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Jazz Profile: Ricky Sebastian, a modern drumming master

By Edward Anderson

NOLA Art House Music

In addition to being my 10-year-old son’s drum instructor, Ricky Sebastian has been a personal friend for more than a decade. He’s an interesting mix of a “sweetheart” kinda guy with a touch of east coast “edge.” He is definitely one of New Orleans’ best and brightest, a multifaceted musician and modern drumming master who has done it all.  There are many like him who are amazingly talented, have done amazing things, and yet are relatively unknown. We hope to change that.

So many of our best and brightest leave for a taste of New York. Talk about your time there.

I moved from New Orleans to New York City in 1983 at the age of 25. I had already played/recorded with all the greats in the wonderful city and felt it was time to move on. Since most of my musical idols lived in New York, that seemed to be the logical place to go. But it’s a shame that New Orleans musicians, in order to garner international acclaim, must move from this city because of several negative issues that have existed here in the music business for decades. I spent 18 years in New York and it taught me how to take care of my business, to be on time for rehearsals, gigs, recording sessions, and concerts.

I ended up working with a who’s who in the music world there and performed/recorded with 90 percent of my idols, and it has been the greatest experience of my life — short of having my daughter.

So you’re back. I know you’re building a high-level drum school.  Ok. I’m just gonna  throw it out there: “Post Katrina” New Orleans, what are your thoughts?

It’s way past time that we finally create a viable national music business scene here. Look at what Hollywood South has done. Why can’t we do the same? It will take hard work, but you can count me in and, after spending 18 years in NYC, I think I’m qualified to submit some great ideas on how to go about realizing this dream.

New Orleans needs to stop talking about and build the necessary infrastructure pertaining to the music business. (We need):

—  Managers, agents, record companies, recording studios (those are now coming back into the scene and a few are state of the art), and a stronger union.

—  The creation of the New Orleans Music Business Corporation with a president, CEO, and a board of directors.

—  Cheap rehearsal spaces for musicians who can’t practice at home.

—  Major venues other than the Bourbon Street clubs, etc., for our musicians to perform in and be paid a decent wage. I was making a $100 guarantee 30 years ago and now musicians are playing for tips, which is something I refuse to do.

—  A place where musicians and bands can meet once a month with the music business board of directors.

—  After-school music education programs and summer camps.

So what are you doing regarding teaching?

I’m presently attending UNO to finish my Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies. They were kind enough to award me the Harold Batiste Scholarship. I’m also teaching at one KIPP Believe school and expect to start doing more of that.

On the performance and recording side of things, I’m forming a new group and writing new music for my second CD. I expect to record it in late 2011. My first CD is titled “The Spirit Within,” with a stellar cast of recording artists on it.

What makes a great drummer ?

Several elements make a “great” drummer:

God-given talent

A natural sense of time and groove

Phenomenal technique (hands & feet)

Big ears: meaning that one can hear notes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythm

Imagination and not being afraid to “go for it.”

Be blessed to study with the right teacher when you’re young.

Try to always surround yourself with musicians better than you so that you can progress faster.

Practice, practice, practice

Become proficient at a harmonic instrument like piano or guitar so that you’ll “really’” know what’s going on in the music.

Listen, listen, listen to the masters: the contemporary ones and the ones that came before them in order to understand style, history, and lineage in the art form.

Use all of the above suggestions and tools to become ‘musical” on your instrument.

Above all, play for the music, not for yourself.

A great drummer has the ability to control the band.  That’s why we’re in the “driver’s seat.”  We are the most important person in the band regarding time, feel, groove, and ATTITUDE.  But everyone in the band should have a great sense of time.  It is not the drummer’s responsibility to keep time for the rest of the band.  For a drummer, that is a total drag and exhausting.

What makes a New Orleans drummer unique?

Drummers who grow up learning to play here are influenced by brass bands, Mardi Gras Indian songs and chants, traditional New Orleans jazz, modern jazz, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and Caribbean music.  Drummers here learn to be versatile.  Due to the history of what happened with the founding of this country, the Africans, using a combination of their native instruments and European drums, developed a completely new style of rhythm and beats that are unique to New Orleans. Because of this fact alone, one can always tell when a drummer is from New Orleans. There’s a certain beat and feel that represent the culture here, just like anywhere else.

