Perfect Sound Forever

Cleve Pozar

Working Out of Another Bag
by Hank Shteamer
(April 2008)

Why do some brilliant eccentrics spawn cults and others stay obscure? For Jandek, it took sheer dogged persistence; for Albert Ayler, untimely death accelerated the mythmaking. The circumstances vary, but in the above cases--as with most-- a maverick icon is expected to exhibit some kind of monomania. Fail to hammer away at one aesthetic and you throw people off the scent.

Maybe this explains the obscurity of Cleve Pozar. If this highly accomplished percussionist, inventor and educator had chosen among his dozens of endeavors, it's possible that he might have achieved iconic status in one esoteric scene or another. The 66-year-old (formerly Robert Frank Pozar) may never have found fame, but he is a world-class master of an impressive array of drumming styles including free jazz, hip-hop, 20th-century classical, bebop, funk and his current obsession, batá drumming of the Afro-Cuban tradition. A short list of his collaborators over the years is a testament to his range: experimental trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon, avant-pop oddball Peter Ivers, jazz innovator turned pop-fusion megastar Bob James, not to mention Judy Collins and Darius Brubeck. Pozar is also an inventor with several ingenious electronic percussion setups and two patents for instrument pickups to his name. His early '70s solo performances using Echoplex machines and multiple instruments approximated the richly layered soundscapes that groups like Animal Collective are churning out today.

I was first exposed to two Pozar records, Good Golly Miss Nancy and Cleve Solo Percussion, in the library of my college radio station. The former, part of a Savoy series produced by Bill Dixon in the late '60s, fascinated me with its sparse, droll take on free jazz, while the latter contained trippy, uncategorizable aural collages far lusher than the record's title would indicate.

Poking around, I found a few other examples of his '60s work, including two early Bob James sessions, but nothing on his current whereabouts. Bill Dixon, who in the Good Golly liners labeled him "a young, searching percussionist-composer... literally hell-bent on finding a way to stay alive so that he can write and play the music that he loves," told me he hadn't heard from Pozar in years. My colleague Ben Young, a peerless scholar of avant-garde jazz, had dug up a recent record of Pozar's Afro-Cuban works but had no idea how to get in touch with the man himself.

I pretty much gave up the search, but I kept coming back to the records. A few months back, I posted some tracks from Good Golly on my blog as an homage to Pozar's obscure genius. The post elicited little reader response, but about five months later, I received a brief cryptic email: "Cleve Pozar is Bob Pozar. I am Cleve." I responded immediately and, sure enough, it was the man himself, alive and well and-- weirdly enough-- living just a few subway stops away from me in south Brooklyn.

We arranged a meeting and what started as an open-ended rendezvous ended up as a six-hour-plus conversation spread out over two fall afternoons. Cleve showed me his basement studio, demonstrating for me his prototypical electronic batá setup, and then we found a quiet corner in a local coffeeshop and he started reminiscing. Slowly, his life story took shape and it's pretty incredible, all the more so for having never been told. So I present you with first-person highlights from the life of Cleve Pozar, a cult hero without a cult-- yet.

Born in Eveleth, Minnesota, on August 8, 1941, Pozar picked up drums early and cut his teeth in polka bands.
I tell everybody I was born of steel because [Eveleth is] where the iron mines were, and they were a big deal in World War II. My father was an electrical mechanical field engineer for P&H, and they did stuff with cranes, electric shovels and so on. So before that, he worked in the mines. All my people were either miners, farmers or lumberjacks.
There was a guy next door who played trumpet in the high school marching band. On the Fourth of July, we had these parades, and I really wanted to see him in the marching band-- I'm this little kid, maybe around kindergarten. So I'm standing there waiting for him, and the band comes over the hill, and it was a beautiful sunny day. And the band had on these gold kind of silk blouses, and maroon, 'cause those were the school colors. The band comes over this mound-- the drumline is first, the sunlight's comin' off their shirts and they're all goin' "Rrrrah, rrrrackety rrrack"-- I still remember my heart started racing, and I was, like, totally freaked, man! I loved it. It was like a real mystical experience.
During his teenage years in Phoenix, Pozar played in country bands, learned rudimental marching percussion and fell hard for jazz.
I'm over at a friend of mine's house and I hear a Miles record with Philly Joe on it. It was the other mystical experience. I heard Philly Joe and I said, "I don't know what that is, or who that guy is, but whatever it is, I wanna play drums like that for the rest of my life. That's what I want to do."
He continued his studies under James Salmon at the University of Michigan.
So I go there: I can't read [music]. Because I'm a rudimental drummer and you do everything by the oral tradition. And I also don't know anything about melodic instruments; I also don't know anything about symphonies, operas, classical music-- that's what the school is, man!

