Cora Coleman-Dunham: Dancing Queen

cora coleman-dunham

It’s the most important gig of your life performing with one of the greatest R&B artists of all time at the Super Bowl half-time show. Thousands of cheering fans in the stadium and millions more are watching you at home. Your palms are covered in sweat. Your heart is racing. “Don’t rush the groove,” you tell yourself. Pay attention to the track you and Prince cut the past week, and play it safe. Take a deep breath as the director cues you to count off the song. It’s the biggest moment of your life, after all, right?

Not exactly.

Queen Cora Coleman (neé, Cora Coleman-Dunham) played the 2005 half-time show with Prince, but she doesn’t namedrop that as her most significant game-changing moment. Where most musicians would count performing with a true superstar in front of an audience numbering in the millions as the moment where they knew they had finally arrived and realized their dreams (she recorded four albums with the mighty R&B maistro: Te Amo Corazon, 3121, Planet Earth, and Lotus Flower), for Coleman, it was a smaller venue that made all the difference in her ever-evolving career.

“We were playing the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas at Prince’s 3121 room,” Coleman explains. “It really was a lot to process taking on the drum chair with Prince. We did a run of five months at the 3121 club, doing main shows and after shows. It was really cool and I got a chance to open up a lot. Prince and I got to know each other musically and I began to understand how he hears drums and rhythms. Prince is one for looks. He will give you a look, like ’Man!’ Or on the mike he will be very engaged with his audience, looking at me and saying to the audience, ’Do you all hear that?!’ That was really great.”

Currently working with James Brown alumnus and R&B sax master Maceo Parker and she-who-goes-by-one-name: Beyoncé, Quee Cora Coleman has earned her stripes through years helming one of the nation’s great university marching bands; jamming with fellow R&B drumming heavy weights on her DVD, Kick Snare Hat: The Superstars Of Hip-Hop And R&B Drumming; educating kids in the facts of life; and generally being a major badass, as exemplified during her 2002 win of the perennial Guitar Center Drum-Off. Though she didn’t take it lightly, the competition wasn’t even close. Queen Cora’s main motivation?

“I needed a car,” she laughs. “My musical approach went back to my classical training. I knew I would do an A-B-A form. I had a concept in mind. I didn’t think, ’After 16 measures I will do this or that specifically.’ I just knew I’d start with sticks then move to brushes then to mallets, then with mallets I played different tonal things with the snare off, then tuned the tom up and down for effects, then moved back to sticks and played different styles – all the things in my experience: funk and odd meters, rock stuff. I just remember bringing variety to my playing and making sure that I established consistency with my tempo.”

Coleman competed at five separate Drum-Offs, from Houston to L.A. All the while she prayed, “Lord, I need this car more than the other drummers do!” When your drumming speaks for itself you don’t sweat the small stuff.

“And sure enough,” she continues, “my name was called. Man! This is so cool! I got a 2003 Jeep Liberty, and I still have it. And a Yamaha kit, a V-Drums kit, a Pork Pie snare, and Pro-Mark sticks with my name on them.”

Pocketful Of Rhythms

Fast forward ten years and Queen Cora Coleman is working hard, playing hard, and hatching more plans and projects than your average movie mogul. Her accomplishments go beyond drumming, but let’s start there: a full tour schedule with Beyoncé and Maceo Parker (she appears on his latest album, Soul Classics); Kick Snare Hat, a DVD exemplifying groove dynamics with hip-hop heavy hitters Aaron Spears, Nisan Stewart, and Gerald Heyward; Who Am I? and G.A.G.U. Ultimate Life Guide For Youth, books guiding students through life’s ups and downs; and her status as the first woman to lead the powerful Howard University Thunder Machine marching section. In-the-works projects include a TV show (Real American Music Show); an instrument-manufacturing company with her bassist husband, Jeff Dunham (Dunham Custom Designs Basses); a production company (Dunham & Dunham Productions); a documentary film (as Creative Consultant for soul star Ledisi); and a yearly awards-show drumming gig (Black Girls Rock Awards). She’s a multitalented, multithreat superstar-in-the-making, but the groove still reigns supreme for Queen Cora.

“The pocket is my job. All the other stuff is extra. That’s definitely important for drummers to understand. Your job is to keep time. All the fun and tricks and throwing the sticks and the stage presence is what comes after you’ve done your job. Then everybody can have fun when we know what the groove is, including the audience.”

Coleman has played all manner of groove machinations, from hip-hop to rock to R&B to jazz to marching-band blowouts. How does she gauge where to place the beat within the groove amid the demands of the artist and the music at hand? And how does that groove placement differ within the various artists’ music?

“Maceo and Prince both definitely draw from James Brown as an influence and an inspiration,” she explains. “They both can be very spontaneous. The one thing that is really important in approaching the groove is to be settled in what the groove is. So wherever it goes, whether it stops on the 1boom! – you have to be settled in the groove so the time doesn’t shift and the groove doesn’t change and 1 is just always there. Even if you’re just playing around 1 and playing off it and coming back on the & or hitting the 2. With Prince, there are times where it definitely was about being on the beat and driving and pushing the band. Then, with Maceo, there are times where it’s really settled, like ’Funky Good Time’; that’s a shuffle but you can’t push it so hard to where it feels too fast. It all depends on the song.”

