More Than Just The Drummer in the Band: An Interview with Chip White

February 23, 2015

Chip-White-300x246On one hand drummer Alan “Chip” White is the epitome of a sideman, performing and recording with dozens of artists, yet he is a composer whose songs are more than vehicles for his drumming, he writes lyrics, and he has published a book of poems about jazz musicians whom he admires. White has performed and/or recorded with a wide variety of artists, from Chet Baker, Claudio Roditi, and Jimmy McGriff, to Savion Glover, Irene Reid, Tom Waits, Etta Jones and Houston Person, who he’s been with since the early 90s. He’s also released five albums as a leader since 1994, with artists such as Robin Eubanks, Geri Allen, Randy Brecker, Wycliffe Gordon, and Renee Rosnes playing his original tunes.

His latest CD, Family Dedications and More, is another album of strong, melodic compositions coupled with a CD of poetry. White has written each song in honor of a musician or family member, and then uses the song as a background for the short poem he’s written for that person.

I first met Chip when he appeared with Houston Person at the Dakota in Minneapolis a few years ago. Since then he’s sent me copies of the albums in his Dedication series, featuring songs and poetry. Recently, I met him on The Jazz Cruise, where he appears each year with tenor sax player Houston Person. We sat down for a few minutes in one of the ship’s bars as he talked about his background, meeting Houston Person, his poetry, and his music.

How long have you been drumming?

Well I got started when I was a kid. I was born in Manhattan (1946), uptown in Harlem, and my parents moved to Peekskill when I was small. My father was a marching band drummer. He worked in a hospital but was very much into rudiments. His brother, my uncle, was one of the best snare drum champions in New York. As a kid I started following them, and when I was nine years old, my dad asked “Do you wanna play with us? If you do you have to practice an hour every day. I’ll be your teacher and when I’m your teacher I’m not your father.” I said okay, and it took me about two, two and a half years, where I got to the point I was playing well enough to start playing parades with them. I made $15 a parade, and we were doing three or four a weekend, and the next thing I had a bank account, and I was eleven years old. I said this is a good start.

How did you get into jazz?

I wasn’t into jazz yet. I’d heard some Miles, and I heard a little Coltrane and thought wow. I didn’t not like it, or like it, it was just different. I was into R&B. I came up with Little Richard, James Brown and Motown. I loved that, but the more I listened to jazz, the more I got deeper and deeper into it. The other music was nice but just seemed to stay there. This kind of grew.

An early discovery in Chip White's jazz education

An early discovery in Chip White’s jazz education

I had a great music teacher in high school. We had a big band and he turned me on to Clifford Brown. I said “How come I never heard of Clifford Brown?” and he told me he died in a car accident. Then he gave me a copy of Monk’s Dream, so I started getting into Monk, I was a senior in high school and he took us to hear the Basie Band at the World’s Fair in 1964. That was the band with Frank Wess, Frank Foster and Thad Jones. Later I played with Benny Powell, and Frank Wess, and I studied composition with Frank Foster, which was one of the things that helped me.

Then we had a band in high school under the direction of our music teacher, and we had to join the union, which was funny cause we were 15. We started playing all these union places and the union man came around. He said, “You guys sound good but you have to be in the union,” so we joined, which was even better for us. I was playing with my music teacher and his father, and then started getting calls from the union guy.

Did you study jazz drumming in particular?

It’s a completely different style of drumming than parade drumming. I was good at parade drumming, and almost didn’t want to give it up but realized if I wanted to play jazz I needed to study. After my father taught me all he could, there was a local guy who was a real good jazz drummer. He was an excellent teacher and I studied with him for a number of years.

Then I went to Ithaca College for a year and realized I didn’t want to be a classical musician. It was good, though because I had to study piano. Then somebody told me about the Berklee School of Music, where I studied with Alan Dawson. In the meantime I had heard Coltrane with Elvin and McCoy for the first time when I was a senior in high school. At that time I was really getting into it. I was fortunate to hear Miles and Monk, and Bill Evans. The good thing about living in New York is you don’t have an excuse if you don’t know what’s happening.

When did you start playing with Houston? How did that come about?

Kim & Marion. Working with them proved provident.

Kim & Marion. Working with them proved provident.

I met Houston somewhere in the early 90s. I had a rehearsal studio at the time. The lady I was with was a choreographer and we did a musical together. I wrote all the music and the libretto. We put in on in the East Village for about a week, but didn’t have the 250 grand to go off, off, off (Broadway). After working for a year on this show, directing the band and everything I thought, “Man, I’d like to be a sideman.” A friend of mine, Cecile Brooks, said, “Houston’s looking for a drummer.” It just so happens the next day some friends of mine, singers Kim Kalesti and Marian Cowings were working with Bill Charlap who wasn’t well known at that time. We did some school concerts together and Houston was on those concerts. So I said, I got your address yesterday and here we are on this gig, and he said, “Okay, well I’ll call you sometime.”

