Where Words Fail

I remember it like it was yesterday. The smoke-filled, rowdy, rough and tumble Boar’s Head Saloon in Oxford, Ohio. I was attending Miami University. I played drums in a band and Boar’s Head was our regular gig.

My dad, Chubby, played drums. So naturally, I picked it up at an early age. I still vividly remember playing a solo drum performance at the high school talent show. Dad was so proud.

Music has always “played” and integral role in my life. Growing up, my parents listened to bands and performers like The Mills Brothers and Count Basie. Chubby was especially fond of some of the jazz greats, like Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

That’s actually the reason I learned to play drums with a “traditional grip” in which the right hand holds the stick overhand, but the left holds the other stick underhand (like my favorite jazz drummers of all time, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa). This differs from “matched grip” or “parallel grip” in which both hands hold the sticks overhand.

This week I thought it would be fun to write about a few of my favorite moments in American music history. Given my jazz drumming background, I’m sure you’re not surprised that I am kicking it off with the birth of jazz. Do you know what year it was?

Some say the genesis dates back to 1910, when the genre began to take shape in New Orleans. The city was (and still is) an eclectic melting pot of musical influences, characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and a unique blend of African American musical traditions with European harmonic structures. But some argue that the first jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues” by Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, was the true inception. 

Whatever the case, it is a genre near and dear to my heart both as a player and listener. But as you probably know, jazz is an acquired taste. As Louis Armstrong said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” Some people won’t even classify jazz as “real music” due to its wildly improvisational nature in which even “wrong notes” can be heard as beautiful and bold. As the great Miles Davis said “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

As a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s, I’ll bet you can guess the next genre on my list…rock and roll, of course. I certainly wasn’t playing jazz at a college bar like the Boar’s Head. If you were alive back then, you certainly remember the rock and roll explosion in the mid-1950s. 

When Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” at Sun Studio in Memphis in 1954, it marked what some people refer to as the “emerging moment” in rock and roll history. But let’s not forget Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” in the same year, which became a massive hit and is often considered the first rock and roll record to top the Billboard charts and bring rock and roll into mainstream culture.

Of course it goes without saying that Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” in 1955 and subsequent hits like “Johnny B. Goode” solidified his role as one of the founding fathers. But in my opinion, it was Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” in the same year that really blew me away. His energetic performance and flamboyant style was my introduction to the concept of “showmanship” in rock and roll.

Next on my list…the iconic Woodstock festival of 1969. I wonder if any of you were there? I was 21 years old at the time, and I remember the buzz surrounding this event was surreal. My bandmates and I talked about going, but the 10 hour drive from Cincinnati to Bethel, New York ultimately deterred us. 

With performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, it’s no wonder this music festival holds such and esteemed rank in American music history.

I listened to most of these artists and bands in college. My band rehearsed many of their popular songs to play as “cover songs” at our frat parties and dive bar gigs. Ah, the late 60s. What a time it was. 

Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed this little stroll down musical memory lane. It sure brings back many fond memories to me. Now I leave you with what I think may be the greatest quote regarding the magic of music:

“Where words fail, music speaks.”
-Hans Christian Andersen