Lewis Nash: First-call Technician and Teacher Too

R.J. DeLuke By

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No amount of conservatory or music school training can make up for being in a place where you can hear the great players play, or have an opportunity to play with them. There's no replacement for that.
It's a pleasure to watch or listen to drummer Lewis Nash. He has supplied supple and adventurous rhythms for an incredible array of jazz musicians over the years, blending in with most any situation. His versatility stands out.

But things could have been different.

It might have been that watching and listening to Nash would mean turning on the television nightly, around dinnertime. Or maybe at 11 p.m.

I could have been: Lewis Nash bringing you the latest news.

"I was a broadcast journalism major," says Nash, even though he studied drums in school. "I wanted to do what I saw Walter Cronkite and those guys doing, I thought at that time."

TV's loss music's gain.

Nash's talents over the years have graced everything from Dianna Krall recordings to Joe Lovano creations; in situations from Stan Getz to the Don Pull/George Adams quartet; from Betty Carter to Ron Carter; and with Sonnys Stitt and Rollins. He's played with Clark Terry, Milt Jackson, Roy Hargrove, the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall jazz organizations, and even Bette Mittler and Melissa Manchester. And on, and on and on.

He studied drums beginning in elementary school, and enjoyed playing during his years at Arizona State University. Yet broadcasting beckoned.

"Then one day one of the instructors pulled me aside and said, 'You're not a music major, are you?' And I said, 'no.' And he said, 'You're not looking to pursue a career in music?' And I said, 'no.' And he said, 'I think that would be a mistake.'

"So that was kind of a turning point," says Nash. "Because he made me begin to think about what he said... Maybe he hears something in my playing. There may be something to it, so maybe I should give this some thought."

Nash speaks with a deep, sonorous voice well suited for broadcasting. Talk to him at length and it's obvious his insight and intellect would also have served him well in journalism. But music lovers can be glad he embarked on a career as an artist.

That successful career also includes teaching, as a clinician and drum master in various programs across the country.

Nash recently completed a residency at the prestigious New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass. The program, now headed by Allan Chase, has existed for 30 years and enjoyed the help of people like founder Carl Atkins, Jackie Byard, Gunther Schuller, George Russell, Miroslav Vitous, Fred Hersch and many more. It's had students like Ricky Ford, Matthew Shipp and singer Dominique Eade, who now teaches there.

Teaching would-be musicians is important to Nash and something he enjoyed at the New England Conservatory. This fall, he joins a program at the Julliard School of Music in New York City.

Who knows? Maybe Nash the teacher might turn someone around like he was turned around at ASU.

The drummer says music education is important, noting that it fills a void in today's music scene. Older musicians graduated from jam sessions and big band tenures. Those opportunities don't exist much anymore, making schooling important.

Nash, who's 42, didn't grow up listening to jazz. He started studying drums at age 10, but the music of the day was R&B, gospel and blues. He didn't know very many jazz musicians and didn't know the history of the music.

In the 60s and 70s, popular music was not jazz. "My mother liked Muddy Waters and B.B. King, people like that," he says.

He played jazz in high school "stage bands," as they were called then, but "all I knew was the basic ride symbol beat. Beyond that I knew very little," says Nash.

In college, he started playing more jazz, and investigated the sounds, listening to albums that people recommended and looking into things.

"I began to hear the great recordings of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, people like that," says Nash. Big bands too. He began examining the drumming of Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. Then more modern types, like Tony Williams.

As his talent grew, so did his reputation, and soon he was a first-call drummer when hot jazz musicians came through Phoenix needing a rhythm section. People like Art Pepper and Sonny Stitt.

Nash was catapulted forward when the University of Betty Carter recruited him. Traveling with the legendary, but demanding, singer was a huge career boost and a great learning experience.

"Betty was very clear cut in what she wanted and didn't want," he says. "A true bandleader in that sense. She knew what she wanted. One of the great things about working with her is that I was relatively young, I was 21 or 22 when I first joined her. Here was an opportunity for me to travel around the world and to play music."

"I witnessed her hold an audience spellbound, many, many times. That's something to be said, to have an opportunity to experience that night after night."

Since then, Nash has played with a roster of jazz stars, including 10 years with pianist Tommy Flanagan. His tastes are diverse and his ability to adapt is a key.

That adaptability wasn't all learned in the drum practice room.

"I'd like to think that ability to do that is carried over from how I interact with people in general in life. That is, that I always try to find a way to find the compatible element with our different personalities. And that applies musically as well," he says. "With all the different leaders I've worked with, there's so many different viewpoints of the music and how it should be approached. Every leader has a different way of doing things. The key is to be able to adapt to all these various approaches and situations without totally losing your own individuality.

"I don't know how to tell anyone to do that, but that's really what's happening. You're still able to express your own creative ideas without impeding that particular leader, or whoever's employing you, or whose ever music you're playing. You're not impeding their voice from being heard. You're actually enhancing it by being yourself. That's the goal."

