Lifetime Achievement In Music: Johnny Vidacovich
I’m just a lucky so and so.” Johnny Vidacovich considers himself a lucky guy. Touchstones of the brilliant drummer’s serendipitous musical journey include his life-changing acceptance into St. Aloysius High School with a full scholarship, his long, meaningful relationship with pianist/vocalist/composer Mose Allison and being a member of Astral Project, which this year celebrates its 39th anniversary.
“It’s the best band in the world,” declares Vidacovich of the all-star unit that currently boasts founder/saxophonist Tony Dagradi, bassist James Singleton and guitarist Steve Masakowski. “We breathe together.”
It’s not difficult to imagine a young Johnny Vidacovich being fascinated by the sounds of the parades that would roll near the Mid-City home that he shared with his mother, grandmother and uncle. The distinctive New Orleans drummer, 67, remains ever-curious and investigatory in his approach to music and life.
“I used to enjoy watching the drummers, listening to and feeling the bass drum especially,” Vidacovich remembers. “I was always very impressed about how you could feel the music although it looked invisible. Now, I’m finally realizing that the music is not invisible at all. It’s actually sound waves and molecules and specific structures. It’s just unfortunate that our species isn’t refined enough to be able to see music, we can only hear it. I guess if our species had better vision we could probably see the molecules forming and the sound waves moving. Our species is very overrated. The human being species isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”
As a youngster, Johnny checked out tunes on the radio and recalls that he was always beating on something. Encouraged by this mother and grandmother, he’d sit on the floor surrounded by pots, pans and lids—his make-shift drums and cymbals. Ingeniously, his grandmother cut off the tip of a flyswatter to provide him with his first “brush.” “They would wiggle a little bit—I love brushes with a passion,” says Vidacovich, who became renowned as a brush master particularly by sometimes utilizing them in unconventional rhythmic situations. In Vidacovich’s hands brushes weren’t just for playing quietly during a ballad. He showed their power. “They are very difficult to play—they don’t bounce back and they are hard to control,” Vidacovich says.
Learning to play
When Vidacovich was eight years old he asked his mother to get him a set of drums. He remembers her saying, “If I buy you a drum set then you have to study.” At 13, he began taking lessons with percussionist and author Charlie Suhor, who taught music in a small room above Campo’s Music Store on North Broad Street and Esplanade Avenue. He continued the sessions with Suhor until he was almost 18.
Suhor’s connection to Vidacovich was to become very important in the young student’s musical progression. Suhor, who describes Johnny as a total natural when he first heard him play, told his friend and band director Clem Toca at St. Aloysius about his gifted student.
Vidacovich had his eyes on the school, which had a strong reputation for its band programs. He remembers pleading with his mother to let him at least audition for the opening drum spot. Even though they both knew that the family didn’t have enough money for tuition, his mother allowed him to audition.
When she got the call that her son had been accepted, her response was, “He’s going to be broken-hearted because there is no way we can afford to send him to that school.” The next day, there was another phone call and they learned Johnny was given a full, four-year scholarship for music.
“That was unheard of,” Vidacovich explains, “because they only gave out academic and basketball scholarships.”
“I was just a lucky, lucky guy and I still am,” he declares, crediting Suhor for mentioning him and Toca for the scholarship. “I went from going to S.J. Peters High School, which was a bad school right across the street from the jail and that was about where I was heading, to St. Aloysius.”
Vidacovich’s early instructors, including Joe Hebert (who was a band director at both St. Aloysius and Loyola University), contributed their special gifts to his musical and personal development. In turn, Johnny’s presence has influenced his own drum students at Loyola University and those he instructed privately.
“Charlie Suhor taught me everything that I needed to know to work as a functioning musician—how to be an accompanist, how to be a part of a whole,” Vidacovich says. “He made me understand that playing drums was a supportive role and that your purpose was to make the music sound better and to do everything you could to make musicians feel comfortable so they would play well. He gave me a wide palette of tools that could get me through almost any kind of gig. That way, when I was very young, like 17, I was playing with older men because I had the tools and I could follow instructions. These older men liked me because I tried to do what they said and I had a good attitude.”
“If it wasn’t for Charlie, I wouldn’t get such enjoyment from the whole concept of music being 360 degrees. To me, music is all the same. People ask me, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ I say, ‘Well, it depends on the music. The music will tell me what to play.’ I never said I was a jazz drummer—other people said that.”
“I met a guy up north and he couldn’t believe that I knew anything about trad music. I said, ‘Man, that was the first music I ever played as a kid—that was the first music that I learned. I was playing trad music when I was 12 years old.’”
