Tribal Elders

 

 

Wilson Driver

Driver Man

Reflections Of An Urban Griot

 

By Chip Stern

 

                                                                                          © Chip Stern

 

 

Your probably never heard of this Tribal Elder, but this native of Birmingham, Alabama was a mentor to Papa Jo Jones, a close friend of Big Sid Catlett’s, and in an era of electronic percussion and digital recordings, he could still recall when drummers played for vaudevillians and silent movies.

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.

 

Wilson Driver In The 1930s

With Fess Whatley’s Saxo-Society Orchestra

“And I thought ‘My, God, I want to play drums.’”

 

Looking out over Harlem in his cluttered little apartment, surrounded by the memorabilia of his primacy and his youth, Wilson Driver is an elder statesman of the drums—The Last Of The Mohicans.  He remembers a time when phonograph records and radio broadcasts were the latest rage; when Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong were bigger than the Beatles; when drummers not only played what they heard, but what they saw.  And what they saw were singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats and the stars of the silver screen. 

 

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

Papa Jo

“…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 come to New York in 1945.  My wife Lena—who turned out to be a cousin of Papa Jo’s, although I didn’t find that out until we were married—had died during childbirth.  I’d been teaching school and music in Birmingham for twenty years.  So Sid told me that ‘You got a family.  You’ve got to make your choice of being with your family or just having a family.  Because you ain’t gonna make no money in New York.  You’re goin’ to have to go on the road to make the money.  I can get you with a small band that’ll take you all over the United States or I can get you some little gigs around town.  So make up your mind.’  I ended up working thirty years for Chock Full O’ Nuts as a supervisor, and working part time as a musician.  In fact, Sid set me up with this gig in the Village—I can’t remember the name of the joint, Silver Slipper or something—that lasted four years.  I was making more money as a part‑time musician, than I was working full time during the day.  In fact, that gig helped put Sonia through Hunter College.” 

 

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 Birmingham, and Freddie Moore was the drummer at the Champion Theatre.  He’s the only one out here that’s older than me.  I had always wanted to be a drummer.

 

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. 

 

Freddie Moore: Birmingham’s Other Great Drummer

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

William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection

Music Division, Library of Congress

 

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 Industrial High School, they already had too many drummers, so

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 New York except for Cab Calloway’s.  When guys would get to New York, they’d say, ‘You from BirminghamYou one of them Fess Whatley men?  Yeah?  Okay, you can read.’

 

“All the damn musicians in Birmingham come up under old Fess, with the exception of Erskine Hawkins and Sonny Blount, who later got famous as Sun Ra.  Oh, Sonny was something else.  What they call avant garde jazz now, he was doing back in the 1920s, for God’s sake.  Sonny Blount always had himself a nice bunch of musicians, but even then his music was a little too far out for most people.  People’d say, ‘What the hell is this?’  And I’d say ‘This is music.’  So Fess got all the good paying society jobs, and Sonny’d end up playing all these rough joints on the outskirts of town.  Sonny was just one of those guys who had a way about him—kept his own counsel. 

 

Herman “Sonny” Blount

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 Birmingham the very next day.

 

“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.

 

Wilson Driver

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 University of Alabama, just because people knew Fess Whatley would keep things under control.  I remember in 1934 we were on a tour that took us as far north as Kenosha, Wisconsin.  And this white man come up to Fess and says, ‘Mr. Whatley, it is a pleasure to have you fellows here in Kenosha.  You know, Kenosha is just a stone’s throw from Chicago, and we could have gotten a band from there, but when we heard about you fellows, and that you were all teachers in the city system, we figured we didn’t have to worry about you and our women.  One time the black musicians from Chicago came over here and took advantage of our women, who had no better sense.  So we just stopped having black bands until you came along.  I just wanted to tell you fellows that.’  So Fess said, ‘You don’t have to worry about us, because all these fellows are married and I told their wives that I was going to keep them straight.’

 

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. 

 

Mentor And Student

“He Can Play, But He Can’t Play That Good.”

Jo Jones Photo: © Deborah Feingold

 

Didn’t say goodbye or nothing.  And I didn’t give it another thought until years later, when me and some fellows were listening to a broadcast on WLW from Cincinnati, which was the most powerful station in the world at that time.  And it was Count Basie and his Band, and they announced that they had one of the best rhythm sections in the business  ‘...with Jo Jones on drums.’ 

 

“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 Manhattan) when I returned to my pew were some recompense.  Here was a man, I observed, who while born close to a hundred years ago in the heart of the Jim Crow South, kept his humanity.  While in no way, shape or form was Mister Driver a Pollyanna, he never wallowed in bitterness, nor did he project hate or resentment, which to me, given the un-Godly, inhumane, demeaning protocols of those times (punctuated with acts of calculated terror and intimidation), makes him a much bigger man than I could ever be, I’ll tell you that.  

 

What 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 America. 

 

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,

Afraid of all the shadows

cremating my bones.

 

Remember the nite,

the nite you said

i love you

remember

 

i remembered your voice swollen

in a ritual of words on

152nd Street and St. Nicholas Place.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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