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Cab Chases And Smart Moves
By Chris Doering
“It’s not rock, it’s not jazz, it’s a living.” That’s drummer Allan Schwartzberg talking about New York jingle sessions. Schwartzberg’s an expert on the subject of jingles – he does more of them than any other drummer, which is one reason why so many associate him only with commercial spots.
“I was introduced to another pop star recently,” Allan recalls, “and he said, ‘Oh, you’re that jingle guy, right?’ I really hate that, because I do other things, but all some people remember me for is jingles.”
The diversity and musical quality of those “to other things” would embarrass those attempting to pigeonhole Allan. These include demanding projects like major rock tours, work at the Half Note playing with jazz greats like Jim Hall, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and studio sessions for innovative, high-profile clients like Grace Jones, Peter Gabriel, and Tom Verlaine.
Schwartzberg proves his versatility by pulling out his datebook and reviewing a typical workday. It starts early, by most musicians’ standards, with a 9:00 a.m. jingle session. “Most jingles start at 10:00,” Schwartzberg points out. “I call the guy up to make sure the session isn’t going to run overtime. On the way in to work, I’m planning my first cab move, where I’m going to run to get the cab and what’s the best route to the next studio.”
This morning’s 9 o’clock was a “quick spot for Southwest Airlines, imitating the Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m So Excited.’ They play you the tape, and you have to sound exactly like it, instantly. The agency people have bought the rights for a certain period of time, so you’re entitled to copy the record as closely as you can.
“I listen for the beat and try to find some other little subtleties that are on the record. Then I’ll see one how I can take it without getting removed from the original.”
After the tape is played, Schwartzberg continued, “Everybody gets a chart. The rhythm section is usually guitar, bass and drums, and sometimes live percussion. Occasionally, I’ll put on a tambourine or a shaker afterwards. I don’t like to encourage that kind of thing because percussionists have their own job.”
The band reads the chart down while horn players wait outside to overdub their parts. Jingle work may not have the glamorous reputation of record work or concerts, but the music is on a very high level, and the players are the same ones heard on albums.
“For instance,” Allan recalls, “the horn players waiting to overdub on this record were Lou Marini, Michael Brecker, Ronni Cuber and Jon Faddis. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
After the session, it’s time to “knock down an old lady and get into a cab” across town. The studios where Allan works are all in a six-block radius in midtown Manhattan, which makes it simpler to sequence sessions this tightly. Allan’s 10:00 jingle is “the same kind of story, except it’s more relaxed.”
Getting a drum set in and out of a fully booked jingle studio (not to mention a New York taxi) is virtually impossible, so Allan travels light. “I convinced a lot of studios to get their own drums,” he reports,” and most of the other drummers have gone along with that. So all I have to bring is a bag with my sticks, brushes and mallets along with my wallet, cassette player and bass pedal.”
At 1:00, it’s time for an overdub at Power Station, one of Allan’s favorite studios, with singer/dancer Grace Jones. “They did the track with a drum machine,” says Schwartzberg, and they’re missing something, so I’ll overdub the tom toms. I also had my Linn 9000 and Simmons pads delivered. I’ll try the fills on acoustic toms, or maybe, to save tracks and expedite things, we’ll use the sampled sounds from the Linn 9000 triggered by Simmons pads. I have a million samples, ones that I made myself and sounds taken from obvious places. Sorry about that, Phil, but Phil Collins’ toms are all over the place. Gated snares are everywhere too,” Schwartzberg confides.
After the album overdub, Allan heads over to NBC studios to sub on Late Night With David Letterman. From 4:30 to 6:30, he’s filling in for Paul Schaffer’s regular drummer, Anton Figg, warming the audience up for an hour, then doing the show. “It goes on at 5:30 exactly and ends at 6:30 on the dot, so it’s the greatest gig ever created,” Allan enthuses, with an eye toward maintaining the tight scheduling essential to success in New York studios.
