Monday, January 28, 2013

An Interview with Drummer Clifford Barbaro

You may have witnessed drummer Clifford Barbaro playing at Smalls Jazz Club in pianist Kyoko Oyobe's trio or, alternatively, BopJuice co-led by tenorman Ralph Lalama. But Barbaro is infrequently spotlighted, despite his tremendous elegance and range (from "in" to "out" with ease). A fixture on the New York scene since the close of the '60s, the Harlem-raised Barbaro has worked with figures as diverse as Sun Ra, Charles Tolliver, Tyrone Washington, Michael Marcus and Marlena Shaw. In this rare interview, Barbaro talks about influence, the scene, his opinions and process.

Can we start at the beginning?

I was born in New York City in Spanish Harlem on June 7, 1948. I went to school up there. My parents took me to the Apollo, and I remember Louis Armstrong was playing though I wasn’t into his music so much. They had these movies on, and I saw Dizzy Gillespie’s band and I said ‘that’s what I want to do.’ All the bands that played Birdland, they’d play the Apollo the next week, and there was a space for the kids. Shows would start at noon so we would play hooky. We’d say ‘well, we’ve got algebra at twelve and we’re not going to that,’ so we’d check out the Apollo until the show was over, and then go back to class. So from there, I just started playing – various musicians in the neighborhood would loan me their snares and I’d take them home and practice, you know.

This was Gillespie’s orchestra that you saw?

The group with Chano Pozo, you know. I remember seeing [reedman] Frank Wess, too – I remember those guys.

Were there other instruments that you thought about playing, or was it percussion first and foremost?

No, well, I thought about the bass and then decided it was too much to carry. One of my first idols was Gene Krupa – ‘ah, I’m a Gene Krupa fan’ – and then I heard Max Roach, you know.

Did you get to know Max?

Briefly. I only met him once, on an airplane going to a festival in Europe. That’s about it.

So, how did you continue to develop? Did you study with anyone in particular?

I went to the Hartnett School of Music and studied with Stanley Spector. I also took a few lessons from Philly Joe Jones in the ‘70s. I kept playing and doing local gigs until I got better, and my first tour was with Lionel Hampton. After Lionel Hampton I was with [pianist] Ray Bryant. Moving on up the ladder later on, I joined Betty Carter for about five years. After her it was [trumpeter-composer] Charles Tolliver. I only worked with a couple of singers – Betty Carter and Jon Hendricks. I studied with Barry Harris for a while, too.

How did you get brought in with these people?

Well, in the neighborhood I was in, there were always lots of sessions. So for example, Charles came to sessions and the neighborhood’s so-called hero was [drummer] Ben Riley. There were always great sessions in Harlem. Before I started playing Jazz music, I played in Latin bands.

Was there a particular person who inspired you in that regard, with Latin music?

Well, Pucho [timbales player Henry Brown] was around and I listened to him and would go to his gigs. From there, I started doing my own thing and playing with other people.

Moving between Latin music and more open forms of music, was that pretty natural or was there – I guess it’s all ‘just music’ in a way, but did it feel fluid at the time, among the various scenes?

Oh yeah, yeah, there was a lot of music happening during the ‘70s. Much more music then compared to now – you had more giants on the scene.

Jumping forward, you had quite an association with Sun Ra during his last few years; could you talk about that a bit? 

Well, I knew one of the guys in the Arkestra and he said ‘hey man, do you want this gig?’ and I said ‘sure, yeah’ and they brought Sun Ra to my gig. I’m playing and all of a sudden here comes Sun Ra, and he stood right in front of me and I’m like ‘oh man!’ I was a little nervous; after the gig he came over and said ‘I want you in my band – would you like to play?’ ‘Yeah!’ That was really a great experience playing with him.

So you weren’t in Philly with the family, right?

Well, see, what happened was half of the band was in Philly and half were in New York. When I was in the band, the New Yorkers included [saxophonists] Charles Davis, Pat Patrick, [trumpeter] Ahmed Abdullah, those guys.

One always gets the impression that it’s a really familial organization, though historically there have been some Arkestra members who weren’t so into the communal aspect. What was your feeling as a sort of outsider?

When I first got into it I wasn’t ready for the kind of music they were playing because I was more traditional, a bebop player. Here comes Sun Ra with his avant-garde music; he’d always say ‘this is not a Jazz band – this is the Avant-garde’ and I’d say like ‘what’s he talking about?’ But the more I played in the band the more I understood his concept and what he was talking about.

