by Lauren Vogel Weiss
He dreamed of being a timpanist in a major symphony orchestra. He almost changed careers to work with underprivileged children. But fortunately for the world of music, Ed Soph kept returning to the drumset, making the multiple-percussion instrument sing with music.
Edward "Ed" Soph (which rhymes with "loaf") was born in California on March 21, 1945. Raised in Houston, Texas, his first percussion instrument was a woodblock. "My father was a businessman during the day, but he was ragtime pianist for fun," Soph remembers. "One day when I was about five years old, he brought home a woodblock and a pair of sticks, and I would accompany him while he played Scott Joplin. And, in a paternal way, he would tell me I was too loud or too soft." These early "lessons" in dynamics would stay with him his whole life.
"This was a time before television," he continues. "My dad would play music during dinner, including New Orleans jazz." Soph recalls the day his dad brought home a Charlie Parker record. "I thought it was awful at first, but the more he played it, the more I got it. By the time I graduated high school I had a pretty good history of the music in my head, thanks to my father."
In addition to piano lessons (and woodblock), Soph began taking snare drum lessons from Elder Mori, a drummer originally from Pennsylvania. "He was a great man," Soph says. "He taught me a rudimental, Wilcoxon-based approach to playing snare, along with orchestral techniques from the Sternburg and Goldenberg books. Reading, touch, and time--all that laid a really good musical foundation that I was able to transfer to the kit. Around the same time, I took timpani and mallet lessons with David Wuliger, the Houston Symphony's timpanist.
"But I had no formal instruction on the drumset itself," Soph continues. "I was just playing with some friends as well as listening to and playing along with records. My dad would take me to clubs to hear some really good local drummers. One Sunday afternoon during a jam session at a club in Houston, the drummer, Dave Barry, asked me if I'd like to sit in on the next set, and I just about died right on the spot. My father leaned over to me and said, 'This is it. If you don't take this opportunity, forget about it.' I nervously got up, but as soon as the band started playing, I felt very comfortable because I did so much playing along with records at home.
"Dave came over to me after the set and told me he was moving to Colorado, and the guys in the band wanted me to continue to play with them. So at the ripe old age of 15, I had a regular jazz gig! I wasn't old enough to drive, so my dad had to take me to two or three gigs a week. But that was my learning school--being mentored by all those great, older bebop players."
In addition to his jazz gigs, young Soph was also playing in the Houston Youth Symphony, under the direction of Howard F. Webb, and the Houston All-City Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Harry Lantz. "Great conductors like Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the Houston Symphony at that time, and Sir Malcolm Sargent, who was a guest conductor, would visit the All-City Symphony rehearsals and conduct us; the orchestra was that good," he explains. "I remember playing Stravinsky's 'Symphony of Psalms' with Robert Shaw, the great choral director, conducting us. So I had a very rich musical diet." These extracurricular music experiences were especially important to Soph, since his high school did not have a music program. "Whatever I can do musically on the drumset, I attribute to my orchestral background."
While he was still in high school, Soph met Leon Breeden, director of the One O'Clock Lab Band at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton. "After a local music educators contest, Mr. Breeden came over to me and invited me to come up to North Texas," recalls Soph, "and he was very convincing. At that time, I was planning to go to Rice University and study classical literature, Latin and Greek. He also told me about the One O'Clock Lab Band. I had heard of it but never really heard it."
During his senior year in high school, Soph earned a spot in the Texas All State Symphony and attended the TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association) convention in Dallas. "That's when I heard the One O'Clock Lab Band for the first time," he says. "And that did it! North Texas is where I wanted to go to school." He graduated from St. Thomas High School in Houston in 1963 and that fall began taking lessons with Tommy Gwin at NTSU.
