Hits and Misses

 
Carmen_McRae.jpg

In the modern music world, the old saying, “There’s no money in jazz,” pretty much holds true. For every Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Dave Brubeck or Wynton Marsalis, there are thousands of others – highly-skilled artists who night in and night out use their creative juices in an effort to stand out and make a name for themselves, draw encouraging crowds wherever they go and hopefully, land lucrative recording contracts.

For many jazz musicians, the search for success is an uphill battle, a constant struggle. In order to survive, even our most recognized jazz greats – people like Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner – had to accept menial jobs along the way, i.e. working for the US Postal Service, toiling as a shipping clerk or driving taxi cabs.

And so it goes if you’re a photographer, a writer, or an aspiring author trying to sell his or her own work – regardless of your field of endeavor or your level of expertise.

Literally everyone searching for a publisher has had their share of rejection slips. Getting published, even for the most famous among us, can often appear as practically an insurmountable undertaking. The first book proposal by Canadian novelist L.M. Montgomery was rejected by five different publishers. After putting her manuscript in a hatbox for two years, she finally resubmitted it to L.C. Page & Company. The result: Anne of Green Gables went on to sell 50 million copies.

Likewise, Thor Heyerdahl believed his book Kon-Tiki: Across The Pacific was particularly unique, but 20 different publishers all disagreed. His 21st submission to Simon & Schuster wound up selling 20 million copies.

As a freelance jazz photojournalist intent on doing a book of my own, I had amassed a cache of valuable photographs and personal stories. With all that material, I had the loftiest of expectations; not in selling a million copies, but just in finding a publisher. Indeed, when I had completed my work, Jazz In Available Light: Illuminating the Jazz Greats from the 1960s, ‘70 & ‘80s – and developed what I believed was a compelling, hard-hitting book proposal – I was sure that my efforts would be welcomed with open arms. Instead, my search for the right publisher dragged on for many months, and my rejection notices kept piling up.

Sure, I was disappointed during much of that time, but I chalked it up as just another learning experience. I knew that persistence and perseverance would eventually pay off. Rather than get depressed, I remembered back to some of my earlier business dealings that also didn’t go as planned. In each case, the setbacks occurred because of another party who was involved in the transaction, i.e. a magazine editor failed to credit and pay for a published photo; someone reneged on an agreement/assignment; an equipment manufacturer illegally used a photograph of their sponsored artist; or a producer decided not to honor a contract and had to be sued in small claims court.


Thinking back about one unusual event that occurred long ago now strikes me as rather humorous.

I recalled that night in August of 1969 while covering the Concord Summer Festival. Visiting backstage prior to the opening set, I was approached by a representative of vocalist Carmen McRae, who explained that she was doing a live recording that night and needed photographs to view for possible album use.

As soon as the announcement was made and Carmen appeared onstage, the scene held all the trappings for what would be a special, momentous occasion. The perfectly-coiffed diva was outfitted in a dynamic mod-influenced, pink background, high fashion designer creation that absolutely stunned the audience. Similarly, she exuded that resolute, in-charge attitude of hers and performed brilliantly throughout the set. I had a ball photographing her.

I was pleased when I saw my results a short time later, and after reaching out to her rep was told to contact Ms. McRae directly. When I called Carmen, she set a time for the two of us to meet in San Francisco. Anticipating our get-together, I brought with me about 15 of the images that I felt were the most expressive and revealed her in the optimum, best moment.

Looking carefully through each of the images, Carmen matter-of-factly dismissed one after another with such comments as, “No, that’s no good.” Afterwards, she said, “Don’t print these. I would never use any of these photographs. I was drunk that night.”

Needless to say, that set of circumstances was pretty unsettling at the time. I was not prepared to hear those remarks. But I thanked her for reviewing what I had and then left.


To my knowledge, no recording was ever made of Carmen McRae that night in Concord.


