Lenny White

Interview by Dennis Morgillo

Interview with Lenny White
by Dennis Morgillo
Lenny White is the influential drummer who started out playing with Miles Davis, and then was an integral part of the iconic Jazz Rock Fusion band 'Return to Forever'. It is the 40th anniversary of their classic Romantic Warrior album. Lenny is considered by many to be the greatest drummer of our time and has helped to bring the drums to the forefront. 
Madhouse:  As being a little kid growing up in Queens, New York who were your influences musically? Who made you want to play the drums? 
Lenny White: My dad and mom played records around the house all the time so the music was there, but coming up I listened to all kinds of music, music on the radio which was latino, Ben E. King, James Brown, people like that. I also listened to show tunes, broadway tunes and I also listened to jazz. 
Madhouse: The one thing that's a common thread between all musicians, is that they have a varied taste. They never say oh no I only like one type of music, they can't really be that evolved as a musician I think.  
Lenny: Oh yeah, no you have to listen and experience all types of music if you are going to call yourself a musician.  A musician plays all types of music, now you can be a rock musician, you can be a jazz musician, you can be a classical musician, and when you put that term in front of being a musician, then you really want to only make your career playing that particular type of music. But for me, I wanted to be play all different kinds of music. When I got into playing music later on, music was changing, it was morphing, there were a lot of different styles that were morphing together, they had roots in certain kinds of music but then this new hybrid music started to become popular so you had to be very well versed in all different kinds.  
Madhouse: When you started playing the drums you were self taught right? 
Lenny: Yes 
Madhouse: One of the first things you recorded, was of course the classic 'Bitches Brew' by Miles Davis, which is one of the most classic albums ever recorded. So how did that come about, that a young kid is playing drums with Miles Davis. Share some memories of the recording sessions with Miles Davis. 
Lenny: When I was 17 I had a record that Miles did '7 Steps to Heaven',  and I found out that the drummer on that record was 17 at the time of recording, and that was Tony Williams. Immediately I identified with him and he became my guy, the person I wanted to become, to be able to do what he did. what he did was to play with Miles Davis and with Miles Davis being a hero for me that's what my whole life was about. I wanted to be able to play with Miles Davis and this happened at 17 and I kind of channeled all of those feelings and everything to be able to play with Miles.  Then I played with Jackie McLean and Tony Williams had played with Jackie McLean then he had went on to play with Miles Davis then Jackie Dejohnette played with Jackie McLean then he went on to play with Miles Davis so this led me to say, hey, well you're playing with Jackie McLean, so now you're gonna play with Miles Davis and I said yeah okay whatever, so enough and that happened. I got a call to go into Columbia Studios and record with Miles and it was the first record that I had ever done, a real professional recording. It was a very, very deep and rewarding experience, I was like a deer in headlights because you know I had all the guys that were on this record I had listened to and knew about what they had done and now I was getting this opportunity to play with my hero and to perform with these other guys that i had been listening to, and I was a fan of all of these guys. It was a real unique experience and it was so mesmerizing, and it impacted me so greatly that we made that record in 3 days. 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix played his last note at Woodstock.  That was in 69' and in October,  I woke up out of a dead sleep and sat up in my bed and said I recorded with Miles Davis. It took that long before it hit me because I realized that this wasn't something that maybe I went to a club and sat in with Miles Davis and I was going on with the rest of my life saying hey well I sat in and played Miles Davis one night at the Village Vanguard or whatever, this wasn't that. This was going to be a documented recording that was going to last way longer. It would last for the rest of the world, so it was really special for me.  
Madhouse: This is a masterpiece. Even if you never accomplished anything else in your career after that, this is something that would go on forever, it's a classic album. 
Lenny: I’m very proud to be a part of that definitely 
Madhouse: What was Miles like in the studio, was he like, you have to play like this, was he a task master or did he just let you go? 
Lenny: No he wasn't a task master at all, he had a real idea of what he wanted to have happen and we would set up in a semi circle and he would start a groove, then would let John McLaughlin play, then he would play and then he'd stop. We'd start up again then he would point to Wayne and let Wayne play. It was like that and the only instruction that he gave me was to think of this as a big pot of stew and you are a spice and I want you to act like a spice. My concept was that we had done some rehearsals and I didn't want it to sound like two drummers competing against each other, I really wanted to be harmonious and sound like one drummer had eight arms, that's why a lot of people listened to it and they'd say are there two drummers on there, it doesn't sound like it, but yeah there are.  
Madhouse: You mentioned Jimi Hendrix, did you ever have a chance to meet him or play with him at any point? 
Lenny: Funny thing what happened was I was so close with Miles after I had done Bitches Brew, I was playing in the club with some friends like Steve Grossman and some other people, and Miles came to the club and during the break he took me to the back, sat me down and said do you wanna play with Jimi Hendrix, and I told him nah because I was in such awe, I just wanted to play with Miles so I had an opportunity to do that but I never did. I regret it to this day.  
Madhouse: A lot of people say that if Jimi Hendrix had stayed alive, then he would have definitely been part of the jazz/rock world for sure, he was going in that direction  
Lenny: Of course, he was one of the influences, the main influence for me was and I think the father of fusion was Tony Williams.  And the fact that Tony had been listening to Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and all these other people, like Miles. There was a real paradigm shift and everybody was saying wow this is a new movement, then Bitches Brew came out and solidified the movement and everybody knew that this was the new direction.  
Madhouse: That must have been the most exciting time, creating a whole new genre of music basically  
Lenny: It was fantastic because America was no longer innocent, new things were happening, it was upping people's social consciousness and artists were expressing themselves saying we're not gonna stand for this anymore and they were changing attitudes within the music and it was happening in all kinds of music not just pop and there wasn't any hip hop then.  

