Johns Hopkins Magazine - February 1995 Issue

Bangin' around with Johnny H.

By Dale Keiger

He's the self-described "foremost solo timpanist," presumably in the world. You could argue that places him atop a heap of but what of it? How many little Grammy trophies do you have, smart guy?

Jonathan Haas sits in a room back stage at Carnegie Hall, and with his hands bangs out the drum solo to

"In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on a tabletop. Those who were teenagers in the 1960s will know what that means. For those who weren't, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was a rock 'n' roll song, a 17-minute benchmark for all the young musicians who played high school dances in the late '60s. Only the bands with the best chops could play it. Haas was in that sort of band.

Now, in Carnegie Hall, he slaps the tom-tom rhythm on the table and sings the bass drum part. When he was a kid, he drove his parents nuts doing this; his sister once threatened to kill him if he didn't stop beating time on the furniture. Mom and Dad Haas finally gave up and bought him a drum set, no doubt to preserve the living room, and he's been drumming ever since. Drumming with the New York Pops. Frank Zappa. The American Symphony Orchestra. The Paul Taylor Dance Company. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His own jazz band, Johnny H. & The Prisoners of Swing.

Haas has unearthed and recorded classical percussion concertos and jazz music for timpani by Duke Ellington. He's done a rock tour with Emerson Lake & Palmer. Recorded jingles for Budweiser and VISA. Drummed on a tribute album to Black Sabbath. Won a Grammy for a Frank Zappa record, Zappa's Universe.

And that's just some of what keeps him busy. Jonathan Haas is two parts musician, one part teacher, one part entrepreneur. He now estimates that he plays with 24 ensembles. As director of the Peabody Conservatory percussion program, he takes the train down from New York to spend two days a week teaching in Baltimore. Summers he teaches at the Aspen Music School & Festival in Colorado. From the house he shares with his wife and three kids in Westchester County, he runs a record company, an instrument rental business, and a musicians' contracting company. He seems ever in motion. A friend once said to him, "Man, you've always got two wheels off the track." Haas grins as he recalls this. It's an image he likes.

A few people around New York have begun to call him "Johnny H.," his jazz-band moniker, and he likes that, too. The nickname's overtones of brashness and street-hustle fit him. Haas has never been shy about promoting his career, and never much concerned about who might dislike him for that. Fresh out of the Juilliard School, he got so much press during a stint with the Charlotte Symphony that he alienated the conductor and some other members of the orchestra. He'll tell you that in 1980, after leaving North Carolina, "I hit New York like a load of bricks." He'll also tell you he considers himself "the foremost solo timpanist," presumably in the world. You could argue that such a claim places him atop a heap of one, but what of it? It's his spot, his turf, and how many little Grammy trophies do you have, smart guy?

The New York Times once wrote of him in a concert review, "Jonathan Haas is a ubiquitous presence in the New York musical world; wherever one finds a percussion instrument waiting to be rubbed, shook, struck or strummed, he is probably nearby, ready to fulfill his duties with consummate expertise." That same review called him a "masterful young percussionist." It also noted, "There was a hint of P.T. Barnum to this entire undertaking."

A Barnum with timpani mallets in his hands. "Hit drum, get check," Johnny H. says, grinning.

Haas makes a good living in a tough business, but right now, as he concludes his tabletop solo in Carnegie Hall, it sounds like that living could be the death of him. He suffered from pneumonia last spring; it's now October and he's still hacking. He says he's worked the last 42 days straight and that Pia, his wife, has begun to lose her sense of humor. This day began at 7 a.m. and has included two deliveries of instruments he is renting to orchestras, two rehearsals, and many hours of business conducted by telephone. It is now 9 in the evening. As the New York Pops prepares to take the Carnegie Hall stage for a benefit concert, Haas, who often plays with the orchestra, is backstage lining up players for two of its upcoming tours. It will be midnight before he starts for home, by way of a quick stop at an uptown pizza joint, and nearly 2 a.m. before he gets to bed. "This is a typical day," he says, coughing. "If you're not going like this every day, you're in trouble 'cause you're not making any money."

