Whenever people ask me about my time at the University of Northern Colorado I inevitably end up telling them about Jim White. After hearing about all the things he’s done Jim was gracious enough to sit down with me at the beginning of the summer to discuss his career, playing, and what he’s learned along the way.
This is part one of a four-part interview.
David Ochoa: Lets start at the beginning.
Jim White: Okay.
DO: Where were you born?
JW: I was born in Atlanta Georgia.
DO: What year?
JW: Jan. 10 1969.
DO: That’s a good year. Was your family musical?
JW: Well, my parents weren’t professional musicians but they grew up playing music, and they both played in the elementary school band together. My sister played the trumpet too. My folks actually had this incredible band director. The only reason I know this is because growing up I always got the vibe that they knew that my elementary band was not really very good. [Laughs]
One time I was at my grandmother’s house and I found some recordings of their band, not when they were in it, but when my uncles were in the band, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Perfectly in-tune elementary kids playing Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Debussy’s Nocturnes. I mean, I flipped out, but that’s how this director was. His name was Charles Bradley and he’s one of the renowned music educators, but that’s what possible when you’re a really great teacher and you’ve got students who are into it. You can have elementary kids playing circles around high school students.
But we had a lot of music [around the house], not necessarily a lot of jazz music, or R&B, I didn’t grow up listening to Duke Ellington and Stevie Wonder in my house, but more Country music.
DO: Buck Owens, that sort of thing?
JW: Buck Owens was my man. That was one of the first records that I ever had. I had a record player in my room and that’s how I used to spend all time my time, just listening to records. I wore that Buck Owens record out. There’s a picture of me sitting at my record player that my parents found and they sent it to me a few years ago.
DO: So when did the drums come in?
JW: Pretty quickly. As far back as I can remember I always had some sort of drum. Initially most of them were toy drums, but I started playing along to records early on. I would stack up the records and then play along with them. I actually remember playing along to kids records, Disney records, and that sort of thing. That was one of my favorite things. I got a little drum set when I was about 4 years old, you know a toy drum set, but I used to play that a lot. I would either play the drums along with my records, sit in-front of the record player, or I would ride my rocking horse and listen.
DO: At what point were your parents like, “Alright, something’s going on,” we should put this kid in lessons or get him around musical people?
JW: My mom realized that early on. She started looking for a teacher when I was about 6 years old. I started with a teacher at a music store and I can’t remember his name, but he used to teach off of Roswell Road [in Atlanta], and he was actually really good. He taught me theory and I still have all of the notes he gave me. But I had to play mallets, and I didn’t dig that as much. I wanted to play the drum set, and at the time, I had a practice pad and I was learning my rudiments. And that’s what you should be doing, which means he was a really good teacher. But I eventually became frustrated, and one day I didn’t want to go to my lesson. When my mom called to cancel our lesson she found out that the guy had quit teaching at the music store. So my mom said, “Let’s try finding another teacher and lets see how you like it.”
Somehow she talked the timpanist in the Atlanta Symphony at the time, Paul Yancich, into taking me as a student. She would come home from work early and she would take me to my lesson once a week over at his house. He was incredible in that he was an amazing performer, and he’s one of the best timpanists in the world. He spent a lot of time with me. The orchestra would go on tour to places like Mexico and he would bring back these percussion instruments for me. He was a great teacher and I learned a lot from him at a really young age. Eventually, Paul got the job as timpanist with the Cleveland Orchestra, so then I started studying with one of his students. His name is Mike Cebulski and he’s one of the best musicians that I know. I wasn’t necessarily studying drum set with Mike. I was studying studying percussion, marimba, timpani, snare drum and music in general.
DO: How old are you during all this?
JW: Well, I started studying with Mike when I was in the 6th grade because Paul had moved to Cleveland. I studied with Mike until I went to college. One of my teachers growing up was also the great drummer, Sonny Emory.
DO: Right, with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Bruce Hornsby, and Bette Midler.
JW: Right. Sonny went to Georgia State University and was a student of all of the percussionists teaching there. My mom would take me to all of their percussion ensemble concerts, and if there was a big recital she would take me. My mom was amazing taking me to all of that stuff. I remember going to see Sonny’s senior recital and I still have a cassette recording because I took my cassette recorder and recorded it. That was the first time I met Jeff Sipe.
DO: Was he there at the recital?