Well, listening to your playing with the Arkestra, it’s very fluid and the music moves between the more inside and the more outside stuff. There are traditional big band arrangements there as well as spectral electronics with a lot of percussion and so forth.

It was totally different from the average large ensemble.

How much had you worked in orchestras before?

Well, yeah, I worked in Tolliver’s big band and I played in Lionel Hampton’s big band, too.

And these are all ensembles that can sort of break up the largeness and give a small-group feel and a lot of room.


What I’ve picked up from your recordings is a very open approach to the drums, and you don’t sound stylistically restricted to ‘bebop’ as we know it. You’ve also played with [reedman] Sonny Simmons, who’s pretty far out.

I did two records with him, including one with Charlie Parker tunes [Reeds and Birds, Not Two, 2004]. But early on I played a New Year’s Eve gig with Don Cherry and Gato Barbieri – all the lights were off and we came out screaming! I also did a gig with [reedman] Marzette Watts, played with him and his band.

Sun Ra was pretty tough, though. I’d have someone come to my room with a message that Ra wanted to see me – he’d be in bed and tell me ‘I want you to listen to and learn this rhythm.’ There would be like three drummers playing – how could I learn one rhythm among three drummers? But he acknowledged what I was doing, so it was cool with him.

Some people have said that it was like being in the Army, but there’s knowledge that comes through that experience. So working in a more ‘free’ context – could you describe how that concept was different from what you were trying to do, and maybe why it didn’t feel right, or when it did feel right, what felt right about it?

Well, the difference was in the rhythm concept, where big bands normally have a certain pattern and you’d have to play ‘1-2-3-4.’ It was never like that with Sun Ra – there was never a count-off; he’d just start playing, and the band, through some sort of ESP, would know when to come in.

In the other groups – even the small groups – it was more direct?

Yeah, yeah.

So how did you get hooked up with [saxophonist] John Stubblefield? I heard you were his favorite drummer.

Well, we lived in the same building. I lived on the ground floor and he was on the third floor. He said ‘hey man, I’ve got a recording session and I want you on it.’ That was cool, but I didn’t spend too much time with him. He was always working with other people and never really stayed around the neighborhood. He was working with Kenny Barron and McCoy Tyner on a steady basis, and he was with [trumpeter] Jerry Gonzalez’ Fort Apache Band. I’d almost forgotten about that John Stubblefield record [Midnight Sun – Sutra Records, 1980].

Well, it sounds like you made an impression!

Could you talk about your relationship with Smalls?

Yeah, I play a lot with various people over there. There’s a Japanese pianist I work with, Kyoko Oyobe, who plays there a lot. I work every week. There’s a tenor player I’m with, too, Ralph Lalama, and a trumpeter by the name of Richie Vitale. I’ve been with Lalama for a long time, in a band called BopJuice. I’ve got a steady gig, though – a lot of drummers like Billy Hart, Billy Drummond, Jeff Watts, they have to go elsewhere and do one-nighters these days.

Are smaller ensembles more comfortable for you, or is it just the economics at this point?

That’s just how it works out. It’s much harder playing with a large ensemble because you’ve got to make the whole band swing.

Well, the Ra band cooked when you were part of it.

Yeah, I did about four records with them. There was one in Paris as well that involved a symphony [Pleiades, Leo, 1990], and some other dates in England.

As far as your practice as a percussionist, what have you been working on? Do you feel like it has changed over the last several years?

Yeah – I didn’t realize it until I was at Smalls last week, and someone said ‘man, you’re not like any of the other drummers around here.’

What do you think that person was picking up on?

Well, basically a lot of the young drummers now sound kind of similar. Whereas the cats that were coming up back then – me, Billy Hart, Lenny White, Jack De Johnette… I remember when Jack came on the scene he’d be at the sessions playing the melodica. He’s a very good pianist, too.

There’s a lot of looseness among all four of you, for example.

Yeah, but to get that looseness, you have to play in a concept that – well, say for instance playing with a pianist like Oscar Peterson, you’d have to play with everything going straight through [makes a vertical slicing motion], where with Keith Jarrett, you can stretch out a bit. I had to know how to adjust and bring my concept to whomever I’m playing with, but not be overbearing and also complement that person.

