Adam Nussbaum

Interview: Bernd Eilts, Photos: Zoltan Acs

Adam Nussbaum & Bann – Jazzfestival Viersen 2007

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A while ago, on a tuesday evening in april 2016, I visited one of my favorite Jazz Clubs in Groningen/The Netherlands, De Smedeij, more or less by accident. A trio played there, with Ed Verhoeven on guitar, Paul Berner on double bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums, actually one of my favorite drummers,  a legend in Jazz music. Just 24 hours later I had one of my most inspiring talks with this drum legend, Adam Nussbaum, who kindly offered to talk to In this first part we talked at the Prins Claus Conservatorium in Groningen, where he teaches twice the year. He told me about his early influences, how he became a professional drummer, how he first met John Scofield and Michael Brecker, his work with The Allman Brothers Band and Lyle Mays. Please enjoy this first part!

Adam Nussbaum
Adam Nussbaum by Zoltan Acs


Bernd: Thank you very much for this opportunity, dear Adam Nussbaum!

Adam: Well, we haven’t done anything! You may not thank me when we’re finished! (both laughing).

Bernd: I will thank you again later! You know, when I saw you playing tuesday night at De Smederij I thought, it would be great, to talk to you! Let’s just start! My first question is about your early influences and inspirations that made you become a drummer and musician. Can you please describe this, including your widely range moments you had with classical music and art?

Adam: I grew up in a very artistically aware home. My father was a graphic artist and my mother had been involved in acting and also graphic design. So, I grew up in an environment, that appreciated the arts. My parents had a pretty divers record collection. They had classical music, they had some jazz, they had some blues, they had ethnic music. I was also exposed to what was on the radio that time. Early Rock’n Roll, The Beatles, The Stones, James Brown, Motown, Elvis, what ever was happening. And listening to all the other stations. They had some that were playing Latin Music, because I grew up one hour from New York City. My first real exposure to the drums was, when I was like four or five years old, I stayed with my aunt and uncle, while my parents went on a little holiday. Their son, my cousin Peter, who was nine years older than me, had a drum set. So, he was fourteen, I was five years old, that’s a big deal! And I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. I was an only child and he was kind of my big brother.

Bernd: He became your hero.

Adam Nussbaum
Adam Nussbaum by Zoltan Acs

Adam: He was an initial hero for me, absolutely. I watched and he played the drums, he got up, I sat down, I did what he did. And I just kind of did it.  “Monkey see, Monkey do”. So, I first started to mess around with the drums, when I was about five years old. But I didn’t had any drums. I just set up pillows in the house by my bed and the table and played along with the radio. And, it kind of started then, I studied classical piano. I had a very good teacher, she was from Budapest (Capital of Hungary) and her name was Katalin Stapelfeldt, a wonderful woman. She had a great love and energy for me and she was very positive. Many people have the idea, that a teacher has to be very stern, but she had a lot of love and a lot of humanity, she made the process a lot of fun. She also saw, that I had an interest and a desire to learn. So, I studied classical piano and then, when I was about twelve years old, I finally bought a drumset from another cousin, who played the drums and then stopped. So, by the time, I got my drums, I was already playing the drums pretty well for my age, without having ever owned drums. My situation was I came to playing the drums from music. I didn’t come to music from the drums. I think, that affected my whole approach. As I got older, I was always playing in bands with people and I had some private teachers, but overall, I learned by doing. More than learned by learning. I did study drums at a certain point, but I already was playing, I just didn’t know what anything was called on a technical level. It’s like learning how to speak, you don’t know, this is a noun, this is a verb, I just listened, I watched, I copied, I played. Bingo! (laughing). I’m still trying to figure it out.

Bernd: What were your heroes at that time?

Adam Nussbaum by Zoltan Acs

Adam: Like I said, my cousin was probably my first hero. And I think, the record, that really changed my life was the first Jimi Hendrix album “Are You Experienced”. Because I think, I was eleven, twelve years old. That’s a very impressionable time in once life. And I heard that music and that was like WOW! From that point I was hearing other music of that time, The Cream, The Who. The late 60s period was a very fertile time, you know, jazz was shifting too. Then I heard Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, I saw Tony Williams, he was incredible, I was able to see Dizzy Gillespie, when I was eight years old, that was an incredible experience. Just what was going on around me, my environment. There were local drummers, people, that were playing, I was like a young sponge at that point, just absorbing, as much as I could, watching, listening. And it was also a time, were there was a lot of change going on. 1966, ’67, ’68, ’69, what was going on in the world! Socially, politically, musically, it was a big time for change. And when you are at that age, it is a big change also. Because you are transitioning. And I think, I was very fortunate for all the realities of my situation all coming together at that time. Growing up near New York City, so I was able to start going to New York City. People I heard about, I was able to see them, to hear them, being in the same room with them. There is nothing like feeling something, experiencing something live. A record is one thing, a video is one thing, now YouTube is another thing, but there is nothing like being in a room and feeling that energy. I think, as time goes on, understanding and witnessing commitment. So, I was very fortunate, to have that in a young age. I mean, I have a lot of heroes. Not just those people, I mention, but I love James Brown, I love Billie Holiday, I love Louis Armstrong, I love my father and the influence of his artistic approach to things. His aesthetic point of view had a deep impact on me. People, that come into your life have and effect on you, have an impact on your point of view. And the fact, that I was also a young person, during such a transitional time and things, that were happening in the world, I think, those elements effect, who you are. Environment, circumstances, situations, all these things effects you.

