It was 1985. I was drumming with B.B. King, and we were playing at a jazz festival in Europe during Live Aid. There were a lot of heavy jazz players there, and I mean serious jazz players: Miss Ella Fitzgerald, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis.
After each day at the festival, we’d go to the hotel bar for a jam session. I don’t consider myself a jazz drummer at all, but I love to see them when they solo. They would always take those solos like they were telling a story, with all these different time signatures and precise, mind-blowing drumming that you really have to understand what it’s all about to do it properly.
That was not me. So when they had these post-festival jam sessions, and guys would get up and swing and do the traditional jazz drumming and take the jazz solos, I’d be thinking man, I do not play like that. I am not even going to think about playing like that!
I admire those drummers, but it was just too intimidating to try it.
After a couple of nights, Dizzy Gillespie walked up to me – he didn’t know my name – and said, “Hey B.B. Drummer, why aren’t you up here sitting in, young man? Never seen you do it. You gonna sit in tonight?”
I said, “Nah, I can’t play jazz, man.”
“What do you mean, you can’t play jazz?”
“I’m just not a jazz drummer.”
“Bullshit, you can play jazz!”
“But these guys are so much better than me.”
“Well, have you even tried?”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“But those guys are so good!”
“Look, come by the side of the stage. I’m going to go up there and jam, and you pay attention. I’m going to call you up and you’re gonna play.”
“Well, I guess I’ll try it.”
I was thinking to myself, this is going to be so embarrassing. I’d tried to play with jazz guys before, and they’d go, “Nice try. Don’t quit your day job if you wanna be a jazz drummer.”
I was nervous, sitting there on the side of the stage watching these guys.
Ding dada ding ding dading dading ding.
They were playing standards like “Night in Tunisia” where the drummer would go after this swing and do all these little fills. The extreme jazz guys would play it really fast. If you’re a backbeat drummer like I was, I was thinking man, there’s no way I can do this.
The jam stopped. Dizz came over and grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, let’s go. Sit down. Let’s get a little supple jazz swing, Art Blakey style.” He figured I could play that because Art Blakey had that shuffle swing style, which was more similar to my playing.
So I was up there, and before I knew it, I heard “One, two, three…”
I tried to play it, but the real jazz musicians on stage were like this guy sucks! You could tell because they’d kind of look back and grimace. No smiling, just looking at me like who the hell is this? That dude stiff as hell; he ain’t really swinging.”
Then they gave me a solo. It really exposed what I didn’t know. And now I really sounded like crap. I wasn’t playing a blazing jazz solo, I was playing a backbeat. And instead of swinging, I was dangling.
After that experience, I felt triple bad. I went back to the bar and sat there, like damn, that was terrible. Dizz came up to me later on and said, “That was great; you did great!”
“Man, those guys didn’t like me. They were looking at me.”
“To hell with those guys! Look, that was great. You know what was great about it? You got the nerve to go up and at least try. Next time you try again, and you get it a little better. And you keep doing it. You’ll build up your confidence and you’ll play the best you can play. Don’t worry about how anyone else plays – worry about how you play.”
“Don’t worry about how anyone else plays – worry about how you play.”
He was right. I shouldn’t worry about anyone else.
When I first learned how to swim as a kid, I went to a lake with some older guys. Know how they taught me to swim? They threw me in. I was flippin’ and floppin’ trying to keep my head above water. They said, “Kick your legs! Use your arms! Stay afloat! You can do it!” Next thing you know, I’d figured it out – even though they were ready to jump in and save me from drowning.
Going up on stage and jamming with those jazz guys was just like that. Dizz threw me in. Bam!
Instead of listening to others who said I sucked, he made me feel that I could do it. When I was on that stage thinking man, I’m sucking, he kept looking back and giving me affirmation that I was going to be alright.
I felt like I could do anything.
Sometimes people are going to say that you suck, or that you’re doing it wrong – especially in today’s era of social media. I have had comments on my Drumeo lesson where people will challenge me. Instead of being hurt and annoyed, I find it amusing and ridiculous. I’m considered one of the leading blues drummers, but people still criticize me and say I don’t know what I’m talking about. “That’s not the way so-and-so plays the blues” or “Man, that drummer sucks.” What I’m trying to say is that no one, even me, is immune from it. So keep your head up and take the good with the bad.
I know that in some of these online videos, you see drummers doing extraordinary, technical things. But that’s because they choose to be like that. If that’s not you, and you’re a groove maker, focus on that. You don’t have to be a mind-blowing drummer to be a happy, successful one. A groovy drummer is just as worthy as a flashy drummer.
“You don’t have to be a mind-blowing drummer to be a happy, successful one.”
Just like Dizzy said, don’t worry about someone else’s opinion on how good or bad you are. Drummers are the CPU of the music. We’ve got to continue to inspire each other. We should play things we wouldn’t normally play, whether it’s country, jazz, reggae, rock, or heavy metal. I think some of the best drummers are versatile and listen to everything and respect and want to learn things, even the styles you don’t particularly care for.
I was working with Jamey Johnson and I told him he needed to get a country drummer. We didn’t have time to rehearse a lot of the songs, and Jamey would just want to do it on stage. He’d get in a mode and say he’d want to do an old classic, and I’d be like “I don’t know that”, and I’d be up there looking like an idiot. And I’d say “Jamey, man, you can’t do that to me, dude. You’ve gotta get a guy who knows those classics.”
He’d say, “You know, I looked at you and you did look like somebody who was trying to solve a math problem.”
He still asked me to play percussion with the band because he liked me and he liked my spirit. It’s not a bad thing to not be able to play something. If you want to do it, you just have to work at it. And go be around the people who do it. And study and listen and eat and drink and talk with them.
That’s how you become versatile. That’s how you learn to be a better drummer. As long as you’ve got your heart and mind and soul in the right place, you’re going to be fine.
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