Jazz 101 with Joe Chambers

By Brian L. Knight

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Just like Joe Torre finally winning the World Series or Bob Dylan winning a Grammy after years of non-recognition, there are people in life who ultimately receive the accolades they deserve. As for jazz drummer Joe Chambers, he hasn’t been neglected; he has simply chosen to remain out of the musical limelight. Since the 1950s, Chambers has been the consummate session man for countless recording sessions and tours. From the myriad of Blue Note recordings with Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock to the percussion experimentation of Max Roach’s M’Boom, Joe Chambers has been involved with many remarkable musical moments. Known more for his reliability and integrity than his flash, Joe Chambers has just released his first album as leader for Blue Note records, Mirrors. Recorded with Vincent Herring (tenor saxophone), Eddie Henderson (trumpet). Ira Coleman (bass) and Mulgrew Miller (piano), Mirrors features fresh new tunes as well as some new takes on some his older stuff. This older stuff can also be found on 32 Jazz’s latest Joe Chambers re-release, The Almoravid, which was Chamber’s 1973 rhythmic debut album featuring players such as Ray Mantilla, Woody Shaw, Harold Vick and Cecil McBee. Since The Almoravid, Chambers recorded four different studio albums, including Mirrors. Although Chambers has only recorded sporadically as a leader, this does not detract from his tremendous talent, inherent wisdom or his natural leadership qualities. Along the journey through his career, Chambers has molded jazz opinions and viewpoints in which he willing to share with the readers of the Vermont Review. From the media’s misconception of the "avant-garde" to the development of "smooth jazz", Chambers provides an educated view of the world we call jazz.

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VR: What first got you into drumming?

JC: I don’t really know. They say instruments pick you so I was playing pots and pans when I was real young, maybe about 4 or 5. I guess I had the instincts.

VR: You also play the piano…….

JC: I play a little. There was piano around the house so I used to pluck on it and then I tried to take lessons. I couldn’t really stick with the lessons but I continued to play around with it. I developed a little technique on it over the years.

VR: With a piano around the house, you must have had some other musicians in your family.

JC: We had a musical family. We all played instruments and danced. We played the popular tunes of the day. Rhythm and Blues. Some jazz. Blues. Mostly the pop tunes of the day.

VR: Was this in Philadelphia?

JC: Yes

VR: There is a long tradition of music in the Philadelphia. How did the city mold you musically?

JC: The programs, particularly as I look back and compare them to today, were very extensive educationally in the arts. We had a program called "Rent-An-Instrument". You could take an instrument home if you couldn’t afford it. A lot of people did that. We had bands as far back as I could remember. In elementary school we had marching bands – junior high, middle school, high school. There was lots of activity. As far as jazz is concerned, there was a lot of activity and musicians playing and coming up at that time. When I was young, during the mid –late 1950s, between Philly, Wilmington, Delaware and Chester, Pennsylvania, there was quite a bit of flow.

VR: What was the Philadelphia Conservatory?

JC: That was a college level conservatory. I went there for year. It has changed since then. I studied there for a year before I went out on the road.

VR: What was the first gig that brought you out on the road?

JC: I was playing as far back as junior high school as far as going out and making gigs. My first major gig was when I did I tour with the R&B artist Bobby Charles. He had hit called "Tossin’ and Turnin’". I did a little stint with him.

VR: 32 Jazz has recently re-released your 1973 album The Almoravid. Why did you choose that name for the album?

JC: That was something that I was reading and dabbling into at the time. That album was originally recorded with Muse. The music doesn’t reflect any direct, maybe intuitively, Moorish influence. The Almoravids were a sect of moors in the 10th century. No particular reason other than I thought it was a nice name and I thought it could fit the music. I guess you could connect it in way with the percussion orientation. I am not completely happy with that re-release. Let’s put it that way. Sound-wise and texture-wise, the album is very dated.

VR: One of the songs that stand out from that recording is your version of Joe Zawinul’s "Early Minor". How did you come across that tune?

JC: I got that song from a Miles Davis recording that Zawinul and I was on. I think that is about to be released. It was recorded back in 1969.

VR: Another tune from that album is "Medina", which you have also recorded with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Over the years, you have recorded many times with Hutcherson. Is their some inherent musical bond that the two of you share?

JC: Yes, but it just happened. It just came together, that’s all. We just sort of gravitated towards each other.

VR: You have played the marimba on many occasions. What is the relationship between the Marimba and Hutcherson’s vibes?

