Nasheet Waits began his career as a jazz musician in the nineties, and he has been hard at work ever since. The list of musicians he has played with includes names like Andrew Hill, Fred Hersch, and Antonio Hart. Nasheet leads his own band,
Equality; he’s a member of Jason Moran & The Bandwagon; and he’s part of the trio Tarbaby, with Eric Revis and Orrin Evans.
The son of percussionist Freddie Waits, Nasheet explains his own commitment to a life in music: “I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to find myself in the company of some great musicians. They were kind enough to share their time and history with me. I strive to be part of that continuum.” Terry Stoller talked with Nasheet Waits in summer 2013 about his Westbeth roots, his mentors and the lessons he learned, the good nature of the drumming community, the underpinnings of two major projects, the performer/audience relationship, and the challenges of recording.
Terry Stoller: When did you
move to Westbeth?
Nasheet Waits: I was born here.
My parents were original tenants.
Do you feel that growing up in the building contributed to your becoming an artist—besides all the other forces?
Those other forces—my father was a musician as well. And my mother was a designer of clothes, so there was art all around me as a child. And my neighbors—a lot of the people I grew up with, their parents were artists, and all the children seemed to be interested in music and acting. One of the early residents here in Westbeth was a painter and a sculptor—Carole Byard was her name. She moved out maybe in ’80. She was a friend of the family, and she had done a lot of traveling to Africa, so she had a lot of instruments, like kalimbas and little drums and things of that nature. She used to let me come down to her apartment and hang out and play on them. She was really, really kind. I was a gregarious child, full of a lot of energy, and I used to hang out with her for hours on end, and she was very supportive. So being in an environment like that definitely encouraged the creative.
I’ve read about your influences and your mentors, especially your father, Freddie Waits, and also Max Roach and your teacher Michael Carvin. Could you elaborate on some of the things you learned from them that remain important to you?
I learned a lot of lessons from them. One of the most important themes was to develop your own voice. They always encouraged me to find my own path. In this creative music, it’s important to find your own voice.
What does that mean as a drummer?
As a drummer, or whatever instrument you play, I think it means being true to yourself. There are all types of influences that you have as an artist, but if you are just perfecting somebody else’s vision, that’s not a true representation of yourself. And I think art is supposed to be a representation of how you interpret your world and the world around you, your influences, what comes across your palette, how you describe that. Using somebody else’s language to describe that exclusively—while people can be successful doing it—is not necessarily a representation of yourself.
Like somebody trying to become a singer and imitating Frank Sinatra.
They may sound great. Somebody who sounds like Stevie Wonder may sound great, but that was Stevie Wonder. He came into that because of his experiences, and that’s what we hear in his work. Or Ray Charles—or Max Roach or my father or Michael Carvin. I didn’t want to sound like them necessarily. And I never really thought about it like that. I never really had an issue with that. But I know in all my lessons and all the time I spent with those men, that was something they always imparted to me. It was always about maintaining the artistic integrity within yourself. And that being, walk in your own path and not try and walk in their footsteps. Because they came to it, to their voice, through different circumstances that caused them to formulate their voice. So for me to play like them exclusively, it wouldn’t be true to myself. To a certain degree, you always steal and take from your mentors—that’s wise. But then it gets to a point where you don’t want that to be predominant in your creative voice.
As a child when you’re attracted to something, you’re not thinking about those kind of things. You’re just thinking, This looks like fun. I like the drums.
Usually as a child you’re also imitative.
I was, definitely. But even through that, I played so much as a child, practiced so much—when I say practiced, I mean just coordination things and things of that nature, and then just emulating what I heard. I listened to my father. I listened to some albums—
like a Mickey Roker album. He’s a drummer from Philadelphia. He played with a lot of great musicians, from Lee Morgan to Ron Carter, just everybody. I remember a Lee Morgan record in particular that Roker was a drummer on, and I used to listen to it a lot and play along to that record. You’re definitely emulating. I wanted to have a certain sound of some of those musicians, but at the same time, I was doing it because I liked it. I enjoyed it. But individuality was never a problem for me. If anything, I had to conform my stuff to fit into a situation, to find a way to incorporate what I was hearing into that template.
You’ve been playing professionally for about two decades.
