Arranging Ellington: Interview with Steve Little

Greetings, all. Our deadline for Arranging Ellington submissions has passed, making a lovely whooshing sound as it flew by. As we draw to a close, I'd like to extend my deepest thanks to all of those who submitted, and to everyone who participated in this conversation. It has been a tremendously inspiring experience for me to immerse myself even more deeply into the world of a composer who means so much to me, and a genuine pleasure to share my love of Ellington's music with all of you. I look forward to listening to the final submissions!


I also have a parting gift for you: here is an interview with drummer Steve Little.


Steve Little played drums in the Duke Ellington Orchestra for several months in 1967, and also returned briefly in early 1968 to perform and record the Second Sacred Concert. He is best-known for his playing on the Strayhorn tribute …And His Mother Called Him Bill, but he can also be heard on the 1967 Ellington octet live date At The Rainbow Grill and on the Ray Nance oddity Body and Soul. You may also have heard his playing on a little-known public television program called "Sesame Street," which he played on from the show's first broadcast in 1969 right up until 1993. He is also an accomplished classical percussionist — when I spoke to him last night, he had just returned from an afternoon gig with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra. For more on Steve, his varied career, and his recent activities, see this great 2012 interview he did with Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus. As Ethan says: "Younger musicians wishing to discover more about the tradition should should try to get next to Steve Little: he's accessible, generous, and very swinging." Needless to say, I concur.




DJA: Do you remember the first time you heard the Ellington band live?


SL: The first time I actually heard Duke, I was in high school [in West Hartford, Connecticut]… but I didn't go to hear Duke, I went to hear Louie Bellson. I was in junior year in high school, I was a kid studying drums, and I wanted to hear Louie Bellson! And that's when I first heard Duke. That would have been about 1952.


DJA: Can you tell us about how you ended up getting the gig with Duke's band?


SL: What happened was, around the end of 1966, [saxophonist and bandleader] Charlie Barnet went into Basin Street East — a New York club that's no longer in existence, it was right by the Waldorf Hotel — and I had worked with Charlie on a road tour once, in about 1960. And he had a great band: he had [trumpeters] Clark Terry and Snooky Young, and [trombonist] Jimmy Cleveland, and Willie Smith… remember Willie Smith, the old alto player?


DJA: Eddie Jones was playing bass in that band, I think?


SL: Eddie Jones, [tenor saxophonist] Richie Kamuca, [pianist] Nat Pierce…. What happened was, they got… I think it was Gus Johnson who was supposed to play drums, and Charlie had some charts that [arranger] Billy Byers had written, and Gus couldn't read very well, and some of them were a little complex. And Charlie remembered me and he said, let me try using Steve. I was working at Radio City Music Hall, I hadn't worked with a big band in about five years, but I said "All right, I'll try it." So I made the rehearsal, and I went into the month-long run at Basin Street, and that's how I got with Duke, really, because he came in, and he sat in with us one night. And then I heard from [Duke's son and road manager] Mercer Ellington, who asked me if I would want to go out with Duke. And I didn't want to go — I hate traveling, frankly! But I said jeez, I gotta do this, because that was always my favorite band.


DJA: That time when Duke sat in, was that the first time you met him?


SL: Yeah, that was the first time I ever met him! You know Sam Woodyard was still in the band, and he was having all kind of alcohol problems. And then they had all kids of different guys, including Elvin Jones, who… I guess the guys in the band, you know, Elvin wasn't right for that band.


DJA: The older players, I don't think they could really play with him!


SL: Yeah, yeah, Johnny Hodges and those guys, playing with Elvin wouldn't have been their thing. So then they got this guy Chris Columbo, who was exactly the opposite, you know? This real old guy who played like [original Ellington drummer] Sonny Greer, sort of. And Duke didn't want that. He didn't look back, he didn't want to go backwards, he wanted to go forwards. And what he really needed was like a mainstream drummer, you know, a Louie Bellson-style drummer.


DJA: Duke had actually brought Louie Bellson back into the band in '65, and then Rufus Jones for a little bit… so there were a lot of different drummers coming in and out of the band around this time, it seemed.


SL: Yeah, yeah, there were.


So they called me, and I went and I knew when I first joined that I didn't really want to stay too long, because I was starting to get a lot of good recording work in New York. I was starting to make some real good money playing music, which is not easy to do!


