One-Of-A-Kind Drummer And Educator
On January 1 of this year we lost a genuine drumming icon when Sam Ulano passed away at the age of ninety-three. For those who may not know Sam, he was a fixture on the New York City drumming scene for more than sixty years. He was also quite a character, and it’s hardly surprising that “Sam the showman” would make his exit on New Year’s Day.
Sam enjoyed a long and successful career as a performer, including thousands of club dates, shows, and other gigs in the New York City area. He performed or recorded with diverse artists ranging from Moondog to Johnny Lydon’s PiL. And I’m proud to say that Sam began playing and endorsing Gretsch drums in 1947—making him the longest-running Gretsch drum artist. He was still swingin’ on his Gretsch kit in NYC clubs until shortly before his passing.
But it’s as an educator that Sam truly made his mark on the national drum scene. And he definitely did it his own way—making him equally revered and controversial. Besides his private teaching practice, he founded a drum studio in the 1950s that hosted such guest artist/instructors as Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Papa Jo Jones. Sam also had the first-ever drum-oriented cable TV program, which ran from 1975 to 1981. And he released literally dozens of self-produced books and CDs, along with over 2,500 pamphlets that he called “Foldys.”
Sam’s publications had almost comically “lo-fi” production values, but they were nonetheless high in informational content. In what was perhaps his most controversial teaching philosophy, Sam denounced rudiments as having nothing to do with playing a drumset, since drumsets didn’t exist when the rudiments were established for marching drummers in the 1800s. Instead, Sam focused on reading, timekeeping, and providing the foundation for a band in a musical situation. “Your hands can’t see, hear, or think,” Sam declared at a Gretsch-sponsored clinic at Manhattan’s Sam Ash Music in July of 2012. “You do that all with your brain. That’s where you learn to play the drums. And that’s the only way you’re going to be successful as a player in the music industry.”
I’m gratified that my grandson Logan Thomas—a sixth-generation member of the Gretsch family—had a chance to meet and speak with Sam at a Gretsch Day event at Steve Maxwell’s Vintage & Custom Drums this past August. Logan got his first drumset as a Christmas present shortly thereafter, and I know he’ll benefit from the advice that Sam gave him during their discussion at Maxwell’s.
Logan will be in good company, since Sam’s former students include noted TV drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, New York studio stalwart Allen Schwartzberg, and jazz great Art Taylor. These drummers and dozens like them benefitted from Sam’s major premise, which was that reading is the means to success. According to Sam, drummers who can read—and who can play in many styles as a result—are more likely to get work than are drummers with great rudimental technique or blazing speed.
Another controversial recommendation from Sam was regular practicing with metal sticks to improve hand and arm strength. “If I hadn’t practiced with metal sticks all these years,” he said at the July 2012 clinic, “there’s no way I could still be playing at ninety-two years old.”
Admittedly, Sam had his detractors—or at least those who would debate his opinions about rudiments. Few, if any, teachers would argue Sam’s point about the importance of reading for a drummer with professional aspirations. But many also stress the value of listening to music in order to develop an “ear” for various styles. Some teachers tend to focus on this ear training as the way to develop an authentic “feel” within any given style.
Sam Ulano might have taken issue with these points…but that’s what drumming education is all about: different approaches. Sam’s approach was a practical one, based on years of working within the music business and a desire to prepare drummers for that sort of work. You can agree with that approach, or disagree, or take some of it and leave the rest. But no matter what you do, you should absorb Sam’s fundamental, overriding message: You need to learn to play the drums. Drumming may come “naturally” to you, but to develop those natural skills you need to pursue an education on the instrument. That, I think, will be Sam Ulano’s lasting legacy.
For more information on Sam Ulano, visit samulano.com. There are also some great YouTube clips of Sam. Go to this video to learn how Sam set an early record for long-term drumming. Go to this video to hear Sam discussing how rudiments don’t serve drumset playing. And go to this video to view Sam in performance at his birthday celebration and clinic, held at Sam Ash Music in Manhattan on, July 2012 (just prior to his 92nd birthday that August).