Johnny Vidacovich: The Foundation of a Musician
Johnny Vidacovich has spent time playing with a wide variety of musicians from various genresCharlie Hunter, Professor Longhair, Stanton Moore, Willy DeVille, Mose Allison, George Porter, Jr, to name a fewbut the common denominator is New Orleans. He has been a popular fixture in the Big Easy for over three decades as one of the scene’s best drummers and teachers of the craft. Indeed, as this interview will attest, the experience he brings to his kit and the Tipitina’s Sunday Workshops Series where he holds court with Moore and other visiting musicians like guitarist Luther Dickinson, carries forward into lessons about collaboration and the art of improvisation.
The legacy of Hurricane Katrina’s impact in New Orleans did not escape Vidacovich. Although his home wasn’t destroyed like so many other residences, it did suffer foundation damage and, as the renowned musician will detail, he found other problems with the house as he began repairs. On top of that bit of hard luck, last July, Vidacovich discovered that he had arthritis in his right thumb casting serious doubt on his future. To the rescue came his one-time student and esteemed colleague Stanton Moore as the Galactic leader organized a Benefit Vidacovich gig at Tipitina’s in New Orleans on January 16 which helped him begin his home repairs and get additional medical help. The gig played like a “mini-fest,” according to the drummer with a lineup which included Galactic, Robert Walter, Papa Grows Funk, the Soul Rebels and Garage A Trois.
The one-time Longhair drummer, Moore guru, Hunter co-conspirator and Porter, Jr, trio mate sits down with Jambands.com to discuss his current plight, fellow musicians, generous old friends and the nature of the music we call “collective improvisation.” Vidacovich is a compassionate, humorous and honest man who has lived through his music for a very long time and thoroughly enjoys telling his tale as long as one is willing to listen (and he has a few things to say about that subject, too).
RR: How did the Benefit Vidacovich gig at Tipitina’s on January 16 turn out?
JV: I was amazed and awed. It was a very humbling experience. It surprised me that it turned out to become what it became. Stanton Moore came over to my house as he always does and he sat at the table and says, “Let’s figure out something to help you out with your hand because of your arthritis and your house is all messed up”the insurance companies all fell under. “Let’s try to get together some musicians and have a benefit.”
That’s the way he sat at the kitchen table and explained it to me so in my mind, I pictured getting a bunch of my friends playing and that would be that. As it turned out, Stanton Moore being the kind of guy that he is, it looked like it must have been six hours of musicians non-stop. I don’t know. I couldn’t count the musicians that played. It turned out to be a Stanton Moore mini-set with different kinds of bands and musiciansa brass band, the Soul Rebels, Garage A Trois, Robert Walter, Papa Grows Funk, the Midnight Disturbers, Galactic. It was tremendous, man. I was freaked out.
Most of the time in my life, I was part of a charity and a benefit. This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever been on the other end of it. I have to say it was quite shocking and successful. It started the repairs for my house to begin and things are coming around, slowly. Things still have to be done. It also enabled me to seek a little bit more therapeutic and things to deal with my arthritis and the problems that came up this last summer with my right hand. Now, I can take some therapeutic measures and not feel so pressed to play every single gig in order to keep the groceries on the table and try to fix the house. Now, I can fix the house with my own money. Stanton’s benefit helped out tremendous. Tip’s also helped out a tremendous amount to get the ball rolling.
To put it allyou know(pauses)there’s only word you can say and that is “thanks.” There is no way to describe how you feel when that many people give up something. To me, I would just go play benefits and it would be like a party, seeing friends and everybody would be happy because it’s all going to a good cause or a good person. Now, I see the whole circle. I remember being a little kid and playing once a week at charity hospitals, playing Dixieland music for sick people, once a month playing at the tuberculosis ward and once a month playing at the home for the incurables. I remember going to all of these things and playing benefits here and benefits there. Now, I’m on the receiving end and I’ve never felt that before. The only polite thing I was ever taught to say and reminded by Johnny Allen and what his mother told him: “Son, just say thank you’.” There’s no words to be said. My grandmother also told me that. When someone does something nice for you, you say, “Thanks.”
I also learned about this word humility’, to be humbled. I found out that this was a word that you’ve got to keep with you all of your life. It’s more like a verb. It’s something that’s taken on a whole new meaning now, the way that kind of thing feels. It’s a very beautiful, thankful and humble experience. I was quite surprised. For the first two hours, I was speechless at how many musicians and people around town came and just gave it up.
RR: What specifically happened to your house? It didn’t get destroyed by Hurricane Katrina but the flooding took a toll and a tree fell on the house, right?