Madhouse: What do you think of the current music industry, what do you think went wrong or right? Whats going on with it? 
Lenny: I think whats happening with the music industry today is that it is an industry and like any industry they manufacture product and it's no longer a musician business. It’s a producer business ,so what you have are entertainers and you have producers that take entertainers and make music with them and the music reaches a lot of people and they sell a massive amount of product and this is what it's become. What's happened is music is no longer made for music sake, it's made for music to sell things and it's become vocational, where a musician who studied and has great talent becomes a great musician, great records are made, if you listen to the 60s early 70s those pop records were fantastic because they were made by musicians and the intent was to make music and to push the boundaries of music. That's not the case anymore.  Now everyone's trying to fit into the mold of what was successful for another artist. Record companies are obsolete now also because record companies used to be systems where artists that had talent would develop and became iconic artists and had great development and nursing from a system built on music and that's not the case anymore. You don't have motown, Springsteen, bands like The Stones or The Beatles you don't have that with pop music anymore. Some of those artists are still around but they've made their mark and what they've done has lasted for 40 years because they were great artists, that's not the case anymore. There's always exception to the rule and what I'm saying there are not new artists. What the music is predicating and built on are not the same principles that created the music industry and I don't think it will last it'll have to default back to what it was and what people got into, in challenging new artists. 
Madhouse: What do you tell young drummers, what's the most important thing about playing drums ? Technique, feel, groove, timing, what is it? 
Lenny: Well you gotta be a musician, that's the main thing to be a drummer. There's been a real bad shadow cast on drummers.  A lot of people don't think that drummers are musicians because of the fact that they play generic beats or they play too loud or they don't listen to the music, so what I tell young drummers, is to learn as many songs as they can, and be able to play the music, you become musicians when they happens 
Madhouse: Do you play other instruments as well? 
Lenny: I play a little bit, keyboards, enough to compose some music I wouldn't go on stage to play piano of course.  
Madhouse: I did hear that you were working on an opera? 
Lenny: Yeah it's a very difficult process, I've hit somewhat of a snag because of the fact that writing the grotto is one of the hardest parts and i couldn't find anyone to really take on that task. I've had to get with a few different people and I had a few things that were done but it's a very difficult task. It's something that I would have to dedicate a long time to, and not do anything else. A lot of things musically happened where I couldn't devote all my time to that, I've been doing other things, I'm hoping I can get back to it and really finish it up.  ​
Madhouse:  I saw something interesting, that you gave a really nice tribute to Muhammad Ali, that he was really important to you,  can you tell us his importance in your life? 
Lenny: Well Muhammad Ali was one of the last heroes of my generation, he was someone that we looked up to as young black men, he was someone who stood up to something and went through trials and tribulations of standing for something, he came back, became champion again and he was a role model. He was somebody that really meant something, Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis, James Brown Jimi Hendrix, Malcolm X, these are people that meant something to a young black kid coming up in the 60s when all this turmoil and all this change was going on they had these heroes that gave us to strive for and achieve along with Jim Brown and Willie Mays, these guys were special. I got an opportunity to meet Muhammad Ali that made it personal. His loss affected me really deeply because I had lost my dad also, this year was unprecedented with loss. He became something special to me, he defined a period in my life. he affected all people, he was one of the most famous people in the world if not the most famous, for 40 years. 
Madhouse: It's just very sad that when people like Muhammad Ali pass away, there's nobody really to take his place, there's boxers, but there's no more Muhammad Ali's. The same thing with Prince, there's not gonna be anymore Princes. You were in the Jaco Pastorius documentary. Can you tell us some things you remember about him?
Lenny: I don't like to talk about the negative things that happened with Jaco. When I met him he was clean, great and wanted to play and we played music and basketball, that's what we did. He was a great musician and it was a very interesting experience for me because I had gotten a call to do this record and it had sounded great but I never knew that it would be a classic record and it's great, I feel really fortunate to be a part of it.  
Madhouse: What are you up to now? Any new music, tours or anything like that? 
Lenny: Yeah I have a lot I'm supposed to go work with Stanley Clarke on his next record and I am gonna play with Chick Corea again. I'm playing a couple weeks with him at the Blue Note, one week is with Hubert Laws and Robbie Coltrane and one week is with Victor Wooten and John MCclaughlin. 

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