The Easy Beat

Herlin Riley, Johnny Vidacovich, Russell Batiste, And Stanton Moore Discuss The Glories & Peculiarities Of New Orleans Drumming

PoleCat Percussion

New Orleans, quite literally, moves to the beat of a different drummer, a stuttering, syncopated sound that reaches back to the slaves who gathered in the city’s Congo Square. After fusing with European marching band traditions, the sound eventually manifested itself in Dixieland jazz, second-line parades and brass bands, rhythm & blues, and funk.

In a city teeming with talented drummers, Herlin Riley, Johnny Vidacovich, Russell Batiste, and Stanton Moore rank among the best. After Riley joined trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s famed Septet in the early 1980s, the group reached its apotheosis, recording some of the most vital modern jazz of the decade and delivering consistently stellar performances. Riley, 44, still collaborates with Marsalis in the larger Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; he also fronts his own group, incorporating gospel, jazz, funk, and rhythm & blues in his playing.

Johnny Vidacovich, 52, is one of the city’s most beloved drummers, both for his irrepressible spirit and a resume that includes a tenure with Professor Longhair (the great New Orleans pianist) and two decades with Astral Project, New Orleans’ leading modern jazz quintet. Vidacovich is also the go-to drummer for visiting jazz greats in need of a timekeeper, and has contributed to dozens of sessions of every description, using New Orleans’ second-line tradition as a jumping-off point.

When three original members of the hugely influential 1970s New Orleans funk band the Meters reunited in 1989, they recruited Batiste to fill the drum chair vacated by the legendary Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. Batiste, 35, and his muscular attack have powered the Meters, now rechristened the Funky Meters, ever since. In 2000, he also teamed up with veteran keyboardist John Gros to form Papa Grows Funk, now one of New Orleans’ fastest-rising new bands.

Moore, 29, and his Galactic bandmates grew up idolizing the Meters; much of Galactic’s early repertoire was built on classic Meters grooves. But as the band has established a sizeable national following – Galactic now sells out theaters from San Francisco to New York – its sound has evolved, taking on more of a rock edge. Moore anchors it all, drawing from and expounding on tradition. He also leads a groove jazz side project, Moore & More; his second solo album is due this fall on a subsidiary of Verve Records.

Given their schedules, corralling all four for a round-table discussion on New Orleans drumming was no mean feat. Finally, a single afternoon in late July opened up. Batiste had returned from a West Coast trip with Papa Grows Funk earlier in the week. The day before, Riley had flown back to New Orleans from a series of gigs in Spain with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The following day, Moore embarked on a six-week Galactic tour. And Vidacovich squeezed in a couple of hours between an afternoon rehearsal and that night’s gig.

Much laughter ensued as they swapped road stories and reminisced about characters encountered along the way. All four hail from the same tradition, though each puts his own stamp on it. Vidacovich and Riley represent the still-vital old guard; both Batiste and Moore cite them as major inspirations, even as younger players listen to and learn from them. They started, appropriately, at the beginning.

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(Left) Stanton Moore

DRUM!: Drumming in New Orleans goes back a long way, at least 300 years. Who wants to be the historian?

Vidacovich: People tell me that it comes from the slave thing in Congo Square, a typical day of relaxing, selling, trading, life in the square – [it was like] a primitive office.

Moore: New Orleans is the only city in America that allowed the slaves to play their traditional music, in Congo Square. And then you bring in the European influences, with the bass drums and snare drums, and you’ve got cats who, either their fathers or uncles or grandfathers, or they themselves, were playing in Congo Square, and then they start picking up and playing [European] marches. And then naturally the clave kind of comes out. Herlin can talk about that.

Riley: The guys would take the basic march rhythms, and syncopate them. I think that’s where the “big four” came from, where they start accenting every second measure: One, two, three, four, one two, three, FOUR, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, FOUR. That was part of the syncopation, because before they’d play marches very straight, where each fourth note would have the same weight, the same value. The snare drummers played the cadence. So when the “big four” came into play in the mid-1800s, that revolutionized the whole concept, the feel, of the marches, and from there, more syncopation became a part of the tradition. The syncopation would be the stuff that we hear now.

Vidacovich: This “big four” thing, for me, is really important, when the syncopation entered the music. The music part of it, harmonically and melodically, is very European. The rhythm part of it is absolutely African. Because of this “big four,” because it takes two measures, that means in my mind that it’s a clave. From Africa, the most popular clave is a 12-bell clave – two measures of 4/4 – it takes 12 counts. But it’s still basically a two-measure feeling. And then if you lessen that and make it eight counts, at that point, for me, is the birth of anything fused. What makes the music really American is the fact that it took European melody and harmony and African rhythm, and made it happen.

Moore: The “big four” is also the last beat of the clave, so it’s basically cats improvising over the clave, syncopating, taking different notes and accenting them at different times, but always landing on the last beat of the clave.