NORTH TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY
"Tommy Gwin was a genius in so many ways," Soph says about his first mentor. "Fritz Reiner invited him to audition for timpani in Chicago. He was asked to be the first drummer in The Tonight Show band. In the 1950s, when Buddy Rich was with [Tommy] Dorsey, if he became indisposed or took another gig, they'd fly Tommy out to sub for Buddy. Unbelievable!" Gwin served as Principal Timpanist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from 1949--57 and taught at NTSU from 1955--65.
"Tommy had incredibly high standards," continues Soph. "He would come up to Denton in the evening because he worked all day at his recording studio in Dallas. I still remember my first lesson with him. He asked if I could play an exercise from the Chapin book, and I very cockily told him I could. After I played it, he said to me, 'That really stunk!' Then he played it, musically and nuanced, with a great touch.
"He started me out on the first page of the Podemski book playing quarter notes and quarter rests. 'You've got to learn some mechanics that you don't have and you're not going to learn them doing the Chapin book,' he told me. 'We're going back to square one.' He was such a great teacher, and to this day everything he said is still in the back of my head." Soph studied with Gwin for two years until his mentor left his adjunct position at NTSU to continue his career in Dallas.
When Soph came to Denton in 1963, there were only three lab bands in the jazz department: the One O'Clock, the Two O'Clock, and the Three O'Clock (named for the time of day they rehearsed; the Four O'Clock was added soon after as a reading band). Soph remembers his first concert with the Three O'Clock Lab Band, led by Joe Davis, in the fall of 1963. "Our rhythm section just did Basie charts, and the band swung so hard that the crowd went bananas. And then the One O'Clock came on, but the crowd didn't react the same way. So Mr. Breeden recruited the entire Three O'Clock rhythm section into the One!"
While still a student at NTSU, Soph did summer tenures with both the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Stan Kenton. "I still remember the concert the One O'Clock Lab Band played with Stan Kenton's Neophonic Orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles in 1965." Soph's voice drops to a whisper. "Shelly Manne on drums and Frankie Carlson on timpani. Looking out into the audience and seeing Henry Mancini. It was unbelievable!"
Peter Erskine first met Ed in 1966 when Soph was the young drummer with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. "He was teaching drums as part of the Kenton-hosted camp at Redlands University," Erskine recalls. "With Stan's help, Ed gently but firmly took this 12-year-old drummer apart and put me back together again, making it possible for me to bridge that awkward gap from being a talented kid drummer to a musician who would be ready to grow, learn, and mature. I credit Ed Soph with teaching me how to swing, and will forever be grateful."
Despite an incredible jazz program at North Texas, there was no jazz degree during the 1960s. "Even though my original dream was to be a timpanist in a major orchestra, my musical focus had become drumset," explains Soph. "It was pretty obvious that my life was heading towards a career playing set, so I figured I should get the most I could out of my college education. Since there was no major in drumset, I changed my degree to English."
Soph graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1968. "But I had to miss my graduation," he says. The reason? He began his next gig, as the drummer with the Woody Herman Band.
LIFE "BETWEEN" NORTH TEXAS
"I got the Woody Herman job because of Cannonball Adderley, the great alto [sax] player," Soph explains. "After listening to the Lab Band during a visit to Denton, he went to a jazz festival in Mexico City where he saw Woody, who needed a drummer and tenor player. Cannonball recommended me and [saxophonist] Lou Marini." Soph spent the next two years touring and recording with the popular jazz clarinetist and his band.
"What a charmed existence that was," Ed recalls with a smile, "having the opportunity to perform at a high level like that. People have sent me tapes from some of our old gigs, like a four-hour dance at the Elk's Lodge--we called them society gigs back then--and it makes you realize how high the standard was in the band. Everyone in that band wanted to please Woody; we called him the 'road father.' Even though he was quite elderly and sometimes very frail, he was very inspirational. When he got on the bandstand, it was like a transformation; he turned into a young man in spirit and conveyed that to us.
"That high standard is something I keep most dear to my heart and try to impart to my students," he continues. "You've got to make that the norm for yourself, whether it's drum line, symphonic percussion, or anything. That has to be your norm."