Between being a first-call drummer for recordings, touring with a variety of musicians, club dates, his own music, festivals and teaching, Nash is not hurting for work.

"There's quite a circuit of things going on and there's enough work. I can only speak for myself. It's not a struggle for me. It's a struggle to maintain a playing level, a high level of musicianship. You have to practice and you have to stay on top of things. You can't just rest on your laurels. I've been pretty fortunate."

He thinks for a moment before choosing a highlight in a career that, at his age, still has miles and miles to go.

"I've had the opportunity to play with some of the greatest piano players in jazz. And the piano trio is a format I really enjoy because first of all, when there's no horn player standing up there in front of the trio, it seems to have a visual balance, where the audience isn't focusing on this one person who's standing up there with the horn. Secondly, you're able to really see and hear the level of contribution of each player.

"Therefore, I guess you could say maybe it's more democratic. It's clear that each player has an important role, it's not just a bassist and drummer accompanying a pianist. We're all contributing to this complete musical statement," he says.

"The great piano players that I've played with in a trio situation have probably been one of the biggest highlights of my career. And that would include Tommy Flanagan, because I spent 10 years with him; Hank Jones; John Lewis, Oscar Peterson. That, to me, is really one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career: having played the piano trio with so many great, great pianists in the history of jazz."

Nash is optimistic about the future of jazz and took time to share thoughts on education with All About Jazz:

All About Jazz (AAJ): How did you get involved with the New England Conservatory program? You'd been involved in education before?

Lewis Nash (LN): I've done a number of seminars and residencies at several different colleges and conservatories. Once you begin to do that and the word spreads that you are good at doing that, then that opens a lot of other doors. It helps to know the people who are involved in the program and I do know some folks that are involved over there.

AAJ: There a lot of schools now, it seems. Is there something different about the New England Conservatory?

LN: What I noticed about the New England Conservatory program is that they have instructors there with a very wide variance of approaches to the music, in their own playing or in their own compositional approach. A situation like that would give students quite a variety of approaches to choose from. They may be more inclined toward one or the other, but they'd have an opportunity to check out some different ideas than they might gravitate toward on their own.

AAJ: How important do you think it is for jazz to be in a setting like this? Does it give it a certain prestige?

LN: I don't know if the prestige part is the thing that I think was the most beneficial thing for the students. Looking at the conservatory environment, the positive things it gives are: An opportunity to interact with other students with similar interests who may be from different backgrounds, maybe from a different country or different ethnicity, different customs, things like that. But jazz is the common denominator, so they come together that way.

Then, it provides them with opportunities to experiment with their own ideas, based upon the things they learned from the instructor. And it gives them an opportunity to hear these things on a daily basis, or to try new things with players, rather than just working them out in their heads or playing them on the piano or keyboard or something like that. They can actually hear these things.

And I guess another aspect of the conservatory environment is that it allows a free exchange of ideas between the students and they can kind of see where they stand compared to the others, in terms of what ideas they have, and they can kind of interact that way. So, there's a lot of positive aspects to it.

I know we often hear of what might be considered the non-positive. People might tend to think that it could become a sterile environment with something like that, but there's ways around that. And one of the ways is to bring in people who do this for a living, they way they brought me in there. There's a series of people coming in, so it kind of keeps the practical side to this, to have students be able to interact with people who are actually doing this for a livelihood.

AAJ: In general, what kind of approach do you take with the students?

LN: I guess in a general sense, I stress a grasp of the fundamentals of music and then how those same fundamentals —that are fundamental to all music —impact the jazz environment or the approach to playing jazz. In other words, do you have the necessary facility on your instrument to say what you want to say? And do you have enough of an understanding of how music works to be able to manipulate these sounds and vibrations---that's basically what the music is —do you have the ability to manipulate these things in a creative way and tell a story and affect people? That's basically where I'm coming from when I deal with students.

AAJ: When you teach, are you just teaching percussionists?

LN: During that residency, I dealt with several different student combos. Of course, I had some time where I did focus in on the drummers and percussionists in particular, but that was designed for me to interact with student combos. That being the case, I was dealing with bass players, piano players, horn players. I enjoy that, because when I work that's what I'm doing. I'm interacting with all the different instrumentalists and learning about their instruments in a performance situation by playing with them.

So when I go into the schools, I'm able to relate what I've gotten from the great pianists or the great horn players and great bass players to these people who may not have had a chance to meet or interact with these great players.

AAJ: Overall, what did you get out of it?

LN: Every time someone like myself, who plays music for a living and enjoys the interaction with students and young people, goes into that situation we become better at expressing the things that we feel about music. We become more comfortable with listening to their questions and having appropriate answers or giving them suggestions or ideas that they might want to try. Things like that.

