An intimate interview with Ndugu Chancler: Honoring the music through the drums.

Written by The Jazz Gypsy

Upcoming Concerts:
-Free Playboy Jazz Concert, Sunday, June 5, 2011
-The 33rd Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
Details at:

New music by Ndugu:
-Ndugu Chancler Old Friends Live
-high TIME


The Jazz Gypsy: Good Morning, Ndugu. I've seen and enjoyed your performances many times and most recently it was at Disney Hall for the Sacred Music of Duke Ellington concert. It was fabulous. The audience loved it, but what was that like for you?

Ndugu: There's a whole connection to Duke that goes back to 1971 for me. The first time I saw Duke Ellington was in Newark, NJ in 1971. Duke Ellington and James Brown were on the same program in a ballroom in NJ. I saw the band and later that year, I went to Europe with Miles Davis and we shared the bus with Duke Ellington. So that was the first connection where I got to hang out with everyone in the band, and hear them play every night.

Later in the 80's when Mercer Ellington, had taken over the band, the same thing happened when I was in Europe again. So when we did this sacred music concert, the spirit of all those guys that Duke had written that music for started coming out in me. And the first one was Harry Carney playing that baritone sax. I was wondering, how would Duke write all this music for the baritone sax and then I remembered Harry Carney and it was like the spirit of Harry Carney was coming back to me and I was seeing all of those guys playing that music of Duke. So I saw Cootie Williams [trumpets], Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves [tenor sax]. I saw all of those people. So when I really got into the music of that sacred concert it was based on honoring those legends

The Jazz Gypsy: For the audience, we were speechless because we've never seen anything like that before.

Ndugu: It was an honoring of Duke in that music for us. So we got, probably more out of it, musically and spiritually than the audience did because the audience was looking at it from a musical standpoint and we [the musicians] were looking at it from a whole evolution, emotional and spiritual standpoint.

The Jazz Gypsy: That leads me to my next question. You've played across the whole musical spectrum, from pop, traditional jazz, smooth jazz, r&b, rock & roll,'ve played with everybody. What are the similarities and the differences in the music itself and and then how do you approach each genre of music artistically?

Ndugu: Great question. The jazz in me affords me the luxury of being able to cross all the channels particularly because jazz was the impetus that inspired me to want to start playing and have my own voice. The other genres were the genres of being contemporary and being popular. So, when I'm playing, I always take the jazz approach to try to bring something new while honoring the tradition of what ever that music is.

Also, my generation came up listening to radio and radio was everything....Jimi Hendrix, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Motown, Sly and the Family was all that mixed together. So, you didn't draw a line that said this is jazz and this is rock. It was all music. Later on they started segmenting the music to give it different divisions and genres but we looked at all of it as just music. And, you go back to what Duke always said, "There's only two kinds of music, good music and bad music". It's not genre specific. For me, I've always enjoyed listening to and playing all kinds of music, so, any time I play any genre or any style, I try and honor the lineage of that style while bringing something fresh. I take the jazz approach of being open but honoring the tradition.

The Jazz Gypsy: There are a lot of drummers in the world and you are listed in the top 25 and in many people's minds you are in the top 2. What makes your sound unique and how do you distinguish your playing from others?

Ndugu: Roots. Let's start with the roots of it based on the African concept but my approach to playing the drums is not just with the drum being involved in it. My approach is ....I look at myself as I play drums but I am really playing all of the voices of the music that I hear through the drums. So it's not always from a drum perspective. Because the drum perspective, a lot of times, people get so into the drums that they don't get into the music. And, I always try and honor the music through the drums. So anytime I'm playing, I'm trying to get the maximum amount of music out of what I'm doing.

The Jazz Gypsy: You also wear a lot of hats...producer, composer, clinician, teacher, musician. As a teacher what makes a good student and as a student, what makes a good teacher?

Ndugu: A good student is anyone that is receptive to learning. What makes a good teacher is the ability to adapt to translating the message of the lesson to your students so they get it. So, not [just] having a formalized way of delivering what ever the lesson is but being able to adapt to your students. I have to be honest with you, I teach a black student differently than I teach a white student and I teach a white student differently than I teach a Latino student because you have to make it all relate-able to who you're teaching and come to them on a level that opens the flood gates for them to be receptive to receiving the knowledge.

The Jazz Gypsy: I read that you started playing the drums at 13.

Ndugu: Yes, and that was late. The reason for that was because I wanted to play [the drums] since age 6 but the school system denied me because they wanted me to play a different instrument. So I just held onto the passion and let it lay dormant in my body like a virus.

The Jazz Gypsy: So, how were you able to start [playing] at 13? And, how did you already know you wanted to play the drums?

Ndugu: How did I know I wanted to play the drums? I still don't know where that came from because I was born and spent the early part of my childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana. I had never seen a band. I had never seen any drummers and I didn't know any. I think it was, well, you know how they say "Your gift is given to you and you have to recognize it". I think I just recognized it and let it lay until I had the opportunity in school to start playing. Then, once I started playing, that was confirmation that that was exactly what I wanted to do.

The Jazz Gypsy: Also, you played with some jazz greats from the very beginning. How did that happen?

Ndugu: Being in California and being mentored around jazz greats. I was around Harold Land, The Jazz Crusaders, Stix Hooper, Gerald Wilson, growing up and living in the same neighborhood with these guys. And, having role models that I idolized led me the right way. The guys that I was idolizing and following were jazz greats.