JV: Yeah. It messed up the foundation with the weight of the tree. Also, the wind blew the foundation funny and sitting in water for so long contributed to the integrity of the foundation. Then, as we started to fix what I thought would just be replacing some boards, recaulking and repainting, we pulled off a couple of boards and two of the main support beams of the house were eaten away by termites and have to be replaced. Problems quickly escalated from a paint job (laughs) to an incredible amount of stuff that was underneath, including the entire insulation had all turned black and had fallen down to the bottom, in between the outer wall and inner wall. I was living with this black funk in the walls and I didn’t even know it. (laughs) Soit took years.
RR: At the same time, your thumb started to give you problems.
JV: On July 5th , my thumb and the joints got arthritis and I have to deal with that. That caused tendon problems which deal with your thumb, palm, wrist and forearm. The musician’s clinic set me up with a Chinese acupuncturist and a chiropractor is seeing me on Saturday mornings. He’s donated his Saturday mornings to come in and help. I’m just trying to do all of the therapy that I can to continue to play. I need to play. I can’t just not play. I teach and I play and that’s what I do, man. I don’t want this to hold me back. Since I’ve been going to therapy for a couple of months, I’ve had some improvement. I still have some pain around the second set. I sit down at the end of the evening and I’m taking these proper fish oils and glucosamine and Omega-3 oils and different kinds of healthful things to deal with jointsold man stuff. (laughs)
RR: Let’s talk about some of these musicians that you’ve played with over the years, beginning with Stanton Moore. That relationship goes way back.
JV: Sure. I first met him when he was about 16 or 17. He started coming around my house. Tipitina’s Workshop, back in the old days, had a National Endowment for the Arts and I was part of a rhythm section on Sunday mornings and he came to that. He was very young. When he started college, I took he and Kevin O’Day and a bunch of othersBrian Blade came a little laterbut he studied with me for at least four or five years. A lot. He started coming around the house and we started to become friends. In those years, he was very much like a sponge, constantly learning and he would take any information that he learned and he would figure out ways to vary it and be creative and develop. And that’s how he has developed his way. His way is based on so much good foundation that he’s learned how to take the simplest thing in the world and make it very colorful. He’s a beautiful painter and he’s a good listener. He’s a very emphatic player and a very emphatic human being. He helps everybody. [Author’s Note: this may even include so-called trivial matters. This writer was five rows back at a Galactic gig on the West Coast three years ago and gave Moore a thumbs up at show’s end as he was exiting the stage. The drummer stopped in his tracks, went back to his kit, came out front and gave this stranger a drum stick as a handy souvenir.]
When Stanton Moore gets a cymbal, stick or drum endorsement, he turns fifteen drummers on to it. He’ll tell the companies, “You’ve got to get this guy on your drums,” or “You’ve got to get this guy on your cymbals.” He’s very much into sharing and it’s a whole other side of Stanton that people don’t know. It’s all natural. It’s the way he was raisedall heart and soul. He’s beyond average.
RR: With Stanton, you helped found a Sunday Workshop Series at Tipitina’s which is free for aspiring musicians. How did that originate?
JV: Stanton Moore and my wife, Deborah collaborated on that one. They had the idea and he started, as he usually does, moving blocks. It’s my wife’s baby, now. She hires all of the guys to teach the kids on Sunday mornings and she takes all of the kids, inspires
them to get up there and learn and she knows all of them by name and they all ask her for information. She’s the program director. What is very cool about her is that she doesn’t make it one thingall rockers every Sunday or all jazzers. She exposes the kids to all kinds of music.
One of the most inspiring Sunday mornings was a workshop with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. He just sat and we played and we played with some of the kids and then, I asked all of the kids to sit on the stage. I said, “Lutherjust tell us how you feel about music.” He said some great, great mature things about playing in a bandhow much you give as opposed to take. He told the kids the dangers of indulging yourself in music and indulging yourself as a musician. The music should be what comes first, not you. This is something I knew all my life but he put it in such great terms, coming from a Mississippi, soulful, modern but strongly, firmly rooted player. He’s firmly in his roots yet ultra modern. Luther’s an extension of an old man. He doesn’t play like an old man. He’s not an old man. He doesn’t talk, act, sing, play but there’s so much foundation.
That morning when he spoke I realized how deep his foundation is and it reminds me of a lot of guys here in New Orleans because the music here in New Orleans is based upon the roots of our music. In the music around hereeven in the new rock or the new funk or the new brass band music, whatever you want to call ityou will hear the indigenous elements of our region. Some people call them street beats or Zydeco, the way the funk is played more with a looser groove than it is in California or New York. (laughs) The funk here is definitely a lot more liquid, a lot more fluidin my terms. Not taking away, I’m not saying it is better, but it is indigenous of this area. It’s folk music and cat’s here are very strongly rooted in thatat least most of the guys that many people around here think are great players; they have good roots.