I got serious about it—when I say serious, I figured that this might be something I wanted to do for a profession—after my father had passed away. In 1990, I moved back to New York from Atlanta (I was going to Morehouse College), and everybody I was around was into music. My good friends had gone to music school. And I was hanging out at jazz clubs. The friends of my father—it’s a relatively tight-knit community—were almost like family. Some of those people I called my uncles or godfathers. Like Max Roach, Dr. Fred King—he was like a godfather to me. He was somebody who played percussion with Pablo Casals and went on to play in M’Boom, the percussion ensemble with Max and Joe Chambers and Warren Smith and Roy Brooks and Omar Clay. That was the community that was around. And Jack DeJohnette. People like that were very supportive of me and my brother when my father passed away. So it became a natural progression for me to get into the music. I had played, like I said, as a youngster, but I didn’t really have the formal music knowledge, in terms of knowing song forms and structures and chords and harmony. I found myself kind of playing catch-up, but
at the same time that’s when I got serious about it and started approaching music in that way. And I thought, maybe I’ll be able to do this for a living. So I started thinking about the economics of it. Before that, it hadn’t occurred to me. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I see you walking in the street listening to music. That’s part of your work, right?
That is part of the work. Some of that is me trying to learn some music, trying to get the stuff together, so I’m not going to have to be in the page, as they say. If you’re reading music all the time, it’s difficult to be in the moment.
You’re still open to doing improvisation even if you’re reading?
There are generally components of improvisation even within the written material. But it can be more liberating if you have some of the passages and some of the nuances under your belt so that you don’t have to be as focused on the page.
Especially as a drummer, when you’re playing drums and cymbals, and you have to coordinate each extremity differently.
But generally the music doesn’t dictate what each limb does. The music that you get is generally like a lead sheet; it’s the melody or the form of the song or something like that. You kind of have the freedom to interpret that the way you want to and shape the music in the way that might be appropriate for what’s happening.
In a 2011 interview, you talked about the divide between expressive work and difficult, almost academic work—about people getting too technical about the work. If what you want to do is work that’s expressive and reaches out to people, how do you achieve that considering that you’re playing with a variety of musicians, some of whom may be doing the “difficult” stuff?
Even in those situations, the goal is to communicate some type of love. Regardless of what the setting is, that’s always my contribution. Sometimes you listen to things you’ve said, and you realize how they could be misconstrued, like your saying I don’t like this type of thing. I like all types of music. And I’ve played some very complex and challenging music, and I enjoy that just as much as I enjoy playing the blues or anything like that. I apply the same type of integrity with all of it. I think most musicians do. What I was talking about was, I think there has been a movement or a tendency for people to be more dedicated to the academic nature of what they’re doing as opposed to the soulful nature of what they’re doing, so that it starts to lack that type of connection to people. Jazz is already pretty limited in its audience. It becomes even more limited when it becomes so difficult to understand that only people who compose music like that can enjoy it. I find this is all about making a connection with the people. If your heart is in there, then you’ll be able to do it.
You speak about community, and your band Equality is a creative collective. In my experience, the world of performing arts can be very competitive. Is the communal spirit particular to musicians because you must play together and mesh? Or do you look for people who have that ideal too?
For the most part, I really enjoy the people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and bands that I lead and co-lead, and situations where I’m called to be part of the gig or tour or recording. For the most part, we’re all like-minded, in the sense that it’s a community. But within that community, like you said, there’s definitely some competitiveness. But I think that’s healthy because it keeps everybody searching. It keeps the art at a high level. There’s no complacency.
What is the impetus to be a bandleader, if you want your Equality band
to be a collective?
In that particular unit, the emphasis is on everybody contributing music, so when you use that term leader, that probably is more about the other aspects, off the bandstand, like getting the gig, contacting the agent, things of that nature. Also there’s a certain amount of professional impetus. You don’t want to be dependent on someone else for your livelihood all the time.
It doesn’t have to do with the music itself, then.
It does, too. Regardless of people contributing to the music, not only myself, but everybody else, I still get to pick and choose. You have the last say. Everybody is equal in a certain sense, but it’s a lot looser than in some situations. I’ve been in some bands where the leader is a little bit tyrannical or egotistical and has a vision. Sometimes it’s a beautiful vision, but sometimes they could use other input. Not everybody is the greatest composer. I play with a lot of musicians who play only their compositions, but a lot of those compositions sound similar, so they could use some outside influences—just to broaden the spectrum. Not everybody is Wayne Shorter or Andrew Hill. I had an opportunity to play with Andrew Hill. We played mostly his music, but he was a great composer, so it made sense. Not everybody is of that ilk with their pen.
