"Just be the freight train, man; groove like a freight train."
Alan Jones is a drummer from Portland, Oregon. I'm also from Portland, but next to Alan I'd blush to call myself a drummer. During my late high school and early college years, whenever I was in town I'd try to grab a few lessons with Alan. He's definitely been a huge influence in the way I play, but more importantly, he changed my whole outlook on things. He still lives in Portland and drums like a maniac, though I haven't had a lesson with him in far too long.
The first time I met Alan, he shook my hand, almost too firmly, and asked me, "Why are you taking lessons?"
I thought for a second and came up with a fairly safe answer. "I want to get complete independence of my four limbs."
Alan looked taken aback. "That's a good goal," he said, "I don't know if I can teach you that. Let's go into the practice room." I followed him through a door and into the practice rooms, where I got snippets of J.S. Bach and Sonny Rollins, of Mozart and Mingus during our walk to the back room, the most heavily padded room, the percussion room. We crammed in, closed the door, and sat down. I took out a plastic bag with wheat bread and celery sticks and asked Alan if he wanted any. "No," he replied, "that stuff'll kill you." He then produced a half-gallon jug of carrot juice and took a swig. "I'm on an all-carrot juice diet."
Alan told me to go home after my first lesson, buy a Coltrane CD, and memorize the melody to a track called "Some Other Blues." He wanted me to sing it to him. I still hadn't touched the drums. I bought the album and got the melody in my head, and showed up that week, ready for whatever Alan could possibly throw at me. Except, of course, what he actually threw at me. We were in the practice room, talking about the Coltrane song, when he took out a half-gallon of Odwalla orange juice from his backpack. He opened it and drank some, offering it to me afterwards. I declined, but asked him what had happened to the carrot juice. "Carrot juice? That stuff'll kill you." I spent the rest of the time embarrasedly singing the melody line to "Some Other Blues" and Alan spent the time telling me that I didn't know how to sing.
I went home discouraged but motivated. Alan had told me that I wasn't really listening to myself sing, I was just trying to approximate the notes. He said that I had to listen to my own voice before I could be any good at playing any instrument, because one of the most important things is listening to what you're playing and not just hammering it out. That week I spent a lot of time singing in the shower and trying to really hear it. When I came back I was ready. I sang for Alan and he said it was much better, but I should still work on it. Then he told me to sit behind the drums and "play something." I was paralyzed, of course. Why should I have to play something in front of Alan Jones? THE Alan Jones! I thought this drum lesson thing was going to be about him playing for me and saying stuff like "Now, just learn to play like that!" Instead, he wanted me to play something. I sat down and played some basic swing patterns. After a few bars he stopped me: "Hold on a second!" I stopped banging the ride cymbal. "What you're playing sucks, and you need to make it not suck."
The fact was, my playing did suck. Alan had me transpose some drum parts played by famous drummers on famous albums and then read and play them. More importantly, though, he told me simply to listen to a lot of music, and then when it came time to play, to listen to myself. At the time, my drum playing wasn't the only thing that was abysmal in my life. I had just been told by my doctor that my latent kidney problems had just manifested themselves in end stage renal disease, and that I'd have to start dialysis immediately and put myself on the list for a transplant. I had to get blood test every other day, I had to spend nights in the hospital, I had to stop eating potassium and other staple substances (This was torture! I had to say goodbye to: All dairy products, all citrus, apples, bananas, tomatoes - ergo pizza - in short, it sucked). Even more distressingly, I missed a lot of lessons with Alan. When I finally got to have a lesson with him again, my health had stabilized, thanks to my hemodialysis sessions, but as a result I had to have a plastic catheter permanently sicking out of my chest and I was prone to insane headaches and dizziness. I showed up in the practice room and of course Alan wanted to hear about my absence.
I related the incident to him, since I had already decided that he was someone who might care about a crazy story like this one. The first thing he said was, "Holy shit!" Then, after a few seconds, "Can I see the plastic tube?" I was self-conscious as hell, but I lifted up my shirt to show him and he said, "Holy shit!" We spent the rest of the lesson just talking."
The next time I saw Alan he had brought a double bass into the already-cramped practice room and was playing it when I showed up. He didn't waste any time telling me to take a seat behind the drums, then he told me to call a tune. I had been listening heavily to a Gonzalo Rubalcaba recording of Miles Davis' "Solar," so I said that we should play that. We started, with Alan Jones manning the bass and me on drums. After a few choruses, Alan stopped playing and looked at me. "What you're playing still sucks. It doesn't suck as much as last time, but it still sucks." He sat down and donned his storytelling look. I always knew he was about to tell a parable when he got a pensive look and glared at me, as if I were supposed to decipher his meaning by looking at his eyes, or at the furrows in his brow.
"You know what a freight train looks like?" I nodded. "Well, you know the thing right on the front of the locomotive, that triangular thing made of metal?" I nodded again. "You know what that's for?" He paused dramatically. "Cows. That's for when cows stand on the track. Becuase cows stand on the track all the time, and that metal thing just chops them in half - they don't even have time to moo or anything. Now, when you're playing the drums, you're the freight train. Any other thoughts besides the music are cows. You need to slice through the cows, because when you're swinging like a dog, you can't have any distractions. Just be the freight train, man; groove like a freight train."
Of course, Alan gave me lots of invaluable advice, but this is the gem that I've stuck with because it's much more universal than a simple drumming tip. There is no situation I can think of where it would be inappropriate to groove like a freight train, ignoring the cows and barreling straight down the tracks. I'm sure that wherever Alan is, that's exactly what he's doing.