Posts Tagged ‘Gretsch Drums’

Gretsch Day 2016 At Street Sounds

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

A very special event took place in Brooklyn, New York on June 4: the annual Gretsch Day at Street Sounds. Located on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn (and touting itself as “the world’s largest Gretsch dealer” for guitars, amps, and related accessories), Street Sounds staged an all-day event that showcased Gretsch products and Gretsch artists alike.

A large section of the wall at Street Sounds was devoted to a display of Gretsch Custom Shop guitars—each one a unique creation.

Store owner Rocky Schiano decorated the shop for the occasion with an impressive array of Gretsch guitars. This included several stunning creations by the Gretsch Custom Shop operation, which is based in Corona, California. The director of the Custom Shop, master guitar builder Stephen Stern, was on hand to describe some of the unique models on display. Meanwhile a video program on-screen throughout the day showcased Gretsch guitar artists Billy F. Gibbons (ZZ Top), Brian Setzer, Stephen Stills, and many others.

After saying hello to the assembled audience, Rocky Schiano then introduced Fred and Dinah Gretsch, who greeted the crowd on behalf of the Gretsch Family and the Gretsch Company. Fred then spoke about the long heritage of Gretsch guitars, as exemplified by the Bachman-Gretsch Collection of vintage Gretsch guitars—which is currently on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. As Fred described, the seventy-five guitars on display provide a visually stunning window into the evolution of the instrument, from the early 1930s to the early 1980s. The full collection of over 300 guitars was amassed in the 1970s and ’80s by Canadian guitarist and songwriter Randy Bachman (of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive). It was purchased in 2008 by the Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch Family.

The first act of the day was a highly unusual instrumental trio called Big Lazy.

Entertainment for the day began with a performance by a band called Big Lazy. In keeping with the Gretsch Day’s nickname—“Twang-O-Rama”—this Brooklyn-based trio certainly looked like a rockabilly band. For one thing, guitarist Stephen Ulrich (who said he had grown up “in the shadow of the Gretsch factory”) was using a classic 1955 Duo Jet with a decidedly twangy character. But they quickly proved to be something totally different. Their all-instrumental set featured an eclectic mix of movie themes (including “Mission Impossible” in 5/4), middle-eastern melodies, and even an atmospheric rendition of The Beatles’ “Girl.”

State senator Marty Golden (right) congratulated Fred and Dinah Gretsch, then presented a plaque to Rocky Schiano saluting his efforts to promote music-making among young people.

Rocky Schiano returned to the stage to introduce New York state senator Marty Golden, and to bring Fred and Dinah Gretsch back up as well. Golden then congratulated Fred and Dinah on the Gretsch Company’s long history—especially its connection to Brooklyn. He then presented a plaque to Rocky Schiano saluting his efforts to encourage young people to play music.

Off The Roof is a Brooklyn-based punk-infused contemporary rock band.

The “local Brooklyn” theme continued with the next band on the bill, who were introduced by legendary custom-pickup designer Tom “TV” Jones. Called Off The Roof, this young trio featured Rocky Schiano’s 20-year-old daughter Kristina on drums. (Gretsch drums, naturally.) They offered an energetic set of punk-infused contemporary rock that wowed the audience.

Rocky Schiano was obviously emotional when introducing the next artist—who, he said, “Inspired me to go out and play live.” That artist was John “The Cat” Gatto, former lead guitarist for New York-area rock legends The Good Rats.

John’s blazing guitar solos were a high point of the group’s performance.

John’s blazing guitar solos were a high point of the group’s performance.

Playing with the support of a very talented Good Rats tribute band from New Jersey, “The Cat” reprised several of the songs made famous by the Rats during their heyday in the 1970s. His guitar solos were a highlight of the set. Then, in a surprise closer, the band finished with a rousing rendition of The Monkee’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

While all this great music was going on, Fred Gretsch was spending most of his time behind the Street Sounds sales counter, where he chatted with fans, posed for pictures, and signed autographs. Quite a few of those were on the backs of Gretsch guitars that were either brought just for the occasion, or purchased in the store that day.

