Drummer Lenny White: Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew is the album that plugged in jazz, so goes the common thought. It makes for a catchy slogan, but as a summation it is neither accurate nor complete. Granted, it is the electric jazz recording that still serves as a wedge point in the jazz community. But truth be told, the music of Bitches Brew was neither revolutionary, nor was it simply about throwing amplified instruments into the mix.

To many who witnessed the lead up to Bitches Brew, Miles’ double-disc album made sense in the freewheeling context of the era, and was most groundbreaking in its use of rhythms. Drummer Lenny White was one who had closely followed the trumpeter’s path, and was ready at the age of 19—and a bit intimidated—when he got the call from Miles to record on the tracks that became Bitches Brew.

To White, Bitches Brew made sense as the next step in a stylistic evolution that had been bubbling within Miles’ legendary 1960s quintet. It was a change that had emanated from the bottom up—originating with the young drummer Tony Williams, who had begun to unlock his playing from the traditional 4/4 swing of the post-bop era, and explore a progressively freer style, with a funkier and more aggressive touch. Miles himself admitted that during the mid- to late-’60s, “Tony was always the center that the group’s sound revolved around.”

In 1969, Williams created the template that Miles would use as the foundation of Bitches Brew the proto-fusion power trio he called Tony Williams Lifetime.

Williams left Miles’ employ in early ’69 not long after performing on In A Silent Way. It says a lot that Miles chose to replace him with not one, but two drummers for his next recording project—Bitches Brew. Jack DeJohnette was one; White was the other, who credits Williams for the rhythmic innovations that today define Bitches Brew.

- Ashley Kahn


To understand Bitches Brew you have to understand that the first notes we made in the studio happened twenty-four hours after the last note Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock. There were a lot of different kinds of music being made at the same time. You had Jimi Hendrix; you still had the Beatles, Igor Stravinsky, James Brown. You had Santana, the Rolling Stones—all this different music at the same time. You could hear that jazz was cross-pollinating—things being borrowed from here, from there. Everybody was listening to everybody else.

Jazz drumming in the ’60s was on fire—moving from a swinging pulse to a much more open, syncopated feel. We were listening to James Brown and his drummers—Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, Bernard Purdie. Sly & The Family Stone—their music was very influential too.

Jazz drummers were influenced by all this, but we didn’t do it the same way. With jazz, the syncopation is not that repetitive. That groove is constantly growing and building on whatever you did in the last two bars and then something else happens, and that’s what makes it so interesting. With Bitches Brew for example each track became interesting organically.

See, with the young drummers around New York, there were two schools of jazz drumming at this time: the Miles school and the Trane school, so between Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, that was it. In the neighborhood, either you were with one or the other. I was 17-years-old in 1967 when I heard Miles’ Seven Steps To Heaven and found out that Tony was 17 when he made that record! Right away he became my guy.

To me Tony was the catalyst of Miles’ band—he was the guy who turned Miles’ head around. He’s not given enough credit for that. I think that Miles was getting off hearing what Tony was hearing in the music, and was opening up their music for him to play. Tony was with Miles from the age of 17 to 23. In those few years, the records that he made changed drumming. Not just drumming, they changed musical styles.

You can trace the development of Tony’s approach through different tracks on Miles’ albums—from “Gingerbread Boy” on Miles Smiles, then “Nefertiti” from Nefertiti, which was basically a feature for the rhythm section; the horns just play the melody over and over again. Tony played some unbelievable stuff, but always within the framework of the music. Listen to a mix edit clip emphasizing the drums in "Hand Jive" from Nefertiti. He didn’t play something just to play it. Then “Frelon Brun” or “Tout De Suite” on Filles de Kilimanjaro. Listen to the mix edit clip of "Petit Manchins" from Filles de Kilimanjaro.

No band is better than its drummer, and Miles knew that. In Miles’ bands no drummer had his hands tighter on the steering wheel in respect to the direction of the music than Tony. Jack DeJohnette is the guy who took the wheel after him and pushed his ideas further. Remember at the same time there was the avant-garde movement in jazz. There was a cross between the traditional and the avant-garde, and it was all moving someplace else. Jack was at the forefront of that, and he had a presence in the jazz community because of his playing with Charles Lloyd.

Miles’ group with Herbie, Ron and Tony was one thing; their music was still built around song structures. But when it morphed in ’69 into that quintet with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack, they stretched the boundaries of harmony and rhythm more than ever—the tunes became liquid, more about shapes and moments. I would hear that band live, and when Miles would walk off the stage, the music would really open up, and became a different group altogether. Chick was experimenting with his ring modulators, Echoplex and the other electronic stuff he was using. It was a freak out. Listen to this mix edit clip of "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down" from Bitches Brew.

There’s another key to understanding Bitches Brew: in 1969, Tony had the idea to take a traditional concept—the standard organ trio—and put it on steroids. He formed Tony Williams Lifetime with John McLaughlin and Larry Young, and it became the new way, the new movement. I saw that group at Slug’s when they first started—it was so great and SO LOUD. They were so good Miles wanted to hire Tony’s band and call it, “Miles Davis introduces Tony Williams Lifetime.” Tony said no, he didn’t want to do that. So Miles went ahead and got Larry and John for Bitches Brew. Tony was not happy with that but I think he had definitely made the decision to go off on his own by then anyway.

When I got to the studio for Bitches Brew, I remember Jack had on sunglasses. Miles came to me and said, “Look, Jack’s wearing the shades so he’s going to be the leader. He’s going to play the beat, I want you to play all around the beat.” I still laugh about that.

That was my role: to play in between the cracks. I wanted it to sound like one drummer with eight hands. You know, some critics say Jack played by himself on “Sanctuary” but it’s not true, yet I consider that a compliment in a way. I played subtly and it sounds like it’s just one guy.

The entire group was built around a double rhythm section—two drummers, two percussionists, two bassists, two—sometimes three—keyboards, and guitar! We were all positioned in a semi-circle with Miles and Wayne in the middle. Miles would start a take by pointing at someone, like John or Jack, we’d all play and then he’d stop us with a wave of his hand.

My kit was right next to Jack, which was perfect since I really had to adapt my playing and my mindset to fit into this giant rhythmic sound. There was a huge chance it could break down into cacophony, but there was such a high level of intelligence in that room. It’s definitely a testament to Miles’ ability to choose people who could communicate with minimal direction, without words. We were all speaking the same language. You can hear it in the music.

Man, did Bitches Brew have an impact. Just look at that album cover man—it’s amazing—and that music? I don’t think there could be a better visual description of that music than that cover. Even today, you look at the album and say, “Whoooaaa!”

- Lenny White

Bitches Brew Painting
Photo of the original Mati Klarwein painting “Bitches Brew”, Columbia Records © 2010 Sony Music Archives

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