Not only that, it is a very, very heavy music school. Mr. Salmon was also my counselor, and I was a badass at the time. I go into his office; Mr. Salmon is this old guy with this little pin-striped suit, very quiet guy whose main thing is on Wednesday nights he gets to go to the Catholic Men's Society association; that's his thing for the week, right? [Laughs] He looks at me very calmly and quietly and says, "I understand that you have a reading problem. So what we're gonna do this semester is concentrate on your reading. I'm going to tell you what to do and at the end of the semester you'll be reading. If you don't wish to do what I want you to do, there's the door, you may walk away now; don't come back." He was just this little guy. I'm wearing a leather motorcycle jacket and to tell you the truth, I had a switchblade in it. He put me against the wall, man! I'm doing exactly what the guy tells me to do, man. He became my mentor till he died.

Pozar quickly became an in-demand contemporary-classical percussionist at the university and worked with composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma at Ann Arbor's prestigious Once Festival. He also met fellow UM student Bob James and joined his jazz trio at the local Falcon Bar.
[With a standard like] "Nardis," instead of playing it with brushes, I developed all this stuff like using knitting needles on cymbals. Working with the Once cats, I did things like [that and] bowing the cymbals, so I really had command over those techniques. So college people started coming [to the Falcon Bar] and then the local jazzers would come and they were all jealous of us having the gig, so James used to wait until all of them got there and then we'd play "Giant Steps" and "Moment's Notice" as fast as possible, just to drive them crazy. And James was noted for driving people crazy. So more and more college people started coming.

In the meantime, we're getting more and more involved with the avant-garde shit. So we started introducing it with the cocktail tunes: All of the sudden we'd start playing free, right? And Ashley and Mumma used to come down and bring their prerecorded tapes and we would be playing with [those]. So now we've become an Ann Arbor curiosity. In one semester, we went from workin' in this bar to starting at 9 o'clock at night and at ten to 9, you could not get a seat. That place was packed every night and we just took it out.

James's trio with Pozar and bassist Ron Brooks found great success at the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival and recorded the LP Bold Conceptions for Verve. Pozar eventually left school and headed for New York, where he worked with prominent jazz vanguardists such as Bill Dixon.
So Bill was looking for a drummer, and [saxist] Ed [Curran] and everybody knew that I would never go and audition for Bill because it would scare the shit of me. So we were rehearsing for a gig...and Ed calls Bill and says, "He's gonna be there at this time-- he can't get out of it because he's rehearsing with me." [Laughs] So here we are in the middle of a tune and Bill Dixon walks in, and I'm like, Oh shit, what am I gonna do now? I can't stop in the middle of a rehearsal. So I had to do it. So Bill said to me, "We're starting the October Revolution tomorrow, I want you to play drums with me in Central Park."
Pozar appeared on Dixon's classic 1967 album Intents and Purposes.
I love [Bill Dixon]. Intents and Purposes is one of my most favorite things I've ever done in my life. I love that band, I love his writing and I love him personally.
So we go in and we do Intents and Purposes, and they had a set of tympani, and I said, "Bill, man! [Laughs] We got a set of tympani!" But the tympani were dented. You have to be very careful with tympani bowls. When you move 'em, you have to get big wooden crates that you move 'em with. So they had a couple of dents, and I hit the dents and they went "Bong-ooonng-ooong-oong"-- Beautiful! Nice sound. So when I play tympani on Intents and Purposes and you hear these weird bell sounds, it's me playing on the dents on the tympani.
Dixon also served as Pozar's mentor and teacher.
I was studying with Bill, and I was scuffling and starving. So somebody offered me a [funk] gig at the Peppermint Lounge, and I copped the gig not having the vaguest idea how to play funk, and it was with a band called Elliott James and the Filet of Soul, which I worked with a long time. That band was a smokin' band-- its drummer wasn't too good the first couple of nights. So I get through the first gig and I called Bill and I said, "Hey man, I gotta get this funk shit together." And I thought he'd really be pissed off, because he's down on all that shit, but he said to me, "Please, man, you gotta eat; I'll be over in a minute." He comes over and he basically taught me how to do the funk thing in one afternoon so I could do the gig that night. Bill Dixon, the guy that everybody thinks is this avant-garde guy-- When I had to go do the funk thing, he checked the shit out on the radio, and came over and showed me what parts to play so I could get through the gig that night. He saved my ass on that gig, man. He just said, "Oh man, it ain't my music, but you gotta eat, Cleve."

