Ndugu Chancler: Way Beyond Billie Jean
Way Beyond Billie Jean
By appearing on the best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Leon Ndugu Chancler can lay claim to being one of the best-selling drummers in history (in the company of giants such as The Beatles’ Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, ABBA’s Ola Brunkert, Queen’s Roger Taylor, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, Aerosmith’s Joey Kramer, The Eagles’ Don Henley, and precious few others). But that extraordinary fact is only a footnote in the career of this remarkably versatile drummer who has racked up an astonishing list of recording credits over the past 40 years.
From Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris, Harold Land, Lionel Hampton, and Johnny “Hammond” Smith on the pure jazz tip to working with avant gardists Bobby Hutcherson and Julian Priester, fusion pioneers Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Weather Report, George Duke, and Jean-Luc Ponty, fatback funksters Bloodstone and The Dazz Band, pop stars Minnie Ripperton, Lionel Richie, and Kenny Rogers, rockers Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton, Chancler has cut a wide swath of musical territory. Indeed, he is the only drummer alive to have recorded with John Lee Hooker (1989’s The Healer), Tina Turner (1984’s Private Dancer), Frank Sinatra (1984’s L.A. Is My Lady), The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama (1992’s Deep River) and Bill Cosby (1971’s Bill Cosby Presents Badfoot Brown And The Bunions Bradford Funeral & Marching Band). Talk about diversity!
THE MUSIC NEVER STOPS
“I’ve had a great career,” says the longtime Los Angeles resident and native of Shreveport, Louisiana. “And I’ve got a lot more ahead of me.”
Still very much active and on the scene at age 58 (he had just finished a rehearsal for a gig with his longtime colleague and former Weather Report bandmate, bassist Alphonso Johnson, when we conducted this interview), Chancler has lived a storied career as a respected drummer-percussionist/producer/educator/clinician. And while there have been countless landmarks along the way, he is currently most proud of and excited about his recent release as a leader, 2010’s Old Friends Live (available on iTunes and CD Baby), which features Chancler’s own compositions and showcases him strictly on vibraphone, an instrument he has played since high school but rarely recorded on.
“This album introduces me to the world as a vibes player,” he says. “Also, most people who know me as a drummer-percussionist don’t know me as a composer. And that’s the flip side of me that’s really been a part of the sustaining factor in my career. I’ve been writer or cowriter on a number of successful hit songs in a number of genres. I’ve written songs with George Duke, The Dazz Band, Santana, and The Crusaders, to name a few. So while that’s been a part of my repertoire for a long time, this new record may surprise some people.”
Old Friends Live is Chancler’s fifth outing as a leader. Following the commercial success of two George Duke albums, 1977’s Reach For It and 1978’s Don’t Let Go – both of which Chancler contributed compositions to – he was signed to a deal by Epic Records, resulting in 1979’s The Spread Of The Future and 1980’s Do I Make You Feel Better?, both with his funk-based band, the Chocolate Jam Company. He followed in 1988 with Old Friends: New Friends on the MCA label, an R&B-funk-fusion project under his name featuring bassist Alphonso Johnson, keyboardists Ronnie Foster and Patrice Rushen, and others. He was subsequently part of a cooperative quartet called The Meeting that featured keyboardist Rushen, saxophonist Ernie Watts, and bassist Freddie Washington. Their 1995 release, Update, included five tunes written by Chancler. Fifteen years later, he is back as a leader, albeit in a slightly different capacity as vibist, on Old Friends Live. Chancler credits jazz bassist Al McKibbon, known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, for encouraging him to continue pursuing the vibraphone. “I played vibes on a gig with Al and afterwards he told me, ’Man, you need to do this more. You remind me of Gates!’ [Lionel Hampton’s nickname]. And he said, ’Yeah, man, you got the drums, you got the show business thing, you play the vibes, you play percussion. You need to do all of this more.’ And I took that to heart and started doing more with the vibes.
“You know, it’s hard for any artist to step out of their shell and see themselves,” he continues. “Sometimes you have to see yourself through the perception of those that see you. And in my case, seeing myself through Al McKibbon’s eyes helped me to stretch out and grow as an artist.”
