Before there was this obsession with jazz and hip-hop, there was a different intersection of music happening on the streets on New York, LA, and other cities around the nation. 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix played his first notes at Woodstock, Miles Davis called his musicians — Lenny White included — into the studio for what would become the ‘Bitches Brew’ sessions and that would be the beginning of a sound and approach to music that White would come to define. The marriage of these rock and jazz aesthetics brought us groups like Return to Forever, Tony Williams’ Lifetime Band, and many more innovative groups and recordings. Read along as we delve into the roots of this style, White’s impact on the history, and where he sees the music going today.
What originally made you want to start playing the drums?
I really don’t know actually. I mean, I wanted to play trumpet originally, but I somehow gravitated towards the drums. That’s where I felt I could make my best expression or impression.
Something that’s not discussed too often is that you were in Jackie McLean’s band early in your career. Tell me about that.
Yeah, I played in various groups around my neighborhood, but the first band I really branched out with into the world of jazz was with Jackie McLean. That band included Woody Shaw, Harold Mayburn, Scotty Holt, Jackie McLean, and myself.
The fact is, Jackie McLean is an iconic saxophone player. Tony Williams had played with Jackie when he was 16 or 17-years-old. Jack DeJohnette played with Jackie McLean. So everybody said, “Okay, now that you’ve played with Jackie you’re going to go play with Miles just like Jack and Tony did.”
Before you played with Miles, were you listening to what Tony Williams was doing with him?
Yeah. I heard the album Seven Steps to Heaven when I was 17 and on that record Tony was 17 when they recorded it. So immediately he became my guy because I was 17 and here was Tony who was four years older than me, but he was relatively my age and he was doing it. He became the model for me to be like and sound like.
What did you hear in his style when he was playing with Miles? He changed up the rhythmic foundation a lot and wasn’t sticking to a straight 4/4-swing type of pattern that was typical for the time period.
Well that’s not completely true. What I saw in Tony Williams was the past, the lineage of what jazz drumming was, and the future, all rolled into one person. It wasn’t like he was doing something that was counter to what everybody else was doing; it was that he had a new perspective on it. He introduced new elements into the playing. At that time period, the avant-garde was in vogue and full-blown on the east coast, especially in New York. Tony was able to take all of that stuff from the avant-garde and combine it with the history of the drum set and jazz drums. That’s what made it very interesting.
When you were developing as a young drummer in New York there were two different schools of drumming between people like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. What were some of the difference you heard?
The differences are in how they both play. Elvin and Art Blakey were African Kings and their approach to playing was thunderous like Thor. It’s the true, real African approach to playing the instrument. Max Roach and Tony Williams were more cerebral — they were like scientists when it came to playing rhythms and breaking up rhythms. It’s like the Earth and then the Intellect. Tony’s playing was more intellectual; Elvin’s playing was more earthy.
Moving forward to the Bitches Brew recording sessions, tell me about the dynamics of playing with Jack DeJohnette in the band.
I had played with two drummers before. Actually how I got to be in Miles’ band was because I was always playing a gig in Jamaica, Queens with Rashied Ali. Rashied Ali and I were playing together in a band and there was a guy in that band that asked me if Miles had ever heard me play. I said no, so he said he would tell Miles about me. Supposedly he did and that’s how I got a call.
I had no problem playing with two drummers. I have recorded a few albums with two drummers — I’ve recorded with Mike Clark, with Billy Hart. That’s never been an issue for me. My concept was always to make it sound like one guy with eight arms.
In implementing that, what did you have to do to make sure your styles fit together?
Just listen! The drums are a very egotistical instrument. You could overpower everything. I consider myself a musician and so I just tried to make my musical contributions fit with whatever else was going on.
The trend of today is this intersection of jazz and hip-hop, but you were one of the original drummers to solidify this integration of the jazz and rock aesthetics. Who were you listening to outside of jazz music that influenced you?
I listened to Jimi Hendrix — I loved what Buddy Miles had done with him. I listened to John Bonham with Led Zepplin. And I listened to Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield with James Brown. I listened to Cozy Powell. I listened to all kinds of music, man. You can’t really express yourself if you’re musically myopic. You have to listen to everything and then what happens is if you’re sophisticated enough, all of those things that you listened to combine into your style. So I was listening to everything. Depending on how much you listen, you gain this knowledge and ability to speak; you have a big vocabulary. It’s up to you to choose how you express your vocabulary.
You brought this sense of your own style to Return to Forever as well. What led you to join up with Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea?
Stanley and I had played together with Joe Henderson and I had done a recording with Chick in Miles’ band. So they were in Japan with Airto and Flora and they were coming to San Francisco. I was in San Francisco playing with a Latin band called Azteca. Chick asked me to do a week in a trio with Stanley and himself at the Keystone Korner. It was a remarkable week of music and at the end of it Billy Connors and Barry Finnerty — two guitar players from the Bay Area — sat in. So Chick asked me to join the electric Return to Forever, but I was already in San Francisco working with Azteca so I said no. In the interim Ross Valory and Neal Schon called a rehearsal and asked me to be a part of the band Journey. But then Chick called again and I decided to go back to New York and play with Return to Forever. So I never ended up playing with Journey [laughs].
The thing about it is that Return to Forever is a jazz rhythm section. It’s always been a jazz rhythm section and that’s what made our music different than anybody else in the genre because we were jazz musicians. Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were jazz musicians too, just like John McLaughlin was a jazz musician or Billy Cobham was. But the fact is that Chick, Stanley, and I were a traditional jazz rhythm section. When we approached the music that we played, it was approached from the perspective of a jazz rhythm section. I’m a jazz drummer. No matter what other kind of music I play, that perspective is always from a jazz musician. That’s what made us different.
Tony was the master of that. The first Lifetime band was an organ trio on steroids. It was still an organ trio though. That gave all of us the perspective of how to do this. So that’s what we did. We used that as the model.
In terms of your own style, what do you see as your defining feature as a drummer that differentiated you from everyone else?
Again, my perspective was from a kaleidoscope of different musical genres. When I was coming up, we had to play all kinds of music. We just didn’t play jazz. Jazz was the foundation for everything we played, but we had to play rock stuff, funky stuff, reggae stuff, and everything. Actually, how saxophonist Steve Grossman got into Miles Davis’ band was because I was at Miles’ house one day and I was playing him a cassette of a wedding reception that I did with George Cables on piano, Clint Houston on bass, and Steve Grossman on soprano sax. We were playing James Brown’s “Lickin’ Stick” and that’s how Miles hired him. He said, “Who’s that? Can I have his number?” That’s how he hired him.
Tell me about your Quartet that you’re bringing to the Generations of the BEAT Festival.
I’m following in the true jazz lineage tradition. Just like when I was 16 and Jackie McLean asked me to play, I’m bringing two young musicians to the festival with me. One just turned 17 and the other is almost 17. The piano player is from the Republic of Georgia by the name of Beka Gochiashvili and Darryl Jones is the bass player from New Jersey. Steve Jones is a great drummer and Darryl is his son. Then I’m also going to have Jaleel Shaw who is fantastic on saxophone. I first heard him play with Roy Haynes actually.
What type of music will you be performing?
I might play one or two of my tunes and then we’ll see what happens. The best explanation for jazz I’ve ever heard was when Wayne Shorter said, “When I think of the word jazz, it means ‘I dare you.’” So we’ll see what it will be. We don’t know yet because we haven’t played it.
For any developing drummers, what advice would you give about building a foundation?
First you have to look at the drum set as an instrument and be a musician. What I mean by “be a musician” is again that the drums are a very egotistical instrument in that you can overpower everything. You should not do that. You should learn as many songs as you can, because you need to know the vocabulary and how to play and adapt with the vocabulary. You need to know the music. Be a musician, not just a drummer.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)