By Chip Stern
© Chip Stern
Your probably never heard of
this Tribal Elder, but this native of
He passed away on November 30, 2000—and is always in my heart.
Wilson Driver’s is not an illustrious story, but an honorable one. Born on February 29, 1904, he made his mark not as a musician, but as a father. Historically, his is not a chapter but a footnote. As much as Wilson Driver loved music and drumming, they took a back seat to his family: among his children is the celebrated poetess, Sonia Sanchez. So even though he’s a member of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and was a charter member of the very first jazz band in the city of Birmingham (The Jazz Demons), no one speaks of him in the hallowed tones we reserve for people like Jo Jones, Sid Catlett or Max Roach, and yet his friendship and guidance touched each of their lives. You won’t find Wilson Driver’s name on any albums, or in any history books, yet we choose to honor him as a musician, and as a man. It’s not so important that we should remember him, but that he remembers.
With Fess Whatley’s Saxo-Society Orchestra
“And I thought ‘My, God, I want to play drums.’”
Looking out over
I got to know Wilson Driver after the death of my friend Papa Jo Jones, Count Basie’s rhythmic innovator: the man who streamlined the trap kit into its present form and helped define the percussionist’s role in the modern rhythm section. Jo Jones was the greatest drummer I’ve ever known, and for an apple‑cheeked kid from the suburbs, spending time with Jo Jones was like hanging out with Charlie Chaplin...or Captain Ahab...an extraordinary character, a larger‑than‑life figure—as intimidating as hell.
Jonathan David Samuel Jones
“…He Wasn’t Mean, He Just Spoke Out Of Turn.”
© Rick Mattingly/Percussive Arts Society
I’d heard that Wilson Driver was Jo’s original teacher, and that he was still alive and kicking but when I asked Jo about this, his cryptic response was “No, no, I wasn’t intelligent enough to study with him—he only had intelligent students. When I first met Mr. Driver, he had a trumpet, a tuba, an alto horn, a clarinet, a xylophone and a set of drums, and he could read on all of them, and knew all his music theory, too,” he snarled, growing more and more intense. “You go look Mr. Driver up, he’s in the phone book.” But I never did, figuring that if Jo called him Mister then he must really be a piece of work.
“He never in his life called me anything but Mr. Driver. We were like brothers, but oh my God, he was a hard nut to crack,” he laughs between puffs on a well‑chewed cigar, shaking with delight at the memory. “Yeah, Jo was something else. Same way he was as a man, was the way he was as a boy. You couldn’t tell him a damn thing. But you see, Jo wasn’t mean, he just spoke out of turn. If he’d had the class in real life that he had on the drums, there would have been no stopping him.”
The Picasso Of The Wire Brushes
Jo Jones With Count Basie
“…If He’d Had The Class In Real Life
That He Had On The Drums
There Would Have Been No Stopping Him.”
Image Courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
And if Wilson Driver hadn’t taken a hard right, and
chosen family over the allures of the musician’s life, he too might have hooked
up with a “name” band for a hot minute. Gotten a few
stray album credits. “Papa Jo and Sid Catlett encouraged me to
Big Sid Catlett
“You Got A Family…You’ve Got To Make Your Choice.”
Yet twenty‑five years before, Wilson Driver
was a famous drummer. “That’s right,” he smiles.
“I was the drummer at the Famous Theatre in
When I was a boy, I saw this guy by the name of George Earl cakewalking along in a street parade. He’d throw that stick into the air, catch it with his right hand, keep the beat going with his left—Damn! And I thought ‘My, God, I want to play drums.’
“But my Daddy and Mama didn’t want no damn drums in the house. So I used to beat on my Mama’s tin tubs. I took one of them, and knocked me a hole in it with a knife, hooked up a rope, slung that round my neck, and started beating on it.
With The Great James P. Johnson On Piano
“I Was The Drummer At The Famous Theatre,
And Freddie Moore Was The Drummer At The Champion Theatre.”
