Lenny White: Jazz/Rock Collides Again

Lenny White: Jazz/Rock Collides Again
Carl L. Hager By

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When that cool, overcast dawn arrived in Bethel, New York, neither the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair's expired permit, nor the rain, mud, and technical problems could have kept Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys from playing. It was destiny. Believe it.

A hundred miles south on that same morning of August 18, 1969, Miles Davis had gathered the four other members of his famous quintet at his New York City home for a short rehearsal: drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, and pianist Chick Corea. He'd also invited the 19 year-old drummer from saxophonist Jackie McLean's band, Lenny White.

Talk about an alignment of cosmic forces. While Hendrix was mesmerizing those assembled on the historic hill at Max Yasgur's dairy farm, Davis' invited guests were running through a new composition called "Bitches Brew," the eponymous title tune for an album that would soon rock the jazz world, ready or not.

A few months later, Lenny White was Freddie Hubbard's choice for the drum kit when he recorded one of the next important jazz/rock entries, Red Clay (CTI/Columbia, 1970), along with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Joe Henderson. It only takes listening to the first 60 seconds of White's drumming on the title track to understand Hubbard's choice. The recording, undoubtedly among Hubbard's finest as a leader, is due in no small part to the gyroscopic centering influence of the rock-based rhythms provided by the young drummer.

After he'd gone to play in the Bay Area, White finally saw a copy of Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) in a record store window and knew the exciting sensation of seeing his name on a Miles Davis album cover, when Chick Corea called him from Japan. Corea was touring with his new band, Return to Forever, and wanted to know if his friend from those infamous sessions was interested in joining him and bassist Stanley Clarke for an upcoming engagement at San Francisco's Keystone Korner, as the group's drummer, Airto Moreira, was returning to New York with his wife, singer Flora Purim, and their newborn child. White was indeed available, and jumped at the chance to play what he anticipated would be great fun, and what he has since described as "fantastic music... really great." On the last night of that fortuitous gig, three other local musicians sat in with them: guitarist Barry Finnerty, plus two players who would soon be offered spots in Corea's newly formed electric edition of Return to Forever—ex-Santana percussionist Mingo Lewis and guitarist Bill Connors. The drum chair was offered to White.

Who respectfully declined. He knew how great the possibilities were but liked the band he was playing with, the large Latin rock band Azteca. Formed by ex-Santana percussionists Coke Escovedo and Pete Escovedo, this talent-rich group at one point employed 17 musicians, including bassist Paul Jackson, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and ex-Santana guitarist Neil Schon. The group had recorded its excellent debut, Azteca (Columbia 1972), with a set of tunes that has since assumed legendary status with Latin jazz/rock aficionados as a monument standing alongside works like Carlos Santana's Abraxas (Columbia/Sony 1970.)

Azteca, Circa 1971: Lenny White, far left

A short while later another juicy offer came his way, this time from Herbie Herbert, who was managing some groups around the Bay area and had an idea for a new band he wanted to form with Neal Schon and bassist Ross Valory. White accepted the invitation and rehearsed with them, but when Herbert sprang the question, he said he had to decline. White's accountant may never forgive him for not taking the job with the band, soon to be called Journey, but as the poor bean-counter must know by now, Lenny White has always made the lightning strike by following his muse.

By then he'd gotten another call from Chick Corea. On their return to New York, Corea had hired his old friend Steve Gadd, but despite Gadd's talent and well-regarded technique, he was not a perfect fit. What was needed for this band was jazz sensibilities plus rock and roll power, precisely the kind White could supply. Corea had new material ready to record, and wanted the drummer he had offered the job to in the first place. Stanley Clarke also knew White's wide range of capabilities from the work they had done together in Joe Henderson's band. This was electric jazz that needed rock's rhythmic concussion and thunder. And Bill Connors was starting to play like he wanted to un-seat John McLaughlin from his throne. Was he interested?

Lightning strikes were coming fast, as White stood at a crossroads. Personally, artistically, opportunities were everywhere. Professionally, he stood at the precise point in time and space where jazz and rock were converging at a rapid rate. It was unlikely that Chick Corea had spent much time listening to The Beatles, or that Neal Schon had heard Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) more than once. What was important, however, was that White had.

Soon after arriving in New York, White joined Corea, Clarke and Connors in the studio and they recorded the groundbreaking Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973.) Together with Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1972), these two revolutionary recordings invaded the airwaves and ushered in the dramatically hair-raising, powered-up era of jazz/rock and progressive rock.

Lenny White has been a lightning rod ever since.

From that moment on, White has spent his career in jazz at the center of the storm. Wherever he's gone he seems to have helped chart new territory and illuminate new paths. On Anomaly (Abstract Logix, 2010), his first CD of personal material in over ten years, he's done it again.

Chapter Index
  1. Anomaly
  2. Bitches Brew
  3. A Jazz-Rock Documentary Film
  4. Jazz Economics 101

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