Throughout the day Gretsch Guitars national sales manager Joe Carducci presided over the giveaway of valuable door prizes. These included Gretsch T-shirts and tote bags, as well as ukuleles and guitars. Lots of event attendees went home with smiles on their faces and goodies under their arms.

Todd performed with the able accompaniment of bassist Mike Moody.

For the next artist, Joe Carducci invited Dinah Gretsch up to handle the introduction. Dinah, in turn, enthusiastically cited that artist’s credits, which include six Grammy nominations and a Guinness World Record as “the fastest banjo player on the planet.” This was Todd “Banjo Man” Taylor, who—accompanied by the talented Mike Moody on bass—proceeded to demonstrate why he holds that title. The soft-spoken southern gentleman more than lived up to his reputation as a speed demon—although at one point he modestly told the audience “I do play slow…sometimes.”

The Michelle Marie trio took things in an entirely different musical direction—heavy on creativity and complex composition.

In a classic example of contrast, Todd Taylor was followed by New York-based progressive jazz guitarist Michelle Marie, playing with her trio. Known for her eclectic style, complex compositions, and impressive technique, Michelle came on with an uncharacteristic opener: A hard-rocking version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” on which Michelle sang lead as well as playing guitar. Then it was on to a series of deep and rhythmically intricate compositions full of time and feel shifts that showcased her drummer and bass player as well as herself.

With the help of two dedicated rockabilly players from New York City, Darrel played a set full of classic Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and Carl Perkins tunes—and a few originals, as well.

The 2016 Gretsch Day at Street Sounds closed with an appearance by rockabilly star Darrel Higham, who came all the way from the UK to perform at the day’s event. Relaxed and personable when speaking at the microphone, Darrel was a bundle of fiery energy when playing and singing. With a look, style, and feel directly out of rockabilly originators Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and Carl Perkins, Darrel proved that he was the genuine article. He was ably accompanied by a drummer and bass player from the NYC area, and the audience responded to their set with enthusiasm and appreciation.

(Check out this full-length interview with Darrel Higham.)

Joe Carducci concluded Gretsch Day 2016 by thanking Rocky Schiano and Street Sounds for staging the event, thanking everyone in the audience for attending, and offering one more round of thanks to Fred and Dinah Gretsch for their ongoing support. A good time was had by all.

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More photos:

This giant “record” adorns the wall at Street Sounds, proclaiming ownership by the Schiano Family.

The irrepressible Joe Carducci served as emcee for the day. Joe is the national sales manager for Gretsch Guitars.

A high-quality Gretsch USA drumkit was provided for use by all of the day’s acts.

Yet another part of the wall featured a collection of beautiful “standard” professional models.

The buyer of the White Falcon guitar on the counter waited three weeks to pick up the guitar just so that Fred Gretsch could personally autograph it.

Rocky Schiano and Stephen Stern detailed this unique “aged” Custom Shop creation.

Joe Cimino (at left) flew all the way from Palm Beach, Florida to attend the Gretsch Day event. To make it even more special, he purchased a Gretsch Electromatic guitar and asked Fred Gretsch to autograph it.

Modern Drummer magazine editor-at-large (and Brooklyn native) Billy Amendola stopped by to say hello to Fred Gretsch.

Legendary guitar pickup-builder Tom “TV” Jones was called up to introduce Off The Roof.

STAY TUNED TO THE GRETSCH YOUTUBE CHANNEL FOR PERFORMANCE VIDEOS.

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Welcome Back, Vinnie Colaiuta!

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Gretsch Drums announced today that Vinnie Colaiuta has returned!

Via Gretsch Drum’s Facebook page:

We are proud to announce that legendary drummer Vinnie Colaiuta has come home to Gretsch Drums. Without question, Vinnie is one of the world’s most respected and admired drummers. Throughout his prolific, 4-decade career, his artistry has inspired and entertained legions of drummers and music fans alike. Vinnie will be taking his newly redesigned, Gretsch USA Custom Kit finished in a one-of-a-kind Cobalt Blue Lacquer with Vinnie Colaiuta signature badges out on the road with Sting on his upcoming, 19-city “Rock Paper Scissors” tour with Peter Gabriel which kicks off June 21st in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome home, Vinnie.

