Han Bennink: The Jazz Drummer Who Makes Music Out Of Everything Han Bennink hears sonic possibilities in many objects beyond the typical drum set. The Dutch drum maestro, one of the leaders in European free jazz and free improvisation, joined Fresh Air for an in-studio interview and concert. Before he left, he drummed on virtually everything in the office.

The Jazz Drummer Who Makes Music Out Of Everything

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My guest is one of the best living jazz drummers in the world, but he's not that well-known in the U.S. because he's Dutch. That drummer is Han Bennink and today is his 70th birthday. He's one of the musicians our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead wrote about in his book "New Dutch Swing." Kevin says that Bennink embodies all the traits of Dutch improvised music - often theatrical, humorous and ironic - with killer chops that makes the horsing around possible and virtuosity that assures any mistake is deliberate.

In 1967, Bennink co-founded the Dutch band The ICP Orchestra. ICP stands for Instant Composers Pool. They're still performing and recording. Here's Bennink with The ICP Orchestra on their 2010 recording "ICP 049." It shows how this band, known for free improvisation, can really swing.


GROSS: Han Bennink loves parade drumming and you can hear that on this track from the recent album of duets "Two for Two," featuring Bennink and pianist Aki Takase.


GROSS: When Han Bennink was getting started, he used to play with American jazz musicians on tour in Holland, including Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster and Eric Dolphy. Bennink is featured on Dolphy's live album "Last Date," which was recorded in June 1964 just a few weeks before Dolphy died. Here's the track "Miss Ann."


GROSS: I spoke with drummer Han Bennink earlier this year when he was in the U.S. to perform in several cities. As you'll soon hear, he not only plays drums, he'll use his sticks on anything that makes an interesting noise.

Han Bennink, welcome to FRESH AIR. Han, I want to talk with you a little bit about your music life when you started playing in the 60s.


GROSS: And...

BENNINK: But that was all aping, of course. We wanted to sound - I wanted to sound like Kenny Clark and the bass player wanted to sound like Ray Brown. That, those people were our favorite rhythm section.

GROSS: Now a lot of Americans felt like, well, European jazz doesn't really count as jazz, because one: they're European, they're not American; two, they're not African-American; and three, they can't possibly swing because they're European.

BENNINK: Yeah. Yeah. I know.

GROSS: Did any of that bother you at any point in your career?

BENNINK: No not at all, because I was aping Kenny Clark, for example, when we played with Johnny Griffin, or Bob Gonzales, or Ben Webster or... Ben lived in Amsterdam like (unintelligle), a great place to play with. The bass player and me were always happy when it was really coming together and he said wow, finally we sound like an American rhythm section. I'm not interested to sound like an American rhythm section at all anymore. I realize, more and more, that you have to report from your cultural background and do it with that. Don't ape.

GROSS: So one of the things I love about your drumming is that you hear sonic possibilities in so many things beyond the drums and you're able to integrate that into your performances. So you're generous enough to bring a snare drum with you today.

But before we knew for sure if you'd be able to bring a drum, Roberta, our director, and I just rounded up some random stuff from our offices, and now we're going to call it found objects, and ask you if you can find some interesting sonic things about them.

So just sitting on the table here, we have a bag of, like, paperclips.


GROSS: Yup. A metal bookstand.


BENNINK: It's all fantastic. I like it.



BENNINK: It's cool.

GROSS: We've got a box? Is that a box?

BENNINK: Oh. Yeah.

GROSS: It has some junk in it.



GROSS: Yeah.

BENNINK: Razor knives in it. Yoo-hoo.

GROSS: That's a very old tin box.

BENNINK: And then Urban Outfitters.

GROSS: Oh, it's a box that some clothing should be in.

BENNINK: Then we have, like...


GROSS: A glass with pens.

BENNINK: A glass. Yeah. And then - yeah.

GROSS: This is, like, a little jellybean holder...


GROSS: ...like a coin thing...

BENNINK: Oh, that one.

GROSS: ...that you put in the penny.



GROSS: And then finally...


GROSS: That's a mic stand kind of thing. OK. So that's our sonic possibilities here.


GROSS: Do you think you could do something interesting with that?

BENNINK: Interesting, I can't give you any guarantee about that.

GROSS: Oh, I shouldn't be (unintelligible). OK.

BENNINK: But the thing of playing on everything comes, actually, a bit of a story. I used to play with my father in a band for the army. I never was a soldier, but I played. Of course, I wanted to play as much rounds as I could in commercial bands, and we had to play for our soldiers. And then I was the youngest in the band, 17.

We played in a tent, and the heat in the tent was so high, that all the drum heads were broken when we had to play. And I was crying to my daddy, because my dad and me, we were sort of imitation Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman at the end of the show.

And then my father said: Come on, man. Think about it. You just simply sit on the floor and you play on there, and you do what you can. And that was such a wise lesson, sit on the floor and play. And I had much more success than I was playing on the drums, anyway.

GROSS: So you sat on the floor and you played...


GROSS: ...the floor.

BENNINK: Yeah, yeah. Right.