He is a short and roundish man, 40 years old, with a full head of dark hair and a boyish face. He wears wire-framed glasses that he takes off for photographs, and has a peculiar habit of sliding his finger and thumb behind them when he listens; it sometimes looks as if he's pinching the outside corner of his eye to better concentrate. When he's not wearing a tuxedo for a performance, he favors Ralph Lauren button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. He carries his business papers in a battered leather satchel, and his sticks, mallets, and other drummer paraphernalia in a nylon sports bag.

Haas likes to talk. He banters with stagehands, musicians, students, reporters. He'll sometimes take over an interview, posing his own questions, thanking himself for asking, and then responding at length. He punctuates some of his statements with a forward nod of his head and raised eyebrows, as if to say, "You see? You get it?"

He grew up in Glencoe, Illinois. His father was CEO of Sealy Posturepedic mattress company. Of his mother he says, "If it weren't for her dedication to driving my drums around, I wouldn't be here now. Mom made it all happen." Several members of his family played instruments. "Music was always around, and purely for the joy of it. No one else in my family is a pro, not even semi-pro, not even semi-semi-off-off-Broadway pro." He began playing drums instead of the furniture when he was 9 or 10, and soon was splitting time between his school orchestra and a rock 'n' roll band that played Doors and Led Zeppelin songs at local dances. It wasn't just the music that appealed to him. Haas liked the identity. People noticed the drummer. Girls noticed the drummer. (He claims to have wooed his wife by playing Bach for her on the vibraphone.)

He was also a gymnast in high school. Gymnastics provided one more outlet for his enormous energy, and for a while competed with music for his attention. "Trampoline was my specialty," he recalls. "What made me choose music was, I was at a gymnastics meet, and my mother was there, and I fell off. I didn't hurt myself, but I could have done great harm. It was a very bad fall. I looked at my mother and said, 'I don't think I need to do this anymore.' She agreed."

In 1973 he enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis to study liberal arts. He had no plans for a music career, but he kept up his drumming, taking lessons from Rich O'Donnel, the principal percussionist of the St. Louis Symphony. Haas says, "I was just a typical liberal arts student taking percussion lessons. Nothing great was happening."

Then he encountered Andy Linden. Linden was not a university student, but he was studying percussion privately, and he would practice 12 to 14 hours a day. "He'd be there late into the night," Haas recalls. "I'd see the lights on in the percussion studio. One night I went up there, and here's this guy, with the coffee pot on and all these percussion instruments set up, and he's playing Bach's B-Minor Saraband on vibraphone.

"Now I truly feel that if Bach were alive today he'd have written for the vibraphone, not the violin. Or maybe for both. Anyway, here was this guy in the middle of the night, drinking coffee and practicing Bach, and this was the ultimate to me in dedication. And he wanted me to come and practice with him. So I did. We stayed up all night drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and practicing. When we were done at 6 in the morning I was so exhilarated I decided I was going to try this out as a sort of routine."

In the summer of his 19th year, Haas auditioned for the Chicago Civic Orchestra. Gordon Peters, principal percussionist for the Chicago Symphony, ran the audition and started Haas on timpani, the copper-bottomed kettledrums that can be tuned to various pitches: "He says, 'Sit down on the stool.' I said, 'I stand when I play.' He says to sit down, so I do what he says and I begin to play. He stops me and says, 'You look like a silly goose when you play.' By now I'm pretty distracted, but I keep playing. Then he asks me to play the bell part to The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and he asks for a few passages I hadn't practiced. I couldn't play it."

Fresh from that disaster, he played a single guest rehearsal with the orchestra. "And here's what happened," Haas says, warming up to another story. "We were playing Ravel's La Valse. They put me on bass drum. At the end of La Valse, in the last bar, the orchestra plays the equivalent of four notes in the time of three. I didn't know that. I hit the fourth beat, BOOM! Unscheduled solo. Gordon Peters came running back and ripped the bass drum beater out of my hand and screamed, 'What the hell are you doing?' The whole orchestra turned around. If that isn't analogous to falling off that trampoline, I don't know what is." To make his summer complete, his Chicago percussion teacher told Haas that he thought he'd have a fine career--as a lawyer or a doctor.