While Soph was playing with Woody Herman, the Vietnam War was raging, and in 1970 Ed was drafted. "I don't believe in that sort of thing," he explains, "so I applied to my draft board for alternative service and received it. For two years, I served at the Wiltwyck School for Boys in Yorktown Heights, New York. I worked with highly emotionally disturbed children from the ghettos of New York City, most of them from single-parent homes. It was a world I never knew existed. I almost said goodbye to the drums and went into social work.
"After my service, I came back to North Texas for a minute and taught as a graduate student," he continues. "I also started working at a club in Dallas, where I met many New York-based musicians." One of those was Clark Terry, the great trumpeter.
"When I went back to New York in 1971, I called Clark, as he had asked me to do. Two weeks later I was a member of his quintet and big band." That was the beginning of an almost eight-year association of recording and touring with "C.T." "It was a great experience because he was another man with extremely high standards."
In addition to his steady gig with Clark Terry, Soph freelanced with many musicians over the years: Bill Watrous, Bill Evans, Marvin Stamm, Randy Brecker, Joe Henderson, Pat LaBarbera, Lee Konitz, Bill Mays, Cedar Walton, Dave Liebman, Chris Potter, Carl Fontana, Slide Hampton, Doc Severinsen, and the list goes on. "I also did a certain amount of studio work until I realized I wasn't really cut out for that sort of thing," he admits.
After ten years of living in Garrison, New York, Ed and his wife, Carol, who was a French horn player with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, moved to Connecticut so she could be closer to her job.
"All I really had to do was be near an airport, because most of the work I was doing then was on the road," explains Soph. "The scene in New York was changing drastically. When I got to New York, the least desirable gig was a Broadway show, but now, it's one of the most coveted!"
CLINICIAN AND AUTHOR
During his nearly twenty years on the East Coast, Soph served as an adjunct professor (of drumset) at Yale University, the University of Bridgeport, and the Westchester Conservatory of Music. He taught drumset lessons at Creative Music in Wethersfield, Connecticut and served on the faculty of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Workshops and National Stage Band Camps. This was also the beginning of his parallel career as an active clinician.
"My first clinic was in 1971 when Woody Herman's band played at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb," Soph recalls. "Another early clinic was at a Day of Percussion at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Shortly after that, Jim Coffin, who was with Premier at the time, signed me as a clinician.
"The folks who make the instruments I play have faithfully supported my educational efforts over the years." For almost half a century, Soph has endorsed Zildjian cymbals and for the past three decades, he has been with Yamaha drums. "I also have endorsements with Innovative Percussion and Evans drumheads," he says. "They have all invested in me, and a lot of other clinicians, by making educational venues possible, not just for drumset but for all percussion."
Ed Soph has performed at thirteen PASICs over the past four decades, the first of which was PASIC '77 in Knoxville, Tennessee. "Do you know how many drumset clinicians there were that year?" he asked. "One! Yours truly!" He did two separate drumset sessions in Knoxville, one on Sunday morning for "College and Professionals" and another that afternoon for "Students thru 12th grade and Music Educators."
Since then he has given more clinics and master classes, sat on panel discussions, performed on concerts, served as the lead-off drummer at late night jam sessions, and accompanied young vibraphone players during a jazz improvisation competition. Does he have any favorite PASIC memories?
"I remember getting on the elevator at that first convention in Knoxville, looking up, and seeing Haskell Harr, Saul Goodman, and Roy Knapp!" Soph says with a smile. "Two other PASIC performances stand out. The first one was in Columbus in 2002 when Jim Rupp put together 'The Drummers of Woody Herman.' That was a blast!" Joining him at that concert were Jeff Hamilton, Jake Hanna, Steve Houghton, Joe LaBarbera, and John Riley.
