The PAS Hall of Fame is home to a select group of musicians and visionaries who have dedicated their lives to elevating the art of percussion,” says Peter Erskine. “If for no other reason than that his drumming propelled the music of both Miles Davis and Michael Jackson, Ndugu Chancler deserves our utmost respect. But Ndugu did more than that. His commitment to the fundamentals of drumming showed that it was possible to play the most far-out and far-reaching music imaginable, just as soon as you knew your rudiments. Like another Miles alum, Tony Williams, Ndugu understood that the basics were the door through which musical freedom was attained. He taught this lesson well for many years at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. The depth and amount of gratitude and devotion shown to Ndugu by his former students, as well as by the vast ‘who’s who’ of musical legends he played with over the years, is both testament and testimony to an exemplary drumming life. All of us miss him at USC. His music and teaching legacy live on. Thank you, Percussive Arts Society, for bestowing this honor and residency to Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler.”
According to former PAS President Bob Breithaupt, “Ndugu was approachable and legitimate as a true percussion ambassador. He was not resistant to engaging in direct and meaningful conversation with the pure avocational drummer, bringing great joy and encouragement to thousands over his career. In his role as a faculty member at USC, he often would willingly work with those who were not jazz majors and sometimes not even music majors. This is evidence of one who is truly dedicated to the mission of teaching. Ndugu was well known and well liked by all in the percussion world. With an infectious smile and good word, he simply made all whom he came into contact with feel better about themselves and their role as drummers. He was a model and a gift to our discipline.”
Pianist and singer Patrice Rushen, who worked with Ndugu on a number of projects, said, “Ndugu’s numerous contributions to jazz and popular music not only exemplify the richness of his talents as a gifted drummer, but also extend into his work as a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, record producer, clinician, and college professor. Few people have put their ‘footprint’ on so many varied musical experiences and styles with such a positive, notable fashion. To have mentored, befriended, guided, and influenced numerous musicians in pursuit of excellence and purpose, by example and through his own experiences, Ndugu proved over and over again that being a musician whose platform for artistic expression was drums, was open wide with possibilities. He possessed the knowledge and had the courage to stand on the shoulders of those who came before him. He used their positive influences as power, to inform the discovery of his own. His keen sense of performance, his impeccable skills, and his talent were displayed in every musical platform in which he participated. He made it look so easy, and he made it fun! What stands out in my mind about Ndugu Chancler is that his level of integrity as a percussionist was matched by his pure joy and sharing of the gift of music. He inspired curiosity and versatility. He strived to provide the best of what was needed for the success of the music.”
Leon “Ndugu” Chancler was born in Shreveport, Louisianna, on July 1, 1952, but soon moved to Los Angeles with his family. He started teaching himself to play drums at age 13, getting advice from older musicians. While in high school he started playing Latin jazz with percussionist Willie Bobo. After graduating high school, he joined Gerald Wilson’s big band. He performed with the trumpeter Hugh Masekela while studying music education at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Chancler was invited to join Herbie Hancock’s band, but turned down the offer in order to stay in college. Ndugu did, however, perform as a percussionist on Hancock’s 1971 album, Mwandishi, during which time percussionist James Mtume gave him the Swahili name Ndugu (“Earth Brother”). He often performed with visiting musicians at L.A. jazz club Shelly’s Manne-Hole, and his reputation quickly spread.
In 1971, when Chancler was 19, he left college when Miles Davis asked him to join his group. That band can be heard on the 2015 CD set Miles Davis at Newport 1955–1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. Ndugu started working regularly with a variety of artists, both live and in the studio. After playing on Santana’s 1974 album Borboletta, Ndugu joined Santana on tour, and on the band’s 1976 album, Amigos, he wrote the songs “Dance Sister Dance” and “Take Me With You,” and he was also one of the producers.
When Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter heard Ndugu recording with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in a nearby studio, they invited him to play on the Weather Report album Tale Spinnin’. “I went from a very technical and structured music with Jean-Luc to a very free-form improvisational music with Weather Report,” Ndugu recalled. “I had to adapt to that right then, and it was fun. They [Weather Report] don’t talk a lot, they don’t write a lot of music, they just let you go. That record did a lot for my career. Everyone was ready to abandon me as a creative percussionist because I had been working with Santana and doing some things with George Duke. People were ready to say I had sold out: ‘He can’t play anymore; he’s a funkhead.’ The Weather Report album turned that around. They said, ‘He’s still got it!’” Ndugu was invited to join Weather Report full time, but declined the offer.