WHEN YOU GOT IT …
Though he didn’t get his first formal music instruction until junior high school, Chancler’s natural drumming impulses came out at a much earlier age. He remembers being six, while growing up in Shreveport, and putting together a makeshift kit of coffee cans and oatmeal boxes, whacking away on it with a pair of his mother’s kitchen steak knives. “It just came to me,” he explains of his early experimentation. “At that point, I hadn’t seen a drummer, so I wasn’t influenced by any drummers. I don’t know if it was something subliminal from seeing a high school marching band or from looking at TV one day and seeing Buddy Rich or somebody. I can’t pinpoint it, but I know that bug hit me.”
His family moved to California two years later, when he was eight years old. But it would be another five years before he gained access to a real drum kit. “All through grade school, the school system denied me playing drums,” he recalls. “They wanted me to play the trombone and I didn’t want to play the trombone. So I didn’t get into any formal music programs until I was 13.”
His junior high band instructor not only taught young Chancler the rudiments of the kit, he also took him to the 1966 Pacific Jazz Festival at the Orange County Fairgrounds, where he experienced his first jazz epiphany. “At that jazz festival I saw so many great drummers – Stix Hooper with The Crusaders, Jack DeJohnette with Charles Lloyd, Buddy Rich and his big band, Steve Bohannon with the Don Ellis big band, Richie Goldberg with Vi Redd’s group. And from that point I was turned on. When I saw all these great drummers, my whole life spun around and I said, ’That’s what I want to do, and that’s what I’m going to do.’”
During Chancler’s high school years, famed composer-arranger Nelson Riddle came through to do some workshops with the music students. Around that same time, Chancler would work on tunes with the great West Coast tenor saxophonist Harold Land at his home nearby. At some point, he gathered up enough nerve to sit in with a group of elder jazzmen at the famed Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach. “Bobby Bryant, the trumpeter, was leading the band and he had Herman Riley on tenor saxophone, John Dukes on bass, Karl Lott on drums, and Joe Sample on the piano,” he recalls. “I sat in … and I sucked! The tempo went from grooving hard to a slow snail pace. Bobby Bryant’s guys were very nice to me but I realized how bad I sounded. And that sparked me to get all my stuff together. I told myself that night, ’The next time these guys hear me, I will be smokin’!’”
After a period of extensive woodshedding, Chancler not only came back to sit in again at the Lighthouse Cafe, he made such an impression that bandleader Bryant ended up hiring the young drummer for a session some months later. Around this time of intensive practicing and gaining invaluable bandstand experience, Crusaders drummer Stix Hooper was an important mentor for the aspiring drummer. “Stix was the one who really kept me on the right path in terms of what I should be going for and how to get there. He gave me books to study, told me everything I needed to do – kind of walked me through it all. I didn’t take private lessons with him. We’d just hang out. I’d run into him a lot because we all lived in the same neighborhood. He gave me his copy of Stick Control (George Lawrence Stone’s drumming bible) and gave me my first good set of hi-hat cymbals. I was in a local band and my equipment was the worst, because I was poor. My mom was on welfare and everything. So one day he said, ’Hey, man, come by the house; I got something for you.’ I went by the house and he gave me a set of hi-hat cymbals. That turned my life around. First of all, no one had ever given me anything. And Stix not only gave me those hi-hat cymbals, he gave me advice. He gave me guidance and then he helped me get my sound together.”
Chancler wound up following in his mentor’s footsteps, first replacing him in Gerald Wilson’s big band, then replacing Stix in the Bobby Hutcherson—Harold Land Quintet, and ultimately in The Crusaders (on 1984’s Ghetto Blaster).
While Chancler had stints during high school in bands led by Willie Bobo, Larry Nash, and Hugh Masakela, a big break came his way when he met Herbie Hancock. “Herbie came to the school to do an assembly,” he recalls, “and he asked myself and a bass player from the school band to play with him. I had gone to see him play with Miles Davis and had all Herbie’s records, so I knew the material. We ended up playing a couple of tunes for the assembly with Herbie, which was a thrill. Little did I know then that he would call me the week after I graduated from high school to play a gig with him.”
At that time, Chancler turned down an offer to join Hancock’s band. “I had a scholarship to go to college and I was taking care of my mom. She was diabetic and I had been taking care of her since I was 14. So I wanted to fulfill her vision for me, which was to go to college. And I had a scholarship, so I had to turn Herbie down. I told him, ’Man, I’d love to join your band but I gotta go to college first.’ And he told me, ’Okay, we’re going to get another drummer for the band. But whenever we record, I’ll call you and we’ll have two drummers.’”
