Few drummers so strongly represent a time in music more so than New York City native Lenny White. Coming out of Jamaica, Queens by 18, the left-handed drummer was picked up by serial bandleader and educator Jackie McLean with whom he gained his initial chops. Within two years White had already got the call to record the formative Miles Davis album Bitches Brew — alongside fellow drummer Jack DeJohnette — a record that would go on to become a staple of the jazz canon and ultimately jumpstart White’s fusion of jazz and rock, a style that he would come to help define.

Photo by Michael Weintrob

Photo by Michael Weintrob

As with so many other great recordings, the impetus for recording Bitches Brew was in the timing of the record. Following the rise of Davis’ legendary 1960s quintet was inevitable for young drummer Lenny White and he was surely cognizant of the changes Tony Williams was enacting with Miles from a rhythmic standpoint. No longer was it hip to bring the typical 4/4-swing — the rhythm became syncopated and free; the experimentation flowed. With the 1969 departure of Williams, this rhythmic revolution was only just beginning and thus Miles decided to push further as he frequently did throughout his career. The result was both Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White recording together on the sessions that would become Bitches Brew.

“To understand Bitches Brew you have to understand that the first notes we made in the studio happened twenty-four hours after the last note Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock,” White told the Miles Davis Estate in an interview. The jazz idiom was being expanded upon and experimented with, especially from a rhythmic standpoint. Prominent “popular” artists of the time like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and James Brown were employing drummers like Mitch Mitchell, Clyde Stubblefield, Bernard Purdie, and Greg Errico who were keeping it funky on the bandstand and playing with these syncopated rhythms. Yet, when it came to jazz, White and crew did not approach syncopation in a completely linear manner. Unlike a repetitive beat in the vein of Stubblefield on “Funky Drummer,” jazz drummers would constantly build up on their groove always taking what they just played and flipping it for the next few bars or adding on top of it. This concept is wholly evident in White and DeJohnette’s grooves on Bitches Brew. “We were all speaking the same language. You can hear it in the music,” White explains. Moreover, this recording was just the tip of the iceberg for White in a career that would define the intersection of jazz and rock.

“When you think of the six seminal bands you think about Miles’ band, Lifetime with John McLaughlin, Tony Williams, & Larry Young, you think Return to Forever, you think about Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and you think Headhunters” — mostly all alumni of the Miles Davis recording sessions, White explains of the development in jazz fusion. Originally it was only called jazz-rock because “that’s essentially what it was — jazz musicians playing their perspective of the rock and roll attitude.” Yet, it moved further from just jazz-rock almost immediately. 1970 found White exploring new corners of the fusion kingdom with Freddie Hubbard’s first record on Creed Taylor’s newly formed CTI label. On Bitches Brew it was DeJohnette’s job to lay down a beat while White maneuvered in and out and around the beat [only because Jack came in wearing sunglasses, so Miles chose him to be the leader]. So with Hubbard, this would be the first record on which White would be able to truly shine in his own right.

Red Clay was a foray into the intersection of soul and hard bop with some reach into the R&B aesthetic. They even covered “Cold Turkey,” originally penned by none other than John Lennon who was finding more and more success as a solo act in the early ‘70s. Joining Hubbard and White were basically a who’s who of top-notch musicians at the time including Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter. Yet, it was White’s loose-set groove and sense for interactivity that truly set the tone for the record.

At merely 20 years of age White was recording with some of his heroes, but the sessions didn’t go seamlessly from the moment he walked into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. Ron Carter reportedly did not like the resonant tone from White’s bass drum [fashioned out of an oil drum] and made him change it out for a deader sounding drum to White’s dismay. As the session continued, it became evident that Lenny’s entire drumset wasn’t working for what they were trying to accomplish and it again fell to Ron Carter to talk some sense into the young drummer. As Carter recalls in his biography Finding the Right Notes, he told Lenny, “Playing in the studio isn’t like playing in a club. Certain things don’t apply. In this case, your drums don’t apply. My recommendation to get some real music going here is to stash that drum in your trunk. We can’t keep doing this. I won’t keep doing this. We don’t want to be doing take 503 with that drum.” Though White asserts he didn’t listen to the record for ten years after it came out because of his disappointment with the equipment choice, the recordings live as a testament to a very unique style developed both out of tight rhythmic assertions and the size-52-type loose fitting grooves found on a lot of Red Clay.

Both Bitches Brew and Red Clay set Lenny White up to become one of the most prolific and influential drummers ever and we’ve only hit on material he recorded by age 20. Later we will continue to look at White career spanning through the highly affective Return to Forever years. Be sure to come check Lenny White and his quartet out at the Generations of the BEAT Festival where he performs Sunday, March 24 at 9pm.

Words by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)

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 Generations of the BEAT Festival — 3/23-3/24

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