow you to get away from that swing. And I thought about that. So that's where I went. I can tell you right off the bat—I'm not original at anything. Drummers today who say they're an original, they're liars. There are too many cats that could play extremely well, and none of them had all of it. So you pick stuff out that fits you most. Next thing you know I was playing it.

AAJ: Tell us about the time you met Papa Jo Jones, a pioneer of the trap drums, at the age of 13.

GT: Papa Jo? The craziest man I've ever seen in my life. And this extended until I moved to New York, and it would be me and Jo. We'd sit there and drink and talk. And he was just as crazy then as when I was 13. He'd grit his teeth, and say, "You got that?" I'd say, "You bet I got it, Papa Jo." We'd just enjoy ourselves. That was as good as the music, just talking about what we did [on the drums]. He'd play a lick, and would say, "When did you get that?" And I'd say, "Oh, about 20 seconds ago." [laughter]

AAJ: Would you say that Papa Jo represents that fine line between crazy and genius?

GT: I don't know if there was a line, he was always crazy.

AAJ: But on those trap drums, wouldn't you say he was a genius?

GT: Well, what do you think crazy is? [laughter] That's what it is. When you gotta think about it, it doesn't work. When you sit down and just say [his arms and hands demonstrating drumming, Tate scats Papa Jo drum riffs] It just comes to you. And the cats are playing so good, and you're accompanying them. You try to give them the best thing imaginable on your drums in accord with what they're doing on their instruments.

AAJ: And when you were 13?

GT: There was a place called the Durham Armory. I wasn't allowed to go there until I was 13 years old, and then with my mom and dad. Jo Jones came through. I stood there and propped these little arms up on the bandstand and just looked at Jo Jones playing the drums. When he played, there was so much joy in his face and in his body. And during the break, I stayed parked right there at the bandstand. And they came back and did their last set. And I looked up at my dad and mom, and they weren't even concerned about me because I was comfortable and safe. At the end of it, I still watched Jo Jones. He began to break down the drums and he said, "Hey, boy." "Me?" He said, "Yeah. You a drummer?" I said, "Yes, sir." He says, "Come up here."

I was walking around on the stage, and he said, "Did you bring any drumsticks with you?" "No, sir." He said, "Well, you want a pair of mine?" "Yes, sir!" He said, "Hold out your hand." So I held out my hand, and he took a pair of drumsticks and bam!—hit my hand with those drumsticks, and said to hold 'em. Jo Jones says, "That's just a small, tiny bit of the pain that you're going to get if you're gonna pick these damn things up and use 'em." I said, "I got it."

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]

AAJ: 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.

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)

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