Hancock hired drummer Billy Hart for his working sextet. And when he went into the studio in December 1969 to record his provocative Mwandishi album, he did indeed call Chancler for the session as second drummer. “That was the first time I had dealt with a man who honored his word,” says Chancler.
It was on that experimental album, released in 1970, that the drummer adopted his Swahili name, Ndugu.
“That was at the very beginning of the whole fusion movement,” he recalls. “Mwandishi came in right along with Miles’ Bitches Brew and Tony Williams Lifetime’s Emergency! All those albums were very experimental and daring. A lot of people don’t realize how much of a part avant garde music really had to play in the whole early fusion movement. And you also had the hardcore African movement playing into it during that time, which was reflected in the music, the modes of dress, and attitudes. So it was an incredibly fertile period for jazz. And it was also a very individualistic period. Everybody sounded like themselves and had their own solid direction.”
In retrospect, Chancler says that his early immersion into the avant garde prepared him for the studio session work that came along later in his career. “It was not only good ear training – because in the avant garde, or freedom music, as I like to call it, you had to listen intently to your surroundings and react instinctively to what was happening in the moment – it taught me how to really get inside the music rather than play on top of it, which is precisely what you want to do in studio session situations.”
Following that seminal fusion session with Herbie Hancock, Chancler began playing with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (around the time that his influential CTI album Straight Life was released). He also gigged and recorded with the likes of saxophonists Eddie Harris and Joe Henderson and keyboardist George Duke. Even in those early years, Chancler showed a penchant for great diversity as a drummer. “Jazz was the strongest element of my initial development, but as the music gradually began opening up, my playing began reflecting a wider variety of influences,” he says. “During that period one of my main influences as a drummer was Bruno Carr, who could play with anybody. Certain drummers, like Billy Higgins, played strictly on the jazz tip, but these other guys like Bruno Carr transcended those barriers. They played jazz, R&B, blues, pop, Latin, and all of that. So what I brought to some of these situations was that ability to play outside of just the bebop style. And because I had played timbales and vibes in the school band and orchestra, everything to me was always coming more from a melodic approach on the kit. And I began to explore that more in these bands.”
Seeing the explosive Tony Williams Lifetime (with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young) at Shelly’s Manne-hole (owned by famed West Coast jazz drummer Shelly Manne) in Los Angeles in 1970 had a jarring effect on the young drummer. “When I saw Tony Williams Lifetime for the first time, I stopped playing for two weeks,” he recalls. “I could not believe a drummer could do all that. I had never seen anything like that in my life. The stuff that he was playing – the speed, the technique, the concept – it just blew my mind. And I said, ’Man, if this is drumming, I don’t want any part of it.’ I wasn’t coming from such a chops standpoint in my own playing. There was another guy in Los Angeles at the time named Sonship Theus who had much more facility than I did at an earlier age. At 16, he had phenomenal chops. Between him and Tony Williams, I knew that I had to go in a different direction than this chops-oriented path that they were going down. So I naturally had to pull from my strengths, which was playing all the various forms and genres of music with the limited amount of technique that I have.”
Chancler subsequently followed in the footsteps of another drummer he greatly admired when he replaced Jack DeJohnette in Miles Davis’ band. Miles had spotted Ndugu playing with Freddie Hubbard in Los Angeles in March 1971 and called him to offer the gig in August of that year. Chancler made the Fall European tour (October 18—November 20) with a lineup that included Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Michael Henderson on electric bass, Gary Bartz on saxophone, and Don Alias on percussion.
“Miles’ band took me over the edge in terms of musical concept,” he says. “It also gave me the freedom to not be afraid to be the stylistic fence-straddler that I was. As much as I love jazz, I love music and was always playing different forms of it. With Miles, he let me know that was okay and that, in fact, would be the way to go. At that time, I was getting so much flak from jazz guys for the changes that I was making musically and the environments that I was going into. I was not trying to be a jazz purist and actually never looked at music from a purist standpoint. But I was aware of all these guys who had that thing about them, and none of them wanted me to really venture far from the pure tradition. But when I got with Miles, his attitude was, ’You have something, bring it all. Let’s do it! We won’t talk about it; we just gonna do it.’ And that was a relief to hear.