Now, from my point of view — this is something I haven't mentioned yet — but I never had any drum book. You know, there was not a lick of music written. There was no music! I remember we played with some symphony orchestra, and the Bell Telephone Hour broadcast it, that clip is still out there somewhere…


DJA: That Bell Telephone hour thing ended up on DVD as On The Road With Duke Ellington. So that was like, what, your third gig with the band?


SL: Yeah, I think that was my third night in the band or something like that! And there was no music, I mean there was absolutely not one drop of drum music. And so you just sit there and wing it! And you know at the time, I'm 31, 32 years old, and it was absolutely terrifying for me!


DJA: So that's when, the summer of '67?


SL: I would say so… it was not long after I did the Newport Jazz Festival with Lionel Hampton that I was out with Duke, and that was at the very beginning. I also remember, we were supposed to play in Central Park, and it poured. So we went down to Columbia Studios and did a record date. I don't remember what we recorded, I've never heard it.


DJA: That was one of the private recordings that Duke would make, on his own dime?


SL: Yeah, possibly. And I remember Chris Columbo was still there, and he was on the record date with me, but Duke said to me, starting the next night, he just wanted me to play by myself, he was actually firing Chris Columbo which was not… well, I was surprised! And I think it was the night after that that we played that Bell Telephone Hour thing. I think! I mean, I'm going back almost 50 years, it's a little hard to remember this stuff!


But you know, you just played. You sat there and we'd play A Tone Parallel to Harlem with all that stuff, and you just played it! And you couldn't… I said to Duke, "Hey Duke, do you have these records, so I can listen to this stuff," and he didn't want me to listen to the records. He said, "Just play what you want, don't worry about it." He didn't want me to play like Sonny Greer, which was quite a revelation to me at the time, because most leaders in New York were always very specific about "Do this, and do that," like they always are with drummers.


DJA: Did you have a strategy for trying to navigating the music in those early days with the band? Your predecessor, Sam Woodyard, obviously, he didn't play like a lot of big band drummers, he's almost always on the cross-stick backbeat…


SL: Yeah.


DJA: … and not doing the usual thing of setting up the figures for the band.


SL: No, I didn't have a strategy, not at all! And Paul Gonsalves, we became friends, he told me, "You don't have to play that backbeat." Paul wanted more comping, you know? And I didn't play the backbeat very much with them. I just sort of played!


You couldn't have much of a strategy because you couldn't get the records! It wasn't like now where you could go online… there was no YouTube, there was no anything! And the records were old, and mostly out of print, and it was very hard to hear any of it. Once in a while I'd try to look at a brass part… but they didn't help much with that band! Because that band didn't play brass figures like Basie. The brass wasn't used that way.


DJA: Right.


SL: So looking at a brass figure really didn't help you much. So I just played! And Duke seemed to like it, he was very supportive. I mean they called me to go back, so I guess I must have done something right, I don't know… but it was traumatic!


But I am ashamed at this point to admit that when I first started, I hadn't heard a whole hell of a lot of anything! Except I had a record that I got when it first came out called Ellington Uptown. When he had [alto saxophonist] Willie Smith, and Louie Bellson, that band. And after I joined the band, whenever we were in New York, I tried to listen to listen to everything I could get my hands on. And I gotta say, to this day, that record is my favorite Ellington record. I think the band never sounded better. Clark Terry, that great solo he played on "Perdido." And "The Mooche"… and that version of "Take the 'A' Train," which is just beautiful, he played such a beautiful piano solo on that! Which of course now, it's old hat, because every lick he played has been stolen and played a million times.


DJA: After Louie Bellson, most of the Ellington drummers would use two bass drums. Did you have a double bass drum setup when you started playing with the band?


SL: No, when I went with him, I did not. And then we got to Chicago, they wanted me to do it, and Mercer set it up for me to go down to the company and get pictures taken and get two bass drums. And I knew that I was going to leave the band and I just didn't want to do it. And Mercer was really pissed off that I didn't go down there and do it!

And the irony of it is, when I was kid, I had a two bass drum setup, because of seeing Louie Bellson with Duke! And I said, "Oh, I gotta get a double bass drum set!" And I decided very early on that I just didn't like it, I didn't want to play two bass drums. But they had it set up for me to go to the Ludwig company and pick up a set, and to be completely honest, I met some lady that night in Chicago and never got to the place!


DJA: Ha! So later that summer, you came back to New York, and the octet — you, Duke, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry CarneyCat AndersonLawrence Brown, and John Lamb — played a run at the Rainbow Grill.


