Career Day: Why Does Doug Auwarter’s Phone Ring?Zack Albetta
[su_dropcap style=”simple”]D[/su_dropcap]oug Auwarter has been a fixture on the Kansas City music scene for over four decades. He has played just about every kind of gig there is and mentored countless students (including one or two you’ve probably heard of) through every drumming concept from the deepest Samba groove to the perfect joke rimshot. What’s kept him so busy for so long? Doug says,
Putting myself on the music’s agenda and not my own.
Doug was passionate about music and drumming from an early age. He took regular lessons from numerous teachers in his hometown of Kansas City but hadn’t considered making it a career until he was drafted into the military. Music presented a way out of becoming an army grunt.
I went to the University of Kansas for college because my girlfriend went there. I kept changing my major and then got drafted in 1970. I asked for a band audition and one day a guy in a Jeep pulled up and said ‘Private Auwarter, you are to report immediately for a band audition.’ I pretty much nailed the audition…it was not difficult…and wound up in Berlin, Germany six weeks later in an Army band.
He quickly found himself in the musical deep end with players who came from Peabody, The New England Conservatory, and other top music schools in the U.S.
I was younger than them and didn’t have the pedigree they had, but I could hang. I realized, The Universe is trying to tell you something here, Doug. It saved your ass from getting blown up in Vietnam and these people are totally accepting of you as their equal.
The challenge presented by the Army band was two-fold: Not only was he thrown in with high-level performers, but he was also being called upon to play many different types of gigs.
The band itself was 48 members, a concert band, and we’d go play concerts at the zoo or whatever, but within that band, there was also a big band, so I really learned how to read charts in the Army.
Then we also had a combo, ‘The Champagne Combo’ it was called [laughs]. But it was cool because it was young guys, and we didn’t want to play the same kind of tired, wallpaper music that the other Army groups played. So we did some of the hipper, more modern Stan Getz/Sergio Mendes type stuff that we knew wouldn’t challenge people’s listening sensibilities, but it would be accepted and probably even liked, and it was. It worked like a charm. We played so many diplomatic functions, even the Russians would hire us!
After eighteen months in Berlin, Doug was discharged and returned to Kansas City. When asked how he went about recreating the busy schedule of the Army band in his new civilian life, he responds “Not very well,” with a laugh. “I didn’t know how to do it. I had never gone to jams or learned how to infiltrate a scene,” he says.
What got the ball rolling for him was not a big audition or being noticed by a bandleader or club owner, but being asked for a favor.
Some friends asked me to play drums for a (commercial) jingle recording, which was just basically an audition. So I did it, and it worked great. I got more calls for jingles and the guys that were on those sessions were professional cats around town and they started calling me.
I spent the early ‘80’s performing with a sort of progressive jazzy-rock group that did some travelling and playing at big venues, opening for people like Gino Vannelli and some other prominent recording artists at that time.
Like many musicians in small or medium-sized cities, Doug’s band felt the urge to make a go of it in Los Angeles.
We were going to move to LA and our lead singer bailed, which was a blessing because we would have gone out there and eaten cold death. What was going on big time out there was New Wave and Punk, and we would have been so 20 minutes ago.
So I stayed the course (in KC) and started doing all kinds of things. I joined a pedal-to-the-metal dance funk band and was doing a lot of jazz gigs on the side. I started getting into other styles at that time, all the Brazilian and Afro-Cuban stuff.
From the beginning of his career, Doug’s stylistic versatility was his main asset. Whether in the army or on the Kansas City scene, his success was dependent on his ability to convincingly play a wide variety of styles and genres. Although he is a superb soloist when called upon, he has made his name as a masterful stylistic role player, and he values that skill above all others.
I’ve always been about styles. Being able to make the music sound authentic, whether it’s a Cuban, Brazilian, Reggae, Funk or various jazz styles. Being able to put my finger on exactly what it takes to make the music come alive is critical, even if the other cats on the stand think that they can’t tell the difference… they can.
Why this groove sounds so good when Clyde Stubblefield plays it and when someone else plays it, it’s like ‘ech.’ Let’s see what’s really going on here. It’s not just a strict duple thing or a strict triple thing, it’s somewhere in between. And how much in between is what you have to learn and do it consistently. So I was learning that and then applying it on the job and reinforcing it on the job.
He applies that kind of scrutiny to every style he tackles, and he identifies listening as a drummer’s greatest tool in this process.
Reading will just get you in the door. You cannot learn how to play anything without listening to it. Every style of music that you try to learn, you’re going to have to do a significant amount of listening to that.
There was like a year where I hardly listened to anything but Afro-Cuban music. Same with Reggae. I was playing everything else, I still loved everything I ever loved, but I would get an insatiable thirst for one thing for an extended period of time.
If you don’t want to listen to (a style), forget about learning that style and spend your time on something that will bear more fruit, because it isn’t going to be that. If you think Bossa Nova is boring, forget about ever being able to play it in a compelling way, because there are a lot of people who are passionate and knowledgeable about it, and they’re the ones who are going to get the call.