[The Sunday Music Workshop Series at Tip’s] exposes the young people to more different kinds of roots other than our own which we always do because we have some local guys happening. Last week, I just went to observe and they had the drummer from Ministry, Martin Atkins and he gave a lecture on the business of music and it was brilliant. It was truthful, honest and so logical. What Deborah is doing, I thought, was going to be against the grain and it would be unfocused and scattered. But all of that chaos is actually logical. When I step back, it’s been going every Sunday since August 2006 and now, I’m looking at it and thinking, “WOWI thought this would be chaotic crap.” I can see I’ve learned a whole lot. I’m not the drummer every weekthat’s for sure. Once in a while, I’m the drummer but there’s drummers from all over the States and the world and different people passing through town. Now the guys want rappers and it’s amazing to see because some of these guys have never dealt with kids before. It’s amazing to watch them. The whole thing is a circle, man. It’s a circle, again.
RR: You touched upon something that is really interesting to me in what Luther Dickinson had said. I wanted to ask you from your own point of view how important is collaboration, collective improvisation and listening to the other musicians?
JV: How important it is to them?
RR: Not so much other musicians but you, personally, from your own background.
JV: WowI never thought the word important’ would be one of the descriptive feelings. Huh, but I guess it is important. To me, it is, was and will be always a natural thingthe collective improvisationbecause that’s the way I was taught to play. I was taught to play in a kid band by an old man and he taught us old traditional Dixieland songs that involved improvisation, collectively. And you had to hit a lot of wrong notes before you hit the right ones as a kid. I think that collective improvisationnow that you mentioned it and I want to incorporate the word important’is important because it involves, from what seems from an observer’s point of view sometimes improvisation seems very selfish, like he’s just doing virtuosity and showing off improvising but there is a part of improvisation that is even more of a percentage of importance than virtuosity. That element is the listening of what you hearyour ability to hear what everybody is doing and to either play or not play to enhance the music, to learn to let the music tell you what to do as opposed to you forcing yourself onto the music. “I’m gonna show off my shit. I’m gonna show how good I am because I can improvise here and play anything I want.” Wellthat’s a very small percentage of it, my friend.
When you have more than one guy on the band stand, all of a sudden, the percent of what you want to play should be less than 50%. You should be devoting more percentage of your musical energy towards what those other people on the stage are playing. Whatever you do or don’t dowhich is very importantcan make the entire picture, the entire music, a beautiful painting, a beautiful song. Improvised music is important because it’s not so much about playing but it’s a very large percent about learning how to listen to multiple people at one time and fitting in. It’s a very unselfish thing even though it appears to be a very indulgent, selfish thing. It appears that improvised music allows one to do what one wants but truly, the depthto see beyond that surfacethe depth for a group of guys to collectively improvise, involves the art of listening. Of course we have to learn to play our instruments. Of course we have to strive towards virtuosity. Of course we have to learn how to play great solos and stick out but what’s more important to play in a group is that you have to be able to listen to different people. It might be the same song but you’re playing with different people. You’ll have to listen to what they are playing and the way they play it and fit. That doesn’t mean that I played “High-Heeled Sneakers” with Joe last night that I’m going to play “High-Heeled Sneakers” with Bill, tonight. Joe plays it one way and I’ve got to see how Bill does it. I can’t say, “This is how “High-Heeled Sneakers” goes. I don’t care about Joe or Bill.” You can’t do that. That’s indulgence. That’s selfish. That’s bullshit. MeMeMeMeMe and it ain’t about fucking me. Music comes first. Music comes first. It’s not about you. Too many people think they are making the music. Too many people think they’re composers and that’s all good and fine and dandy but, all in all, the music is in the air and we’re receptacles and it’s up to us to open ourselves up to let it all flow through.
That incorporates what is going on, to what the people you’re playing with feel and, of course, the audience. You want to bring them with you. They have to be part of the music. It’s not just the musicians that make the music. The musicians plus the audience makes the music. Algebra 101. x+y=music. Musicians+Audience=Music. I can sit here and play drums in my living room all I want. It’s music but it’s not really music until you come over and I can connect with you and I can feel that you’re sending back what I am sayingeven though it sounds like right now, I’m doing all the talking. That’s because you asked me the question. I’m getting philosophical but it is mostly a feeling is what I am talking about. My feeling about the importance of improvisation and jam improvisation-style whether it be funk or jazz or classical jam or Indian raga jam or rather it be Bach. You can improvise on Bach; he was a great improviser.
