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Michael Carvin: The Making of a Master
Author: Bob Kenselaar
Date: July 30, 2012
With a career that spans half a century, master drummer Michael Carvin has plenty to look back on, although he’s mostly a forward-looking man. To say he’s been prolific puts it mildly. By his own count, he’s made some 250 recordings and toured the world five times. He has worked with such major jazz luminaries as Jackie McLean, Dizzy Gillespie, Pharaoh Sanders, and Freddie Hubbard, among many others, in addition to fronting his own bands and recording ten albums as a leader. His strong influence on jazz drumming is clear through his long teaching career as well, both through the Michael Carvin School of Drumming he founded in the early 1970s and through work at Rutgers University, the University of Hartford, the New School, and elsewhere. He estimates that he’s taught as many as 300 students, notably including Camille Gainer, Allison Miller, Ralph Peterson, Eric McPherson, E.J. Strickland, Kim Thompson, and Max Tucker.
Carvin clearly feels at home in just about any musical context, and he has a very holistic view of music, preferring not to use terms and labels that compartmentalize it. His early professional experience included stints with Motown Records and blues icon B.B. King, and he has fond memories of being drum captain in his high school marching band. In his long career in jazz, his work has ranged from the avant garde to straight ahead and much that lies in between. His own last two records albums reflect both ends of that spectrum—the explorative Lost and Found Project 2065 (Mr. Buddy, 2010) and the swinging, post-bop Michael Carvin, part of the Marsalis Music Honors Series (Marsalis Music, 2006).
The band he’s formed in mid-2012—set for a major venue debut at the Jazz Standard in New York July 31 and August 1—takes on a musical approach similar to his Marsalis Music outing, but with new personnel that has an East- meets-West sort of flavoring. The quartet includes bassist Jansen Cinco, from the Philippines, pianist Yayoi Ikawa, from Japan, and tenor saxophonist Keith Loftis, who, like Carvin, hails from Texas—Dallas in his case, whereas the drummer/leader is from Houston. “The way I’m thinking at this time, I don’t want to have a band full of Americans. Because that allows me to learn and to adjust. I want to help them get comfortable with their blood and their ancestors and the smell of their country. Then, they’re going to play something that I’ve never heard.”
Carvin met each of the musicians in their student days and has focused on mentoring them in a number of ways. “Until you put a band together of younger cats that are unknown and you develop them, then you have a band, in my opinion. To put a band together with a lot of cats who are already established is not your band. You’re just the leader on the date. There’s no developing. There’s no giving it up. There’s no encouraging.”
Jansen Cinco collaborated with the drummer on the Lost and Found Project 2065. “He’s a great bassist,” says Carvin. “I first met Jansen at the New School when he was 19, maybe about ten years ago. I really like him. Jansen is cool. I had him come by my drum school one day, and I said, play as fast as you can play, but relax. He got all nervous at first, but I said, man, don’t worry about that. So, I taught Jansen how to play fast, how to relax and breathe and understand what breaking points are in the tempo. Because in every tempo there are air pockets. You just have to know where they are. And that’s where you break your time so, for the bassist, the forearm muscles can slide. And once the forearm muscles can slide and come back, then you won’t tense up.” Carvin also encouraged Cinco to draw from his roots. “He was into Ron Carter, all the guys are, and I said, man, where are you from? He said, ‘I’m from the Philippines.’ I said, ‘Well, play the bass like you’re from the Philippines. You don’t have Ron Carter’s fingerprints. Play that Filipino feel and style. Now, he really developed that, even though we’re playing in a jazz context.”
Carvin first encountered Keith Loftis at a master class at Southern University. “Keith was a freshman in college. He was studying with Alvin Batiste, who is one of the greatest clarinetists and reed men.” Sometime afterward, Loftis moved to New York and, by chance one day, saw Carvin walking down Broadway. He introduced himself again; Carvin gave him his phone number and told him to keep in touch. “And he would call me, and say, ‘Mr. Carvin, I just finished junior year, now working on my master’s, and so on. So, when I was looking for a tenor player, and I said, I’m going to call Keith. He came by my studio, and I showed him how to listen to the ride cymbal. I explained to him, get on top of my beat and ride it, man, like you’re surfing. You don’t have to match me. Just get on top of it and find the spot—the beat—that you like, and just ride it. And just let it be.”
