Drummer Jerome Jennings is one of the hardest-working musicians on the scene today. Despite his prowess on the instrument, he remains incredibly humble, eager to give credit to his many teachers and collaborators, including his childhood friend, trumpeter and educator Sean Jones. Jennings’ profile has risen over the past year or so, thanks to his work in bassist Christian McBride’s trio.
While working toward his a master’s degree at The Juilliard SchooI, Jennings was the recipient of the Morse Fellowship, which invites artists to provide music instruction to public school students in New York City. Jennings quickly developed a passion for teaching.
The drummer’s new album, The Beast (Iola Records), is his debut as a bandleader. The album addresses racial injustice in this country, and Jennings has surrounded himself with excellent musicians who can help him pursue his vision, including Jones, McBride and vocalist Jazzmeia Horn.
While pursuing a highly individual sound, Jennings has joined a growing list of progressive young artists who are infusing jazz with elements of r&b, funk, and hip-hop.
DownBeat first met Jennings last fall at Bondfire Radio in Brooklyn. Then we followed up with him recently during rehearsals at The Apollo Theater in Harlem, in his role as musical director of Beats, Rhymes, and Tap Shoes, a show that salutes the music of the seminal hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.
For many young people, A Tribe Called Quest was their “gateway” to jazz music. Talk about their influence on the music and culture at large.
A Tribe Called Quest has indeed influenced some jazz artists. J Dilla [who worked with A Tribe Called Quest] has become important to so many young jazz musicians in the past 10 years. Many of the artists he produced have become [important] to jazz musicians. Tribe has been influenced by … spoken word, jazz, r&b, visual arts, dance. For me, this is what makes A Tribe Called Quest so unique and special.
What an honor to be asked to serve as a musical director, but to also see your hard work on The Apollo stage must have a deeper significance for you.
The Apollo is truly special. [And] this is a special moment for us because we all understand the magnitude and rich tradition of The Apollo, [which has presented] legends like Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. It’s damn near impossible to put into words the significance of performing at The Apollo Theater.
Ohio has produced so many jazz titans, from Art Tatum and Tadd Dameron, right up through the present, with Joe Lovano and your good friend and collaborator, trumpeter Sean Jones. How did growing up in Cleveland shape your career as a musician?
Well, I graduated from Cleveland Heights High. Cleveland is as blue collar as you can get. Mom was working class, Dad was working class. He was a very hard-working dude. The hardest working person I ever met in my life is still my father. He could fix anything.
There’s great jazz artists to come out of Ohio, but it’s also known for funk—The Ohio Players, Isley Brothers, Lakeside. You have a combination of so many different things, like a potpourri of music that you hear growing up. The boots are laced up, you know. It’s grimy, but it’s also a loving environment, for the most part, as far as learning music. I had the opportunity to play music in school growing up.
Did you and Sean Jones come up together?
That’s my man! I met Sean when I was 14. He has always been an amazing musician. He was playing and hanging with older, established musicians because he could play at a very young age. He’s always been very serious. I consider him a big brother.
Sean is an honorary Clevelander and I’ll tell you why. He spent a lot of time in East Cleveland. There’s the east side of Cleveland, then there’s the city called East Cleveland, and East Cleveland is rough. Sean is from Warren, Ohio, but he spent so much time working with kids from East Cleveland. So he’s an honorary Clevelander, as far as I’m concerned, and I love him.
When did jazz become the focus of your life?
The art of playing jazz drums was introduced to me by a man named Ralph Jackson, who plays drums in Cleveland. I just fell in love with it when I heard Art Blakey play. I completely fell in love with the way he played, his aura and everything about him. I couldn’t get away from him.
I had a gig when I was 14 at a place called Choices, with a guy named Billy Grinage, who played trumpet. I subbed a gig for Ralph Jackson and I ended up staying on it. When you get affirmation from guys that you look up to, there’s no better feeling. These are signs that you should keep doing it. I got confirmation from him and the other members of the band.
There’s a feeling you get when you play this music. It’s like a friendship or kinship. And that feeling is very addictive. I got hooked on that feeling early on.
You are part of a long line of great jazz musicians to come out of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. How did studying at Rutgers aid your artistic development?
I went there during a very fertile time. Sean, who was looking out for me, called me and said, “You’re gonna move to the East Coast.” I wanted to move to New York. Derrick Gardner, Vincent Gardner’s brother, actually went to Rutgers. He was working at Ohio State, and I was there at the time and then I split.