Haas went back to St. Louis when the school year began and reported the events of the summer to Rich O'Donnel. "He was angry: 'How dare somebody do these things to you!' He gave me an ultimatum. I could believe in the brief and uninformed notions of people who didn't know me, or I could trust him, my teacher. I chose to go with him. Within six months, I was playing with the St. Louis Symphony."

From Washington University, Haas moved on to the Juilliard School in New York. While enrolled there in 1978, he auditioned to tour with Emerson Lake & Palmer, as part of an orchestra they planned to take with them on a mammoth stadium tour. Haas got the job, and each show began with him alone in a spotlight, playing the snare drum rhythm that opens Ravel's Bolero, in front of 75,000 or so screaming rock 'n' roll fans. "Probably the greatest musical moment of my life," he says. "If there was a big rock tour now, if it didn't take me away from my family for too long, I'd probably go." One day Carl Palmer, ELP's drummer, asked for a xylophone lesson. Haas taught him to play Bach.

Out of Juilliard in 1979, he landed the first job he auditioned for, with the Charlotte Symphony. It was a decent gig for a young guy, $17,000 a year and regular performances. But he wasn't long in North Carolina before he began, to use his phrase, plotting his return to New York. He decided he'd do something that had never been done before: a solo timpani recital at Carnegie Recital Hall. He applied to the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation for a grant to cover his costs for staging the recital, which he says were between $3,000 and $5,000. The foundation turned him down. Undeterred, he proposed an audition. The foundation agreed, heard him play, and again said no. So he footed the bill himself and on May 19, 1980, played a program that included the North American premiere of a piece by the eminent German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. In the audience was an administrator from the Rockefeller Foundation. When the recital ended, she came backstage and told Haas she'd be writing a belated check to cover his expenses.

John Rockwell reviewed the recital for the Times and was restrained in his praise; the most enthusiasm he could muster was, "Mr. Haas's confidence and musical curiosity were never in doubt." But the recital put Haas's name in circulation. Not long after, the New York Chamber Symphony called and asked if he'd like to join. He packed up his gear, headed for the big city, and began lining up gigs.

He also began his campaign to bring the timpani forward as solo instruments, a campaign that, not coincidentally, would bring Jonathan Haas forward as their foremost player. He commissioned and performed new works. He heard about an 18th-century concerto for eight timpani and orchestra and spent a year trying to track it down, with no success until he heard about Harrison Powley, a musicologist at Brigham Young University. Haas called, and Powley told him, "I've got everything you need, plus a whole lot more." The musicologist had smuggled out of communist Budapest six microfilmed scores of timpani concertos by Hungarian composer Georg Druschetzky (1745-1819). Haas obtained them from Powley and performed some of them with the New York Chamber Symphony. He says, "The audience loved it. I was playing the melody on eight timpani." He recorded two Druschetzky compositions on a compact disc, 18th Century Concertos for Timpani and Orchestra. The recording billed him as "Jonathan Haas--Virtuoso Timpanist." He had begun to mark off his territory.

His hunt for new material led him in an unexpected direction. In a percussion magazine he found mention of Vic Berton, a classically trained percussionist who had played jazz timpani in the 1920s. Recalls Haas, "I said, 'I gotta do that. I gotta play jazz timpani. That's the hippest idea ever.'" He began researching jazz scores and learned of a Duke Ellington composition for timpani. Ruth Ellington, Duke's sister, still lived in Manhattan, and Haas called her. She was so pleased at the idea of him performing "Tymperturbably Blue" that she gave him two more of her late brother's pieces that contained parts for jazz timpani. "This wasn't just a lark now," Haas says. "There was some history behind this."

To play these and other jazz compositions, Haas formed a nine- piece band, Johnny H. & The Prisoners of Swing. The Prisoners play a variety of standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," plus the timpani compositions Haas has found. There's a horn section, a rhythm section, an astonishing, manic xylophone player named Ian Finkel, and Haas, who plays 10 timpani.

Musicians like Ellington, Art Blakey, Sun Ra, and Max Roach have used timpani in jazz. But Haas puts the kettledrums up front, using them not just for the usual percussion parts, but for melodic lines and solos, too (think of a melody played on an upright bass, but with lots of boom). "Sweet Georgia Brown" performed on timpani is an acquired taste, but the band is great fun, especially live. They play gigs around the New York area, which is a logistical feat. "Ten timpani," Haas says. "This band is a nightmare to take on the road."

