June 22, 2024

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In Memoriam: Drummer Ndugu Chancler: Video, Sound

The great Leon “Ndugu” Chancler passed away from undisclosed causes. He was 65.

You might not recognize his name, but I guarantee that you’ve heard his work. Chancler has been called the most-heard drummer in history-a claim that would be difficult to deny.

He drummed for Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis; Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk and Eddie Harris; Alice Coltrane, Harold Land and John Carter; Carlos Santana, Weather Report and Marvin Gaye; Hugh Masekela, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Sinatra; Lionel Richie, Tina Turner and James Brown; Eric Clapton, George Benson and Donna Summer. That’s the short list. But he might be best known for the drumbeat he laid down on “Billie Jean“ from Michael Jackson’s album Thriller, which has sold a mere 120 million copies.

In December 2014, I enjoyed one of the best days of my DownBeat career. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Chancler onstage at the Midwest Band Clinic, an annual music education gathering in Chicago that attracts more than 20,000 educators and students.

Ndugu took this appearance very seriously. He insisted that we have lunch together before the interview. He wanted to go over the topics that he wanted to convey; in short, his “set list.” With all of his success, Ndugu wanted people to know he was, first and foremost, a jazz drummer.

“The attraction for me playing music wasn’t the blues, wasn’t the church gospel music,” he said. “It was jazz. It was jazz that I heard on the radio not being called ‘jazz,’ because on the radio stations I listened to at the time, they just played music. They played Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs and Sly Stone and James Brown and Motown.”

Mr. Chancler was not only a brilliant drummer, but also a caring, giving soul who felt his career was the result of wonderful connections and coincidences. Because of his good luck, he wanted to “pay it forward” to the next generation.

“He’s an amazing musician; he’s incredible,” said legendary jazz educator José Diaz in introducing Chancler that day in 2014. “As amazing a musician as he is, he’s an even more amazing human being. He helped me get my music program together, my jazz ensembles, as I was starting out teaching. And he took an interest in the students and kept up with them.”

“I couldn’t have gotten any of this on my own,” Chancler said. “Stix [Hooper], Shelly Manne, Earl Palmer, Clarence Johnston: Those are the guys that gave me the tools that I needed on a day-to-day basis. The drummers.

“We’re talking about this magical, mystical connection. All the guys around the country were starting to hear about me through all the other guys that were coming through town.”

Those connections included Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and concert producer Bill Graham-three icons he looked up to as mentors.

“Those three guys turned my thinking around and opened me up to just put your heart into it, and it will happen,” Chancler said.

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