September 1, 2014

Jack Dudney - Dharma Drummer

Jack Dudney wasn't a zen teacher. Well- he was, but I don't think he knew it.Jack Dudney was my drum teacher when I was a kid. A professional musician, Jack played Big Band with Ed Gerlach's Orchestra in Houston and he taught music lessons on the side. I took lessons from Jack for about 9 years. Well, eight years, I guess -- and then I just hung out with him for an hour one afternoon per week for the last year.

He died several years ago.

I'll never forget the first time my 11-year-old eyes saw him. He was a huge man who hulked over a full trap-set like a mountain behind crates stacked on a beach. I walked in for my first lesson and he sat me down behind a kit. Handed two sticks the size of logs and said "show me what ya got."

Boy! My big break!!! I was constantly beating on things in my living room and bedrooom. Everybody (including my dad - who used to play some drums himself) noted that "the kid does have some rhythm."

So I took those logs, scrunched forward to get my feet on the bass and hi-hat pedals, and proceeded to smash, bash, crash and trash my way around the circle of snare, tom-toms and cymbals. I kicked back and beamed when I was done. Looked triumphantly over at Jack and heard him say "Yeah. I think we can work with that."

Yep-- that was it. "We can work with that" was his only comment on my awesome display of raw natural talent.

That was Jack's style- understated and a bit aloof. Kind of swing-band zoot-suit hip, he was the only adult I took seriously when he said things like "Cool. I can dig that."

First thing he did was give me a pair of my own logs. Size 2A drumsticks - the ones ya learn with- are literally the diameter of Lincoln Logs and about a foot long with blunt beaded points machined at the end.

"If yer gonna learn to do drums, kid, yer gonna learn to hold the sticks. Yer clubbin' my drums like a caveman and I don't want ya rippin' my skins," he said. "If yer gonna do drums right, ya gotta learn to bounce, not bash, and ya gotta control that left hand, man."

Like a later intro into sitting meditation, the very first thing I learned about "doin' drums" was posture. That and how to tuck the left stick -- butt cradled at the thumb and tucked tip-toward-chest under the next two fingers -- "so's ya bounce not bash."

Next lesson (after a posture check) the zen started. He pulled out some sheets of paper and books -- music paper with what the untrained eye might mistake for notes all over them.

"Difference is that drum charts don't change tones," Jack explained. "The position of the note on the lines tells you what drum to use, so you can't rightly call them 'notes.' These sheets ain't music. They're what you read to make yer music. Yer gonna learn how to read the instructions, do what they say, and then learn how to not-follow them right."

And then there were a couple years of drudgery. Instead of smashing and bashing Neanderthal and carefree on the coffee-table, I quietly tapped out proper flams, paradiddles and flamadiddles, single strokes, double strokes and crush-rolls with my Lincoln Logs on a Remo-brand practice pad so it wouldn't trash the coffee table. I stood or sat up straight, staring at my books and charts and graduated from stultifying boredom to marches and military tempos.

I graduated into 1A sticks -- slightly smaller logs and used by many marching bands. Definitely "not cool" still. "Damn, Jack," I'd say on occasion (he was the only adult didn't mind my adolescent "Damns"). "When do I get to do something cool?"

"Ya wanna do cool?" he'd say. "Play this." And then he'd set me behind a full kit, dig through a stack of records (yeah- big 33 rpm-s. It was a few years ago, okay) and drop the needle onto one. Gene Krupa or Tito Puente. Getz or Goodman or the Dorseys would blare into the room and he'd just stand there looking at me.

I'd kick and clunk and clank and thud my way through a song and he'd tell me "Yeah. I think we can work with that. If ya wanna learn the groove (what had played on the record), ya gotta do the charts."

So we went back to the rudiments - and posture- and proper stick handling and charts. Interesting side note -- to this day, I still know how to hold a stick in my left and tickle it with my fingers to get "the bounce." Why can't I figure out chopsticks?

Eventually, like 3 years into the deal, we went to lessons on the kit instead of the practice pad or a stand-up snare. Learned how to move right and left foot independent of one another and of both hands. Learned to "dance the bounce on the skins" and trip lightly around a trap set - using 7A or my favorite 9A sticks -- barely more than pencils with nylon tips that made a cymbal sing crisp & clear and a snare drum snap like a banner in a brisk breeze.

And the charts got more complicated. Arranged with dots and circles and flags scattered across all five lines, the spaces and sometimes two staffs stacked.

I hated charts. Some yutz with a pencil telling a musician what to do. "Damn, Jack," I'd say from time to time. "This arrangement just ain't cool." (Even on my way out Jack's door for the last time as a young adult, Jack wouldn't go for anything stronger than "Damn." He was hip -- but even hip had it's personal boundaries.)

"Ya want cool?" he'd say. Then he'd dig through the records and drop the needle on the song that went with the chart. "Sight-read it."

Ohhhhhhh mannn. Sight-read!

Drop onto a cold drum throne in front of an unknown chart and dive into playing with the band based only on what's written on the chart. Hands, feet, head and heart all operating independently of one another trying too make one whole tempo, beat and rhythm that fits with the efforts of 50+ other musicians -- who either know what they're playing already or are grooved into the vinyl and permanent.

That's tough.

Clank and clunk, bash and thud -- slowly better but not "solid" with the orchestra. "Yeah, we can work with that. If ya wanna get the groove, ya gotta know the charts --- and then figure out how to not-follow them right. Rest, man, ya forgot the rest -- sometimes the silence is the sound you want. Ya gotta know the music then feel the music then be the music -- and then let the music be you. Quit thinking! You're thinking instead of being and screwing the rhythm."

By year eight, I thought I was a pretty good drummer. I was banging around with a band doing what we called "Acid Jazz." We could have called it "Fusion" but that name had yet to be invented for the Jazz-meets-Psychedelic music style.

Apparently Jack thought I was doing okay too. "Lessons" became hanging out, shooting the breeze, "sharing chops" and drummer duets-- you-follow-me, I'll-follow-you riffs that rocked the house and occasionally pissed off the piano teacher next door. Or we'd challenge each other to sight-reading duels or "trippin' the skins" sight-reading solos. I knew I was really kickin' ass when I'd look over from the traps and see Jack with his eyes closed and a big old monkey grin on his face.

Every week, I'd pay Jack for the lesson and then come back the next to hang out, "peeve the pianoman" and trade monkey grins. Then one week became the last day.

We finished our session and Jack took up his appointment book to write my next lesson date as usual. Then he stared me in the eyes and put down his pencil. "Ya know you probably shouldn't pay me," Jack said. "I mean, all we've been doing is hanging out."

"Yeah," I said, "but you're -- like-- my teacher, man."

"Naw, man" Jack answered. "I'm not a teacher - just a dumb drummer. I've shown you everything I've got about music and you've pretty much got what I've got. Now you've gotta go out and play it yourself."

Which I did for several years.

I haven't played a lick on the drums in a decade or so, but I can still hold a proper left stick. Don't know how many times or how many contexts I've reminded myself that "Yer gonna learn how to read the instructions, do what they say, and then learn how to not-follow them right." Or I remember to "Quit thinking! You're thinking instead of being and screwing the rhythm."

And sometimes when I hear myself say "Yeah. I think we can work with that," I break into a big old monkey grin -- or silently welling tears of respect.