I was listening to that John Hicks record you’re on, Hells Bells (Strata-East, 1975) and it’s so loose – it’s very dense, voluminous music, but there’s a lot of fluidity coming from the rhythm section. That’s translatable through a lot of the recordings of yours that I’ve heard –fluidity even through a straight, bop-derived approach.

The concept with Ralph Lalama is what I like. And there was the New York Hard Bop Quintet, with [trumpeter] Joe Magnarelli, [saxophonist] Jerry Weldon, [pianist] Keith Saunders and [bassist] Bim Strasberg. It was a straight bebop band, but we played all original music and it was really a great band. The pianist moved back to California and the saxophonist works with Harry Connick, Jr. Joe Magnarelli works with Ray Barretto, so we couldn’t tour after a while. Promoters always want it to be exactly the same as on the record, you know.

Promoters’ desires seem to diverge from what the musicians actually do, quite often.

Anyway, coming from a different angle, I’m not a musician and I approach the music as someone with a bit of an ear and the best of my abilities otherwise. Alvin Fielder, the drummer and historian, has posited that modern drumming comes from three central figures – Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Art Blakey. So each modern jazz drummer is somewhat related to one of those three or a different combination of those players. I have these exercises where I try to conjure elements of these three people in the modern drummers I listen to, such as yourself. But you might, then again, have a different concept that would be hard to pin down – or you might not agree. I hear some Roy Haynes, maybe, but that could be my ears playing tricks on me.

I never really studied Roy; I like Elvin and Jack, and I listened to a lot of West Coast drummers like Shelly Manne. I really liked Shelly Manne.

Yeah, he’s great, though it seems like he fell out of favor for a while.

Right, yeah. Oh and definitely Philly Joe.

What was it like studying with him?

He’d show me different rudiments, and I’d ask him how he did something and he’d show me. His concept was different from Max or Art. I’d say he swung a bit harder than Max, but that’s my opinion.

There’s a didactic aspect to Max’s playing, I think.

Well, he’s very melodic. Art was very percussive; when he hits the drums, you know it’s him – the same with Elvin, they had that force.

But with fluidity as well.

And Elvin’s stamina – to play with Coltrane, you had to have that. Maybe Art Blakey could have hung in there, too. But to be that intense like how Trane used to be, one tune would last forty-five minutes, just constantly burning, you know.

I don’t know that there is music like that right now, and if there is I sure haven’t witnessed it. I mean, there’s some heavy stuff out there, sure, but…

No, there isn’t anything like that now. It’s gone.

For me it’s hard to conceive; my mind can’t actually make that leap into how physical it must have been.

Coltrane went from the blues to jazz to avant-garde. I heard a lot of musicians say they remembered him from blues bands.

One doesn’t often find – especially considering how jazz is taught now, very rote – you don’t find people who’ve gone through it all.

Now it’s very academic, whereas back then you’d just go to somebody’s house and have a session. You’d learn – like Jackie McLean going to Bud Powell’s house and Sonny Rollins and [pianist] Elmo Hope would be there. That’s how he learned.

And just from being around people – you pick things up through the cadences of someone’s speech.

Like, when Monk would bring in a new tune, he didn’t put chord changes there. You had to hear it, and the only [saxophonists] who could hear that way were Coltrane and Johnny Griffin.

Those two guys were it. When you hear Monk now, even played by musicians who are very adept and musical, they often don’t have that ‘thing.’ There’s an essence that’s kind of hard to get to, and it’s specific.

That’s the era – you know, when Charlie Parker died, saxophone players were at a loss for a while, until other people came onto the scene, like Coltrane. When he was gone, then comes Joe Henderson. After Joe, who else was there? It’s hard to think of anybody after him.

Was it palpable in the ‘70s, that there might’ve been a scramble to find someone who could be a figurehead of the music?

Nah – Coltrane had a powerful persona. He overcame his drug addiction and got more into the avant-garde. It’s the difference between Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, both great but totally different. Back in the day, two famous bands were Coltrane (with Miles) and Clifford Brown (with Max), and the piano trio was Oscar Peterson’s.

Now there aren’t really ‘stars’ in the music. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know. Leadership that would push things in a certain direction, you know.

That kind of thing is gone, I don’t hear that today.

But you have to work and play somehow.

Well, to try to play someone else’s concept is not easy. Tony Williams blew drummers away – nobody can play that concept today. They’ll try to play like Elvin or Art, maybe, and sort of get there.

But you have a distinctive sound, too.

