Before & After: Ed Thigpen


This B&A was done for JazzTimes just after the drummer’s performance at the 2005 Toronto Jazz Festival (pictured above). If anyone wants a deeper insight into how Thigpen thought about himself and his music, I’d recommend Don McGlynn’s aptly named documentary film, Ed Thigpen: Master of Time, Rhythm & Taste.


I’ve been waiting many years to meet and hear drummer Ed Thigpen in person. This master of the brushes has been living in Copenhagen since 1972, and because he rarely tours the U.S., I’ve had to get my Thigpen fix by listening to his 1966 Verve session “Before The Storm” and various recordings with Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, Ben Webster, Lennie Tristano, Ella Fitzgerald and others. Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Edmund Thigpen was inspired by his father Ben Thigpen, who played drums with Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy. He gained early experience with Cootie Williams, Bud Powell, and Johnny Hodges, and appeared on the groundbreaking NBC television series “The Subject Is Jazz” with a band led by Billy Taylor.

Since relocating to Denmark, Thigpen has taught, written several instructional books, and recorded his various groups on the Danish Stunt label. His latest “Ed Thigpen Scantet #1” features five original compositions by Thigpen, including a lovely tune written for his daughter Denise. We finally caught up in Toronto where he was appearing with the Scantet. An airline snafu meant he and the group had to come right from the airport and hit the stage. People expecting a set of subtle brushwork must have been surprised to hear the band roar. It was worth the wait.

1. Jo Jones

“I Got Rhythm Pt. II” (from Jo Jones The Everest Years, Empire). Jo Jones, drums; Ray Bryant, piano; Tom Bryant, bass. Recorded in 1958/re-issued 2005.

Before: [immediately] Jonathan. Everything about him is wonderful. Nobody has as clean a sound. Is that with Ray Bryant? That’s a classic recording. You hear the clarity, the touch. It’s just so perfect. I don’t know if he’s the first to play brushes like this but as far as I’m concerned he’s the best. The way he played music. He knew music. And the effect he had on the musicians he played with. All this was very inspiring to me. What he brought out in the music. [listens closely to the breaks] He’s a dancer. He’s so happy. It’s classic. It’s an example of taking a small unit and making it sound like a full band.

After: Jo was my mentor. I didn’t take formal lessons from him. The way you learned from Jo Jones was by listening to him. And I learned from him about life and how to take care of yourself as a man. We didn’t talk that much about drums per se, we talked about music and life. But after I’d talk with him I’d play better that night, because you play life. We talk about all types of things; the children, the grandchildren, and his experiences with the people he knew. Never negative. He was very concerned about humanity. The things that made him unhappy were the people who were not respectful to one another. He had virtue, let’s put it that way. People like Jo Jones and Milt Hinton were our leaders and our mentors.

2.  Charles Lloyd

“Canon Perdido” (from Jumping The Creek, ECM). Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Robert Hurst, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2004.

Before: Who is that? I know that sound. It’s slick. I love it. It reminds me of Nasty [Lewis Nash]. It may not be him but it’s very hip. Gorgeous. I don’t know why David Murray keeps coming into my head but I don’t think it’s him. [sings along with the tenor lines] The guys who used to do stuff like this, Eddie Harris and those other guys in that cutting edge vein. Very rhythmic. Ooh. Wait a minute. That’s not Branford is it? Not Archie Shepp. I don’t know who it is. Great brush work, clean as a whistle. It’s got a little hip-hop in it too [sings the beat]. That little 16th note pattern is more on the top, not a lot of bass drum, although the bass drum is tuned high. It doesn’t sound like an older drummer.

After: Oh Eric Harland. This is of today. It’s slick. It’s so invigorating and inspiring to hear that. They’ve done their research. It’s hip. I approve of it. The music depicts experience, masterful musicianship, imagination, freshness. When I hear performances like this, I hear that the people are not one-dimensional. Their spectrum is wide. But there’s also a lot of discipline in it. And it’s happy, that piece is joyful.

3. Roy Haynes

“Trinkle Tinkle” (from Fountain of Youth, Dreyfus Jazz). Roy Haynes, drums; Martin Bejerano, piano; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; John Sullivan, bass. Recorded in 2002.

Before: Roy? Yeah, it’s Haynes. I heard him do this with his group. Masterful–the original slick. I opened for him the other night in Winnipeg. He’s really something, and this is a wonderful group, totally unique. Nobody plays like him. He represents individuality. Right there, the unexpected. He knows the music and he’s got a fertile mind that you can only draw from it. You know, like where did that come from? [laughter] He’s one of the first totally linear players. You know, all four limbs take an active part in the whole constructive thing of playing time so time is not in one spot all the time. That frees up the limbs. The other night I watched him, he was dancing on the pedals. There are certain guys that have a certain touch. Steve Gadd is another one who has a perfect touch on the bass drum. But Roy, he leaves you so much to draw from, any part of it. And when I said things that were complimentary, he said it all comes from upstairs. He’s cool. I heard them do this in Chicago and I was grinning from ear to ear. [listen closely to the drum solo] You can’t play like that if you don’t know the music. That’s fun.