Vidacovich: Basically emphasizing the weak beat before the strongest. [It’s] getting a big feeling on the weak beat right before the very strongest one that exists in eight counts of a two-measure phrase. [By emphasizing] the very weakest beat you create a tremendous syncopation with the natural balance of strong/weak, strong/weak, boy/girl, boy/girl, down/up, down/up, bass/snare, bass/snare. When you start putting anything thick and heavy on the weak beat – a feminine beat, as a I call it – that creates syncopation, it creates a rock in the boat, and that’s fun. That’s what creates the dance, and makes you want to move your hips.

Batiste: That’s where the funk comes in. And that’s one thing about being a New Orleans drummer: Because out of the tradition with the marching band, you have one guy trying to do what two guys [the bass and snare drummers] do. So a New Orleans drummer first has to practice on getting his foot together. Then he can get his chops on his hands together. Then he combines both of them. That’s what I try to do. When I heard Rebirth or some other brass band, I was just trying to play what I heard, trying to play what two guys were playing: one guy on the bass and one on the snare. Trying to actually accomplish that is kind of a task – it’s not a natural thing. [laughter] You have to work at it. Once you’ve accomplished that, you’re considered a New Orleans drummer. That’s what makes me different from any drummer outside of New Orleans.

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(Left) Johnny Vidacovich

DRUM!: What are other essential elements of New Orleans drumming? What elements do you hear in somebody’s playing that identifies that person as a drummer with New Orleans roots?

Riley: For me, I think it’s a drummer that plays a drum set from the bottom up, because the bass drum is such an important part of our culture as New Orleanians. At parades, you hear the bass drum before you hear anything else. The bass drum is the heart and soul of the music. As drummers from New Orleans, the bass drum is part of our tradition, character and culture – it’s who we are. Although we all have different styles of playing, the thing that is very similar and runs through all of our playing is the dialogue between the bass drum and snare drum. We play the drum set from the bottom up, where a lot of guys outside of New Orleans play from the top down, from the cymbals down.

Batiste: A lot of drummers from outside of New Orleans, when they play a fill, their foot stops. A lot of drummers here, when they’re doing a fill, their foot is doing more than what they’re doing on top. The foot keeps going; the pulse never stops within the syncopation. You complement what you’re doing up top. Unless you’re from New Orleans, I don’t think people can grasp what that means.

Moore: What makes New Orleans different is that cats from here play in between the cracks – they play in between straight and swung. Before rock and roll, cats were coming from a jazz or blues background, and they were playing with more of a shuffle feel. Then you’ve got Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Fats Domino, and they’re playing straight-eighths on the piano. Then you’ve got [New Orleans’] Earl Palmer coming in, and he’s meeting them halfway. He’s not really playing swung, like he’s used to playing, and he’s not playing straight, like they’re playing. And then you’ve got the whole second-line thing. That all has to be phrased in between straight and swung. And that’s something I want to ask Herlin about. Of course Earl was doing that, but where do you think that came in?

Riley: Basically, with that particular rhythm, you had two rhythms happening at the same time. You had shuffle rhythms, and you had the straight-eighth thing. The shuffle’s more related to the march than the straight thing. The straight-eighth thing, that gives you a lilt, and makes the rhythm ...

Moore: ... skip?

Riley: Yeah. It has a rounder feeling to it, so it’s not straight. You can manipulate those beats a little more freely than you can the straighter, shuffle kind. You can manipulate those 12/8 beats more; it gives you more freedom to play in the crack.

Vidacovich: Getting back to the “bottom down” thing, it’s very much an unconscious thing. When I hear second-line street-beat music, the bass drum is the main voice; the snare drum is polish. Even though as drummers and musicians, a lot of us tend to be drawn to the snare drum and all of this movement, but the bottom line is it has to be a pelvic thing, and it has to be an unconscious thing, and it comes from the bass drum. What makes me unconsciously decide whether it’s good or bad is when I’m having a conversation [at a gig] far away from the music with someone who’s totally distracting me, and in the meantime I’m moving my butt. Then I know it’s the science of true, organic swing. This is it. This is the real thing. He’s really playing from the hip, from the neck down.

What makes a New Orleans drummer is an unconscious dance. And it’s primitive, and it’s pelvic. I look at drumming as a lower energy and an upper energy. I like to fuse these combinations. Playing in the cracks, for me, speaking academically, it’s a way of knowing how to manipulate a good African 12-bell, and knowing how to feel the most basic thing in drumming, two against three. Being “in the crack” is almost being confused at where I am at that point. Sometimes I just practice randomly these two things at the same time, going back and forth. It’s a trip; it starts to feel liquid.