And I'll tell you another story about him. I took a lesson a week, and he would write out drum parts for me. Somewhere around, I have my Bill Dixon lesson book, and they're little solos! Each lesson was a little solo. What we did is, I'd learn the lesson, he would come in, and I had this barstool with a quart of Ballantine Ale sitting there waiting for him and I had a quart of Ballantine Ale on my side. And the way the lessons worked is we'd open up our bottles of ale and Bill would get comfortable in his barstool and I'd perform.

So, I stopped calling him, and [choreographer] Judith [Dunn] says to me one week, "How come you're not studying with Bill anymore?" I said, "Judy, man, I got no bread. I don't have food money." So Bill finds out through Judy that the reason I'm not studying with him is because I don't even have food. He comes over to my place with two grocery bags, one filled with food and the other filled with ale, walks in, puts the shit in my refrigerator, puts the extra bottle of ale in my refrigerator, opens up a bottle for me and a bottle for him and says, "Sit down on the drumset." He takes the barstool, leans over to me and says, "Don't ever do that to me again!"

In 1967, Dixon produced Pozar's debut recording as a leader, the Savoy LP Good Golly Miss Nancy. The record draws on a wide variety of sources for inspiration, including Pozar's friends' voicemail tone ("The Mechanical Answering Service of Chris and Marta White") and the original Dracula film ("Renfield").
I'd always been into film music. Like take for instance "Renfield"-- that comes directly from the original Bela Lugosi Count Dracula movie. There's a character in there called "Renfield," who's a nutcase who's taken over by Count Dracula, and they're in this cubicle with Renfield trying to find out where Count Dracula is, asking him questions. And they say, "Well, how did you get into this?" And Renfield says, "The Master showed me a seeeeeea of rats! A-ha-ha-ha-ha! A-ha-ha-ha-ha!" And that little "A-ha" is the whole-tone scale. So when you hear [hums melody of piece], it's Renfield's laugh!
Good Golly also included a "duet" between Pozar's drums and a prerecorded electronic tape piece by composer Michael Sahl.
Michael Sahl and I are also doing film scores and stuff, so we're doing a lot of monster movies. We're doing TV commercials, I did an NFL thing one year. I think 1969, I was the percussionist on the film score of the hit porno movie of the year-- and I never even got to see the movie, man. That was a drag! But evidently my solo percussion thing was when they were screwing on a diving board. And they both fell in the water after that, and my percussion thing was the climax [Laughs].
Pozar eventually left New York and moved with his wife Nancy and son Mingus to a remote cabin in New Hampshire, where he woodshedded techniques gleaned from lessons with drum guru Alan Dawson. The family then relocated to Boston in the late '60s [NOTE: date is mine and Pozar's best guess], where Pozar collaborated with the pianist Gene Ashton (now known as Cooper-Moore), performed at trade shows for the Arp synthesizer company and developed a complex solo percussion setup which he presented in concert and documented on a self-released LP entitled simply Cleve Solo Percussion. This remarkable record featured complex multilayered pieces performed live using drumset, marimba and homemade percussion instruments, along with loops made on an Echoplex tape machine.
I was working with a funk band and the guy had an Echoplex. Now, I didn't know that an Echoplex could do what an Echoplex could do, because that's what rock bands used as reverb at the time. So he's testing the Echoplex, and I'm sitting there saying, "You mean you can spread the notes?" And the guy says, "Yeah," and he says, "You know you can loop this." And he showed it to me to be funny, and I'm lookin' at this machine and I'm sayin', "This is not funny, man. This is the shit!" And I immediately ran out and got me one, so that's how I got into messing with the Echoplex.
As [the Echoplex] was playing back to me, I would play the melody over it, and I would just keep jumping back and forth in tracks and that's how I could play all those parts at once.
If I ever reissue Cleve Solo Percussion, it's going to be called Before Synth, because it was before [synthesizers] and everything that I did, I had to do the hard way, man. I had a 14-foot van that when I did it live in concert, my roadie was in the van, my son was in the van and the marimba bars were rolled up between the driver's seat and the other seat and my son sat on the marimba bars. The rest of the van was totally packed: It took us a half a day to set up and mix.