And even after 40 years on the Kansas City scene, Doug is still “getting the call” because of his stylistic expertise and unselfish playing.
One of the smartest things I ever figured out was that if you want to work on weekends in Kansas City, you’re going to need to make vocalists happy. You’re going to have to play differently than you play in an instrumental group. You’re going to have to be more understated and probably play brushes a lot.
It feels great to make good musicians happy. Singers LOVE it when they can hear themselves better when I’m playing than when someone else plays sticks all the time. Hearing yourself singing is way different than hearing yourself playing a sax or trumpet. Vocalists DO need to hear themselves better. They recognize that I’m going to accommodate them. That’s one of the ways I separated myself.
Doug’s passion for Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music has manifested itself onstage and in print. His band, The Sons of Brasil, has been gigging regularly in Kansas City for over two decades. He rarely takes a solo, preferring his band to be a showcase for the grooves, songs, and artists he loves and has made dozens of trips to Brazil in pursuit of.
And after years of giving clinics and lessons on Latin styles, Doug decided to compile his materials into a book, “Essential Latin Styles for the Drumset.” Rather than exploring the flashier concepts of soloing and independence, his book clarifies the differences between Brazilian and Afro-Cuban styles, and illustrates the drumset’s appropriate and authentic role in each.
The biggest misconception about Latin styles” he says, “is that they’re all one thing. That Latin music is this big monolith and that it all comes from the same place, that it’s OK to play piano montuno vamps on the bridge of a Bossa Nova tune, or switch to a Songo during a Samba or something.
We need to appreciate the different styles as their own entities and approach them as—THIS is a Brazilian style and THIS is an Afro-Cuban style. And even (within) Brazil. We’ve got this vast country and the rhythms and music of the Northeast applied to drumset are going to be completely different from Samba, just as different as Jazz and Rock is in the U.S.
Doug is also on a mission, as a performer and as a teacher, to make the concept of the drum solo more musical and more audience-friendly. On the rare occasion that he takes a solo, his focus is on the song and the audience, practicing what he preaches to his students:
Make sure your solo has a beginning, one or more middles and an end that has something to do with the music and tempo and everything else that you’re playing. There needs to be space, contrast, some things that are open-sounding, some things that are more dense…you don’t have to play everything you know.
And people should generally be able to follow what you’re doing. It’s a lot more fun (when) you draw people in. I like to keep the melody going in my head. That doesn’t mean I’m quoting the melody right and left. It means that it’s just going on in my mind while I’m soloing and my phrasing will just naturally assume the form of the song.
I don’t believe in dumbing things down for people…but there’s a difference between making something accessible and dumbing it down.
The idea of being part of a group is the centerpiece of Doug’s approach to teaching.
Not everybody can be a great football player or a track star,” he says, “but almost anybody can be in a band. And for a lot of kids, for the first time in their lives, they’re finding something they can do that’s pretty cool.
You see their self-confidence grow and it a wonderful thing. Very few of them turn out to be professional musicians, but that’s not the point…some of the ones that are passionate about it aren’t very good players (laughs). But that’s ok! That doesn’t bother me a bit.
I’ve got a student right now who has some incredible four-limb coordination problems…it’s all he can do to learn a handful of rock beats. But it’s ok. He works on it. It’s not results-oriented, necessarily.
Doug is quick to point out that while music can be a rewarding activity for almost anyone, the music business is certainly not for everyone. Like many drummers, his career has been a balance between teaching and performing, between pursuing passion and paying bills.
Certainly, I’ve played gigs just for the money, but I never made it a steady habit. If I’m not fulfilled playing the gig, chances are that people listening won’t feel much of a reaction to it, either. This is not the way to further one’s visibility and career.
Also, I’ve generally found it to be a myth that ‘money’ gigs really pay better. In the long run, the smart money is on the musician or band that is committed to making music, not just making money.
It is helpful to have money coming in from other sources, too—hopefully musical ones. My answer was private teaching. But that’s harder than most people realize. I always loved teaching, so it was a natural for me. Having that income stream made it a lot easier to turn down gigs that were dead-ends.
While that kind of multi-income approach can lend a musician some stability, Doug also stresses the importance of being willing to take a chance when opportunities arise, illustrating this with the example of a friend and former student of his:
This is not a good business for people who hate taking chances. My friend Danny Carey was in a situation early in his career in LA where he found himself in what looked like a very successful band with a promising new tune on the radio, but he’d just had a few sessions with some new guys that looked like a better fit for him but would be completely starting from scratch. He took the chance of going with the unknown and that band became Tool. Believe in yourself! But be realistic.
Read Doug Auwarter’s full bio and purchase his books at http://www.dougauwarter.com
About Zack Albetta
Zack Albetta has lived in Los Angeles since 2010 and can be seen performing everywhere from jazz clubs to theatres to Disneyland. He holds Master’s degrees in Classical Percussion Performance and Jazz and Studio Performance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is an artist endorser for Aquarian Drumheads and UFIP cymbals.