(Back in 2007, I had the honor of interviewing Joe Chambers for the Stop Smiling Jazz Issue. In retrospect, I knew very little about the man’s wide breadth of work but I was always fascinated by his very out compositions, which appeared on a lot of Bobby Hutcherson sessions. Hutcherson I was familiar with through Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. Via Chambers, I would soon go into deeper exploration of Andrew Hill, Joe Henderson, and the like. It would be years before I even realized that Chambers’ exploratory duo date with Larry Young yielded that famous Nas sample. On the occasion of his first release as a leader for Blue Note, Samba de Maracatu, I’m re-posting our chat here).
The drummers who manned the throne during Blue Note sessions out at Van Gelder’s studio read instead like a roll call of the form’s finest: Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Anthony Williams. In that pantheon sits Joe Chambers, who thundered behind Blue Note’s post-bop new bucks: pianist Andrew Hill, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxmen Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, vibist Bobby Hutcherson. Brought up in a musical household (though of no relation to Mr. PC, Paul Chambers), as Chambers came of age in Philly, where he saw swing’s giant jazz armies pare down to the lean post-World War II into bebop quartets, as rhythm and blues was crescent.
After learning composition and orchestration in high school, he hit the road with R&B belter Bobby Charles in 1961, ultimately winding up in Washington, D.C. With a long-standing gig at Bohemian Taverns, Chambers met the likes of touring jazzmen Miles Davis, Jackie McLean, and Eric Dolphy, the latter inviting him to New York. Hitting the Big Apple, Chambers gigged with Dolphy, playing numbers like “Iron Man” and “Miss Ann,” as well as what would become the epochal Out to Lunch album.
Chambers was composing his own material as well, a rarity for a drummer in that day and age. His first composition, “Mirrors,” appeared on Freddie Hubbard’s Breaking Point, and he later played on Archie Shepp’s New Thing at Newport and Chick Corea’s debut album, not to mention working alongside modern beat progenitor Max Roach’s percussion ensemble M’Boom through the 70s.
Bobby Hutcherson’s mid-60s run on Blue Note provided the broadest canvas; Chambers’s pieces on Dialogues, Oblique, and Components are startling in their modernity: pointillist, anomalous, poignant. Of course, Mr. Chambers, who now teaches at the New School, would disagree. Meeting him in the West Village, Chambers is built like a drummer: broad shoulders eternally slouched, immense paws that thrum the table for emphasis, eyes narrowing on certain points as he discusses that inscrutable time.
You grew up in a musical household?
Joe Chambers: Yep. Four brothers and sisters, we all played instruments. We had a family band, all of that. My father and my mother were writers.
What kind of music were your parents into?
JC: Those days it was jazz, only jazz. I had records my mother brought in, when I was a little kid, six years old. Lester Young “Up and at Them.” Buddy Rich was recording on it, he played a loooong drum solo. It was later on that I got to know Max Roach. What he was doing sounded like something from Mars! They were also bringing in the contemporary rhythm & blues: Louie Jordan, Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris. It was in the forties when the divisions started to happen between bebop and rhythm and blues.
Was it because bebop was too complex to dance to?
JC: I talk about this in the class a lot. It’s a part of jazz history that they don’t get at the schools. In the 40s, there was a 30% surtax levied on the places with dance policies, with the big bands, like the Savoy. Proprietors couldn’t maintain it.
Sort of like now in New York, you have to have a license for dancing.
JC: It’s been that way since way back. So it turned…even the big names couldn’t survive. So at the same time that bebop came in, the race record industry re-emerged as rhythm & blues because of that surtax. Prior to 40s, jazz was a total entertainment package. It was like a variety show. Big band, you had a singer, a comedian, a variety show, a total entertainment package. (Even when) jazz was going further out of the mainstream, it still had a strong support system, the neighborhood clubs and bars, in cities all over. That died out in the mid-60s with the riots. I remember going out to clubs when they had lines around the block, black people in black neighborhoods in black clubs. The end of the neighborhood clubs and bars saw the demise of the black audience by the late sixties, going into the seventies. Those places were gone.
Why was that?
JC: Because the infrastructure was destroyed by the riots. The riots happened in all the big cities, in ’66-’67. That destroyed infrastructure, it kept the people away. What went on politically, socially, that affects the society and the music. You can’t have one without the other.
When you came to NY, where were you living?
JC: It was ’63 or so, I lived in Brooklyn with my brother for a minute. Then I bust out, knocking around for awhile, paying some dues, as they say. That was a very tumultuous era. I played with Eric, my first professional jobs in New York. It was pretty open at that time. I used to do three or four recordings a month for Blue Note.
Is that how you met up with Bobby Hutcherson, through Eric?
JC: Bobby came to DC with Jackie McLean, that was like ‘62. When I met Eric, he pulled us all together. We did a concert: Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis.
The Out to Lunch material?
JC: That music.
Oh, man. When you started playing with Bobby, at what point did you start showing him your compositions?
JC: Hard to say. I look back on that now…you know…you do things when you’re young that you don’t or wouldn’t do when you look back (heh heh). It’s a growth process, what I was trying to do. It was typical of someone who was young. It was amazing they let me do it. It had very little commercial value.
What other stuff was influencing you at the time?
JC: Do you remember this movie called Last Year at Marienbad? That movie…(sighs), I can’t even begin to talk about that movie. That was some kind of a movie. I went to see it in DC. Man, it was so…it was so abstract. Maybe if I saw it now, it would look different.
Influences, you understand, I had composition, I studied composition. Stuff that had driving percussion. I liked Wagner and Bartok. I was listening to all kinds of music. Max too, that’s my model. Max was my mentor. He was different than all those drummers of that era. He always did projects like orchestra and chorus.
Your compositions stand out, even on something like Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue, where you have Andrew Hill’s tunes on that. Yet yours are a little further out…
JC: Andrew is a prime example of that. Andrew recorded a long time for Blue Note, but his music was never that accessible and never something that could be clearly identified with people. That’s just the way it is. To me, it’s further illustrated when I look at my playing back then. They reissued Andrew!!! (with Sun Ra saxophoinst John Gilmore) and I listened to that and went “I know why they held back.”
JC: Frank Wolff and Alfred Lion, they didn’t care what you did, as long as you put in something swinging and blues-oriented. They were basically blues recording people, they didn’t mind you as long as “It’s got to be swinging!” When I listen to the Andrew!!!, it ain’t swinging worth a fuck. I’m talking about me now, I’m doing a lot of shit, it’s just completely pretentious. I can hear it: throwing a bar of 5/4, just to be tricky. I was trying to be advanced or something. I see it with these kids –as the teacher now– I can see it. These kids come up with pieces for the ensemble, all these triple poly-chords.
You remember Components (a Bobby Hutcherson session featuring four Chambers’ compositions)? That was recorded on some very trying circumstances, which I’m not going to go into. It was just some more immaturity on my part. After that recording, I remember Herbie (Hancock) said to himself, “Shit, I’m gonna record a rhythm & blues record next.”
Were you ever into free jazz?
JC: Na na na, never. Never into that. It never appealed to me. Stanley Crouch –I don’t agree with much he says– but he said the real avant garde was what we were doing on those Blue Note dates. We were very grounded, we could play anything. You can hear the blues, the changes, the time. Them cats couldn’t do that, they could only do what they were doing. We were thorough, but we were also stretching out. We were the real avant garde. That Blue Note movement was cut off at the pass.