Bernard Purdie Gives Back

The master drummer and hit-maker is also a gifted educator

Volume 113, No. 4April, 2013

Bettina Covo
Bernard Purdie

Bernard Purdie. Photos: Steve Singer

 Ladies and gentlemen, what can I say about Bernard “Pretty” Purdie? He is a giant in the music industry and probably one of the most recorded drummers in history. He’s played and recorded with some the greatest artists that have ever lived – from Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and James Brown to Bob Dylan, Gato Barbieri and Steely Dan. His drumming is legendary – drummers of all ages still use his signature groove, the Purdie Shuffle. Often referred to as the hit-maker, he is a master of finding just the right feel that propels the music to whole new level.

What people may not be aware of is Purdie’s commitment to education. Teaching others is an important component of his musical life. For the last 15 years, he has conducted master classes and clinics throughout the world.

Purdie is also affiliated with the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, where he serves as a guest teacher and lecturer. The club has its roots in AFM Local 274, which was an all-black local founded in 1935. Members included John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Golson, Nina Simone, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, Clara Ward, Bobby Timmons, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts and Jimmy Oliver. Today, the club strives to preserve and promote jazz and its history through educational and cultural services and programs. Purdie speaks highly about the Clef Club and what it offers. “It’s a fabulous organization,” he told me.

Purdie’s newest venture is a world tour, the primary focus of which is educational. He will give master classes and clinics, culminating with a concert in each stop on the tour, which will go to cities in Canada, France, Australia, Germany and parts of South America.

The tour, which will last through the end of 2013, was dreamed up by a team of Canadian promoters who later decided that they also wanted to film it and turn it into a documentary about Purdie. “They loved the idea! What intrigued them the most was the educational aspect,” he says.

A long time believer in the power of education, Purdie feels strongly that it’s important to give back to the community in appreciation of a long and wonderful career in the music business. That’s why the working title of the tour is “The Give Back Tour.”

Sponsors include various local music stores, universities, and private and corporate organizations, including the Red Bull beverage company. Having multiple sponsors means that the classes and concert tickets will remain inexpensive. Everything for the kids is at a reduced price.

The sacred mission of teaching is something the goes back a long way with Purdie. He remembers his pivotal experiences with his first teacher, Leonard Haywood, who stressed right from the start that Purdie must always remember to give it back. “Be the best at what you do but always remember you got to give it back,” repeated Haywood lesson after lesson, week after week, year after year. At the time, Purdie didn’t understand. “Give it back? I haven’t even gotten it yet.”

Haywood recognized Purdie’s exceptional talent and felt it was important to instill certain fundamentals – respect, humility, musicality and an understanding of the business. “It’s always a job. Just do your job,” was another one of the lessons Purdie learned. He has lived by those words ever since.

“Mr. Haywood always told me I was going to be a teacher,” Purdie says. For a performer, that’s sometimes difficult to understand. Purdie wanted to play, not teach. But Haywood insisted that by teaching and sharing your experience with others, you learn and grow as a musician as well as a person. That’s how you give it back. Purdie never forgot those words. “Mr. Haywood was a tiny man – five feet tall – but a giant to the drums, to percussion, to the field of teaching. He was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Purdie received his first professional performance experience with Haywood, who played weekly with the Clyde Bessick Orchestra, the local big band. Every weekend Purdie would accompany his teacher to the engagement. Haywood would play the first half of the night. Then, after consuming multiple glasses of “water,” he’d head to his station wagon and nod off. That’s when Purdie would take over for his teacher, pick up the sticks and finish out the gig. At the end of the evening, Purdie would pack up the drums, load them into the car and drive his teacher home – all at the ripe old age of 12. He loved every moment of it.

As a teacher, Purdie quickly discovered the importance of getting the parents involved. Without their support, the already-difficult job of teaching becomes even tougher. They spend the money for lessons and instruments, take their kids to their classes and rehearsals, and help transport the equipment. In many ways, the parents have to be more committed than their children.

Purdie further observes, “Drums are never an easy thing for parents to take. Then, to top it off, the kids often want the best drums sets, just like their favorite drummers use. That can cost big bucks – up to $18,000. It’s ridiculous.”

With both the students and parents in mind, Purdie even went as far as to design a line of drums that were, as he put it “workable, high quality, inexpensive and – most importantly – expandable.”

His method of teaching master classes and clinics is simple: the participants are asked to play a piece of their choosing, preferably something they are totally familiar with. Purdie listens to them for a while and then “slips in,” joining the band as student and teacher trade places. That’s when Purdie works his magic. “I take that same group, that same groove and tweak it. I lift the music up, that’s all. That’s what I do.” By using this method, the students are actually experiencing the process of “tweaking” first-hand from a master – a priceless lesson.

“It’s not about the notes,” says Purdie. “It’s about the feel. The notes are there only to guide you. You need to go through it and lift the whole band into something that’s really dynamite.”

Purdie uses this same technique when teaching bands, be it a folk duo, a jazz quartet, a rock group or a big band – the group can be any size, any age, any genre.

After Purdie is finished demonstrating, the student drummer returns to the band and tries to emulate what he or she has just heard. It all comes together when both band and drummer get it.

“The change is so startling, that everyone in the room ‘gets it,’” says Purdie. “That’s a powerful experience. It’s about a feel and developing a positive attitude – learning how to focus and always knowing where beat one is.”

Another interesting aspect of Purdie’s teaching includes more than just “playing the notes.” He talks about how to become a successful working musician. He explains how “the drummer is really the bandleader.” Understanding that many bandleaders might take exception to that statement, Purdie goes on to remind the students that, “Yes, the bandleader is the real leader because they pay you; the drummer is a sideman, but the drummer is in control of the band, musically. It all boils down to doing your job, doing it well and being able to work with the other band members. Everything else will fall in place.”

Purdie adds, “It’s very simple: if the man hiring you likes you, you’re not going anywhere. Understand what your job is. It makes a big difference.”

After the classes and clinics are finished, Purdie performs a concert. He doesn’t tour with a set band. Instead, he prefers to play with local groups in each of the cities and perform their music. As he puts it, “That way they’re doing their music and I just do my thing.”

In the end, these concerts become the ultimate lessons. Purdie has the talent, the skill and the experience to join any group, anywhere, in any style and play with anyone. Therein lies his gift – the gift his teacher saw all those years ago. Purdie teaches by example, providing invaluable lessons about being a professional and a consummate performer as well as an artist.

As Purdie puts it, “It’s what I do.”

This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For more information, see