Johnny Vidacovich is not only one of the greatest drummers in New Orleans–he’s one of the greatest drummers in the world. These sentiments are frequently repeated by music fans, music teachers and musicians. In an issue devoted to New Orleans drummers, the musings of “Johnny V” are an appropriate finale.
Johnny Vidacovich is an irrepressible force in New Orleans music, combining the drum knowledge of an elder witch-doctor with the gleeful enthusiasm of a kindergarten tambourine-basher. As the mainstay of Astral Project and in multitudinous side projects (teaching students from Loyola and UNO, gigging with Stanton Moore and George Porter, Jr., writing poetry, touring with Charlie Hunter), Johnny is a human hurricane. He also brews a very good cup of coffee, as we discovered a few mornings after Mardi Gras when we woke him from a deep sleep to engage our tape recorder in his Mid-City kitchen.
The first time I saw you play I was in fourth grade and you were a few years older. You came to my elementary school to perform with Dunc’s Honky-Tonks, an all-kid jazz band, and the experience inspired me to join the school band and start playing drums.
I was about 12 or 13-years-old. There was an old man named Warren Duncan, who had a junkyard/collectable-type place on Willow Street, and he would get all these young people together, teach them Dixieland songs and we would go to hospitals and schools to play for people. Once a month, we played at the Home for the Incurables. Once in a while, we played at the TB Ward at Charity Hospital and we played at political events. He taught us all these traditional Dixieland songs-everything from “Bill Bailey” to “When The Saints Go Marching In” to “Darktown Strutters Ball.” Later, when I grew up and was playing in bands, when they called those tunes, I knew ‘em. That was the first band I was ever really in.
Did you get paid?
No, we didn’t get paid in the beginning. He had two bands. In the first band, he would teach you how to play and you would go out and play at all the hospitals and old folks’ homes and things like that. You didn’t get paid. The second band-yes, we got paid. It varied anywhere from $5 to $10.
I was one of the youngest cats in that band so I was meeting guys who were more like teenagers, 15 or 16. These guys were into rock ‘n’ roll also. They would say, “Hey, wanna come play with us later?” I would go, “Oh, okay.” Not knowing what I was going to play-at that time in my life I never had an idea that this was Dixieland, this was rock ‘n’ roll, this was this…it was just basically boom-ching, boom-ching, hit the drum. Through the older guys in Dunc’s Honky-Tonks, I started to learn to play funk tunes and rock tunes and stuff like that. The progression’s very natural-you started off with the Dixieland thing and the older guys took me into some funk things and the more experienced players in the funk thing took me into the jazz thing and that’s how that goes. It was always some guy who was a little older or a little better than me. He would say, “Do this or do that, listen to this, listen to that…” And I would do it. I never drew any lines or categories. When my friends came to get me to play music, they would say, “Tomorrow, we’re going to pick you up at 11 and we’re going to play music.” I didn’t know whether I was going to be playing in a Dixieland band or a rock band-come to my house, get me, that was it.
When did you start gigging on Bourbon Street?
I started gigging on Bourbon Street when I was around 17. I played for strippers…
What’s the key to playing drums for strippers?
You have to be very polite. They’ll tell you what they want you to do. You don’t want to over-play-you don’t want to draw any attention away from the stripper. The important thing is to play moderately but do what she wants you to do. If she wants you to play kicks, you play kicks. If she wants you to play certain kicks, you play certain kicks. I went from playing with strippers to playing with what they called go-go dancers, which was a slightly more modest version of a stripper. She didn’t strip-she was basically semi-naked and danced. That’s when I met George Porter.
George was playing down the street at the Ivanhoe and I was playing at the Silver Frolics and the Gunga Den. George and I would meet at these little hamburger/coffee places or standing on the corner on our breaks. He and I wound up taking a gig at the Gunga Den with the saxophone player Johnny Pennino. That’s how we started being friends-we were definitely the odd guys.
I still work on Bourbon Street-I had a gig there a couple of nights back. You’ve got to find the good music on Bourbon Street. I was just interviewed by this big magazine and I had to re-correct one of my quotes because I said a lot of the music on Bourbon Street has no integrity and it’s circus music. There is a lot of great music on Bourbon Street-some of the music has no integrity, some of the musicians do not play from their heart. But it’s a business street-if you go half a block off of Bourbon Street, you’re going to get a much more genuine effect.
Let’s fast-forward to Professor Longhair.
I was about 27. I had played with him before, substituted. He had a steady drummer for many years from Canada-Earl Gordon. Then Earl had a visa problem and when he left, I became the drummer. There were no rehearsals, I got on the van and we took off from [saxophonist] Andy Kaslow’s house and went straight up to Washington, D.C. The van broke and me and [bassist] David Watson got in a little trouble with the police.
At first, I thought the gig wasn’t going to work because Professor Longhair was so very used to playing with Earl. I was not playing that way at all and I did not want to play that way. I wanted to play the way I grew up hearing him. Once he got used to me and I learned the arrangements a little better, it was solid. Then Fess and I were just beautiful.
He was a great guy to me, taught me a lot of stuff, spent time with me. He would play rhythms on my leg in the van when we were traveling. He was a tap dancer and a drummer, and he could play really fast stuff with his hands. Fess was very funny, liked to play lots of jokes, liked to tell me a lot of things that were not true and then laugh at me when I found out.
He was very much about drums and piano. There was none of this laying-back thing. Shit had to be dancing, it had to be moving, it had to be on the edge. Slightly contradictory to what people think music is around here. There wasn’t nothing laid-back about his concept.
What about James Booker?
I made his last record, Classified. I played with Booker a lot-we used to play every Wednesday night at the Maple Leaf. Me, him, [bassist] James Singleton, [saxophonist] Red Tyler.
