Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fried Chicken Drum Machine .

Sorry this a long post .
At about age 21 I heard Herbie Hancock's "Actual Proof" and it really knocked me off my feet . I was studying Electrical Engineering at the time ( well to be fair I was doing as much surfing as "studying" in those days ) . That music had such a profound effect on me that I decided to pursue a career as a musician . I have always loved all types of music . I am still equally as passionate about Allan Holdsworth , Gerald Finzi , Midnight Oil , Willie Nelson and Kenny Kirkland .
Allan Holdsworth is probably my greatest musical influence but he doesn't play piano . I love Keith Jarrett especially "Facing You" but most of my jazz piano idols are African American musicians . Louis Armstrong and Ellington are great but it was Art Tatum who "invented" improvising as a musically sophisticated virtuoso art form I think . Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and eventually Allan Holdsworth come out of Tatum in my opinion . He's the guy who invented "shredding" and made it a cool thing to do . Words like mofo , "killing" , " bad dude " in the musical sense can all be traced back to Tatum . Tatum's legacy was passed down mostly through the black community in America ( with a few hip white pianists like Tristano , Bill Evans and George Shearing ) . From a pianists perspective if you go back to James P Johnson , Tatum , Bud Powell , Oscar Peterson , Phineas Newborn , Wynton Kelly , McCoy Tyner , Herbie Hancock and up to Kenny Kirkland it's a pretty formidable piece of music history in relation to a grand piano . Gyorgy Ligetti , Bela Bartok , Claude Debussy and Olivier Messaien all wrote music in the 20th century that I enjoyed and learnt from but the jazz stuff means more to me . Since music can be recorded today , purely notated music is going to have a hard time competing with the grease of in the moment placement , timbre and articulation in front of a tape machine . It's theoretically possible but the post-African concept of "groove" is hard to notate with a treble and bass clef and for me "the groove" defines the best of the 20th century in music . The Beatles ( especially the early stuff ) grooves IMHO . Oz-rock ( Australian rock music from 1975 till 1985 ) grooves . ACDC grooves its backside off . That's ACDC they are so successful I think . Its not the note choices its the way the band plays time together .

In 1992 I went to jazz school in Sydney . I left after 1993 with a diploma . Getting a "degree" in music didn't make much sense at the time and it still doesn't although I have a masters degree these days . After school for the next 7 0r 8 years I pursued a career in Australia as a jazz musician . Sydney being what it was I played a lot of "funk" music as well as jazz . In those days the funk Rhythm sections in Sydney could really groove and lay it down . With my younger generation of friends in Sydney we tried to figure out how to play "bebop" . In the 90's the big record companies where pushing the young black guys in the suits playing swinging jazz so in our little prismic view of the world to many of us it seemed like you had to learn to "swing" in order to become a jazz musician . There was a growing movement in Sydney and Australia which "rejected the American model of jazz music " but not me at that point . I was naive at the time and not understanding how deep ACDC really is I disagreed with many of my friends in those days about what a "groove" was . Australia was pretty isolated at the time ( it still is although the internet and a strong Aussie dollar has changed things a great deal ) . It was very rare to see an international jazz band perform in Sydney at that stage . In 1992 I saw Wynton Marsalis with Tain and Marcus Roberts at the Opera house but I was a long way back from the band and the acoustics there are dreadful for a drum kit. I was too inexperienced to realize what was going on but still I knew that it was pretty heavy . Around 1996 or so a bunch of bands came to Sydney that really had a huge influence on me . First of all Kenny Kirkland came out with Sting and I managed to stalk him and hang with him around a piano for a couple of nights at his hotel in Kings Cross . At that point I realized he could play stride , Left Hand bass lines and tap the beat through everything he played . Up until that point I thought that jazz swing rhythms where blurry and inexact and the beat wasn't important . The same year Herbie Hancock took a quartet to Sydney with Gene Jackson . I also realized that Herbie could tap his foot through everything he played . I also saw that on fast tempos he tapped on 1 and 3 . I realized that the way he felt up tempo swing was similar to the same way that I felt "funk" music . It was a great lesson . I always tapped my foot playing funk music but not "jazz" . My friends and I always played that music aiming to get it to "groove" . Everything else was secondary . Playing swing music at that time I was "swimming" not really sure where the beat was at all . These days I don't see a difference between funk and jazz from my perspective its mostly something the drummer does with accents .

Eventually around 1996-7 "the basement" in Sydney and various promoters including SIMA started to bring out bands from New York . I was fortunate enough in a short space of time to see
1) Roy Haynes' group with Kikowski , Ed Howard and Don Braden .
2) John Scofield's band with Dennis Irwin , Adam Nussbaum , Larry Goldings and Seamus Blake
3) Ulf Wakenius with Neil's Henning and Adam Nussbuam .