JC: The vibraphone is electronic, it plugs in and it has a reverbarator. The reverberator gives the instrument varying degrees if vibrato on the notes. The marimba is all-natural. No electronics. It is wood. It is derivative from the African marimba.

VR: Is there a different technique in playing the two instruments?

JC: There is no sustaining so you have to use a roll, like a drum roll, in order to sustain notes.

VR: You played the marimba earlier in your career and now you play the vibraphone on your latest release, Mirrors. How did you come to make the switch?

JC: I started playing it with the percussion group M’Boom (led by Max Roach). When we got together in 1970, we all we had to study all of the percussion instruments. That is when I started to get into the vibes. Everybody had to play everything.

VR: Is there any relationship between the piano and the vibraphone?

JC: There absolutely is. There is the same keyboard structure. Playing vibes, not that I am master, was an east adaptation was easy for me in the sense that I already knew the keyboard. When I look at the vibes, I see the keyboards. So I know the notes. It is just a matter of applying the technique. Of course you have to learn to play the specific technique of the mallets.

VR: Some time ago you recorded on Freddie Hubbard’s Breaking Point in which you contributed the song "Mirrors". Is that the same "Mirrors" that made it to this 1998 release.

JC: Yeah, it the same "Mirrors" only that it has been revised. Back then it was a ballad. Now it is a medium tempo swing tune.

VR: Any particular reason for using the term "Mirrors"?

JC: It is twofold. Mirrors is a style of writing and composing called mirror writing. It is where a theme or motif reappears and it juxtaposes and turns around. Also, the idea of looking into the mirror of the soul.

VR: After years of playing with Blue Note, Mirrors is your first with the label as a leader. How does that feel?

JC: It feels good. I could have recorded back then but I just didn’t pursue it. It feels good to be with a good company.

VR: Has the company changed over the years?

JC: It has changed tremendously. It is not the same Blue Note. It is part of a multi-corporation. It is definitely the same Blue Note as the Blue Note in the old days.

VR: On Mirrors, there is a tune called "Tu-Way-Pock-E-Way", which obviously has its roots in New Orleans. Have you ever spent any time in the Crescent City?

JC: As matter of fact, I haven’t. I know about all of that from talking to and hanging out with New Orleans musicians and drummers. That particular tune is dedicated to Vernel Fournier, who was from New Orleans. He played with Ahmad Jamal and others. That particular beat was made famous on a tune called "Poinciana" back in 1958 or 1960. It was a hit. It was a jazz hit. I always liked that rhythm and I said that I wanted to do something with one day.

VR: Mirrors also has Janet Jackson’s "Come Back to Me". How did you come across that tune?

JC: Every now and then, I listened to other stuff. I saw her video one day. It’s a nice song. It has some nice changes. In the video, they are using an acoustic guitar in a particular section and I thought it was interesting and I thought I could do something with it. The other cover on the album "A Lady In My Life".

VR: You have played with a lot of avant-garde musicians (Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp) over the years. I am not sure if that is a term that you would agree with, so what is your opinion of that genre?

JC: Avant-Garde. Those terms mean nothing to instrumentalists. You get a call, you are not doing anything, and you go do a gig. That is what that was. As far as avant-garde, those musicians were really the musicians that were recording on Blue Note. We could play all styles, all forms and we could play out. We were really the avant-garde musicians. When I say we, I mean Bobby Hutcherson and those records that we did. Those other guys were very limited. Let’s put it that way. They couldn’t do a lot of stuff. When I say those guys, I mean Albert Ayler and those people. That wasn’t the avant-garde.

VR: They weren’t versatile enough?

JC: It is not being versatile. They expressed themselves and they had opinion. Our movement was the group that really made the bridge between the traditional jazz and the be-bop era. We could play the straight ahead jazz. We could play within the harmonies and chords. And like said, we could swing. We could play straight ahead, which these people had no clue. We also extended on bebop. We extended outside of chords and outside of time. In my opinion, we were the ones that were the true avant-garde. Whatever avant-garde means.

VR: Do you have a favorite album that you played on?

JC: I liked Sam River’s Contours.

VR: Do you own every album that you have played on?

JC: I have most of them, but there maybe some I don’t have.

VR: Do you listen to yourself play?

JC: Well, I have but I don’t sit around listening to myself play. You listen to yourself in the studio during recording dates.

VR: Do you like any music that is being played today?

