A long post follows, with many new stories.
My awareness of the amazing musician Donald Lambert began in 1970, when I heard this music coming out of my FM radio speaker when Ed Beach (WRVR-FM of sainted memory) offered a program of Lambert’s then few recordings:
I loved then and still love the beautiful carpet of the verse. But I was uplifted by the rollicking tempo and swing of the chorus. And not only by the pianist, but by the drummer, cavorting along — not overbearing, but personal and free, saying “Yeah!” to Lambert at every turn, but not too often.
The magic possible in cyberspace has made it possible for me to talk with Howard Kadison, the nimble drummer on that recording and — no cliche, a witness to history, because he knew and played with people we revere. First, he and Audrey VanDyke, another gracious scholar, made available to me the text of an entire periodical devoted to the Lamb, which I have posted here eight months ago. It’s an afternoon’s dive, I assure you: I’ve also presented the two fuzzy videos of Lambert, solo, at Newport, July 1, 1960, that are known on YouTube.
But Howard and I finally had a chance to talk at length, and I can offer you the very pleasing and sometimes surprising results. Howard doesn’t have a high profile in the jazz world, and I suspect he is content with that. But he played drums with Danny Barker, Connie Jones, George Finola, and many others whose names he recalls with pleasure. However, he was most famous to me as the drumming sidekick — the delightful accompanist — to stride piano legend Donald Lambert. The session they created for Rudi Blesh (pictured above) always lifts my spirits. As did my conversation with the man himself.
On May 5, Howard graciously talked to me about “Lamb” and his experiences being Lambert’s drummer of choice — both at Frank Wallace’s High Tavern in West Orange, New Jersey, and in the recording studio. Sit back and enjoy his beautiful narrative. He was there, and he loved Lambert.
HOWARD KADISON REMEMBERS DONALD LAMBERT
I always fooled around with the drums. I was really drum-crazy — I used to have a telephone book with brushes, and I’d play with the radio when I was fourteen, fifteen, twelve years old. I always liked music and if I heard a song I could always remember it. I had come from a divorced home and was dividing my time between Chicago and Miami when my parents split up. And when I was in Miami I heard a radio station, WMBM, “The Rockin’ MB,” Miami Beach, and I didn’t know what kind of music it was, but it was jazz. I had no idea about jazz. And I listened to it and just fooled around with it. Then I went on to college, and in my junior year, I really decided that I wanted to play drums. Whenever there was music in Miami, I would go to whatever event it was. I always had a peripheral interest.
In 1959, I went to New York, and was very serious about it, and started taking lessons. When I was in college, I was an econ major, so it was quite a change. I studied with Jim Chapin initially, and for a long while with George Gaber. I had an endless series of day jobs, and one of them had me working in the mailroom of ABC. George Gaber was a staff percussionist, and he was a brilliant teacher who eventually ran the percussion program at Indiana University. But before he left New York I studied with him for a couple of years. The way I met him was he was practicing one day — he came in and was warming up — and I watched him. I was delivering mail, and he just started talking to me. He asked me if I was a drummer, because I was watching him so intently. I told him I was trying to be, and he took me under his wing.
While I was there, I ran into a banjoist and guitar player who became one of my mentors, Danny Barker. Danny was playing at a place called the Cinderella, which was on West Third Street in the Village. He kept in touch with me, and he started giving me little gigs that would come up. And there were a bunch of guys playing around at that time. There was a wonderful piano player named Don Coates, and Ed Polcer, and Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood. They were all older than I, but I got to know them a little bit. I started working, just gradually. And then Don Coates, who was from Jersey, brought me out to hear Don Lambert play. I just thought it was the most wonderful music. I forget exactly how it happened, but this was shortly after Lambert had gone to Newport in July 1960.
Danny Barker told me that Don came up on the bandstand at Newport, at what they called the Old-Timers concert in the early afternoon, and there were a lot of good stride players there, and he got up and, to use Danny’s words, “this old man killed everybody. He got up there and played and scared the crap out of everybody in the place.” And Danny never used language like that. “He left those people there shaking like a leaf.”
So I met Lambert through Don Coates, and Lambert said, “If you ever want to come in and bring a snare drum, there’s not much room back here, but you can bang a few notes with me.” That’s a direct quote. So I took the Hudson Tubes to Newark, and then got on a bus, and finally found myself in West Orange, New Jersey, I think it was, and would walk from the bus to Wallace’s High Tavern, which was where Lambert was playing. I brought a snare drum, and played some brushes.