I got the impression from what I’ve read that the drummer is the de facto
leader of the group.
There was a great drummer, Kenny Clarke. Wonderful drummer. And he said the drummer was the mother of the band. He was talking about it in a familial sense. This was in a traditional sense—definitely in the time that he was talking about it, in the late thirties, forties, fifties. The drummer pretty much played throughout the whole set, and you had to cater to everybody’s needs. If the bass player was slowing down, you had to play on the other side of the beat so that the tempos didn’t drag. Or if he was speeding up, you had to play a little bit behind so that the tempos didn’t rush. You had to be in tune with the piano player. You had to be like an octopus in terms of your level of attention. Whereas somebody who was soloing took their solo and then stepped off the bandstand, you were always there. Billy Hart, another dear friend of my father’s and a great drummer in his own right, said, “You know why there are no conductors in jazz music? Because they’re drummers. We’re the conductors.” There’s a lot to be said for that, in terms of your ability to arrange and conduct and fuse the different elements into a cogent and functional unit.
It can be, physically and emotionally and spiritually. But it’s also very rewarding. Generally drummers, amongst each other, are very loving and embracing. When you see each other, it’s all love. Now when trumpet players see each other, it’s not necessarily like that.
Think about the nature of the instrument. It’s brass, it’s cold, it’s hard. You’re laughing, but it’s true. Or alto players, they don’t necessarily share. Drummers are, let’s get together and hang and hit. Alto players, they ain’t always doing that. They ain’t sharing their secrets like that. That’s something that they hold close to themselves. That’s the nature of the instrument. The nature of drums is more of a familial type. Come on, hang, and break some bread; let’s have a drink together. The love is always there between us.
I saw the clip of “Not His Hands!” from the film about the 2009 production of “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959”—the multimedia concert with Jason Moran & The Big Bandwagon. I don’t know how it was done in the live performance, but in the film, there’s a section about Delaware state patrolmen pulling over the car that Thelonious Monk is driving, then beating his hands when he won’t get out of the car—and then it cuts to you.
That’s what happens in the performance.
You play a solo—beautifully—and you walk off the stage when you’re finished. It’s very theatrical. Can you talk about your ideas while you’re playing?
That whole work was produced by Jason. He had ideas from different places, but he put that together beautifully. And I think that was a natural segue, illuminating the racism in the South, talking about black Americans and our lineage. So after he talks about Monk’s hands being hit, it segues into a drum solo. And out of the drum solo, it segues into a brass selection sounding like a spiritual. What I was responding to in the solo was definitely the subject matter. We’ve done that concert over twenty times since the first time we did it in North Carolina in 2007. Hopefully, it’ll resurface here in the States. So every time, it’s different in terms of my solo. It’s never, OK, I’m going to definitely do this and do this. But coming out of that story, I was visualizing what that must have been like. There’s a strong image onscreen, and then just dealing with that—there’s a lot of fodder for that solo. And then responding to the horn players once they start playing. So you’re in this one area, but then you’re also fusing that into what’s happening with the spiritual. There’s a mode of development involved in any solo. You always try to tell a story to a certain degree.
I also found a recording online of the April 2013 Tarbaby concert at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. I believe you dedicated that concert to the philosopher Frantz Fanon.
We wanted to do some work with the French guitarist Marc Ducret, who was a part of that project. Mid Atlantic Arts was giving a grant for a work using American and French artists. I asked Eric Revis, the bass player, What type of topic or person can we use as the source for this project? He proposed that we use Fanon as a topic, and I agreed that was a great idea. And then we took that ball, and I went back and read some of his books. I had read a few in college. I studied history the first couple of years at Morehouse College, and I became aware of his work there. So that became a natural progression. Ducret is French, and Fanon was from Martinique and did a lot of his work in Algeria, when it was a colony. He was a revolutionary. It was also a way for us to talk about issues of social, cultural and economic inequality that are still present, not only in France, but in some of the countries they had colonized. To see what was happening in Morocco and Tunisia. And there were issues of ethnic profiling and inequality that led to rioting some years ago in the Paris suburbs, in Strasbourg, and in other cities. A lot of the first- and second-generation immigrants were revolting against what was happening. And the same type of discrimination existed here. A lot of times, people younger than me don’t have a sense that they’re different. They seem to think we’re all the same—which is the way it should be. We all are the same in the sense that we’re all human beings, and cultural differences are something that’s attractive. But when I was growing up, racism was a lot more visible. You could feel the racism, even in the Village, which is a pretty liberal neighborhood.