JW: He played on the recital. Sonny and Jeff did a 2 drum set thing together. Jeff had just moved from Boston to Atlanta and that’s the first time I heard him. And those are two of my heroes right there. I used to go see Sonny play when I was growing up. I started studying drum set with him when I was in the 7th grade and studied with him for a little while, but his career was really taking off. He moved to Los Angeles pretty soon after because he was playing with Jean Luc Ponty and The Crusaders. He was so kind to me. I remember when I was a freshman at North Texas, Earth, Wind, and Fire came through town and I had backstage passes and everything. I was big stuff, man!
DO: [Laughs] Everyone wanted to be your friend.
JW: Yeah, it was great. There were a bunch of really great R&B musicians in Atlanta. They were great jazz musicians too. There’s a great bassist named Sam Sims that’s played with Janet Jackson, a bass player named Ronnie Garrett who I think is now Tyler Perry’s musical director. They’ve all gone on to have these great careers. Vance Taylor is another great keyboard player that was with Earth, Wind, and Fire with Sonny, a very gospel oriented cat. So, my main influence in high school was hearing these great R&B musicians.
DO: Hanging with those people.
JW: Well, I just wanted to be like them, except I was this rosy-cheeked white boy. [Laughs] They were, and still are in many ways my heroes. They were really great to me. Sonny let me sit in with his band when I came out to hear them. Jeff Sipe would do the same thing. If he couldn’t make a gig he would tell them to call me. Actually, he would just tell me to show up. I was driving a 1972 Dodge Dart when I turned 16 and I would show up to all these gigs with these R&B musicians and they were like, “What? Who’s this rosy-cheeked white kid that’s coming to play?” And that’s how I really learned, but if those guys hadn’t given me the opportunity, or if I hadn’t taken some of those risks I wouldn’t have had those experiences early on. I was fearless back then. I would get up and play with anybody and just go for it because I loved it, and I really wanted to be part of the music.
DO: So were you a gigging musician by the time you went to North Texas? I mean, if you’re studying with a percussionist in the Atlanta Symphony when you’re in 7th grade I would image that by the time you’re 18 and ready to go to college you’re already at a professional level. So were you out gigging and doing it?
JW: I had some really great opportunities when I was young. It was pretty clear by time I was a teenager that I was not going to be a very good orchestral percussionist. I remember doing one concert with the Atlanta Youth Symphony and we were playing Pictures at an Exhibition. It was great because I got to know a lot of the Atlanta Symphony Percussionists such as Jack Bell, who was the principle percussionist for many years. They were all super nice to me, but it was becoming pretty clear that my talent was more drum set oriented.
I think the first professional band I was in, I joined when I was 13. We were called Prophet. They had been around for a while and one of my really good friends, Todd Boyd, was the original drummer. They were all great musicians. One of the guys who started it, Mark McCrite, works for Line 6 in California now, but he’s always done a lot of creative music projects. Jay Griffin is a great bass player and Mike Thompson is a music producer now. Joel Pilger used to have a big production company here in Denver called Impossible Pictures. They are all very talented, creative guys.
I started playing when Todd went to college. Actually, the reason I got the gig was because I sat in with them at a school dance. My pal Ben Bailey, who was a big influenece on me growing up, was actually subbing for Todd. They were playing this Rush tune, “Subdivisions,” but he didn’t really know it, so I said “Let me play, I know it.” When I sat in, the other guys in the band said, “How do you know that?” They were just kind of shocked because they were several years older than me. That’s how I got the gig with them.
Jay Griffin’s father bought a PA and he would book gigs for us. We would play school dances every weekend. It was great. I remember my first gig with them. We would always have a business meeting at Jay’s house after the gig. They would only charge $2 to get into these dances so I remember Jay’s dad paying me $100 in one dollar bills [Laughs].
Yeah. And that was when I was 13. Of course things haven’t changed very much, I’ll still work for $100 bucks.
DO: [Laughs] Makes two of us.
JW: But I would say those were my first experiences really gigging. I was also working as a janitor at the time, and I remember quitting that job after I played my first gig with Prophet. I was like “Wow. This is what I want to do.” All of sudden I didn’t really need a steady job because I could make money doing these gigs.
DO: So when college came along why did you choose The University of North Texas, or North Texas State University as I’m sure it was called then, because this would have been––‘86?
JW: Well, I graduated from high school in ’87 so that fall was my first semester of college. Attending UNT was a freak thing because I really wanted to go to Eastman. I always joke with Clay [Jenkins], Harold Danko, and all my friends that teach there saying, “You know guys, I couldn’t even get into Eastman. I probably couldn’t get into school there now.” [Laughs]
DO: So did you audition?
