For Frederick Waits
Little Stevie Wonder, McCoy Tyner, Soul!, Jazzmobile, M'Boom, Mulgrew Miller.....
Freddie Waits is one of the great drummers of jazz. Besides simply sounding great and contributing to dozens of classic records, Waits, in his career and in his playing, was a connector between modern jazz, soul/funk/R&B, and the avant-garde, and he always had an ear toward the world’s great percussion traditions.
Waits was totally unique, with a highly individual sound- clear, high-pitched cymbals, a snare drum tuned high and tight, low and thuddy bass drum. His vocabulary, while not a radical alternative, was distinct, personal, his alone; he didn’t play other people’s licks.
To do Mr. Waits justice, he should have a huge, sprawling essay that traces his complete biography and career, winding its way through themes like the Great Migration, Black music education, Black show business, Motown, Detroit jazz, Black entrepreneurship, new media, drummers as an outsider group within the music community, self-determination, and fatherhood.
Instead, what I offer here is some context, some chronology, musical highlights, and a few reflections. Gratitude and respect for Freddie Waits.
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Playing drums on McCoy Tyner’s Time For Tyner, Gary Bartz’ Another Earth, and Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel In The Lotus is enough to make Waits historically important, but, as always with this singular figure, there was more. So much of what Waits did was uncommon at the time, but is de rigueur today.
Waits was an early proponent of jazz education and dedicated teacher, first as a drummer in NYC’s city-and-state-funded Jazzmobile in 1968, later as a clinician. By the late 80’s Waits was teaching at the New School, and here’s a link to some Afro-Cuban bell patterns on Todd Bishop’s Cruise Ship Drummer site, courtesy Waits.
Waits worked in new media and new technology. For a time, Mr. Waits was a musical director and contractor for the the TV show Soul!, a New York City-made, nationally distributed PBS show. Soul! was hugely popular, featuring all Black artists playing to an all-Black audience. Waits often played with the featured artists, and here’s a link to Waits playing “Let’s Stay Together” with Mr. Al Green (fast forward to 49:15).
Waits was a fully trained percussionist; he could read and write music, and was an accomplished mallet player. Waits’ marimba is prominent (and killing) with Bennie Maupin on The Jewel In The Lotus, and with M’Boom, the percussion ensemble founded by Max Roach in 1970.
We’ll come back to M’Boom later in the essay. For now, let’s examine Mr. Waits’ life and work in some detail.
Frederick Douglas Waits was born April 27, 1940, in Jackson, Mississippi, a thriving city of nearly 100,000. He discovered the drums in childhood; by high school, Waits was listening to Dizzy, Miles, Bird, and Max, and gaining his first professional experience playing with master bluesmen John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), and others.
A crucial quote:
“I went to see B.B. King in Jackson, and he lectured to us young players…Do you know what he lectured on? Bird! B.B. King said “Listen to Bird!” I’ve never forgotten that….When I was playing the blues, I separated jazz and blues in my mind. I didn’t realize they were really the same element.”
A family connection brought Waits to Detroit, where he landed his first steady touring gig with R&B legend Little Willie John. Bennie Maupin introduced Waits to the wider Detroit jazz community, starting a chain of connections which brought Waits to the attention of producer Norman Whitfield. It was Whitfield who gave Waits his beginning with Motown Records.
At Motown, Waits recorded backing tracks and was popular with the acts; Berry Gordy urged him to join a Motown Revue touring package in the early spring of 1963. On the revue were Martha And The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, and a novelty act child star who played bongos, piano, and sang. This was "Little" Stevie Wonder.
Freddie Waits is the drummer on “Fingertips, pt. 2”, the first hit single by Stevie Wonder, recorded on the Motown Revue tour that spring.
As Waits recalled in 1990, "We recorded that the first week out on tour in Chicago. We opened on Tuesday, and recorded on Wednesday. When the tour reached New York five weeks later, the record was number one in the country....the Apollo was bombarded. It was like the experience you've seen of the Beatles. I saw one of the anniversary films and realized it was me playing. I didn't know it was filmed!"
Waits did a lot of more session and live work with the Motown stable, but he wasn't forthcoming with details, and positive identification on Motown tracks can be difficult. However, in an article by Marc Myers for the Wall Street Journal, Motown arranger Paul Riser credited Freddie Waits on the epochal “Dancing In The Streets” by Martha And The Vandellas.