Vinnie Colaiuta. Photo: Michael Corral

Gretsch Drums recently restored Vinnie’s 90s signature Gretsch kit.  Experience unboxing his kit with him now!

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Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Friday, May 20th, 2016

Kimberly Thompson: Doing It All

by Fred Gretsch

It’s hard to find a single word that accurately describes Kimberly Thompson. In fact, it’s hard to describe her using several words. “Original”… “dynamic”… “versatile” … “skillful”… they all fit. But perhaps the most appropriate term would be “determined.” From the very beginning of her drumming history, Kimberly has been determined to succeed…and to do so on her own terms.

There’s no doubt that Kimberly’s determination has paid off. After first coming into contact with the drums as a youngster, she went on to play locally in church and in school. At the same time she immersed herself in jazz, absorbing the influences of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Kenny Garrett, Elvin Jones, Brian Blade, Jeff Ballard, and Terri Lyne Carrington.

Eventually Kimberly entered the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in New York. While still a student she had her first major professional gig: the 2000 Cuban Jazz Festival with the Kenny Barron Trio. (She was all of nineteen years old.) In 2001 Kimberly was picked to be the drummer in the all-female Sisters In Jazz ensemble—a group assembled by the International Association of Jazz Educators. While with the SIJ Kimberly toured Europe, where she performed at several jazz festivals including the famous North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland.

Kimberly performing at the TD Jazz Festival in 2015.

Kimberly graduated from the Manhattan School in 2003 with a degree in jazz composition. By then she was already immersed in the New York jazz scene, playing with top artists like trumpeter Wallace Roney, pianist Marian McPartland, bassist Rufus Reid, and guitarist Mike Stern (with whom she later earned a Grammy nomination for his 2006 album Who Let The Cats Out?). She also founded and performed with her own quartet. (More about that later.)

In 2006 Kimberly made what might appear to have been a radical career change. That’s when she was hired to play in Beyonce’s all-star (and all-female) touring band, the Suga Mamas. Playing for the world’s leading pop diva in arenas around the world was a far cry from playing jazz in smoky NYC clubs, but Kimberly was more than up for the challenge. Exchanging her jazz chops for a slamming pop groove, Kimberly helped drive the Suga Mamas to ever-more-exciting performances as the tour progressed. Since then she’s worked with other pop artists, including Jay-Z, Kanye West, and George Michael.

Returning to her jazz roots in 2010, Kimberly recorded her first album as a bandleader and composer: Like Clockwork. She continued to perform with her own group and with other artists until 2014, when she took another significant turn: She joined the 8G Band on the NBC television show Late Night With Seth Myers. In that same year she released two CDs:  Live At Marian’s and the studio album A Child’s Eyes.

Performing at Gretsch Day at Rudy’s Music in NYC, August 3, 2013. Photo: Rick Van Horn.

Back in August of 2013 I had the pleasure of meeting Kimberly and hearing her perform. The occasion was a “Gretsch Day” at Rudy’s Music in New York City, and Kimberly was leading her quartet as part of the day’s entertainment. I was there with my grandson Logan, and we both were impressed with Kimberly’s talent as a drummer and composer—as well as her graciousness as an individual. I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to see and hear her, and I’m equally glad that she’s chosen Gretsch drums on which to express her unique musical personality.

Video Clips

Kimberly’s YouTube page offers many video and audio clips, as well as drum transcriptions, and other useful and interesting information.

A very, very live trio performance clip taken from a gig in Kansas City in 2013. Kimberly is on fire.

One excellent performance clip, recorded live with her quartet at the Zinc Bar, Sept 24 2015, “Hills Of Macedonia“.

Her quartet performance live at the 55 Bar, February 25, 2015.

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On The Passing Of Remo Belli

Friday, May 6th, 2016

The Gretsch family joins everyone in the drum and percussion industry in mourning the passing of Remo Belli on April 25. As a veteran of that industry myself, I had the pleasure of knowing Remo for many years on a personal and professional basis. My wife Dinah and I shared visits with him at trade shows and other drumming events, and we always enjoyed our time together.