© William P. Gottlieb
And everything I played, I sang. I’d be talking about ‘Tell all your friends that we comin’ to town/ Dom‑dom, Deedlelee, Bomda‑bumbum.’ And I was singing all the time. So my Mama said, ‘Stop beatin’ on my tubs or I’m goin’ to beat on you same as you beatin’ on them.’ So I had to give that up. Finally, they had a store that had drumsticks for a quarter, and they wasn’t worth a damn, but still, they were something, so I bought me some and hid them out under the shed, and when no one was looking, I’d beat on every damn thing I could—drumming and singing.
“Now about that time, my three sisters persuaded Mama to buy a player piano and a set of piano rolls. I remember there was a popular song, but it wasn’t a jazzy popular song, and some sacred music. You see, my Mama used to take us to church. And I’d play along, in good waltz time or whatever, but I wasn’t satisfied, because it didn’t swing.
Jesus Loves Me, Yes I Know
“…I Was Singing And Syncopating, And My Mama Caught Me…”
Laughing Jesus, © Jessie Buddell
And I remember once I was playing something like ‘Jesus loves me/Yes I know/Because the Bible tells me so...’ and I was singing and syncopating, and my Mama caught me, and Oh My God, she broke up them damn sticks and put them in the fire. See you didn’t play or listen to no blues or jazz music—that was for the riff‑raff. My Mother thought all that was evil. I mean she never saw a motion picture in her whole life.
Saturday Afternoons At The Famous Theater With Wilson Driver
L-R: Silent Screen Legends Tom Mix, Buster Keaton and William S. Hart
“…My Daddy Got Smart—Oh, He Got Real Smart…”
“Years later, I never will forget, when I was working at the Famous Theatre, my Daddy got smart—oh, he got real smart—and told my Mother, ‘I’m gonna see what that boy is doing down there.’ And the doorman let him in without me seeing him. I never will forget: they had William S. Hart and Two‑Gun Hicks, and they were some mean looking rascals, too. So I took my break, and it was lucky for me I didn’t see him, because he wanted to see the rest of the damn show. So when I came back, naturally I went down the aisle to where my drums were, and he says ‘Hey, boy.’ And I says, ‘Hey, Papa.’ And he says, ‘When you get through, I’ll be here.’ Next Saturday we had Tom Mix and Buster Keaton, and the doorman says, ‘By the way, did you see your Daddy? He was back here.’ So he came every Saturday—that was his show day. But he told me ‘Don’t say nothing to your Mama about me.’”
The Legendary Teacher And Bandleader, John Tuggle Whatley
“You One Of Them Fess Whatley Men? Okay, You Can Read.”
Courtesy Alabama Jazz Hall Of Fame
“So I always wanted to get to the drums, and around
1918 or so, when I was attending the
I got me a trumpet. That’s where I met Mr.
John Tuggle Whatley. He taught band and printing, and we always called
him Fess Whatley. He was a brass band man and a hell of a
disciplinarian—I’m telling you. So he was the one who taught me to read
music, because you couldn’t play in his damn band unless you read. When
he finally got a chance to organize an orchestra, I was his first drummer, and
by then he’d gotten me proficient on mallets and brass. Fess’ men ended
up in every major black band in
“All the damn musicians in
A.K.A. Sun Ra
“If The Good Lord Wants To Rain On Me,
Then Let His Will Be Done.”
