“ I like to solo, but I like it to be rhythmic and musical. So many drum solos end up being demonstrations of technique... ”
People looking for the magic elixir, the Fountain of Youth, should stop looking and start jazz drumming. Charli Persip, who'll turn 80 in July, will soon join Roy Haynes and Chico Hamilton as fully active octogenarian jazz drummers with busy careers. Persip grew up in Newark, NJ and, after touring with Dizzy Gillespie's small group and State Department Big Band (1953-58), he became one of the most in demand drummers on jazz recordings, especially big band ones, in the late '50s and early '60s. He's continued to work steadily ever since and has been leading his big band for a quarter-century. Charli Persip's Supersound's new album is Intrinsic Evolution and they play an exclusive engagement this month at York College.
All About Jazz: The book you wrote on drumming has an odd title: How Not to Play Drums: Not for Drummers Only. How did that title come about?
Charlie Persip: The irony is the title came from Dizzy. When I got in his band I knew all the arrangements, I loved that band, and I thought I played my ass off. Dizzy pulled me aside and said "You seem to know the arrangements pretty well and be doing a great job but now that you know what to play you gotta learn what not to play". And the subtitle, Not for Drummers Only, is because the book is all about the instrument; not just how to play, but how to take care of your body, exercise. It's a book for everybody with any interest in drums. And I have my patented drum exercises you can do by just patting you hands and tapping your feet, you don't have to have a drum set or be a drummer to do them, and they'll help with your coordination.
AAJ: I saw you with that Dizzy big band that had just come off a State Department tour at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1958. That was the beginning of a very active period of recording for you. You're the drummer on one of my favorite big band albums from that time, Bill Potts's The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess. What do you remember about that date?
CP: That was a heckuva album. I had an incident on that record date that really propelled my reputation and gave me a lot of good publicity out of doing something bad. It was scheduled for three dates at Webster Hall in Manhattan, each from 9 a.m. to noon. United Artists didn't want to go over budget so it was to be four tunes per date. On the first day we only did three tunes. The second day was a Tuesday and I had played Monday night at Birdland and overslept; got to the record date at 10:30. Everybody hated me. As soon as I walked into the date the musical director said "Take One". I just walked in and sat down and since the band had already rehearsed without me we just hit it. And we did five tunes that day. He never thought that he would ever congratulate somebody for being late, but he said that was one of the greatest exhibitions of sight reading he'd ever seen. And because of that and some dates I'd done with Johnny Richards Orchestra at Birdland, my stock really went up because of my reading ability. So I made a lot of money, but it didn't really do a lot for my artistic benefit. Buddy Rich recommended me for Harry James's band behind my work on that Potts album. Buddy was always very good to me.
AAJ: How did you get to be such a good reader?
CP: Mainly because I objected to the word that was going around that jazz drummers couldn't read well. Then it translated into black drummers couldn't read well. I totally took umbrage to that. I said OK I'm gonna be the best reader in the landI'll fix you. I spent many hours practicing, I took music books to bed with me to read instead of novels. I was fighting the fight for the good name of black jazz drummers.
AAJ: You learned some of that in school, right?
A. No, actually I never studied any instrument when I was in school. I was self-taught. Learned mostly the parade stuff first. When I got to school I really wanted to play football. Went to West Side High School (in Newark) because Arts High didn't have a team. The West Side football team wasn't any good and neither was I. In my junior year I joined the marching band and that was a lot of fun because I'd never played in any kind of band before. I used to go see the big bands at theaters; the Adams Theatre was my real university when it came to how to play big band drums. That and listening to a lot of records my older sister had. During my last year at West Side the music department formed a stage band and I tried out for it and made it. That was the first time I found myself in a big band situation and that did it for me, I made up my mind there and then that I was going to be a professional drummer.
AAJ: So you went to Julliard.
CP: That was later. Once I got out of high school I was playing around Newark, there were still a lot of little bands around town. I studied with a private teacher, Al Jamanski, who got me to improve my technique and put me on the road to reading. Then I played the R&B chitlin' circuit up until the early '50s then joined Dizzy right after that and that was my first chance to play bebop. Wade Legge was the pianist and baritone saxophonist Sahib Shihab was in that quintet too. Everybody is dead except me. It's kinda sad you know. One of the reasons why I don't like to spend a whole lot of time talking about what I used to do is because so many of the people I worked with are gone. And the young kids they want to know about and see something and it's hard to get through to them when you talk about people who are gone they can never see.
I like to talk about what I'm doing now and plan to do in the future. But I will say one thing though, about the time I spent with Billy Eckstine as his personal drummer. People think of big band when they think of him, but I was in grammar school when he had a big band. I was with him when he had a small group, mostly a trio. I joined him in 1966. Surprisingly enough all the bands I'd played with, Dizzy, etc., I got closer to a personal style of playing with him than with any of those other bands. Part of it was there was no influencewith all those other bands there was at least a mild influence of other drummers who had worked with them before. I had my own voice but it was greatly influenced by the other drummers. When I joined Billy there was no prior influence of a drummer (they hadn't traveled with one before) and (pianist) Bobby Tucker and I got together so that I could play with the same kind of imagination I would play with with a big band, but so as not to get in Billy's way. That was what really made that gig interesting; I mean I stayed with him for seven years. We did big bands, trio and had a small band book as well. And I was able to play with the same abandon, so to speak, that I would do with an instrumental band. What helped me do that was I really began to perfect the art of listening. That is so important, as you know. And it's easier said than done.