I should explain. He played behind a long oval bar on a platform which was just enough room for a baby grand piano. Guys would come sit in with him occasionally, but there wasn’t a whole lot of room to play with. Anyway, I played a couple of tunes, and as I was leaving, Frank Wallace came up to me — he was the owner of the place — and he said, “Would you like to come in once and a while and play? Lambert enjoyed your playing.” You know, Lambert didn’t talk to me; he did. And I said yes: I didn’t know he was offering me a gig, I thought he was just talking to me to come in and play once in a while. I did it a couple more times, and then he said, “What would be involved to get a set of drums back here?” I said, “Well, there’s not much room.” There was just room for a snare drum to fit in one little place. I used sit near a display of alcohol on one side and Lambert on the other, and in the middle there was a cash register where he would ring up the sales. He had me sitting next to the cash register, and when he’d ring up a sale, if I wasn’t careful and didn’t duck, the drawer would hit me in the head, which I’m sure explains a lot of my behavior these days.
Anyway, he figured out a way of getting a bass drum in there, and he moved some things under the bar. I think there was a connection to a sink or something, he kind of juggled some stuff and I was able to get a small bass drum in there, a hi-hat, and one cymbal. It was pretty cramped in there, but I was able to do it. And I started playing on a regular basis, about three nights a week, and it was eight bucks a night plus a sandwich, one of those heated sandwiches where they use an electric bulb and they put them in those cases. I was working days, and Frank would drive me to the train station after the gig, and I’d take the train home, back to New York City. But I would go there by bus, from Port Authority bus station, through the Hudson Tubes, and then a pretty long walk. I’d have to leave the drums there. That went on for a while.
There was one very critical thing that happened that was helpful. The set-up didn’t allow me to see Lambert while he was playing. We would play almost with our backs to one another, or at right angles. So I had to listen very intently to everything he was going to do, because he didn’t do a lot of talking when he played. He’d go from one tune to another, and I’ve often thought in retrospect that this experience of really listening was very important, because it required a very specific kind of focus to know what he was going to do. He’d play an introduction, then he’d play the time, and that was it.
That went on a couple of years, and then there was a project that came up. It was a guy named Rudi Blesh was going to record Lambert. That didn’t involve me at all. I think it was going to be a solo album with Lambert. I don’t know how the conversation began, but they said that they wanted to add a drummer. Blesh wanted to use some other players, and Lambert wanted to use me. Danny Barker, who was at Newport when Lambert played, heard about the project — I’m not quite sure of tthe mechanics involved — but Danny, I learned later, recommended me and said that if I’d been playing with the guy, I’d probably be the one you’d want to get. When they asked me if I wanted to do it, I was terrified, because I’d never done anything like that before. Ultimately, I was the one who made the recording, and that was primarily because of Danny. Frank Wallace, the owner of the bar, had kept in touch with Danny after Lambert played, and evidently Danny told Frank that Lambert should use me. A lot of tap-dancing, a bunch of up-and-back stuff. I didn’t know anything about it. I was just a kid playing drums, and that’s it.
(At this point the Editor interrupted and reminded Howard that there was a story extant of Lambert telling Blesh, “That’s my drummer,” referring to Howard.)
Yes. That was one of the most thrilling things that had happened to me. If I’d quit playing drums after that, I could have been happy. I could have died happy. I was astounded by all of it. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I just sat down, and Lambert said, “Hey, man! Just do what you do with me at the bar. That’s it!”
Sometimes I’d go out at night after the gig and shoot pool with Lambert, if I didn’t have to work the next day at my day job, hang with him in Newark, and sometimes he would talk about music.
I learned a lot on the job. He’d make comments. If he wanted me to do a specific thing, he’d turn around and say, “Now, don’t do something until you hear me sound like I’m ready to have you play.” Then he’d wait and turn around and say, “And then, put me in the alley!” That was one of his favorite phrases, “Put me in the alley!” He didn’t talk a whole lot, but he spoke volumes, the way he played things. If you just listened carefully, you didn’t have to watch him. If I were going to speak about people who guided me, it would be Danny Barker and Don Lambert.
One of the rules that I learned, that I thought was extremely important, is that you have to focus, to remember whom you’re accompanying. And that’s important. You’ve got to find a way to connect with the soloist. I never thought of drumming as soloing, I always thought of it as being an accompanist. And that was something I took away from two extraordinarily different experiences, completely dissimilar in every respect, as far as music. But the philosophical approach to every gig is the same: you’ve got to listen, be part of the solo, and help the soloist. And that’s, I believe, of critical importance. That’s all you can do!
