Peter Cater talks big bands, drumming and the Whiplash backlash

Having exploded onto the London jazz scene in the early 1990s, drummer Pete Cater has remained stellar, true to his art, and one of the most sought-after sticksmen around. Oozing all the style, finesse and knife-sharp chops of his own heroes – Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Steve Gadd – he has performed with such greats as Benny Carter, Ronnie Scott, Humphrey Lyttleton and John Dankworth, as well as contempory artists like Jamie Callum, Matthew Herbert and Tom Jones, to name but a few.

But it was the formation of his own big band in 1995, and the countless shows they have played to promote all the great albums they have made that has cemented his name in British Jazz. In April the band will celebrate the 20th anniversary of their first shows together by performing a special set at London's prodigious Cadagon Hall.

Mark Youll spoke to Cater about his plans for this event, big band music and drumming today, and his word on Whiplash.

Could you tell me a bit about the upcoming anniversary show at Cadagon Hall, what can the audience expect?

PeteCaterThe show marks twenty years of the band, which made their first appearance in April 1995. The band kind of came about because I'd been in London for about two years, and I'd met lots of great young players. I'd got a really good library together of hip big band arrangements from a couple of bands that I'd organised years before moving to London, and when It got around that I owned this music everybody said I should start a band with this stuff. It just started with a few great players getting together to playing some jazz arrangements, for the sheer pleasure of it. At that time I never imagined that we'd go on to make records, tour, play festivals and commercial theatres. All that out of maintaining a strictly jazz policy, avoiding the commercial route, not employing singers and making the musicians the stars. It was important that it should feature 100% instrumental jazz.

How are you choosing the repertoire for this special show?

A lot of the library is the old Buddy Rich library, some of which I've managed to source from the original writers, or people in the States who have copies of those arrangements. There are also a few things that can be acquired commercially, and that's going to make up much of the repertoire. I am determined to play the Hank Levy composition ‘Whiplash’, from the movie.

What made you want to lead your own band?

I think it was a lot of stuff. Growing up being influenced by the likes of Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa, all big names as both drummers and bandleaders. I always wanted my own band and I think that started off when I was a kid in the Midlands, playing in youth bands when back then there weren't that many good arrangements around. I found out sources for many great American arrangements from the records I had at home. By the age of nineteen I was making a lot of money and, having no heavy expenses, I took a couple of thousand and bought a whole load of great arrangements. That was the foundation of me having a band of my own.

You had already played with so many great artists by that point too.

Yes. I feel very fortunate to have been old enough to have worked with Harry Edison, Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessell, all such amazing musicians.

When I first saw you perform the Buddy Rich charts I was taken aback by your accuracy and attention to detail with the drum parts. It's something you take very seriously isn't it?

I don't know where this comes from, but there's some genetic information that makes me a very good mimic. I can copy any drummer I want, with the proviso that they are interesting enough. If you want Joe Morello, I can give you Joe Morello. If you want Krupa I can do Krupa. If you want Tony Williams I can do Tony. Philly Jones, Jimmy Cobb...whoever. I find it easy to hear what other drummers are doing, and assimilate the key elements of different player's styles. I know Buddy's repertoire from memory and don't need charts, I just have great recall, and for a jazz musician it's a great gift.

Why the focus on Buddy's band, and that music, over the countless other great big bands of that era?

The Buddy thing I'm particularly comfortable with because that music has been in my life for forty-seven years, and it was only in Buddy's life for twenty. As well as Buddy's band I loved Woody Herman's band and Count Basie, those were the big three for me. After that it was Stan Kenton's Band, and particularly the British Maynard Ferguson band. Those bands when I was growing up were contemporary. They weren't appealing to the Beatles generation, but were appealing to musicians of all ages, and general listeners of twenty-five and above.

Buddy Rich was recently been described as ‘a boorish show-off, to whom technique was everything...’ What was Buddy to you?

He was largely misunderstood. He was an incredible technician who was never going to hold back from showing people how good he was, but he was also a great team player. Buddy has always been a soft target with the elite jazz intelligentsia. There's an elite out there that are fearful that jazz might ever become a mainstream, popular, expectable commodity. I think they like to sit in their little rarefied Islington salons and debate the various virtues of musicians. There was an awful lot of snobbery surrounding Buddy Rich, but you never hear Sonny Payne referred to as a boorish show-off, but in a lot of people's eyes maybe he was.

Are you as strict and demanding as Buddy was with your own band?

Absolutely not, I don't have to be. The general standard of musicianship that I have in my band is at such a level I can be quite the opposite. People that take liberties stop getting calls. I would politely ignore any musician who comes to work for me that, for instance, sits on stage with his finger in his ear when I'm playing a drum solo. He'd be gone.

Another self-confessed hero of yours is the late, great Joe Morello. What was it about Morello's approach that has inspired you?

Interesting, he started off playing the violin, and to me, Morello is the closest thing to a great classical virtuoso that there ever was on the drums. He had a technique to match Buddy's, he had additional creativity and musicality and was at forefront of playing in odd times. When they recorded ‘Take Five’ they were still learning to play in five. For me Morello is the most complete drummer.