Bernd: Did you had a connection also with classical music?

Adam: Absolutely. I mean, when I grew up in our house, I mentioned, my parents had a very huge and diverse record collection. I was hearing Vivaldi and then I was hearing King Oliver. I was hearing my father singing with opera. We used to listen to Andres Segovia, to Mozart and Beethoven and all these things were going on. I was learning to play some Bartok on the piano, Aram Khachaturian as well. There were so many influences going on. Jazz, classical music, blues. My parents had some records of Lead

Belly and people like that. So, I had a very broad background and I never got too precious with one thing or another, like: This is serious music, this isn’t serious music. It was all good. It was all serious music. Some of it was more joyful than others and some of it was not. But that’s all part of life!

Adam Nussbaum – Toots Thielemans: All Blues

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Bernd: Did you also felt influenced through Art in that period?

Adam: When I am looking back to that time, I maybe can see, that I accepted, what was around me. My father was an artist. So I had paintings and drawings and sculptures and things around my house. It was just normal for me. So, I think also, I didn’t really appreciate it as much as I do now. When you see, it is a normal experience for you in your life, on a day to day basis, you take it for granted. Oh, doesn’t everybody something have something in the house, that is from a great artist? My father was renaissance man, he made paintings, he made sculptures, he made wine, he could build anything. He even could grow anything. He had a great garden! Normal is, what’s normal for you. And then, when you get back and you think about it from another point of view, you realize, this was a nice fertile enviroment to have. And my parents where encouraging also. So, I apprechiate that. I’m grateful to everything, that happened along the way. The good, the bad, and the ugly! (laughing).

Bernd: I got the idea a little bit, when I saw you playing in De Smederij last tuesday night, the way, you play and you smile, laugh, sing with a melody, just natural. And when something’s happening wrong, like your cymbal stand falled, you just catched up the cymbal and could hold the stand in the very last moment, but the music just went on…. it felt like a totally natural thing.

Adam: It was all good. And it is all good. I am enjoying, what I’m doing. I love to play. It’s a blessing and it’s a curse. It is the curse, that goes with the blessing and the blessing goes with the curse. So, it’s all good.

Bernd: How did you manage, to become this fantastic professional musician and drummer? How did this work out? You mentioned, you studied later at an art school/music school. But how was that thing that time, when you got involved with people like John Scofield and Michael Brecker and all these people?

