Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Shelly Manne was first-call studio drummer for nearly every major film writer in
. He worked for Mancini, Goldsmith and Fielding, Williams, Bernstein and everyone in between. Hollywood
But Jazz was his love, his art.
For 45 years, he was one of the most important voices in Jazz drumming elevating it to a new musical level – and his influences are still felt today, nearly 30 years after his death.
Stan Kenton called him “the greatest drummer in the world.”
Henry Mancini said: “He was a fine reader, but that never got in the way of his musicianship. He was one of the most consistent players I have ever known.”
said he was a “genius.”” Rogers
- Jack Brand and Bill Korst, Shelly Manne: Sounds of a Different Drummer
“There are many reasons for Shelly's success in the studios. He was very quick and bright and kept picking things up as he went along. Nobody had taught him to read. He learned timpani on his own. His natural talent and his ambition made it possible for him to do a lot of things.”
“Flip” Manne, Shelly’s Wife Florence
“In a truly formal sense, Shelly could barely play the drums. If you gave him a pair of sticks and a snare drum and had him play rudiments—an open and closed roll, paradiddles, and all that kind of thing—he didn't sound like much. He never had that kind of training and wasn't interested in it.
For him it was a matter of playing the drums with the music. He could play more music in four bars than almost anyone else. His drums sounded gorgeous. They recorded sensationally. All you had to hear was three or four bars and you knew it was Shelly Manne.
- Larry Bunker, Jazz drummer and premier, studio percussionist
This statement by Larry Bunker is why the late, Shelly Manne is one of my enduring heroes.
I studied with Larry Bunker. He was a stern taskmaster who was very precise about the mechanics of drumming. He knew what he was talking about and could back it up in an instant.
Sometimes, after I had finished playing a lesson, he would pick up the sticks and just rip through it with power, speed and finesse.
But Larry always emphasized that the point of the whole thing was to master the technical aspects of drumming so that you could forget them and concentrate on bringing music out of “… your mind, heart and soul.”
In a way, the entire act of music is mind put into sound. It has to go through some sort of physical medium in order to be heard.
Shelly Manne chose the drums, but the whole issue is to have such control over the instrument and over what you hear that the instrument physically doesn't get in the way of visualizing sound.
Technique was to Shelly merely a means of dealing with an instrument in the most efficient manner possible so that it's no more than peripheral to expression.
[The above is a paraphrase of something that tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen said about music, but it applies directly to Shelly.]
Shelly was a musician who chose to express his musical “genius” through the drum kit.
Shelly didn’t care about drum rudiments and techniques, per se, he cared about the drums as a means of physically producing the sound of his musical conception.
I developed this piece because I wanted to spend more time with Shelly’s own views and with others talking about why he was such a special musician.
We placed his reflections and the recollections of others about him somewhat randomly throughout this piece as once it got into high gear, there was seldom anything linear about Shelly’s career and we wanted this profile to reflect that.
On any given day, he might make a couple of recording sessions and then play three sets with his quintet at his club in
Can you imagine?
A first-call studio drummer who never had any formal instruction in reading drum and percussion parts!
And no matter the helter-skelter of his professional life, he couldn’t have been nicer to you, whenever he met you, whoever you were.
If you were a Jazz fan then you were Shelly’s friend … period.
Not to take anything away from his hard work and dedication, but he knew how fortunate he was to be able to live his dream and he wanted to share the warm glow that came from basking in his dream with others who were a part of the Jazz World.
Shelly enjoyed living so much that he made everyone around him enjoy it more. He could take a group of musicians or a group of people and just lift it by force of personality.
And if you were a Jazz or a studio musician, as you got to know Shelly better, your fondness was also accompanied by admiration. A master of a profession knows another when he sees him, and they knew that they were seeing one in Shelly.
They admired his thoroughness, his tirelessness – the way he threw himself into every aspect of music, really, into everything he did, with an enthusiasm and effort that seemed limitless.
This from a guy who had very little formal training as a drummer and what little he did have, he took only that which interested him – musically.
As Jim Chapin, author of numerous and highly respected books and manuals about drum techniques including the monumental Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, observed of Shelly:
“Shelly was very brave. Even when he couldn't really play, he'd sit in with major people. He developed "playing chops"—a certain level of facility. He always related strongly to the music, much like Jo Jones.
