A Tribute to My Teacher
Sam Ulano passed away today at age 93. I wrote the following tribute to him in 2013. He was a wonderful man, musician and teacher. May he rest in peace.
As some of you know, I was a musician all through high school and college. While my friends were out celebrating, I spent the evening of my high school graduation on stage. I continued to play the local club scene for years after that. I studied music in college as well as with a series of private instructors. They all helped me learn and become better. But one teacher, Sam Ulano, made a most profound impact on me, as both a musician and as a person.
Sam is a legend, albeit a controversial one, within the drumming community. He played with Moondog, at age 64 he played with Public Image Limited and Johnny Rotten in their infamous riot gig at the Ritz, he played on countless recordings and in more jazz clubs than I can name.
But Sam's most significant contribution was as a teacher. From his teen years he was a drum instructor, and he has continued to teach into his 90's, writing literally thousands of books and teaching countless students, including many who have had successful careers.
Sam is now 92, and over the last year he has had some health issues, first breaking his leg, and last week he had a small stroke. I've recently gotten in contact with his daughter who has been kind enough to fill me in about Sam's health and allow me to write to him directly, but considering how much he impacted me personally and professionally, I thought it appropriate to share this publicly.
I met Sam in 1983 at a music shop on 48th St. Sam worked there in addition to being a fixture in jazz clubs. He struck up a conversation with me and asked if I could read music. I told him I could. He handed me a pair of metal drum sticks, laid a pad on the counter, and told me that he'd buy me a set of drums if I could play a page from one of his books without a mistake. I cruised through the first half and began to imagine the shiny new kit that the crazy old man was going to have to buy me. Then my eyes glanced ahead to notes that I had never seen before. Game over. Needless to say, Sam didn't owe me a drum set, but he did gain a new student. (For the record, I still vividly remember the measure that I screwed up.) I studied with Sam all throughout college and for years after, even when I was no longer playing with a band, and had shifted my career path.
Sam taught me about music, but looking back on it, I realize that I learned about a lot more, and many of those lessons stay with me to this day. While I'm no longer a musician, it's obvious to me that Sam has helped shape who I am as a person and as a coach.
Sam emphasized hard work. He'd constantly point out musicians who "made it" and then rested on their laurels, abandoning the good habits and dedication that helped them gain their success. And he showed me how often their success was short lived because of it. He taught me that hard work trumps "god-given" talent, and that nothing replaces practice. He taught me to take a "belt and suspenders" approach to preparedness for an audition or a gig. All of these things stay with me, and I constantly remind my athletes of these principles.
I learned far more than just how to read a chart or play a certain rhythm from Sam. He taught me to keep an open mind and not to be afraid to buck conventional wisdom when it deserved bucking. He respected tradition and protocol but not blindly so. At times he took chances and tried new things, not just for the sake of being new and different, but because they worked. He showed me that style and flash were great, but only if they complemented - not replaced - substance.
I saw Sam push me, and other students, to be better than we thought we could be. But he also had a no-nonsense approach and I never asked him a question if I didn't want an honest, if not blunt, answer. I try to do the same with my athletes. Often they don't realize their potential, and I try to encourage them to think bigger. But I never lie to them, which I hope lets me build credibility with them. My athletes know that if I tell them that I think they can win a race, set a PR, or excel in some way, that that is my honest belief, rather than something I'm saying to make them happy.
When I think of other ways in which Sam influenced me, I think back to the Race Across the Window, in which eight of us rode a bike in the storefront of JackRabbit Sports for a week, and remember the story of when Sam entered the Guinness Book of World Records for playing the drums for 67-hours, 44-minutes, 52-seconds in the window of Henry Adler's Drum Shop in Times Square. “It was a promo stunt for a Broadway show called 'Safari' about a troop of American actors entertaining Africans. I was an act in the show and I was dressed in a leopard skin like Tarzan."... The stunt attracted a lot of attention. There were mobs of people in the street disturbing the traffic - even at 4AM! Prostitutes were lifting their dresses up - and they were stark naked underneath! It was crazy!"
I think back to when I ran the Battle of Brooklyn 10-miler dressed as George Washington, complete with powdered wig and knickers in an effort to get my runners to relax a little, and I remember Sam dressed as Goldilocks playing the nursery rhyme on the drums.
Sam worked very hard at his craft - both as a musician and as an educator helping others become better. That's something that I aspire to all the time. He takes his role as a teacher very seriously, but never hides how much he loves it. He takes pride in his own accomplishments as a musician, but when I talked to him he always seemed most proud talking about his successful students. I can only hope that people will one day say the same about me. I wish him a speedy recovery, and I thank him for everything he taught me.