These people were improvisers and it’s just very important to do this in order to learn how to not only express your virtuosity but what you feel in your heart and souland when I say virtuosity, I don’t mean just a phenomenal technician, a great technical player. I mean a musician who has the virtue to be true to the music, who knows how to play with the music, for the music, who lets the music become him, who gives himself up, who surrenders himself to the music. At the same time, while surrendering, he can play something very prettywhether it be complicated or simple, Delta Blues or Stravinskyand connect with the audience in order to get that circle that I just spoke about. You can play music in your living room until you’re blue in the face but you want to connect.
RR: I’m going to ask you about other musicians you’ve played with over the years. How about George Porter, Jr.?
JV: 1966, Bourbon Street. I was 17; he was 18 or 19. We worked at different clubs and we became sidemen backing up some go go dancers with guys in the band we didn’t know. We made very little money and we worked those types of gigs. We played everything from his mama’s church gigs to traveling around with John Mooney and all kind of guys playing blues gigs all over the South. We shared the same hotel room on many occasions back in the old days when times were tough, going back to the early 80s when we were younger and struggling a little harder to grow up.
RR: And you have also played in The Trio with George at the Maple Leaf Bar.
JV: Oh, yeah. My wife put all that together. She started that. She called George. (laughter) I said, “I can’t call George and say, “Do you want to come play in a little bar on the West Bank on a Wednesday night (for I don’t know exactly how much money we were going to make)?” My wife pulled that together and that turned out to be what we’ve been doing for seven years.
RR: Here’s another oneCharlie Hunter?
JV: Charlie Hunter! (laughs) He’s crazy. I love him, man. He’s funny, man. Great musician. Great musician. Totally ambidextrous. You should hear him on the drums. He can play the drums and in the middle of the beat, switch from being left-handed to right-handed and not change the beat. He can switch from left-footed to right-footed while being left-handed. He’s four way; he’s an incredible guy. As far as being on the road with him, traveling and doing gigs with him, he’s fun. He has a great, loose, relaxed attitude. His music is challenging but not scary to the point that you’re not going to have fun. It’s challenging up to having a smile on your face and having fun. He’s always smilingat least the times I was on the road with him. We were always laughing and having fun. I learned a lot of new stuff from him. I felt like the old man in the van traveling around with those guys for a couple of months. Everybody’s way younger than me. I still see him from time to time and I’m sure we’re going to play some gigs together here and there.
RR: Here’s a great singerWilly DeVille.
JV: Willy DeVillewow, man, we’ve been on weird projects together. I think I did one of his records back in my foggy days. One of the first records I did with Willy DeVille, he was living at Europe at the time and he came to New Orleans to do a record at Allen Toussaint’s. Somehow or other, I got on a project and I don’t know how many tracks I was onas a matter of fact, I don’t have the record. I might have lent it to someone. Then there was another record that was a big production and it was somebody’s songs and it was all kinds of different artist where everybody would do a different track. Another time, we were sidemen on somebody else’s record. He was a sideman vocalist and I was a sideman drummer on two tracks. That was some years back. Me and Willy was mostly all about work. We’d walk in a studio and immediately start to go to work. We talked, we shook hands, we smiled, we hugged and all of that and laughed and told short jokes but immediately, jumped back into work. He was a quicker worker and I could work with him. I can see where a lot of people might say he is too eccentric but that doesn’t bother me.
RR: And another cat that people might think is eccentricProfessor Longhair.
JV: WowmanmanwowI’ve been listening to his music since I could talk. I remember dancing to his music when I was five years old. Then, I started playing with him, occasionally, in the early 70s. He would get hung up for a drummer or a drummer didn’t show and they would call. It actually wasn’t a steady gig back then but then he got a manager named Allison Minor. It was fun. We went on long tours and before his last record which was Crawfish Fiesta, that particular band was running around and Allison had him working fairly steady. We were traveling and playing around town. The money was very, very mediocre but at least Fess was back on the scene. He wasn’t stuck in his house, walking around with a cane and everybody forgot about Professor Longhair. All of a sudden, he was back on the scene. We liked each other.
Around 1976, 1977, I started playing with him on a more regular basis because the drummer he had with him at the time was a Canadian and he had to go back to Canada. They said, “Johnny, come play,” and I said, “Sure,” but I didn’t want to take the gig at first because I knew it was kind of iffy, it was an iffy kind of situation. I took the gig for many reasonsI loved the bass player and I even loved the second bass player. I loved all the guys in the band and, of course, I loved Professor Longhair and grew up with all of his music so I took the gig.