But Remo’s connection to the Gretsch family goes back much further. My uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., was a little more than twenty years older than Remo. When Remo was touring as the drummer for Anita O’Day and bandleader Billy May in the 1950s, Uncle Fred was running the Gretsch business. He welcomed Remo into the fold as a Gretsch drum artist. In fact, Remo’s smiling face graces the cover of the 1954 Gretsch drum catalog—right next to Louie Bellson, and in the company of other drum greats like Art Blakey, Jo Jones, and Shelley Manne.

Remo Belli on Cover of 1954 Gretsch Drums Catalog

Just a few years later, when Remo went into business himself, Uncle Fred supported his efforts by becoming a major customer for his Weather King synthetic drumheads. Remo heads are still factory-installed on Gretsch drums today.

Fast-forward to when I entered the drum business fifty years ago. Returning the favor that my uncle had done for him, Remo (who was a little less than twenty years older than I am) served as a mentor to me, offering sound business tips and valuable personal advice. Over the ensuing years I came to cherish his friendship, his guidance, and his unparalleled professional example. I will miss those things—and Remo himself—tremendously.

Fred W. Gretsch
4th Generation President
The Gretsch Company

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The Gretsch Building

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

The Birthplace of Silver Jets, White Falcons, Round Badges, and “That Great Gretsch Sound” Turns 100

By Fred Gretsch

The Gretsch Building circa 1916.

From the outside, the renovated Gretsch Building, now the home of luxury condos in the chic, trendy Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, looks like it could be a factory, an office building, or even a hospital.

The renovated Gretsch Building; home to 120 luxury condominiums.

And considering how today’s generation of Gretsch guitars and drums (played by young artists like guitarist Russell Marsden of Band of Skulls and drummer Ashton Irwin of 5 Seconds of Summer) can trace their origins and DNA to the seventh floor of this big, gray building, the hospital comparison isn’t too far off.

Today’s Williamsburg has been called the “new” Brooklyn and is one of the most popular, hippest places to live and work. It’s no surprise Brooklyn was recently named the #1 city in the nation for Millennials. The revived neighborhood is bustling with creative energy much like it was 100 years ago when factories, foundries, and the nearby waterfront energized Williamsburg and made it one of the largest and busiest industrial areas in the nation.

1916 Gretsch catalog cover featuring the new factory.

In 1916 my grandfather, Fred Gretsch, Sr., was 36 years old and had a bold vision of growing Gretsch into the largest music manufacturing company in America. (Remember, he was only 15 when he took over the family business after his father died unexpectedly in 1895.) Along with his mother Rosa and brother Walter, he took a leap of faith and oversaw the construction of a large 10-story factory that, at the time, was the biggest building in Williamsburg. You couldn’t miss it when you crossed the Williamsburg Bridge.

The factory was a source of pride for my grandfather and I believe the tall building with his family’s name on top motivated him to achieve his dream. Within a few years, Gretsch was recognized as the largest musical instrument manufacturing company in the nation. Catalogs from the 1920s and 1930s boast of “Nearly 3,000 Articles To Choose From,” and an image of the Gretsch Building adorned catalog covers and advertising for years.

1928 Gretsch Dealer Catalog promoting over 3,000 band and orchestra instruments.

While skilled Gretsch craftsmen built a wide range of drums and stringed instruments like banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, and guitars, other instruments were purchased and distributed from major instrument manufacturers. And, since the factory was only a few blocks from the East River waterfront, Gretsch imported many top-quality violins, accordions, brass instruments, harmonicas, and other instruments and accessories from Europe.

Even though it was 10-stories high, Gretsch didn’t occupy the entire building. The 20,000 square-foot seventh floor housed the main factory and administrative offices, while the machine shop and plating department took up half of the ninth floor. The basement was used primarily for storing drum hoops, parts and accessories. And while today’s condo residents relax, tan, and enjoy the skyline views from the rooftop terrace, Gretsch used the roof for business purposes: tanning hides for drumheads!

A student sheet music holder from the 1940s. Image courtesy of Ed Ball.