All those bands really knocked me out . I had never heard " swinging" music like that up close that felt so good . By the time the Nussbaum gig came I watched about 2 tunes and just went home to practice . I realized that my efforts with my friends at playing "swinging" music would be much better informed if I spent some time in New York . It was pretty obvious that those Rhythm Sections could play swinging music on another level and It would be great fully beneficial to me as a musician to go and play with musicians in New York .

I travelled to New York in 1997 for a brief trip . It was intimidating but further cemented my view that I should spend some time over there . In 1997 in NY I spent my last dollars recording a trio with Dennis Irwin and Adam Nussbuam and for the first time I felt a jazz rhythm section which felt as "solid" as Hamish Stuart and Jackie Orsascky playing funk . I wasn't up to the task but I really learnt a lot . I have always placed myself in situations that where above my head as a bandleader and it has always helped . I applied for various grants and luckily in 1999 I got the money for an airfare to come over and study with Barry Harris and Kevin Hayes .

What's all this got to do with Fried Chicken and drum machines ? Well that's the next part of the story .

I was still listening to all types of music at that point but when I got to New York in 1999 I had a pretty enormous respect for "Black" Music . In my estimation it was "the groove" that drew me to a life as a musician in the first place and most of my jazz piano idols had been African American . In 1999 there where very few people of African descent living in Australia . My only contact with Black people and music had been through Michael Jackson , Stevie Wonder , James Brown , Jeff Watts , Elvin etc ... It wasn't hard at that point for me to believe that African American's some sort of super race of people in the musical sense .

Straight "off the boat" I moved to the southside of Williamsburg . The neighborhood was largely Peurto Rican but every block had a black drug dealer living on it . The drug dealer would get shot and a new one would take his place . This was a level of horror that made "Superfly" look like a silly joke . After a year of living there I moved uptown to 106th st in Manhattan on the west side . A couple of blocks north of me was a black neighborhood that was also beyond comprehension . It's hard to describe the feeling of seeing a bunch of young men obviously with a sense of hopelessness sitting on a street corner in a group messing themselves up with drugs . It was quite a stark contrast between the polite and well educated black musicians at Barry Harris' workshop which I attended weekly . 2 blocks from my house folks would literally throw full bottles of beer while Barry's class represented a welcoming "family" of all colors . Barry and his fellow musicians like the late Wade Barnes where very kind and warm and keen to pass on their knowledge and wisdom . Barry's lessons where very deep and I still can't think of a better "educator" .

Also at that time I somehow got invited to join a black funk band . I was the only white guy and If my memory serves me correctly they where some of the worst musicians I have ever come across . The band was semi amateur . They all lived in East New York . I used to travel out there to rehearse on the subway . It was also a pretty terrifying neighborhood . Late at night ( like 2am) young kids ages 6 and up roamed the streets in packs . I assume that their parents where either incarcerated or stoned . The musicians in that band where a bit older . They told me they had worn capes in the 1970's Parliament style . They where also very sweet kind cats and very welcoming to me . It was an eye opener for me to realize that Black people weren't "born funky " . Stevie Wonder etc had obviously arrived at where they had musically through hours of practice and study . I also at that time met the young German Drummer Jochen Rueckert who as far as I was concerned could and still can swing as hard as anyone . I realized that it didn't matter what color you where that it was up to you to put in the work and that your skin color or DNA didn't have much to do with how good your "groove" was . I believe if Jochen was a Black American he would be much more world famous as a drummer . Unfortunately I suspect that promoters outside of the USA are more prepared to back a band with an unknown Black drummer than a lesser known guy like Jochen who is amazing and sometimes he misses out ... . It's a reality of the business these days that without the support of the big record companies someone even as good as Bill Stewart might not be very well known if he had been born a bit later .