We used to spend a lot of time together because we started at about the same time and had mutual interests. I was studying with Sanford "Gus" Moeller, and he was getting pointers from the great Billy Gladstone. Unlike a number of drummers, Shelly never concentrated heavily on development of technique and great dexterity. A bunch of us did—Krupa, Louie Bellson, Allen Paley, Alvin Stoller, Lou Fromm, myself, and a few others attempted to combine the formal and informal sides of drumming in the best way possible.
Shelly took what he wanted from his meetings with Billy—stuff that would help him play. He spent little time practicing and a lot of time playing and listening. That's better in many ways. If you spend most of your time playing and practicing that much by yourself, you become used to hearing yourself alone. Understand? You don't hear yourself in relation to other people.
Unless you realize the limitations of that situation and do both things - practicing and playing, alone and performing with other musicians — you can have real problems out in the world.
Shelly knew exactly what he wanted to do. Being a speed merchant wasn't it. He loved Jo Jones—his creativity and taste—and, of course,
Davey Tough. Time and becoming a part of the music were his thing.”
Although Shelly’s father Max Manne was an accomplished percussionist who at one time had also been the musical director for the famed dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle and headed-up special effects at the famed Radio City Music Hall during the early years of its existence, it was the legendary percussionist Billy Gladstone – “the drummer’s drummer” - a close friend of the Manne family, who helped him get his start in drumming. Shelly explains it this way:
“My father and two uncles were drummers and very much involved in various aspects of entertainment. But they never encouraged me to play drums. Billy Gladstone is the one who got me involved in drumming. I had studied alto saxophone for six months, at my dad's suggestion. But it didn't feel right.
I was just eighteen when I decided I had to play drums. The sound of the instrument, which had been so much a part of my life, was one of the things that attracted me. To start, I used an old drum set that was in the storeroom of the Music Hall. I played in and around town—mostly for free.
Later, when I got my first real job on an ocean liner, Billy took me to Manny's Music Store on
West 48th Street, not far from the Music Hall, and traded the saxophone in for a set of Gretsch-Gladstone drums. Billy and Frank Siegfried paid the balance. My dad didn't want to have anything to do with the whole thing.
That day was memorable in still another way. I met Basie drummer Jo Jones for the first time. He was very encouraging and gave me a pair of 6A sticks. I used that model for years.
I'll never forget my first lesson with Billy, right after we bought the new set of drums. He took me back to the Music Hall—downstairs where the musicians had their quarters—to a room where the percussion instruments were stored. Billy showed me how to set up the drums and how to hold the sticks. He talked about playing the hi-hat and moved me into the right position. Then he put "Topsy" by the Basie band on the phonograph, and as he walked out of the room he said: "PLAY!" Billy's "lesson" set the tone for my entire career.”
If you ever talked at length with Shelly about drumming technique, you came away with the feeling that he basically distrusted having an abundance of it.
As Burt Korall explains in Drummin’ Men: The Heart beat of Jazz – The Bebop years:
“Shelly had the feeling that too much technique would adversely affect the natural quality of a performance. He was right, certainly about technical temptation – the overwhelming concern that many drummers have about technique, sometimes to the exclusion of the music itself. It is my contention that a drummer has many more options if he/she develops hands and feet and combines performance ease and facility with the taste and instincts awakened and stirred by the music.”
As Shelly put it:
“I don't believe in letting your hands control you. I have my own view of technique. It's only a means to an end, not an end in itself. I don't think your hands should have the final say in what you're going to do. What you play should be controlled by your heart and your head, and they should deliver the message to your hands.
Some drummers become so technically facile that their hands do their thinking for them. They automatically do things that they've been practicing and consequently their playing is somewhat on the cold side. I feel you have to let the music tell you what to do.”
Shelly’s first big break came in 1946 when he joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra where it became apparent almost immediately that “… he could bring vitality to this large sometimes ponderous orchestra. He was a source of color, variety, and, whatever subtlety was possible in this large, loud ensemble. More than that, Manne conceptually modernized the rhythmic feeling of the Kenton Orchestra, adding significantly to its musicality and swing.” [this quotation and the following are excerpted from Korall, Ibid, pp, 175-177].