My grandfather was an entrepreneur and recognized the importance of real estate in building a solid business enterprise. Like the smaller factory on Fourth Street the Gretsch Building replaced, my grandfather rented valuable office space in the building to a wide range of businesses – from bookbinders and publishers to vacuum cleaner makers. One of the largest tenants was Robert Hall, a national retailer of men’s clothes.

After 57 successful years as president, my grandfather retired in 1942. My uncle, Fred Gretsch, Jr., became president but soon left the company to serve as a commander in the Navy during World War II. My father, Bill, then became president and guided Gretsch through the scaled-down production war years. Unfortunately, my father’s tenure was cut short due to illness and he passed away in 1948. When Fred Jr. resumed the leadership role, he led the company’s new focus on building professional drums and guitars and into Gretsch’s “Golden Era.”

The 50s and 60s were decades of explosive growth and success for Gretsch. The best jazz artists playing the New York clubs chose Gretsch Round Badge drums, and with advances in guitar electronics and amplification, Gretsch electric guitars were getting noticed.  The 50s saw the introduction of the Duo Jet, Silver Jet, White Falcon, White Penguin, Anniversary, Country Club, and many other models still offered today.  And, thanks to our landmark endorsement with Chet Atkins in 1954, the rollout of the classic line of Chet Atkins 6120, Country Gentleman, and Tennessean guitars.

I sometimes wonder if the people currently living on what used to be the seventh floor of the Gretsch Building are aware of all the musical history that happened there (and all of the stars and legends that walked those floors when they visited the factory). By far the biggest innovation and game changer for the music industry was my grandfather’s invention of the multi-ply drum lamination process that he patented in the 1920s. This revolutionary new method not only made construction faster, but also made drum shells and hoops lighter, stronger, and more perfectly round. It soon became the drum industry standard for manufacturing drums and – 90 years later – is still the method used today.

Several books have been written about the iconic and historic guitars and drums built within the walls of the Brooklyn factory. Some of the most important drums in my opinion are the groundbreaking Gretsch-Gladstone and Gretsch-American drums, the first double-bass drum set built for big-band star Louie Bellson, and the kits we made for drumming legends like Chick Webb, Charlie Watts, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Mel Lewis, Philly Joe Jones, and Chico Hamilton.

On the guitar side, Chet Atkins’ ’59 Country Gentleman he used on all of his records and George Harrison’s Duo Jet, Country Gentleman, and Tennessean guitars are probably the most famous Gretsch guitars built at the factory. But, you can’t overlook the Chet Atkins 6120 models made famous by Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, and Brian Setzer; the White Falcons played by Stephen Stills and Neil Young, or Billy’s Zoom’s trademark Silver Jet. By far, the most unusual guitar was the rectangular-shaped guitar Gretsch custom built for Bo Diddley in 1958.

I had the fortune of literally growing up in the Gretsch factory during its heyday of the 50s and 60s, and I started there full-time in the Industrial Engineering Department in 1965. But, things changed after my uncle sold Gretsch to the Baldwin Company in 1967. Within a few years, guitar and drum production moved from the Brooklyn factory to Arkansas. The sales office stayed in the building for several years, but by 1972, all Gretsch connections to the historic Brooklyn factory were gone.

The building remained mostly empty for several decades as the Williamsburg area experienced a cycle of decline, but by the 1990s, the area bounced back with a new infusion of galleries, clubs, music, art, and young people. Although our family still owned the Gretsch Building, we decided the time was right to sell it in 1999. Several years later, the old factory was the first condo conversion in the area, and more have followed in Williamsburg’s transformation and rebirth from an industrial area to a popular, desirable residential area.

Interior of a multi-million dollar loft apartment in the Gretsch Building. Photo courtesy of Corcoran Group Real Estate.

One hundred years later, I think my grandfather would be amazed at how the neighborhood has changed, and would be proud that the factory he and his family built in 1916 has survived and is still a vital part of the Williamsburg community. He would also be proud that we’re still making guitars and drums using the original recipes invented at his factory so many decades ago. It’s ironic that the building that made beautiful guitars and drums that looked like a million bucks, now has condos that sell for well over a million bucks. That’s left the Gretsch Building with a brand new pedigree for the next 100 years or more.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Mark Guiliana: A Jazzer For Today

By Fred Gretsch

I want to start this article about Gretsch drum artist Mark Guiliana with a quote from a review of his 2013 recording, A Form of Truth, taken from Relix magazine: “There are musicians that the general public recognizes for their greatness, and then there are the musicians that other musicians stand in awe of. Drummer Mark Guiliana falls squarely into the second category.”

