by Rick Mattingly
Drummer, percussionist, producer, composer, clinician, and educator Leon Ndugu Chancler died on February 3, 2018 after a battle with cancer.
His website states that the name “Ndugu” is Swahili for “brother, family, kinsman—for us it means togetherness.” Judging by the huge outpouring of tributes on social media following his death, it was obvious that Ndugu exemplified those terms, and everyone who knew him will miss his positive energy and radiant smile.
“Ndugu’s passing leaves the world a poorer place, with a giant hole at USC’s Thornton School of Music, where he taught for so many years,” said Peter Erskine. “I can’t think of anyone who made bigger musical marks and in so many different genres—George Duke, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, Weather Report, Michael Jackson, Patrice Rushen, plus countless gigs as the drummer in jazz festival all-star bands, and I know I’m leaving out many, many names. But it was in his work as an educator and advocate for technical achievement that set him apart. Ndugu was tireless in his insistence that drummers know their rudiments. That combination of old-school strictness with his open musical mind (plus experience) resulted in a steady stream of excellent players coming out of his studio, and a world-wide group of inspired drummers who benefitted from his gospel. He long-served as a vital conscience to our drumming world.
“I’ll miss him on campus,” Erskine said. “I’ll miss him at PASIC. I’ll miss his exuberance, both on and off the drums. I’ve been a fan since his 1975 recording of George Duke’s I Love the Blues, She Heard My Cry album—first time I ever heard such hip drumming like that. It was some new stuff.
“On second thought, Nudugu left the world a far greater place. We are all going to miss him. Condolences to his family, friends, and everyone who knew him. RIP, Ndugu, and thank you for all of the passion and the music.”
Ndugu was born is Shreveport, Louisiana, on July 1, 1952. His family moved to Los Angeles in 1960, and Ndugu attended Locke High School where, at the age of thirteen, he began to play the drums. During his high school years, he worked with Willie Bobo and the Harold Johnson Sextet. Upon graduation, Ndugu studied music education at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
While in college he performed with the Gerald Wilson Big Band, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masakela, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Harris, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, and Freddie Hubbard. In 1972 he began working with George Duke, with whom he played intermittently from ’72 through the 1990s. Ndugu toured with Carlos Santana from 1974 to 1976, during which time he also recorded with Weather Report. He worked with Hancock again from1977–80 and led the Chocolate Jam Company from 1979–81, but he spent much of his time in the recording studios.
Chancler was well known for playing on three songs from Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller album, including “Billy Jean.” He received a Grammy Award nomination for co-writing the song “Let It Whip” for the Dazz Band in the same year. Ndugu co-wrote "Dance Sister Dance" for Santana and "Reach For It" for George Duke. Ndugu also played on a number of movie soundtracks, including An Officer and a Gentleman, Indecent Proposal, and The Color Purple.
He produced albums for Flora Purim, Bill Summers, Toki, and his own solo recordings. He co-produced recordings for Santana, The Crusaders, George Duke, Tina Turner, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, and The Meeting, a group he co-led with Patrice Rushen and Ernie Watts.
“When one becomes a musician, one is not just a drummer or a composer,” Ndugu said in 2012. “You train to be diverse. You train to arrange, write, play, and produce. All of it goes together for me. I simply call myself a musician, and these are all just things I do.”
As a clinician, Ndugu did extensive clinic tours. Hewas on staff at the United States Percussion Camp at Eastern Illinois University, the Stanford University Jazz Workshop, Jazz America, and the Thelonious Monk Foundation.
Chancler taught in the Jazz Studies and Popular Music programs at the USC Thornton School of Music since 1995. “As the first and only drumset teacher in the Popular Music program, he was fundamental in creating the musical and professional climate in that department,” said USC Thornton Dean Robert Cutietta. “We will miss his smile, optimism, and ‘can-do’ attitude. Our students will miss his dedicated teaching and mentoring personality. He was dedicated to the Thornton School and his students until the end.”
Drum Strong founder Scott Swimmer echoed many people’s sentiments, calling Ndugu an “Other-worldly drummer. Driven, dedicated, and caring teacher. Compassionate human and friend.”