Some of Johnny’s first gigs were with a band called Dunc’s Honky Tonks. “Old man Warren Duncan, a pianist, owned a junkyard on Willow Street and every Saturday morning young kids would go to his shed that had a piano in it. He would teach us all the songs we needed to know and we’d play at hospitals, the Lighthouse for the Blind and veterans’ hospitals. Eventually, he put me with a better band—he had several—and we’d play at dances, officers’ clubs. We got paid. I was having a ball. I was learning, learning, learning, learning. Every day was a learning experience.”
“From there, I met older kids who would show me funk and R&B. When I was in high school and I started playing more with guys my same age, we played rock ’n’ roll, funk, and R&B of the early ’60s. In the rock bands you met older guys who would take you home and say ‘listen to this.’ And ‘this’ would be jazz.”
“Johnny could change his style to fit the style of music to whichever was called for,” says bassist/educator Joe Hebert. “He was extremely teachable and I just helped him to become more of a musician rather than a drummer.”
Vidacovich embraced the importance of what he now calls “melodic rhythm,” a concept he shares with his students and that sets him far apart from many drummers.
“I’m trying to make the drums sound like they have a mouthpiece and I’m blowing air through them,” Vidacovich humorously explains. “I’ve become more linear through the years—more song-like. Less virtuosity and more musicality.”
From student to teacher
Vidacovich first started teaching in 1966 in that same tiny room above Campo’s Music Store where he took lessons from Suhor. He also made a return trip in the early 1980s to become an adjunct professor at his alma mater, Loyola University. A wealth of students have benefited from his accumulated knowledge and unique approach.
“Johnny encouraged me to develop my own voice,” says drummer Stanton Moore, who is a founding member of Galactic and leader of his own bands. He began studying with Vidacovich when he was around 17. “He would really try to get me out of playing drum-based ideas, what he would call ‘drum-istically.’ I was coming out of a rudimental—drum line—background at Brother Martin. He would put on Bach’s ‘Brandenburg Concerto’ and have me play brushes to that. You can’t play a beat to it, you have to play colors—you have to play musically.”
Johnny is a guy who definitely sees the world through his own lens. Moore continues “he sees the world in his own color palette so he sees the drums differently, he sees music differently, he sees people differently. A lot of times he’s similar to Yoda. He’ll speak in these weird riddles that don’t give you the answer but they make you think of the answer yourself. He’s one of the funniest people I know—he’s hilarious.”
Another one of Vidacovich’s now–high-profile students is drummer Brian Blade, 46, who has been a member of the legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s quartet since its onset in 2000 and also leads his own band, the Fellowship. Blade made a point to come down from his home in Shreveport in 1988 to study with Vidacovich at Loyola University. “Hearing him for the first time was a revelation,” Blade remembers. “I wanted to be around these inventors, these sound makers and Johnny was at the heart of that. What touched me was the depth of expression and the joy in the sound and the spark in everything that he played. The drumming is a reflection of the man. When you watch him walk or when he talks to you there is such a swing and groove in it and humor and joy.”
Most often as a way of exchanging ideas, Vidacovich and Blade would play drums together as part of a lesson. Blade laughingly tells of one particular day when he went over to “Johnny V’s” house. Vidacovich let Blade play his Gretsch set and he sat down at a child’s, his daughter’s, drum set. “He had that thing singing!” Blade relates. “It made me know that the sound was in him and that we don’t need a lot to make something great happen. He’s imparting more than what a second line is, he’s showing me how to live. I’m eternally thankful for that.”
French Quarter nights
By age 16, Vidacovich was already heading down to the French Quarter to keep the beat going behind strippers as well as picking up some traditional jazz gigs at spots like the Famous Door. At 19, he played with the Real Dukes of Dixieland led by Frank Assunto. “They called me for one night and kept me for two weeks.”
It was in the middle of Bourbon Street that the drummer, 17, first met bassist George Porter. The two introduced themselves to each other and began playing “a bunch of joints.” “The money was low but we were having fun playing music—funk and the popular songs of 1966. The Meters were just forming and played down at the Ivanhoe.”
“If you just make rock ’n’ roll a little sloppier, it’s funk,” Vidacovich offers. “There ain’t no difference. It’s syncopated rock ’n’ roll, that’s all it is.”
Piano bars were popular in the era and as he often did in his younger years, Vidacovich did these gigs with older musicians. “They were playing bebop based on standards—they were the vehicle. We would take every opportunity we could to not only please the people by playing the standards but to please ourselves by improvising. Standards were essential to know because they gave you perimeters and at the same time you could make variations. It’s just like keeping the ball in the yard and having fun with the game—keeping the game going.”
