Drummer Cliff Leeman had a completely personal and identifiable sound, a seriously exuberant approach to the music. You can’t miss him, and it’s not because of volume.
He’s audible from the late Thirties on in the bands of Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet, then most notably in Eddie Condon’s bands, later with the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Bob Crosby reunions, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood, and Soprano Summit. Cliff died in 1986, but his slashing attack and nearly violent exuberance are in my ears as I write this . . . including his trademark, the tiny splash cymbal he used as an auditory exclamation point. He spoke briefly about his approach in this interview for MODERN DRUMMER magazine.
In case Cliff is someone new to you, here he is on a 1975 television program with Joe Venuti, Marian McPartland, and Major Holley, elevating CHINA BOY:
In spring 2008, Kevin Dorn and I paid a call on Irene (Renee) Leeman, his widow, then living comfortably in New Jersey. I have very fond memories of that afternoon, hearing stories and laughing. Until recently, I thought that those memories were all I had. But a recent stint of domestic archaeology uncovered the small notebook in which I had written down what Mrs. Leeman told us. Here are some of her comments and asides, shared with you with affection and reverence (and with her permission).
But first: Cliff on film in 1952 with Eddie Condon . . . the epitome of this driving music. Also heard and seen, Edmond Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder, Bob Casey:
Some words from Mrs. Leeman to go with all those good sounds:
I first met Clifford at Nick’s. I didn’t go there by myself, but because of a friend who had a crush on Pee Wee Erwin.
Roger Kellaway always asked for Clifford.
He wore Capezios on the job.
He had a colorful vocabulary and didn’t repeat himself. He thought Bing Crosby was the best, but Clifford was always very definite in his opinions.
He came from a Danish-Scandinavian family where the men didn’t hug one another.
Clifford once asked Joe Venuti, “How do you want me to play behind you?” and Venuti said, “Play as if I’m five brass.”
He worked on THE HIT PARADE with Raymond Scott, who timed everything with a stopwatch, “The hardest job I ever had.”
Clifford was the drummer on Bill Haley and the Comets’ Decca recording of ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK, and when the session ended, he said, “I think I just killed my career.”
Sidney Catlett was Clifford’s idol. Jo Jones, Ben Webster, Charlie Shavers and Clifford loved each other. They all hung out at Hurley’s Bar, Jim and Andy’s, and Charlie’s Tavern.
Clifford played piano — not jazz, but ROCK OF AGES and MOTHER MACHREE, as well as xylophone. And he could read music. He was always surprised that other musicians couldn’t, and would come home after a gig and say, “Do you know _____? He can’t read!”
Clifford was left-handed but he played with a drum kit set up for right-handed drummers.
He thought the drummer was supposed to keep the time and drive the band and pull everything together. Clifford listened. He was fascinated with rock drummers he saw on television, and would tell me how bad they were.
“Cliff is the best timekeeper,” Billy Butterfield said. Billy was so cute.
He loved his cymbals.
He was hard on himself, and on other people, but he loved working with Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart. They had a good time. They respected each other. They thought that music should be fun. Yank and Bob used to rehearse the band in Lou Stein’s basement in Bayside, New York.
Kenny Davern! Kenny was a challenge to the world and a thinker. He was an angry young man who became an angry old man. He and Clifford were a comedy team wherever they went.
Clifford didn’t embrace the world, and he could be abrasive if people bothered him.
Clifford played with Bob Crosby and Louis Armstrong on one of those Timex television jazz shows. He was so proud of working with Louis you couldn’t stand it.
I have always liked musicians as a group, and never had a 9 to 5 life. Because of Clifford, I got to meet Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Gene Krupa. In those days, rhythm sections stuck together, so I knew a lot of bass players and their wives: Milt Hinton, Major Holley, George Duvivier, Jack Lesberg. I was lucky to have known such things and such people. How fortunate I was!
We are all fortunate to have lived in Clifford Leeman’s century, and his music lives on. And I thank Mrs. Leeman for her enthusiastic loving candor.
May your happiness increase!