Come in from the cold, past the handsome bronze sign above Tommy, the club’s bulky bouncer. Red velvet curtains shroud the half-sized stage, reminiscent of the elegance indelibly linked with Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club. It’s New Years Eve at Smoke Jazz and Supper Club in New York, and tonight, colossal tenor man Eric Alexander and pianist Harold Mabern are the stars. However, please focus your attention behind them to the man on the drums, as this is where true mastery is found.
From the opening groove on John Coltrane’s Equinox, Joe Farnsworth defines jazz as relentless swing – the kind that, as we come in from the chill, leaps from the ride cymbal and calls our clutched bodies into a viscerally induced dance.
Farnsworth, a Smoke mainstay for nearly three decades, has emerged as quite possibly the world’s leading jazz drummer. Fierce on the bandstand in laying down uncompromising and often lightning-fast time, he transports the audience back to the days when “Philly” Joe Jones proved to be the driving engine of what would become known as “The Quintet” – Miles Davis’ 1955-1958 collaboration with Red Garland, John Coltrane and Paul Chambers. Proven not only in clubs that bear the name Vanguard, Smalls and Blue Note, Farnsworth has toured and recorded extensively with jazz legends George Coleman, Curtis Fuller, Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis, to name a few.
While rock drummers enjoy “star-status,” luring young listeners with the simplicity of louder/faster/choreographed antics, this has never been true of jazz drumming. Jazz drummers live with an inescapable fear and shame felt when audience members head to the bar for another Manhattan. Farnsworth’s solos – always true to compositional form – partner technique and ambidextrous agility with insightful, tuneful lyricism and rhythmic complexity. Ideas unfold (seemingly) effortlessly but always in service of artistic integrity.
Young jazz musicians refer to the players they admire most as “heroes,” and I believe Joe Farnsworth is exactly that. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have admired his artistry since we became best friends at the age of 8. His father would take us to local venues to hear jazz’s elite as they passed through from Boston to New York. Joe’s endless talent, like for so many, was both a blessing and a curse. I remember one day stopping by his house, a block away from mine in South Hadley, Massachusetts. He was working on a Max Roach solo. “Listen to this,” he said to me. “This is what Max does,” playing the solo perfectly. “And this is what Max might have done,” rewriting in front of my eyes the solo of one of jazz’s greatest drummers – perfectly in style, perfectly logical and swinging and artistic, but from his own imagination. Few teenage drummers can imitate a jazz legend, never mind emulate or reimagine how their solos might look like on another recording.
In his early teens, Joe moved away to Indonesia, where his father taught music. He was surrounded by the influences of South Asian drumming traditions. While visiting nearby Japan, he bought his first Miles Davis record (Miles Live in Tokyo) and was transfixed by the drumming of the great Tony Williams. This proved to be a turning point, a move away from his first love – the great big bands of Ellington, Basie, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis – in favor of the individual freedom and small group collaboration that accompanies bebop drumming. Reading the liner notes on his newly acquired Miles recording, Joe saw that Tony Williams studied with Alan Dawson, a Berklee faculty member and Boston’s most acclaimed drummer.
Joe moved back to the states a few years later, brimming with a confidence in his talent and a desire to play the set. He persuaded his father to bring him to Boston to study privately with Dawson but came back humbled by the lesson. Apparently, Dawson had listened to Joe as he rattled off blazing fast grooves and epic solos. Rather than be impressed by the flash of the young drummer, Dawson simply sent him home, asking him not to waste his time until he was ready to learn how to play the drums.
What Dawson wanted to harness in Joe was the commitment and tenacity it takes to know the instrument so well that it is simply an extension of your imagination.
I remember him coming home uncertain what to take away from the dismissal of the master teacher. A month passed, and Joe called and asked Dawson if he could come back to Boston. When he returned, he simply asked the teacher what he needed to work on. So they sat down, knee-to-knee, with a drum pad between them, and Dawson began, slowly, to play a paradiddle. And Joe imitated him stroke for stroke. This continued week after week, lesson after lesson, until one day, Dawson told Joe that he could be a great jazz drummer, but that involved learning the art of playing the instrument.
What Dawson wanted to harness in Joe – like he had in other great students over the years – was the commitment and tenacity it takes to know the instrument so well that it is simply an extension of your imagination. He had seen a kid caught up in wanting to be a star rather than focused on mastering the traditions of the art form. Being a star is about ego – what you get from the outside world. Mastery is about what you get from within, from your relationship with the music. Mastery requires a much greater internal commitment to the art form because it is not being able to play something 10 times out of 10, but rather not being able to not play something 10 times out of 10.
After his education with Dawson, Joe went to college just outside New York City. He rarely attended class in favor of hopping the train into the city to “hang with the cats.” This is where he met jazz legend Art Taylor. You could always hear the reverence for Taylor in Joe’s voice. “I might as well have been in 1952, right at the start of bebop. Art played with everyone – Coltrane, Bud Powell, Miles and Monk – and is a [musical] descendant of Kenny Clarke and a direct link to the founding fathers of jazz.”
That night at Smoke, I asked Joe the question: Why practice? And he said, “See the drum. Hit the drum.” He borrows the quote from Hall of Fame slugger Wade Boggs, who lifted it from baseball great Pete Rose (“See the ball. Hit the ball.”) Joe loved the simplicity in Bogg’s approach to swinging the bat. With each hit of the drum, he connects with those who have come before him and informs those to come. With the history of jazz drumming in his head, his creative thought guides his musicality; the drums are now simply an extension of his artistry. And for the first time, I understood that Joe’s philosophy of “See the drum. Hit the drum.” was not only about his journey of mastering his instrument but a metaphor for his life’s ambitions.
Good advice for all, I imagine. Be humble and never confuse talent as a substitute for hard work – you need both. Don’t let your ego take center stage. Because what you are striving for is more than fame, it is artistry. And keep it simple – logging in the hours of sweat will free you to tell a bigger story, your story.
Tommy, the bouncer, closed the New Year’s evening’s performance, as he does every night – by singing the tender ballad I Wish You Love, and I re-upped my conviction that Joe Farnsworth is the world’s most profoundly important living jazz drummer.