At 7:00. “I have one more jingle to do. That’s completely different music. They want an island feel, a reggae feel. You’ve got to dig into your library of stuff and imitate that reggae feeling. If you can throw something of your own in there, it makes it more fun, more enjoyable. Studio work, when you’re doing jingles, is strictly copy – the ability to change hats and be believable speaking different musical languages. It’s like being a character actor.”
To keep his musical characters authentic, Allan spends a lot of his “off time” listening to records. “What I listen to is not the lick a drummer played, but what made him play the lick, the move he made in the musical situation” Allan details. “Give this setup, how did he react? Let’s say the setup was guitarists playing dead eighth notes – dit, dit, dit, dit. There are six different moves that could be valid. One might be to double those eighth notes with quarter notes on he bass drum, eighth notes on the tom tom and four on the snare drum. Or it could be a straight beat.”
Specific licks are unimportant because, “Everybody plays the same stuff. It’s just where you play them, whether you play inversions, just like inversions on piano. Dah dah ga dum is the classic Motown drum fill, right? But superimpose that and play it on different parts of the beat.”
It would probably be more realistic to reword Allan’s wry descriptions of jingle work as “it’s not rock, it’s not jazz, but it’s a good living.” “One session pays about $75,” he reports. “They could break that 60-second spot into several things, and you get paid the same $75 every time they do that. Then you get paid again every 13 weeks. When you do three or four of these a day, you build a big backlog of residuals, which makes it the most lucrative hour you could spend as a musician, except writing a hit in an hour.”
Good jingle players earn that money with more than just good musical technique. Tact and an intuitive sense of what the people in the booth want to hear are both constantly in demand. “The whole idea, Schwartzberg emphasizes, “is to make money, have fun and get called back for the next job. You want them to call you back next time, so, whatever it takes musically to do that, you’ve got to do it. It could be anything from reading carefully written charts to sketched-out lead sheets with melody and chords. One guy might write out five lines for the drums and want every single note played, especially if he has a drum machine at home and accidentally comes up with something and transcribes it.
“The part could be totally unnatural,” Allan warns. “What I have to do is try it and quickly determine whether it makes it or not. If I don’t think it works, I’m not going to play it unless the guy jumps up and down. I’m going to take it and figure out what he means, what the effect on the music would be. Then I’ll do what’s comfortable for me.”
The ability and the confidence to take such liberties with someone’s high-priced drum chart is “something that comes from experience,” Allan admits. “An inexperienced player would come in, look at a drum chart that’s carefully written out by an arranger and try to play it note for note. You really don’t have to. Drums are an interpretive instrument. Most times, the part is a suggestion of what you should play – a road map. Where you should stop and start, where you should be loud, where the cadences are and stuff like that. As long as you can trace the dynamics of the music and get the feel they want, the details are up to you.”
Many of the strangers Schwartzberg works with hire him specifically for his ability to interpret the music. The trick lies in knowing who these people are. “Some arrangers have amazing egos: even if it doesn’t work, it’s their idea, and they want to hear it,” Schwartzberg cautions. “After a while you get to know exactly who you can take liberties with and who wants their stuff played as written.”
Despite the seemingly cavalier way he often deals with their parts, Allan considers the arranger “one of the good guys. Then there’s satisfying the whims of morons. I had a guy ask me if I could make it a little more active by playing 18ths on the hi hat. These guys are usually advertising agency people, who tend to speak in abstract terms like, ‘It’s not happy. It’s too sad.’ In session work, you’ve got to speak up, because it the thing doesn’t feel good, it comes right back to you in the end.
“To me, the tape recorder just shows you how you’re feeling. I can hear when I’m not sure of myself or not playing with total confidence. The tape recorder plays it right back – and it permeates the music and becomes that particular thing that causes people to say, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it.’ That undercurrent of being uncomfortable is coming through the music.”
Allan’s way of making things more comfortable for himself involves a kind of mental rehearsal that he can do at the drums while the session is getting started. “I picture what I want it to sound like, just like a golfer would picture his shot. How far he wants the ball to go, where he wants it to land, the flight of it. That’s just how I hear the drum part ahead of time.” (Allan happens to be an avid golfer who plans to explore the physical and mental corollaries between playing golf and playing the drums in greater depth for Golf Digestmagazine.)