“Angel Eyes” is the most beautiful thing Booker ever recorded.
“Angel Eyes” is my favorite cut on that record. Cutting that record had some phenomenal stories in it.
Yeah, I remember the producer calling me, begging me to come over and talk to Booker because he wouldn’t play.
One time, there was a baffle in front of me and the piano was on the other side of that so I could basically see Booker’s head and shoulders. James is standing over here and Red Tyler’s on the other side. So we’re playing this one tune and I’ve got my headphones on. Booker’s playing and singing and I’m grooving-I’ve kinda got my eyes closed. I’m hearing all this stuff on the high end of the piano and at the same time, I’m hearing all this stuff on the low end of the piano. I thought, “Oh wow-Booker’s getting into some new shit!” I look up and I don’t see his head. I look at Red smiling and James is about ready to stop playing, he’s laughing so much. The song’s over and I said, “James, that was a wild piano solo Booker played. What was so funny? What was everybody laughing about?” He said, “Man, you didn’t see it but his false teeth fell out right on the piano so rather than stop, he leaned over and picked them up with his gums!” That’s the fucking Booker story-one of the nice ones!
Tell me about your first encounter with Stanton Moore.
Stanton comes beating on my door when he was about 17-years-old. He was a student at Loyola University and he was one of my drum students. He was fairly good-he was taught very well by Ray Fransen. All of his fundamental stuff was very much solid. He just came in here and then we grew together. I said, “This is Miles, this is Charlie Parker, this is Baby Dodds, this is Philly Joe, this is Paul Motian, this is Tony Williams. Here’s a poem. Let’s play a poem. Let’s be abstract.” I taught him all the necessary things. As soon as I would introduce an idea to Stanton, he would come back a week later, have that way mastered and then say, “Look what else I figured out how to do.” So, in effect, he was teaching me just as quickly as I was teaching him.
What is it like when the two of you gig together?
The last thing we did together was two or three nights ago-it was me and him and James Singleton, Rich Vogel-the organ player from Galactic-and G. Love. We’ve done things together with me and Stanton, Rich, Karl Denson and James. We’ve done things with me, Rich, Stanton and George Porter-that was the original stuff. Skerik’s done it once with us, too. We’ve done it about four or five times.
It was my wife Debbie’s idea. It was her idea a long time ago when Stanton was a student here. She said, “You need to play with those guys-y’all need to get a drum thing together.”
Drummers playing together is relatively unusual.
Well, it’s not unusual to me but I don’t like it because all of the old two-drummer shit that I heard in all my days sounded like nothing but a bunch of noise. This drummer trying to play faster than that drummer. This was not like that at all. We surrounded ourselves with George Porter and Rich Vogel and kept it funky. As far as repertoire, we said we’re gonna keep it real primitive. We’re gonna jam. We jam off a few things. We use three or four poems that I wrote as reference points. Of course George-if it comes into free playing, George’ll be the first one to say, “Okay, check this out…” And then, that’s it-then we go from there.
We had a repertoire of about eight songs that we used as basic skeletons. I don’t mean eight arrangements-I mean eight songs. “Okay, here’s a 16-bar song…for an encore, we’ll do ‘Cissy Strut’…” We didn’t say how we were going to do it, how many times we were going to do it, where we were going to end. Fuck-whatever happens, happens.
The people dictate a lot of that-the audience. You think you’re in control up there but when you’ve got a lot of people out there, full of energy, they push the music in a certain direction.
Do you watch people dance?
Absolutely. Even if they’re just sitting there completely still, that turns me on, too. I can feel the depth of interplay. I can tell if it’s becoming a circle. I can tell.
When you tour with someone like Charlie Hunter, how do you learn the songs?
He just sent me all the music in the mail with some CDs. It’s going to be Charlie on guitar, me on drums, John Ellis is the saxophone player and Josh Roseman is the trombone player. It’s going to be some good funk-I’m going to have to do a little homework and it ain’t gonna be all a piece of cake. They try not to send me too many CDs because then you start wanting to play like what that guy played on the CD. I’ll use the CDs as a reference to get the song forms and definitely to see what kinda beat that drummer played because Charlie has great drummers on his records. I’ll see what kinda beat I can play that’s similar to that that would make me me without having to try to sound too mechanical. A lot of times, it’s like “Man, here’s your ticket-be there.” And you get there and you don’t know what you’re gonna do. But that’s no problem-it’s more fun for me.
What do you tell a parent whose child wants to play drums?
I don’t really teach too many beginners. In other words, if he’s a beginner-never played before, I’ll usually refer them to another student because I don’t want to see somebody pay a whole lot of money to teach their kid very basic things. They should probably be going to half-hour lessons with a method book for about a year, just to get used to the mathematics. Not that all of my students can read because a lot of them can’t. If he doesn’t read, I won’t go down the read route. I have some older guys and I know they don’t want to learn to read. I wish they would because it would save them half the money and save me half the time and everything would get done at a quicker pace. But the most influential drummers in my life were not readers. I try to get young people to realize that playing music is like talking: you speak the language, you read the language, you write the language. Music is no different. You play it, you read it, you write it. Ain’t no difference!
I’m always saying that New Orleans drummers are special. Is this a myth?
It’s heads above any other place I’ve been in the world and I’ve traveled a lot. There’s a morphic subconsciousness here about music. It’s part of the genetic history. There’s so many musicians around here. I don’t mean popular, fancy, well-known, rich ones-I mean natural musicians. Children being born, children coming up-it’s morphic resonance. It’s in the air. There’s nothing sterile about music here. We’re isolated down here. Nothing gets out, too, because we’re below sea-level and it’s hard to get that shit through a bunch of thick ass water.