Really, about a week later he called me. His drummer got sick at the last minute. I had just gone up to visit my mom. They always say if you want a gig, leave town (laughs). I had gone to visit my mom and we spent the evening having dinner. The next morning I got the call, so it was only an hour (to NYC) so I got in the car and that’s how I met Houston and Etta Jones. Houston was playing brunches at the Blue Note, so that was the first thing I did. That was about 92 or 93. I started playing with them, and Etta Liked my playing and Houston too, so I joined the band.

Here’s a video of Chip with Houston Person back in 1993


Tell us about this series of albums you’ve released – the Dedication Series.

Chip's book, available as ann e-book or from Chip's website

Chip’s book, available as ann e-book or from Chip’s website

The way I got the idea was initially, I started writing lyrics to my own original music. One night I heard some words to my music. I went to the piano and put some words to it. They seemed to fit, so I knew a few good singers and they came over and liked it.  So I started writing the lyrics to my own music. Then I went to Japan for a gig at a private club for two months and started working on a book. I wrote a poem for Duke Ellington, and then Miles, and Bird and Trane. It took me about four or five years, but I’ve put this book together with poems for all these musicians. (Takes out book – I’m Just The Drummer in the Band)

Once I got the book, I was getting ready to do some recordings. I had an album in ’94 called Harlem Sunset, which was critic’s choice in Billboard when it came out. I was trying labels but nothing worked, so I saved up a little money to record. I thought, I have a composition for Duke, and I have a composition for Trane, why don’t I do series of compositions for them on one disc, and the poetry under the music on another. No one is doing that, I far as I know. So that’s when I came up with the first one, Double Dedication. I used an all-star band, Kenny Barron, Ray Drummond, Randy Brecker, Steve Wilson. I found out that if you have good music and have great musicians, you’re gonna have a good result.

Then I did More Dedications with Mulgrew (Miller). Unfortunately he passed away after that. I had Steve Nelson, who was on my first, Duane Eubanks. We did compositions for Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Bobby Hutcherson, Clifford Brown, also Milt Jackson. Milt Jackson was on one of the jazz Cruises, and I gave him his poem. About a month later he shows up at our gig – just a little club in New Jersey. I thought there’s a guy that looks like Milt Jackson, and it was him! He said, “I really like that poem,” and I told him it’s part of a book, so he said, “I’d like to buy that book.” So he got one of the first copies of the book and he asked me to sign it for him. I said to myself, “Well, I think I’m headed in the right direction.”

And the latest one, that you just released.

Yeah, I’m really fortunate, that came in at number 5 and now it’s number 4 this week. I hired a very good radio publicity guy. He does the same thing that a record company guy would do. You need that kind of guy.

Who are the tunes dedicated to on this release?

Chip's latest release, Family Dedications and More.

Chip’s latest release, Family Dedications and More.

It starts off with a tune for Houston, Blue Person. Then there’s a tune for myself – CW’s High Hat, and a tune called The Dance Spot. That was one of the pieces in the musical that I did, going way back. Some of the pieces are brand new, and some I’ve had forever waiting for the right circumstance to record them. There’s a tune Jobim and a tune for Elvin, who I heard with Coltrane. The rest are for my brother, Raymond’s Happy Waltz, and my father, and my mother, so it’s kind of historic. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to do this stuff, and I just spend as much time as I’m able at the piano and at the vibraphone.

Do you have more to write?

Well, the book is finished. My wife is an editor, and she edited it for me.

Have you done compositions for every poem in the book?

No, because there’s a hundred pieces. I do have more than 50 compositions that I’ve recorded on my CDs. I figure if I don’t play my own music, who else will. When people hear the tunes, they’re really hearing me.

You mentioned that you’re putting together your own group to perform.

I’ve been working around New York. I was fortunate to work at Dizzy’s a couple of years ago. I had five nights opposite Bobby Hutcherson, so I wrote a piece for Bobby. I might do something for Benny, I’m just kind of open, and trying to survive. I’m a New Yorker who is from New York. There are a lot people who come to New York, but there are a lot of musicians who came from New York – Max Roach, Stan Getz, Monk was from NY too. Benny Carter.

Well, this has been great. Thank you for taking the time to talk.

Thank you, Larry. I appreciate it.

For more information: www.chipwhite

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