What places Mark at the forefront of today’s jazz drummers is the fact that he combines a genuine respect and reverence for the artistry of historic icons like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach with a totally fresh and contemporary approach all his own. Blending impressive technical skills on acoustic drums with electronic sounds and processing, Mark can—and does—cover all musical contingencies.

In addition to playing in his own quartet, in his band Beat Music, and in an electronic duo dubbed Mehliana (with keyboardist Brad Mehldau), Mark is a first-call drummer for artists as varied as Avishai Cohen, MeShell N’degeocello, Matisyahu, Gretchen Parlato, and the group Now Vs. Now. In 2014 Mark had the opportunity to play on the late David Bowie’s final album: Blackstar (released on January 8 of this year).

Noted for his ever-changing musical personas, Bowie’s last turn took him into acoustic jazz—albeit with a dark and moody tone—and he wanted a rhythm section that could support his concept. So he called on Mark, with the able assistance of bassist Tim Lefebvre.

Reviews of the album have repeatedly mentioned the contributions made by Mark and Tim, as with this one from Billboard magazine: “Blackstar is unmistakably a band record, showcasing a talented group of musicians who are comfortable navigating the songs’ harmonically twisty byways. Special credit goes to bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who lock into Bowie’s grooves, tilting the music in the direction of spooky funk.”

The Wall Street Journal added: “Mr. Guiliana’s staccato drumming pieces the band’s moody wash of sound under Mr. Bowie’s voice as he sings an ominous tale. With Blackstar the delicious conceit of David Bowie conspiring with modern jazz artists is fulfilled beautifully.”

In 2015 Mark “returned to his roots,” recording an acoustic-jazz album called Family First with his quartet. Commenting on that album, Rhythm magazine said: “Mark is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new jazzers out there, and after his more electronic-style recordings of previous years, in 2015 he embraced the classic quartet format for some truly brilliant small-group jazz playing.” The magazine went on to name Mark as one of the top jazz drummers of the year.

In addition to his performing skills, Mark is a dedicated educator, eager to share his distinctive musical concepts with other drummers. He conducts frequent workshops in the New York City area, as well as clinics in various locations around the country. He can also be contacted for private lessons through his Web site, MarkGuiliana.com.

On July 30 of 2014 I had a unique opportunity to take a step back into Gretsch Company history. I walked the streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, visiting several sites that mark the evolution of the Gretsch company from its inception in 1883 through 1969, some seven decades later.  I had the pleasure of being joined by more than twenty drummers who are fans of Gretsch drums and their history. I’m happy to say that Mark Guiliana was among that group. Following the tour, Mark had these kind words to say:

“I guess by most accounts I’m a jazz drummer, so my heroes are Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey—a long list of guys who made their names on Gretsch drums. It was cool to tie the research that I’ve done on those drummers to the history that Fred Gretsch was providing—oftentimes from his own first-person experience. I specifically remember Fred talking about one of the first buildings we saw—on South Fifth Street. He pointed to a window on the second floor and said that it was where they did some of the drum wraps back in the early 1960s. It was nice to imagine how, as he described, great drummers would come in all the time—some to get new drums, some to just bounce ideas off each other. That was really cool.”

I’ll conclude this piece in the same manner as I began it: with a quote, this time from Modern Drummer magazine’s November 2014 cover story on Mark. In it, they refer to him as “the guy to watch if you want to know where the great art of drumming is right now—and where it could be headed.”

YouTube Clips

Here is Mark performing during his clinic at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, held this past November in San Antonio, Texas.

In this clip Mark walks us through some tips and tricks for emulating drum samples with an acoustic kit and few toys.