JC: I hear a lot of stuff on the radio but there is nothing there, from a musical point of view, to listen to. Every now and then, you hear an interesting song. These are the songs that musicians like: songs with meat in them, interesting chord changes, interesting melodic contours and harmonic progressions. You may hear something every now and then in the pop world. This is from a musician’s point of view. I have studied a lot of classical composers. I have every major composer’s work. That comes from my studying days. From Monteverdi’s First Opera to the most avant-garde composition – Stockhauzen, Berio. I also listen to a lot of world music from other countries. They have different rhythms.

VR: By listening to classical and worldbeat, does that translate into your own musical writing?

JC: It is the same thing. I hear something I like and I use it.

VR: You have played with many musicians over the years. Is there any musician that has been completely overlooked or underrated?

JC: We are all underrated. All of us. Especially in this idiom. This idiom is underrated. This idiom is suppressed. It is underground. It is not in the mainstream. Hasn’t been for the last 50 years. We are all underrated.

VR: Any ideas on how to revert that situation?

JC: It is political. It is social. Perhaps, it is being attempted by this so-called smooth jazz. Those players are taking off of what people such as Hank Crawford, Stanley Turrentine and Junior Walker did. Smooth jazz is a whole genre that is directed at a certain audience. It is a certain formula. It is on stronger radio frequencies than the so called real jazz stations. It has more presence in the public. It negates jazz. It is not really about jazz.

VR: In the 1960s, there was a crossover from the jazz to the mainstream with Charles Lloyd’s works. Was he doing the same thing, but thirty years earlier?

JC: A lot of people tried that. I don’t think what Lloyd did musically that was a hit. The whole idea of fusion was Tony William’s Lifetime; Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Miles Davis. When Miles Davis did it, he made a big impact because he had the big name. What Miles was trying to do was get into the big arenas. To the larger venues that the rock people had. They were trying to make the same kind of money that the rock and roll people were making. The whole idea was to stay up to date with current trends, the use of electronic instruments, funk beats, etc.

VR: Would you sat that smooth jazz is an extension of fusion?

JC: Fusion was more creative. Smooth jazz is R&B with light improv. Smooth jazz is not nearly as creative as fusion. The stuff that Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Tony Williams were doing was compositionally highly creative. Smooth jazz is elevator music.

VR: Is funk-jazz another way to get to the mainstream?

JC: Funk-jazz is the same thing – R&B with a light improv. Easy listening stations could make a change to smooth jazz stations easily. They could hardly tell the difference except that it is all instrumental. On the smooth jazz stations, they play a lot of R&B hits. It is the same kind of thing. Non-threatening listening music. They could do a lot better if they just left the word "jazz" out. The station her in New York have artists come on and make an announcement: "This is such and such and you are listening to smooth jazz." Well Herbie Hancock, who crosses over into that but Herbie can play and that’s the difference. Herbie says "This is Herbie Hancock and you are listening to nice and relaxing music."

VR: He didn’t want to compromise himself.

JC: Right.

VR: Have you have been teaching recently?

JC: I teach at the New School in New York City. The Jazz and Contemporary Music Program. You can’t really teach, you can guide. Students should teach themselves and not to rely on the teacher. You teach a student how to find themselves. Which is what jazz is all about. You cannot play anybody how to play. You teach the methods, the scales and basic fundamentals. You can’t teach anybody how to be creative. By the way, jazz education is a big thing these days in the country. Most colleges and universities have a program. It is an area that can be tapped.

VR: Do you find that a lot of the young players that are gigging today came from a college atmosphere first?

JC: Most of them. There was no jazz education (when I started out). Jazz education is a relatively new phenomena. Back in the old days, there was only Berklee and North Texas State. Jazz education kicked off during the late of the 1960s as a result of the demand after the civil rights struggles for Afro-American/Black Studies Programs. That what kicked off the jazz education thing.

VR: Is jazz education raising the standards?

JC: It is giving students a more institutionalized method for studying the music and preparing them to be good jazz musician but it prepares the student to be a good overall musician. Period. You can come out of that program, if you apply yourself, and be good composer or arranger, you could play in pit orchestras, you could play in the symphony if need be. You could do a variety of things. You could write or copy. The program that I am is providing that kind of study.

As we have discovered through his thoughts and opinions, Joe Chambers has a passion for jazz that extends far beyond the confines of the studio or bandstand. His representation of jazz goes far beyond the music and extends into the culture itself. Jazz is much more than a style of music; it is a lifestyle – a state of mind. Joe Chambers is a living testimony to this lifestyle and through his stories and his new album, we have discovered that it is a lifestyle that is full of nostalgia but also progression. Joe Chambers sporadically hits the road with his music, but until then, check out his old stuff on The Almoravid or his newer creations on Mirrors.