Back at Carnegie Hall, he stands backstage during the evening's benefit concert as a former student of his, Mark Lortz, takes a long solo in the middle of a jazz number. It is Lortz's first appearance at Carnegie. Rapt and smiling, Haas gazes at the overhead TV screen that monitors the stage and says, "He's doing just what his teacher taught him to do. He's milking it for all it's worth." Lortz finishes his solo and the crowd gives him an ovation. "Hear that roar?" Haas says, delighted. "That's for him!" When Lortz comes off the stage, sweating and all but quivering with joy, the first thing he does is embrace his former teacher.

It's a nice moment, but it's soon over and Haas has to return to his administrative chores. Ordinarily, he would be playing with the orchestra, but tonight he's working as its contractor. Like many ensembles, the New York Pops is a freelance orchestra; the musicians at each performance have been hired for the night from a list of rostered players who get first choice, and a larger pool of other performers called to fill the gaps if rostered musicians decline to play. It is the contractor's job to hire the musicians, handle the payroll, and see to it that everyone abides by the union work rules.

When Haas heard last year that the Pops would need a new contractor, he teamed up with a longtime friend, Pops trumpeter Neil Balm, and won the contract. They formed Gemini Music Productions Ltd. and began scrambling to do several months' worth of work in a few weeks, booking musicians for tours in Florida and Japan. Now Haas leans over to the bearded Balm, who is working on a laptop computer at the same table, and says, "How ya doin', darling?" Balm just grins and keeps typing. From time to time they say things to each other like, "This has got to get easier once we're up and running."

Haas has a penchant for founding companies. The Prisoners of Swing record for Sunset Records, which is headquartered in the basement of his house and has one act--The Prisoners of Swing. The basement is also the headquarters of Kettles & Co., Haas's instrument rental business. He has a large collection of percussion instruments, which he rents to various ensembles. He says, "Any ensemble where I'm running things as principal percussionist or principal timpanist, they rent their percussion instruments from me. My competitors don't like that, but that's tough."

The point of all this entrepreneurship is to give him some control over his professional life. Performing music is an uncertain business; the companies supplement his income and provide some security for his family. His record company lets him control how and what his jazz band puts out on disk. Gemini Music Productions protects one of his best gigs, the New York Pops; if he's the one hiring the musicians, he'll always have a job because he can simply hire himself.

It all comes back to playing music. It's easy to lose sight of this, because on certain days you can spend 24 hours with Haas and see him actually play music for only an hour or two. To appreciate his musicianship, it's better to watch him teach. At a performance, you get a sense of his dexterity and concentration, but in the midst of a symphony, it's hard to pick up the nuances that make what he does music, not mere thrashing and bashing. At a lesson, the artistry becomes apparent.

You may think a drummer does only two things with a drum: (1) hit it, and (2) hit it repeatedly. To watch Haas conduct lessons at the Peabody Conservatory is to see how much more goes into it. On a Monday afternoon, he gives one student an hourlong tambourine lesson. The young man tries a few different ways of striking the instrument, but he's tentative and a little awkward. Haas takes the tambourine to demonstrate, and gets so much music out of it you could close your eyes and swear you're listening to a snare drum section on a tear.

Drumming is precise and delicate violence. In a lesson, Haas goes measure by measure with a student, stopping to teach hand position, the proper height of the sticks on upstrokes, the subtle distinction between a correctly played fortepiano roll and what the student has been playing, which, Haas demonstrates, is a forte quarter-note followed by a piano roll: close, but not correct. He makes the students think about how they stand, how they breathe, which mallets they use for different passages. He lectures them on the historical context of Beethoven's writing for percussion versus Tchaikovsky's.

"What do you feel in the left hand?" he asks one student. "What composer uses the device of the double roll?" he quizzes another.

His knowledge is encyclopedic. He knows the different sounds of various brands of triangle. Name a major piece of music and he'll sing the timpani part, or the part of any other piece of percussion. During one lesson, Haas, who has no music in front of him, asks, "Wasn't there supposed to be a tied quarter-note there?" The student checks the exercise book, and sure enough he's missed a tied quarter-note.