Another thing that’s crazy but reminds me of what makes us have this “crack-y” ability, this swingy feel, is that we’re 12 feet below sea level. [laughter] That means the air is thick – it’s like living in an aquarium. Playing straight-on here is like moving bricks; if you want to play straight, you’ve got to be big and strong. A fool like me, bruh … the Latino cats laugh at me when I play with ’em. My bossa novas are like second-lines; if I’m not thinkin’, I start swingin’.

DRUM!: Do you guys still practice?

Batiste: On a keyboard.


DRUM!: Not on drums at all?

Batiste: I try to save my energy for the gigs. Man, I play with George Porter – you need all the energy you can get. [laughter]

Vidacovich: When [Porter] breaks those bass strings, you’ve got to fill that space!

Batiste: I gained the reputation of being the drummer that makes George Porter stand on his toes. I invented that. I push him. You can’t do that when you’re weak, man.


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(Left) Herlin Riley

DRUM!: Stanton, you carry a practice drum set on the bus.

Moore: Yeah, I carry a little kit that I made. The bus drives overnight, and you wake up in the morning and you’ve got all day. I always keep drums set up at the house, too, so I’m always shedding. What I really like to do is get friends of mine over, have two kits, and then just shed, trading [tips]. I always try to find new things that I can take and incorporate into what I’m doing, to keep it fresh. Especially when I’m on the road, I’ve got a lot of time during the day, so I try to come up with new things.

Riley: I have a drum set at the house that stays set up all the time. Every now and then I’ll get the urge where I just want to go in and touch my drums, so I’ll go in and play a little now and then. But the thing is, as musicians, when you get to a certain level, when you hear stuff, it’s a form of practicing.

Vidacovich: The silent practices really never stop. I don’t ever stop silently practicing.

Riley: You hear things; an idea may come to you from the radio. You may be driving down the street and hear a train, then you start playing rhythms inside of that. Or driving in your car, you hear the windshield wipers.

Vidacovich: All the time. I have to turn them off, or get out. [laughter] I get in trouble with that.

Riley: You hear rhythms around you all the time, and if you act upon those things, it can open you up to so many different ideas. There’s all kinds of stuff going on all the time; if you stay open and stay in tune, things will come to you.

On the other side of that, the pieces that we do now [with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra], I have to read a lot. Sometimes they’ll send me the music and a rehearsal tape. Or there may not be a tape, so I’m looking at the music. I may not sit down at the drums and practice it, but I’ll look at, and figure out what the rhythms are. That’s another form of practicing.

As a musician, as an artist, you never finish practicing. You don’t ever finish. It’s a living, breathing art form, and it’s ongoing, it’s constant. You never finish it.


(Left) Russell Batiste

DRUM!: There is no final answer. It’s an open-ended question.

Vidacovich: My own program is that, when I sit down, if I’m not practicing something specific that I have to learn, I try to touch the drums every day. I always have at least one or two sets set up, because I have students coming over occasionally. That means that when they come over, I play. On my own, if there are no students around, I try to at least touch the drums for five minutes or 20 minutes. Just touch them, have contact with them. If I don’t feel inspired, at least sometimes I’ll be passing through the room and sit down at the drums and look out the window and just play a straight beat with no fills. Just try to lock in the zone, get myself warm and the blood flowing, just stick with a beat for as many minutes as I can – seven, 10, whatever. Just get in with the tick-tock-ness of it all. Like Herlin says, from the bottom. Make sure that down/up thing is happening, that I can feel a dance downstairs, at least.

So I try to touch the drums every day. I can never get away from practicing. The biggest fear I have is that the day I die, I’ll be subdividing until Kingdom Come: one-and-a-two-and-a-three-and-a-four … [laughter] That’s hell for me: Subdividing ’til eternity.

Riley: I do want to add a footnote to practicing. When you’re practicing, you must always address things that you can’t do. That’s the key. When you do that, that’s when you have growth. If you sit at the drums or the piano or whatever instrument it is and you play the same thing that you’ve known how to do for a hundred years, there’s no growth in that. You’re just spinning your wheels.

Moore: One thing that I work on as far as practicing is to take something that you do know, but try to make it sound better. Work on your touch; try to play it softer than you’ve ever played it before. Some cats have such a beautiful touch on the instrument. You can always work on touch, you can always work on your time.

Riley: You can always polish.

Moore: That’s something that you can work on for the rest of your life.

Riley: That’s what practicing is. You’re doing something with a consciousness. You’re engaging with your instrument. If you’re not thinking about anything, if you don’t have a consciousness, you’re not really growing. In order to really grow, you have to be conscious of trying to achieve something.

Moore: Like what Herlin said earlier, there are things that you hear. You don’t necessarily have to sit down at the drums. I’m always pushing myself to find music that I haven’t heard before, like listening to Brazilian music, listening to Indian music.

Vidacovich: That never ends. There is no end. And there is no end to the possibilities of what you can do with this.

Moore: And even if you did know it all, then you could practice your tabla.

Vidacovich: To eternity.