Leon “Ndugu” Chancler passed away last night after a battle with cancer. He was 65 years old.
Of course, Weather Report fans know Ndugu as the drummer on the band’s fifth studio LP, Tale Spinnin’. His involvement was pure serendipity. The band was rehearsing for the album at the same time that Ndugu was recording a Jean-Luc Ponty album just down the street. One day they all emerged from their respective studios at the same time and met up on the sidewalk. “Ndugu, what are you doing in the next two days?” Zawinul asked. Chancler said he was wrapping up his session with Ponty, but would be free the following week. “Come and do a session with Weather Report,” Joe suggested. It went so well that Zawinul wanted to hire him in the band, but Chancler was committed to Santana and turned him down.
Ironically, his initial reaction upon hearing Tale Spinnin’ was that he didn’t like it. “I didn’t like the drum sound,” he told me in an interview. “That was my first reaction. The reason being is, I didn’t feel like, at that point, I didn’t have the Weather Report drum sound. I played great, but I thought I had the session sound versus the Weather Report sound. And all it was, I was used to hearing non-session drummers play with Weather Report, and I was used to that sound and not a more polished studio sound. I really liked it, but at the time I thought it was very different from Weather Report.”
Like many fusion drummers of the 1970s, Ndugu was an extremely versatile drummer, well versed in all styles. He began his professional career as a teenager and toured Japan and Europe with Miles Davis when he was 19. After spending much of the ’70s on the road with the likes of Miles, Santana and George Duke, he began concentrating on studio and production work, playing on a diverse range of albums including Herbie Hancock’s Mr. Hands, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad, Kenny Rogers’ We’ve Got Tonight, and Frank Sinatra’s L.A. Is My Lady. He counted among his production credits included work with Tina Turner, Santana, George Duke, The Bar Kays, and the Dazz Band. His credits are vast and include innumerable movie soundtracks and television shows.
Ndugu was a big proponent of music education and for many years was a professor at the University of Southern California’s Thorton School of Music. Peter Erskine, who is the Director of Drumset Studies at USC, posted a remembrance of Ndugu on Facebook. I don’t think he’ll mind if I reproduce it here.
Ndugu’s passing leaves the world a poorer place, with a giant hole at USC’s Thornton School of Music where he taught for so many years. I can’t think of anyone who made bigger musical marks and in so many different genres — George Duke, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, Weather Report, Michael Jackson, Patrice Rushen, plus countless gigs as the drummer in jazz festival all-star bands … I know I’m leaving out many, many names. But it was in his work as an educator and advocate for technical achievement that set him apart. Ndugu was tireless in his insistence that drummers know their rudiments. That combination of old-school strictness with his open musical mind (plus experience) resulted in a steady stream of excellent players coming out of his studio, and a world-wide group of inspired drummers who benefitted from his gospel. He long-served as a vital conscience to our drumming world.
I’ll miss him on campus. I’ll miss him at PASIC. I’ll miss his exuberance, both on and off the drums. I’ve been a fan since his 1975 recording of George Duke’s “I Love the Blues, She Heard My Cry” album … first time I ever heard such hip drumming like that. It was some new stuff. On second thought: Nudugu left the world a far greater place. We are all going to miss him. Condolences to his family, friends, and everyone who knew him. RIP, Ndugu, and thank you for all of the passion and the music.