“Like when they sent him to the army during World
War II, he told them he was a conscientious objector, and they threw him in
prison. So he told me, ‘I was laying up in there in my damn bunk in the
brig, by the window, when I heard this clap of thunder, and it began to rain
like hell outside. And the damn rain started to come in, and I just said
to myself, ‘Well, let it rain,’ and I got soaked.’ So the guard came up
to the cell and told Sonny, ‘Hey, soldier, let the window down. Don’t you
see it’s raining down on you?’ And Sonny told him, ‘If the good Lord
wants to rain on me, then let His will be done.’ And they put him on a
bus and sent his ass back to
“So, anyway, I basically taught myself to play the drums, and Fess taught me about music, and if he heard something he liked or didn’t like, he’d tell me, and I’d try and come up with something to please him. But I was still trying to syncopate every damn thing, and all of a sudden I’d hear, ‘Mr. Driver’—he called everyone Mister, just to sort of needle them—‘Mr. Driver? Is that what’s on the paper? No? Well don’t go improving things. Just play the notes on the paper.’ So I kept studying with him after I got out of high school, and eventually he organized a working group—Whatley’s Saxo‑Society Orchestra—that was made up of all his best students, who by then were working men and teachers in their own right. We had tuxedos for uniforms, and we looked and sounded like Guy Lombardo or one of them other straight white bands. Oh, now and then, if it was the right kind of setting, we’d play the “St. Louis Blues” or something like that, and he’d let each man go for himself and swing it to death, but if we were playing a dance or a social function, he didn’t want nothing but was on that damn paper—especially if we were playing for some white people. Yeah, Fess Whatley ran a tight ship all right. He wouldn’t let us cuss or nothing, and drinking? Oh, man, forget about it.
With Drummer Max Roach And ABC News Anchor Man Peter Jennings
© Chip Stern
“In fact, we’d play some functions other black bands
couldn’t get to, like the
The Apple Didn’t Fall Far From The Tree
Wilson & Wilsonia
Mister Driver And His Daughter
Poet Sonia Sanchez
© Chip Stern
“So we played their beautiful little club down by the lake, and when we got back to the hotel all these prostitutes were sitting around the lobby talking about, ‘I’m in Room 1420’ and all that. But we couldn’t get around Fess, because he took bed check every half hour.”
And when did he sleep?
“That’s what I’m telling you,” Driver shouts. “He didn’t sleep. And neither did we. We had all damn day to sleep. So, every half hour there’d be a knock on your door: ‘Mr. Driver?’ ‘Yeah, Fess, I’m in here.’ Isn’t that something?
He was too much, but he was a hell of a man, and a hell of
a teacher—I’m still his student.”
Apples, Apples Everywhere
Mister Driver With His Daughter Pat Meza
On His 90th Birthday
© Chip Stern
But it was during Wilson Driver’s tenure in the pit at the Famous Theatre in the mid‑1920s, that he came upon his
most famous student, that young upstart Jonathan David Samuel Jones. “For most movies, it was just piano and drums. Sometimes, if it was Gloria Swanson, or one of them other la‑dee‑da pictures, we’d add a violin, clarinet and a trumpet. But mainly it was just the piano and drums. And sometimes we’d improvise around what was on the screen, but mostly we’d work from stock charts. The drum chart then was just like what you see now—nothing but a sketch—except that it had all the lyrics to the song, too, because back then the drummer was expected to sing as well.
“So I had a huge bass drum with skin heads that was talking about BOOM! It must have been a 30" bass drum at least, like a parade drum, with a bass drum pedal. Then I had a snare drum, just a regular size. We didn’t have no hi‑hats then, to play the after beat. I don’t remember the low‑boy coming along until the late ‘20s, the early ‘30s, and I didn’t like them at all. They were really clumsy. So to get that after-beat effect, or what the young rock guys do now where they play sixteenth notes on the hi‑hat, we would do that by side‑sticking, you know, holding one stick down, and hitting the other stick against it. Then there were some guys who would not only have a bass drum pedal, but another pedal, just like it, to the right, attached to the side of the bass drum rim; and they’d use that thing to beat on a small cymbal. They didn’t have all these attachments and separate stands like you’ve got now to hook things up. We didn’t even have a drum throne; nothing but a straight chair and a telephone book. Then I had a little 8" Chinese tom‑tom, and some cowbells and some wood-blocks and a set of bells, you know, like a small xylophone, that I’d play with these little hard mallets…and a small cymbal. A lot of guys still don’t know how to pick the right cymbal. How to tune it with the percussion kit, and make it fit.