“Beginning in the mid-1940’s, Kenton found an enthusiastic, ever-growing, devoted audience. His music seemingly spoke to the postwar young and veterans of World War II. The enveloping, orgasmic sound of the orchestra had a hypnotic quality. The general feeling was that Kenton was hip. And though many critics disagreed vehemently, supporters of the orchestra would have none of that. They loved with a passion this vivid, often stirring, immoderately loud music that made them feel good and seemed to promise something for the future.”
Here’s what other Kenton musicians had to say about Shelly during his time on the band.
Bob Cooper: “Shelly was an inspiration to me and everyone else in the band. He had already done a lot and knew so much, particularly about bebop—the new music we all were getting into. We learned from him. His playing gave the Kenton band new life. Whatever he did seemed to turn out right. We became friends right away.”
Pete Rugolo: “Shelly and I spent a number of years together on the bus, doing all the one-nighters. Stan loved Shelly; we all did. We felt he was the most creative drummer of them all. I palled around with him. I guess I was pretty square—didn't drink or smoke anything. Neither did Shelly. He and Flip and I liked good food, and we kept trying new restaurants in various towns and cities. Stan was good about letting the wives travel with us. We were on the road almost all the time. Flip was wonderful. She came to all the concerts and dances.”
Flip Manne: “I was on the road with Shelly for six years. He admired Stan tremendously. He struggled a lot because there was never any help from anyone in the rhythm section, including Stan, who was up front a lot of the time. Shelly had to carry the whole band.”
Art Pepper: “Shelly loved to play. He never was into drugs, drinking— anything wrong. The only thing he did was smile and be happy. On the road with Stan, he made the best of an impossible situation. I'd be so dragged and unhappy about the lousy circumstances, traveling on the bus what seemed like forever between dates, putting your band uniform on in the back of the bus. But it didn't make Shelly mad. I never once heard him put anything down. He'd smile and say: ‘Here we go. We're really going to swing tonight!’ And he played great, always played great. He was completely content that he was given this talent, this gift.”
Eddie Bert: “I sat next to Shelly for about eight or nine months in 1947 in the "progressive jazz" Kenton band. He was fantastic with rhythms. That was what was happening in the band. Polyrhythms. Rhythm against rhythm— layers of rhythm like in Latin music. Stan was moving into a Latin/jazz fusion.
Shelly could play a different rhythm in each hand, another with the left foot, and still another with the right. He switched time signatures in a minute—4/4 to 6/8, whatever. He was so smooth because he just felt and knew how to cope with rhythms, pulsation, time signatures.”
Bud Shank: “To tell you the truth, I can't imagine the Stan Kenton band with another drummer. Shelly had that positive thing going on. And it got over to the guys in the band. He was a real leader. Let me put it this way, man. As far as I'm concerned, he was the leader of Stan Kenton's band — at least when I was with Stan during the Innovations period, 1950-51.
Everything musical started with Shelly. He didn't do any of the writing. But whenever an arrangement was brought in, it ended up sounding good because of what Shelly did. He kept his ears open and let the music talk to him. So many times, he'd crack us up with one of his jokes, and that put the band in the right mood. He was marvelous that way.
Shelly was probably the most musical drummer I ever played with. He was moving beyond just playing time and swinging. He was into melodies and making music. The attention Shelly paid to tuning his drums, just so, made "melodic" playing more than possible.”
Gerry Mulligan: “Shelly was so thoughtful in a big band setting. What he did became a part of the music. He played the hell out of the charts I wrote for Stan in the early 1950s. He sensed just how my things should be done. I was trying for something else, which oddly enough had an effect on other writers. I don't think Stan cared for my charts. He liked music stacked up in impressive vertical structures. I always favored economy—horizontal moving things.”
Shelly also had a brief stint with Woody Herman’s Big Band before coming off the road and settling into his “new life” as a small group and studio drummer for much of the decade on the 1950s and beyond.
Pianist Lou Levy was with Woody when Shelly joined the band and had these reflections about him:
Lou Levy: “As soon as Shelly Manne hit the first four bars the day he joined us, everybody in the band turned around and smiled. It was a totally different feel than what Don Lamond had established—but it was wonderful.
Shelly's time thing was great. And it was his time. He didn't sound like Philly Joe, Stan Levey, Tiny Kahn, Jo Jones,
Dave Tough, or Chick Webb, Yet all of them were in there, somehow. Anyone who is real good has a lot of people in them.