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Calculated when she needs to be, or simply laying back and letting it fly off the cuff like her jams on Kick Snare Hat, Coleman uses her vast experience to groove-estimate every situation.

“If I can sit back in the pocket then I will,” she says. “If I need to drive I will do that or if I need to be right in the middle I’ll do that. With Beyoncé I have to be right in the middle. If I am playing with a prerecorded track with her, for instance, if there’s any other sounds that are in there, then I don’t want to flam with them so I have to be right in the middle of the beat. If I can sit back and play behind it a little bit but still keep the tempo, that’s cool too.”

In the pressurized world of televised performances and million-dollar tours, is the click her friend or foe?

“Not everything is clicked live with Beyoncé,” she says, “and with Maceo and Prince there is no click at all. With Prince I had two Roland SPD-S pads and maybe a trigger on something, but nothing on a loop.”

Rudiments Royale

Trolling the Internet for Queen Cora videos is a case of not knowing which dessert to choose, but one performance stands out. She performed to a track of Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls)” at PASIC 2011, and again at DRUM! Night 2012, and amid the amazing snare drum rolls and power drumming that is her trademark, she briefly slammed a complicated section that included a left-hand crossover dropping 2 and 4 on the floor tom.

“It’s based off doubles with a triplet feel,” she explains. “It’s two sixteenth-notes on the kick, two sixteenth-notes on the hands. You begin with the kick doing two beats, accenting the second beat. Then you do the same thing with the right hand. Basically, once you establish the pattern accenting the second note of the beat, it’s bottom to top, feet then hands. Two on the bottom, two on the top, and accent the second beat, but in a triplet feel. And you always make sure to keep the snare hitting on 2 and 4, that way the [groove] won’t fall out. At one point you play the snare with the left hand; so kick drum twice, right hand twice, kick twice, right hand once, left hand once. Then you can crossover. Start with the floor tom and the right hand, then the next beat is going to be the hi-hat with left hand, then play the double with the kick with the same accent, then alternate and now you get the floor tom with the left hand. Then you hit the hi-hat with the right hand. Then the double with the kick.”

Another Queen Cora trademark is her incredible flow and ease around the kit, no matter how large or small the kit or how complicated, funky, loud, or low-key the music. Similarly, her inclusion of drum corps—style snare drum patterns places Coleman in the same lineage as Billy Cobham and Steve Gadd, great drummers whose snare drum mastery can be heard in the songs, “One Word” (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” (Paul Simon), respectively.

“Marching band rudiments are really the foundation of my drumming,” Coleman says. “The way I process information when I’m playing, I want to know if I am breaking down a solo or learning new music, my foundation is back to the basics. I always reference ’What is the approach here? What is the feel? Is it a dotted-eighth feel? Straight feel? Triplet feel?’ That’s my base. And when I’m listening to music I’ll count the sixteenths, or if I’m hearing the horn hits I know where they will land in the bar. I can’t get the subdivisions out of my head!”

Beyond the flash and finesse required of a proficient marching drummer, hours spent drilling rudiments and marching routines separates the men from the boys, or in Coleman’s case, the woman from everyone else!

“It’s all about the discipline that goes into drum corps drumming,” she says. “At Howard University the drum regiment was always the most dedicated. We would sit for hours working on a paradiddle or an inverted paradiddle or moving the accent around. The discipline that came from marching band also influenced my set approach. I will sit with something until it works and feels good. That’s the same way with Prince and Maceo. With Prince we’d play a groove for 45 minutes in rehearsal until it really settled. We could easily play the same groove for 30 minutes. That’s what made the music so tight and so intentional. That discipline is key, then we could play those two-and-a-half-hour shows and a four-hour jam session afterwards. The discipline that began in high school and carried over at Howard, that attention span and being able to focus and being consistent, was the foundation that made an eight-hour rehearsal seem not as taxing.”

Inheriting The Crown

Coleman’s heroes extend beyond the usual gospel chops or R&B masters to include jazz drummers, and even jazz vocalists. She names her influences as vocalist Bobby McFerrin (for his tremendous rhythmic sense), Terri Lyne Carrington, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Cindy Blackman Santana, Dennis Chambers, and, orchestral percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who is deaf.

“She really opened my approach to playing mallets and brushes and Hot Rods on the drum set. And she really influenced me in her sensitivity to vibrations. Because she can’t hear, she performs with her shoes off to feel the vibrations. It made me realize how powerful vibrations really are. Our job as drummers and how we control rhythm and how we can penetrate people’s circadian rhythms, that’s all part of her approach and it influenced my approach. I always pray that the power we’re given as rhythm makers will touch someone’s life. The presence I have on the drums, that energy, is drawn from that, just being in tune with how much power we have as drummers. Musicians can play whatever genre of music, but as soon as the drums come in everything changes. That is a powerful space to hold. All of that is the sum of my drum set playing.”