© Chip Stern
Three Generations Of Drummers
Max Roach, Wilson Driver, Chip Stern
“Anyway, one afternoon I was playing along with a Tom Mix movie, imitating the guys shooting with rim shots and all, and doing the horse’s hooves on my wood-blocks. And when I looked up, there was Jo Jones, I’ll never forget it, and he was watching me like a hawk. Oh, my goodness. It wasn’t that he was such a sassy rascal, it’s just that he always wanted to assert himself. He told me, ‘I’m a drummer, too. Let me show you.’ So he did a roll, but he wasn’t using his wrists right. It was all arms and fingers, and he was sort of pushing down the sticks on the skin, not lifting up. And I told him, ‘Well, that’s pretty good, but you’re doing it the hard way. And your left hand isn’t moving properly. Maybe you want to come by some time and take some lessons.’ And he said, ‘Well, is it okay if I just watch, because you can’t play no how.’ So I said, ‘Very good,’ and eight‑and‑a‑half hours later when we were through, he comes back and says ‘That was pretty good, but you got your foot tangled up down there on something.’ And I told him, ‘Well, that happens, too, when you’re looking at the music.’
Papa Jo Jones
Portrait Of The Sassy Rascal
As A Star With The Count Basie Orchestra
The Man Who Plays Like The Wind
“Yeah, he was something. Here I am, seven or eight years older than him, and he’s telling me, ‘Pretty good.’ So he started coming around, and I showed him about the whole note, the half note, and the quarter note, and explained their values to him. And I go through the whole shebang, and he tells me, ‘What I got to learn this for? I want to get to the drums. If they can play it, I can beat it.’ And I said ‘Good. Very good. I’m glad to hear that.’ And he says ‘I don’t need notes for nothin’. All I got to do is play and let me hear it.’ I said, ‘That’s the difference. If you knew the notes, you wouldn’t have to hear them. If it got played wrong, then you would know that, too’. So he said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it my way and you do it your way. You want to see me tomorrow?’ And I told him, ‘I want to see you every day.’
Fess Whatley’s SaxoSociety Orchestra
Featuring Wilson Driver On Drums
Courtesy Of Wilson and Wilsonia Driver
So we got along beautifully, except for the reading thing. And one day, he comes in, and asks if we could go upstairs to the room where we dressed. He took the table for a drum, and he showed me a lot of things he could do with the sticks. And I said, ‘Now that’s what I’m talking about. You know, you are a born drummer. If I never met you, you still would have learned to play the drums. You know, I could have really slowed you up, talking about these drums.’ He laughed, and I told him, ‘I think you’ll do all right.’
Me And You
Wilson Driver and Papa Jo Jones
“…Hell, You Know The Rest.”
Photo Credits L-R: © Chip Stern-© Chuck Stewart
“So Jo would come by, and sometimes I’d let him spell me in the pit for a show, but he was trying to play so much drums it just wore out my piano player, and finally he told me, ‘Don’t have that boy come round here no more.’ Then Jo started running errands for Butterbeans and Suzie, who were a famous black vaudeville act playing over at the Frolic Theatre, and next thing I know, he just left town.
“He Can Play, But He Can’t Play That Good.”
Jo Jones Photo: © Deborah Feingold
Didn’t say goodbye or
And I didn’t give it another thought until years later, when me
and some fellows were listening to a broadcast on WLW from
“So they played a number and the drummer raised hell, and one guy says,
‘Damn, you reckon that’s the Jo Jones that you know?’
“And I said ‘Hell no!’ just like that. ‘He can play, but he can’t play that good.’ So we let it go at that.”
“And…well, hell—you know all the rest.”