And he was a pleasure to be around, so humorous and good-natured. Flip used to cook for us after the gig in their hotel room. I remember some great things she rustled up on her little electric grill.”
Burt Korall: “Shelly reaped benefits from the Kenton and Herman experiences, especially his years with Stan for as the band changed and expanded its musical horizons, becoming more than a relatively commercial, blustery presence, Manne had to call on untapped capacities, new ways and means to make the music work.”
Shelly’s thoughts about big band drumming reflect on aspects of it that most Jazz fans are not aware of:
“Big band playing requires great flexibility and strength. The drummer has to bend and give and pull and shove and move with the band and still keep that swinging motion going. You're one of the key people in the large ensemble—along with the first trumpet player and the section leaders— and can shove the band any way you want. But it's hard work.”
Like so many other veterans of Stan Kenton’s and Woody Herman’s bands, Shelly became enamored of the Southern California lifestyle with its casual living, plentiful sunshine and ready access to beaches, mountains and deserts, all within a two hour driving time.
His first major gig after leaving the Kenton band in 1951 was to become a member of bassist Howard Rumsey’s All-Stars which appeared nightly in the Lighthouse Café on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, CA.
Howard Rumsey: “Shelly put the Lighthouse All-Stars on the map. The people loved him. He had this ebullient manner and connected with audiences. During the time Shelly was in the band, we played some great material, much of it by Shorty
Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre. It was a wonderful time for all of us.”
In the early 1950s, Shelly became increasingly involved in studio drumming.
Flip Manne: “Bobby Heifer, a big contractor in
, made it possible for Shelly to have a career in the studios. He hired him to play some very complicated things for Rear Window, the Jimmy Stewart-Grace Kelly picture for Alfred Hitchcock. Shelly sat down and just read them off, playing the stuff perfectly. Hollywood
There are many reasons for Shelly's success in the studios. He was very quick and bright and kept picking things up as he went along. Nobody had taught him to read. He learned timpani on his own. His natural talent and his ambition made it possible for him to do a lot of things.
During our first years in Hollywood, there were wonderful writers at the studios—many of them into jazz—like Andre Previn, Hank Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Leith Stevens, Billy Byers, Johnny Mandel, Jeff Alexander, Pete Rugolo, and others. They gave Shelly freedom; they made it interesting and challenging for him.”
Shelly and his bandmates from his days with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman helped destroy stereotypical notions regarding jazz musicians that had been deeply embedded for so long in the minds of motion picture, TV, and advertising executives.
An extraordinary example of reliability, creativity, "instant ability," and good feeling — in and out of the studios – Shelly and his colleagues made the major breakthrough into motion pictures and television and they began to be employed in media previously closed to them.
Andre Previn : “Shelly had no fear of anybody. There were certain people in
he didn't want to play for. He felt they were frauds and wouldn't accept work from them. Sure, there are frauds everywhere. But they seem to be very public about it out there. Hollywood
We worked a lot together in the studios, in clubs and concerts. One of the things I admired about him musically was his complete rhythmic freedom. He taught me a lot. We would be playing somewhere and he would suddenly say: ‘Let's play five’ — trade fives. That could drive me crazy, since he kept playing across the bar line anyway. It meant harmonically you were always one or two or three bars away from where you would ordinarily play. Shelly would do things like that because suddenly he would think: "Let's see what this feels like."
Burt Korall: “Despite his studio commitments, Manne remained active in jazz. He worked as a sideman but mostly as a leader. And if you listen to the music he made on countless recordings over thirty-three years in
, with occasional trips to California , it is clear that jazz was not only his passion but something more: a central, motivating life force.” New York
One of Shelly’s greatest gifts to his friends was the establishment of his own club on
Cahuenga Blvd in . In the 1960's, it practically became “a home away from home” for Jazz musicians and Jazz fans, alike. Hollywood, CA
John Tynan, the West Coast editor of Down Beat magazine wrote a lengthy article on Shelly and the club which will post to the blog in a few days following this feature.
In the meantime, you might enjoy the following videos, all of which have audio tracks of Shelly playing drums in a variety of settings.
The world was made a richer place because of Shelly Manne – “The most musical drummer who ever lived.”