Carvin also produced Loftis’s CD, Simply, Loftis (Long Tone Music, 2011), which features trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who went to high school together with the saxophonist in Dallas. “It’s a good record, man. I really like it. And I’m really proud that Keith allowed me to be a part of it. Especially for one of his first major records.” Carvin is very impressed with Loftis’s musical development. “Keith, in my opinion, is one of the greatest horn players of the 21st century. He doesn’t sound like anybody else, and that’s what I really like.”
Born in Tokyo, pianist Yayoi Ikawa has lived in New York for the past eight years. After finishing a Bachelor’s degree at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, she’s now pursuing a Master’s in jazz performance, composition, and film scoring. “I dig her a lot,” says Carvin, “because she understands my concept. She can really get to the things that I really hear.” As a whole, Carvin has high praise for the entire group and for young musicians now coming up overall. “They are great young players. But the musicians are different now. Younger guys now are really ambitious, and they are well trained—well schooled.”
Carvin emphasizes both independence and collaboration in his approach. “The way I arrange my music—even if it’s a standard—it won’t make sense unless everybody holds their ground and plays their part. Because we are one, not four. It’s four different sounds, but we are playing one rhythm. I like space. For instance, we play “I Remember April” so you can really hear the melody. I hear the horn player, in this case the tenor player, as a guy on the top of a camel as we’re moving through Egypt, and he’s playing what he’s seeing. He’s painting his picture. There are other things that are always constantly moving—the background landscape that comes from the rest of the band—but they shouldn’t interfere with his journey.” Visual conceptualization fits into Carvin’s music other ways, as well. “When I see music, I see horizontal and vertical. The so-called front line guys, the horn players, they have to be horizontal, because that’s the way the music is written. Drummers are vertical. It’s like you’re on a beautiful beach with your beautiful bride, enjoying yourself for a while, but then you’re bored to death, because you’re looking at the horizon and you don’t see nothing but the ocean meeting the sky. Then all of a sudden your beautiful bride says, ‘Look, there’s a ship on the horizon!’ And you look and you don’t see it right away, but then it gradually comes in view, and there’s the ship. Now it’s exciting, isn’t it? That’s how I arrange my music. The horizontal is boring. The vertical is too strong on its own. The trick is in the mix, at the right time.”
With the Lost and Found Project 2065, a trio setting with Jansen Cinco and saxophonist Antoine Roney, Carvin took a very free, conceptual approach without traditional structures in a set of seven original compositions. “We rehearsed for three days, and we never played a note. I only explained the concept. I wrote the music with no time signature and no bar lines, because I never wanted us to be at the same place at the same time, unless it happened spiritually, which I knew was going to happen, because we would be forced to crawl inside of each other and stay inside, to try to figure out where we were going and what we were doing. For a whole note on one of the pieces, under the note I wrote ‘500 years.’ Under two half-notes, I wrote ‘250 years.’ Jansen said, what do you mean, ‘500 years’? I said, ‘We’ll maybe you’ll play the whole note for 500 years. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. It’s your part.’”
Carvin gave similar conceptual directions for Antoine Roney for the recording. “With one song, I said, ‘Antoine, we’re going to all be under water. And I want you to emerge first. But as soon as your head pops up at eye level I want you to hear a bullfrog.’ I was trying to create different sounds that I’ve heard in Viet Nam and growing up as a kid in Texas. So, Antoine said, ‘Well, I’m going to need another sound. The tenor is not going to work. I’m going to bring my bass clarinet.’ I said, ‘You have a bass clarinet?! Bring that!’” Carvin considers Roney a perfect collaborator in a spare setting. “Antoine and I have played a lot of duets together. And anytime I do anything with an experimental band, I always like to have Antoine to be part of it, because he really knows how to listen to the drums, and he knows how to play off the rhythm of the drums. We’ve played a long time together.”
