by Jim Dinella
(b. New York, NY 1915)
Jim Dinella: How did you start playing drums?
Henry Adler: I grew up during the Depression, so it was very tough to get an instrument or to pay a teacher. In those days, music stores would come to the school and give demonstrations. Then they'd give you something to take home to your parents which allowed you to buy your instrument for two dollars a week. I was 13 or so, and in order to get the two dollars a week, I worked at a carousel in Coney island for the summer. I was paid a dollar a day, plus tips. With that, and with the help of my father, I bought my first snare drum. We didn't know anything about practice pads, so I wasn't allowed to play anywhere except in the basement of the apartment house we lived in.
Dinella: You had no teacher up to that point?
Adler: No formal teaching. When I was 15, a saxophone player friend of mine said to me, "I have a job in Belmar, New Jersey. Do you want to play?" I said, "Of course I'll play." So we went down for a rehearsal. I only brought my snare drum and a pair of sticks. The orchestra leader said, "Where's the rest of the stuff?" I had no conception of what a drummer needed.So, I went out and bought a bass drum, a foot pedal, and a cymbal with a holder. We got the job and worked the hotel in Belmar. I thought I was the greatest drummer in the world. We probably sounded pretty bad. We used to go to Asbury Park to a big ballroom where the name bands played every night. That was the first time I ever saw a big band.
When I got back from Belmar, I realized that I didn't know very much. But a friend of my folks was the bass player at the Palace Theatre. He suggested that I take lessons with the drummer in the pit band. He was a great show drummer. The first thing he showed me was how to twirl the sticks.
I learned to play timpani in the high school orchestra with a very wonderful teacher. I was accepted at a college in New York called The Savage School of Physical Education, but my father couldn't afford it, so I ended up not going to college. But thank God I was able to play. Not that I was a good player! With some kids, you put drumsticks in their hands, and they'll play. Other kids have talent and tremendous ideas, but they haven't got the means to bring it out. I was one of them.
Dinella: How did you go about getting the means?
Adler: By going out and looking for teachers. I also began to observe the professionals, and I think that was my greatest teacher. I'd go to the Edison Hotel where there were 15 affairs going on at the same time, with 15 bands. I'd watch all the drummers, good and bad, and I began to see similarities and discovered why different drummers who studied with the same teacher played differently from one another. When most drummers see someone who plays great, they feel unhappy and think they'll never be that good. Fortunately, for me, I reveled in it.
One time, a former student of mine, who happened to live near Buddy Rich, brought Buddy down. The kid told me he played better than Krupa. Buddy was only in his teens at the time and his friend was my first pupil. Buddy played and I watched his hands. Well, he knocked me right out. He did everything I wanted to do, and he did it with such ease. When I met his folks, I asked them who his teacher was. "He never studied," they told me. That made me feel very good. I realized that it was something physical, not only mental, that you had to have.
Dinella: How did the rumor that you were Buddy's teacher get started?
Adler: I had nothing to do with that. That was a result of Tommy Dorsey's introduction to the Buddy Rich book. I used to go around denying it, knowing that Buddy was a natural player. Sure, he studied with me, but he didn't come to me to learn how to hold the drumsticks. I set out to teach Buddy to read. He'd take six lessons, go on the road for six weeks and come back. He didn't have time to practice.
Tommy Dorsey wanted Buddy to write a book and he told him to get in touch with me. I did the book and Tommy wrote the foreword. Technically, I was Buddy's teacher, but I came along after he had already acquired his technique.
People always ask me to explain about the book. You see, when Gene did his book, he had a rudimental drummer collaborate with him. But Gene didn't play that way. In Buddy's book, we actually teach the way he does things. If you see any of the kids who used Buddy's book correctly, you'll see that they play the same way, technically.
Dinella: Why did You put out a Book Two?