ALBUM
I Fall In Love Too Easily

COMPOSITION

“Carmen McRae’s Finest Hour” (Verve Records)

 

More Monterey Musings

 
 Leonard Feather and Mary Lou Williams doing   the first ever Blindfold Test (Metronome magazine, September 1946)

Leonard Feather and Mary Lou Williams doing the first ever Blindfold Test (Metronome magazine, September 1946)

 

As a follower of, and contributor to, the jazz scene for a very long time, one of the things that stands out is the progression of the music...including all of its forms of expression. Jazz is, of course, always changing, but so too is the way it’s covered.

Take, for example, the popular feature “Blindfold Test” that appears in each issue of Down Beat magazine. Critic Leonard Feather (1914-1994) invented the blindfold test, the significance of which was to use a noted jazz musician listening to recorded works of various artists without knowledge of who they were, and then eliciting critical opinions of what he/she heard. The very first one-on-one “Blindfold Test,” featuring pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams, appeared in the September, 1946 issue of Metronome magazine.

After Metronome folded, the “Blindfold Test” became a regular Down Beat feature in March, 1951.

Since the departure of Leonard Feather, Down Beat’s primary hosts of the blindfold tests are writers Dan Ouellette and Ted Panken. Whenever possible, they stage their “live” listening programs with assembled crowds at various music venues and jazz festivals across the US, Canada and Europe. I had an opportunity to witness one such Blindfold Test when I joined the audience during an interactive public setting on the grounds of the 61st annual Monterey Jazz Festival last month.

Dan Ouellette’s guest was the bassist, composer, arranger, producer, educator and Grammy award-winner John Clayton. Because of Clayton’s considerable big band credits, including his works with the Count Basie Orchestra, the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, The Royal Conservatory in Holland and the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the recorded selections he was asked to identify and critique were other big band units.

What I found so interesting in this setting was how Clayton – thoroughly engrossed, using “big ears” to capture the identifiable sounds – arrived at his educated guesses of the leaders and solo personnel on the various recordings. While he didn’t correctly identify all of the selections Ouellette played (which would be a near impossibility for even the most studious of all jazz listeners), all of the criteria he personally employed for discerning what he heard was indeed revealing. For example, as a prime rhythm-maker himself, he was listening in detail to the lines delivered by the bands’ bassists and drummers to help arrive at his decisions.

 
 John Clayton, Christian McBride, and John Patitucci from this year’s MJF (photo: @montereyjazzfestival)

John Clayton, Christian McBride, and John Patitucci from this year’s MJF (photo: @montereyjazzfestival)

I remembered back to 1984 when I was photographing guitarist Emily Remler, one of the featured artists in my book. It was apparent during our conversations just how strong of an impact two particular bassists had played in her own life. Regarding her bassist at that time, Eddie Gomez, she told me, “I used to say, ‘If I could play with Eddie Gomez, I could die right after that, happy.’”

Likewise, she was especially effusive about John Clayton, the man responsible for introducing her to the public on her very first Concord Records disc, It’s All in the Family, featuring the Clayton Brothers (John on bass, Jeff on alto saxophone), pianist Roger Kellaway and drummer Jeff Hamilton. That outing helped launch Emily as a bonafide leader on a series of what would become her own albums.

After the Blindfold Test wrapped up, I introduced myself to John Clayton, passing along what Emily had shared with me about how much she revered the bassist. And how excited she was while touring overseas in the early ‘80s to have been able to reunite and perform with him again during his tenure as leader of the John Clayton Orchestra in Europe.

It was a bittersweet reminder of the really good times the two artists enjoyed together. There was no need to say anything about the early demise of Emily Remler, or how much the two meant to each other. As we departed, I congratulated him on his career, plus his many contributions to both the current state of jazz and to the education community.

Walking away, I couldn’t help but think what these two might still be creating were she alive today.

 
 A photo from when I captured Emily Remler in 1984

A photo from when I captured Emily Remler in 1984

 

Monterey Musings/Evolution of the Double Bass

With September’s 61st anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) now in the books, it was most fitting and appropriate for the promoters to devote one special segment in honor of double bassist Ray Brown, a key component who helped shape the history and success of the festival. Kudos to Artistic Director Tim Jackson for recognizing the significance of such programming. Brown, who passed in 2002 at age 75, was practically an MJF mainstay – from his first appearance in 1959 to his last in 1994.