The trio setting of the Lost and Found Project 2065 has special significance for Carvin and, arguably, in the history of jazz drumming. Carvin actually got a kernel of inspiration for the album watching the New York Yankees, when an announcer described how one of the players had a chance to “hit for the cycle”—that is, to bat a single, double, triple, and home run all in the same game. Carvin reflected for a minute about his recording career. He’d taken the unusual step of recording a solo album, Drum Concerto at Dawn (Mapleshade, 1996). He’d made a duet recording with Jackie McLean, Antiquity (SteepleChase, 1974), a milestone in both of their careers where he contributed his own compositions and, essentially, was co-leader. And he’d recorded as a leader in a quartet setting, most recently the Marsalis Music album in 2006, not to mention cutting records as a leader in quintet and sextet settings. “I said, ‘I’ve never made a trio record as a leader. I’d done solo, duet, quartet, and so on, but not a trio.” And then he checked. Max Roach didn’t record in this sort of combination; he never made a solo record. “Elvin Jones didn’t do it; Buddy Rich didn’t do it; Gene Krupa didn’t do it. I’m the first drummer to have ever accomplished that”—that is, “hitting for the cycle,” as a jazz drummer.
Over the course of his jazz career, Carvin has collaborated with a host of other musicians, working as a sideman under pianist Hampton Hawes and later trumpeter Freddie Hubbard during the early 1970s and recording his first album as a leader in 1975, The Camel (SteepleChase). Since then, he’s shared the stage or recorded with great musicians that span a wide variety of styles, from Dexter Gordon to McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor. For Carvin, there are three collaborators that stand out above all.
“I had three perfect musical marriages: Jackie McLean, Pharaoh Sanders, and Dizzy Gillespie. When I first heard Jackie, I fell in love with his sound, because it’s razor edge. His sound is cutting. And I have a wide sound. Jackie hipped me to be yourself, whoever you are. He introduced ‘me’ to ‘me.’ He never told me what to do or what not to do. He’d say, ‘You’re the drummer. You figure it out.’ And I loved that about him. I was a good reader; I could read just about anything, but I didn’t know ‘me.’ Jackie released me to find myself.”
Carvin recalls that he and the saxophonist actually inspired each other toward self discovery. He remembers vividly the conversation that led up to the landmark duet recording with McLean, Antiquity. “We were on a plane on our way to Copenhagen. We were going to teach at a music school for two weeks first, and then Jackie was going to make a record.” Nils Winther, one of the founders of SteepleChase records, and Alex Riel, a Danish drummer, had set up the recording session, but McLean wasn’t happy with the personnel they had lined up. “Jackie was saying, ‘Oh, man, I don’t know. I don’t really want to play with those guys.’ You know Jackie; he was a sweetheart. I said, ‘Well, don’t play with them. You’re Jackie McLean. You don’t want to play with them, don’t play with them.’ So, he said, ‘What do you mean, don’t play with them? Who am I going to make the record with?’ I said, ‘Let’s you and I make the record. Just the two of us.’ He said, ‘You’re crazy.’ He got mad at me. He didn’t speak to me any more on the plane. The next morning, he came to my room at six o’clock, banging on the door. I opened the door, and he said, ‘I wrote this song for you last night, this is the first song for the duet record.’ That was a great record, because after that record, Jackie heard his voice. Before Antiquity, Jackie was still chasing Charlie Parker. After Antiquity, Jackie McLean was Jackie McLean.”
Carvin was drawn to Pharaoh Sanders by the saxophonist’s connection to John Coltrane. “I always admired Trane, but Trane died before I got out of Vietnam. I wanted to touch everybody that worked with Trane; that’s why I worked with McCoy and Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh and Cecil Taylor. I wanted to try to get as close to Trane as I could and try to figure out, what did he have? What was it?” Carvin’s work with Sanders included Elevation (Impulse!, 1974), and as a result of their collaboration, the drummer made another important discovery beyond the self-knowledge that he got from McLean. “Pharaoh introduced me into the spiritual way of playing the drums. He showed me something else that music can do as a healing force.”