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On Maceo Parker’s Soul Classics, Coleman plays with a popping feel that makes every track dance. She recalls Al Jackson, and Motown drummers Benny Benjamin and Uriel Jones, driving the music with energy and confidence to burn.

“Once you get the rudiments down it’s easy to make it dance,” she explains. “Grady Tate would say that: ’If you can make it dance then everybody else can dance.’ Sit with a metronome and play a paradiddle, then accent the downbeat, then move the accent to the second sixteenth of the paradiddle. Then the third sixteenth. It’s gotta be relaxed, your shoulders have to be relaxed, you have to sit with good posture. That’s what I did, then add the hi-hat: opening and closing the hi-hat with my heel and ball of my foot to make it splash on 2 and 4. Then your left foot is on autopilot, then add the kick. Do that until it feels really good. Then put the e accent of 1 on the snare, the e of 2 on the bell of the ride, the e of 3 on the ride, and the e of 4 on the floor tom. Then alternate. I would do that until it felt good, from 15 to 30 to 45 minutes.”

cora coleman dunham

Drums DW Collector’s Series (Stark White finish with white hardware)
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum (with 22" x 8" “sub kick”)
2. 13" x 5" Snare Drum
3. 8" x 5" Tom
4. 10" x 5" Tom
5. 12" x 6" Tom
6. 14" x 11" Floor Tom
7. 16" x 14" Floor Tom
8. 18" x 16" Gong Drum
9. 20" x 16" Gong Drum
10. 12" x 6" Secondary Snare Drum

Cymbals Sabian
A. 13" AAX X-Celerator Hi-Hat
B. 8" HH Splash
C. 10" HHX Splash
D. 16" Spiral Prototype (x 2)
E. 18" HHX Evolution O-Zone Crash
F. 10" AA Rocktagon Splash
G. 18" HHX X-Treme Crash
H. 21" Vault 3-Point Ride
I. 12" Chopper
J. 14" HHX Evolution Mini-Chinese
K. 12" Signature MaxStax

Electronics Roland
L. SPD-S Pad

Percussion LP
M. Studio Windchimes

Cora Coleman-Dunham also uses DW hardware and DW 9000 series double pedal, Vater Cora Coleman-Dunham signature sticks, Remo heads, Audio-Technica microphones, Mono cases, Gallien-Krueger thumper, KRK Systems monitors, Auralex soundproofing, ToonTrack software, and Phatfoot bass drum harness.

Shedding Toward Perfection

Watch any video of Coleman playing, and witness a true performance master. She telegraphs her hands high off the set, adding drama but also control and power where some might simply flail for attention. Her control, often under the stress of performing with a superstar (and we’ve all heard how temperamental they can be), reveals a level of maturity beyond her years. Her high-handed drumming recalls marching band theatrics, but as always with Queen Cora, it comes from a place of control and rudimental awareness.

“I encourage drummers to sit with the metronome and practice holding the stick really high and then coming down and hitting the drum as softly as you can,” she says. “You want to create that sense of intentionalism – is that a word? Playing it high like your arm is almost all the way up then bringing it down quickly but hitting it very softly. You can choose whatever rudiment you’d like, a double-stoke roll or paradiddle, then playing the paradiddle accent really high and the inner strokes really soft. Or playing the accents equally, and dynamic, but really drawing your stick up high when you play the downbeat. When people play double stroke rolls everyone naturally accents the first beat of the double, so instead, accent the second note of double. Then move the accents around once you are comfortable.”

And she doesn’t stop at the hands. She incorporates her feet at every opportunity in her practice regimen, though she admits the double kick pedal is not her strong suite. Not yet, anyway.

“Another thing I do with my hi-hat is when you play it and your foot is up and then you strike the hi-hat, then bring the foot down to close the hi-hat; I will make sure that the screw underneath the bottom cymbal is adjusted so that the bottom cymbal always lightly touches the top cymbal. Then the hi-hat always sizzles even if I just hit it and I don’t have my foot on it. It will always ripple and rattle. It always gives me that same tone. Then sometimes I lift my leg as high as possible with my knee, it’s almost like being in marching band again. With everything I do that is flamboyant or flashy, I want to make sure I never compromise the sound or the music.”

With her busy schedule touring the world with Beyoncé and Maceo Parker while extending her own projects and plans, she has little time to practice. But when she does hit the woodshed, she brings out old favorites. George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control, Marvin Dahlgren’s 4 Way Coordination, 1001 Drum Grooves: The Complete Resource For Every Drummer – they all figure into her routine.

“I am writing a book for my own grooves,” she says. “It’s about how to get finesse without losing power.”

While the evolution of Queen Cora continues, the message remains crystal clear: “Don’t focus on doing things for money,” she says. “Treat every gig like it’s the greatest dream of your life. Don’t treat it any differently whether it’s a free gig or church or a weekend gig, or a little club or the drum set is ragged. Treat every situation like it’s prime. That will create more opportunities. I was playing a small gig with a piano player once, and that’s the night Prince came down. No one cares if you left your snare drum stand at home, or you don’t have a drum key. When it’s time to play the music that is what matters. It’s a gift to be able to play music. Not everyone gets the opportunity.”