GROSS: All right. So do you want to give it a go?

BENNINK: OK. How long you want me to go?

GROSS: Oh, a minute or two.



BENNINK: Enough.



GROSS: Oh, that's great.

BENNINK: Thank you.

GROSS: Whistling. Very nice.

BENNINK: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. I love whistling.

BENNINK: It's nice to whistle. When I play snare drum, I very much whistle. Like...


BENNINK: (Singing) Where is Lucia? Lucia is (unintelligible). Lucia is head (unintelligible) from the drummer from the band. Yeah, that Lucia. Miss that love of Lucia. Lucia is the drummer, oh, drummer from the band. (unintelligible)

And so on, and so on.

GROSS: Oh, that's wonderful. I love that.

BENNINK: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: And that's drummer Han Bennink, playing our studio table and a glass.


GROSS: And then before that, he was playing all kinds of other objects that we'd gathered from our office and laid before him, including a bag of paperclips. It was looking a little dangerous for a while. Things were, like, flying all over. One thing almost hit you in the face.

BENNINK: I'm sorry about that.


GROSS: A dangerous business.

BENNINK: I know. When I was playing with very cheap drumsticks, even George Lewis was in the band. It was in Florence, Firenze. My drumstick broke off at the first hit, and it hit a lady in the eye.


BENNINK: And it was like, ow! She was hit like that. And it happened to be that her - the glass of her spectacles broke, but thank God she had nothing in her eye. Because you don't want to go to a concert and come with one eye out of the concert, right? But it's sometimes very dangerous. Yeah.

GROSS: Have you ever hurt yourself?

BENNINK: Oh, very many, many times.


BENNINK: Fingers, thumb bleeding.

GROSS: You've got a Band-Aid on right now.

BENNINK: Yeah. But it - yeah, look. It is like.

GROSS: Oh, wow. Like one thumb's got a really big knob on it.

BENNINK: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

BENNINK: Stuff like that.

GROSS: It kills me, because I think, like, you are - you know, not that I know all living drummers, but you've got to be among, like, the best living drummers. And there are so many Americans who don't know your work because you're Dutch. You come here occasionally on tour, but I think it's mostly people who follow avant garde jazz who really know your work. So I'm hoping more people will.

BENNINK: I hope so, too.



GROSS: My guest is Dutch drummer Han Bennink. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Dutch jazz drummer Han Bennink, a central figure in the Dutch jazz scene, not to mention one of the greatest jazz drummers in the world. He co-founded the Dutch band the ICP Orchestra.

You know, one of the things I hear in your playing - not so much in what you've been improvising, but on some of your recordings - is a love of marches, parade music...


GROSS: ...circus music.

BENNINK: Absolutely.

GROSS: So can you talk a little bit about your interest in that and the kind of rhythms that come out of that...

BENNINK: Of course.

GROSS: ...that you like to play?

BENNINK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And you could demonstrate here if you like. Yeah.

BENNINK: Yeah. Well, the first time - or - I remember when the Second World War was over - I was born in 1942 - that they were dropping these big tins with Swedish white bread in it. And when you emptied them, you had a big tin, and you make a string around your neck, and you play like marching bands. And my father was a drummer, so automatically, that was the thing.

When there was a parade coming to Zaandam at that particular time after the Second World War, of course you were marching like a child behind it. It gave me an incredible feeling. And that same feel I have is African music, African drumming. Not that I - I don't want to ape it, but there's a certain direction, a certain goal. Well, I'll give you a little bit of a demonstration.


GROSS: Then the drummers are marching into the distance.

BENNINK: Right. Right.


GROSS: That was great. And that was Han Bennink just playing our table with a little towel over the tabletop. You know, I love those marching bands...

BENNINK: Yeah, me too.

GROSS: ...and parade music and stuff.

BENNINK: Yeah. Me, too.

GROSS: It's just so stirring.

BENNINK: Like Mardi Gras.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, exactly.

BENNINK: Yeah. The same stuff.

GROSS: Exactly.

BENNINK: And it's the beginning of jazz, also. It's a shame that, actually, in America, that they are doing actually nothing for jazz. It's their national heritage. Hello? But hello, you have jazz music. They should give much more money for that.

GROSS: Any comparison between audiences in America and Holland?

BENNINK: No. Yeah. Of course, it depends of the concert and what you did on the concert. But I must say that my favorite audience is the American audience. So the American audience, for me, is the best audience in the world. And, of course, the question is then why. Well, you see, I've been playing, and there were people who brought their kids, and the kids were four years old. But at the same time, there were people who were probably 94 years old.

So my whole audience is - our audience was 90 years old, that thing. And I think that is amazing. And if they like it, they really go for it.

GROSS: Han Bennink recorded in our studio earlier this year during an American tour. Today is his 70th birthday. You can watch two videos of him playing drums in our studio on our website: freshair.npr.org. He has two concerts in New York this month. On April 18th, he'll perform with the accordion player Will Holshouser and clarinetist and saxophone player Michael Moore. We'll close with a new recording by that trio called "Live in New York."

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