PHANTOM RHYTHMSHE'S ONE OF THE BUSIEST DRUMMERS IN JAZZ, BUT VALLEY NATIVE LEWIS NASH IS A STRANGER IN TOWN
Every city loves its homegrown musical heroes. Here in the Valley, alternative bands Meat Puppets and, lately, Gin Blossoms have scored huge national successes, and we've rightfully cheered them every inch of the way.
Now, imagine having played on more than 100 albums, not one of which your old Phoenix cronies has ever heard of.
"People come up to me when I visit Phoenix," says jazz drummer Lewis Nash by telephone from his New York home, "and say, 'Oh, you left town, whatcha doing?' What do you mean, what am I doing?"
Nash has spent 12 years laying out rhythms for nearly every big name in jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz to Sonny Rollins. For nonjazzers: Gillespie helped give birth to bebop in the Forties, Getz played a major role in inventing cool jazz a decade later, and Sonny Rollins is considered by many to be one of the three most important jazz saxmen of the last half-century. Over the course of his career, Nash has also played with Art Pepper, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Lee Konitz, Benny Carter, Slide Hampton, Branford Marsalis, Art Farmer, Clark Terry and Betty Carter--every one a bona fide jazz legend.
During the few days each year that Nash returns to the Valley to visit his parents and siblings, he checks to see if anyone is aware of his successes.
"Whenever I'm here to see my family, I turn on the radio. And after all the records I've made since I left Phoenix, none of them get played here," Nash says. "I've been busting my ass for all these years in New York, and there's nothing to show for it if Phoenix radio has anything to say about it."
Nash was not an unknown when he left the Valley in 1981. The Arizonan's talents had already been acknowledged by many in the ever-vital East Coast jazz scene.
"Things happened really quickly," he says of his post-Arizona life. "I left Phoenix for New York because I had a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study drums with Max Roach. It just so happened that jazz singer Betty Carter needed a drummer right around the same time. I had to fit in time with Max whenever I wasn't on the road with Betty."
Nash had been referred to Carter by a local teacher, Fred Waits, who, like a lot of Phoenicians in the late Seventies, had plenty of chances to see the drummer show off his stuff around town.
"I first played regularly with Charles Lewis . . . in 1977 or 1978," says Nash. "Then I worked with Keith Greko at Raffle's in Scottsdale. That was five or six nights a week, for a long time. Then I had my own group, Pendulum, at the Boojum Tree right before I left."
Nash says his dream was to play with the people whose records he had been listening to.
"One way or the other, I knew I had to get out of Phoenix. I had to come to New York if I really wanted to get the truth about jazz," he says flatly. "The only way a young musician, like I was, is going to get better is by playing with jazzmen who have been doing it longer. And you can only do that to a certain degree in a place like Phoenix or any other city of that size. Then you have to go to where the cream of the crop is--New York."
Trading the wide-open spaces for an apartment in New York City was an intimidating venture for the 21-year-old drummer. At first, so was being under the tutelage of the greatest living drummer in jazz.
"Max Roach and I spent a lot more time talking than at the drums," he says. "His recommendations to me were that I get a piano, vibes or some kind of mallet instrument and start studying composition on a percussion instrument other than drums. Learning to write would keep me from spending my whole career just being a drummer behind everyone else. It was probably the best thing he ever said to me."
It's no coincidence, then, that Nash's first album as a bandleader, Rhythm Is My Business, forgoes the obligatory horns for the percussive sounds of piano and vibes. The disc, originally released in Japan in 1990, recently made its stateside debut on the Evidence label.
Throughout the album, Nash flashes the agility that convinced Downbeat magazine to present him with the 1993 "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" award.
On Rhythm, Nash infuses the jazz standard "Monk's Dream" with the perfect, oddball feel the Thelonious Monk composition requires. Nash ricochets off the full scope of his drum kit to re-create the twisted vision of the eccentric composer.
"My Shining Hour" is a speed test in which Nash proves capable of seamlessly stringing together fistfuls of off-kilter rhythms and drum colors under the pressure of a 90-mph tempo. Another song, "Pranayama," is similar, with the drummer presenting more ideas than the human ear can comprehend.