Adam: Well, when I got to New York, that was around 1975/1976, and I was nineteen, twenty years old, I used to go to Jam Sessions, and many Clubs used to have Jam Sessions. So, I always tried to sit in. Let me go back a bit. While I was still in Connecticut, growing up in High school, I was playing in bands. I was always playing in bands from the time I was about forteen years old. First little Rock bands, I played in the Youth Symphony Orchestra, and then I had a good friend of mine, who is a great piano player named Robert Aries. He was my buddy and we played in bands together. He used to study with a jazz pianist, John Mehegan. John was the big teacher around that area and wrote one of the very first books about jazz improvisation. So, I used to go to the lessons with Robert and sometimes I played with John. So, I was the kid, and he was the old man and he basically kicked my ass a lot, which was a really good experience. So, I had the experience with playing this man, who was an older established individual, and then I was playing with my friends and I was playing in little Rock bands and Blues bands, but I was playing Jazz with my friend Robert and another friend of mine, a saxophone player called Doc Holiday, and another person up in the air was Tom Corwin. So, we were a little tribe of guys and we played Coltrane tunes and we had fun. So then, I got older, I moved to New York City, I went on Jam Sessions, I started to meet people and started networking, seeing what’s going on. I lived on West 26th Street and up the street, from where I lived was a loft, where a bunch of musicians lived. I used to go over there and jammed with them, with Steve Slagle, Billy Drewes, Joe Lovano & Dennis Irwin, a great bass player. They were my buddies. We played together and they had gone to   k-20160414-ACS_5363Berklee College of Music with John Scofield. “Sco” came over and jammed with us a few times. Now the interesting thing is, I grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut. John Scofield grew up in the next town, in Wilton. He was in a local band that was known, called the Skylarks. And he was four years older. So, when I was thirteen he was seventeen. At that age that’s also a big difference. I’m still a little kid, he’s one of the cool guys. At this time I was in a band with a friend, Brian McHale and he took guitar lessons with “Sco”. So I knew, who “Sco” was, when I was still in Connecticut, as a boy. But he didn’t know me. But then years later, I connected with him, and then, I re-met him and then I started to meet other people. The scene got to be a little community. I had friends, that play and then through John and other people, you met other people. So, I got gigs with other people, who got well known. Then you started having little gigs and one thing happened after another, like a friend of yours got a gig with somebody, and then maybe the drummer couldn’t make it. And then they say, hey, maybe you should check this guy out. So then, you go in and you try to do your best and it just kind of goes like that…, you become part of the scene, part of the tribe. It went like this, this guy cannot do it, so let’s bring the new kid in and see what happens. It was just a natural kind of environment and I can say, I’m very grateful, because, I had these people along the way of my life, that I got to play with, who played much better then me. And I got better by playing with these people, who knew how to do this. It’s still the process. It’s not like having just one mentor. I was very often in situations, playing with people who played much better than me. I got better, just through the process, because of doing it. I was practicing but I was working as much as I could and playing. You know, if you just stay in the room and practice all the time by yourself, you’ll get really good in practicing. But being a musician involved in improvising process, you got to learn how to listen, how to react, how to respond, work with your fellow man. And that’s what I started doing. You know, being in New York I met people. I remember playing a week with Scofield and Steve Swallow and we got a few nights with Randy Brecker one time, we got a few nights with Michael Brecker. People start becoming aware, who is on the scene. And a lot of places like to compart- mentalize you. So people say, oh Nussbaum is playing jazz, he is a jazz guy. I mean, I would play anything, I played Rock ‘n Roll and anything, but I think I gravitated towards playing with these people, I fell in love with Jazz and some people want to put a little label on you. He plays Jazz, he does this, he is Fusion, he’s whatever. It makes it easy for people to try to define you. There is a lot more to all of us then people see. The fact, that I grew up with all that different music, I had an open mind about music. I wasn’t somebody, who was just like this, or this, or this. And New York City is such a melting pot with that, where so many things were going on. You had Jazz, Rock, Fusion, the Broadway, the Latin, the Afro-Cuban, you had so much, you just name it. For me, it was like everything was everything. It was James Brown as much as it was John Coltrane. It was The Cream as much as it was Marvin Gaye, you know. It is all good. It is Maria Callas as much as it is Horowitz. I mean, come on, it is all good music. Good is good. I always had a broader appreciation of good honest music. Try to be honest with what you do. I wish, I could be more specific, I just gave you the idea, how the process works. People hear you, it is just: Meet this person, meet that person. Being at the right place, at the right time, but also being able to come up with the goods. What they say, what luck is, when circumstances and ability come together and you can take care of business. It is one thing, to get the gig, it is another thing to keep the gig. (Laughing!).

Adam Nussbaum with The Allman Brothers Band – Beacon Theatre – 2009

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Bernd: Actually, I saw this amazing list with musicians, you played with, for sure, this one is not complete. But just to name some: Jaco Pastorius. Such a giant bass player and musician he was, and still is. And such a pitty, to see his life ending, like it did.

Adam: Hey yes, one of the many tragic figures. He is not alone, unfortunatly.

Bernd: Also John Scofield, John Abercrombie, you still play with him I saw.

Adam: Yes, absolutely.

Bernd: You played with Gil Evans.

Adam: Yes, I did two live albums from Sweat Basil’s in New York with him.

Bernd: You played with Miroslav Vitous, with Michael Brecker of course, also Tom Varner.

Adam: Tom Varner, the french-horn player. Yes, I did some playing with him and we also played together in the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. Very few musicians play jazz on that instrument. It’s a really difficult to play.

Adam Nussbaum by Zoltan Acs
Adam Nussbaum by Zoltan Acs

Bernd: I saw the Tom Varner Quartet many years ago on the Jazz Marathon in Groningen, a very big festival and later bought his album “Motion/Stillness”, with you on drums.

Adam: Well, I think, I played during the soundcheck and some of that night that album was recorded. Billy Hart was on the original recording. But when they put all on a CD later, they put all the tracks with Billy and I on it. I don’t even remember the gig. (Tom Varner Quartet: “Motion/Stillness”, Soul Note Records). That was the mid eighties, right?