"Then we did another concert a couple of years ago [in 2011] that Steve Fidyk organized with Keith Carlock, Peter Erskine, Simon Phillips, Emil Richards, and John Riley. That was a high point because three of those guys--Peter, Keith, and Steve--are former students of mine."
"My favorite memory of that night," adds Erskine, "was seeing and hearing a master at work: Ed Soph playing with the [U.S. Army Blues] big band. He's taught so many of us to play--and he still plays!"
For almost half a century, Soph has done literally hundreds of drumset clinics. What does he try to accomplish during a one-hour session? "It depends a lot on the audience," he says. "The key to giving a good clinic in any situation is for the clinician to ask the questions; that's how you get the audience engaged. It has to be a dialogue, and you have to know your audience.
"When I first started playing," he continues, "drumset was really looked upon as the black sheep of the percussion family. At that time, formal drumset education in the university was nonexistent. The term 'legitimate percussionist' was used, and I realized that meant the drumset player was an 'illegitimate percussionist'! That has obviously changed, and it continues to change, but I think my calling over the years has been to remove that ridiculous barrier.
"Some of my favorite clinics are those for non-drumset players--percussionists, timpanists, marimbists, etc. People who have the same musical considerations as a drumset player does: good time, good sound, good articulation, vast dynamic range. I draw parallels between what I learned as a timpanist, mallet player, or concert snare drummer long ago and show that what I'm doing is applying all those techniques and musical concepts to the drumset, my multiple-percussion instrument. There are so many great percussionists now who are also really good drumset players."
According to Brian Jones, Principal Timpanist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, "Ed's drumset lessons carry over into timpani performance, because he leaves no stone unturned with regard to music making, and that carries across genres. From listening to everything going on around me, putting authenticity into grooves, balance and tone at the kit, setting up in a way that facilitates relaxed performance, codifying strokes, being creative with self-written exercises and etudes, and countless other aspects of music-making, Ed's consummate mastery of musical sophistication lights fires that burn right through boundaries."
In addition to his PASIC performances, Soph became more involved in PAS in 1980 when then-editor F. Michael Combs asked him to become the "Drum Set Forum" editor for Percussive Notes. "This was another form of presenting a clinic," Soph explains. "I contributed a lot of articles that I hope gave credibility to the drumset." He also wrote several articles for Modern Drummer magazine during the '80s.
Soph also served the organization as a member of the PAS Board of Directors for four separate terms totaling 20 years (from 1979--88, 1992--97, 2002--03, and 2011--12). Soph received the PAS Lifetime Achievement in Education Award in 2008.
In addition to writing numerous articles for PAS, Soph also has three books to his credit: Essential Techniques for Drum Set: Book 1 (Meredith Music/Hal Leonard, 1986), Big Band Primer (Ron Jon Publishers, 1992), and Musical Time -- A Source Book for Jazz Drumming with audio CD included, plus a separate DVD (Carl Fischer, 2004). He also produced an instructional DVD (with Horacee Arnold), The Drumset: A Musical Approach (Alfred Music/Warner Bros.)
"I can say this because I'm an academic and use books," Soph says with a grin, "but books don't teach you how to play what is an aural art form. Unfortunately, a lot of young people think that if they can play the exercises in a drumset book, they can play music on the drumset.
"I think that my most musically relevant book is Musical Time." Soph credits PAS Hall-of-Famer and mentor Sandy Feldstein for his guidance on that project. "For years, drumset jazz techniques were taught as 'playing a repetitive ride pattern against non-repetitive rhythms on the snare and bass drums.' Against is not a good word to use when you're trying to learn something, so I wanted to write a jazz book based upon dependent coordination, the way the instrument is played.
"The book was originally written for marimba players who wanted to play drumset. If you play the exercises with the tracks, you'll sound like you really know how to play! And those basic skills provide the confidence to improvise, which is a drumset player's most vital skill. It gives students the technical security to open their ears and start accessing their own musical imaginations. It's a really good stepping stone from the visual world into the aural world. Then the real explorations and real learning starts. As Freddie Gruber said, 'Everything you need to know is in the music.'