Would you say the soul has gone out of drumming to an extent?

In modern drumming it can be a problem, but not so much in the jazz world. There is a drum industry out there now, and there's a lot of athletic, uber-drumming that doesn't move me at all. I like to hear the drums played well, and I like to hear originality, but sometimes it's all just playing fast for its own sake. I sometimes get a little bored when I hear highly-rated jazz players that, when it comes to improvising, play nothing more than a sort of Philly Jo Jones and Jimmy Cobb mash-up. All that playing, as great as it is, is fifty or sixty years-old and I want to hear what players of today are adding to that.

You once said that ‘Music is in charge, music is boss, and I'm just here to serve...’ could you elaborate on that?

Absolutely. Even though I feel I can be a little bit of an iconoclast as a player, I always put the music first. I play differently in small bands to what I do in big bands, modern or mainstream jazz. It's not like I have no identity, but it's about having a broad range as a player, being able to adapt and serve both the music and players you're working with. I have a pretty considerable ego, it has its own postcode, and can be seen from space, but I'm grown up enough, and sufficiently secure in myself as a human being and musician, to put all that to one side and do what's best for the music. My idea of what's best for the music may differ from other people on occasion. Sometimes I'll get a call to dep with one of the more old-fashioned big bands, playing something like the Glen Miller repertoire, and I give it a bullet up the backside which doesn't fit with everybody's perception of what the role of the drums should be, like they are looking for something more square maybe.

How would you describe the art of big band drumming, and why you were drawn to it especially?

I play the drums because of the environment unto which I was born. My Dad was a very good, semi-pro drummer and I must have heard ‘Take Five’ before I was two weeks old. I loved Joe Morello, and the Brubeck quartet was a massive, commercially-viable jazz attraction in the mid-sixties. Then when I was five dad spent a hundred and fifty quid on a Bang and Olufsen stereo, which was a fortune then. On this I heard Stereo LPs of the Buddy Rich Big Band. I play drums because of Joe Morello, and big band music because of Buddy Rich, and I think these gateway artists that you hear in your formative years are the most important of all. I never hear of a five year-old kid hearing ‘A Love Supreme’ and asking mummy and daddy for a tenor saxophone for Christmas. There has to be a way in for people, and a lot of people have misunderstood the Whiplash movie where, to me, the massive significance of this major release motion picture is that it will introduce big band jazz and big band drums to a whole new audience.

How do you think the movie Whiplash will benefit big band music?

As far as British audiences are concerned, it's a very American film. I consider the jazz content to it to be a backdrop for the narrative of the relationship between the two principal protagonists. I think it's to (director) Damien Chazelle's credit that he chose to use a college big band as the setting for it. It could have been about football, or tiddlywinks, but what he has done could potentially be massive. I teach students that don't listen to jazz but have been to see this film. I've also had people write to me on Facebook saying they have seen Whiplash, and the next day have ordered four Buddy Rich CDs on the internet. That to me is the perfect outcome. Big band music may start appealing to a younger audience. It's only a matter of putting it in front of people. I'm not sure what younger listeners of big band music have thought about the music up till now, but I think the Whiplash backlash may be something we'll be feeling for a long time.

When and what would you say sparked the decline of big band music in the first place?

Something happened when Glen Miller and Vera Lynn came into play, and suddenly big band became just about nostalgia. Guys dressing in American army uniforms, waving trombone slides around, and three horrible little girls doing an out of tune Andrews Sisters tribute. It got into the public consciousness some time in the 1970s, and big band as an art has been marginalised partly because of that. My ethos when I started the London band in 1995 was to play the most modern music we could get away with and to bring the audience with us.

It is positive, exciting and spirited music, so why do you think it hasn't had the success it deserves?

Again, I think the nostalgia thing and how it's been portrayed has only been appealing to an older demographic. When it's shown on TV, on some BBC4 retrospective, it's all the same clichés, Glen Miller, the Rat Pack, Vera Lynn, and it's been packaged as a nostalgic genre, but I think it's perfectly possible to undo that. Mention big band to the average man in the street today and, depending on their age, they'll either say Glen Miller or Jools Holland.

You have said your aim with this band is to keep it current without losing sight of the core values of the big band tradition. How do you draw inspiration from the past without falling into the nostalgia trap?

It's a tough one, but to stick with the core values of the music it needs to be swinging and it needs to be acoustic. My band has experimented with electronics, but just as a kind of departure or change of colour. I've seen big bands in name only because they've been doing electronica or live sampling, and there's no swing or anything exciting going on. You haven't got that thing of fifteen guys breathing out together.

Finally, in drawing say a young musician of today to the thrills of big band jazz, how would you sell it to them?

Well I spent all my teens years buying big band records, so I think it just needs to be presented to largest possible audience, and let them make up their own mind. People need to have access to the pure product.

The Pete Cater Big Band plays the Cadogan Hall, London on Monday 20 April


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