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Marcus Gilmore: ‘The Drummer Has to Expand and Incorporate Their Influences in His or Her Playing’

The young American jazz star was recently in Mumbai

Sunil Sampat Dec 18, 2019

American drummer Marcus Gilmore. Photo: Courtesy of Sunil Sampat

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Is a drummer in jazz just a timekeeper or is his role more significant in the ensemble he plays in? In reality, many jazz drummers have been central to the music of jazz over the years. In the 1930s, for example, Gene Krupa played a pivotal role in the Benny Goodman band in that swing era. In fact, his composition and his solo in the tune “Sing, Sing, Sing” from the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert is quite famous. Also quite central to the sound of Count Basie’s big band was the drumming of “Papa” Jo Jones.
In the next decade, drummer Kenny Clarke was one of the focal figures in the development of the then-new sound of Bebop, where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were the pioneers.

Similarly drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey are at the heart of the sound of Hardbop where the likes of pianist Horace Silver and trumpet player Clifford Brown led the movement of this sound.
Drummers Jimmy Cobb, “Philly” Joe Jones, Tony Williams and others played important roles in various Miles Davis bands while Elvin Jones was crucial in the John Coltrane Quartet in albums like A Love Supreme and a few more in the 1960s.

Drummers Ben Riley, Louis Hayes, Ed Thigpen and Roy Haynes are acknowledged as huge contributors to the development of the jazz sound from the 1950s till the present date. The evidence, then is that the role of a jazz drummer is significant in the ensemble he or she plays in.

With this background in place, we spoke with contemporary jazz drummer, Marcus Gilmore who was briefly in Mumbai for a unique event. Sponsored by Rolex, an initiative for bringing together a mentor with a protégé for a period of two years brought Gilmore — the protégé to Mumbai to interact with Ustad Zakir Hussain, the mentor.

We took this opportunity to interview this young jazz drummer who is “making waves” on the American jazz scene these days. Gilmore has inherited the jazz drumming tradition from his grandfather, Roy Haynes, who is one of the finest in jazz history to ply this craft.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

The drums have always been a fundamental sound in jazz. Through the years, drumming techniques have changed a lot. How have you seen the changes since the days of drum greats like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams?

I’ve heard and played with all kinds of musicians from all parts of the world that consider themselves jazz musicians, or are at the core of the music; they were really inspired by the African American culture, but they come from a different culture and yet incorporate that into their music. So you know, by nature the advancement made pretty much in any music in the 20th century is coming down to the rhythm first before anything else. That means that the drummer has to expand and incorporate his other influences in his or her playing. So, those are the ways in which the technique has changed to the drum set.

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 In the past couple of decades there is great emphasis on jazz education. How do you see this impacting jazz in the present era? Earlier times produced some jazz legends that never had any formal education — these guys were unique and original. Does formal training get in the way of originality?

Well, I can say this — I personally am not the biggest fan of jazz education for most of the time. I mean there are exceptions because I’ve come across some really great teachers and some programs and some of them really do have great curriculums. But I feel like the majority that I see and the books they’re feeding the children, it just feels like they’re robbing them of an education! They are graduating in debt with no jobs. So I’m not generally a big fan of jazz education. I think it is having a very negative impact on the present era. It’s one thing to teach someone false history of the music and it’s another thing to not emphasize the importance of being an artist — you end up becoming just an instrumentalist. You’re not really like a musician, you know, just a technician.

So I think, yeah, in a lot of ways it is killing the creativity in the music. Earlier times produced jazz legends that never had any formal music education. These guys were unique and original. Formal training certainly gets in the way of originality.

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Although jazz has an international presence and has absorbed elements from other musical cultures, Cuban, Brazilian and other sounds, it is essentially an American sound, perhaps the classical music of America. Your fellow drummer and my good friend Lewis Nash refers to this as being “from the culture.” What is your take on this? Is jazz a universal sound or is it essentially an American art form?

Okay, this is what we like to call jazz — it is a universal sound or is it American? It is an African American tradition but it is for everybody. Anybody can play it as long as they understand where it comes from. They should respect and give reverence to the people who made this music and died for this music. But yes, the core is what we like to call African American classical music. Yes, and that’s from the culture but the music in general is universal!

Has the equipment (drums) changed or technically improved in recent times? Is this having an impact on the sound and technique of drummers?

You know, there are a lot of practical advancements that are made but at the same time it is the nature of the industry to feel that they have to show some advancements at times they will create something that’s perfect but they feel they need to make changes in order to sell. I feel that is counterproductive.

Who are some of your favorite jazz artists at the present time and who are some young jazz musicians to watch out for?

There are some real good musicians out there. I can really give some shout for Joel Ross. Really like him.

Having a jazz drumming legend like Roy Haynes as your grandfather must be a big encouragement to you. Tell us of your musical relationship.

Well growing up he was just grandpa! Nice caring guy [who] would take the family out to the park for a picnic and other things. When I was about 10 or 12, I realized he wasn’t just another guy, he was special. He is always encouraging, he’s playing drums at 94 and I know he’s always there for any tips or advice I need. Great guy!

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