The drummer was in search of other kinds of personal and musical development when he joined Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1970s. “Dizzy Gillespie was an innovator, man. I wanted to work with an innovator, to be in the presence of an innovator, to watch how an innovator goes about his business. How does he craft what he’s doing? After a while, I noticed when I watched Dizzy play, before he’d execute a phrase he was going to use when he was improvising, he’d finger it on his horn. Then he’d play it, and later, he’d finger that same phrase—the whole phrase—but he would only play a part of it, the part he wanted you to hear. He was fingering the whole phrase to keep his cadence and his time. I was like, ‘Wow!’ So, I do something like that in my drum solos. I’ll hear rhythms and visualize playing them, but I won’t play the whole phrase.”
“I also had something to give to Dizzy, but I couldn’t release it until I had been with him for at least six months or a year, get to know him. He started opening up to me, telling me about working with Chano Pozo“—the great Cuban percussionist who was one of the founders of Latin jazz. “We were working at a club in Munich, German in 1979. He came to my room at about 4 o’clock in the morning, because Dizzy never slept. We were talking about the 6/8 clave, and that whole Cuban thing. And I said, ‘John, can I tell you something?’ I didn’t call him Dizzy, I called him John. He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’ve never played “A Night in Tunisia.” You play “A Night in Cuba,” with a 6/8 clave. That rhythm is not played in Tunisia. Tunisia is in Africa.’ I sang out the rhythm they play in Tunisia for him. So then, I arranged that song for Dizzy Gillespie, and that was the way he played until he died. And that’s the same arrangement on my Marsalis Music CD. Every time I play ‘Night in Tunisia,’ I play that arrangement. You see the guy on the camel’s back in Tunisia moving through whatever he’s seeing. Since I don’t play congas, I play the rhythm on the high hat, eighth note triplets.”
Another important early association for Carvin was with Freddie Hubbard. “It was Freddie, Junior Cook, George Cables, Kent Brinkley, and me. When we opened up at the Village Vanguard, Miles Davis came to see us there on opening night, and every night that week. After that, we left for Europe for about six weeks. There’s a new DVD that just came out from that tour”— Freddie Hubbard, Live in France 1973 (Mosaic, 2012).
Carvin has had many other notable collaborations over the years. One that stands out in particular for him in the last decade was with violinist Billy Bang, who had something special in common with the drummer. “Billy Bang was putting a band together—beautiful concept. He wanted to get some Vietnam veterans together, and he was writing beautiful music. The music is unbelievable. We made two albums, on Justin Time Records out of Montreal [Canada]. Get both of them.” Bang was working with saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett when he was putting the Vietnam project together, and Bluiett recommended Carvin. “I had done several records with Bluiett, but I didn’t know Bang, because he moved in a different circle. You know how New York is.”
Before hearing the music, Carvin was hesitant about working on a project with a Vietnam theme. “I don’t make a point to be around Vietnam veterans. I don’t do Memorial Day. I don’t go to the wall. I don’t deal with any of that. So, I didn’t know how I was going to react to some other cats after all this time. So, my beautiful bride Rhonda Hamilton said, ‘Well, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it, but at least go and meet him and check it out.’ And I dug Bang. He wrote some gorgeous music, man. He had a beautiful ballad called ‘Moments for the Kiamia.’ K-I-A-M-I-A. That’s ‘killed in action, missing in action.’”
Among the personnel joining Bangs and Carvin were pianist John Hicks and saxophonist Sonny Fortune. Carvin was particularly happy that the musicians represented a variety of stylistic camps in the jazz world. “We’ve got to stop that, where people say I can’t play with him because he’s ‘out’ or he’s mainstream. It’s music, man. It’s humans playing music.” In addition to the recordings, the group toured together. “We worked the Jazz Standard—that was the only place in New York, aside from a concert in Brooklyn. We did the Monterey Jazz Festival, and we worked mostly in Canada, because the record company is in Canada. We did Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and all of that. The experience was unbelievable, man, and everywhere we played we got a standing ovation. And, plus, a lot of veterans came. It was just so interesting.”
Carvin’s 18-month tour of duty in Vietnam and the circumstances leading up to it make for a fascinating story. At 18 years old, he decided to strike out on his own and move from his parents’ home in Houston to Los Angeles. He was already a highly accomplished drummer, having studied from the time he was six years old, taught by his father, Henry Carvin, Sr., who worked with Louis Armstrong, among others. Carvin wasn’t settled in California for long before he was out on the road, a touring musician. Registering for the draft couldn’t have been further from his mind.