It goes without saying that were it not for Ray Brown, there would be a huge void in the progression of this instrument today. But to his credit, Ray was always quick to praise another bassist, Jimmy Blanton, who provided the single-most influence for him and was directly responsible for Brown’s own personal development.

Blanton, today recognized as the virtual jazz founder of bebop bass, was thrust into the spotlight as a 21-year-old when Duke Ellington hired him for his Orchestra in 1939. As described by critic Harvey Pekar, Duke was so enamored with Jimmy’s pizzicato technique – “...full of eighth- and 16th-notes and triplets, and he played melodic, piano-like parts at brisk tempo” – that he showcased the bassist front and center on the stage next to his piano. Ellington had never before featured his bass player in such a manner, and within a short time, even frequently used the youngster in duo recordings and in intimate combo settings with such band stalwarts as Johnny Hodges.

 
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In the 1950s, Brown told then-editor of Down Beat, Jack Tracy, "I just began digging into Blanton because I saw he had it covered--there was nobody else. There he was, right in the middle of all those fabulous records the Ellington band was making at the time, and I didn't see any need to listen to anybody else.”

As a way to pay it forward during his final Monterey visit in 1994, Ray closed the loop by passing along the “double bass baton” to another rising successor. Halfway through his set, Brown announced, “I have a little surprise for you. I’m hoping it’s going to be a treat for you. I have probably one of the most promising young bass players to come along in quite some time. I happen to think he’s as talented at his age as the guy that I copied playing the bass from, Mr. Jimmy Blanton from the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I’d like you to help me welcome to the stage Christian McBride.”

From the glowing praise he received that night as a 22-year-old, McBride has more than lived up to the early billing, as well as exceeded all the expectations of him that have since followed. Today the six-time Grammy Award winner continues to walk away with multiple first place finishes among readers and critics alike in virtually all the major jazz magazine polls.

So it was only natural that the 2018 “Remembering Ray Brown” tribute at Monterey featured Christian McBride. The headliner, who had the honor of making music and hanging out with Ray Brown on numerous occasions, was joined by fellow bassists John Clayton and John Patitucci who were also strongly influenced by Brown. Coincidentally, beginning in 1997, both McBride and Clayton joined with Ray Brown to record several albums under the name “Superbass.”

Final Note: October 5, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of Jimmy Blanton’s birth. Had he not succumbed to tuberculosis at age 23 – and likewise, guitarist Charlie Christian at age 25 – there’s no telling just how much broader and exciting our modern music landscape would be today. As it is, the jazz world is indeed blessed to have received their bountiful contributions.


EXAMPLE OF JIMMY BLANTON

 

EXAMPLE OF RAY BROWN




The Making of a Jazz Standard

It was while in college as a 20-year-old in 1949 that Bill Evans wrote his first composition. In his biography, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, Yale University’s Peter Pettinger wrote, “...he produced a small masterpiece in waltz time that he called ‘Very Early.’ It is a highly disciplined piece of writing, its melody comprising a two-bar falling, and then rising, germ; it can withstand the most rigorous structural analysis. It exemplifies a fundamental lifelong characteristic: the application of logic to a creative musical process. That approach was the backbone of the form and content of Evans's art. And yet when we listen to his music, we are conscious not of the compositional process but only of the resultant poetry. Played ‘straight’ from the page, ‘Very Early’ is a lyrical gem; but it also provided its composer with a fruitful sequence for improvisation, the earliest of many compositions that sustained him around the globe for three decades.”

One of the highest compliments that can bestowed on a jazz artist is to have his/her composition performed and recorded by other recognized industry leaders. The more frequently this happens – and the more widely the tune becomes known among listeners – the more likely it is to become judged as a jazz standard.

In his fascinating book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press, 2012), noted historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia offers up 253 such examples, denoting them as standards “...based on their significance in the jazz repertoire of the current era.”