Let’s pause and consider: the drummer on “Fingertips pt. 2” and (probably) “Dancing In The Street” is Freddie Waits, one of our great jazz drummers.
“Fingertips” was the commercial beginning of Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder. “Dancing On The Street” was a massive hit, an influence on the British rock bands (Beatles, Stones, Who), on young DJ and record producer Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone), even to Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson because of the loud bass and drums. The drums are played by Mr. Frederick Waits.
Music is one thing, one experience.
In late 1963 and early 1964, jazz was moving forward, as always, and Waits was too. Waits was connecting to the NYC jazz scene, touring and recording with Paul Winter (Jazz Meets The Folk Song, Columbia, 1964), and Denny Zeitlin (Cathexis, Columbia, 1964).
Waits, teamed with Cecil McBee on both records, at the beginning of his recorded history, is distinctive. On “Repeat”, a Zeitlin composition on both Winter’s and Zeitlin’s records, his time feel is energetic and confident, his signature sound is present. Waits respects musical conventions, but has no need to pledge allegiance to them, or even abide by them.
Other players were developing in exact parallel, and the next phase of Mr. Waits’ recorded output demonstrates his connection to his contemporaries. Collectively, this group- Waits, Joe Chambers, Billy Hart, Bobby Hutcherson, Stanley Cowell, Charles Tolliver, Gary Bartz, and others- seemed to be searching for a way of playing jazz that connected the bebop tradition, contemporary Black pop, and the new sounds from jazz’s avant-garde.
Waits was the perfect drummer for this search, uniquely able to connect the dots while developing his own voice.
Waits plays on half of Freddie Hubbard’s High Blues Pressure (Atlantic, 1968) playing echt soul-jazz drums on Weldon Irvine’s “Can’t Let Her Go” and a truly mean shuffle on “High Blues Pressure”. The lo-fi, high-content Fastball (Label M, released 2001) with Waits, Herbie Lewis, Kenny Barron, and Bennie Maupin, recorded at the Left Bank in Baltimore in 1967, is a glimpse of Hubbard’s group in full flight.
McCoy Tyner’s Time For Tyner (Blue Note, 1968), a personal favorite, is inconceivable without Waits. On “African Village”, Waits feeds the fire, gets loud and raucous, yet remains light; the texture remains open. There’s always room for Tyner and Hutcherson’s ideas to breathe. On “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”, Waits’ plays 3/4 on the ride cymbal almost non-stop; the 3/4 rubs against the tune’s driving 4/4 and lets McCoy get his message over. This is selfless mastery.
Cementing Waits’ stature as an insider with the brightest minds in jazz are Gary Bartz’ Another Earth (Milestone, 1969), advanced music with an incredible band (Bartz, Charles Tolliver, Pharoah Sanders, Stanley Cowell, Reggie Workman) and an outstanding Freddie Waits performance (this got a good look from Ethan Iverson here), and Andrew Hill’s Grass Roots (Blue Note, 1968) featuring Lee Morgan, a set of Andrew Hill tunes that are halfway between say, Wayne Shorter’s writing for the Jazz Messengers and Hill’s own Point Of Departure-era music, a perfect vehicle for Freddie Waits.
Finally there is Lee Morgan (often called Lee Morgan The Last Session, Blue Note, 1972), the final studio recording of the Lee Morgan Quintet. Produced by George Butler, the quintet of Morgan, Billy Harper, Harold Mabern, Reggie Workman, and Waits is expanded to an octet, with the addition of electric bass (Jymie Merrit), flute (Bobbi Humphrey) and trombone (Grachan Moncur). On every track, Morgan, Waits, and company seek a common ground between free jazz, funk/soul/R&B, and Blue Note hard bop.
A standout track might be Waits’ own composition “Inner Passions Expelled” (sometimes called “Inner Passions Out”), an epic, 17-minute journey which begins with a recorder and lots of percussion, builds to a trumpet solo during which Waits moves in and out of steady time. The tune then settles into an in-and-out-of-time bass duet, followed by a meditative drum solo, and finally the four-on-the-rim straight 8th note feel and melody reappears.
Here’s a link to the “Blue Note” episode of Soul!, featuring Horace Silver, Bobbi Humphrey, and Lee Morgan with Freddie Waits. Is that Waits playing the opening drum solo? (Please leave notes in the comments, help me understand!)
