by Mark Griffith
Very few drummers throughout history have a signature timekeeping approach associated with their name. I am not referring to licks or a singular beat they played. I am referring to an instantly identifiable concept to playing a time feel. Elvin Jones’s wide and loping swing, Art Blakey’s insistent shuffle infused swing, and Bernard Purdie’s half-time shuffle are among the very few.
But if you have ever been handed a drum chart that contained a funky sixteenth-note based groove that had all (or most) of the notes played separately, and included backbeats that occasionally turned around and gave the illusion that the pulse was in a completely different place than you expected, you know that the chart could just say “Garibaldi Funk” in the top left-hand corner. That would say it all!
But the recipe for what has since been coined “linear drumming” isn’t quite that simple. As you will learn, David Garibaldi’s sense of groove came from a plethora of varied musical and drumming influences. In a Percussive Notes interview, funk legend Mike Clarke (very appropriately) calls Garibaldi the “mad scientist” of drumming. And contemporary jazz master Kenny Washington expressed his “great admiration” for Garibaldi in another PN interview. In the 1970s, it was Garibaldi’s early teacher Chuck Brown that had him (and all of his students) practicing on a drum pad “the size of a quarter,” which inspired future drumming greats like Steve Smith and Vinnie Colaiuta to cut down their own drum pads to work on their control. Garibaldi adds, “Not only did Chuck insist on the small drum pad, but he asked all of his students to build their pads themselves!” More recently, David’s study with the legendary Murray Spivack has further refined his sense of control and touch on the instrument. Simply put, David Garibaldi has shaped the evolution of drumming.
The fact that all of this has happened within the context of one of the most popular bands of its era, Tower of Power, makes it even more special. Not to mention that Tower of Power is still touring constantly, recording prominent music, and working hard to bring the Oakland musical stew to the masses. On their initial offering, East Bay Grease, we can hear a less refined Garibaldi finding his way within the music, and over 40 years later we can still hear David inventing, refining, and reinventing his approach to timekeeping and groove on Tower of Power’s recent Soul Vaccination Live, The Oakland Zone, and The Great American Soulbook. In the past, Garibaldi has been quick to mention that ToP bandleader Emilio Castillo gave him a free reign to experiment with different timekeeping approaches—and experiment he did. With grooves on Tower songs like “Soul Vaccination,” “Oakland Stroke,” and “What Is Hip?” Garibaldi set the drumming world on fire! And we have all been the benefactors of his boundless creativity and his resistance to just keep time.
David Garibaldi: I have to say how thrilled that I am to be inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame, especially because I am joining two people that mean so much to me and who have already been inducted: Sandy Feldstein and Murray Spivack. I always have enjoyed really great teachers, and a few of them have had a profound impact on my life. The best teachers I had really cared about me, and I think that’s important. When a teacher really takes an interest in a student as a person first, that relationship is worth its weight in gold.
I was 23 years old when I joined Tower of Power, and I decided then that I wanted to create some “scholarship” in playing R&B and funk, and really elevate that aspect of drumming to a level that I felt it deserved. I really wanted to teach about what I played. Eventually, this led me to Sandy Feldstein.
Mark Griffith: I know you two worked pretty closely on your seminal book Future Sounds. You always seemed to balance the performer-educator role very well. Can you tell me about the evolution of that book, and how those two roles have informed each other?
DG: That book was part of a larger book I put together that contained everything I thought about the drums. It had all sorts of ideas and concepts and was really all over the place. I was looking around to get it published, and I knew of Sandy but had not met him. So I called Alfred Publishing to see if I could arrange a meeting so he could look at my book. To my surprise, he graciously agreed to see me and was very kind and respectful. He always made me feel like he was genuinely interested in me, and my work. On a deeper level, he was a drummer at heart and loved creativity. I presented my book to him, and he, being a former college professor, graded it like it was a college paper, complete with red pencil marks! At our next meeting, he told me that he had laid my manuscript out on his dining room table and really gave it a serious look. He said that while it was very good, it didn’t have enough focus to be successful. He then said, “Go home and think about what you really want to say in the book, and come back in two weeks. The rest of the material can be saved for other projects.” So I eventually distilled everything in the larger book down to a singular subject. He loved it, and he guided me all along the way, but not once did he interfere with my creative process. He helped me to shape my ideas, which gave me the focus I needed. His entire approach made a huge impression upon me.
Truthfully, that book was never designed for anyone to play those examples verbatim in their band. It was just a presentation of ideas that could be used as an open-ended reference for different ideas, like sticking concepts, so that people could get ideas to build upon in their own playing. I just wanted to help people unlock the possibilities of what existed within sixteen sixteenth notes, for example, and help them explore those possibilities in their quest to expand their drumming vocabulary.