“A couple of things Miles said to me while I was in his band changed my whole musical approach,” he continues. “One was he told me I should listen to James Brown, The Chambers Brothers, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix. Well, I was already listening to them, but I was a closet listener, so to speak, because I couldn’t let the jazz guys know that I was checking out that stuff. Miles also gave me some insight into Tony Williams’ playing during his time in the band by telling me, ’When you play a drum fill, you don’t have to finish it.’ Well, those two things changed my whole approach. We didn’t talk about the music as much as people would think for the depth of where that music evolved to. Miles always communicated in riddles and so forth, but the message was always crystal clear.”
For 19-year-old Chancler, following in the footsteps of past Miles drummers like DeJohnette, Williams, Philly Joe Jones, and Jimmy Cobb was a daunting task. “Here I am a young kid with not a lot of notoriety, no New York experience, and I got people coming at me from every angle. I got drummers wanting my gig, I got the older guys saying, ’Who is this kid from California? Never heard of him!’ So I had all of that going on. Meanwhile, those were some heavy shoes to fill. I mean, how do you follow when there’s no one to follow? Jack was gone, and I didn’t know him well enough at that point where I could call him and say, ’Jack, help me out with this or that; tell me what I need to do conceptually in Miles’ band.’ I mean, this was a whole new frontier for me. Tony paved the way, then Jack paved another road, and Miles was even broadening that road. And now all of a sudden, I’m in the driver’s seat?”
Chancler persevered, made the five-week tour of Europe (documented on several European bootleg CDs and DVDs as well as various YouTube clips) but was not asked to remain in the band when Miles returned to the States. He was temporarily replaced by P-Funk drummer Tiki Fulwood until Al Foster became Davis’ full-time drummer of choice. Up until that time, Chancler was still playing the same black Gretsch kit with two toms and an 18" bass drum that he had played back in his days with the Gerald Wilson big band. By the time he hooked up with George Duke, a gifted and versatile keyboardist who split his time during the early ’70s between Frank Zappa and Cannonball Adderley bands, everything changed. “My last hurrah with the small jazz kit was playing some gigs around California with Alice Coltrane, which is where Carlos Santana first heard me play. By the time I began working with George Duke, in 1973, I had a Ludwig kit with a 20" bass drum. Then when I got with Santana in 1974 it was a Yamaha kit with a 22" bass drum.” He’s remained with Yamaha ever since.
KEEPING UP THE MOMENTUM
Chancler replaced Michael Shrieve in Santana, first appearing on the band’s 1974 release, Borboletta, and on subsequent releases, 1976’s Amigos and 1977’s Festival! During this highly productive mid-’70s period, he recorded frequently with Duke and played on Jean-Luc Ponty’s 1975 release Upon The Wings Of Music and Weather Report’s 1975 classic, Tale Spinnin’.
“Working with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in the studio was just like being with Miles,” he recalls of that Tale Spinnin’ session. “They didn’t say much; they just started playing. We’d go through a roll of tape, they’d make a few comments, and we’d start playing again. It went on for a week and a half that way in the studio. Originally I was only supposed to play on one track but I ended up doing the whole record. They actually had another drummer that had recorded a lot of the material with them and they weren’t quite happy with that direction, so that’s how I got on that session.”
Chancler closed out the ’70s by playing on Minnie Ripperton’s self-titled debut from 1979. The ’80s were highlighted by his participation in two Michael Jackson landmarks, 1984’s Thriller (110 million copies sold worldwide to date) and 1987’s Bad, as well as the Quincy Jones—produced Frank Sinatra album, L.A. Is My Lady. And in 1988, he had a reunion with a former employer, touring internationally with the Carlos Santana/Wayne Shorter group.
Playing on John Lee Hooker’s The Healer in 1989 and The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama’s 1992 album Deep River were personal, sentimental highlights in Chancler’s long and illustrious career. “Those two projects really connected me to my roots, my upbringing, and my family,” he says. “My father was a blues guy and he loved John Lee Hooker. My mother was into gospel. My grandmother lived in the rural part of Louisiana, Cotton Valley. I would go and visit her with my mom and dad and I would see this little postcard on the wall of The Five Blind Boys. Back in those days they would go to see Mahalia Jackson, the Blind Boys, the Soul Stirrers. If you were into gospel music, these were the big stars that you came out to see. But they never played the records in the house so I never actually heard the Blind Boys until I got older. And then all of a sudden I’m on a session with them!