Here is Mark with Beat Music, at New York City’s Zinc Bar in 2014.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Cindy Blackman-Santana: A Woman For All Seasons

by Fred Gretsch

A gifted writer named Nicole Williams Sitaraman said of Cindy Blackman-Santana: “Hearing Cindy play the drums is like a rapturous percussive tornado of sound. You just get swept away.”

That’s about the most succinct—and accurate—description of Cindy’s talent and versatility that I’ve ever heard. From the highest level of jazz improvisation to the most down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll grooves, Cindy plays it all—and does so with a unique cross-pollination of styles. That is to say, her jazz playing rocks, and her rock playing swings. It’s a musical marriage made in heaven.

And speaking of marriage, Cindy added the “Santana” to her professional name when she married legendary Carlos Santana in 2010—following an on-stage proposal by Carlos at the conclusion of Cindy’s drum solo during a Santana Band concert in Tinley Park, Illinois. (Cindy had been sitting in with the band when Dennis Chambers took a leave of absence.)

However, long before Cindy connected with Carlos Santana, she had established herself as one of the most successful drummers around. In particular she gained recognition and respect among the drumming community as the long-time touring drummer for rocker Lenny Kravitz.

But Cindy actually started out as a jazz drummer. She grew up in a musical household where jazz was the main fare, and she had the benefit of parents who encouraged her interest in drums rather than being daunted by it. She attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied with Alan Dawson—the legendary teacher of jazz icon Tony Williams.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Cindy often cites Tony Williams as one of her greatest influences. From listening to him she learned how to be innovative and to allow the drums to speak with impact. After she moved to New York as a young woman she learned from the top jazz drummers who performed there, including Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones. In particular, Art Blakey became a significant figure in Cindy’s life. “He was like a father to me,” she once said. “I learned a lot just watching him, and I asked him a lot of questions about the drums and music. He answered all of them. He was fantastic.”

Regrettably but predictably, Cindy initially encountered resistance as a black woman playing drums on the jazz scene. She had to deal with racial and gender bias, as well as prejudice against her musical opinions. But she had a simple response: “I learned to completely ignore all that.”

Ignoring negative opinions led Cindy to very positive musical experiences, including work with a list of stellar jazz artists like Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Don Pullen, Hugh Masakela, Pharaoh Sanders, Sam Rivers, Cassandra Wilson, Angela Bofill, Bill Laswell, and many more. In 1987 the first of her own compositions appeared on trumpeter Wallace Roney’s Verses album. This led to her debut recording as a bandleader: 1988’s Arcane, which featured a lineup of jazz luminaries including Roney, Kenny Garrett, Joe Henderson, Buster Williams, Clarence Seay, and Larry Willis.

Cindy pursued her jazz leanings until 1993, when she connected with Lenny Kravitz. She was in New York; he was in Los Angeles, so she played drums for him as he listened on the phone. At Lenny’s insistence she flew out to LA the next day. She stayed for two weeks and appeared on the video for Kravitz’s mega-hit “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” She became his touring drummer virtually from then on, apart from 2004.

Having previously only played jazz shows in clubs and small festivals, Cindy was unprepared for the experience of playing at the stadium level. Her first gig with Kravitz was at an outdoor festival for 70,000 people. “It was in the summer,” she recalls, “so most people had just t-shirts or tanks on. I just saw skin and hands all doing this wave thing. I wasn’t used to seeing that many people. I was disoriented, and my equilibrium was teetering. I had to stop looking and start focusing.”

Explaining the difference between playing rock and playing jazz, Cindy says, “My job with Lenny is to play a beat for hours, make it feel good, and tastefully add some exciting fills and colors. My job in my own band or any creative jazz situation is totally different. We may start with a groove that feels great, and I may play that for hours, too. But I’m going to explore and expand and change it—play around with the rhythm and interact with the soloists.”

Even while anchoring Lenny Kravitz’s shows Cindy has also maintained her role as a jazz composer and bandleader. Her albums have included Telepathy (1994), The Oracle (1996), In The Now (1998), Works On Canvas (1999), Someday (2001), Music For The New Millennium (2004), and Another Lifetime (2010). She also has an instructional drum video called Multiplicity to her credit.

