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Steadily Upbeat : * Veteran drummer Sherman Ferguson loves being a jazz musician. His peers say that pleasure infuses his playing.

March 18, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

BURBANK — As guitarist Kenny Burrell stood on the stage of the Jazz Bakery recently, playing a bubbling version of Blue Mitchell's "Funji Mama," drum mer Sherman Ferguson sat behind him, firm yet not rigid, smiling as he provided an array of pulsating drum beats that made the number dance.

Ferguson, 49, is a drum vet who has served 30 years on jazz's front lines, giving a rhythmic boost to such greats as Burrell, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, Bud Shank, Eddie Harris, Pat Martino, Teddy Edwards, Jimmy Smith, Ernie Andrews and many, many more. Ferguson has made more than 60 recordings, among them Shank's "New Bud Shank Sextet" (Candid) and guitarist Martino's "Consciousness" (Muse).

The drummer leads a trio with organist Bill Heid and guitarist Frank Potenza on Thursday at Chadney's. Acclaimed by other musicians for the joyful nature of his accompaniment, or as they put it, his "happy time," Ferguson says his musical style is simply a reflection of his upbeat personality and his pleasure at being able to make a living playing jazz.

"When people ask me what I do, I don't tell them I'm a musician, I say I'm a jazz musician," he says. "I'm proud of it. I'd wear it as a statement on my forehead if I could."

Watching jazz drummers do their thing in small groups can be somewhat baffling. The drummer sits behind a battery of percussive items--drums large and small, glowing brass cymbals--and bangs, or taps, away, delivering the energy that spurs a soloist forward--energy, which in conjunction with the bassist, offers the rhythmic glue that holds a jazz performance together.

"First of all," Ferguson explains, "I'm supposed to keep steady time--not let the beat speed up or slow down. This is where I have to work with the bass player, who is like my dancing partner, because if we don't hear the beat in the same place," the rhythm is going to be as awkward as a couple who don't dance well together.

Then there is Ferguson's creative approach to working within the band and interacting with the soloist.


"First, I play melodically," he says. "I play the tune all the time; I'm singing the melody in my head. Then I'm responsive: I like to play off people. If someone, like Kenny, plays an idea, I want to offer something that complements that idea--an accent, a drum or cymbal color--or that is conversational. I want to stimulate the person in the spotlight without getting in their way.

"And I'm playing with the audience, too, playing for, and with, them. I want them to see what's going on between the musicians, so they might say, 'Hey, they're really into something,' appreciate what we're doing, like watching a well-turned double play" in baseball.

This sensitive style is appreciated by other drummers too, among them Herb Graham Jr., co-leader of the solid band, the B Sharp Jazz Quartet. "Sherman always plays so economically, but he's so musical," Graham says. "I learn something when I hear him."

Ferguson's combo at Chadney's features Detroit resident Heid, who plays the Hammond B-3 in his hometown but will use synthesized keyboards during his Los Angeles sojourn to conjure up the floating swirls of sound that listeners associate with the jazz organ. "This guy can play. He's bad," says Ferguson. "He's a white guy who can play with some ham hocks and greens. He's greasy," the drummer says with a laugh.

For Ferguson, playing with Heid recalled his early years. A Philadelphia native, Ferguson used to travel from there to Atlantic City, N.J., playing with such renowned organists as Don Patterson, Charles Earland, Larry Young and Richard (Groove) Holmes.

He started playing drums at age 12 and was a working professional a few years later. He backed scores of name musicians in Philadelphia--and for a year, in New York, before moving to Los Angeles in 1976, where he's been consistently active. The drummer currently spends most of his time working with Williams, Burrell, Shank and Benny Carter. He's also concentrating on teaching at a studio he's set up in Burbank.

"I want to teach young players to play melodically, to be musical," he says. "I want to give back to the music the way that people have shared it with me."


Who: Sherman Ferguson's trio.

Location: Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 843-5333.

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