Back in 1999 through my roommate who was an organ player I was lucky enough to be introduced to the "chitin circuit" in New york . Subbing for my friend I ended up playing organ with a bunch of Black jazz groups in bars in the black community . Most of these places where in Bedford Stuyvesent or Harlem . The gigs where usually an organ trio led by a horn player . After the first set musicians would sit in . If you where lucky you could get $50 a couple of beers and a plate of fried chicken . I used to affectionately refer to these gigs as " chicken gigs " . Usually at the end of each night a chicken feast would ensue . Some of the musicians I worked with then where Bill Saxton , Brad Leali , Gerald Hayes ( brother of Louis ) , Eric Wyatt , Arlee Leonard and later Jason Marshall . The drummers playing where a who's who of great young jazz drummers like , Ali Jackson , Mark Kolenburg , Rodney Green , E J Strickland , Montez Coleman , Geoff Clap and Sylvia Cuenca . I didn't have my organ playing together and was learning on the job . I copped my fair share of criticism and at times felt like the "whipping boy" . For a middle class Australian it was pretty intimidating sometimes frightening to be in an all black club . After my plate of Chicken I had some very memorable trips home on the subway occasionally fearing for my safety . For the most part the musicians where very kind and welcoming and often generally happy that an Australian had ventured into their terrain . Many of them had memories of Joe Zawinul venturing into the black community and also some Australians like Dave Addes and Dale Barlow who had made similar inroads previously .
Coming face to face with some of the poorer parts of Harlem and Bed Sty is pretty confronting for any person with a sense of social justice . It's just SHOCKING to travel from a nice neighborhood like the upper west side and in just a few blocks you get from John Lennon's mansion on the Park to a scene of squalor and degradation that just shouldn't exist in a "3rd world country " . I have seen rural communities on the outskirts of big cities in china which have no electricity but still a sense of dignity .

I myself was struggling to pay the bills at that time . I had my organ and amplifier in a shopping cart and despite seemingly dragging that thing to a gig EVERY NIGHT a month of $50 gigs doesn't really pay the bills in NYC . You needed at least $2000 to survive . Below that really is poverty desperation stuff . I had trouble finding students . I posted notices on bus stops . I would walk around all afternoon but the next day the city had pulled them all down or someone had posted their own on top of mine . I tried accompanying Ballet Classes but learnt that Waltzing Matilda isn't an appropriate accompaniment for Plies and was quickly fired . I decided to look in the New York Times job classifieds under music in desperation . It seemed like a long shot but I found an advertisement for a job as a music therapist . I travelled out to the last almost the last stop on the F train to a mental institution for teenagers to audition . I was terrified of mental illness at that time . The first time I tried Marijuana in my teens made me pretty loopy . For a month after I thought people where trying to poison me in my family home . Throughout my 20's had waited in fear of becoming Schizophrenic . I had a couple of pretty serious bouts of depression in my early 20's which I can trace back to trying pot again foolishly . At the interview the black guy in charge of hiring me introduced me to a room full of mostly black and Hispanic kids . They where all "dual diagnosis" which meant that they where Low IQ and mentally I'll . I suspect some of them had been classed as low IQ because they had told whoever tried to test them to get fucked . In the interview I played drums , guitar and piano and the kids sang a few gospel type songs with me like Natural Woman and Amazing Grace . A lot of them had obviously only had exposure to live music in a church . Most of the kids where very friendly and tried to make friends with me during the interview . Apparently the other people who had applied where all from a classical music background and even though some of them had music therapy degrees the kids had latched on to me probably because through my musical upbringing I could relate to them in some way .

I have enough stories form the 2-3 years that I worked there to fill a book and I won't tell them all as it would take too long . Some of them where pretty terrifying and violent but for the most part they where very beautiful souls in horrible circumstances . The institution was underfunded and many of the workers who looked after them got paid $6 an hour or something . Slightly more than Starbucks . I saw kids being physically abused and ill treated at the hands of the staff on more than one occasion . The kids where fed a cocktail of drugs many of which altered the brain chemistry . Up until that time I didn't know that it was legal to give those sorts of pills to 12 year old children . The drugs made the kids fat and many walked around in a state a bit above a stupor . I had the feeling that the staff kept them heavily medicated so that they where easy to handle . I read the stories of some of these kids and many came from unbelievable horror . Parents who had murdered their brother or a girl whose mother had stabbed her in an argument. Many of the kids had ADHD which apparently is a symptom of having a parent taking crack cocaine during pregnancy . It was a job I didn't want to stay at . I needed to earn the money but also having met the kids I felt compelled to stay . It was just too heartbreaking a situation to walk away from . Seeing a youngster effectively in "prison" with many other young disturbed kids as "playmates" was a life changing experience . Often I felt that a little time listening to music with me or singing or writing a song or rap was the only brightness they had in their life . The food was horrible and their living quarters smelt of at best detergent and at worst human excrement . One young child was so disturbed that he was refused access to a ghetto blaster in case he used a the power cord to hang himself . The only time he had access to music was when he came to music therapy . I formed a very deep attachment to those kids . After the terrorist attacks and the gigs had totally dried up I took a gig in Japan for 10 weeks to make some money . I was still financially only barely afloat despite working 3 days a week in the institution while still dragging my keyboard to chicken gigs every night . Occasionally I would work at the living room with a singer songwriter but for the most part the music I played at the time was in the black community and during the day I worked in the mental institution . I remember thinking " so boy you want to swing we'll now you have to pay the price " .