"I love every one of these kids," Haas says. "This is so much fun down here. I'll never have a boy [Haas has three daughters], so these are my boys. Several of them I will know for the rest of my life."

Which doesn't mean they don't exasperate him now and again. Of Peabody students in general he says, "They have a false expectation of what the world and their education owe them. They think, 'I pay all this money, now make me a musician and get me a job.'" They practice hard, he says, but place too much faith in technical proficiency and exhibit too little desire for personal growth and expression. "B.F. Skinner could teach a pigeon to play Ping-Pong," he says. "I can teach you to hit a drum. I can teach a chimpanzee to hit a drum. What I can't teach a chimpanzee is to reveal his inner self. If you don't get past the pure mathematics of music, you have nothing. To be a musician you have to apply your personality."

Warming to his subject, he continues: "Peabody has as open- minded and progressive a faculty as any conservatory in the country. It's the students who are conservative. I see a lack of creativity, no hunger for originality. I ask them, 'Do you listen to Guns n' Roses? Aerosmith? Alice in Chains?' They look at me like I'm a Martian, or like I'm the boyfriend they didn't want coming over because I always listened to that kind of music. I'm surprised at how little exposure they have. Or how little they want, which really gets me going. If I don't expose them, I'm at fault. But if they don't respond, it's their loss. I feel that these days, I'm losing more than I'm winning. I haven't given up, though. As many kids as I have who don't understand, there are the few who do get it, who make me love doing this."

Exposing people to unfamiliar contemporary music is also one of Haas's missions as a performer. He has played on recordings of Wendy Mae Chambers's Symphony of the Universe (which begins with 100 timpani and five bass drums) and Barbara Kolb's Solitaire. In February 1993, he and Neil Balm co-directed a Lincoln Center Great Performers presentation, "The Music of Frank Zappa," which featured some of the late musical iconoclast's symphonic work. Haas would like to do more productions like this. He believes that programming well-rehearsed, well-played contemporary compositions could reinvigorate orchestral music and attract new patrons to the concert hall. There is some evidence in support of his belief. In California, the young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, has been programming concert series in which two-thirds of the pieces are 20th-century works. According to The New York Times, the orchestra's subscriptions have increased, while the average age of its audiences has dropped. New, younger subscribers are coming out to hear Lutoslawski, Schoenberg, and Ligeti mixed in with Brahms and Beethoven.

Haas has no end of projects in mind. He needs a longer day. This one has been long enough, however. After the Pops concert, he has to pack all the instruments the orchestra rented from him. The musicians have left them laying around, which is no accident. By virtue of becoming the orchestra's contractor, Haas has become a quasi-boss. Some of his colleagues don't appreciate his new status; some of them wanted the contracting job for themselves. Haas is unconcerned. He jokes with the stagehands as he retrieves instrument cases and rounds up sticks and cymbals and drums. Then it's into his van for the drive home to Westchester.

"My friends and I contemplate how long we can keep this up," he says, rubbing his eyes. "Can we be doing this when we're 55 years old? This is a hell of a pace."

At a toll booth on the expressway, he waits while the driver ahead of him fumbles for correct change. "Must be a musician," Haas says, shaking his head. While he waits, he coughs, takes a swig from a can of soda, and offers a coda to the long day.

"My kids say, 'Daddy, are you going to work?' I say, 'No, I'm not going to work. I'm going to play.'"

On the steering wheel, Johnny H.'s fingers tap out a rhythm.

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.

A Jonathan Haas Discography

Prokofiev: Peter & The Wolf
The Little Orchestra Society
MusicMasters Classics: 0612-67067-2

18th Century Concertos for
Timpani and Orchestra
Jonathan Haas
CRD Records: CRD 3449

Wendy Mae Chambers:
Symphony of the Universe
Newport Classic Premier: NPD 85552

Jan De Gaetani: In Concert, Vol. 1
Bridge: BCD 9023

Johnny H. & The Prisoners of Swing
Sunset Records: 784002-2

Barbara Kolb: Millefoglie & Other Works
New World Records: 80422-2

Frank Zappa: Zappa's Universe
Verve: 314 513 575-2

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