"A drummer has to be able to make choices, and you must be able to make them like that!" Soph snaps his fingers. "You have to make choices like 'I'm too loud. I'm too soft. The soloist is playing really busily so I'd better play less'--things like that. You have to devise and apply your musical vocabulary in a way that makes other people feel good and makes the music sound good. A musical technique facilitates those choices."
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS
In 1987, Soph decided to move his family back to Texas, even though there was no guarantee of a job at NTSU. "Long story short, I owe my position here to Bob Schietroma," Soph says. [Dr. Robert Schietroma was the Coordinator of Percussion at North Texas from 1977--99.] "Because, as only he could do, he went to bat for me by convincing people to give me a chance. Bob is like Tommy Gwin; he had incredibly high standards, not just for his students but for himself.
"It turned into the first-ever tenured drumset position at a public university, and I had a chance to set up a curriculum that worked," continues Soph. "UNT realized that a person in jazz can have credible credentials without a degree, just like a classical musician can." [North Texas State University was renamed the University of North Texas in 1988, the year after Soph joined the faculty.] "My core philosophy is to turn out students who do not play exactly like I do--and play better than I do!
"Students have to listen to whatever music they want to play well," Soph elaborates. "If they consistently focus on themselves, or the drummer, when they listen to recordings, then they're training themselves to do the same when they play music. Students should listen to a recording that they enjoy and that they're drawn to because of the drums. They must listen to it until their ear gravitates to what the bass player, guitarist, pianist, or horn soloist is playing so they get an idea of how a group functions together. It feels good not because of the drummer, but because everybody is on the same page. The best musicians are the best listeners.
"You develop the skill that I call 'peripheral hearing.' In other words, you might focus on one thing, but you still hear it in relation to all the other sounds that people are making. The guys who can really play, really listen. Period. That's the most important information I can impart to anyone: you have to learn how to listen. Whether you're playing in a jazz band, a rock band, a drum line, anything, the only way it works, the only way you stay within the musical parameters of that environment, is if you use your ears."
Brian Jones, who played drumset (and bass trombone) with the Grammy-nominated One O'Clock Lab Band while an undergraduate student at UNT, recalls, "My favorite memory of lessons with Ed was simply improving through every session. Ed is every bit the wonderful communicator as he is the world class-performer, and he has a sixth sense of knowing just how far to push us."
After 30 years as a faculty member in Denton, Soph has decided to retire from teaching full time at the end of the Spring 2017 semester. "I'm going to have more time to play as well as go out and do more clinics," he explains. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world when it comes to my 'day job'! I have the greatest colleagues to work with. It's a musical utopia! But without the daily obligation, I hope to be able to visit more schools. I still have more that I want to say and play."
How would Soph like to be remembered by future generations? "That's up to my students," he chuckles. "I hope they can use the things that I have shared with them. I hope that they have learned to solve their own musical problems and challenges, and can think for themselves. I'd be honored to be part of that great teaching tradition established by teachers such as Tommy Gwin, Alan Dawson, Joe Morello, Gary Chester, Buster Bailey, and Freddie Gruber. The bottom line is that if I've done anything to destroy that silly barrier between drumset and the other percussion instruments, I'll be very happy."
Soph pauses to consider his musical career. "I would not be here without some people who have been very important to me, and many others, over the years: Elder Mori, Harry Lantz, Leon Breeden, Tommy Gwin, Jim Coffin, Lloyd McCausland, Lennie DiMuzio, Sandy Feldstein, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Clark Terry, Paul Siegel and Rob Wallis, the Zildjians--Avedis, Bob, Armand, and Craigie--and Bob Schietroma."
For the former classical musician who would become a drumset legend, it's always about the music. "Someday," Soph says with a big smile, "I would like to be able to play drums as a combination of Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz!"