When I was six years old, my grandfather took me to see Buddy Rich.
I had just had my first drum lesson less than a week earlier, on a little wooden practice pad. The sticks were practically the length of my tiny arms. My first lesson book, which I still have, was Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments. My grandfather, who died a mere eight months later, was a great fan of the big band era, and thought it appropriate that I should hear Buddy play, to have something to aspire towards. I was six, and just thought it was neat that the guy on the cover of my book was a real person and that we could go see him.
It was an outdoor gig, at a local community college, one of what must have been an endless blur of one-nighters over the course of Buddy’s long career. I remember the grass and the color of the sky. I remember the trumpets being very loud. And of course, I remember the drum solos. I didn’t understand what he was playing, obviously. How could I have? I just knew that he kept playing when everyone stopped, and that everyone clapped, and that it was the guy from the cover of my book. That was more than enough for six year old me.
My grandfather somehow got us “backstage” after the show. (It was outdoors, in the early eighties, which probably just meant slipping a fiver to the guy guarding the rope!) When he found Buddy, slumped in a chair, toweling off, I can understand now that he was a lot more nervous than I was. “Mr. Rich”, he said, “the kid here just started playing drums, using your book, less than a week ago. Any advice?” I remember this next bit with a clarity that I remember few other things in my life. Buddy looked me in the eye and said, “You practice hard every day, and one day you’ll be as good as me.”
(This footage, from Jerry Lewis’ telethon, less than a month after our meeting, is what I remember Buddy & the band sounding like …)
I don’t think I ever got to be as good as him (though I did take a pretty fab solo on the John LaBarbara arrangement of Dancing Men about a decade later) but I carried that moment with me all through my growing up, through my first bands in my late teens and turning pro in my early twenties. As time moved on, big drumkit guys like Terry Bozzio, Simon Philips and Neil Peart became carved on my Rushmore (at least until Levon Helm came and distilled everything for me in the late 90’s) and I admit I hadn’t thought of Buddy, or the story of meeting him, much at all in recent years.
Until last night.
After seven years away from the kit, I just returned to active musical service this past Saturday. My life is different on nearly every level (think Doctor Who & regeneration, for reference) than it was the last time I held a pair of sticks. Geographically. Spiritually. Health. Family. Identity. You name it. Without exaggeration, I can barely lay claim to those years of whipping off rudiments, swinging a big band, or woodshedding incessantly to Rush albums. That was someone else. Someone I don’t entirely remember fondly, if I’m being honest. Yet there I was, six days ago, sitting behind the stripped down Gretsch kit that’s been sitting in my closet for seven years, with absolutely no idea what sound was going to come out of me.
It was an interesting feeling, to be totally present, yet simultaneously feel like I was standing a few steps back, observing myself. My chops had diminished a fair bit, which you would expect, though I was surprised how much my body had managed to remember. I dropped three or four sticks, which I never used to do. My dynamics were a mess. There were things I tried to execute that didn’t quite come off as planned. It was a such a beautiful, new feeling, of not exactly being a beginner again, but at the very least having a long mountain to climb to return to proficiency. My entire center of gravity on the instrument was different. I didn’t have to be trapped in amber, doomed to play as I always had. It was GLORIOUS.
Getting back to last night, I found myself (as I often do) in Princeton, at Richardson Auditorium to see / hear a concert by a group called Sō Percussion. I’d heard of them, and had heard bits of their music here and there, but at a distance. I was particularly excited to experience a performance at Richardson, which I had heard great things about, and when I walked into that gorgeous room for the first time lit perfectly with so many delicious looking percussion instruments littering the stage, I admit, my expectations were pretty high.
Their first piece, Babybot, hooked me from the first notes. Sure, the found object percussion thing was cool, and you could tell, even playing on cans and wood blocks, that their technique was going to be formidable, but what I really noticed was how they listened to each other. That only intensified in the next two pieces, which featured the JACK Quartet on strings. Sequential, with its electronically treated strings and bowed metallic percussion (which got closer to Sigur Ros territory than I’d been expecting) took long tones and listening to a new level, and Oblique Music for 4 plus (blank), by one of the Sō members, took the idea of micro pairings within a macro ensemble to places that reminded me of a contemporary classical take on King Crimson at their most out.
All of this was a preamble, however, to the set length piece they played after the intermission. neither Anvil nor Pulley, by Princeton composer Dan Trueman, was quite frankly like nothing I’d seen or heard before. Again, the nuts and bolts of it were fab. The motif moving from crackling turntable to steel drums. The appearance part way through of JACK. The laptops and invisible click tracks and strange, hybrid joystick-with-strings-attached contraptions that almost had a theremin vibe. It was all visually interesting and sonically stunning, and if this was a newspaper review I’d stop right there.
But something happened, maybe halfway through, that I’m still processing. The music got very intense, very loud, and stayed there. This was not tension and release. This was a sustained, almost orgasmic high (at the risk of sounding crass) that kept going and going and going. It was pleasurable and overwhelming all at the same time, and as it kept going, seemingly forever, it felt like it ate the whole room, like a sonic black hole that you didn’t want to escape from.
Somewhere amidst all of this, Buddy Rich popped into my head. I don’t know how my head even had the capacity for thought at that point, but it hit me like a ton of rocks that this was the Buddy Rich moment for Version 2.0 of my percussive life. This was the aspirational event, where I could take everything I was, merge it with everything I’d become, and set the creative intention for who I’d like to become. It was a white hot moment. I internalized it, made sure I was present for the rest of the piece, and have been dealing with the gnosis ever since.
I didn’t have these words when I was six. I am so glad I have them now. This is what I get for becoming a poet, and a student of shamanism, in the years since I last held sticks. I view things through different lenses now, and it’s changed how I listen, how I feel. How could it not change my playing???
If I hadn’t been trying to make dinner in Palmer Square before they closed at ten, I would’ve stuck around after the concert to thank the members of Sō, to complete the mirroring of the Buddy Rich moment. Maybe they would’ve told me that if I practice hard every day, one day I’ll be as good as them.
Maybe next time …