Acclaimed percussionist Jamey Haddad shows us his basement studio in Oberlin, full of 1,000 drums and other instruments

from The Plain Dealer
By Joanna Connors, The Plain Dealer
on December 09, 2012

Jamey Haddad and his family moved from Shaker Heights to their new house in Oberlin in July.

The day the moving trucks came, the internationally acclaimed percussionist took off for a two-month “Graceland” tour through Northern Europe and Scandinavia with Paul Simon.

Allow us to repeat: He left town the day they moved. “The tour was fantastic,” Haddad reports.

Despite this, Haddad claims he is still married. Perhaps he did not tell his wife just how fantastic the tour was.

Haddad and his wife, the remarkably understanding Mary Kay Gray, made the move because they both work at Oberlin College, where he is professor of percussion and the PI (Performing and Improvisation) track, and she is associate dean of student academic affairs at the Oberlin Conservatory.

The move cut their commute from almost an hour to about five minutes and saves them $600 a month in gasoline. The new house is lovely.

But something was lost in the move, too. Their big old Tudor in Shaker had a third-floor ballroom that made a perfect studio for Haddad. He filled it with his collection of more than 1,000 percussion instruments from around the world. He practiced there, taught students and even recorded there. The much-photographed ballroom of instruments was almost as well-known in Cleveland as Haddad is internationally.

Cut to the new house.

Here, Haddad’s studio is in the basement, an unfinished space with concrete-block walls and ceiling beams crossed with heating ducts and wiring. The light, from high basement windows and bare hanging light bulbs, does not entirely beat back the gloom. He has to search through boxes and travel bags for specific instruments, which he has not quite unpacked yet.

But Haddad isn’t complaining. The only thing he can’t do in the basement is record, but he can do that in his studio at the college.

Otherwise, he says with a shrug, “The ballroom wasn’t any more functional than this. It just was groovier.”

An early interest in drums

If you look carefully, though, you can find plenty of groovy stuff in the basement studio, pieces that tell the story of Haddad’s life and travels. “Every instrument here has a story,” he says.

Tucked away under a wall of shelves holding instruments, for instance, you could find Haddad’s first drum, a silvery metal Arabic drum called a darbuka.

His father gave it to him when he was 4 years old. He remembers going with his family to big gatherings of the Lebanese community in Cleveland, parties filled with music and dancing “and all that crazy stuff,” he says. “How could a kid not love it?”

He particularly loved the drums. “If you get me that, I could play it,” he remembers telling his father. The darbuka was his fourth-birthday present. His uncle gave him a lesson; his grandfather gave him a drum set for Christmas when he was 5; and by the time he was 8, Haddad knew what he wanted to do with his life.

“I played all day, every day,” he says. “I played with a Victrola, everything from Nat ‘King’ Cole to whatever the pop music on the radio was. I challenged myself to learn the tune by the time it ended.”

Eventually, Haddad would move away from the drum set and find his calling in hand percussion, playing instruments from other cultures in jazz bands and, later, in pop with Simon. But it didn’t interest him when he was young.

“We were all-American kids,” he says. “I was more interested in playing Motown than Arabic music.”

Faculty Profile: Jamey Haddad from Oberlin College on Vimeo.

By the time he was 14, he was gigging in Cleveland clubs like the Smiling Dog on West 25th Street and playing and hanging out with the likes of Joe Lovano and Bill DeArango. Though he has played with Simon for 13 years now, his heart remains in that jazz world, and his greatest talent is improvisation.

“I’m a jazz musician who jumped the fence,” he says.

The other side of the fence was not just a different world, it was a different planet.

“The first time I did a gig with [Simon], it was a 25,000-seat gig. It was packed, and people loved — loved — every tune. I hadn’t even gone to a concert like that in quite a while.”

At 60, his musical career has taken him to Boston, to study at the Berklee College of Music; to South India, where he studied with a percussion master on a Fulbright Fellowship; to Brazil, where he lived part of a year; and to New York City, where he lived, taught, recorded and played gigs for 25 years before returning to his hometown in 2004.

Treasures found on world travels

Touring with Simon and others has taken him around the world, and he has picked up not just instruments, but also rugs and lamps he uses in his studio.

He got the pair of tall, pyramid-shaped lamps from Morocco, kilims from Turkey. A brass gong the size of a small coffee table sits at the foot of the stairs, and is the first thing you see when you come into the studio. It came from Bali a few years back, and there’s a story attached to it, as Haddad promised.

A friend of his who plays percussion for the Dallas Symphony had been going to Bali every year for a dozen years or so. He knew Haddad was into world music and instruments and asked him along. They went to Ubud, a town Haddad says is Bali’s center for artists and musicians.

“I went to the gong maker, learned the tunings and so on,” Haddad says. “I took lessons every day I was there. Bali is off the hook, man.”

He picks up a chekere, a beaded gourd from Africa, and starts playing it. “I took lessons on one in Africa,” he says.

We’re beginning to sense a pattern here. Haddad may be a teacher — an in-demand teacher at that — but he also remains a student. On a recent trip to Cuba, he took lessons every day “from the most lovely older gentleman, Don Pancho Terry. Cuba is really poised to be something special.”

Haddad has also invented drums. He picks up one of the instruments he co-developed, a ceramic piece inspired by the Nigerian udu and three other instruments. It looks like two gourds growing from the same stem, with two holes in the bodies. He calls it a Hadgini, “Had” for Haddad and “gini’ for his partner in developing it, sculptor Frank Giorgini.

“I can’t say I ever made any money from any of this,” he says. “It’s not the next Hula-Hoop, I can tell you that.”

Speaking of money, Haddad knows he has it lucky. Between his full-time job at Oberlin and his regular gig touring and recording in Simon’s band, plus his job organizing the “Fridays@7” programs for the Cleveland Orchestra, he doesn’t have to worry about paying the mortgage the way most musicians do.

“I’m in the one one-hundredth of 1 percent of what performing artists can make in this business, and it’s still a [pain]!” he says. “My first gigs, when I was 14, 15, I was paid $50. Now in New York, gigs pay $50, maybe $100, and maybe a meal.”

That’s why he works hard to find gigs for his students while they’re still in school.

“Parents are asking, ‘Can you really make a living at this? What’s out there for you?’ ” he says. “It’s not easy. I’d like to help my students solve the mystery of what it takes to survive.”

He’s teaching them to take his place. “Hey, I’m 60. I pray that my students walk away from my lessons and connect the dots in a way nobody ever has. I pray for that!”

One of his most recent students was his 4-year-old nephew, who came down to the studio on Thanksgiving and started playing the drum set Haddad set up for him. Like his own uncle before him, Haddad can see the music bug in his nephew.

“He’s obsessed,” Haddad says. “I just let him go at it.”