Sean was like, “If you’re going to come, you need to come now, because there’s not a whole lot of drummers out here.” Plus, Ralph Peterson was teaching there. Man, he’s like a juggernaut of this music—drums and composition. I wanted to study with him. I got hip to Ralph Peterson’s music before Sean called me. And when I asked him who was teaching drums, he’s like, “Oh, Ralph Peterson.” Ah man, this was crazy.
Every bit of my schooling has been more intense, each three tiers: Ohio State, Rutgers and Juilliard. Each one became more and more intense. You’re on the East Coast, where you have the best of the best, the worst of the worst, and everything in between. I got immersed in that and I didn’t know anybody up here, except for Sean. I started meeting people who could really play and they sounded better than people I had heard on records. So that made me think, “OK, let me keep going.”
I learned a lot from Ralph Peterson and Stanley Cowell, who was on faculty there; Ralph Bowen was there, helping me with understanding theory behind certain concepts.
William Fielder, known as “Prof,” he’s why all these great trumpet players went to Rutgers. Professor Fielder was one of the greatest professors and teachers ever. In terms of trumpet, he has a certain breathing concept that these guys wanted to get a hold of. He was an absolutely phenomenal orchestral trumpet player, who also played jazz.
I got a chance to hang with him a lot. He was very unapologetic in his critique of you, in your playing. And he was also unapologetic in his critique of your scholarship, how you explain things to him.
We were hanging out and he asked me about Elvin Jones’ playing on Sonny Rollins’ record A Night At The Village Vanguard . And I said something bone-headed like, “Well, I think Elvin is great and I like the way his cymbals sound!” “Prof” took a little drag of his cigarette and he said, “You a very dense young man, aren’t you?” Then he walked away. But I went back to him and he still allowed me to hang with him.
He passed away a few years ago [in 2009], and I was happy to be in one of the last few classes of guys who got to know him.
You’ve become quite an in-demand drummer. Talk about your time to date as a member of Christian McBride’s trio.
I had been working with Dee Dee Bridgewater. And I was [acting in] a play [about] Lady Day with her. McBride came to show and he was like, “Cool, I like that.” Maybe about a year later, Wynton Marsalis called me to do some work with the big band for [the] Essentially Ellington [educational program]. That’s a whole another style of music. And who’s in the audience? Christian!
[Drummer] Ulysses Owens, a good friend of mine, wanted to move on. So [McBride] tried different guys and he called me up. His manager said, “Christian wants to try you out in the new trio. You want to do it?” I said, “Is pig’s feet pork?” [laughs] So fast forward, it’s a year and a half later and I’m still playing with him. And I’m loving every minute.
Christian is like the perfect storm, a soulful genius. I’m breaking out as a leader now. To do that, I wanted to be well-rounded. To be well-rounded means that there’s a bunch of information that you’ve absorbed from different places. Christian has been in so many diverse musical situations. He’s been up under so many great leaders, legends of this music. Who hasn’t he played with? If you look at Verve Records in the 1990s, he was like Paul Chambers!
He’s a James Brown’ connoisseur; I’m a James Brown fanatic! What I’m learning from him also is that you have to be well-rounded to be empathetic … . He’s very non-judgmental; he allows me to be unapologetically myself. He’s letting me bring whatever I feel like bringing to the table. He doesn’t run his ship with an iron fist. He’s just cool and open to all music. It’s a blessing.
The Beast marks a rite of passage on so many levels. For one, it’s your transition into the role of leader. It’s also a self-released project.
Well, I wanted 100 percent control. I felt like this was the time [to do it] and having had the experience of being in New York for 16 years, playing with great musicians, you [become] very observant. You hear what people say, how they talk about labels and you just learn so much. Now I want to see if I can step out on my own and do it my way.
It’s great to hear you interpret New Edition’s 1984 hit “Cool It Now.” How important was their music for you?
The first concert that my parents took me and my brother to was a New Edition concert at the Front Row Theater [near] Cleveland. I loved that group! Bobby [Brown] was still in the band when we saw them. And I loved that tune. We’d go over to my cousin’s house and they’d be playing New Edition. I wanted to put that on the record because it’s a part of my musical development, just as much as Art Blakey was. I didn’t see Art Blakey live, but I did see New Edition live. Their songs still sing to me.
For more info on Jerome Jennings, visit his website. DB