In part-four of our interview Jim took the time to talk to me about teaching, Jeff Hamilton, and undergoing cancer treatment. If you haven’t already be sure to check out part-one, part-two, and part-three.
You can visit Jim online at http://www.jimwhitemusic.com/.
DO: So when you got the teaching gig at The University of Northern Colorado, you’re still a working musician, especially in the beginning. How did you manage to balance the demands of being a working, professional, musician and also being a teacher? Because I can only imagine that you’d have one foot in academia while still having one foot in the music scene.
JW: You know, when I look back on it, I’m not really sure how I pulled it off. It’s a little different now, but back then, Dana had just started the jazz studies degree, and there weren’t a lot of graduate students. We didn’t have any doctoral students, and I wasn’t serving on many doctoral committees. The job has become much more labor intensive than what it was when I first came here, but I was going back to Nashville a lot to either record or play a couple of times a month. At that time, record budgets were still decent, and I could still get producers to pay for my flights to come in from Colorado. I still had my house to stay in, and I had a car that I left there, so I would just fly in, take a cab home, and it was like I never left. I still had a whole bunch of my gear there so it was really easy to do. I was still playing a lot with guitarist Jack Pearson and his band with Reese Wynans, so I would go back to play those dates. I was also playing with JD Souther and we were also recording his new album. There were a lot of things that I was involved with that I wanted to continue, so I would just travel back and forth.
I used to fly Frontier [Airlines] all the time and there was a flight to Nashville that left late on Thursday night, and I could fly back to Denver by 7:30 AM on Monday morning. I could make it back to Greeley before my big band rehearsal, so I used to take that flight a lot. However, over the years budgets have changed significantly, and a there have been a ton of musicians that have moved to Nashville. There are many incredible drummers there now, most of whom are way over qualified for most of the work that’s there. In a way, that’s been great because there’s such a high level of musicianship there, but it has also made things more competitive. Musicians are working, in a sense, for less money then they were 20 years ago which is a little disheartening. It’s kind of sad, but that’s the state of the business right now.
Everyone is figuring it out, however. I think for a lot of young musicians today, you have to figure it out just like we figured it out. If you really want to do this, you’re going to find a way to do it.
DO: When did Jeff Hamilton come into the picture? When did that relationship start?
JW: Well, Jeff I met when right after I left Maynard’s band. Ray Brown actually introduced me to Jeff at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. When I was in college, North Texas would always have these great musicians visit as a part of their Jazz Lecture series class. I remember Ray Brown came to town and one of my buddies was driving him around. I said, “I want to hang out with Ray Brown,” so I got to tag along and spend some time with him. I kind of got to know him, and I always loved that trio with Jeff. I was always a big fan.
There was this group called The Unified Jazz Ensemble, led by vibraphonist Mike Noonan, that I played in while I was at North Texas. We played together a lot. Around the same time I was on the road with Maynard’s band, the UJE got a grant from The National Endowment for the Arts to bring jazz to a rural community. The group would live there for a year, and basically teach the community about jazz, through lectures, demonstrations, and performances. They UJE ended up living in Decorah, Iowa. Of course, I couldn’t go because I was going on the road with Maynard. At some point when I was off, the UJE needed a sub for about a month because their drummer had quit. I ended up filling in, and had a great time. The community in Decorah was really into the band. They would come out to every performance, and they loved the music. At any rate, we ended up going to the Dakota to see the Ray Brown Trio. It was that night that Ray introduced me to Jeff. Then I didn’t see [Jeff] for many years until he was in Nashville one year for the summer NAMM show. I went up to him and said, “Hi, I know you don’t remember me but–” “Jim White, right?” I mean, Jeff’s mind is like an elephant. He remembers everything! I finally went out and studied with him in California. He is one of my mentors, and also a really good friend.
DO: I wanted to ask you a few questions about your experience with cancer.
DO: Has cancer changed your relationship to the music? Because my Mom had breast cancer and I know it changed her outlook on a lot of things. So I’m just wondering, given all that you’ve been through in the last year did cancer change your relationship to music or the instrument?”
JW: Well, yes. Absolutely. It’s crazy because you never imagine that somebody is actually going to tell you that you have cancer. I remember May 13, because that is exactly the day that I was diagnosed. I had my surgery on May 27, and was in the hospital for three weeks. However, there have been a lot of silver linings along the way. It has made me realize what’s really important, which is people. People are really the most important thing: my family, my friends. But music––
I think I’ll probably play better music now because I don’t care as much. I mean, I care, but it’s not the most important thing and I won’t obsess that I have to be the perfect musician, because that just doesn’t exist. I want to play as honestly as I can, and I want to play well. I don’t want to neglect my homework and practice, but at the same time there are other things that make good music. The thing that really makes our music special, is everything that isn’t music. It’s a movie that we see, it’s a photograph, a sunset, it’s our experiences in life. Sometimes you have to step away from music in order to have something to say. I remember talking with Alison Krauss about a particular musician who was obsessive about practicing. She would say, “Stop practicing. Go and see a movie or something. Let your environment influence your music.” I thought about that a lot and I know that she’s right. I have the upmost respect for Alison. She really knows her music. You’re not going to stump her!
