[Dixielandjazz] The GREATEST Music Lesson

BillSargentDrums at aol.com BillSargentDrums at aol.com
Wed Feb 25 15:19:25 PST 2004

The recent threat brought to us by Steve Barbone has brought to mind the 
greatest music lesson ever.

I have been blessed to have been taught by some of the greatest people of all 
time in music, not just through performance association, but private 
instruction. (See BillSargent.com)

Through all of it, ONE simple lesson stands out far and above as the greatest 
lesson ever taught and by far the most useful in all facets of my career.

When I was still in my teens, during my Clyde McCoy period, I had some actual 
large swing band experience, but it was very limited. Sure, I had played with 
large orchestras and played with school big bands, but most of my pro 
experience at that point in life consisted of smaller ensembles (Clyde was a 6 piece 
dixie band at that point). I had, however, begun spent much time with Buddy 
Rich's big band, both through his local appearances and daily practice with his 

While on Clyde's band, there was this wonderful clarinetist, who was to be 
one of the most influential people in my whole career . . . Edwin C. Reed from 
Vista, CA (The Riverboat Five on the Mercury label)

Ed had a passion for Benny Goodman and he got me listening to the big bands 
and I devoured all I could . . . Goodman, Dorsey, James, Basie, Ellington, etc. 
We talked for hours and hours, not only marveling over their musical 
precision, but the attitudes, the spunkiness, the vibrancy. What Krupa REALLY brought 
to the band and what it did to a generation of teenagers.

However, I still did not consider myself, in any way a real big band drummer. 
Then the day came I had an opportunity to play on Ray McKinley's Big Band . . 
. a band and drummer I was already quite familiar with through a special 
album of McKinley heading the Miller Band.

If you're reading this and not a drummer, you must understand that drum music 
written, at least up to that time, had very little actual playing cues 
written and was merely a guideline, or roadmap of where the tune was going rather 
than what you actually played.

Ray was a drummer who I really admired - one of my very favorites. So I 
figured he was the very best person to ask that big haunting question.

I ask Ray: "How do you know which horn figures to kick, or accent, and how . 
. . with what? After all, it's not written. So what are the guidelines, the 
rules . . . the secret?"

Ray gave me an answer that was far too profound for a 17 or 18 year old . . . 
. it went mostly, over my head . . . a tiny bit filtered in one ear and out 
the other . . . surely there's more to it . . . can't be that simple . . . he's 
got to be keeping it a trade secret.

I had expected a detailed explanation of the thought process, combined with 
hardware matching, and some sort of scientific formula that would help to make 
me the next great drum whiz.

Instead, he disappointed my with a far too simplistic one word answer.

After examining this I now find that he exhibited wisdom beyond his wise 
years. Surely he knew that any complicated explanation would never be remembered 
by a young hot-shot.

So he gave me one word that never left . . . never forgotten  . . . and has 
been more useful to me in all musical situations than all the rest combined. So 
profound, it has transcended musical boundaries and crossed over into all of 

When you read this word, a huge portion of you will say that's too simple. 
Some will say, I already knew that . . . . but did you . . . really? Has it been 
your focus? Have you taken it to it's deepest level and made it your theme as 
I have mine?

Ray looked at my, put his hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, "Listen"

Ray . . . Ray!  What are you telling me . . . LISTEN, JUST LISTEN? Is that 
all? Surely there is more!!!!!!!!!!

Although I'm sure it was some time before I actually started treating that 
with all the reverence it deserved, with each passing year, that one word lesson 
became the most important focus of my life.

And it has served to carry me onto stages with the finest players in the 
world and into far more styles and genres of music that I would have ever dreamt 

In none of these genres is the lesson LISTEN more important than the one 
discussed on this board.

The big reward came to me in the past couple of years.

Through a mutual friend, I was asked to come to the southeast coast of 
Florida for some informal recording in my friend's mansion's music room. His friend 
was none other than the great Tommy Justice.

Tommy and I hit it off right away. We each showed each other great respect 
and appreciation for the other's talents, musical taste, musicianship and 
attitude. I was very honored to be in the presence of this fine gentleman.

Tommy had paid me many fine compliments during our time. As our couple of 
days together was coming to an end, Tommy turned to me and said what turned out 
to be one of the finest compliments ever paid to me. For my, it was the BIG 
payoff. All those years of work, all those gigs, all that money . . . this was 
the BIG one that was worth more to me than all the rest.

Tommy said, "In all my life, I've only played with one other drummer who 
listens like you".

Tommy never did tell me the name of the other drummer (although I have my 
suspicions), but it didn't matter, for I knew how many miles this man had 
traveled in his very long life . . . how many stages, how many he'd worked with . . . 
and to me, this was the best compliment.

Made it all worthwhile.

So, when you're at a loss about what to play, or how to play it, or how to 
respond to whatever . . . just remember Ray McKinley telling that young teenage 
drummer in the early '70s . . . LISTEN.


The more time you spend pondering this simple profundity, the more your music 
. .  and life . . . will improve.

God Bless you all this fine day!

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