List a few influential drummers, from New Orleans and beyond.

James Black

Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste

Johnny Vidacovitch

Herlin Riley

Kerry Brown

Tony Williams

Steve Gadd

Elvin Jones

Vinnie Calaiuta

Dave Weckl

Papa Jo Jones

Philly Joe Jones

Horacio  “El Negro” Hernandez

Teo Lima

Robertinho Silva

What are you going to focus on at your school that might distinguish you from other music schools?

Private snare drum instruction, private drum set instruction, teaching the students to read and write music, as well as to develop their ears and their musical memory. Group classes, guest “name” clinicians on a regular basis (hopefully once a month). Teaching the history of New Orleans drumming. Summer drum camps. The use of modern technology as a teaching tool: ability to record the students and burn the recording to disk.  Internet access to watch and listen to the master drummers of the world.

Drum machine… friend or foe?  Does it have a place in your world?

I started working with drum machines in NYC in 1988.  Now, I record drum tracks using a computer and a keyboard.  It’s like anything else: The more you do it, the better you become.  There was a period in New York when the artist or producer would record the whole song with a drum machine, then call me in last to replace the machine with a live drum track.  I became very good at it and it was a challenge.  I already had a good sense of time, but doing these kinds of recordings only strengthened my sense of time and groove.  Also, working with click tracks.  It really has a place in my world as a pre-production tool in a home studio.  But I could program a drum track for a song and you would think it was a live drummer.  This only works for certain styles of music though.

RICKY SEBASTIAN IN BRIEF: Born in Opelousas, La., he started taking drum lessons at the age of 8, under the tutelage of Carl DeLeo and Carl Schexnayder. He served as the section leader for the drum line in every school he attended into college. He went to the University of Southwestern Louisiana and later Berklee College of Music in Boston. He returned to New Orleans in 1976 and started working professionally with musicians in virtually every musical genre that the city had to offer, including modern jazz, Afro-Cuban, traditional New Orleans music, Brazilian, reggae, calypso, funk, rock, R&B, Cajun, and zydeco. He moved to New York City in 1983, to interact more closely with many of the musical idols he had grown up listening to. He also taught private lessons and group classes for the infamous “Drummer’s Collective” and “The New School for Social Research” there. He moved back to New Orleans in 1998 and became the head percussion instructor at the University of New Orleans under the direction of Ellis Marsalis. He recently started The Crescent City Drum School.

PERFORMANCES: Sebastian has performed with, among others, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Mike Stern, Jaco Pastorius, Les McCann, Michael Franks, Nnenna Freelon,  Harry Belafonte, Dr. John, Jerry Gonzalez, Dave Valentin, Larry Coryell, Dianne Reeves, Blood, Sweat, & Tears, John Scofield, Tania Maria, Donald Harrison Jr., Los Hombres Calientes.


Steve Masakowski – “Mars” and “What it Was”

Gil Evans – “Color of Money Soundtrack”

Herbie Mann – “Opal Essence,” “Caminho de Casa,” “Peace Pieces,” “Live at

the Blue Note – 65th Birthday Celebration”

Jack Lee – “Magnolia Blossom”

Tania Maria – “Outrageous,” “No Comment,” “Live in Europe,” “Happiness,”

“Outrageously Wild”

Rusty Cloud – “Walkin’ the Night”

Nneena Freelon – “Listen”

John Lucien – “Endless Love”

Harry Belafonte – “Harry Belafonte & Friends”

Blood, Sweat, & Tears – “Bloodlines”

Cubanismo – “Mardi Gras Mambo ”

Los Hombres Calientes – “Vol 3, New Congo Square”, “Vol 4, Vodou Dance”,

and “Vol. 5, Carnival”

Ricky Sebastian – “The Spirit Within”

Harold Battiste – “Lagniappe, The Second 50 Years”

Herbie Mann/Phil Woods – “Beyond Brooklyn”

George Porter’s Joyride – “Searching for a Joyride”


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