In part-three of our interview Jim took the time to tell me about leaving Maynard Ferguson’s band, New York, and why he decided to leave New York for Nashville. If you haven’t already be sure to check out part-one and part-two.
Be sure to visit Jim online at http://www.jimwhitemusic.com/.
David Ochoa: So after North Texas and Maynard did you move to New York?
Jim White: When I joined Maynard’s band, I moved my stuff back to Atlanta, because I was on the road all the time. We were in Japan for several weeks playing the Blue Note clubs when my grandfather, who I was really close to, passed away from a heart attack. I remember it was just such a big shock. I couldn’t believe it, and I really wanted to go home to be at his funeral. I remember both Maynard and Ed Sargent knew I was really upset so they came down to my hotel room to talk with me. We were planning on traveling back through the United States on our way to India,so Maynard told me, “Look, when we get back to the States you can go home and take some time off, but I need you to finish this leg of the tour in Japan. This is what we do.” So that’s what I did.
Luckily, one of Maynard’s favorite drummers, Ray Brinker, was available to come out and finish the tour for me. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back or not. I ultimately didn’t end up coming back because I wanted to move to New York and I needed to save some money. I wasn’t really making a lot of money [on the road with Maynard], so I moved back to Dallas where I was working a lot when I was in college. I saved some money, and after a year, I moved to to New York along with a bunch of folks from North Texas. My good friend Dan Miller, who was playing trumpet with Henry Connick, and Maynard’s band, already had an apartment in Brooklyn along with his brother Dave. I moved in with Dan, Dave, and [bassist] Mike Pope. At the same time pianist Henry Hey and drummer Brian Delaney moved to New York as well. We all packed up a trailer and moved up there together.
I had a job lined up when I arrived in NYC, which was made possible through the engineer who worked on all the One O’Clock Lab Band records, Phil Bulla. I knew Phil pretty well, and he believed that I might have some talent as a producer. Thankfully, he got me a job as an intern at Battery Studios, which was owned by Jive Records. That’s where D’Angelo did his first record, so they were doing a lot of hip-hop and rap records. I didn’t know who many of those rappers were at the time. I remember a cat dropping by in the middle of the night named Q-Tip. I was like, “Who’s Q-Tip?” [Laughs]. I finally figured out who Q-Tip was. But Phil got me that job, and I worked mostly late at night. I didn’t work there very long because it was frustrating to me. I thought I’d be able to be in the session and assist the engineer, but none of that happened. I was answering phones, letting people into the studio, and doing administrative stuff. So after a month or two, I quit when my friend Ted Cruz, the keyboardist––not the presidential candidate, recommended me for a gig with the Big Apple Circus. Ted was playing the circus at the time and their drummer, Pete Abbott, was leaving because he just got the gig with the Average White Band. I auditioned for the gig and I got it, and I went to go watch Pete do the gig before he left. It was probably the hardest gig I have ever done, and Pete played it with ease. The band was also really great at the time; Ralph Alessi played trumpet, Curtis Fowlkes was on trombone, Duncan Cleary played guitar, Sam Furnace was a great saxophonist who unfortunately passed away due to cancer. Usually Gene Torres or Kermit Driscoll played bass.
Then we would have all these subs coming in all the time. People like saxophonists Lenny Pickett, or Patience Higgins. I remember bassist Bakithi Kumalo from Paul Simon’s band subbing on bass. I thought to myself, “What are these guys doing here?” Before I moved to New York, I had some gradiose idea that if you were on a record that I owned, then you were probably very wealthy, and being supported by our government or something. [Laughs] I don’t know what I thought, but I saw all these guys working really hard, doing these not-so-glamorous gigs, but gigs that were going to pay their rent. It was a good dose of reality for me. Looking back, I can’t believe how young I was–
DO: Because you had to only be what–23, 24?
JW: Yes, I was pretty young, but all these guys really took me under their wing. We use to go to record stores together on our breaks because we would play that show 11 times a week and had some time off between shows. Duncan or Curtis would tell me, “Buy this,” or “Have you listened to this?” “No.” “Okay, just buy it.” They turned me on to all these different bands, so all of those guys taught me a lot. It was just such a great learning experience, just being around them. I remember Curtis turning me on the group “Mandrill.”