Most of those kids only listened to music with drum machines . I used to try and play them James Brown etc but anything with a live drummer sound "whack " to them . Most of them where really into there drum machine music though . They loved to dance to it . They also mostly loved to eat Fried Chicken .

In many of those neighborhoods like parts of Bed Stuy and East New York it is very hard to find a shop selling fresh fruit or vegetables . Often Kentucky Fried Chicken or the equivalent is the only choice that tastes any good . If you can find fruit its going to be rotten and has probably been refrigerated at some point and looks and tastes lousy . Mcdonald's advertisements on US TV are often blatantly aimed at Black people . You would think that in a situation like that that the government would step in and attempt to provide fresh produce or subsidize it in some way to make it available . Considering how much it costs the government/society to care for the epidemic of Diabetes and Heart Disease you would think that even giving away fresh fruit and vegetables would make good financial sense .

Similarly you have to question the morality of ( white owned ) American record companies that stopped marketing Earth Wind and Fire , Stevie Wonder , Jazz etc and replaced it with Rap music with lyrics like " Nigger's gonna break your motherfucking neck " or disgusting filth like Snoop Doggy Dogg which denigrates women and promotes drug use and gang violence as "cool " .
Similarly it's pretty sad that Jazz and other ethnic music have been put to the back row of the Grammy Awards by the ( white ) powers that be .
It was deeply sad to me to see a collection of African American kids at the mental institution who "didn't like the drums" . It looked to me like the cultural genocide of probably the oldest musical traditions on planet the African drums . Ditto it was profoundly depressing to see kids with horrible food put in front of them which made Mcdonalds taste like 3 stars in the Michelin guide . Knowing that the combination of the anti-psycotic drugs and the fried chicken was certainly going to give those kids heart disease and diabetes was just soul destroying . This was happening in a place which was supposed to be making young kids healthy .
The worst thing I saw occurred one day when a sweet young black 12 year old mentally retarded child whose name happened to be Shaun decided to sneak off with a profoundly retarded girl to have sex behind the fish fryer in the kitchen . I doubt they actually managed to get anything done before they where caught by one of the staff members . At that point the staff member who should have been working at starbucks asked the girl if she had been "raped " ten times . After saying "No" 10 times she said "Yes" probably to put the matter to rest and because she felt ashamed . The staff member called the police and 4 white policemen showed up . They referred to the young guy as "Barry White" to his face and took him off to Rikers Island and charged him with Rape . The poor kid spent a week in there with hardened criminals before getting before a judge who threw the case out .

At this time in the USA 3 out of 4 young black males will spend time in Prison and when they get out they are unable to vote and "criminalized" which makes it very difficult for them to find work , housing etc .

When you put it all together it's a pretty disgusting state of affairs . Sure Black people have a share of the "blame" for the situation but when you see how they where treated in an institution for mentally ill people you can't help feeling that the system is stacked against them to say the least .

As a result of the great sadness I felt and sense of hopelessness I ended up writing the song " fried chicken , drum machine " which to me symbolized the "cultural , spiritual and physical death" that was witnessing . Some have described this as "cultural genocide" which is fair when you consider marketing unhealthy food , music etc to a racial minority and then locking them up often for drug offenses . If I grew black in the United States and was aware of its musical history Heroin , Cocaine etc would look pretty tempting as an escape .

As time wore on I ended up writing a whole suite of songs which contained only the words " Fried Chicken Drum Machine " . It is something that I have become well known for by people who have been to my shows . Recently I hired the great Saxophonist Mark Shim for a gig . He didn't know me or the story and was pretty shocked at the Fried Chicken song . He contacted me later and told me that he was pretty uncomfortable performing it . While I have never on gigs explained the derivation of the words Mark made me realize that I may have offended many people who do not wish to see Black people portrayed in a stereotypical fashion . I wish to thank Mark for making me realize that my well intended song may have had some unintended consequences . From this day forward if I perform the song it will have the Australianised lyrics " Surf Music , Chiko Roll " which won't offend anyone .
That being said I will never forget my time working with disadvantaged kids . As long as I live I hope that the "powers that be" can do more to try and change things . I would advocate at least a different approach to dealing with drug offenders which didn't involve prisons and then a life sentence "criminal record" afterwards . I would also advocate music education in the poorest communities and fresh fruit and vegetable provided by the government .


  1. Wow, Sean, what a great post. You SHOULD write a book about these experiences. I totally know what you're saying about the genocide of African American culture. I've tried to write about it myself (a white Canadian girl!)just because, having lived in the USA and seen it too, it's a lot to get your head around.

  2. Very well put, Sean, courageous and compassionate.

  3. Outstanding. Thank you