Joe Chambers first made his mark on the New York jazz scene playing with Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard in the early '60s. Soon afterwards he was regularly recording on important sessions with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Wayne Shorter, Archie Shepp and Chick Corea, often contributing his own compositions to the dates. In the '70s Max Roach recruited him as a founding member of the group M'Boom.
All About Jazz: Let's start with your arrival in New York. You hit the ground running when you got here. You're on all of these really important recordings.
Joe Chambers: Yeah that was in the '60s - '62-'63.
AAJ: Did you come here prepared to do that? Is that what you were thinking was going to happen when you came to New York?
JC: No, I didn't think that was going to happen. I kind of anticipated it though, because I met all of these people when I was in DC. I lived in DC from like '60 to '63 and I worked in this place called the Bohemian Caverns, you might have heard of it. I was down there with a group called JFK QuintetAndrew White, Walter Booker, Ray Codrington and a keyboard player Harry Kilgo. So I worked down there for three yearssix nights a week. All the people, all the cats would come through there. I met Miles, Traneall of those peopleWayne Shorter, Art Blakey. They would come through and playyou know jam sessions, so I met all of these folks and they kind of took a liking to me, some of them. They knew me and they said, "Come on to New York. So I knew these people. Eric Dolphy was the first, 'cause Eric came to the Caverns and worked for about three or four weeks with us. So I met him and when I got to New York he was the first person I worked with, the first big name or noted musician.
AAJ: Where did you work?
JC: Where did we work? Jesus! (laughs) I remember we did some kind of museum. It was in the Village and then we did a big concert in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Freddie Hubbard was on it. Freddie Hubbardthere's a recording of thissomebody taped it. Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, me. And from that point on...
AAJ: Pretty much from the beginning your style of drumming has a certain sense of formalism to it. What is that makes your drumming so distinctive?
JC: I don't know (laughs). I was always trying to be a broad musician. And complete. Of course I played piano, but I played arranger's piano. You know, I have a little chops, just enough to... At one time, matter of fact I played piano in DC in the Caverns on the weekends. I studied a lot of composition. One thing, and I don't like to go around wearing it on my sleeve, but I have a formal degree in compositionWestern composition. So I was always like that. My brother was a composer. Steve Chambers. He died in '87. When I was down in DC I was studying composition, so I had that. And I was always trying to write stuff and I wrote songs way back then. Freddie Hubbard recorded my songs and Bobby Hutcherson recorded some of my stuff. So I was always broad in that sense...
AAJ: Your drumming seems to take on a certain compositional sense within the music. You're not just tipping, playing time.
JC: Well, I like that compliment. The thing about it is that when I was doing those dates I never read a drum part. I read the piano part. I knew the songs. I could play the songs. I'd get the piano or the lead melody and I'd learn the song. I'd play them. So I knew the songs that I recorded. I knew them thoroughly.
I'll tell you something, where I'm at right now and I don't want to say this negatively, but I'm trying to get away from the drums, from the trap set. I'm trying to get away from that. There are a lot of reasons...business reasons... other reasons. I'll tell you another thing; I really don't like to play with too many people. There're only certain people I like to play with. Now years ago that might have been dangerous to say because I might not get any calls [for work], but I'm getting away from this... this instrument here [the trap set].
AAJ: You are an accomplished vibraphonist and marimba player too.
JC: Yeah, I'm going over there. I'm trying to push that because creatively it's something, too.
AAJ: Let's talk a little bit about M'Boom as an endeavor created to show that the drumsthe whole percussion familyis a very musical thing.
JC: Absolutely. Yeah, that was Max Roach; Max Roach is the one I've got to attribute that to because although I had been playing piano, I really didn't ever think of playing the mallets until he called me and the rest of the members in 1970it was 1970, in the summer of '70with the idea to this and I remember I said that I was very excited to get the call and I said "Damn! What are we going to do? Have six guys on a drums set? (laughs) Max said "No, no, no. We're going to play percussion. So we had to learn all of this. That's when I really got into this.
AAJ: So your mallet playing doesn't come from your classical training. It comes out of your jazz drumming and piano playing.
JC: Right. Absolutely. It's percussion.
AAJ: And you also have a long association with Bobby Hutcherson.
JC: Yeah. Of course I'm no master of the mallets and when I tell Bobby this he gets mad, but I found it easy because I already played piano...I had the theory and I had the drumming technique. To me it's just a piano, it's just like a piano. It's set up like a piano, so I know the theory. I just haven't played; I don't have the experience that those people have.
AAJ: So you started playing vibes in M'Boom.
JC: Yes, because we all had to learn. We all had to learn everything. All the mallets, all the percussion. We had to learn hand drumming. Of course, we were all drum set players. It's just amazing.
AAJ: How was the music developed for M'Boom?
JC: Well we came in. Went to Warren Smith's. Warren Smith, of course, was one of the charter members. Warren Smith, myself, Roy Brooks, Omar Clay, Freddie Waits and then later Ray Mantilla for the Latin side of it. We came into Warren's studio, Warren had all the stuff set up and he sat there (laughs) and said, "Alright. Now what are we going to do. (laughs) And Max played a series of recordings for us and said, "Now this is what we don't want to do. He played a bunch of recordings for us of classical percussion ensembles. There's a lot of written material, written repertoire material for percussion ensembles in the classical world. He said "Check this out. This is what we don't want to do. You know, have everything written out. Okay, all right, so that's that. So then we listened to...we were all familiar with African ensembles and then we had the Latin element. Then we just started bringing in pieces, bringing in things. And that's the way it evolved. I started, everyone, we all started bringing in stuff.
Of course, percussion has the widest timbre of sound of any section of the orchestra. The degree, the wide variety of timbre of sound available is just completely amazing. When we went out and did gigs, we had at least a hundred cases of stuff, of instruments. When you look at percussion it's divided into membranophones, idiophones, aerophones, chordophones. You have all of that variety of sound available and yet it's the least exploited section of the orchestra.
· Bobby Hutcherson - Components (Blue Note, 1965)
· Bobby Hutcherson - Dialogue (Blue Note, 1965)
· Bobby Hutcherson - Oblique (Blue Note, 1967)
· Max Roach - M'Boom (Columbia-Legacy, 1979)
· M'Boom - Live at S.O.B.'s, New York (Blue Moon, 1992)
· Joe Chambers - Mirrors (Blue Note, 1998)