Vidacovich took several breaks from college, the first during the summer of 1967. He scurried back to school to avoid being drafted into the armed services. He headed to Las Vegas in 1970 with thoughts of heading to California to become a studio musician. Then he got a call from bandleader and saxophonist Al Belletto, who wanted Johnny to come home and join his quartet at the Playboy Club. At first he said no, but then Belletto called back offering more money.
“Al Belletto became my next mentor—my next big brother,” says Vidacovich, who played in the saxophonist’s combos and big band and is heard on Belletto’s 1997 album Jazznocracy. “We hung out, we played music together. He’d tell me when something was good and when something was not good. He took care of me and watched out for me.” Vidacovich points out that Belletto also put money in pension plan for him. “There were certain cats that stepped up to the plate. Thanks to him, I get a little pension check. Bless his heart.”
The ’70s and ’80s
Vidacovich was playing a gig in 1977 at the French Quarter’s Blues Saloon with pianist and vocalist Angelle Trosclair the night he met bassist James Singleton, who had just moved to New Orleans from the Midwest. Johnny had broken his hand so he was playing drums one-handed. Somebody told him that there was a guy who just got to town who wanted to meet him.
“His reputation preceded him,” Singleton remembers. “Everybody told me that he was the best drummer in town. What they didn’t tell me was that he might have been the best musician in town. He was playing with one arm and playing so much music. So yeah, I fell in love from the jump.”
Vidacovich introduced James to pianist Michael Pellera and suggested that they form a trio and he’d work on getting them a gig. “So I went to Tyler’s [Magazine Street’s Tyler’s Beer Garden] and looked around,” Vidacovich says. “I told [owner] Fred Laredo, ‘What you need is a trio.’ That was the beginning of Tyler’s. I don’t know if we were the first band to play there but it surely wasn’t a music club. It was basically an oyster, beer and college bar.”
“James and I have put in the most time together as far as how many gigs and how many years,” says Vidacovich, who continues to have Singleton by his side in Astral Project, Nolatet and often at the drummer’s standing Maple Leaf gig, the Trio featuring Johnny Vidacovich and Special Guests. “We’ve been in every kind of musical situation that you can imagine, even playing with the symphony. People would come to town and say, ‘Hire those guys, they can make you sound good.’ With me and James if you put a clown in front of us we can figure out a way to make it sound good.”
Uptown was jumping during this period, particularly with the opening of Tipitina’s, which honored the great pianist and vocalist Professor Longhair and at last provided him with a steady home base and income. Vidacovich was on the scene at the club and played on Fess’ final recording, 1980’s Crawfish Fiesta, an award-winning album released just months after Longhair’s death.
“Playing with Fess was like playing with another drummer,” Vidacovich says. “He would show me rhythms that he liked—he would tap them out riding in the van or sitting in the dressing room. He didn’t want anything laid back he wanted me to push, push, push. People think it is all about being laid-back and funky, but that’s not the case with Fess at all. Fess wanted everything on the edge. He wanted it faster, he didn’t want the old tempos that the songs were recorded at. He didn’t want me to ever let up off the gas pedal. He’d say, ‘Jawoski, keep pushin’, keep pushin’.’ He wouldn’t say Vidacovich, he’d call me Jawoski. He was a funny guy and he was fun—very rhythmic, very drum-istic.”
“You didn’t push with Booker—he was the opposite of Fess in a way,” says Vidacovich of the innovative pianist/vocalist/composer James Booker. “Booker did the pushing. He wanted you to kind of chill and you were basically accompanying. Good thing when I was young, I was made aware of all these things and learned to be an accompanist,” notes Vidacovich, who played with Booker from 1973 until the time of his death in 1983. The drummer backed Booker often at his steady gig at the Maple Leaf, as well as at North Rampart Street jazz club Lu & Charlie’s. He is heard, along with Singleton and saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, on Booker’s exemplary 1982 album Classified.
“Fess was pushy, rock ’n’ rolly, louder and harder. Booker was piano-istic and more laid-back. There’s no comparing Mose to anybody.”
The first time Vidacovich played with Mose Allison, a highly-regarded pianist/vocalist/composer, was in 1970 when the drummer was just 21 years old and some 25 years younger than the veteran. The performance was for a PBS special about famous musicians from Mississippi, of which Allison was one.
“He started calling me—he called me a lot,” says Vidacovich. “I had a long relationship of playing as an occasional sideman for him, though it would be several times a year over a period of over 40 years.”