Though he’s been the first-call session drummer in New York for years, Allan’s working day doesn’t always end with his last session. Today, for example, “I’m going to go home and practice. My drum room at home is built just like a drum booth, with Sonex acoustic foam all around it and a beautiful Yamaha kit.
“Tonight, I’m going to practice something from a stupid jingle I did today, something I didn’t like the way I played. It was a dotted eighth note feel, and I heard the bass drum slipping in between dotted and straight eighths. I just want to listen to myself do that at home. Carelessness can creep into your playing if you don’t concentrate. So after all these years of doing this, I still take it seriously and work on stuff.”
Getting it right the first time is essential to success in the world of jingles, because the time allotted to them is so limited. “The jingle has got to be done in an hour, pretty much,” Allan points out. “The record thing doesn’t, so you’ve got that little bit of slack out there. You mustbe a good reader for jingles. Sometimes it’s just straight ahead feels, but a lot of times there are cuts and stops, and I see guys struggling.
“However, to me it seems like the simplest thing to get down. There’s only one way to play it. It’s a mathematical thing: you just count. I don’t think anyone should overlook that. Take care of it, get it out of the way immediately, learn how to do that, and it’s a piece of cake. I remember when my friend Jimmy Maelen, the percussionist, couldn’t read a note. He got a bunch of books, and now he can read anything, just like reading a newspaper,” Schwartzberg said.
Although Allan studied percussion at Manhattan School of Music, he now says “I would have been better off studying sight and things like that privately or at a school like Berklee. I’ve visited there a number of times, and I worked the jazz clubs in Boston years ago, and that to me is a place to learn something that applies to real life.
“Now Manhattan has a jazz program, but when I was going to school it was really stiff, and you had to learn it on the street. They weren’t even teaching the classical repertoire. The percussion department was working on these percussion ensembles by Paul Price, Michael Kohlgrass pieces, Stockhausen. Absolutely useless for going out in the real world. Maybe my kids will like it when they grow up, but right now it doesn’t apply to planet earth at all.”
So what is a supposedly jaded “jingle drummer” doing playing with a pedigreed punk rocker like Tom Verlaine (Television) anyway? “I’ve done albums with him in the past,” Allan says, “but for this particular project he played me a record he’d already cut in England, a record he wasn’t happy with. There was nothing wrong with it, he just wanted to do it over with different people and get a second opinion, so we redid it.
“I had a situation where I’m listening to another drummer play, which sounded find, but I know Tom told him what to play. I try to figure out what good parts I could take out of that and then see what I don’t like. And again, picture what I could do with that music and how far I could take it. That’s a little easier since you’re listening to all of the instruments at once.”
Allan’s role on those sessions went far beyond that of the standard session drummer. “I heard the songs and together we sketched out the parts,” he recalls. “Tom doesn’t really notate music very well. He marks down four strokes for each bar and that’s it. We started out with two guitars, bass and drums, but it got complicated. Four people not knowing what they’re doing is not as easy to deal with as three people, so we eliminated one of the guitar players. He sang spots of reference vocals to make different places in the song.”
Despite Allan’s expanded contributions to the organization of the session, he was careful to give Verlaine the kind of laying he wanted. “Tom is not a big fan of drum fills,” Allan admits. “He’s very fussy and he likes the simplest possible drum fills. In fact, I don’t think I played a sixteenth note on the record. He just wanted little fills at the end of the bar, on every tune.”
Along with the musical challenge of re-working tracks already cut by some very high-profile players, the Verlaine sessions made some intense physical demands. Allan describes the studio as “very live sounding, with an old stone wall in back where the drums were and an eighteen-foot ceiling, with microphones on the ceiling miking the entire room. To trigger these mics, it was necessary for me to play as hard as I could possibly play – strong, consistent, and hard, every beat. Some people might say, ‘Well, you could sample it and get the same sound just by tapping your finger,’ but it’s really not the same. I had to play simple beats very evenly, almost machine-like and try to hit the same spot on the drum every time. I use a golf glove on my left hand. A lot of guys do that, because it really helps cushion the shock when you have to play lots of hard backbeats.”
