I’ve enjoyed hearing and meeting the great drummer and drum scholar Nicholas D. Ball, thanks to the Whitley Bay jazz parties that I attended 2009-2016. Nick not only understands vintage drum artistry in academic ways but embodies them: he swings the hell out of a very — by modern standards — constricted authentic set, while combining complete seriousness and wicked glee. You can see him in action (just one example of many) here and also delve into his absorbing site, “Drums in the Twenties,” here.
But this post isn’t about Nick. He’s a gateway to the real subject.
He asked me if I’d like to hear solo drum recordings by someone I think of as an unknown master, Bob Matthews. Would I? Indeed I would. And you can also.
I listened, was entranced, and asked Nick to tell all:
I was first contacted by Bob in 2018, he having stumbled across my Drums In The Twenties website. He explained who he was and recounted some of his memories of personal encounters with our mutual drumming heroes when he was a young man, during the 1940s and 50s in New York and New Orleans. We began a semi-regular correspondence, during which I got to know all about his jazz career, learning at the feet of Sidney Bechet, Bunk Johnson and Baby Dodds, his recordings with Raymond Burke and Johnny St. Cyr and his travels across America. Also I learned about his current life, then aged 90 and more or less alone, in retirement in a remote rural town in North Carolina. Despite the great distances between us in both age and geography, over the months we became regular pen pals, to the extent that Bob entrusted to me (by international mail), the one extant copy of the EP he recorded for the great historian Bill Russell’s ever-hungry tape recorder, in New Orleans in October 1955: DRUM SOLOS.
Bob was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1928. Throughout his childhood he was bewitched by music, beginning on drums at the age of nine and also studying mallet percussion and piano to a high level.
As a jazz-mad high-school student, Bob became an avid record collector and attended concerts whenever his heroes visited Atlanta on tour, managing to slip backstage to meet many of the top drummers of the era including Dave Tough and Jo Jones. Aged 18, he travelled to New York, where he befriended and played with several resident jazz greats including Sidney Bechet, Bunk Johnson and Baby Dodds; he then moved to New Orleans where he became a fixture on the traditional jazz scene for over a decade. He then served three years playing with three different US Army bands during the early 1950s, and in 1957 relocated to San Francisco, working in a trio with pianist Don Ewell and clarinettist Ellis Horne, both of whom became close friends.
On the solo session in 1955 that yielded DRUM SOLOS, Bob’s playing, whilst clearly inspired by Dodds (as whose protégé he was proudly known) and firmly within the New Orleans drum tradition, has a distinct character and quality of its own.
‘When we started the session I just couldn’t get it together. We then took a break & had a meal at a nearby cafeteria I always ate at. After we returned it started to fall into place. I don’t know how, but it did. I recorded a variety of things: Morton’s New Orleans Joys, Scott’s Climax Rag, 2 Improvisations (full set and soft mallets on tom toms), and 3 others. I don’t remember how I thought of using complex rags & melodies to inspire me to try & follow. I could have done even better, but I never had the chance again. I had to choose the repertoire from memory at that moment. No time to plan or practice for.’
Whilst Matthews did perform on sessions with several notable bands during the 1940s and 50s, his DRUM SOLOS record was never commercially released, and has never before been made available to the public – until today, 66 years later. When Bob suggested he mail me some of his most treasured possessions, including the one copy of DRUM SOLOS (which had been dubbed onto a 10” vinyl disc some time in the 1950s) I was wary of the responsibility, but excited that perhaps I might be able to at last make this hitherto-unheard artifact from jazz drumming history available to the public after 66 years. With Bob’s blessing and co-operation, I’m really proud and delighted to at last be able to present the record for release via VEAC Vaults; as a set of downloadable audio files accompanied by a 7-page PDF document tracing Bob’s story and illuminated with his memoirs and photographs.
The solo drum recordings are unbelievably interesting: hear a sample here.
They aren’t what Whitney Balliett called “fountains of noise.” They feel like measured yet passionate melodic explorations. Bob looks into the sonic treasure-chest and pulls out gems (in a nice steady 4/4) to show us.
Some of you, deep in the tradition, will say, “Ah, these are just like the Baby Dodds drum improvisations,” and you will have created the nicest pocket to place the music into. That will be an inducement to go to Bandcamp — the link right above this paragraph — and buy a copy. Others, more quick to judge, will say, “I already know what this sounds like,” and, without listening, ready yourself for another diversion. But I suggest that you listen first.
Preconceptions shape reality. Tell someone, “This is the funniest joke in the world,” and almost whatever follows falls flat. Or, “This soup is so spicy, you’ll need gallons of water,” and we brace ourselves. Thus it is with naming music: if we allow ourselves, we create a concept and are unable to hear beyond it.
If a jazz broadcaster presented this release, “We have a new set of experimental, innovative Sonatas for Solo Percussion by T. Vasile, the young Romanian percussion star (she just turned 30) that combine ‘free’ playing with traditional New Orleans convention, down to the antique sound quality of the recordings,” some of us would turn up the volume to hear the marvels.
And — as couples say in “discussions,” one other thing. As you’ll read in the notes, Bill Russell recorded this on his tape machine, and some time later, Bob Matthews paid a local engineer to make a disc copy. A disc copy. One. So I feel in the presence of a weird greatness, facing a singular object (think of the Jerry Newman acetates, for the easiest instance) rather as I did when reading TRISTRAM SHANDY and Laurence Sterne tells the reader he is drawing on a manuscript that only he possesses the sole copy. In this case, it’s not a whimsy, but it’s true. Even if this it’s-the-only-one-in-the-universe fact does not win you over, I hope the music does.
The link to listen and purchase is, again, https://veacvaults.bandcamp.com/album/drum-solos.
May your happiness increase!