Somewhere after Morgan’s tragic death another facet of Waits’ artistry began to appear on records. Starting in about 1973, Waits began playing mallet instruments on records. Bennie Maupin’s Buddhist-influenced classic The Jewel In The Lotus (ECM, 1974), begins with Waits playing marimba. Waits also plays some drumset on the album, in duo with Billy Hart.
Somehow, Waits, Billy Hart, and percussionist Bill Summers maintain an otherworldly stillness on The Jewel In The Lotus even though all three are often playing simultaneously, a remarkable achievement!
The trend of expanding the percussion section reached some sort of apogee with M’Boom.
M’Boom was a jazz percussion ensemble started by Max Roach in 1970. Frederick Waits was a founding member, along with Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Omar Clay, and Warren Smith.
Confusingly, M’Boom released three albums with the identical title of M’Boom Re: Percussion, on three different labels. The last one, recorded in 1979, was an early digital recording for Columbia, and is widely available. I’ll mention two tracks:
Roach’s “January V”, in memory of Charles Mingus (who died on January 5, 1979) is an important piece. The tolling chimes, marimba rolls (Waits) and distant timpani thunder appropriately honor a great man’s passing, while the snare drum gives the piece a somber, martial character; incredible percussion writing. I believe its Waits playing the marimba solo on “Kujichaglia”, a trance-inducing, New Orleans-oriented piece; someone surely has sampled this for a hip-hop track.
M’Boom is essential to the story of jazz drumming in the late 20th century and early 21st century. They were a social and musical experiment, a group whose legacy is still unsorted. To unpack everything M’Boom achieved and wanted to achieve requires another essay, one on which I am at work.
Unlike the classic Bartz, Tyner, and Morgan records on which Waits plays brilliantly, M’Boom gets closer to the heart of Waits’ contribution. One can draw a line from Waits, Chambers, Roach, et al, playing improvised solos on marimbas, vibes, and tympani in a concert hall to the growing prominence of Black classical composers, even to the great music of Tyshawn Sorey.
One of Waits’ final projects was a trio of himself with Reggie Workman and Mulgrew Miller, called Trio Transition.
Both Miller and Waits were from Mississippi, though they were 12 years apart in age. Miller isn’t known for being left-of-center, much less avant-garde, but on Trio Transition With Oliver Lake (DIW, 1989), Miller joins in the fray. This was evidently a co-operative group; this was their second album and featured a great Waits tune, “Mr. Blackwell”, a series of whole-tone melodies which Waits metrically modulates.
“I always felt I could play anything if I could hear it and feel it, if it came from African continuum.”
Frederick Waits died on November 18th, 1989, a tragic loss the music world and to his own community. His son, Mr. Nasheet Waits, is one of the great drummers playing today.
Music today is all about rhythm, drums, and drummers: hip-hop, Tyshawn Sorey, Questlove, Terri Lynne Carrington, Anderon .Paak, on and on. This happy state of affairs is the result of the efforts of a huge number of drummers who came, did their thing loud and proud, and then left. It’s up to us to sort out and recognize their contributions.
Mr. Frederick Waits did more than his share. Let’s listen to “Dancing In The Street”, Time For Tyner, or Trio In Transition With Oliver Lake and be grateful for his playing; let’s hear the fruits of his efforts everywhere.
Readers, your comments help! Please write with any further info, missing context, personal recollections, anything. This is a group effort. Many thanks!
“Frederick Waits: Life Experience” by Jeff Potter, Modern Drummer, February 1990.
Little Willie John had a hit with “Fever” in 1956; Peggy Lee wrote some new lyrics and vastly changed the arrangement and made “Fever” her signature song in 1958.
Wikipedia says it’s Marvin Gaye on drums. Marvin Gaye is not playing drums on this track. Marvin Gaye was well on his way to becoming a star attraction in March 1963, making it unlikely that he would play drums with the backing band on a “Motortown Revue” touring package. There is some grainy footage of a performance of “Fingertips” at the Apollo, and the drummer looks like Freddie Waits; he also sounds like Freddie Waits, and sounds just like the drummer on “Fingertips”, recorded weeks earlier at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. Finally, Freddie Waits says its Freddie Waits on “Fingertips”. Therefore, it is Freddie Waits playing drums on “Fingertips”.
Here is a link to author Scott K. Fish’s excerpt from Marc Myers 2016 Wall Street Journal article where Motown arranger Paul Riser credits Waits as the drummer on “Dancing In The Street”.