Daniel Glass

March 26, 2014

glass member of Royal Crown Revue, a group widely credited with pioneering the retro swing revival of the ‘90s, drummer Daniel Glass has also performed and recorded with luminaries from across a wide swath of genres: The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Liza Minnelli, Mike Ness, Bette Midler, and Gene Simmons to name just a few.

As an educator, Glass has penned five books about the evolution of American popular music and released three DVDs. He performs master classes and clinics throughout the world at schools, festivals, music stores, and conferences. 

It was at just such a conference appearance – this past January’s JEN Conference in Dallas – that JAZZed got first-hand exposure to Glass’ uniquely immersive and “history-based” approach to teaching. Using drums as a pivot point from which to connect his student audiences to the progression of popular music throughout the years, he has crafted an effective and individual teaching style that breathes life into bygone eras in ways that resonante particularly with younger players.

We recently sat down with Daniel Glass to learn about his own background as a scholar of jazz, as well as the events and experiences which led him to become the player and educator he is today.

JAZZed: Let’s talk early influences. What first got you into music?

Daniel Glass: I’ve always loved music.  When I was a kid, my parents refused to buy a television – they were sort of taking a stand against letting their children’s minds be rotted by television – so my sister and I became radio fanatics.  We listened to the radio from morning till night, and really listened, perhaps more so than our peers.  I think that set the course for my life as a musician, in terms of the way I thought about and understood music.

How about your first experiences as a music student?

DG: I took private lessons from a pretty early age.  I grew up in Honolulu and my first teacher was the principal percussionist of the Honolulu Symphony, Lois Russell. So I started out with a fairly legit early training: snare drum, timpani, that sort of a focus.  I was also in school band from elementary through when I graduated from high school. I began playing drum sets right around intermediate school.

At what point did you know that music was going to be your life’s focus, career-wise?

DG: While I continued to take some private lessons throughout elementary and high school, I have to say that in terms of education really sparking something deeper within me, so that I knew this would be my career… I didn’t really make that decision until I finished college. I’m sort of a late bloomer in that respect.

Talk about arriving at that decision.

DG: Sure. I have a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University in Boston and there’s a really amazing teacher and player up in the Boston area named Bob Gullotti. Although he’s not all that well known outside of the Northeast, he’s quite respected in the area. When I finished college, I really didn’t feel passionate about my degree (which was in psychology), and I also felt that music was still something I’d not yet fully engaged in – I’d always just done it for fun. The summer after graduation, I started studying with Bob and he just blew my mind, basically. It was the first time I’d really seriously studied jazz and I realized, “This is something I could spend the rest of my life investigating.”

Prior to that, had you been a fan of jazz?

DG: I was somewhat of a fan. I had started as a rocker and I’ve always been intellectually minded, so I wound up gravitating towards progressive rock – bands like Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson. The songs those bands played were still, though, very much arranged pieces. Once I got excited about the concept of improvisation, then that’s when I started looking seriously at jazz. The next jump was to fusion – John Scofield and that kind of stuff – and then I sort of worked my way backwards to more straight-ahead, traditional jazz.

So after your time in Boston and getting inspired through working with Gullotti, what was next?

DG: A few years later I moved out to Los Angeles to really seriously pursue a career in music. I went to The Dick Grove School of Music in 1991, which was a really terrific music school. I got to study with the likes of Steve Houghton and Emil Richards.  There were so many great teachers who were all real, working pros – kind of like a Berklee type of situation, I guess. I also got a really tremendous foundation in a number of styles, which allowed me to begin making a living as a freelancer.

We’re getting to the point where your professional career began to take off.

DG: The next pivotal event was joining the band Royal Crown Revue in 1994. That was one of two “next big things,” really. After Dick Grove, I started studying privately with Freddie Gruber – his students include Steve Smith, Dave Weckl, and Neil Peart of Rush. Freddie was Buddy Rich’s best friend and he had come up as a young man on the be bop scene in New York, but his real forte in his later years was that he became a tremendous private teacher.

Studying with him dovetailed beautifully with my joining Royal Crown Revue because that band is focused on understanding a lot of different classic styles of playing – from R&B, be-bop, rockabilly, and big band. So what was cool was that I could ask Freddie about all of these artists that we were exploring as a band and he knew them all – everybody from Papa Jo Jones to Charlie Parker – he had hung out with them all and had great stories to tell, so it was a really wonderful opportunity for me. Studying with Freddie really gave me a new relationship with the instrument that is colored by understanding the evolution of the instrument itself, and the music itself, as you’re playing and learning it. It was really an old school education and I don’t know if it could’ve happened in a more formal context.