“That’s been the story of my career so far,” he continues. “When you take Frank Sinatra, John Lee Hooker, The Five Blind Boys, Miles Davis, I could’ve died and gone to heaven with just that and my mission as a musician would’ve been fulfilled. And then you add Michael Jackson to that? Come on! It doesn’t get any better than that. I’ve been fortunate enough, with the exception of Milton Nascimento and Djavan, to play with every musician I admire.”
And maybe they’ll both call tomorrow.
DRUMS: Yamaha Absolute Maple (Sunburst)
22" x 18" Bass Drum
14" x 5.5" Ndugu Chancler Signature Snare Drum (white powdercoat)
12" x 8" Tom
13" x 9" Tom
14" x 14" Floor Tom
16" x 16" Floor Tom
14" Twenty Hi-Hat
18" Twenty Crash
20" Twenty Ride
22" 2002 Novo China
Ndugu Chancler also uses Yamaha hardware, Remo heads (Clear Emperor on batters, Clear Ambassador on resos, Coated Falams K series or Coated Emperor on snare, and Powerstroke 3 on kick), and Vic Firth American Classic 5A sticks. In solo contexts, he adds a stand with 10", 8", and 6" toms. He also plays a Yamaha Phoenix kit.
Ndugu Chancler is a great funk and jazz drummer with an enviable history of backing many of the world’s finest musicians. His pocket is always deep, and his grooves are always tasty and often quite creative. Here are a few examples of why so many greats chose him to add his funky and musical drumming to their records.
“Stormy Weather” by Frank Sinatra
For this version of a jazz standard, Chancler plays a tasty groove that suggests the one Buddy Harman played on Patsy Cline’s classic song “Crazy,” with its hi-hat pattern of 1 (&) ah 2 & ah 3 (&) ah 4 & ah. These are both great grooves that are very simple but so effective they should be in every drummer’s groove box.
“How Do You Keep The Music Playing” by James Ingram & Patti Austin
Ballads are all about the lyrics and vocals and this song proves Chancler’s skill at playing a supportive role while still adding just enough spice to keep this slow ballad rhythmically interesting. Check out the tasty 5-stroke roll hi-hat fill he uses in the first measure to set up the quiet rim-click groove. Later, at the chorus, he plays a syncopated descending tom fill and adds his snare on the backbeats to bring the intensity up a little.
“T Plays It Cool” by Marvin Gaye
Who needs a drum machine? A far better solution is to have a funky drummer lay down a funky four-bar groove for the engineer to make a tape loop and then overdub the rest of the musicians. Tape loop refers to the method of cutting a section the tape they’d want to loop, usually recorded at 30 ips (inches per second) that at this tempo would result in a piece of tape over 20' long, then tape the ends together and either loop it around a second tape machine or have an intern hold it with an empty tape spool to keep it off the floor. Ah, the glamour of interning! That’s the way they did it old-school before samplers and ProTools. The result of all this work is a great-feeling, very dynamic funk track.
“Up On It” by George Duke
This track has a high-energy Latin-influenced cadenza that shifts into a wild odd-time funk jam after the first minute. You can think of this funk groove as being in 17/8, but I chose to write it more simply as a measure of 4/4 (eight eighth-notes) and 9/8, since that’s the way it’s phrased. Chancler uses the 9/8 bar to improvise fills and grooves that are incredibly funky while making the most of the oddness of the meter. Warning: This music was performed by professional musicians in a recording studio. Attempting this sort of hazardous time signature could result in serious injury!
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson
The title of this blockbuster hit song was an amalgam of the many women who’d brought paternity suits against Michael and his brothers in the Jackson 5. Chancler plays alternating quarter-notes between his kick drum and snare and eighths on the hi-hat that are doubled with a cabasa after two measures. We have to wait over a minute for the first very minimal fill and even longer for the first crash. That’s how a master drummer can take the simplest pattern and steadily build tension. The groove may look simple on paper but it has enough musical magic to make the dead dance.