After 30 years of performing with the top musicians in New Orleans, Johnny Vidacovich has one of the most unique drumming styles in the city that smoothly integrates what he calls the “ethnic” beats of the street drummer with contemporary jazz and swing. Extremely well-educated in the percussive arts through studying at Loyola University, where he is now a teacher, Vidacovich relies extensively on the rhythmic roots of New Orleans and an assortment of paradiddle patterns, creating a dynamic balance in his playing. Like Professor Longhair, one of several legendary boogie-woogie piano players from the Crescent City, Vidacovich is New Orleans’s Professor Percussion. His playing is well documented on the video Johnny Vidacovich Street Beats; in the book New Orleans And Second Line Drumming, which he co-authored with fellow Crescent City drummer, Herlin Riley; and on his CD, Voodoo Bop, with his own group, Astral Project.
You have influenced so many drummers over the years with your diversified approach to the drum set. How did you develop this style?
My style has evolved throughout my career and continues to do so. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with musicians, who, regardless of the instrument, have a deep understanding of rhythm. However, my drumming at the most fundamental level was influenced by watching the street drummers in marching bands as a kid and the guys playing the traditional music of the city in local clubs. These players, who I call “folk” drummers, relied on several sticking patterns that I’ve been able to build my grooves from. They weren’t necessarily schooled in the art form, but that didn’t matter since their feel was so powerful. I noticed right away that the style was driven by a right-hand lead as if you were playing a linear cymbal rhythm. It was very melodic. In terms of initial musical experiences, I played snare drum in the grammar school marching band and at 13, I started taking lessons a half-hour a week with a guy named Charlie Suhor, one of my main mentors. He taught me how to read and play drum set. When I attended Loyola, I studied beats and Bach, which really expanded my understanding of all music.
Who were these folk drummers? Were they unknown performers who had a passion for the music?
Some were just that, but many others were well respected in town. I remember checking out Freddy Staley, for instance, who used to work with Dr. John and, of course, Smokey Johnson. These were the right-hand guys, who made it look like it was natural and easy to do. It was their overall concept and they sure didn’t appear to be thinking about it.
Your playing is often referred to as the “Paradiddle Style.” Do you apply these sticking patterns to all four limbs?
No. And interestingly enough, my drumming was only termed “The Paradiddle Style” after I’d been doing it for nearly 20 years. I never thought about what it actually was until guys like Stanton Moore would come over and want to learn it. Then I had to really analyze what the style was about. As is the case most of the time, the art came first and the analysis followed.
In your video, your demonstration focuses on these ethnic folk grooves. Yet on your newest record, the drumming is very smooth, particularly the right hand on the ride. Did you have to hold back the right hand in order to get that feeling of finesse?
For me, concentrating on the right hand creates a rhythmic focal point. I’m not focusing on my body horizontally to create harmonic or melodic expression. The ride cymbal is the brightest light of what I’m following in terms of the four limbs. It helps me to think in a linear way, that my right hand is leading me across the music as opposed to me thinking about my body as four parts that are harmonically involved. Put a different way, the right hand is the lead melodic time and lets the rest of my body follow along. Of course, I had to work at this for years, especially on trying to master four-way independence before I was able to let the right hand lead the way as it does now. It also has to do with developing what I call “muscle memory,” so when I’m focused so intently on my right hand, the rest of my body unconsciously follows along. It can be quite a challenge at times.
Were you challenged by any songs on Voodoo Bop?
“Smoke and Mirrors” was tough at moments. It took some special focus, since the song has a lot of different sections and feeling and required certain levels of intensity and coloring from the drums. Basically I had to think about it as if I were dancing with the music.
Yet when you listen to it now, isn’t that gratifying?
Yes. Being able to apply the traditional style in a jazz context is musically rewarding. I’m paying homage, my respect to the drummers who gave it to me.