“I’m not thinking, ‘Let me see, now, there’s a possibility that I might be drafted. I’d better go in and switch my draft board registration. I should have, but I didn’t. I’m trying to get into the 26 rudiments, man, and I’m trying to get to Dizzy and Jackie and Trane. I’m not trying to get to no draft board. So, I’d been on the road for six months, and during that time we didn’t have cell phones or texting, or any of that. I was out of the country for about three months. I might write to my parents, but they would get my letters a month later. So, so I never knew I was drafted, but I was.
“I get to New York. I’m working with Rhetta Hughes and Tennyson Stevens at the Playboy Club. We were the opening act for Bill Cosby, December 1967, right around my birthday. We were in the big room, and Kai Winding was playing there in the lobby with Bob Cranshaw, Monty Alexander, and Mickey Roker, who I met—I wanted to take some lessons with him. I was cocky; I was having suits made. I was a little arrogant so-and-so.
“So, this the guy came up to me there at the Playboy Club, and he said, you’re Michael Carvin? I said, ‘Yes, you want my autograph?’ Clink-clink! They had me handcuffed. They arrested me for draft dodging. I told Loretta to call Mickey Roker, and Mickey finished the gig. They took me back to the Wellington Hotel, where I was staying. Then they took me to my parent’s house in Houston. They let me drop my drums and stuff off there. Then they took me to the airport, and the next thing, I was in Fort Benning, Georgia. It was maybe five or six o’clock in the morning. I fell asleep. I woke up and pinched my arm to where it swelled up for about six days. I thought I was in a dream, man.
“I can say it in hindsight, I deserved to be drafted—it ended up making a man out of me. It really showed me the value of life. I’m glad I went. It wasn’t a nightmare for me. I didn’t have to take medication. I didn’t have to go see a shrink. It forced me to see things how they really are and understand how precious life is.
“I took the examination to get in an Army band and, out of a possible 500, I made 500. But they put me in the infantry anyway. I think because they branded me as a draft dodger. After my first fire fight, I said, ‘Well, look, man, you can’t be scared, now, for 12 months.’ I was in for 18 months after I extended, but it was supposed to be 12 months originally. I said, ‘You’re going to be scared. You’re going to be a basket case. You’re going to get out of here in a basket or you’re going to leave here in one of them garbage bags—the plastic bags. Now, look man. You’re here. You ain’t leaving. Either you get it together, or you’ll lose your mind. Your choice.’ So in my first fire fight I came to grips with death, and after I did that, I was cool.”
Very shortly after that experience, though, Carvin’s luck changed for the better—almost incredibly so. “I came in to Saigon one day; we were going to an ammo dump to get some ammo. And I heard a band playing. An army band was giving a concert—a jazz quintet. I hadn’t played in six months, but I asked the drummer, ‘Can I sit in?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ and then, ‘Man, you can play!’ He asked me if I could read, and I said, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘Well, wait a minute.’ So he went and got the warrant officer, and he said, ‘Well, hey, man, this cat can play, and he can read. I’m getting ready to leave in three days; I’m going to rotate back into the states.’ He said, ‘Look, instead of getting another drummer from the States, this cat is already in Viet Nam. Why don’t you just put some orders on him?’ That’s when I just saw a whole ‘nother United States Army.
“In three days, I was in costume medals, and we were in Westmorland’s private band, an 18-piece dance band.” General William Westmorland was commander of U.S. military operations at the height of the Vietnam War. “That guy—the drummer who let me sit in—his name was George Suranovich, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I will always mention George’s name. I said, George, if there’s anything I can do for you, man, when I get out of the Army, you come to see me California. And he came to California, but he didn’t really ask for much. I hooked him up with some musicians out there.”
