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Interview: Ed Shaughnessy (PT. 1)


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Drummer Ed Shaughenssy has pretty much seen it all. He played with Charlie Parker and many other beboppers in the late 1940s and early '50s. He was in Charlie Ventura's band at the famed Pasadena Concert in 1949. In the '50s, he recorded with Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Chris Connor, Teddy Charles, Mundell Lowe, Teddy Charles, Gerry Mulligan and many others. In the '60s, Ed continued to record jazz but led a double life: He was the drummer in the Tonight Show Starrring Johnny Carson band.

In Part 1 of my two-part conversation wtih Ed, 83, he talks about his early life and how he wound up a drummer:

JazzWax: What was Jersey City, N.J., like in the Depression when you were growing up?

Ed Shaughnessy: It was a typical all-white, blue-collar town composed mostly of German, Irish, Polish and Italian families. My dad was a longshoreman who commuted to the docks in Manhattan. He worked the piers in the 20s. I went down with him a few times. His nickname was One-Punch Tom. He never fought a lot, but he was plenty tough. He was a sad story.

JW: Why?

ES: He never went past grammar school yet he had the world's most beautiful penmanship. He had started as a longshoreman, and his co-workers voted him to be a delegate to the union, which was a powerful job then. But he drank too much. He was an alcoholic. Eventually, he lost his position. They didn't want to boot him from his job, so they put him back on the docks. He could have had a wonderful career.

JW: Was he angry at home?

ES: No, he wasn't an angry drunk. He never raised his hand to my mother or me. But he tormented us in other ways.

JW: How so?

ES: When he came home loaded every night, he'd drink beer and smoke. I couldn't sleep because I was always afraid of a fire. I had to put out flames on the armchair two or three times when his cigarette dropped.

JW: What did you do?

ES: When I was 15 years old, I told my mother it was either him or me. By doing what he did, he was abusing us. That's the kind of guy he was. He didn't even hear you complaining.

JW: Was your mom a homemaker?

ES: Yes. But since my father didn't make all that much money, my mom took on part-time work. Back then, a great many factories hired women two or three days a week to sew clothes on sewing machines.

JW: What happened with your mom and dad?

ES: She told him that she couldn't live that that anymore. He didn't fight it and left. He found a rented room somewhere, and I never saw him again. Not that I didn't want to.

JW: Did you try to track him down?

ES: I didn't know where he lived. I wanted to let a little time go by before tracking him down. But when I found out where he was, he had already left the place. I learned that he died some years after that in a veterans' home in upstate New York. 

JW: How did you wind up a drummer?

ES: I was always listening to the radio. I delivered papers for money and finally bought a record player. I was in seventh heaven, buying a record a week by Gene Krupa [pictured], Buddy Rich, Count Basie and others. I used to go down in our basement and practice on a muffled set of drums. My dad had brought them home when a guy who had owed him $20 paid him back that way.

JW: Did you study any other instrument?

ES: I studied piano. I didn't hate it but I didn't love playing and practicing. I was attracted to the drums and started paying attention to drummers.

JW: What was the big turning point for you?

ES: Probably the movie, Blues in the Night, in 1941. It's about a band, and I related to the young drummer, played by Billy Halop. He was a tough little guy, but boy he loved the band. I was a little empty in the emotion department so the movie gave me life.

JW: How did you come to play with Charlie Parker at the Royal Roost in 1949?

ES: Actually, I was playing with Charlie Venura at the time, and Charlie Parker had Max Roach on drums. One night a bunch of us were together and playing, and the jam session was captured on the radio from the Roost.

JW: What was Ventura like?

ES: He was a wonderful guy. He was warm and effusive, and when he put his arm around you, man, you felt 10 feet tall. A real confidence-builder. I was a high-energy kind of drummer, and he liked that.

JW: Do you remember the Pasadena Concert in 1949?

ES: Do I ever. It was one of great concerts of all time. Back then, Charlie's band was the hottest jazz attraction in the country. Charlie did nothing but standing-room-only business in theaters and nightclubs. The group was hot. The crowd in Pasadena, Calif., was so geared up. We had never played a concert in the L.A. area before.

JW: How did the audience know about the band?

ES: Our records had built our reputation, and Gene Norman, the producer, sold out the concert fast. Ventura was so innovative. It's hard to understand this fully now, with everything that came after. But he was. Jackie Cain and Roy Kral deserve a lot of credit for that concert. They sang those wordless vocals, like on Euphoria. It was hip and commercial without being corny. Combine that with Charlie's gutsy horn playing and those arrangements. We were hot, and the band sounded fresh and new.

JW: What did you think of the recording, which has always been criticized for being a little sketchy?

ES: I remember that the engineer got one of the best drum sounds on my drums with just two mikes. It was a completely natural sound. The audience was so excited to get this band in their town. They were flipping out. They rushed to the edge of the stage. We were big-time popular, in a jazz way.

JW: You worked with Parker and Tony Scott at New York's Café Society in 1950, yes?

ES: Yes. I was playing with Tony, who was a wonderful clarinetist. Parker would come down to play with us four or five times a week. He was a terrific. He never seemed stoned. He was always affable and genial.

JW: What was his best piece of advice?

ES: He told me to buy Stravinsky records and listen to how he moves the tempo around. And Bird was right. He was always into the craziest stuff. One night he said, “I want to take you uptown to a Hungarian restaurant." I said, “How's the food?" He said, “Great, but the Hungarian musicians up there are better than we are." Bird was a mile wide. He didn't just listen to jazz. He was a pure intellectual with enormous curiosity.

JW: You played behind Peggy Lee in 1953 and recorded with her.

ES: Peggy was a wonderful person. She was warm and loving, but a little fey—in a good sense. She had a slightly spiritual aura about her and liked to give everyone a kiss before shows. You had to be a good sensitive drummer behind her, not a hard-driver. You had to keep the volume down and swing.

JazzWax pages: Ed Shaughnessy's new memoir, Lucky Drummer, is available as an e-book here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Euphoria, with Jackie Cain and Roy Kral. But first, some announcements by Charlie Ventura...

And here's Ed and Buddy Rich in 1978 on the Tonight Show, in one of the great drum battles of all time. You be the judge...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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