I personally didn’t go on to a higher degree – a masters or something like that – because I had been in school for a long time already and my personal desire was to learn from doing it, from being out there.

When did you start teaching, yourself? And when did you start to formulate your “history-based” approach to explaining music – drumming, specifically?

DG: I began teaching pretty heavily in the late ‘90s. As for my own development, I’d noticed something important with Royal Crown Revue. We’d literally open for Neil Diamond and KISS in the same week. It was that crazy. We did jazz festivals, we toured a whole summer with the B-52s and The Pretenders, we were on blues festivals, we worked with James Brown, and we played with Bette Midler. Because there was no obvious place to put us, we were just put in a lot of different places.

I was continually looking for the instructional materials that were going to teach me as a drummer how to play these styles that I was exploring.  And, really, it’s pretty diverse: early jazz, traditional big band swing from the ‘30s, be-bop, rockabilly, rhythm & blues, rockabilly, early rock n roll.   In terms of be-bop there’s a lot of material out there, but in general nothing had been written about what I was wanting to know.  So in the late ‘90s I began interviewing the drummers who had played on these records that had influenced us. The oldest guy I interviewed was Johnny Blowers who was 94 years old at the time.  He had played with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet and had learned press roll patters from Zutty Singleton, who we consider to be one of the first great New Orleans jazz drummers going back to the teens!

In contacting and interviewing these drummers, were you doing that for your own edification or had you already figured out that this could be a unique path as an educator?

DG: My goal was to create the materials that I had always wished that I’d had. So in addition to researching in a more traditional way, I really established friendships with these guys.

Eventually in the early 2000s I started doing clinics about the history and evolution of the drum set. One of the things that I think is important when you talk about drumming or the rhythm section is you have to put a historical context onto it. A lot of jazz students are told, “Well here’s this style and here’s that style,” but if they can’t understand how the instrument was evolving at that time or what was happening in the rhythm section at that time, they have kind of a disconnect. It doesn’t paint a full picture.

With everything that I do, I talk about not only how to play in a certain style, but I try to bring it to life and talk about what the era was like. How does prohibition effect what happened in the 1920s with jazz? How does the evolution of the drum set look at that point and how does that influence how and why the music sounded as it did? For many of these eras I’ve actually gotten the answers to these questions from the horse’s mouth – from the guys who played during those times, who helped create those styles.

Talk about some of the publications that came out of all of this research, all these interviews.  In particular, I’d be interested to hear more about The Century Project.

DG: Well, I published my first book in 2003 and to date I’ve published five books about the evolution of American music. I like to say that I talk about that evolution from the perspective of the drummer, because a lot of what I do is not necessarily just for drummers.

In 2012 I released two DVDs. One is called The Century Project which really looks at the role of American music from the end of the Civil War in 1865 through 1965 and the British Invasion. It really focuses on the evolution of the drum set during that period, as it relates to the evolution of America and American music. People may or may not realize that the drum set is a unique instrument – also a uniquely American instrument. If you think about a piano or a guitar or a trumpet – all of these instruments and the way that they were set up, tuned, and played really hasn’t changed much for a long time. Maybe you electrified a guitar or bass, or changed the harmony in the way you approach a piano, but it’s still the same instrument. On the other hand, the drum set is an instrument that radically changed with every generation between the mid-1860s and the mid-1960s. That evolution tells a really fantastic story. The tom tom, for example, started out as a Chinese ethnic instrument that was first used mainly as a noise-making device to create a certain tone or sound effect, but by the time we get to the 1930s Gene Krupa transforms it into a major part of the drum set that becomes a featured part and that changes everything within the music. The drum set is kind of uniquely qualified to tell the story of America and American music in a really interesting way. That was what I realized from doing clinics for many years.

Am I correct in understanding that you primarily do larger-format teaching – master classes and clinics?

DG: I started doing private lessons mostly, then started doing master classes around 2003. That really become of interest to me… I realized that I had some interesting insights and had gathered some interesting information to share and that was the idea behind putting together these presentations about the history of the drum set and the history of drumming which is unique – different from your typical drum clinic out there. I’ve really tried to take what I do and go into as many different settings as possible, in terms of schools and universities, drum stores, festivals. It’s sort of like Royal Crown Revue in that it’s hard to categorize in any particular way because I cover a lot of different eras, so it can fit in a lot of different places.