At the same time I was also learning that there was another part of my personality that I didn’t realize, and that’s the one that likes nature, and likes to live in a house instead of an apartment. I never knew that there was that part of me before, and I just had to acknowledge it. When I decided to leave New York after a year, I moved back to Atlanta, trying to figure out where I wanted to live. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin, and drummer Chris Brown had moved to Nashville and were encouraging me to come visit. Chris was on Maynard’s band before me, and has always been like a big brother to me. Eventually, I drove up to Nashville to sub for Chris on a couple of his gigs. Well, that first gig was with an accordion player, and bassist Jim Ferguson. Jim knew Ed Soph having played with him quite a bit and was encouraging me to move to Nashville. Jim was also working with Crystal Gayle at the time, and he told me that and she was looking for a new drummer. Thankfully, I auditioned for her the following week, and then I started playing in her band. Next thing I knew, I had moved to Nashville.
DO: Just like that.
JW: Just like that. And I loved Nashville. Still love it. It feels like home. I bought my first home, there which I still own. Working in Nashville has been a wild ride of playing different genres, and learning how to fit in.
DO: I know that while you were in Nashville you worked in the studio scene, and I get the sense that a lot of that work came from all the people you knew from just being on the scene for so long, but did you run into any new challenges that you didn’t anticipate when you got into the studio scene in Nashville?
JW: Well, there were a lot [of challenges]. Most of my first experiences playing in the Nashville studios were playing country music, which I had listened to growing up as a kid, but I hadn’t really studied. I really didn’t know that much about it, so all of a sudden I was in this new environment.
I mean, one of the things that I had to come to terms with while I was in Maynard’s band was that not everyone’s going to like the way you play. A big band is a tough situation for a drummer because there’s usually some folks in the band that like your playing, you hope, but there’s always going to be at least one person, if not more, that hate the way you play. [Laughs] It’s been that way throughout history. Every drummer that I’ve ever talked to, that’s just the way it is. You have to believe in what you are doing. It was difficult for me to come to terms with at first because I always thought that I could make everyone happy with my playing. You just aren’t going to be able to make everyone happy. All we can really do as musicians is be ourselves. I had to learn that I couldn’t really play like Ray Brinker, or anybody else but me––even though I love his playing.
So when I was in Nashville I had to come to terms with the fact that there were a lot of things I had to learn. It wasn’t really until I got to Nashville that I became a much better student and realized that I could learn from anybody, whether they had a formal music education or not.
I remember recording my first record with Gayle, which was nice because she actually used her band on the record, which a lot of people in Nashville didn’t do. She always wanted me to be more patient, but she wouldn’t say it that way. Crystal would tell me to wait until the first chorus to come in, or to layout on the first verse. Sometimes she would say, “Could you play half as much,” and she was usually right. So, that’s been kind of influential to me. There are all these people you can learn helpful things from as long as your ego is able to take it. You may not understand what the lesson is right at that second, but you’ll eventually figure it out.
At the time I thought, “Oh, maybe Crystal doesn’t understand what I’m doing, and maybe her idea isn’t the best idea,” but now as I get older, I realize, “Wow, that would have been a really bad decision if I had come in during the first verse.” So I had a lot to learn, and I just tried to watch people and listen. I still do.
At the time a lot of guys were using electronics, which I knew nothing about; triggering samples and loops. Drummers like John Hammond, and Steve Brewster had incredible amounts of gear, thousands of dollars of equipment––
DO: Wasn’t your bag?
JW: Well, I tried to make it my bag, because I wanted to be able to work. I had to learn that stuff, and that had to be an option. People expected it. So I would just ask people how they used that technology musically. I had gone out and bought a bunch of gear on my credit card and one of my good friends,Nashville studio veteran Tommy Wells, taught me that if a piece of gear didn’t pay for itself in one year, it didn’t make sense to buy it. Tommy told me to either offer an alternative, or tell them to call someone else. Tommy taught me little “business” things like that.
Everyone I met in Nashville was incredibly nice. I would meet somebody and they would practically invite you over for dinner.If you’re a good player and a good person you will get some opportunities.
DO: So was it during this time period that you met Steve, Dana, and Erik?