All the stuff that are loops that I did, the way you do it now is you can buy loop machines. Not only can you buy loop machines but you can buy loop machines that you can program for echo exactly like I did; you just press a button and it's done. I had to take Echoplexes, take the tapes apart, wrap new tapes and calculate exactly what the length of that tape was. I had to play the melody lines and stuff precisely at the same tempo every time so when I pressed the Echoplex button that I was gonna come out on one. Now I could do all this shit on your kitchen table easy.
Sometime before the release of Cleve Solo Percussion, Pozar had his name legally changed.
My birth certificate is Robert Frank Pozar, because that's what my parents named me. I hated the name Robert. Also, my father was a very stern kind of guy, and he was always on my case, and he used to say, "Bob!" and it was like a gunshot, and I used to have nightmares about that shit. And I said, "I'm gonna get a name that nobody can say harshly." So at the time I'm playing with Darius Brubeck, and we were rehearsing one time at Dave's house, and Noah Young, the bass player, was a numerologist, and we decided we were going to give me a new name, and we had to work out the numbers right. So we knew it had to be "C" and have a certain amount of numbers in it. So we were working on this on our rehearsal break on the kitchen table and Iola [Brubeck, Dave's wife] is ironing in the kitchen and she said, "So, how bout Cleve?" So I said, "Wow, that sounds good. Let's do it." So I had a legal name change [in the '70s]. Robert Frank is no longer in existence, it's Cleve Frank-- I kept the Frank out of respect for my father. People say to me, "Who's Robert Frank?" and I say, "He's gone, man. He's gone away!"
After his time in Boston, Pozar moved with his family back to New Hampshire, where his son introduced him to hip-hop.
Mingus loved my sound system, so when I'd take practice breaks, he'd go and play his hip-hop records. So he's playing this thing one day and I'm listening to it upstairs, and I'm sayin', "Who the hell is this drummer, man?!?" I didn't understand about drum machines at the time-- this had been a long time since I'd been in New York. So I went downstairs, and I said, "Mingus, who is that?"

"Oh, it's Grandmaster Flash, Dad."

So I'm saying, "You leave that record out for me-- I wanna hear that drummer." So I'm listening to this guy-- who I think is a guy. He's playing this real complicated shit on the hi-hat, double-bass and this funk snare shit, and I'm sayin', "Man, I've been away from New York too long, man. That guy is a motherfucker. If everybody in New York is playing like that, I don't stand a prayer." So I write the shit out, right? And I start workin' on it-- man, it took me about six months to get that shit together, but I learned to play all the Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa beats.

Pozar eventually separated from his wife and returned to New York in the mid-'80s. There he taught percussion in after-school programs and earned a commendation from the city for his "1 E and A" system, a method for introducing kids to the concept of rhythm.
[The kids] were all into their hip-hop shit. So what the "1 E and A" was is they're on one side of the hi-hat and I'm on the other side of the hi-hat. And I started doing this [taps 1/16 notes], and they'd duplicate me, and I said, "You have to count out loud, and you're not gonna stop and I'm gonna start playing an accent. You're gonna count and not stop playing and you're gonna figure out where my accent is, and then you're gonna play it." So we'd go through putting your bass drum on every conceivable place you could put it, while they're playing stuff on top, which means you're not considering independence because there is no independence; it's interdependence. So you understand, after about six weeks, these kids have enough control over the drumset to play any hip-hop pattern on the radio. I got these little kids smokin' the shit.
Meanwhile, Pozar arranged complex Latin rhythms-- traditionally played by multiple percussionists-- for electronic drumset and made videos demonstrating the process. (Excerpts from these tapes can currently be found on YouTube.)