Are there any particular challenges that you find, as a teacher?

DG: Teaching people “history” is something that I have been challenged by and it’s been an interesting process for me in trying to figure out how to deal with it. I am someone who specializes in teaching historical styles of drumming, but the word “history” comes with a lot of baggage. One of the biggest challenges for me, whether it’s doing a clinic at a school or in a larger setting for several hundred people, has been that many people today don’t even know the styles I’m talking about, let alone the performers I’m citing.  When I first started doing this I wondered if this would be a problem, if [the students’] eyes would glaze over. But what I’ve found, over and over again – as both an educator and a performer is this: the content is not as important as the presentation. I try to help people make connections between different styles, so that they realize, “ Oh, okay – I do have a lot in common with this older music, I can access this music, I ‘get’ it.” Swing music in its day, rhythm & blues music in its day, be-bop in its day – these were all radical forms of music that parents didn’t want their kids to listen to. This was dangerous, vibrant, and revolutionary for its time.

I think my passion and excitement for this music has really helped me to succeed in teaching something that conventional wisdom says nobody’s interested in. And I think that’s a hugely important point. I was actually told by some mentors of mine when I first started doing this, “Why do you want to talk about history? Nobody’s interested in history.”

It’s got to be particularly rewarding, then, to be able to connect as you do. I saw it, myself, at the recent JEN Conference – there were definitely no eyes glazing over. In fact, when time was up and the clinic over, there were audible groans of dismay.

DG: Well thank you! I think that one of the wonderful things about getting so deeply involved in the evolution of the music is that it allows me, when I teach, to see things in the long term. One of the things that I love doing is helping people to understand what they have in common with it today. Unfortunately a lot of jazz education really buries its head in the sand and sort of looks down on today’s popular music and says, “Jazz is great stuff, this is America’s classical music – what you listen to today is garbage and you need to get him and listen to this stuff.” I don’t think that’s a particularly effective way to reach younger people, in particular. It alienates them and makes them feel that you and them don’t have much in common. For me, when I teach I get so excited about it and try to show [the students] a million different connections between what came before and what they listen to today.

Not to put you on the spot, but can you give me one example of how you try and demonstrate those connections?

DG: Sure thing. One of the ways that I start certain of my clinics is, I’ll play the first 15 seconds of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” from 1972. Everybody knows John Bonham’s famous drum intro for that song. And then I’ll play Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’ (but You Can’t Come In)” from 1956 which literally starts, almost note for note, with the same drum rhythm. Then I put on Louis Jordan’s “Keep A Knockin’ But you Can’t Come In” from 1937 which has a cool little drum lick in it. In 90 seconds I’ve taken the audience from 1972 back to 1937 and shown them a direct lineage of influence and give them kind of an “a-ha!” moment.

I think it’s really important that as jazz educators we really try to check in with where young people are at today. So many people, from baby boomers through to kids today, have grown up in a world without jazz. That’s something I really try to do as an educator – “Hey, I dig where you’re at.  Let me show you some of the things that I’m into!”

Any advice you’d pass along to your fellow jazz educators?

DG: I know it’s a struggle sometimes, but don’t close your mind to what’s happening now. I am of the firm belief that if many people are into something and it’s popular, then there must be something to it. If something is popular, figure out why it’s popular and then find the parallel to what made jazz popular when it was the pop music of its day.

I sort of have come from outside of the system. I didn’t get a bachelor’s degree in music, I didn’t get a degree in music education or jazz education. I learned it all by doing it. If an educator grows up within the academic system and learns the conventional wisdom about jazz and then sort of simply regurgitates that conventional wisdom when it comes time for them to teach, there’s something missing. You have teachers that may be well credentialed and may be great players, but who are nonetheless not talking from a real world experience. I would hope and wish that academics in more traditional settings would try to be able to impart more real world experience or at least help their students get access to those types of experiences for themselves. I would advocate for remaining open to the possibility that the conventional wisdom that you learn in a classroom may only be part of the story.

For more information on bringing Daniel Glass to your institution for a clinic or masterclass, please contact Josh Mighell at: (760) 660-1902, or josh.mighell@gmail.com. www.DanielGlass.com

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