I think I want to get back to who I was as a kid, as a musician, because I didn’t really care. I mean I was in my bedroom playing and I had the most joy that I can remember. I didn’t have any anxiety about having to be good, or trying to make somebody happy. I would say that a lot of my experiences since I’ve started playing again have kind of been that way. I feel a lot more joy as a listener because I fortunately get to play with a lot of great musicians. I just approach the music I am playing now as a spectator. I say to myself, “Woah. Steve’s really tearing it up.” Or “Wow. Dana [Landry] is doing his thing.” Hopefully I’ll play better music because all of this is now a part of me. I just feel very thankful to be out of the hospital, and be able to play, and make some music.
I remember the first time I really played after my radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Steve [Kovalcheck] was encouraging me to play, as well as Brad [Goode], who has been incredibly supportive. The both said, “Okay man. You tell us when you’re ready to play.” I said, “Well, I have to be in a safe environment. We’ll play in my basement.” Brad brought his bass over and we played and it gave me some confidence. I thought “Okay, I’ll be okay. I’ll be able to this.”
But again, they’re my friends. Even if I didn’t play music with them ever again, which I hope that’s not the case, they’re still my friends and that’s more important to me then being able to say that I’m doing a gig with them. Hopefully, that’s what makes our music better when people hear us play.
DO: Was there anything that surprised you through your treatment?
JW: Well, I think that it’s given me a lot of confidence, believe it or not, that I can endure more than I ever thought. I’m going to go down to Anschutz Medical Campus tonight to go see a friend of mine that’s in the hospital due to cancer, and she’s been in there for several weeks. It was hard enough to be there for three weeks–so I was telling Kelsey last night how the whole thing just seems surreal to me. If I didn’t lift up my shirt everyday and see the scar here, I’d almost think it didn’t happen. It was probably a dream. But somehow, and I think that my doctors, and the support of my family and friends helped me get through it.
I mentioned moving to New York with Henry [Hey] earlier. Well, one of the many gigs Henry does is that he is Vanessa Williams’ keyboardist. One night I’m in the hospital and I get this message from a great drummer named JT Lewis. JT is someone that I knew of, but I’ve never met before. I saw him several times with Herbie Hancock during the “Rockit” era. He was playing in Herbie’s band in the early-80’s, and I saw them live a bunch of times. He played his tail off. I remember JT playing this Simmons electronic set, but his groove was super deep. I remember I would not only see them live, but I had this video tape, some of which on YouTube, that I wore out back in high school.
So late one night I’m laying in my hospital bed and I get this message from JT. It said “My name is JT Lewis and I play drums with Vanessa Williams along with Henry Hey. I just wanted to tell you that I am recovering from cancer and finishing some chemotherapy, but I’m back out here playing, and you will be too. Here is my information incase you ever need to talk.” JT acted like I had no idea who he was. I told him I knew exactly who he is, and I told him about all the Herbie stuff. We have become good buddies since. He has been very supportive.
I have been fortunate to have many people reach out to me to offer their support, and it’s been overwhelming at times. It has been incredible to hear from people like Joe La Barbera, Adam Nussbaum, Ed Soph, Jeff Hamilton, and many of my heroes. All of these people make you feel like you’re a part of the drumming community, and there’s nothing better than that. Those are all my heroes, and they are my friends now. That’s more important to me. I’m just very thankful to have their support. But it’s all about people. That’s the most important thing. That is why it’s important to try and treat people even better then you would want to be treated. You’re never going to gain anything by treating somebody like shit. There’s nothing to be gained from that. Not that you should let someone walk all over you, because you have to stick up for yourself. I think there’s a lot to be said for the Golden Rule; Treating people like you want to be treated. It’s that one person that you treated poorly in college because you think he or she is not going to be a part of your life in the future that will become the Dean of the college that you’re trying to get hired at. Or, he or she might be working at the management company that’s considering hiring you to do a big tour. It’s going to be really unfortunate if you’ve left that person in a lurch somehow.
DO: Well, that’s all I’ve got, but is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to include, or you’d like to mention?
JW: Well, I will say that my experience at North Texas was extraordinary, not just because of Ed [Soph] and all of the great faculty, but also because of all of the amazing students that were there, especially the drummers. There were so many great drummers when I was in school, and almost all of them are still involved in music. It is amazing! It was a great environment to be in, and I really learned so much from everyone there.
Now, when they come through town it’s nice to go my friends play at Red Rocks because they’re all playing with great bands at these enormous venues. UNT was really competitive at times but it was also incredibly supportive because we all knew that everybody was developing their own thing.
DO: Yeah, their own identity.
JW: Absolutely. There were great young musicians at UNT, and there were lot of older musicians in Dallas that I got to work with. There was a great tenor player named Marchel Ivery who played in Art Blakey’s band. I was very fortunate to play in Marchel’s band. Cornell Dupree lived in Fort Worth for a while there and we use to play gigs with him. It was just a great environment to be in and I learned so much from all of the musicians that were there.
I’d like to thank Jim for taking the time to talk with me. Be sure to visit Jim online at http://www.jimwhitemusic.com/.