While his hometown may not acknowledge Nash, he remembered the Valley in the recording studio.
"Sabaku' was written with Phoenix in mind," says Nash of the disc's most appealing composition. "I wanted something to relate to the Valley on my first record. I have a soft spot for the Valley. I really wish I could live there some part of the year. I just wish it was easier for Phoenix to turn on to the kind of music I play.
"Of course, my records don't get airplay in Phoenix because there's not a real jazz station there, although I hear somebody started up a jazz show recently on a rock station. The radio thing is sad to me. It used to be about alternatives, you know? When I was in high school and college at ASU in the Seventies, everybody was into alternative everything. Not now.
"Some [locals] recognize the name Dizzy Gillespie. But it's because they saw him on Sesame Street making his cheeks big for the kids," Nash says. "But usually they say, 'I like jazz, I've got the new George Howard or the latest Kenny G.'
"People like hearing that fake jazz, and that's fine by me. I just don't want to be excluded, or dismissed, or relegated to some museum just because I happen to play songs written in the days of Tin Pan Alley," Nash says with force. "The pseudojazz guys are nowhere near the caliber of Louis Armstrong or Sonny Rollins or any of the jazzmen that have perpetuated the music for 100 years."
Nash's ability to inject new blood into older jazz styles has made him a popular sideman choice for previous generations of musical giants, some of them well into their 80s.
"I'm happy about having played with Benny Carter and Doc Cheatham," he says. "These guys are not going to be around forever. Hanging with them, I get the truth from the real sources of jazz."
Nash was also one of the last drummers chosen to play behind the late Gillespie.
"I played a week with him at the Blue Note in New York, right before he got sick. We had different saxophone players every night. Clifford Jordan was one of them. Dizzy was so regal. Here was someone who had played with Charlie Parker. With musicians of this caliber, I get the sense that this is really jazz."
The drummer's reputation for powerful playing resulted in another very complimentary invitation from the older school. Tenor player George Adams and pianist Don Pullen, former bandmates of Charles Mingus, had worked with drummer Danny Richmond until Richmond's death. Richmond had been Mingus' favorite stick man for the majority of the discriminating bassist's career. Adams and Pullen recognized enough similarities between the playing of Richmond and Nash to employ Nash when in need of a replacement.
"Danny was like a dynamo," says Nash of the honor, "very full of energy." Nash could be speaking of himself. Rhythm's Pullen-penned "Sing Me a Song Everlasting" is a textbook example of the adept chops that caught the attention of Mingus' former bandmates. Like Nash's stint with Dizzy, his work with Pullen and Adams was cut short when tenor man Adams died unexpectedly in November 1992.
But finding work is not a problem for Nash. He continues to keep an astounding schedule by juggling requests for his services from both new and old jazz figures.
"Yeah," Nash says appreciatively of his opportunities, "I was in Europe this summer with trombonist Slide Hampton. I worked last week with pianist Tommy Flanagan here in New York. This week I'm working with pianist Mulgrew Miller at the Village Vanguard. And next week, I'm going to Japan with saxophonist Joe Henderson."
He plans to interrupt his schedule before year's end to visit his parents and siblings in the city he called home for many years. Not only does he expect little change in Valley radio's near-universal indifference to jazz, but Nash feels the club scene is less than it used to be, as well.
"It seems to me that before I left, there was more of a real jazz scene happening. Not only was the radio playing jazz, I could work six nights a week at clubs playing it, too. But for some reason, the climate changed. Phoenix is definitely different now. There are jazzmen there who are really good. They just need the interest of someone local who has an outlet for them to play."
Still, Nash says he will spend his next visit to the Valley tuning the length of the radio dial in search of his heroes-peers as well as his own disc. He says he'll also check out the club scene's glut of lounge singers and piano tinklers for new faces who do more than masquerade as jazz players.
Unfortunately, he won't find many. And if he sits in with a local band as its drummer, only weeks from the accolades offered him in Tokyo and New York, few will recognize his name.
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