Despite the shock of going from the stage at the Playboy Club in New York and landing at Fort Benning in a matter of days, Carvin actually adapted to the military relatively easily, starting in boot camp, thanks to his early musical experience growing up in Houston. “They made me an acting sergeant, what they call an ‘acting jack,’ because I knew how to count cadence and I knew how to march, because of my work in my school marching bands. That’s when my drum skills kicked in again. I was back in my world, and I called the cadence, and I marched us to all our classes, and I brought us all back. I marched us to chow.
“John Phillip Sousa was the first composer who I got really into, because I was the drum captain in junior high school and senior high school. We marched ten deep, and we’d be ten across. To move a hundred people up and down a football field with the sound of my drums and my rhythm, to stop them on a dime and start them up, to stop everybody on their left foot or their right foot—that all gave me a sense of power that I had to really understand and get used to. I never wanted to play in a jazz band or night clubs as a kid. If it would have been left up to me, I’d rather still be in high school. Football in Texas when I was growing up was huge. Our high school football team played in Jefferson Stadium, where the Houston Oilers played when they first started and Rice University finally bought. And people would bet a lot of money on high school football games and also on high school marching bands. We would have competitions, and people would bet to see who had the best drum sections, who had the best march. Marching bands in the state of Texas and Louisiana and that whole area was very, very important during that time because it was one of the only entertainments that the African-American people really had. That was a big deal. What I learned was how powerful the drum is at a young age.”
Considering Carvin’s strong training in drum rudiments and the discipline he learned as drum captain and in the military, there’s no wonder that he has a reputation as a strict disciplinarian in his teaching, as he puts it, “all the time.” “If you want a friend,” says the drummer, “I’m not him, because he will create a failure. You want somebody to hold your hand and change your diapers, go back home to your mama.”
But Carvin’s method in teaching isn’t firmly set; it’s quite individualized, and this ties in with a motto he repeats often “each one, teach one”—which also happens to be the title of his 1992 album on Muse Records, one of four he recorded as a leader for the label. “My father taught me, and I’ve taught over 300 drummers. But I only taught one. That’s why none of my students sound the same. None of them sound like me, because I don’t play in the lesson. You will not mimic. No ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ You have different fingerprints. You will act like it. I will force you to act like that. You will honor your birthright. You will honor your DNA. If not, you must go. Each one, teach one. In my opinion, you can’t teach two people. You can only teach one. And so it goes, you teach one, and that one teach one, and that one teach one, and that one teach one, and on and on.”
Carvin has used his individualized approach to teaching in order to prepare drummers for very specialized situations—including mentoring individuals to follow him into specific jobs. “I loved Jackie McLean so much that when the time came where I had to separate from him, I told him, ‘Jackie, I will create another drummer, and I will send him to you.’ And I sent him Eric McPherson. And with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas—when I left Martha, I told her, ‘I’m going to create a drummer just for you.’ I sent her Larry Crockett. For Abbey Lincoln—I loved Abbey to death for giving me a chance— ‘I said, I’m going to create a drummer for you,’ and that was Jaz Sawyer. That’s all part of ‘each one, teach one,’ too. My goal is by the time I die to have enough young soldiers out here so the music doesn’t drop —the level of drumming doesn’t drop. Because if the level of drumming drops, then the music will just be nothing.
“A great drummer is one who works with great musicians and makes a lot of records. But who cares? In this country, we don’t have masters. In other countries you have masters, like in the martial arts. You have Buddhist monks who are masters, philosophers who are master minds. What’s a master drummer? A master drummer is one who teaches a young man how to be great, to push him all the way, to give him a dream and then make it come true. That’s a master.”
Carvin occasionally takes on students who play instruments other than drums. Saxophonist Tia Fuller is one example. What does he teach them? “Mostly, breathing and listening, breathing and listening. It’s not about you; it’s about the music. Have patience. [Pianist] Hampton Hawes used to tell me all the time. My first jazz gig was with Hamp in 1971. He would say, ‘Michael, have patience.’ All the guys would just fly straight on through, and he’d say, ‘Guys, have patience.’ I couldn’t figure that out until after I passed 50. And then I’d say, ‘That’s what he was talking about.’”
With all of the mentoring he has done with musicians of nearly every instrument—including the mutual mentoring with other jazz greats—we could argue that Michael Carvin is more than a great drummer and more than a master drummer. He’s a master musician.