The stuff that's on YouTube are note-for-note solos that I copped, timbale solos. So[my friend] gets these four heavy Latin percussionists to check it out. They looked at the solos and the guy said they ran the tape, ran the tape again, ran the tape again-- after the fourth time, they got up and they walked out and they wouldn't say a word. So they believed it, but they wouldn't say it.
Encountering money troubles, Pozar gave up music for 12 years and worked as a draftsman and designer. Eventually he began taking lessons in Afro-Cuban drumming and found his way to the batá, which has remained a consuming obsession even through recent periods of intense personal struggle.
I went over to [drum teacher John Amira's] house, picked up the okonkolo [NOTE: the smallest of the three drums used in batá] , did three hits-- that was it. The batá is something I always wanted to do. I love the batá with a passion. That was it. Everything just went away.
Finally, I'm down to almost nothing. I can't get a gig. I'm not eating for two or three days at a time. I'm sitting there having a cigarette, and I truly believe I'm gonna lose it. And I just sat there at that point and said, "You know what, man? You can't get a gig; there's nothing you can do about. You're not eating; there's nothing you can do about it. You're having all these other problems with money and all this shit; there's nothing you can do about it. Just go down to the boiler room and hit the drum." And I went down and I started hitting the drum, and every time I'd come up and I'd start getting a little weird, I'd say, "Go down and hit the drum." In six months, I memorized all three parts [of a certain batá rhythm], and I had a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder and multitracked the sucker 20 times from memory. The point is man, it was within a split second of me completely losing it that I really finally got the batá together.
In 1998-99, Pozar recorded his third record as a leader, "Let's Try It Again," which combined authentic batá rhythms with jazz and pop standards.
The point of doing it was to put the jazz and the pop stuff together with absolutely the real batá parts that you play in a ceremony, unabridged. It's very clean and it's not that far out, but it wasn't meant to be, because my trip was if you listen to the batá alone, man, it's out. And I said, "The next CD I'm going to make, I want the batá players to be able to enjoy it, I want the jazz players to be able to enjoy it and I want my mother to be able to make toast for my father in the morning for breakfast and enjoy it." And it doesn't make any difference if my mother knows what the batá parts are, she can enjoy the music.
Today Pozar is still hard at work in his basement studio, perfecting the latest in a long line of electronic percussion setups, which he's using to render the batá's complex polyrhythms-- usually played by three drummers-- using only his own four limbs.
The moral of the story is: when you hear of a drummer disappearing, it's not so that he's disappeared. It's just, he's working out of another bag, man. Because you see, I've never stopped playing, except for those 12 years when I had to; I just didn't play free anymore. Everybody says, "Okay, this guy did 14 free albums, so therefore he's a free player." I mean, I was doing children's records at the same time I was playing free, man. I'm a player, and I'm gonna go where the best drum music to play is, because I'm a drummer, and that's why I love the batá, because I'm playing the drums, man, and [they're] very, very important. So as long as it involves playing fun parts, then I'm into it.

Selected discography of Cleve Pozar [listed by recording date]:

1962 - Bob James Bold Conceptions (Verve)
1965 - Bob James Explosions (ESP)
1966-'67 - Bill Dixon Intents and Purposes (RCA Victor)
1967 - The Robert F. Pozar Ensemble Good Golly Miss Nancy (Savoy)
1967 - Ed Curran Elysa (Savoy)
1969 - Peter Ivers Knight of the Blue Communion (Epic)
[early '70s] The Cleve Pozar Solo Percussion Record (self-released)
1979 - Bobby Naughton Nauxtagram (OTIC)
1981 - Michael Sahl Civilization and Its Discontents (Nonesuch)
1998-'99 Let's Try It Again (self-released?)

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER