Music lessons learned #4 – The wisdom of Steve Gadd
One of the most important things as a music practitioner is getting the experience of playing with one’s elders. They contain deep knowledge about music-making in its totality. Having being putting music into use on countless occasions throughout their lifetime and having digested the lessons from their elders they are an invaluable source of wisdom – practically and on a spiritual level – for the younger and/or less experienced players. Like me.
Throughout my own life in music, I have been lucky to run into many teachers to whom I owe everything. Locally in the Aarhus, Denmark, where I grew up, nationally when moving to Copenhagen in my early twenties and internationally through playing with people from abroad and the years I lived in the US.
This particular story takes place in 2013 at the weeklong jazz camp arranged by the non-profit organization JazzDanmark. It happens every year in a remote location in the countryside of Denmark and the week is dedicated to playing and hanging out informally with your professional colleagues and, not the least, the visiting teachers.
The faculty is made up of a mix of fresh younger high-profile international artists in combination with representatives from the older generations.
At this summer camp I have throughout the years had the privilege of being in the ensembles of Hermeto Pascoal, Airto & Flora Purim, Ignacio Berroa, Tony Sheer, Becca Stevens, Toninho Horta – and in the summer of 2013, the legendary drummer Steve Gadd.
In short, for those who don’t know already, Steve Gadd could be described as one of the most influential drummers in contemporary music. His tremendous groove, versatility, and musicality also made him one of the most recorded studio drummers in the world.
This means that he appears on numerous of the records that I listened to throughout my formating years.
You probably know him too without realizing it.
I.g. here is his iconic drumbeat for Paul Simon’s song 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.
Anticipating the legend – meeting the person
Obviously in an ensemble situation like the one described above there’s always nervousness and risk-taking involved when having to play in front or with your new instructor for the first time. Even though we all try to play ‘for the music’ you, or at least I, also want to leave a good first impression.
Luckily this feeling disappeared immediately because it became apparent from beat one that Steve was definitely playing for the music and in combination with that turned out to be a very sweet and humble person. His authority came from being in the moment – and obviously backed up by an out of this world amount of documented experience that we all knew of.
After a couple of days of landing in the rural surroundings he, one afternoon after we played some tune, got up from the drum chair and spontaneously said into the room: Gee, ain’t it great to play some great music with some great people?
This statement in a certain sense sums it all up; maybe it does not have to get more complicated than that!
The central message in Steve’s teaching – backed up with a personal anecdote from when he entered the band Stuff in the late seventies (a band that I had listened to a lot on records) – was to focus on the ‘groove’ of the music. That meant resisting any urge to make ‘fills’ on your instrument which in most incidents takes more away from the groove rather than brings anything to it.
The class bought into the concept and it became the mantra of the week: resist the urge!
What does all this mean?
Now, the question is: what does this actually mean on a more philosophical level – resist the urge – and why is it essential?
Well, music is often referred to as a ‘language’ without words but never the less functioning the same way as the spoken language.
For instance imagine a conversation with a group of people where someone often says things that, direct put, is more about attracting attention to themselves as persons rather than actually contributing to the flow of the conversation. Great conversations follow the same logic as music: the more you move ahead collectively, investigating different possible directions of the conversation, the more meaningful it becomes because it is rooted in the presence and potential of everyone involved. You don’t want to be that person, that hinders this. Socially or musically.
As a quote from jazz great Wayne Shorter goes: there is no need to crash a party where you are already invited.
Music-making – in its essence a profoundly democratic activity – is one of those parties!
The moment of truth
Now here is my moment of getting taught this lesson practically. Which always has a deeper and longer-lasting impact that just intellectually agreeing to a sensible philosophical statement.
We were playing the tune Tee Back from the album Steps: Smoking in the pit. Steve plays on the original recording and the song is a groovy shuffle, the beat in the A-section made up of consisting and hard-swinging quarter-notes.
In this particular class Steve was playing the drums and I was, due to the setup of the band, standing right behind him on his left, less than two meters from his cymbals.
When we were playing I deliberately zoomed in on the tip of his drumstick, trying to place my bass notes exactly in sync with him hitting the quarter-notes on the cymbal. I refrained from playing anything else than the groove, which meant steady – and only – quarter-notes. Like he did; no fills.
At some point he anticipated the last quarter note of a bar, tying it together with the first quarter note of the following bar.
I heard this immediately and, intuitively and without realizing it, I jumped on the wagon and did the same. He responded immediately, in a low voice only for me to hear, saying: keep walking!
I swear, that this unwilling anticipation of the quarter note was my only deviation from the straight course. And like a true master teacher he very kindly directed my attention to it and made me realize that there is no need to play what is already there. That the music would only get better by not mimicking what someone already is suggesting as a possibility at the moment but rather contribute something that contrasts it. In this case keeping the steady stream of quarter-notes.
This practical realization made a deep impact on me at that very moment and is something that has been a part of my musical world ever since. To the best of my capacity.
. . .
All this speculation above is obviously my personal interpretation of this particular incident and I never asked him about it later. Mainly because it seemed so obvious to me what it meant at the moment.
I meant to keep walking and resist the urge to attract unnecessary attention to yourself.
No need to crash a party where you are already invited!
Thank you, Steve, for the lesson, your presence and great, great musicality!
July 2009, James Taylor is playing at Tivoli’s Concert hall, Copenhagen, with Steve in the band.
One of the songs in the repertoire has a drum feature at the end of the song with the whole band playing along with Steve filling out the empty spaces. In one of the ‘breaks’, he refrains from playing anything except for one hard hit on the snare drum placed with such depth, precision, and musicality that it immediately brought tears to my eyes. Like an old samurai that have condensed all his years of practice into one single stroke, that makes the whole world shake. After the concert I realized that I was not the only person in the audience that had felt it that way. Music matters!
PS. That summer of 2013 also fostered the formation of the band Blicher Hemmer Gadd, being that Michael was in the same class. A band we all wished we played in!