Traveled a lot. In those days, we traveled in a funky Dodge camper. One of my first steady trips as the regular drummer we started out from New Orleans, all the way up to Baltimore, up into Canada to Ontario and Toronto and some other cities in Canada and came down to the East Coast and at that time, we hit one of the first punk clubs I ever heard of or seen in my life in New York City. It was called the Mudd Club and this was in 1977 or 1978. [Author’s Note: Bringing it all back homeTipitina’s in New Orleans opened in 1977 and was named after the famous song written by Professor Longhair.]
So during these trips, we had long travels. Fess was a tap dancer so that meant he was a good drummer. We’d be sitting in the van driving for long hours and he’d say, “How do you like this one, Jorowsky?” He used to call me Jorowsky’. He never called me Vidacovich or Johnny; he just called me Jorowsky. He just made that up. He was always making up words. Even in a newspaper review, he called me Johnny Jorowsky. (laughter) I loved it. We just went with it, too. We corrected him once and he turned right around and re-read the article and when he came to the part of the article with “Johnny Vidacovich, the drummer,” he said, “Johnny Jorowsky,” again instead of Vidacovich. He read the article perfectly out loud but every time he came to my name, it was Jorowsky.
Here’s the hip thing. We were sitting in this funky Dodgestinky camper with eight stinky guys overpacked with equipment for six weeks, traveling all the way up the East Coast and he’d tap on my leg and say, “How do you like this rhythm?” [Vidacovich raps out a vocal rhythm of the drum passage.] He’d tap this stuff out on my legs and say, “How do you like that? Huh? Huh?” I said, “That’s cool,” and I’d tap something out, too. We had a lot of fun.
RR: Johnny, you sound like you have an amazingly positive attitude about your current situation. You’re just going to keep on playing. You have a great crew and support system and you are just going to see what happens. Is that fair to say?
JV: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve been very sad for a long timeuntilespecially when the arthritis hit on July the 5th. I freaked out, man. I said, “Oh, man, this is the end of it. God damn, I wanted to play another ten years.” And so, I sound as if I have a good attitudeand yeah, I do have a good attitude. I have a lot of great people around me. You are right on both accounts.
I can’t believe how many beautiful people that I forgot about, especially students that I taught 30 years ago that write me letters and ask how can they help and send me checks for $25everything from $25 to $200 to $1,000. “WowI remember teaching this guy 25 years agowhat’s he doing living in Cleveland, Ohio? This guy MikeI remember teaching him 20 years ago. He’s been doing big Broadway shows for 15 years now.” I do feel very positive regardless of my physical situation and the condition of the house. I see improvement everywhere. I didn’t really realizeI thought it was only a clichhat people were beautiful and generous but they are. People are beautiful and generous.
RR: Well, we all want you around and playing for another twenty years.
JV: Man, I would be so happy with ten. Twenty would be a dream. Twenty years would be heaven. If I could play for another ten years, I’d be the happiest guy in the world. Another twenty years would be a miracle and if you were to call me on the telephone, broyou think I sound positive and optimistic, now? Shit, browe’d be eatin’ cake. If I could possibly live and play for another twenty years that would be beautiful and way more than I ever expected.
RR: Thanks, Johnny. Tell your wife thank you for me, too. I really appreciate her wonderful support during this feature project.
JV: Deborah, he said, “Thank you for being such a lovely, supportive wife.” She said, “You’re very welcome.” Oh, man, I appreciate you calling me and talking to me. I appreciate everything you’re doing and I appreciate the fact that you’re interested in this kind of music. This is chancy music, you know what I mean? This is not popular musicthe whole jamband situationbut I think it’s important. I think it is part of everybody’s culture and I don’t just mean America. I don’t mean New Orleans. I don’t mean young people. I mean I think it’s important for everybody’s culturethe importance of collective improvisation because that is what is happening to me, right now. People have collectively improvised how to help me. Everybody’s improvisingstarting with Stanton Moore. He got some guys to throw a benefit and look at what it turned out to be. It turned out to be a fucking mini-fest. Let my wife tell you. It’s very important.
Deborah Vidacovich: Hi, Randy. I just wanted to tell you this. The last seven yearseverything I’ve done for John, it all came from Stanton. Every single person, all the Charlie Hunters, everybodyStanton gave me all their phone numbers. Everything I’ve done for Johnall of it originates from Stanton. He’s a great guy and people don’t realize how great but he really is and you know, I definitely claim him.
RR: Fantastic. Thank you for your patience in working around my weird schedule.
DV: (laughs) I thought, “Oh, God, it’s going to be an act of Congress.”
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com