4. Jack DeJohnette & Foday Musa Sosa

“Ocean Wave” (from music from the hearts of the masters, Golden Beams). Jack DeJohnette, drums; Foday Musa Sosa, kora. Recorded in 2002.

Before: It’s not flamenco, but it reminds me of the dance. It’s more a stomp. It could be Don Moye but I don’t think it’s him. I have no clue.

After: Jack! Is this the new one? Jack is my favorite musician. I think Jack is very complete as a musician. And personally, he’s a wonderful human being. Yeah, I can see where this is Jack. He ventures out to new things all the time. The other instrument I’m not familiar with. Jack dares to do it. I can dig that. [listens closely] That’s something else now. That’s hip. That’s him. There’s a limited range harmonically but he brings it alive. The drum solo is compositional. I’ll get this record and draw from it. He’s such a great guy. In our hemisphere he’s been a great leader. He has the ability to look inside. He’s been one of my biggest supporters. Things that I was trying to learn how to do, that he was doing or Tony was doing, he’d say “Keep on Edmund. I know what you’re trying to do. That thing you were doing, that’s it.” I love the man. Jack dances different in his accompaniment than in his improvisation.

5. SF Jazz Collective

“When Will The Blues Leave” (from SF Jazz Collective, Nonesuch). Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Rene Rosnes, piano; Robert Hurst, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2004.

Before: [chuckles at the drum breaks] I like that bass player. Reminds me of Buster Williams. Pow! Ha ha ha. That’s not Wynton is it? I can hear where they’re coming from. It’s fresh. This drummer reminds me of Tain a little bit. Who is that on the drums? You can hear Roy’s influence. All right, you can hear him bashing out. It’s very contemporary [laughter]. It’s not Terrence. Is that my man Nicholas? Yeah. They’re on top of it. It’s fresh. Here we go. Is that Brian? Virtuoso. I haven’t heard him like this. I got to get more stuff with Brain Blade. Now I know why he works so much.

After: Which track is this? I have to get this. It’s wonderful. Brian Blade played his behind off on this, didn’t he? Who’s the bassist? Oh, Robert Hurst is a bad dude. I told you I liked that bass player. This is a bad group. Oh yeah, we’re in good shape. They’re taking it another step. I’d like to hear how Brian plays some of my tunes, to see what he would do with them.

Maybe he’ll read this.

Maybe. I hope so. This cat is so bad, man, they got some stuff, I just enjoy it. I think it’s beautiful. Some things I do I want to have another drummer, so I’ll call Brian Blade and have him do it, or Nasty or somebody. But this kid–I see why they love him. The level of musicianship that’s out there, woo! They didn’t play it like Ornette Coleman, and Brian didn’t play it like Billy Higgins but they played the music. And that makes Ornette Coleman’s music live in another way.

6. James Finn

“Toreo de Capa” (from Plaza de Toros, Clean Feed). James Finn, tenor sax; Dominic Duval, bass; Warren Smith, drums. Released 2005.

Before: I don’t know who the drummer is but Victor Lewis could do this. For me it’s adventurous. It’s another approach to applying the military rudiments. I remember Newk and different guys playing the horn with the symphonic possibilities of the instruments. The sound, these splashes are individual but it’s improvisational interplay.

After: Warren? Is that Warren Smith? Wooo! He’s an excellent musician; tympani, the whole shtick. See, you don’t hear Warren because he doesn’t record on drums that much. I heard him with Gil Evans band in Europe. He’s a fantastic musician. But this kind of music, I don’t think this avant thing was accepted as much in America as much as in Europe. We did something similar, I don’t have the chops, but I did something similar with Eric Watson and John Lindberg and Albert Manglesdorff. We were on tour and a kid came up and said “Gee Mr. Thigpen, I didn’t know you played modern.” So people don’t know what you do. But you have to do it to do it. I find this very interesting. It’s not like you sit down and pop your fingers to like the previous disc with Nicholas and them. It’s very European in the sense that that’s how they lean, towards the esoteric. Introverted, very personal kind of interplay. A guy asked me, “do you play free?” And I said no, it’ll cost you. [chuckles] But Warren’s a master musician. He can play anything. He’s like Idris Muhammad. He can fill any role-lay it on you.

7.   Bill Robinson

“Doin’ The New Low-Down” (from Stars of the Apollo, Columbia). Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, vocals, tap dance; Don Redman and Orchestra. Recorded in 1932.

[chuckles] Bill Robinson? Ha ha ha. [Starts playing along with Robinson’s tapping, hands slapping hands on thighs] That’s so much fun. Tap. It’s like going back to the beginning of what all this drumming is about. That’s a good closer for this session. It takes you back to things you almost forgot about. No buts about it. It reminds you this is the source. This is just as contemporary as ever. As long as you play it, it’s always good. If you do it right it‘s good, it‘s valid. Some people say why don’t you play something new. Well, Jo Jones told me, “Edmund, there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s just re-arranged.” There’s a lot to draw from in that tap. All the rudiments, layers and layers, joy and entertainment. When I’m hearing these things I want all of them.


Photo by Larry Appelbaum

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