He continued doing sessions, appearing on albums by Hugh Masekela, Hubert Laws, Frank Sinatra, Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Rogers, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Donna Summer, Lionel Richie, LeAnn Rimes, DeBarge, and Stanley Clarke, among many others. Chancler was also hired to play on high-profile film soundtracks including The Color Purple, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Indecent Proposal.
In 1982, producer Quincy Jones hired Chancler for three songs on Michael Jackson’s album Thriller: “Billie Jean,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and “Baby Be Mine.” In a 1983 Modern Drummer article, Ndugu said that for him, “Billie Jean” was “a lesson in musical discipline. A very simple rhythm that anybody can play who can play drums, but the whole discipline of it was just playing that and being consistent at it.”
When Ndugu died, Roots drummer ?uestlove posted on his blog, “In my opinion, the ‘Billie Jean’ intro is the greatest example of something so simple that you take it for granted. But if you truly dissect it, it’s a complex, compelling performance. The tone is spot on. Enough snap on the snare but not too thin that it enters Ska/James Brown crack snare territory. The amount of reverb [engineer] Bruce Swedien applies is SPOT-on perfect. The performance, however, is timeless, like a tuxedo, or a pair of Chucks, or jeans and white T-shirt. It literally gives MJ his DNA. You know what it is ONE SECOND in.”
The same year that Thriller was released, Chancler and his production company partner, Reggie Andrews, received a Grammy nomination for writing the Dazz Band’s hit “Let It Whip.” Chancler also composed “Sister Serene” and “Reach for It” for George Duke.
On Jackson’s next album, Bad, Chancler played on the song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” Ndugu also played on Tina Turner’s 1984 blockbuster album Private Dancer. During the ’80s he embraced electronic drums and drum machines, learning to work with and alongside them. “My main objective is to remain contemporary,” he said in 1983. “You need to jump on the bandwagon. Get a drum machine and program it. Put your sounds in the drum machine. It’s still you. The instrument is just a vehicle for expression. It doesn’t take the place of your own feeling. I like my drum machine. It’s my newest toy. I don’t feel intimidated by it because when they need Ndugu, they call Ndugu.”
In addition to his session work, Ndugu recorded several albums as a leader and co-leader, including Do I Make You Feel Better? (with the Chocolate Jam Co., 1980), Old Friends, New Friends (1989), The Meeting (with Patrice Rushen, Ernie Watts, and Alphonso Johnson, 1990), Jazz Straight Up (with Stanley Clarke and Patrice Rushen, 2001), Old Friends Live (on which he played vibraphone, 2010), and 3 Brave Souls (with John Beasley and Darryl Jones, 2012).
In the 1983 Modern Drummer interview, Ndugu was asked how much success depends on being in the right place at the right time. “I think persistence and working hard guarantees your longevity, and being able to hang in there once you get a break,” he said. “But there is so much luck in becoming successful that it is about being in the right place at the right time. The ones who end up being successful are the ones who develop their talent to a point that when an opportunity comes for them to show that talent, they can utilize that space.
“I think the most important thing is your attitude,” Ndugu continued. “A lot of musicians have more technique than I have, or more talent. But there is also an attitude that you must project to make people feel you as a person. I very much wanted to get along with everybody and to add as much as I could to whatever situation. I wanted to be a workhorse, and I had to work harder at my drumming than some of my peers.
“I think a drummer’s success and notability are based on sensitivity as a musician—not as a drummer,” he added. “I don’t approach myself as a drummer; I’m an orchestrator. The drums are just the instrument I use to orchestrate—paint the picture. The great drummers give you peaks and valleys in their performance. We’re playing an instrument that naturally can be played loud and hard, but the beauty of the instrument is when it’s played soft. Just as you can get your point across loud, you can get it across more so soft, because you can draw more attention.”
Ndugu stressed that drummers need to vary their speed as well as their dynamics. “If you play everything fast—your fill-ins, your beats, a lot of intricate things—you don’t give people time to breathe. If you play everything loud, you don’t give their ears rest from the volume, so you slowly numb people to what you are doing.”