SL: Yeah, we were there for about six or seven weeks, and then we went out on the road again.


DJA: The Rainbow Grill engagement, that was for dancers, right?


SL: Well, for the most part, yeah. Although we did do a jazz concert, which unfortunately, whoever recorded that record didn't really record! They recorded just the dance music. And particularly the rock tunes, for some reason — you know Duke started playing some rock, because he wanted to be contemporary, and so they got a couple of those rock tunes on there!


DJA: Yeah, and, "Acht O'Clock Rock," that ends up on The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. So the people who were there to dance to "Sophisticated Lady," how did they react to those rock tunes?


SL: You know, it's very hard to say! Every night we were up there, literally every single night, for five or six weeks, the room was packed with celebrities. Judy Garland, I don't think she missed a night. And you know, everybody came up and everybody sat in: Dizzy GillespieShirley Scott, Rahsaan Roland Kirk


DJA: Oh man!


SL: And Benny Goodman was there, but of course he wouldn't sit in, you know, he was above everything. But I really didn't pay too much attention to the audience, I was still in a state where I was just trying to focus completely on what I was playing! Of course, the octet, it was suddenly different from the big band, which I had only played with for about three weeks, so I had to make that adjustment. And then we went back out on the road toward the end of the summer and I had to go back to the big band stuff again. We went to Montreal, for the Expo, and played some of the stuff from The Far East Suite.


DJA: Oh yeah, so you got to play all that material!


SL: Yeah, yeah, we played that in Montreal for a couple of weeks.


DJA: But at the end of the summer, before you leave New York, you go into the studio for the Strayhorn tribute, … And His Mother Called Him Bill.  Now, on that 24 CD box set they came out with, The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition, they screwed up the credits, so let's set the record straight: you're on all of that record except the last three tunes.


SL: Right, those were done in California. I'm really very upset about that, because my father asked me to give him something for his 100th birthday, and I went and got that box set, and they had the credits switched! I mean the fact of the matter is that anybody that's at all aware of the band, and Sam [Woodyard] and how he played, and me, can hear it's not Sam! I have a completely different cymbal sound and cymbal beat and everything else. And as I say, I didn't play much of that backbeat.


DJA: So on this record, again, there are no drum parts… 


SL: No, no, nothing!


DJA: … and it's none of the material that you've been playing with the band live, it's all of these Strayhorn compositions, some of them going back almost thirty years.


SL: Right, I had never played any of them! The only thing I had ever heard was "U.M.M.G." and that was because Charlie Barnet had an arrangement of that. But it was a different arrangement! The fact of the matter is, I had no idea the record would become that big a thing for Ellington, or I would have really raised hell and said "Let's do another take, let me do another take!"


DJA: Because there was no rehearsal either, right?


SL: Yeah, we just went up there and played. We'd play everything down once or twice and that was it!


DJA: So this must have been a pretty intense recording session — I mean not just the stress of having to cut all this music with no preparation, but also I think it was just about three months after Strayhorn had died, and there's that piece "Blood Count" that he wrote from his hospital bed, basically his own epitaph…


SL: Yeah… 


DJA: And Duke and a lot of people in the band must have been very emotional about the whole thing. Especially since there were a lot of conflicted feelings about Strayhorn within the band. I know Lawrence Brown loved Strayhorn and basically hated Duke and thought Strayhorn was the real talent, the "power behind the throne." And then I've heard there were other guys in the band who never really warmed to Strayhorn, or his music. Were you aware of all this stuff during the session?


SL: No, you know… I was aware of Lawrence Brown, 'cause he sat right next to me, and he bad-mouthed Duke constantly, to everybody. Which is very uncool, when you're working for somebody, you know! He would blame Duke for the fact that he couldn't get another gig, because he'd been playing with the band for so long, he couldn't play anything else. Well, that's not Duke's fault, you know? But as far as all that inter-… whatever it is, I kind of steered clear of it.

The two people I hung around with were primarily Paul [Gonsalves] — every once in a while, Paul and I would go and play by ourselves, all day long, when we had a day off, just drums and saxophone — and also I hung out a little bit with [bassist] Aaron Bell. Aaron was, you know… he was straight-ahead, we'd have fun, just go to a restaurant, laugh. He wouldn't get into that stuff. But I could see among Hodges and Lawrence and Cootie and some of those guys that had been there for years and years… they certainly were not friendly to each other! I mean, they just seemed to avoid each other.


DJA: So after that record, you're out on the road again?