Racial profiling. And in France, they instituted the same practices there—targeting the Moroccans, the Algerians. They have a large Senegalese population, so they were getting harassed.
I rarely hear anybody talking about Fanon. People talk about Che Guevara or Biko, Mandela, Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X or the Panthers. Fanon was very influential to a lot of those movements. So we thought, Why don’t we talk about that? In France, women were told they couldn’t have their faces covered in public. Let’s try to talk about a little of this now—or bring it up for discussion. I think that’s part of the focus of Tarbaby, to bring things up for discussion that probably aren’t brought up for discussion.
You were asked in the 2011 interview about the social connotation of the name Tarbaby, and you said that it’s primarily about aesthetics.
We do have a social consciousness, but that also has to do with the name and the legacy of the story, the folktale. Generally when somebody says something about a tar baby, it’s something you don’t want to touch. It’s a sticky situation that wants to be avoided. We’re not afraid to address those sticky situations. It could be with regard to race or culture or economics, or even creativity or music. That was another thing that we were initially talking about—harking back to what we were talking about earlier—this movement in the music where everything was so overintellectualized. The more difficult it was, then the more appealing it was. And our feeling was, that’s not necessarily so. We love music like that. Some of the music we play is extremely hard, but that’s not the focus of the group. The focus is the communal effort, and that communal effort not only in the group, but between the listeners, too. We want you to come from listening to those concerts having really enjoyed the music—and you might not have understood everything. Not pandering, but not trying to confuse, either.
How much do you factor in the audience while you’re playing?
You definitely feel their presence. There are some times when you’re giving and giving, and you feel like they’re not giving back. But at the same time, like I said, there’s never any pandering, regardless of whether they like it or not. Sometimes their not liking it is what’s supposed to happen. I’ve been in situations where musicians are trying to think, OK, this is a certain type of audience, and we should play this type of material. I think that’s a little dangerous because you could never really know. If they’re there, then they’re probably into what’s happening anyway.
I heard a musician say in a film that he likes recording because it teaches him about how he plays. How do you feel about recording vs. live performance? Do you enjoy it?
I enjoy recording. You have to learn to let go. That ego thing comes back into play. I enjoy it, but it’s definitely different than playing live because you’re listening to the musicians through the headphones. And even yourself through the headphones. It took me a little while to be comfortable in the studio because I never have myself in the monitor when I am playing live. But I realized when I was recording, I needed to have myself in the mix because I couldn’t hear myself. And that’s something that you never think of, being a drummer. Drummers can always hear themselves. People rarely have drums in the monitor unless you’re doing something that has a lot of amplification. But in the studio you have to have yourself in the monitor, so it becomes a little difficult in terms of the touch that you’re using; you become somewhat disconnected because you don’t hear all of the nuances as well as you do in live performance. But at the same time, I enjoy it because I enjoy making music. And sometimes you come up on some stuff that you really like. Sometimes it does teach you things about yourself, some tendencies that you may have. It may bring you back to trying to work some stuff out.
When I wrote asking for the interview, you said, “I’m always down for Westbeth activities.” How come?
There are so many reasons. It’s always been my home, even when I didn’t live here all the time. I’ve always considered New York and Westbeth my home. There are so many people here that are like family for me. Like Carole Byard, and down the hall from her was Idaka, Marilyn Worrell. She’s a dancer. She and my father did a dancer and drummer thing on the tenth anniversary of Westbeth. Madeleine Yayodele Nelson—Carole brought her into the building. Those people are like family. Lee Frasier. I’ve known all these people pretty much my entire life. I grew up with Ari Satlin. His father Stan wrote this baseball song that we sang as children. Westbeth is full of memories. I’m also in support of the mission of the building in cultivating the arts. That’s important, especially in America, where we don’t really support the arts. That’s why I work overseas so much because they support the arts a lot more than we do here—I’m talking about the government. So if I’m around, or if I can do anything that’s affiliated with Westbeth, I’m more than happy to do that.
Joshua Barnes, “Tarbaby Trio and Oliver Lake: Naked on Stage,” Sampsonia Way, Nov. 14, 2011, sampsoniaway.org. The interview was conducted by Thaddeus Mosley.
(For more about Waits, go to nasheetwaits.com.)
Photograph by Janette Beckman; album cover by Emra Islek. Courtesy Nasheet Waits.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2013-14 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council