* * * * * * *
POSTSCRIPT: Looking out over the sea of humanity that showed up at the Mount Zion Lutheran Church in Harlem to give Mister Wilson L. Driver, Jr. a grand send-off, I was reminded anew of the all the qualities in this grand old man that had drawn me to him and nurtured our friendship over the last fifteen years of his life (after the passing of our mutual friend, Jonathan David Samuel Jones). Driver was first and foremost, a family man…be it his own blood or the extended family of friends and acquaintances he developed in Birmingham, Alabama, or when he came North to Harlem to raise his two daughters after the death of their mother.
A musician by inclination and a schoolteacher by trade, he found the salaries for teachers in New York City so abysmally low when he first arrived that he ended up working as the manager of the Chock Full Of Nuts on 125th Street for thirty years until his retirement, supplementing his income with some drumming gigs around town that his good friends Big Sid Catlett and Papa Jo Jones hooked him up with. Chock Full Of Nuts was a progressive company in the post-World War II New York City metropolitan area, fully integrated at a time when many companies were not so enlightened. Not surprisingly, following his retirement as a baseball player, Jackie Robinson served as a Vice-President on the corporate side, a very public face for the company.
I mention this in
passing, because given all the folks who showed up at his wake, and all of the
men and women who I met at his crib over the years, as manager of the Chock
Full O’ Nuts on uptown Manhattan’s main street of commerce, Mister Driver was
if not exactly the mayor of Harlem, certainly one of its leading lights---a
ubiquitous figure, beloved in the community.
In part because he was at once elegantly charismatic and poetically profane, a salty, ribald character—wise and funny,
compassionate and loving. I was honored
to speak over him to the congregation at his wake, and while words don’t often
fail me, in recalling our friendship and the qualities that defined with Mister
Driver, I felt I fell well short of the man, although how can words ever do
justice to a lifetime? Still, the broad
smile on Sonia Sanchez’s face before the lectern, and a high five from Mister
Percy Sutton (former Borough President of
Wilson Driver did was tell stories. Wonderful stories.
Recollections of his own life and the lives of those who had touched
his. Stories of
musicians, surprising recollections of relations between black people and white
people in the old south, and his own personal perspective on historical events
and social changes. There was
something Homeric about the oral history lessons that poured forth from his
memories, and save for his use of a snare drum (in lieu of a lute or a banjo or
a guitar), Wilson Driver functioned as an urban griot to this young tadpole and
countless others, harkening back to traveling troubadours and itinerant
bluesmen of yore. And in the end, in
the telling and the re-telling, he became the very stories he told, not unlike
the patriarchal figure of Ed Bloom in director Tim Burton’s Big Fish. As such, he lives on in our hearts and in
our memories, and in our sense of time and place upon the grander canvas of
He could also play some seriously swinging drums, articulating the sounds of youthful parades and church services, pre-recording age jazz and a thousand silent movies. Check back in for a taste of the Driver Man when we begin loading sound samples on this web site in the near future.
There is so much more we might share, so many more tales I could relate, but somehow it seems best to let Mister Drivers’ daughter, the acclaimed Sonia Sanchez, call upon the second line for a figurative chorus of “Didn’t He Ramble,” raise a final toast to this celebration’s host, and take Wilson Driver home.
© Chip Stern
A Poem For MY FATHER
(Ninety-Six years old on February 29, 2000)
With exact wings
Your words sailed back
into your throat. Could
not fly forward
Your mouth face
startled by this autumn
Thunder went south again.
i had forgotten the salute
of death, how it waits Militarily
on the outskirts of our skin.
i had forgotten how death
howls inside our veins,
O father, how much like a child
again I felt as i ran down doctors
painted on porcelain corridors.
O My father, as i breathed
inhaled for us both,
i began to sing a song
you sang when i was little
without a poet’s name,
cremating my bones.
Remember the nite,
the nite you said
i love you
i remembered your voice swollen
in a ritual of words on
Now i, daughter of applause,
hands waterlogged with memory,
asked for nothing more
as I circled your hospital room,
sequined with our breaths
in our hour-glass of sound.