“My relationship with Mose was deep,” Vidacovich says. “He taught me a lot about literature, about family, about life, about children. He reshaped my whole concept of music. He totally got me hip to what I call melodic rhythm. He had a concept of the way he wanted the drums to be and I could do it. The drummer, along with fellow Astral Project members saxophonist Tony Dagradi and Steve Masakowski, plus bassist Bill Huntington, are heard on Allison’s fine 1989 album My Backyard.
The Makings of a Team – Vidacovich and Singleton
Throughout music history, there have been musicians who have been considered a great team. Vidacovich and Singleton reign in that number for one reason. They jive.
“We obviously have common tastes and vocabulary and we are both very curious about the steps that need to be taken to get the music to the highest level,” Singleton says. “We’re both open to different means of doing that. Beyond all of that, it was kind of mysterious. It always felt so limitless in terms of what might be possible with the rhythms. I think a lot of that comes from just having a similar notion of what ‘right down the middle’ of the beat means.”
“It’s the empathy we have for each other and the way we listen to each other,” Vidacovich offers. “When we come together it becomes a oneness. It has nothing to do with technical things, it’s just strictly a sense of listening and allowing yourself to be taken with the music and letting the music tell you what to play. We both know that taking chances is part of the game. If something falls down, it just can very easily be picked up. The two of us have created a third party and that is the two of us playing together. That’s the third party.”
Apparently, 1977 marked a convergence of sorts as saxophonist Tony Dagradi also moved to New Orleans that year. He played with Vidacovich at Lu & Charlie’s and was looking to put a band together of like-minded musicians. Astral Project, which for years included pianist David Torkanowsky, first appeared as a group at Bourbon Street’s Old Absinthe Bar. “Everything was pretty loose back then so sometimes it was called the Johnny Vidacovich Quartet or something,” Dagradi remembers. The band made its debut at the 1978 Jazz and Heritage Festival and got the gig in part on Johnny’s recommendation to producer Quint Davis. “He told Quint it’s like James Brown playing jazz, or something like that,” Dagradi recalls with a laugh.
Dagradi and Vidacovich surprisingly use the exact same words in describing Astral Project: “It was fun.”
“We were all in our twenties and everything musical was exciting,” Dagradi says. “I wouldn’t be the musician I am today if I had not had the opportunity to play with Johnny. He was an incredible powerhouse who was playing things I’d never heard a drummer play before.”
“We basically played for fun,” Vidacovich echoes. “We were never a serious business band. We didn’t go after the business part of music—at least that’s the way I feel. Everybody in the band was always doing other things too. We were young, dumb and having fun. I wasn’t thinking about the future, about being popular or thinking about managers and percentages.”
Despite, or maybe because of the musicians’ “having fun” attitude, Astral Project’s reputation as a unique, intuitive group of artists gained nationwide respect and admiration. It released its first album, 1995’s New Orleans LA and its most recent recording, 2007’s Live in New Orleans. As leader, Vidacovich put out two fine releases, 1995’s Mystery Street and 1996’s Banks Street, as well as collaborating with George Porter and guitarist June Yamagishi on We Came to Play. His sensitive drums were also heard behind the late, great vocalist Johnny Adams, including on one of the drummer’s favorite albums, Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus.
These days, Vidacovich can most easily be found at his standing gig at the Maple Leaf, a club he’s hit his drums at for almost four decades. He credits his wife of 37 years, Deborah, for setting up the residency and booking the special guests who make up the trio each Thursday night.
“It’s her gig, she decides who plays,” Vidacovich explains. “Her decisions are always better than mine. She knows what the people need to hear and what they can be pushed to. I like to not just satisfy but challenge an audience. She has made me accessible to a whole lot of different people that I might never have played with.”
Johnny Vidacovich is, and always has been, a hometown guy haunting the clubs he’s performed throughout his life, teaching at Loyola where he earned his Bachelor of Music degree and playing with the all-local Astral Project. Recently, however, he made a shift and hit the road with another exceptional band, Nolatet. It pairs him once again with Singleton and includes now New Orleans resident, vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon and pianist Brian Haas. The recently formed group released its solid debut recording, Dogs, this year. “It’s a new ballgame,” Vidacovich declares, though he regrets that because everyone is so busy trying to earn a living, the members aren’t really able to make Nolatet a priority.
“I’m just going to follow the bouncing ball,” Vidacovich says of his future plans. “I look forward to the next gig—every gig—because I know it’s going to be a good one. I’m just going to try to have as much fun as I can. I’m just a lucky so and so—that’s me.”