There was a thing that Danny Barker used to say. He would tell me, “Hey, man, if you’re a drummer, most of the time you’re going to be playing for other people, you’re not going to playing drum solos. So it’s nice to do all kinds of monkeyshines” (and I quote) “but your real job is to be an accompanist. So you gotta learn how to back people up,” and he always talked about that. He was a wonderful guitarist, and playing time with him was marvelous. You’d get such a groove, and, hey, if you could get that going, why would you want to do anything else? So the trick is to be good at accompanying people. I was lucky, because I got to play with him, and I did an album with him. And that was a great pleasure.
You could learn on every gig. You might learn how to develop your chops with a teacher, but in the final analysis, you’re doing it so that you can play with people. So, to me, the trick is to just stay in the background and play for somebody else. That’s it.
I’ll tell you a story, and I don’t know the details. It’s something that Don Coates told me. At one point, Lambert was working as a janitor or a clean-up guy at the Adams Theatre in Newark. Jack Teagarden was there with a big band. There was evidently a piano backstage. Lambert was fooling around with it, and Teagarden happened to hear what he was doing. There was a song that Lambert played, a song he had written himself, and Lambert gave Teagarden the music, and, according to what Coates told me, Teagarden used it as a kind of opening theme for his big band. The story is fuzzy and not very precise, and there’s no way to verify it, because Coates has passed away, but there was some connection between Lambert and Teagarden. (At this point, the Editor interrupted to tell the story of Lambert being at Jack’s 1940 HRS session, documented in a photograph.)
I’d call him “Lamb,” because that’s what he always did. And I’d call him “Don” sometimes. The other thing you might be interested in, one of the sterling times I had with Lambert, is that Frank Wallace called me one day and said, “We’re going to go visit Eubie Blake at his house in Brooklyn. Would you like to come along?” I was tongue-tied, but I said, “Sure.” And I just sat there and listened to them talk, and didn’t say a word the whole time. It was great, listening to them talk, up and back. And they both played.
He had interesting things he would say. His mother was his piano teacher, and she used to tell him he should learn every tune in every key, and he did. Every tune he played, he could play in all twelve keys. He was technically a very fine player. I’ve heard stories about when he was in New York in the Thirties and early Forties, and then he left and kind of buried himself in Jersey. He was always very humble. He told me once that he thought he was one of the better piano players in the state of New Jersey. That’s a direct quote. Lambert was a lot of fun. He had a good sense of humor. He was generous, and he was helpful. He’d come over sometime and say, “Remember what you just did, because that was OK.” And that was nice. I mean, I just played with the guy and had fun. I was a kid and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was very lucky, and he was very kind.
Lambert didn’t live a lot longer after the record date. He had a stroke at one point, and he was still playing, and playing well. But he wasn’t feeling well, and he didn’t always take care of himself as well as he should. He was in a place in Newark called Martland Medical Center, I think the name of it is, and I visited him there once, and after that he passed away. I went to his funeral, as a matter of fact. A very bad time, a difficult time. I loved him very much. He was a good guy.
I want to close — in a mist of gratitude to Howard and Audrey and the Lamb — with three ways to celebrate Donald Lambert, and none of them is a photograph of a headstone, because well-loved people are never relegated to such forms.
Second, a marvel. At the site called Wolfgang’s Concert Vault, the Voice of America tape of the “Old-Timers'” afternoon concert at the Newport Jazz Festival, arranged by Rudi Blesh, including Lambert, Eubie Blake, Willie “the Lion” Smith, the Danny Barker Trio with Bernard Addison and Al Hall — some 93 minutes — can be downloaded here in high-quality sound for $5.
And finally, another marvel. Videos exist of that afternoon: two solos by Lambert, several each by Barker, Eubie, and the Lion — but this one, I don’t think, has been widely circulated or ever circulated. I caution finicky viewers that the image is blurry — perhaps this was a film copy from a television broadcast, or it is the nineteenth copy of a videotape (I do not have the original). But here are Eubie Blake and Donald Lambert essaying CHARLESTON. Eubie takes over early and Lambert is in the most subsidiary role . . . but we see what he looked like at the piano, and that is a treasure.
Bless Donald Lambert. Bless Howard Kadison, too.
May your happiness increase!