JW: I did.
DO: It seems to me that jazz education has changed so much in the last 20 years. I’m wondering if when you went school did you have to audition at a bunch of school and prepare a bunch of stuff? What was going to jazz school like then, as opposed to what it is now?
JW: Well, I couldn’t really afford to travel to all these schools to see them. My friend, Ben Bailey, was going to Berklee and I thought, “Well, maybe that’s where I want to go.” My family took a summer vacation and I went up and visited, but I couldn’t really afford to travel to these places to audition so I remember having to submit recordings. Eastman was where I really wanted to go, mainly because Steve Gadd had gone there and he was one of my main influences. But they really didn’t have a jazz program at the time.
DO: It was all classical?
JW: Pretty much. You could get a great education there, no question, but they only took a couple of freshman percussionists each year and my percussion stuff wasn’t very good, quite frankly. I auditioned at North Texas even though I didn’t know anything about it. I auditioned at Berklee, and I sent a recording to New England Conservatory where Bob Moses was teaching. I got a scholarship to go to Berklee and New England, but I never heard back from North Texas for some reason. I thought I would probably go to Berklee, but it was going to be very expensive. During my senior year of high school, I got the opportunity to play with the McDonalds All-American High School Jazz Band. We toured all over the country. They also had a marching band and I played in that too.
DO: So was it the equivalent to the Disneyland band nowadays?
JW: Well, sort of. I played in the Disneyland College Band a little bit later. But for the first time I was around a lot of high school kids that were my same age who were really into jazz music and knew way more than I did. It was a really great opportunity. So many people had been in that band which was directed by one of my mentors, Bob Curnow. Greg Gisbert, John Snider and Clyde Connor all played in that band. John Hollenbeck played drums the year before me. All of these great players were in that band.
We all traveled our senior year of high school, and we got to do all of these cool things. We went to Hawaii for a couple of weeks, and Bob [Curnow] would always book guest artists for our shows. We were on the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, which you can probably find if you look hard enough on YouTube. [If anyone can find this video, I’ll post a link to it here]. Pretty much everyone in that band is still involved with music and it was a really great experience. Bob found out that I was going to go to Berklee and said, “What are you going to Berklee for? Did you ever hear back from North Texas?” But I never heard anything back. This was in June, so it was getting late.
DO: So this is right before you have actually leave for school?
JW; Yeah. Bob called Neil Slater and talked to him and within a day or so Neil called me and said, “Hey I just heard your tape. For some reason we didn’t hear it in the jazz studies program, but we’ll give you a scholarship to come to school.” Now at the time, if you received a scholarship you got the same scholarship [as everyone else], which was $200 a year. That didn’t seem like very much, but tuition was so low at the time. If you got a scholarship of any kind you also received in-state tuition, which made it really, really cheap. And living in Denton was a lot cheaper than living up in Boston. I had a great band director at Dunwoody High School named Tim Hinton and now he composes, and designs shows for marching bands all over the country. He was very influential to me, and he’s the one who encouraged me pursue things like the McDonalds Jazz band.
DO: Right. He would help you and push you to follow through on things?
JW: Yeah. He did that. He took us to concerts, he did all sorts of stuff for us. I told Tim that I didn’t know anything about North Texas and he said “Well, they’re really well known for their One O’Clock Lab Band. You know what I would do? I would find out who’s playing in the One O’Clock Lab Band and I would call and talk to the drummer.”
DO: That’s really smart.
JW: Yeah. I called the jazz studies office at North Texas and asked, “Who’s playing drums in the One O’Clock Lab Band?” They told me his name was Dan Wojciechowski and they gave me his number.
I called him. I had never met Dan before, but when I called him, we talked about the school for an hour. Not only is Dan one of the best drummers on the planet, but he’s also been a hero to anyone that’s known him. You can talk to anyone from North Texas in the late-80’s, early-90’s, and if you mention Woj, he’s like a folk hero. He’s one of the nicest guys, one of the best musicians, and he influenced a whole generation of us.
I talked with him about the program and he convinced me that it would be a good place to go to school. At the time I didn’t know that Ed Soph who was going to be teaching there. Another guy that had played in the McDonald’s Jazz band, Mark Greenberg, and several other guys had said great things about him.
Ed’s first semester at North Texas was also my first semester of school. He was a hard-ass, man! I mean, I never had a teacher that would just tell me the truth, tell it like it was, and that was great. I learned so much from him.