We were deeply saddened by the announcement on February 3rd that legendary drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler had passed away. While best known for his playing on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and specifically on the track “Billie Jean”, the news of his passing immediately reminded me of the first time I met him, and just how much more about him there is to know.
It was November 2002, and like nearly every November I was attending the annual PASIC convention, which was held in Columbus, Ohio that year. I was also there to attend the inaugural meeting of the Private Drum Teachers seminar hosted by Dom Famularo, which at the time was still being sponsored by Vic Firth and the Vic Firth Education Team. There were only about 25 of us at that first meeting, but one of the attendees just happened to be Ndugu Chancler. Dom began the meeting by asking that each of us introduce ourselves as we go around the room. I vividly remember everyone’s reaction when the gentleman two seats to my left said, “My name is Ndugu Chancler and I teach at the University of Southern California”. It was a thrill for all of us who were there, and I was impressed that someone of his status and credibility had taken the time to share his knowledge and experience with the rest of us. I also found it interesting that he didn’t introduce himself as the drummer for Michael Jackson, or any other artist for that matter, but rather as a professor, and fellow music educator.
Leon “Ndugu” Chancler was born in Shreveport, Louisiana on July 1,1952. When he was 8 years old his family moved to Los Angeles. At age 13 he began playing the drums. He started out playing the snare drum and learning the fundamentals of music in his junior high school band, which soon led to playing other percussion instruments as well, and teaching himself to play the drum set. He attended Locke High School in Los Angeles where he continued to participate in the school music programs. His interest in music went beyond playing as he also began to write music, and he wrote the cadence for the school’s drum line. He soon began playing in various groups outside of school too, which helped him to meet a lot of musicians involved in the L.A. music scene. While still in high school he played with latin-jazz percussionist Willie Bobo, and The Harold Johnson Sextet. It was with the sextet that he did his first recording, but in order to do so he had to first join the musicians union, which was a requirement to record in L.A. at the time.
After graduating from high school he studied music education at California State University, Dominquez Hills. While in college he performed with the Gerald Wilson Big Band. He also became a regular at the popular L.A. jazz club Shelly’s Manne-Hole, owned by drummer Shelly Manne. He developed a close friendship with Manne, and performing at the club also helped him to meet more musicians and affirm his professional skills. In 1969 Herbie Hancock asked him to join his band, which he did, and at the age of 17 he played his first gig with Hancock at the L.A. Forum opening for Iron Butterfly.
In 1971 he was asked to tour with Miles Davis. It was during his time with Miles that he was given the name, “Ndugu” by percussionist James Mtume. Chancler referred to himself as Ndugu from then on. Ndugu is Swahili for “earth brother”, such as a family member or close friend. By the age of 19 he had also performed with, Hugh Masekela, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk, Eddie Harris, Bobby Hutcherson and others.
In 1972 he began working with George Duke, whom he would continue to collaborate with off and on into the 1990’s. He toured with Carlos Santana from 1974 to 1976, and during that time he also recorded with Weather Report playing on the 1975 album Tale Spinnin’. He worked with Herbie Hancock again from 1977–80 and in 1979 formed his own group The Chocolate Jam Company, but by the early 1980’s he was increasingly spending more time in the recording studios, and doing work as a producer and educator.
As a studio musician he played on several Grammy nominated albums and recorded with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Frank Sinatra, Weather Report, Lionel Ritchie, Kenny Rogers, Bobby Womack, Thelonious Monk, John Lee Hooker, George Benson, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Stanley Clarke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Donna Summer, LeAnn Rimes, and more. In addition to “Billie Jean”, the other tracks he played on Michael Jackson’s Thriller were, “Baby Be Mine” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” He also played on the track “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” on Jackson’s 1987 release, Bad. Ndugu also played on a number of movie soundtracks, including An Officer and a Gentleman, Indecent Proposal, and The Color Purple.
As a producer and songwriter he worked with Tina Turner, Joe Sample, Ernie Watts, Patrice Rushen, Sheena Easton, and others. He co-wrote Santana’s “Dance Sister Dance” in 1976, and George Duke’s “Reach For It” in 1977, He also co-wrote and co-produced “Let It Whip” by The Dazz Band in 1982, which won the Grammy for best R & B performance by a duo or group with vocals. As a producer he was a three-time Grammy nominee. He worked on six gold, and three platinum albums, and also received numerous production and co-production credits.
As an educator, he was an adjunct assistant professor in USC Thornton’s Contemporary Music Division, teaching Jazz Studies and Popular Music Programs since 1995. He was the first and only drumset teacher at the school and created the drum curriculum for the program. Since 1997 he also taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, a summer program held at Stanford University, and annual mentorship programs for the Young Musicians Program at Cal Berkley, also JazzAmerica, and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
As a clinician he did extensive tours for Paiste, Yamaha, Toca, Remo, and Shure. He was also a member of the Percussive Arts Society, and performed at PASIC in 2007 and 2015. He also performed at the Modern Drummer Festival in 2008.
“When one becomes a musician, one is not just a drummer or a composer. You train to be diverse. You train to arrange, write, play, and produce. All of it goes together for me. I simply call myself a musician, and these are all just things I do.” -Leon “Ndugu” Chancler
It was at the PASIC conventions that I was fortunate to have additional opportunities to see, and speak with Ndugu. He once said in a clinic I attended that he believed it was better to embrace technology rather than shun it, saying that in the early ‘80’s he spent time becoming adept with using drum machines to increase his versatility in the recording studio, so that he could program a drum machine or play like one whenever it was necessary.
Chancler had such an appreciation for music, and respect for those who taught him, that he felt it a responsibility to pass that information on to others. He believed that students should begin with a strong foundation of the fundamentals. He felt very strongly about teaching students and younger generations about the history of jazz, its importance, and how to play it. In an interview with Dom Famularo in 2015 Ndugu stated that Stix Hooper, Shelly Manne, Earl Palmer, and drum teacher Charles Johnston had been his mentors, and that playing with a lot of musicians and different bands of different genres was what shaped his diverse style of playing and led to his recording with so many different artists.
One of my personal favorite quotes of Ndugu’s, which really exemplifies how we chose the name for our website, was in 2012 saying, “When one becomes a musician, one is not just a drummer or a composer. You train to be diverse. You train to arrange, write, play, and produce. All of it goes together for me. I simply call myself a musician, and these are all just things I do.”
In 2013 he released the book Pocket Change (Drum Strong Music Co.).
So, when we think of the great Ndugu Chancler, of course we will remember him for his playing on “Billie Jean”, but we will also remember him as a world renowned pop, funk, fusion, and jazz drummer, percussionist, studio musician, composer, producer, professor, educator, clinician, and mentor. A drummer, and so much more, that you should know.
The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/07/obituaries/leon-ndugu-chancler-versatile-drummer-is-dead-at-65.html
USC News: http://news.usc.edu/135833/in-memoriam-drummer-leon-ndugu-chancler-65/
Dom Famularo’s Sessions Panel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19laML_6wXQ
Drummers You Should Know is a periodically reoccurring article featuring those countless drummers whose names you either don’t know or just can’t seem to remember even though you should.