SL: Yeah, we went out on the road. And I did, I can't remember how long it was… a few weeks, maybe three or four months? I told Mercer I wanted to leave, I had a lot of things going in New York and I really didn't want to be on the road. And he said to me, "Will you wait until we can get a drummer?" I and I said, "Okay." And every once in a while they'd audition somebody, and it was interesting, because you know at that time, Miles Davis had changed his rhythm section and had Ron Carter and Tony Williams. And Tony was very influential to all the young drummers, particularly all the young black drummers. And that is absolutely not what would work with Duke. In fact what Tony was doing with Miles wouldn't work with anybody — Tony stopped doing it! Except with Miles at that time, who wanted something completely radically different, you know? And a lot of the young drummers who were trying to play like Tony, a few of them sat in with Duke, and you know they'd play one tune, and it was like: "Next!"


So when I finally left, they got Sam back. And then it was a couple of months later when Sam was having trouble with the drinking again, and Duke himself calls me, and said that he wanted me to play the Ed Sullivan show with them, and the concert they were doing at St. John's. Because Duke just didn't trust Sam to do the Ed Sullivan show. Duke was afraid he'd, you know, fall over on the drums on the broadcast. Which is really sad, you know, Sam was a very nice guy, I mean, he just was a terrible alcoholic.


So anyway I did the Sullivan show, and then we actually rehearsed the Second Sacred Concert for a week up in the church! And then when we premiered it, I remember it was literally the cultural event of the decade. Everyone was there. I remember the mayor was there, Mayor Lindsay, and all the politicians, and Leonard Bernstein, and Dizzy Gillespie, and all the jazz guys… and we were on the front page of the New York Daily News with a picture of the band, right below one of these sleazy headline stories about someone being shot like a dog.  


DJA: That's quite the juxtaposition.


SL: Yeah!


DJA: Now, in your interview with Ethan Iverson, you talked about the band struggling during rehearsals with the music for the Second Sacred Concert, some of which is a bit more complex than most of the stuff the band was used to.


SL: I don't remember the music being that complex. It was perhaps a little bit more… more Broadway show type of music compared to what the band would normally play. It was just a pleasure for me to start from scratch with everybody else! For once, I had the same shot that everybody else did!


DJA: Was that Swedish singer Alice Babs at those rehearsals as well? She had a very unusual sound… I mean she wasn't really a jazz-oriented type of singer.


SL: Yes, yes, Alice was on that, I remember her. She reminded me of a singer named Yma Sumac, who was very popular about sixty or seventy years ago, and had an incredible range, she could go way up high or way down low. And Alice seemed to do that. I mean, she was obviously a great singer, but certainly like you say, not a jazz singer.


DJA: So the premiere of the Second Sacred Concert at St. John the Divine, was that just you playing on that, or was Sam involved as well?


SL: Yeah, Sam was involved in that! Duke had us both play in that thing, and I'm glad he did! That is the hardest room to play in that I've ever played in my life, and I've played everywhere. That church, you hit a drum, it's just like you hit the top of a table, you don't hear anything at all. But from what [bassist] Richie Davis and [drummer] Mel Lewis told me afterwards, it all came out beautifully — even though you couldn't hear it on the stage when you were playing it!


DJA: So, did he have you and Sam on opposite sides of the band, or something? How did that work?


SL: As I remember, we were right next to each other. And we did a drum battle [on "The Biggest and Busiest Intersection"], you know? And I remember that it was reviewed in the New Yorker by Whitney Balliett, and he didn't particularly like the concert. He felt that it was very commercialized, like Radio City Music Hall. The two things he seemed to like were Cootie Williams playing "The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock)" and he said at least the drum battle added some "godlike thunder"!


But the studio recordings, there was not two of us playing. It was just me, on the session where I was there. I think they did some other dates, possibly somewhere else, with Sam. I did not play in the studio on that drum feature tune, "The Biggest and Busiest Intersection" — that was just Sam.


DJA: You mentioned that Duke always encouraged you to just be yourself, and didn't really give you a lot of guidance about how to play. But it also seems like he always managed to get the drummers who played with him to play in a way that wasn't typical of big band drumming.


SL: Yeah, well, that's the thing! I had played in a lot of different big bands and a lot of show bands, behind singers, and behind Broadway, and action stuff, and at that time, all the bands played, you know, "bah bah bah-dum bah" — the figures! There wasn't any of that in Duke's band. You couldn't play like that. So you just kind of played — you started playing different colors and different spaces.

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