I don’t believe anyone can quibble with the final list of selections Gioia chose for his book, other than perhaps simply wanting to add a few more. In my estimation, “Very Early” is one of those pieces worthy of consideration of the title, jazz standard.

For someone of Bill Evans’ bonafides, it’s perfectly understandable why pianists, especially, would want to create their own take of this idyllic jazz waltz. Indeed, many of them already have. For starters, check out the myriad renditions available online by Michel Petrucciani, Kenny Werner, Doug McKenzie, Ariana Racicot, Stefano Battaglia and the 15-year-old prodigy Joey Alexander in performance with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see and hear what is becoming an ever-growing stable of guitarists who have embraced this delightfully challenging piece, with the much-heralded John McLaughlin leading the pack. Since his eloquent interpretation of “Very Early” from the 1981 tribute album, Time Remembered: John McLaughlin plays Bill Evans, a host of others have followed suit, including Howard Alden, Tom Quayle, Gary Willis, Matt Otten, Jack Wilkins, Simon Peter King, Rick Stone, Tim Lerch, Jake Reichbart, Danny Whalen and more.

Still other instrumentalists, including alto saxophonist Phil Woods and vibraphonist Joe Locke, have added their own special versions to the mix, but my personal favorite translations of “Very Early”– after Evans – were recorded by two of jazz’s most lyrical but expressly diverse tenor saxophonist stylists, Stan Getz and Charles Lloyd.

Fabulous artists taking a tune, reworking and reinventing it to call it their own. This is what makes jazz so great.


ALBUM                  

Moon Beams (Bill Evans Trio, Riverside Records, 1962)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early”

PERSONNEL         

Bill Evans, piano; Chuck Israels, bass; Paul Motian, drums

 

ALBUM                  

Pure Getz (Stan Getz Quartet, Concord Records, 1992)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early” (solo begins at :20 second mark through 1:10)

PERSONNEL         

Stan Getz, tenor saxophone; Jim McNeely, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Victor Lewis, drums

 
 

 

ALBUM                  

Charles Lloyd Quartet: Montreux, 1982 (Elektra/Musician label)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early” (Lloyd’s solo begins at 1:50 mark)

PERSONNEL         

Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Michel Petrucciani, piano;  Palle Danielsson, bass; Son Ship Theus, drums

That Innate Ability to Make the Leap

“One of the most thrilling things about jazz as a spontaneous creative process is in recording it, and later, hearing oneself and being so surprised at what has happened.”

– Bill Evans

Early on, it was the pianist and composer Bill Evans, who so deeply moved me. His choice of music and the way he played those most expressively sensitive lines elicited all sorts of emotions in me. He could sometimes fill you with sadness; he could bring you to a place of peace and tranquility; and on those especially gorgeous, heart-rending ballads, his calming delivery could bring tears to your eyes.

Because of all his unique qualities, I spent many hours becoming more familiar with Bill Evans. One of the more enlightening works I discovered of the great pianist was a brief documentary produced in 1966. It was kind of a step-by-step discussion involving creative problem-solving featuring Bill and his brother Harry, a music teacher who played both piano and trumpet (The documentary is still available online, including this additive version assembled by composer Jon Brantingham).

In it, they begin by discussing improvisation and the nature of jazz, which Evans describes as a “process” rather than a style. Then, moving to the piano, Bill demonstrates how to take the basics of the song “Star Eyes” as a simple framework and from there add succeeding layers of rhythm, harmonics and melodic variation.

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For Evans in 1966, then in his late ‘30s, what he formulated in those final three minutes of this demonstration was all so perfectly natural, so spontaneously creative and finished. And I’m guessing if Bill had listened to a playback of his ad-libbing on this tune – seemingly very simple, at least to him – he would still have heard something that was surprising.

Why? Because this is the nature of improvisation, creating in the moment. You can’t expect an artist to go back and play exactly what he/she has just conceived. There are no written notes. That’s what makes jazz so inspiring, so exciting. It’s always fresh. For both artist and listener, that’s the surprise.