Stix Hooper mentored me a lot. The Crusaders lived down the street from me. So I got a chance to see what great people were. I also met a local musician by the name of Eddie Gamus, a saxophone player and he had consistency with going to work everyday playing music. So I knew my focus was on going to be a well-rounded, consummate professional. And, that was just from growing up in LA around all of that music. I moved to New York for a while, but New York wasn't my cup of tea because LA gave me the luxury of courting with and playing with all of these names.

The Jazz Gypsy: So now what advice would you give to young musicians, particularly about how to stay balanced and how to build and sustain a lifelong career in the industry?

Ndugu: The first thing is listen to as much as you possibly can, remain open, remain humble and get a life. There is more to life than music. And, it's life that makes the music.

The Jazz Gypsy: That's great advice. Now, turning to the upcoming Playboy Jazz Festival, you'll be performing with The Cosby All Stars [featuring Geri Allen, George Bohanon, Dwayne Burno, Anat Cohen, and Babatunde Lea] again. How many performances have you had at The Playboy Jazz Festival?

Ndugu: With Cos I'd say about 15 to 18...I stopped counting because this has been going on since the 80's for me. But, Cos and I go back to about 1972 and I've been in different musical situations with him. So, I lost count. [laughter] Cos and I have a strong connection because we were born under the same birth sign, our temperaments are similar so we compliment each other and we respect each other musically and as people.

The Jazz Gypsy: And you must also have a good sense of humor because number one, you're always smiling and also Cos is very funny.

Ndugu: Well, you know what? I'm happy because I'm one of the few people in life that has been afforded the luxury of building a life and doing a career doing something I love. So that's the beautiful thing. So when I hit the stage I'm happy if they're 5 people or 105,000 people. I'm happy because people come to see me. They enjoy it and I enjoy it. I don't expect them to enjoy it if I don't enjoy it. That's like feeding someone a bad meal and assuming that they're going to like it and you don't [like it].

The Jazz Gypsy: I love that analogy. [both laughing] And, I've gotten some bad meals. [more laughter]

Ndugu: You know what I mean? "Well how does it taste? I don't like it but you might like it?" Uh uh.

The Jazz Gypsy: [extended laughter] I love that. Also, just two more questions. You have an upcoming event this Sunday, where you will be working with Patrice Rushen. That's a long time relationship, tell me more about that.

Ndugu: Oh! That goes back to high school. I'm a couple years ahead of Patrice. Patrice and I were in the band at Locke High School. But Patrice and I used to just practice together. Just the two of us. We didn't have a bass player that played with us. We would just get together and practice together because we had the same fervor and spirit of wanting to accomplish and become music greats. So our association goes back to then. I remember her first records while I was on tour and coming back into town and doing records and all of that. So we go [way] back. Patrice is like my little sister.

The Jazz Gypsy: Is there anything else you like tell me about, any thing you're working on, or any special projects?

Ndugu: I have my two CD's out now. Well, I have my CD and then I have another CD with me co-leading this band called "high TIME" that is four college professors that got together one weekend and made some music. The name of that CD is called Morning Walk.

And then my CD, "Ndugu Chancler, Old Friends Live", I'm playing vibes and percussion exclusively. So, that's the other side of me that a lot of other people really never get to experience. I play vibes and the other percussion but I have been noted so much as a drummer that they forget that there are so many other hats that I wear that look equally as good as the drum hat that they always tend to want to forget about that.

I've had a lot of success as a songwriter as a producer and as a percussionist. And, at this juncture in my life, I'm trying to explore all of those things more.

The Jazz Gypsy: I did have a chance to listen to both those CD's and I thoroughly enjoyed both, but I was surprised when I heard you playing the vibes.

Ndugu: Well, I started doing that in high school and made a few records early on in the late 70's and 80's doing it. But again, when people know you for doing a certain thing they want you to do that exclusively. So, I'm slowly trying to slide all the sides of me into the mainstream so people know that. I'm kind of like Marcus Miller where I do this and I do that AND I do this.

The Jazz Gypsy: Thank you so much for your time, I'm looking forward to seeing you at the Playboy Jazz Festival this year.

Ndugu: I'm looking forward to it too. I'm starting to get a little excited. It was great talking to you.

See Ndugu and many others this weekend, as well as June 11 & 12th.


Sunday, June 5, 4:00-8:00 PM
Admission: FREE!

-1+One Featuring Patrice Rushen and Ndugu Chancler with Special Guest
-Johnny Polanco & The Amistad Orchestra
-Nikhil Korula Band
-The Calabasas High School Jazz Band

The 33rd Annual Playboy Jazz Festival

Saturday, June 11
-The LAUSD All City High School Big Band
-Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet
-Cos of Good Music with Geri Allen, George Bohanon, Dwayne Burno, Ndugu Chancler, Anat Cohen, Alphonso Johnson, Babatunde Lea
-A Night in Treme - The Musical Majesty of New Orleans
-SFJAZZ Collective Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder
-Dianne Reeves
-Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra
-The Roots with special guest Terence Blanchard

Sunday, June 12
-Pullum High School Big Band
-Carlos Varela
-Geri Allen and her Timeline Band
-Lee Konitz New Quartet
-John Scofield and Robben Ford
-Bill Cunliffe and the Resonance Big Band
-Naturally 7
-Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute to James Brown
-Buddy Guy
-Harmony 3 with Ronnie Laws, Walter Beasley, Stanley Jordan