Photo: Dino Perucci

In addition to being a fabulous drummer, Cindy Blackman-Santana is an intelligent, articulate, and gracious person. I’m proud that Cindy is a great Gretsch drum artist. I’m also proud to say that my wife Dinah and I consider her a personal friend.

More information about Cindy Blackman-Santana is available on her website. You can also find a selection of audio clips from her various albums there. In the meantime, you might also enjoy the following video clips.

Here’s a great drum solo from Cindy’s appearance at the 2009 Montreal Drum Fest, demonstrating her versatile rock and jazz abilities:

Another solo, from the 2009 Tam Tam Drum Fest.

Here’s Cindy soloing and also playing with her own band at the Leverkusener Jazztage, in 2013.

Cindy gives her own account of growing up on the drums.  This clip includes a killer brush solo.

Finally, Cindy and husband Carlos Santana performed the national anthem this past June 7 before Game 2 of the NBA finals. The performance was aired live on ABC.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Mary McClanahan: Gretsch’s Female Pioneer

by Fred Gretsch

The November 1939 edition of Metronome magazine—which, at the time, was the bible of the music business—included seven percussion-related advertisements. Each ad featured a well-known performer promoting a recent product release. There was Ray Bauduc for WFL’s “Twin Strainer” snare drum, Buddy Schultz for Avedis Zildjian cymbals, Ray McKinley for Slingerland drums, Jimmy Adams for Ludwig vibes, Chauncy Morehouse for Leedy drums, and Jack Powell for Ludwig drums.

But perhaps the most noteworthy item was placed by the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company: a full-page ad featuring Mary McClanahan, the drummer with Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm All-Girl Orchestra. It reads: “’Charmed with the tone and beauty of my new Gretsch-Gladstone ensemble,’ says charming Mary McClanahan.” This was the first-ever appearance by a female drummer in a major percussion company ad.

Mary McClanahan may, indeed, have been charming. But she was much more than that. By the time she was hired by Spitalny, she was already a respected professional musician. Over 1,000 carefully screened women musicians auditioned for the twenty-two spots in Spitalny’s orchestra. There were several positions available for horn, string, and woodwind players—but only one for a drummer. That coveted spot went to Mary.

For women percussionists who feel unappreciated and unrecognized in today’s predominately male profession, think of what it was like for Mary in 1939. She had to overcome unimaginable hurdles to land the Spitalny gig, to say nothing of earning an endorsement and a full-page ad from a major drum company.

Just as one example, women encountered more difficulties than men when it came to appearance. Regardless of how far they had traveled or how little sleep they’d managed to get on a tour bus, all-girl bands had to appear onstage looking gorgeous, in long dresses and heels. (Never mind that it’s virtually impossible to operate bass drum and hi-hat pedals while wearing heels.) Ironically, while this hard-to-achieve glamour was expected of them, this very attention to appearances was one of the things that led some people to dismiss All-Girl bands as not being “serious” musicians.

By all reports, however, Mary McClanahan was indeed a “serious” musician. In fact, the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company was so impressed with her talent and fame that they not only featured her in magazine advertisements, but also on the cover of their 1941 full-line catalog. There she shared the spotlight with such male drumming stars of the era as Count Basie’s drummer Papa Jo Jones, Artie Shaw’s Nick Fatool, Horace Heidt’s Bernie Mattinson, and Xavier Cugat’s Alberto Calderon. Heady company, indeed.

We don’t know much about Mary’s career following her stint in Phil Spitalny’s orchestra. But there is one intriguing item that appeared in 1946. It’s a newspaper review of a variety show at the Esquire nightclub in Montreal, Canada, and it included the following: “Mary McClanahan, the champion girl drummer, put over an original drumming act with a great deal of savoir faire. Judging by her routine, it would seem that all the ginger-thatched Mary needs to knock out rhythm is a pair of drumsticks, as she pounded out a number of neat paradiddles on everything from an ordinary kitchen chair to the Esquire’s hardwood floor.”

Video Clip:

Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm All-Girl orchestra was exceptionally talented and versatile, as is amply demonstrated in this rare 1937 movie short titled Queens Of Harmony. Mary McClanahan can be seen at the 2:30 mark, kicking off a blazing version of “Tiger Rag.”

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