Adler: Well, Buddy came to me and said, "We ought to do something else." I said, "Fine, what do you want to do?" We decided to publish Buddy Rich Today. It's a book of little things we've taken from his recordings. We give the name of the record, the title of the tune, and we state that it's a very, very small part of what Buddy does. It's not a new interpretation of how to play drums. It's things that Buddy did, that's all. Most drummers don't have Buddy's technical prowess. They could watch him all night and still never do what he does.
Dinella: You've developed quite a reputation in the drum publishing field over the years. Were your books the outcome of having noted a lack of something?
Adler: I never intended to go into the publishing business. Humberto Morales, from whom I learned Latin drumming, had a brother named Noro who was a leading Latin piano player. Humberto resented the fact that his brother had so much of the limelight. Noro came to me and said, "You've got to do me a favor. My brother is driving me crazy. Write a Latin drumming book with Humberto and I'll give you the money. You handle everything, and after you pay me back, you and Humberto split the book."
I agreed and I started to write. Every so often I'd call Humberto in to show him what I'd written. When I finished the book, I gave it to the printer. I had collected about $2,700 from Noro's lawyer toward the publication of the book. I presented his lawyer with the bill for the photographs. There were over 50 in the book. The lawyer said, "We've got a problem. Noro hasn't paid his income tax in three years." He was in debt for thousands of dollars. So, I had to pay the bills. I became the publisher.
At the time, Latin wasn't that big, but I took out a few advertisements for the book. I really didn't want to spend that kind of money because I had a retail drum business, and I had just bought a building on 46th Street in New York City.
Alfred Friese, the timpanist, was in our building, and he was a marvelous teacher. Friese asked me if I'd do a book with him and I asked Al Lepak, a former student of mine and a tremendous drummer, if he would collaborate with Friese. I knew that Friese would never write the book alone. We put out a good book, too. Everyone thought I was crazy to put out a timpani book to compete with Saul Goodman's book, but I didn't plan what I was going to publish. If something came along that I thought was good, I would do it.
Even though I never played rock, I knew some of the best rock drummers in the business. We also came out with both the Roy Burns and Sandy Feldstein Elementary and Intermediate Drum Methods. They both studied with me. I decided that we needed a good elementary book, so we wrote it, we published it and sold over 40,000 books the first year.
I've been very successful as a publisher. One of the advantages I had was working with some of the best drummers and percussionists who played and taught. I always asked them what was lacking, and they'd tell me. Then we'd see if we could do something about it.
Dinella: What about the Phil Kraus mallet series?
Adler: When Phil was studying with me, I said, "Why don't you write a book? The books out today are not meeting the needs of today's player. Just write what you teach." So he wrote it and we broke it into three books. When the books came out, Roy Knapp called me and said, "When you see Phil, congratulate him for me. They're marvelous books."
Dinella: You've always been known as a strongly rudimental-oriented teacher. What do you feel is the importance of rudiments?
Adler: I once went to a seminar at a percussion club. A fine drummer who I happened to know got up and said, "I strongly recommend that the rudiments be eliminated and that we no longer endorse them in the teaching process. They're unnecessary. The basics we do are not rudimental." I was asked to comment. I got up and said, "Well, I agree with so-and-so, because the way he teaches rudiments, I wouldn't want to learn them either."
Like the song says, "It ain't whatcha do, it's the way thatcha do it." Anything that you do on drums or on any instrument is rudimental, basically. What does rudimental mean? Basic. if you want to learn trumpet, for example, the first thing you learn is not how to play a note, but how to put the mouthpiece on your lips. You learn how to breathe along with the rudiments of music. The last thing you do is start playing. The rudiments of drumming are certain basic strokes. As soon as you make one stroke, that's a rudiment.
Dinella: Do you enjoy working with beginners?
Adler: I love beginners. I've had professional musicians come to me and say, "Gee, I would have brought my kid to you first, but I didn't think you took beginners." I'd rather have beginners and get to them before they develop any bad habits.
Dinella: How long do you tell your students to practice each day?