Yeah, but that’s also because of the era. Like I said, there was more music happening then and there were more clubs, and giants on the scene. You could go down the street and see Monk or [trumpeter] Kenny Dorham. I would go to clubs in Harlem and see Miles and Dizzy – that was one of the best weeks! The next week was Art Blakey and Cannonball. The money was different, the economy – you know. You could go to a club for five bucks.

That’s pretty hard to manage now; I suppose the pay structure is different now, too.

Back then Monk would be making something like $35 a week. $35 went a long ways back in the ‘50s.

A subway card for a week is $30 now…

It seems like, at the time, there was a lot of cross-pollination between the different music scenes, too.

Well sort of, but not really. You didn’t have a lot of European or Asian musicians on the scene, and definitely no women. There still aren’t too many women drummers.

Do you have students?

I used to do that, but it started to get in the way. Like, you’d have a student coming in tomorrow but you hung out all night and it’s time to give a lesson – you’d rather be asleep. Or, giving a lesson and the person doesn’t get it. They just – no matter what they can’t get it. That becomes frustrating.

I can imagine – you’re trying to impart something that to you is so natural, and part of your being and your life.

Philly Joe used to say ‘look, man, I’m showing you this stuff, but don’t try to play like me. Never try to play like me – play like you.’ It took me a while; the hardest drummer that I heard where it was tough not to play like him was Elvin. I’d go home and the next day I’d play a gig, and I’d be like ‘wait a minute – I heard that last night!’ You develop by associating with other musicians because that’s how they did it; the only thing I’m curious about is who Monk studied with – how did he get his concept? Who was his music teacher?

Someone was asking me who the young drummers are in New York that capture it, in terms of swing, and it was hard to think of a ton of people. Maybe Tomas Fujiwara? The younger people I’ve been impressed by, in fact, are often not swinging-type players.

Well, there’s this guy Marcus Gilmore, who is Roy Haynes’ grandson.

He started really young, too. He’s very good.

I like Bill Stewart.

What part of Texas did you say you were from?

Austin. It’s got a lot of music – mostly rock and roll, country, and singer-songwriters. That stuff can be very good but it’s different music, rhythmically especially.

It seems to me like Texas always had more saxophonists. ‘Who’s this cat? He’s from Texas? Whew.’

That’s very true.

I heard James Clay, Billy Harper, [David] Fathead [Newman], people like that.

Yeah, all great players. Don Wilkerson is another.

I heard of him – my roommate used to talk about him. Booker Ervin I played with, on [trumpeter] Ted Curson’s gig. I don’t know how we hooked up, but Ted called me and Booker was one of my favorite tenor players, so I was like ‘yeah!’ Arnett Cobb was another one. I played with him much later; it was kinda strange and we were supposed to wear tuxes. I didn’t have one so I just wore a dark suit. He says ‘where’s your tux, boy? Don’t you ever come on my gig without a tux!’ ‘Okay, okay.’ At the end of the night he says, ‘despite the fact you didn’t wear a tuxedo, you played good.’ Back in those days, you had to play really good in order to keep a gig, because there were so many great musicians ready to take your place.

Now, it seems like everybody has like a million different bands or projects. If that’s how it is, okay, but how do you develop a band concept?

The thing I notice about the New York scene is that it’s less drummers and more horn players and pianists. At least there are fewer drummers that are saying anything.

As far as imparting what your career and work is about at this point, we touched on it earlier, but is there a philosophy or an approach to what you’re doing?

Well, as far as now what I’m doing is to become more of a composer. I want to write; I learned that from De Johnette – I’m studying composition. It’s not easy, though.

From the piano, the computer or the drums?

The piano – I don’t know the whole keyboard, but I can write it out. I can ask a pianist what the name of a certain chord is that I want, and so forth.

What do you look for as you organize pieces?

Well, I don’t go for the trumpet/tenor style now – I’d like a tenor player, or maybe a trumpeter and vibes, which I checked out with Miles and Milt Jackson. You have to work and see what develops, and try different things. The concept that I have in mind is that I don’t want to be too avant-garde because I want people to listen to it. But I don’t want to be too much of a traditionalist and I want to keep it loose. That’s what I’m trying to develop as far as playing and composing. 

Interview conducted January 17, 2012. 7:00 PM-8:13 PM, at Clifford Barbaro’s home. Thanks to Clifford Barbaro. A short version of this interview appears in the February issue of the New York City Jazz Record. Full discography forthcoming - stay tuned.