The first time I heard that documentary, I was also surprised to learn that in one very small way, Bill Evans’ early music experience was similar to my own. He, too, got his start through classical training and over time, was able to perform complete masterpieces from the written scores. Yet, he was unable to play a simple tune without a music chart. “I couldn’t play ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ without the notes,” he stated. Even after joining a dance band as a teenager, he would still play the stock arrangements exactly as written.

But then, “...one night, I got real adventurous on ‘Tuxedo Junction,’” he said, “and I put in a little ‘Bwang’...this was such an experience, to make music that wasn’t indicated.”

In Evans’ case, reaching the lofty pinnacle of perfection that he achieved was an ongoing process, taking him many years. It wasn’t until “...maybe something like 28 when I began to feel a degree of expressive ability,” he said.

The journey for every creative musician is different; for some, it appears to be much easier. Fortunately for those of us who are huge Bill Evans fanatics, he just kept at it. In his own way, something inside compelled him to stretch out, to go beyond the written notes, to reveal his innate creative personality.

Only a special, select few have this capability and enjoy this distinction.When we discover them, they should certainly be celebrated.


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ALBUM Waltz for Debby (Riverside, 1961) Bill Evans Trio

COMPOSITION “My Foolish Heart”

PERSONNEL Bill Evans, piano; Scott LaFaro, bass; Paul Motian, drums

 

Not Ready for Prime Time

When you’re young and green, chances are you have no clue what you’re going to pursue as a career. That was me in a nutshell, certainly as a teenager.

Whatever hopes my parents might have had that I would grow up to become a musician was permanently dashed the night I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet solo on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House,” from the legendary 1953 album, Jazz at Massey Hall, in Toronto.

What is today dubbed as “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever” may be a slightly over-hyped claim, but it was the last time that Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Gillespie ever performed together. Historically, there can be no denying it is one of the greatest recorded live shows in all of jazz.

Dizzy.jpg
 

I was unaware at the time that this quintet personified the bebop movement. All I knew is that what I was hearing was spontaneous, highly-spirited musical joy. Dizzy’s phenomenal take caught me by complete surprise.

As a cornetist who had studied the instrument for seven years, I was technically very proficient. But I only played what was actually written, I couldn’t improvise. I wasn’t even able to comprehend what Gillespie had delivered...such free, expressive creativity, his fleeting runs, the clean articulation even in the higher registers. Afterwards, I just sat there in amazement.

It was just a short time later that I went off to college, never picking up my horn again.

Had I not been exposed to jazz music, or listened that evening to Dizzy Gillespie, my guess is that I may have continued to dabble with my horn from time to time, all the while foolishly believing I was actually pretty damn good.  

I can only imagine New York in the 1940s, and what it must have been like for those brash, but nervous, up-and-comers during the after-hours cutting contests at Minton’s Playhouse. Consider those amateurs believing so strongly in themselves...thinking they had the speed, stamina and technique, and could play the most bewilderingly complex phrases necessary to battle with the great beboppers, the likes of Dizzy Gillespie.


 

ALBUM  Jazz at Massey Hall (Debut Records)

COMPOSITION  “Hot House” (the best part begins around the 3:30 mark)

PERSONNEL  Charlie Parker, alto saxophone; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; Bud Powell, piano; Charles Mingus, bass; Max Roach, drums

 

Casting a Wide Net

Reflecting back on my flukish introduction to jazz, I have this seeming conundrum: How is it that my revelation of this “...only true indigenous American art form” (as Quincy Jones noted in the Foreword of my book) all came about because of a most passionate and knowledgeable Brit playing records on the radio?

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Wes Bowen (uncredited photo)

 

And how is it that Wes Bowen, an erudite transplant from South Wales who served as paratrooper in World War II and rose to the rank of major in the British military, would somehow become recognized as one of the world’s great authorities in jazz. After moving to the US following the war, he began what would become a 30-year career in broadcast journalism, along the way even holding the post of national president of the Broadcasting Editorial Association.

From my own exposure to this great music in the 1950s, what I eventually learned is that Bowen’s popular “All That Jazz” program on Salt Lake’s KSL Radio had regular followers spanning 38 states, even reaching ships at sea.