So the more you do it, the more comfortable you become, and you become more able to express it. From seeing the various levels of the student musicians throughout the country, and the various schools and everything, I begin to see a correlation between what's happening at the university level in general, and then I begin to understand that there are certain things that apply across the board to this level of student. So there are many things I can share again and again, and they won't seem repetitive. I'm in a different environment, but they apply just as well to the students in one place as they do in another.

I got from that particular residency that students are very hungry to know what it's like in the real world, so to speak, in terms of touring. What do bandleaders want? What kind of things do they say to you in rehearsal? What is it like in the recording studio? They want to know those things.

AAJ: The older players talk about schooling in big bands, jam sessions. Does that exist anymore?

LN: It doesn't exist that way anymore. There are fewer opportunities like that, big bands etc. And then there are fewer venues to play, and there are more and more musicians coming out of schools. Everything has its plus and minus side. I think that, since there aren't a lot of the venues we used to have for playing jazz, or the available work opportunities, then these conservatories and schools are, in a way, filling a void. At least there are practice rooms and they create opportunities for the combos to play concerts and things like that. If it weren't for that, there'd be even fewer chances for young people to play.

AAJ: You're not that old. Did that exist for you when you were coming up, more than there is today?

LN: More than there is today, because in the 70s there still were places to play like that. Even though there were fewer then, than say, in the 50s or 60s or 40s. But I'm old enough to have taken part in some jam sessions and I'm old enough to have heard some of the great musicians who are no longer with us.

The value of being able to sit in front of a great player and hear them live and watch what they do and hear them in person —that is always is going to be one of the valuable things. No amount of conservatory or music school training can make up for being in a place where you can hear the great players play, or have an opportunity to play with them. There's no replacement for that, I don't care how many music schools we have.

But that being said, the schools are definitely filling a void and they're actually giving us a controlled environment where we can go in and feel relaxed and not be under the pressures of the music business. Are there people in the audience? That kind of thing. Are you selling? It's an educational environment, so you can relax that part and just deal with the mechanics and the things that are involved in creating.

AAJ: Is jazz a little too schooled sometimes? Can they get a sound and a style? The greats we refer to, they didn't get that in a classroom, most of them.

LN: I don't know if there's such a thing as too schooled. I think it's how the person applies what they learn. What people may refer to as too schooled or stiff or sterile or whatever, may have to do more with the lack of daring or lack of courage of a player to really try new things or to get out of his or her comfort zone and find their own voice. As long as you're being repetitive of things that you've heard already, or learned from a record, or learned from a book, you're going to sound like that.

The beauty of playing jazz comes in... it's been known as the sound of surprise, you don't know what's coming next. That's part of the beauty of it. So I think it's more up to the individuals to make an attempt to get out of this safety net, out of this comfort zone, and start to deal with the essence of creativity, which is that you don't pre-conceive everything you're going to play and you deal with what's happening in the moment. Let the elements of the present moment dictate what you're going to do.

AAJ: What about getting a sound and a style?

LN: Individual sound and style, that's always been hard to do. We think of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge or Dizzy Gillespie. They rose to the cream of the crop among many, many other players as well. I think it's a mistake to think that just because they were able to do it that everyone can do it. It's not that easy to establish such an individual sound that's so unique and sets you apart from musicians. It's not an easy thing to do.

Since everyone is not able to do that, to that degree of those great players, then that's why we have people who decide to go into teaching or maybe they play music, but they're not playing in an environment where they can be creatively expressive on an individual level. But they are part of a musical situation where they make a living actually playing music. Where's it's not required of them, necessarily, to have an individual sound, but maybe to blend with an orchestra or a group. That's just as valuable. When people are at a Broadway show, watching the action that's on the stage, with the band in the pit, they're not so much concerned about the individual sound of the trumpet player, but that they execute this music properly and that it gives them a certain feeling for the show.

There's so many avenues that you can delve into in playing music that don't necessarily have to be with creating. But of course I'm a jazz player and I've had the privilege and opportunity to have a chance to explore, creating my own individual identity. I realize that everyone won't necessarily have that opportunity and I know it's a great privilege.

AAJ: The state of jazz education in general. Good? Bad? Indifferent?

LN: I like to think that it's good. I'm going to be on the faculty of Julliard School of Music this fall, the first jazz program associated directly with Julliard. I'll continue to do the clinics and things that I do around the country and around the world. Education? We could say the same thing about the general state of education in the United States. Where are all the good teachers? Why are the kids failing this? Why that?

To me, the challenge in jazz education is to be authentic. To really know the history of this music, and when you relate to these young people, you don't pull punches. You let them know how you feel about the importance of the music and the great stylists and great innovators who have contributed to it. And then you do your best to help them to be able to express themselves creatively on their instrument. That's about as much as you can do, and answer their questions as best you can. I think the true test is to be as honest and authentic as you can about the history of the music and where it comes from.


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