Adler: It depends on the physical and emotional capabilities of the individual student. The biggest question I get from parents is, "How long is the lesson?" My response is, "Well, if the student is stupid, it takes an hour and a half, but if the student is smart, it takes less than an hour. Do you want to pay me by the hour, or by what your child learns?"
One thing I always tell my students is, "When you come here every week, you've got to learn something vital. You don't come here, open a book and just start playing. You've got to learn about things that are important."
One of the people who came to me was a very dear friend who had done Broadway shows for many years. He's starting to teach now and he's in his 60s. He plays good timps, good vibes and good drums. He asked me what books I use. "I use the Buddy Rich book," I told him. "But I can use any book because it's all in the way you use it."
Dinella: Do you have any set outline that you try to stay with in teaching?
Adler: Every drummer has to go through every step, but no two people are the same. So you have to teach them the same thing, but not necessarily the same way.
The object is to teach kids to practice, so that they will be able to play with a group. The music should be selected so that they are being prepared to play professionally, if that's what they want to do. Where does a kid learn how to play a show nowadays? Why is it that, when you watch TV, you see young kids wearing T-shirts and playing hard rock, but when you watch The Tonight Show, you see musicians old enough to be your parent? Who else can they get to do that type of work? Who has the background? Who can accompany Jan Pierce on an excerpt from an opera? Who can play a ballet, rock, or anything you want? That requires experience. But before you venture out to get experience, you'd better have the background, If you don't start with the background, you're not going to absorb anything, and experience will not do you any good at all.
I tell all my students that, if they don't study mallets, I'll throw them out. I tell them, "If you want to take a chance and just be a drummer, you're crazy. I will only continue to teach you if you go on to study the other instruments when you're ready. Otherwise, you'll only know enough to play a wedding or a club date."
I play matched grip as well as traditional, and so do all of my students. When they go to xylophone or timpani, they already have the hands to do it. It's a matter of knowing how to teach, what to teach first, and what to do with someone who comes to you with a problem. When professionals come to you with a problem, it's not because they can't play. Most likely, they have technical or emotional problems. They are frustrated. I've been through it myself, so I know.
I'm probably one of the few people who have taken advantage of the entire music business. I've played, taught, manufactured, published and sold retail and wholesale. Recently I was involved in the making of a movie called Desperately Seeking Susan. They needed someone who could portray an older drummer, and they also needed someone to actually cut the drums on the film. I was able to do both. So that's one other aspect of the business to consider. Playing is just a small part of the business. After all, when you're young, you don't mind going out and working until four in the morning. But when you get a little older, you want to be able to come home earlier at night. Does that mean the end of the music business for you?
Dinella: Can you give me a rundown of some of your former students?
Adler: Well, in the educational field there's Jim Petercsak, Al Lepak and Tony DiNicola at Trenton State. George Devon is in the studios all the time doing transcription dates. Sonny Igoe studied with me for a few years. Doug Allan. Lou Gatti is at The Sands in Atlantic City.
Roy Burns he played well, but he didn't have any strength at the time. He was playing at the Metropole in New York with a jazz group. I gave him his first lesson and he said, "This isn't going to work." I said, "Look, you paid for the lesson; if you're not happy, don't take the second lesson. Meanwhile, shut up, listen and do it." Roy came the second week and said, "I don't know whether it was the lesson, but I do feel better."
I went through the Latin book with Louie Bellson. I saw that he played just like Buddy. Two seconds after I showed him the technique, he did it twice as well as I could because his hands were far superior. He had the right grip and the right turns. He did it with ease. I hardly had to tell him what to do.
Louie used to come down to my store and practice in the basement when all of our studios were taken. He'd go down by the boiler and practice between shows. He could play right-handed or left-handed, but he still practiced. Most people don't practice correctly. Natural drummers play correctly no matter what they do.I've always had a ball teaching, and I've enjoyed every aspect of this business. I think I can say that I've been successful at it because I've got a fistful of friends who are former students. That's the only way you can really judge success - by what you've accomplished.
Henry Adler interview by Jim Dinella copyright © 1985 by Modern Drummer Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.