MG: I want to ask you about your studies with Murray Spivack and Chuck Brown. What did you learn from each of these master teachers?
DG: When I studied with Chuck, it was really the first serious study I had ever done. Early on I was already making records and touring. A friend of mine named Steve Bowman was studying with Chuck and suggested many times that I should go see him. I was on a little ego trip and didn’t think I needed something like that. Over time, Steve was noticeably getting better and better, and I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. Then, one morning I woke up with the thought that I had told everyone that the drums were my life’s work, but that I hadn’t really demonstrated any commitment. I felt ashamed for a few minutes and then called Steve for Chuck’s phone number. It was the best decision I could have made and changed everything for me.
Chuck was a younger guy with really old-school values, and the main thing he taught me was discipline. He taught me about playing jazz, and how proper technique could really enhance your sound on the instrument. Through Chuck, my playing was transformed. At that point I was playing traditional grip all of the time, but when I began to add more drums to my setup, I made the decision to switch to matched grip. Chuck sort of disagreed with my decision to switch grips, and eventually we respectfully parted ways. I learned an incredible amount of things from Chuck, and I am grateful to this day for that.
Murray was elderly when I studied with him. I was living in L.A., and I was having some technical issues. I was looking for a teacher and had taken a few lessons with Richard Wilson, which was quite good, but I wanted a bit more. Eventually, I moved on to Murray and thoroughly enjoyed it. He could tell by the sound of each stick if you were gripping the stick too tightly, and he always explained things perfectly. We went through all the Wilcoxon books, Stick Control, Podemski, Louis Bellson’s odd time and 4/4 books, and always had reading assignments. He was a phenomenal teacher, and being a student of his was a wonderful experience—a highlight of my music life. If you were patient and put in the time, you got exactly what he was teaching.
MG: I know Sonny Payne was an important early musical influence of yours. What was it about Sonny that really hit you?
DG: When I heard and saw Sonny Payne with the Basie band, I heard a somewhat simple player who played with a lot of emotion and was really aggressive. For me, drums have always been an aggressive thing. I enjoy the feeling of forward motion and propulsion when playing, and I heard a great deal of that coming from Sonny, even though a lot of the Basie music was somewhat laid back. Sonny was a great showman, but he still provided this great sense of drive to the music. I dug how he set up figures, played behind soloists, and his overall vibe within the music.
MG: I know you were influenced by all of the James Brown drummers, but could you tell me about Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste’s influence upon your drumming?
DG: He was a huge influence on me. He was the first drummer I ever heard that was completely breaking up the sixteenth notes between different sounds. He played funk like a jazz player. He was like Philly Joe, but he was using sixteenth notes instead of triplets. Zig and Bernard Purdie were the two guys I was listening to the most and drawing the most inspiration from. I eventually gravitated a little more towards Purdie because his thing seemed a little more accurate, precise, and polished.
MG: It seems like between the two, you were getting the best of both worlds.
DG: Yes, from Zig you got the craziness, the wacky beats, independence, and all of his unorthodox approaches to the drums. From Bernard you got the sophistication of his ideas, accuracy, and precision.
MG: So you might say the early “recipe” for your approach was combining the opposites of Zig and Bernard with the vibe and the emotion of Sonny Payne.
DG: To me, vibe is the most important thing. That is what personalizes the way that someone plays, and all the greats have a very personal vibe to the way they play. But the magic is in how a great musician personalizes his musical vocabulary. When you hear Tony Williams playing “Maiden Voyage,” he’s painting this impressionistic picture. His performance is pretty simple, but the vibe and the texture that he creates is so beautiful and perfect. That’s what I was trying to do in my early development, and still today. I want to bring a personalized approach to music and create my own vibe.
MG: You came from a fertile scene in the San Francisco Bay area that spawned a lot of very personalized approaches to music. How did that influence your approach to the drums?
DG: When I got back to the Bay Area in December 1969, I had just gotten out of the military and the scene was like the Wild West. There were so many guys around the Bay Area that were creating their own voices; it was an amazing time! I was hearing drummers like Michael Shrieve, Mike Clarke, Gregg Errico, Harvey Hughes, Sandy McKee, James Levi, Gaylord Birch, Sam Cox, Willie Sparks, and everyone was doing his own thing. Not only was there a great rock scene, but also great Latin music and a killer R&B scene. There has always been a lot of virtuosity in the Bay Area, but what separated us from other places was creative virtuosity.
