“I don’t teach music, I teach life because music is life… the drum is life,” said Ndugu Chancler, master percussionist and professor of music at the University of Southern California.
The Sentinel caught up with the local legend recently, who talked freely about growing up in Los Angeles, his time with musical greats like Quincy Jones and Miles Davis, his passion for the drums and the reason he’s compelled to teach.
“My dream, my passion was always to play the drums since I was six years old,” Chancler recalled.
“My first drum, I made out of a coffee can and put a string around my neck and got two branches off of a tree— because I didn’t have any drumsticks. I [also] had an oatmeal box … I just always… it was like a natural thing. We’d wash dishes and I’d be taking the steak knives and beating on the counter…”
That was in Shreveport, Louisiana, where Chancler was born, a place he basically described as the antithesis to musical New Orleans. It was where, he said, his alcoholic father tried to break his spirit and where his mother became his biggest fan. It’s from where Chancler left with his family in 1960 to settle in South Central Los Angeles.
“I enrolled in beginning band at Gompers Jr. High School. And, surprisingly enough my jr. high school teacher moved over to my high school,” said Chancler, who graduated from Locke High School.
Before graduation though, Chancler had already begun his professional music career. He made his first recording at age 16 with local band the Harold Johnson sextet.
“He was a local success, he’s now a minister but he was a piano player and went to Washington High School. I recorded on his second album,” recalled Chancler.
“We signed to Universal. Later, Hugh Masekala had a deal on that same label and I don’t know if that’s how he got familiar with me or what but one thing kind of led to another. I played with Herbie Hancock in high school so when I graduated from high school, he called me to join the band and I played with them.
“And then, I recorded with him that same year. So, the name is starting to grow. But now, Herbie Hancock and Walter Bishop Jr. turned me on to Miles Davis in 1971. Miles Davis had seen me with Freddie Hubbard. So, there’s this piggy back thing happening. Once I played with Miles Davis, my whole view and my whole scope of what this whole world of music was changed.
“At that point it was okay to come out of the closet and not just be a jazz musician. And that’s when things opened up for me. Because before then I was carrying the banner of playing jazz and moonlighting doing other stuff.”
Chancler had been doing all of this while pursuing a degree in music education at Cal State Dominguez Hills. While he considered his education important and he did very well, he admitted to “just getting through college.” His drive and passion for the music took precedence over pretty much everything else, looking back it’s easy to see why.
“I worked with Quincy Jones who was my hero,” Chancler said.
“[Working with] Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson was due to Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones inspired me, was a role model for me to become a producer as well as a musician, arranger and player because that’s what he was. Most people look at my career and they focus on what I’ve done just as a drummer.
“They don’t think about the things that I’ve produced, the things that I’ve arranged the things that I’ve written. All that’s based on Quincy Jones. I did sessions with Quincy Jones for Frank Sinatra. I did sessions with Quincy Jones for George Benson, for Donna Summer, for James Ingram, Patti Austin, Michael Jackson…
Now, Chancler’s drums were being heard around the world thanks to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on 1984’s “Thriller,” the biggest selling album of all time.
“That Michael Jackson album was an historical album. Because, a lot of what happens technically now was created based on the way we recorded that album. The whole concept of multi track recording was created from how we recorded that album. The whole concept of singles now, when you go to iTunes and you can download singles… that was based on Thriller.”
Chancler hasn’t put down the drumsticks completely, he still performs as much as possible but he spends a lot of time on USC’s campus teaching music, teaching life. He had no choice but to teach, he said. It’s because someone taught him, but more so because the need for education is so great.
“Growing up, we were always mentored by the greats,” he explained.
“That mentoring for me, started with Nelson Riddle coming to my high school, doing a workshop every week, then Gerald Wilson who was a local guy who had one of the happening big bands and still does. They all came to my high school and worked with us. They were preparing us for the studio and for performance.
“Now, with that mentoring we were taught that if you get this, you have to give it back. Being out there playing and traveling around and looking at the state of America on the educational level, I had to come back and teach. Because, there were so many people not being afforded all of the information that I got.
“Whoever I’m teaching, I’m teaching them about themselves as it relates to music.
I don’t say I teach an African American music course. I teach a world music course. Music is universal. Music was the first integration in this country.
Before integration was legal it was already happening on the bandstand. Dizzy Gillespe was bringing in the Cubans way back in the ‘40s. That was a very segregated time.
“That was also a time when blacks couldn’t go in the front door and play the cotton club in Harlem. That was a time when Billie Holiday and people like that couldn’t stay in hotels. That’s why when you study the history of the Dunbar hotel on Central Avenue, that was a haven for black people based on that time. The music always transcended that…”