As an educator, Ndugu worked with the Jazz Mentorship Program, the Thelonious Monk Institute, and was the Faculty Advisor to the U.S.C. Jazz Reach in Los Angeles. Since 1997 he had taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, a summer program held at Stanford University. Ndugu was also on the faculty of the Young Musicians Program at Cal Berkeley, the Diaz Music Institute, and Music for All. Ndugu did clinics all over the world for Yamaha, Paiste, Remo, Toca, Vic Firth, and Shure Bros., and also did clinics at several PASICs. He published a book of musical and career advice, Pocket Change, in 2013.
“In 1987, Ndugu was one of the original faculty members for the United States Percussion Camp,” said Johnny Lee Lane. “He was a mainstay for the camp. Students and faculty had nothing but praise for his teaching and knowledge. He was a historian and asset for all of us involved with the camp.”
In 1995 he became a professor of jazz studies at the Flora L. Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC), where he created the drum curriculum. “He really felt he was training a complete musician, not just a drummer,” said USC Thornton professor Chris Sampson, who founded the Popular Music program. “He was very demanding of students. He broke them down and started from the very beginning of what’s called rudiments. He was regarded as a hard instructor, and as people got to know him and understood what he was reaching, what he was accomplishing, the dynamic always and inevitably changed. Ndugu kept us all at such a high standard of accountability that every year we would come together as faculty and basically ask how we could continue to do things better, how things could be improved. Ndugu was at the center of that belief that we could always work better for the students and working as a team to always improve.”
Julie Spencer considers herself fortunate that Ndugu was a mentor and trusted friend. “He insisted on my developing a tough attitude that included greater consistency, positivity, discipline, and pragmatic goal setting,” said Spencer. “He always made me reach higher, and at the same time believe that wherever I was, that was a good place to be, to start for the next level. He believed in lifting people up, for them to discover in themselves what they hadn’t yet learned to believe in, never to criticize or allow comparisons to others to discourage. We talked about the problems of racism and sexism in the world, and also in music, and he was a strong voice in my life to believe in the power of patience and also vision. I have tried to transfer all the information he passed onto me into as many areas as possible, as well as with my students, and always, his guidance has proven profoundly helpful. His humility in areas that he was working on always struck me as remarkable. While supremely confident in performances, his desire to continually improve his craft was strikingly grounded in maintaining attention to all the basics—listening, practicing, absorbing, transforming, and growing—opening himself up in areas where he still wanted to get better.”
Kelly Cruz, who studied with Chancler starting when she was 11 and continuing when she enrolled at USC, said of him, “He didn’t lower his expectations because I was a girl and certainly not because I was young. I think he respected me because I stayed. Like ‘Oh, this girl wants to play the drums, so I’m going to invest my time in her.’ I learned a lot of personal lessons from studying with Ndugu, and one of the biggest was how to listen to music.”
Chancler was very involved with the Percussive Arts Society. According to Marvin Sparks, “Ndugu attended PASIC every year to support the organization and to help his growth. He donated his drum set from the Michael Jackson ‘Billie Jean’ recording to the PAS Rhythm! Discovery Center to help attract more visitors. He became a member of the PAS Board of Directors to bring awareness to some issues that we felt were not being addressed. Ndugu presented several memorable clinics at PASIC, and he always attended even if he wasn’t presenting. This showed his love for PAS, and he encouraged musicians young and old to be a part of this organization.”
According to Ndugu’s son, Rashon, “As great as a musician as my father was, and as much as he worked, he made plenty of time to be a father and be there for important events. And he also mentored so many kids and took them as his own. I always admired that about him, and I have tried to do my part to continuously give back.”
Vince Wilburn Jr., who is Miles Davis’s nephew, knew Ndugu well. “I affectionately referred to Ndugu Chancler as ‘The Godfather,’” Wilburn said. “We would talk almost every morning about topics ranging from world events to our love for music, from Miles to upcoming projects. We toured and shared double drums on the Grammy-nominated Miles from India project. That smile—when he would look over at me on stage—I will forever cherish. We would always end our calls and hangs by saying ‘For life,’ which means ‘I love you for life.’ Hey, Du. For life!”
Chancler learned he had prostate cancer in 2003, but he continued to teach, perform, and record until shortly before his death. He lost his battle to prostate cancer on February 3, 2018.