Gregg Errico, who was the drummer with Sly & the Family Stone, was the innovator. He was the first guy I ever heard who was playing all of these unorthodox beats in a rock context, and he was the guy who first took the R&B thing in the Bay to another level. Sly & the Family Stone was a band full of geniuses.
MG: Was Cold Blood a staple of the scene at this time?
DG: Absolutely! Tower of Power would do gigs with Cold Blood, and when we did, it was full-on war. It was full-contact music. They had some great drummers in that band: Frank Davis, Sandy McKee, Gaylord Birch, Harvey Hughes.
MG: Could you tell me a little about each of them?
DG: One day Harvey Hughes was at my house, and we were playing. We would take turns at the drumset, and while one of us was playing, the other would give instructions to move around the set to different sounds. That’s where the end groove for the tune “Man From the Past” came from.
Sandy McKee was like a never-ending series of left turns. He was super creative, and always so surprising in what he would play and the way that he would do it. He was very unpredictable. He played traditional grip, and his hi-hats were about four inches below his snare drum. So he would put his left hand above his right hand when he played his hi-hat.
Gaylord Birch, who went on to play with the Pointer Sisters and Graham Central Station, was an excellent straight-ahead jazz player and funk player. He could do it all. Gaylord was a very powerful drummer with a huge sense of groove.
It was during his time with Cold Blood that we had some very intense “battles” between our bands!
MG: How about James Levi? I have always dug his playing with Herbie Hancock, but I could never find out much about him.
DG: James Levi was already on the scene when I joined ToP. When I first heard him, he was playing with The Whispers. He is one of my good friends. He is still around and playing great. He splits his time between the U.S. and Tokyo. To me, he’s one of the elder statesman of great Bay Area drummers—an awesome person.
MG: You and Mike Clarke seemed to have a similar concept happening at about the same time. Were you influencing each other?
DG: When I came back to town after I got out of the Air Force, Mike was already there doing it, and in addition to his funk playing, he had a very strong jazz thing happening. His playing with the Headhunters is timeless and very important touchstone in the drumming tradition.
MG: When you were first starting to play those weirdly wonderful Tower of Power grooves, were you aware that you were almost “inventing” a new way to play?
DG: At the beginning of Tower of Power, I was 23 years old, and I was just trying to find my way as a drummer. I knew I wanted to play original music, and I didn’t want to copy anyone. I so desperately wanted to have my own thing, like all of my drumming heroes. When I joined this “renegade” band called Tower of Power, suddenly I had an outlet for however I wanted to play, and an advocate bandleader in Emilio Castillo who never tried to “rein me in.”
I remember listening to a Ray Barretto record back then, and noticing—it was more like a light bulb being turned on—that there was no drummer or drumset pounding out 2 and 4, and I asked myself, “Why can’t I do that with the drumset?” When we were first rehearsing and putting “Soul Vaccination” together, we started to realize that what we were doing was really our own.
But to answer your question, as a 23-year-old I wasn’t thinking, “I am going to create some drum stuff that is going to change the world!” At that point in anyone’s life you are just following your creative instinct. And if you follow that, it leads you to yourself.
MG: Have you and your bassist pal Rocco Prestia ever musically gotten in each other’s way? You both are “busy” players, but it never seems to ever “jam up.”
DG: We’ve played well together since the beginning. We don’t talk much about what we do, and when we have, it really hasn’t worked out well. He’s completely unique musically and personally and approaches things on a more intuitive, emotional level than I do. I have a more cerebral approach. We’re musical soul mates and complement each other perfectly. I wouldn’t be me without him.
MG: So many of the Tower tunes involve intricate horn hits that coincide with little drum hits within the groove. In those tunes, which came first? The tune and the hits, or the drum grooves?
DG: We usually create the rhythm section parts first, and the horns are sweetening. Usually, the horn parts are built around the drumbeat. As a rule, I am trying to incorporate aspects of everything I’m hearing into the groove.
MG: So would I be correct in saying that many of the tunes were created from the rhythm section up, and that you were actually coming up with the beats before the tune?
DG: Definitely! Some of the tunes that you are asking about were drumbeats first, and we would create songs around the beats. Others were grooves I created as I was hearing the song ideas that Doc, Mimi, Chester or whoever would bring in. I create grooves and develop beats like a composer might write a song. Tower of Power has always come at its music from many different ways. We have always thought that any idea will work as long as it is in the right context.
MG: And that’s why there has never been, and will never be, another band quite like you guys.
DG: I realized a while back that Tower of Power is my spiritual and musical home. I was never the drummer outside of Tower that I was in Tower, so I figure that it’s best for me to stay there because the band, the guys, and the music, are my life and heartbeat. It all really means a lot to me. I really enjoy having a musical identity, and feel like we’re still growing.