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Percussion Bitter Sweet: JOE CHAMBERS

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

Photography by FRANCIS WOLFF ? Mosaic Images

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Monday, March 03, 2008

The following piece appears in Issue 34: Jazz
For more on the Jazz issue
, click here

Percussion Bitter Sweet: Joe Chambers

By Andy Beta

The drummers who manned the throne during the fabled Blue Note sessions at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio read like a roll call of the form’s finest: Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Anthony Williams. In that pantheon sits Joe Chambers, who thundered behind Blue Note’s hard-bop pioneers: pianist Andrew Hill, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxmen Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Brought up in a musical household (though of no relation to Paul Chambers), as he came of age in Philly, Chambers heard swing’s giant jazz armies pare down into bebop quartets after World War II.

After spending his teenage years learning composition and orchestration, he hit the road with R&B belter Bobby Charles in 1961, ultimately winding up in Washington, DC. With a long-standing gig at the Bohemian Caverns, Chambers met the likes of Miles Davis, Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy. (Incidentally, Dolphy encouraged him to move to New York). After arriving in the Big Apple, Chambers gigged with Dolphy, playing on numbers like “Iron Man” and “Miss Ann.”

Chambers was composing his own material as well, a rarity for a drummer in that day and age. His first composition, “Mirrors,” appeared on Freddie Hubbard’s Breaking Point!, and he later played on the John Coltrane/Archie Shepp album New Thing at Newport as well as on Chick Corea’s debut record, not to mention working alongside modern beat progenitor Max Roach’s percussion ensemble, M’Boom, throughout the Seventies.

Bobby Hutcherson’s mid-Sixties run on Blue Note provided the broadest canvas; Chambers’ pieces on Dialogue, Oblique and Components are startling in their modernity: pointillist, anomalous, poignant. Of course Chambers, who now teaches at the New School in New York, would disagree. We arranged to meet in the West Village. He is built like a drummer: broad shoulders perpetually slouched, immense paws that thrum the table for emphasis, eyes narrowing on certain points as he discusses that inscrutable time.

Stop Smiling:
Did you grow up in a musical household?

Joe Chambers: Yep. Four brothers and sisters: We all played instruments. We had a family band, all of that. My father and my mother were writers.

SS: What kind of music were your parents into?

JC: Those days it was jazz, only jazz. I had records my mother brought in when I was six years old. Lester Young’s “Up and at ’Em,” Buddy Rich was recording on it. He played a long drum solo. It was later on that I got to know Max Roach. What he was doing sounded like something from Mars! They were also bringing in the contemporary rhythm and blues: Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris. It was in the Forties when the divisions started to develop between bebop and rhythm and blues.

SS:
Was it because bebop was too complex to dance to?

JC: I talk about this in the class a lot. It’s a part of jazz history that they don’t get at the schools. In the Forties, there was a 30 percent surtax levied on the places with dance policies, with the big bands, like the Savoy. Proprietors couldn’t maintain it.

SS:
Sort of like now in New York, you have to have a license for dancing.

JC: It’s been that way since way back. So it turned out that even the big names couldn’t survive. At the same time that bebop came in, the race record industry re-emerged as rhythm and blues because of that surtax. Prior to the Forties, jazz was a total entertainment package. It was like a variety show. With the big bands, you had a singer, a comedian, a variety show, a total entertainment package. Even when jazz was going further out of the mainstream, it still had a strong support system, the neighborhood clubs and bars, in cities all over. That died out in the mid-Sixties with the riots. I remember going out to clubs when they had lines around the block; black people in black neighborhoods in black clubs. The end of the neighborhood clubs and bars saw the demise of the black audience by the late Sixties, going into the Seventies. Those places were gone.

SS: Why was that?

JC: Because the infrastructure was destroyed by the riots. The riots happened in all the big cities in 1966 and ’67. That destroyed the infrastructure, and it kept the people away. What went on politically, socially — that affects the society and the music. You can’t have one without the other.

SS: When you came to New York, where were you living?

JC: It was 1963 or so; I lived in Brooklyn with my brother for a minute. Then I busted out, knocking around for a while, paying some dues, as they say. That was a very tumultuous era. I played my first professional jobs in New York with Eric Dolphy. It was pretty open at that time. I used to do three or four recordings a month for Blue Note.

SS: Is that how you met up with Bobby Hutcherson, through Eric?

JC: Bobby came to DC with Jackie McLean — that was around 1962. When I met Eric, he pulled us all together. We did a concert: Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson and Richard Davis.

SS: When you started playing with Bobby, at what point did you start showing him your compositions?

JC: That’s hard to say. I look back on that now … you do things when you’re young that you don’t or wouldn’t do when you look back. It’s a growth process, what I was trying to do. It was typical of someone who was young. It was amazing they let me do it. It had very little commercial value.

SS: What other stuff was influencing you at the time?

JC: I studied composition, stuff that had driving percussion. I liked Wagner and Bartók. I was listening to all kinds of music. Max Roach, too — that’s my model. Max was my mentor. He was different than all those drummers of that era. He always did projects like orchestra and chorus.

SS: Your compositions stand out, even on something like Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue, where you have Andrew Hill’s tunes on that record. Yet yours are a little further out.

JC: Andrew is a prime example of that. Andrew recorded for a long time for Blue Note, but his music was never that accessible and never something that clearly identified with people. That’s just the way it is. To me, it’s further illustrated when I look at my playing back then. They reissued Andrew!!! [with Sun Ra saxophonist John Gilmore] and I listened to that and thought, “I know why they held back.”

SS:
Why?

JC: Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion — they didn’t care what you did, as long as you put in something swinging and blues-oriented. They were basically blues recording people. They didn’t mind, as long as you adhered to: “It’s got to be swinging!” When I listen to Andrew!!!, it ain’t swinging worth a damn. I’m talking about me now, I’m doing a lot of shit. It’s just completely pretentious. I can hear it — throwing a bar of 5/4, just to be tricky. I was trying to be advanced or something. I see it with these kids — as the teacher now — I can see it. These kids come up with pieces for the ensemble, all these triple poly-chords. You remember Components? That was recorded under some very trying circumstances, which I’m not going to go into. It was just some more immaturity on my part. After that recording, I remember Herbie Hancock said to himself, “Shit, I’m gonna record a rhythm and blues record next.”

SS: Were you ever into free jazz?

JC: Nah, never. It never appealed to me. Stanley Crouch — I don’t agree with much he says — but he said the real avant-garde was what we were doing on those Blue Note dates. We were very grounded. We could play anything. You can hear the blues, the time changes. Them cats couldn’t do that; they could only do what they were doing. We were thorough, but we were also stretching out. We were the real avant-garde. But that Blue Note movement was cut off at the pass.

 

 

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