Despite the tight rhythmic restrictions and the physical difficulties, Schwartzberg felt comfortable working on this project. “‘How to improve this record’ is easier to deal with than listening to a song from scratch, which is what we had to do with Peter Gabriel,” he remembers. “On the first album, he played these songs on my piano, and my first thought was ‘I don’t hear nay drums on these songs.’ I couldn’t figure out where I could come in, and if I did, what I could play. The songs didn’t fit into any category.”
As one might guess, with a start like that, the Gabriel tracks came together in a seemingly haphazard and undisciplined way. “As you’re playing, you catch yourself doing something,” Allan says. “You notice that you made a mistake, and you say ‘Well, I meant to go over there but I accidentally went in this direction, so I’ll see what happens.’ Bob Ezrin, who I think is a genius, was the producer, so he could spot it when you did something accidentally right and say ‘Keep that, that’s good.’ I look forward to working with producers. It’s great for a studio musician to have some guidance, because you’re immersed in the music. You get a feeling that maybe it’s good or it’s not goo, but you don’t really see it.”
The man’s obviously being modest. The daily sheaf of messages waiting at Radio Registry (the studio players’ answering service) is ample testimony to the number of clients who rely on Allan Schwartzberg’s session experience and musical instincts to push their records, concerts and jingles in the right direction.
Chris Doering is a copywriter during the week and a working guitarist on weekends. He is also a freelance writer and has contributed to Musician, Mix, Creem and several other national magazines.
Conversations with former session “kings” like Doug Allen and Ray Alongi, both of whom now process the paperwork for the bulk of New York sessions, revealed how the prospects for aspiring young session musicians really stand circa 1986.
First of all, the proliferating use of synthesizers, rhythm devices and computers to replace real instruments and musicians (primarily an economic consideration even though electronic music is much in demand) is rapidly narrowing the options available to young players. Every studio veteran we consulted recommended that the musician with ambitions for studio work must be fully conversant with the new technologies (sampling, programming, synths, MIDI, etc.) in addition to a fluent ability with as many electric and acoustic instruments as possible. The new studio player must also be aware of all kinds of music; everything from the symphonic repertoire to the latest hits on Top 40 radio and MTV.
In a more general sense, session players, no more than ever, since they’re competing with machines, must be business-like, punctual and free of any bad habits that might interfere with their efficiency in studio situations. They must also be prepared to accept all types of musical jobs while waiting to break through into the select group of top players. In that context, they need to literally function as salesmen for their talents; either by doing musical showcases all over town or networking with producers, arrangers and older players who may want to use them at some point in the future.
Unless the young out-of-town musician is able to bring along a substantial cash backlog to support outrageous rents and expensive lifestyles New York and Los Angeles are famous for, they should have marketable skills as a copyist or an arranger to help support them while they strive for work in the major studios. In fact, many advised that many young players might be better off pursuing a career with an advertising agency as a composer, arranger or jingle writer.
In this context, specialization is not necessarily a virtue. Someone who only plays the bassoon or the french horn should not be mystified by the lack of opportunities in the modern marketplace; other than symphonic music, very little of what is recorded now calls for full band or orchestra other than the odd Broadway cast album.
Finally, all of the participants in this impromptu discussion put some obvious myths to rest. The myth of the big name studio players getting double and triple scale for their work is exactly that, a myth. Most of them work for standard scale and only in very rare cases do they stand to make more. Session musicians can make more money for “doubles” or “triples” (playing more than one instrument on a particular session), but that doesn’t mean playing maracas, xylophone or tambourine – they’re all in the percussion family and count as a “single.”
Not to belabor the point: becoming a top session player was never easy. But nowadays, you have to want it enough to dedicate your whole life to it if you expect to penetrate the inner circle.