Bernd: You also played with the Allman Brothers Band?

Adam: (laughing….) That’s one of those situations that was just a fluke. I went to see them while they used to do a residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York. They played for three weeks, a concert every night. And I am friends with the percussionist in the band, Marc Quinones. So, I’d seen Marc somewhere and said: “Hey man, next time you play in town with The Allman Brothers I wanna bring the family”, and he said: “Cool, no problem! I’ll leave your name backstage”. So, I have my wife, son and daughter with me. We get there and we get seats in the back on the stage, kind of around and behind the band for guests. So, I got there, and I saw Randy Brecker was there, Stanley Clarke was there, Lenny White was there, and they saw me and said: “Hey man, what’s happening!” And me: “What are you guys doing here?” And they said: “Oh, we’re gonna play tonight!” And I said: “Oh, really? Cool!” The roadie for Jaimoe (Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson), the drummer, saw me and said: “What are you doing here?” I said: “I just came to listen!” He said: “Oh, you gotta play too!” I said: “Really?” And he said: “Yeah! Come on!” So, Lenny played, Stanley Clarke played, Randy Brecker played, and then they called me up to play. I mean, I had no idea, what was going to happen! So, it’s like, when I was a kid, I used to listen to the Allman Brothers. It was just kind of sweet. (Laughing). I really had no idea, what was going to happen there. When I finished, the manager came up and said: “We need your social security number and your address.” And I: “Why is that?” And he: “We recorded the whole gig and we’re gonna send you a check!” I said: “Really? Cool!” (Laughing out loud). That was also the beginning for me of realizing the power of the internet. I left the gig when it was finished and was driving home. An old friend of mine from High school called me on the phone. “Hey man! What the f…., I just saw you are on YouTube!” And I: “What?” And he: “You are playing with The Allman Brothers Band?” Me: “Are you kidding me? It’s there right now?” You know, maybe realizing now, everything is everything. There is no hiding anymore. I couldn’t believe it. And so then, people said: Oh, you are playing with…, you know, people, that had no idea, that I played with Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, people like that: Oh, you play with The Allman Brothers, wow! (Laughing out very loud!!) So, it was a fluke. It was just a moment in time.

Adam Nussbaum
Adam Nussbaum by Zoltan Acs

Bernd: But this moment is still there, you know?

Adam: This is the whole thing now, there is no hiding anymore. The whole world of technology, its got its positive aspects and negative ones. Because now in this world, where does privacy go for many people?

Bernd: I saw, you also played with Lyle Mays?

Adam: Yeah!

Bernd: And Nana Vasconcelos?

Adam: Yeah, that was a lot of fun, that was really a lot of fun. Lyle is a wonderful musician. That was a really really enjoyable project.

Bernd: I think, it was his first solo record, he made? How did that happen, you played together?

Adam: He called me to make this gig. He said, “There is this place called IMAG, out in Long Island, and we are gonna do a concert and it’s gonna be a video recording.” And I said: “Cool!” And Marc Johnson was doing it. We played together with Getz, Toots & Jim McNeely, another fantastic musician. He knew Lyle I think from school. And then Bill Frisell, and Lyle brought in Nana Vasconcelos, and I knew Billy Drewes, he lived in that same building, where I used to go jam. So, it was like a family scene.

Bernd: The old connections.

Adam: Yes, it was like the same kind of thing. So Lyle called me, I don’t know why, maybe Marc recommended me, you never know. But then, I do remember, I was a little disappointed, because he did the record, but he used everybody but me, on the record. (Laughing). So, it was one of my first situations, where I had been replaced by somebody more established than me. I think, he choosed Alex Acuna. And I think, Alex at the end of the day was probably a better choice than me, for the recording. But it is, what it is. And it’s a very good record. (Lyle Mays: Lyle Mays. Geffen Records, 1986). And I have been also in the situation, where I replaced the other guy. Sometimes, you are replaced and another time you are the replacer. But I had a lot of fun on that. It was fantastic to be a part of that. I remember, Lyle and everybody was very excited after the gig, and I don’t know how it ended up on YouTube. It looks, it is a film of a tv show. Because it is not a very good quality. But the music is very good. I just remember, it had a great energy.

Bernd: I know, that I listened to that album really a lot, even my friends. That was really a special highlight!

Adam: Lyle is an incredible composer, he is a great musician. I hope, he comes out and makes some music again.

Bernd: Why is he not playing now? Do you know?

Adam: No.

Bernd: Touring and recording all those years with Pat Metheny was maybe too much?

Adam: Who knows. It’s not easy out here. (Laughing).