Like so many others from across the pond, Bowen (born in 1924) received his “baptism” – also through radio – by listening to the recordings of such early jazz masters as pianists Duke Ellington (with whom he became a  close friend), Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Earl (Fatha) Hines.

Interspersed with the great sides he spun, Bowen would share his personal accounts and interactions with various artists. Wes Bowen made you feel like you were part of his world...that you belonged, and were a member of this special family. His distinct accent, his cool, laid-back delivery during those early morning hours so perfectly fit with the captivating sounds I was hearing.

As a teenager, I guess I was too shy to even consider trying to get his phone number and letting him know how much of an impact he was having on me. Looking back now, I wish I had made the connection. I think we would have become fast friends.

 
  Earl (Fatha) Hines

Earl (Fatha) Hines

In 1955, about the same time that Wes Bowen was exposing me and my ears to this exciting new music, Willis Conover launched his wildly celebrated “Voice of America” jazz broadcasts, reaching millions of new listeners throughout Europe, as well as behind the Iron Curtain.

Bowen may not have had the same reach that Conover enjoyed, but each in his own way made a huge impact in furthering the spread of jazz around the world. It’s interesting – while it was a New Yorker in the mid-20th century who brought this amazing American art to the Old World, it took a Britisher to bring it back to America...and, more importantly in my case, to me.

  And of course, Duke

And of course, Duke

 

 

ALBUM  Fatha's Pianology 

COMPOSITION  “Pianology” 

PERSONNEL  Earl Hines

 

 

ALBUM  In a Sentimental Mood

COMPOSITION  “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” 

PERSONNEL  Duke Ellington

Blue Red

It doesn’t really matter wherever in the world you come from, your background, your upbringing, your level of education. The circumstances for how you were introduced to – and then became a lifelong devotee of – this fabulous art form we call jazz is as different for one fan as it is for the next.

It was an early morning, chance encounter on radio as a teenager when I got hooked. I had stayed up late listening to an extra-inning baseball game broadcast of the St. Louis Cardinals on KMOX radio. Not ready to call it a day, I began turning the dial. From my midwestern home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, about the only thing I could pick up at that hour was static. But all of a sudden, I landed on the 50,000-watt station, KSL in Salt Lake City, Utah, just in time to hear the opening theme of host Wes Bowen and his “All That Jazz” program.

What better exposure could there be for night owl novice who knew nothing about jazz than to hear the blues and those delicious block chords played by Red Garland? As it turned out, that opening theme song would serve just as a prelude to all the great jazz programming that would follow.

In our household, music at that time was a pretty big deal, primarily because my grandfather, a clarinetist, had the distinction of performing with John Philip Sousa’s Marching Band. It was when “The March King” toured throughout the midwest that he used C.W. Smith as one of his pick-up section players. On weekends, there was kind of standing invitation for fellow musicians from the neighborhood to bring their horns and sheet music to our home and join with my grandfather in hours-long sessions.

While in grade school, my parents bought me a King Silvertone cornet. Soon thereafter, I began studying classical music privately every week, and by my teenage years, was sufficiently adept to playing just about anything written on the scores in front of me. But then Wes Bowen and his “All That Jazz” program jolted me. By serving up the best of the swing stylists, big band leaders, plus bebop, cool and hard bop giants, his shows literally took control of my senses, instantly redirecting my musical outlook.

From then on, I took every opportunity to tune in. I began memorizing all the names – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Count Basie, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Ray Bryant, George Shearing, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk – and their tunes. And I began searching out, and buying their records.

As for Red Garland, it was many years later – well past his glory days with the original, most famous Miles Davis Quintet featuring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones – when I finally got the opportunity to visit with and photograph Red, who remains as one of my all-time favorites on the piano. He did nothing flashy, and used such a narrow range of the keyboard; but to me, Red Garland – with his overall feel and those husky two-handed chords – was simply without peer.

What an introduction to my life in jazz!

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ALBUM  A Garland of Red (Prestige)

COMPOSITION  “Blue Red” (Red's solo begins about 2:30 into the song)

PERSONNEL  Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Taylor, drums