JW: Yeah. Dana and Erik were teaching down at Middle Tennesse State University and Dana started this community big band to bring in artists from out of town. It was called the Middle Tennessee Jazz Orchestra. He would bring in people like Kenny Werner to do concerts with the big band, and he started having me come in to play with that big band. That was really how I got involved with jazz in Nashville. I ended up meeting a lot of people from New York that I hadn’t met [when I lived there]. They would come to Nashville and I would play with them at a club, or they would come to record a project and I’d get to play on it.
I got to know Steve because I use to play with this great fiddle player named Buddy Spicher and he taught at these Mark O’Connor fiddle camps. I played with Buddy at this place called Wolfy’s every Tuesday night and it was a Western Swing gig. Merle Haggared, Johnny Gimble, Bill Monroe, and others would come down to hear us and sit in with the band. I had to learn my Bob Willis tunes. It was an incredible experience for me, but that’s how a lot of people first got the opportunity to hear me in Nashville. Buddy gave me this regular gig, because we were both playing in Crystal Gayle’s band at the time. That’s how we initially met. Spicher did so much for me when I moved to town. Buddy put me on many sessions with the old Nashville “A team” musicians such as Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Bob Moore, Pete Wade, Buddy Emmons, and others. They taught me about a Ray Price shuffle. Again, it was a great learning experience for me.
I first got to know Steve through his friend Billy Contreras who Buddy used to teach. Steve would come down to play with us at Wolfy’s, and we would play together at Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camps. He kept in touch with me, and we ended playing all kinds of music together. We’ve become great friends. I talked him into coming out to UNCO to get his masters and that worked out well.
Dana invited me to play and adjudicate at the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival when he got the position out here in Colorado. Dana also let me know when they had a position come open in the Jazz Studies area. At first, I wasn’t really interested in it, but I had friends who were also music educators tell me, “This is really what you should be doing.” Several of them had seen me teach at various festivals and they thought I would do a good job, so they were very encouraging. Next thing I know, I traveled out to Greeley, interviewed, and I got the position. I’m very glad that I did because it’s been a really great thing for me. I love teaching.
DO: Going back to Nashville for just a second, I know you got your masters at MTSU, but if you’re working in the studios and you’re working successfully as a musician why did you decide to return to school?
JW: Well, Dana actually laid the groundwork for that because he started the jazz studies masters degree at MTSU. After Dana had left, Jamey Simmons started teaching down there, who is an excellent composer, arranger, and trumpet player. Originally I had gotten to know a great writer and arranger named Jeff Steinberg who’s written for everyone. I had played drums on some projects for Jeff, and when I found out he was teaching a composition class at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, I asked him if I could take the class. Initially, I thought it might be way over my head, but he said I should definitely do it. I was in the class with some really great composers and every week we had to write a new tune, record it, and talk about it. A lot of the tunes that I play now, such as “Deacon Lunch Box,” and “Billies Boogaloo,” where actually composed during the class with Jeff. That experience really inspired me to go back school and study with Jamey. At the time I was also teaching drum set at MTSU, so it was a good experience for me.
Around that same time, I finally left Crystal’s band after about 7 years, because I realized that I wanted to do other things. I probably should of left before that, but when you get comfortable on a gig like that, sometimes it’s a little scary to give that up.
DO: Especially if its helping pay your bills. It’s a good safety net to have.
JW: Yeah she was working less which was good because I was getting enough work in town that between session work and playing live, I was able to do it. It’s not like I was some big country drummer either. I played with country artists, but it was when they did different kinds of projects. For example, I played on a Lorrie Morgan orchestra recording, which I was called to do because I could play with wire brushes. There weren’t a lot of current country session drummers that [played brushes] too much. In a way, being in Nashville and being able to play jazz music actually ended being an asset to me, because when I moved there, there weren’t a lot of people who wanted to do that. Compare that to New York where you could find many people that were only into playing jazz.
A lot of the great jazz musicians who were also doing sessions in Nashville would recommend me because they just wanted me on certain recordings where they thought I would sound good. However, there were definitely guys who sounded much better than me playing all of the country stuff.
Be sure to visit Jim online at http://www.jimwhitemusic.com/.