Gretsch Helps Celebrate Sam Ulano’s Birthday
Teaching Legend Is Going Strong At Ninety-Two
The New York City drumming community came together this past July 10 to honor and enjoy the wit and wisdom of drum teacher and icon Sam Ulano. The event—hosted by DrumSummit.com’s Peter Greco and held at Sam Ash Music on 48th Street—combined a clinic by Sam with a celebration of his August 12 birthday, when he’ll turn ninety-two.
With sixty years as a performer and teacher to his credit, Sam is equally revered and controversial. Besides his private teaching practice, the drum studio he founded in the 1950s hosted such guest artist/instructors as Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Papa Jo Jones. Sam also had the first-ever drum-oriented cable TV program, which ran from 1975 to 1981. And he’s released literally dozens of self-produced books and CDs, along with over 2,500 pamphlets that he calls “Foldys.”
Sam’s publications are almost comically “lo-fi” in production values, but they’re nonetheless high in informational content. In what is perhaps his most controversial teaching philosophy, Sam denounces rudiments as having nothing to do with playing a drumset. Instead, Sam focuses on reading, timekeeping, and providing the foundation for a band in a musical situation. “Your hands can’t see, hear, or think,” Sam declared at his clinic. “You do that all with your brain. That’s where you learn to play the drums. And that’s the only way you’re going to be successful as a player in the music industry.”
Sam’s philosophy may not be for everyone, but it’s been enough for some pretty stellar former students including Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Tony “Thunder” Smith, Allen Schwartzberg, and Art Taylor. These drummers—and dozens like them—have benefited from Sam’s major premise, which is that reading is the means to success. According to Sam, drummers who can read—and who can play in many styles as a result—are more likely to get work than are drummers with great rudimental technique or blazing speed.
Another controversial recommendation from Sam is regular practicing with metal sticks to improve hand and arm strength. If metal sticks aren’t available, short lengths of copper pipe will do, as Sam demonstrated at his clinic. “If I hadn’t practiced with metal sticks all these years,” he said, “there’s no way I could still be playing at ninety-two years old.”
And play he does. Sam still gigs regularly in Manhattan clubs, focusing primarily on swing and Dixieland music. To demonstrate his playing skills, Sam was accompanied at his clinic by keyboardist Les Kurtz, saxophonist Tom Olin, and vocalists Michelle Zelkin and Diana Nikolos.
The combined clinic/birthday celebration at Sam Ash Music drew many of Sam’s current and former students, as well as professional drummers who cite Sam as an inspiration. Key among those was veteran TV and Broadway drummer Ray Marchica, who’s currently in his eighth year of drumming for the Broadway production of Mamma Mia. Ray told the audience that he’d been inspired to play the drums as a youngster, after seeing Sam perform one of his “drum stories” at a clinic presented at Ray’s elementary school.
Sam has proudly played Gretsch drums since 1947—quite possibly making him the oldest and longest-running Gretsch drummer currently active. To commemorate this long association, Dinah and Fred Gretsch sent a personal birthday card to Sam, offering the good wishes of everyone at the Gretsch Company. Dinah and Fred also sent a number of souvenir Gretsch coin banks as giveaways. The banks are reproductions of models that date back more than seventy-five years to the Great Depression, when Gretsch encouraged people to save in order to purchase musical instruments.
Also on hand was Modern Drummer magazine’s ad director Bob Berenson. Bob informed the audience that Sam’s feature in the September 2011 MD had helped to make that issue a quick and total sellout.