Drummers find their muse at UNT

Friday, September 30, 2005

Two world class drummers. Different decades, different styles. But John Bryant and Earl Harvin each shared a determination to follow his own beat that began at the University of North Texas.

Long before they worked with big names and innovative groups, they were part of the "brotherhood of musicians" that drew them and others to Denton, a college town internationally known for its College of Music.

From there they grew in the reflected light of some big stars.

For instance, John Bryant says his biggest career influence was Ray Charles' left foot. As "Ray's Drummer," Bryant knew that keeping time with the pace of that dress shoe meant the difference between a good night and musician hell.

"Working for someone in music is about serving a master," Bryant says. "It was, ‘What does Ray Charles want?' not, ‘Let me see what I can do with this music.'"

Bryant came to UNT inspired by his high school band teacher and the One O'Clock Lab Band of 1967. He wanted to be like Ed Soph, the One O'Clock drummer who today teaches percussion at the University of North Texas.

"My experience at UNT was [that it was like] this giant musical experiment where we took chances and tried so many new things. It was unparalleled."

He cites classmate Barry Ries – now a professional musician in New York--as another influence.

"He played trumpet, but he was also a fine drummer and he taught me things that just weren't in the curriculum, " Bryant says. "Barry got me listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and understanding the inner workings of small bands and infusing that into our big band performances. It was a big ‘a-ha' moment…"

Bryant left school in 1974 before earning his degree when he got an offer to tour with the Paul Winter Consort. Not everyone was thrilled with that decision -- especially not his folks back in Virginia.

"But," Bryant says, "It was an unbelievable opportunity."

When he returned from the group's world tour, Bryant received another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a place with Ray Charles.

"I was off with Ray for the next two years," says Bryant. "I recorded two albums with him, did two tours and even went on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."

Charles was a tough boss, Bryant says. He didn't hesitate to call someone to task if he didn't like what he heard.

"He was from a different generation of musician," Bryant says. "It was always about competition and Ray wasn 't afraid to call anybody out."

Bryant says the pressure to do things "Ray's Way" fueled his inner resolve to create "John's Way."

Today he fulfills that dream through his own percussion group, D'Drum. He and fellow musicians collect drums from India, Bali and Africa. They master the instruments, perform upon them and teach others to play them, as well.

You might know drummer John Harvin from the sheer variety of his work -- from the rock of The The to the funk of Billy Goat, the punk of the Psychedelic Furs and the ballads of Seal. He's also worked with Air, who did the soundtracks for Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides.

Harvin, who entered UNT in 1985, also found inspiration to create his own art while working with other groups.

"The reality of working for somebody else is that you're helping them realize their music. You can't call it your own," he says. "You're part of it and important to it or else you wouldn't be there, but in the end I can't, for instance, claim Seal's record as my own."

These days Harvin's music is an innovative jazz that combines elements of all his experiences in other music genres. His group--the Earl Harvin Trio--uses everything from punk to pop and even hip-hop to perform and create its unique, progressive sound.

The group actually formed as an escape from what Harvin believes is the worst job in the world for musicians -- weddings. Musical purgatory, he calls them.

"My best day, I remember giving a friend my tux and saying, ‘I'm never playing another one of these awful gigs again,'" he says.

The ‘Trio' began as a pool of 10 musicians, each performing when time allowed breaks from better-paying but less creative day jobs. In fact, the reason the group bears Harvin's name is that he was the only consistent member. Pretty much anyone could join.

"The chance to bring your own music -- that only happens in school," Harvin says.

Harvin lived in the Gone House, a humble shack in Denton that in 1987 rented for $75 a month, all bills paid. (A sometimes successful musical group called Gone Men had once lived and practiced there.)

Harvin left the university in 1988 but stayed in Denton another two years and joined the band Ten Hands, which enjoyed some success in Texas.

Then one day the ‘Trio' just clicked, Harvin says, as he was playing with UNT professor of music Fred Hamilton on the bass and guitar and Dave Palmer ('92) on the keyboard.

"We were on a gig and looked around and realized this was pretty cool," Harvin says. "It wasn't planned. It just came down to me, Fred and Dave playing together."

One of the group's most acclaimed creations was the 1999 album The Earl Harvin Trio at the Gypsy Tea Room, a live performance filled with hours of musical improvisation and a far cry from the jazz standards.

Today Harvin lives in Los Angeles, enjoying more lucrative work with a host of other musicians. However, he still performs with his trio. And, in addition to his work with D'Drum, he maintains a production studio in Dallas for his company, Bryant Hames Music. Through it he writes musical scores for documentaries and commercials.

Both musicians concede you've got to pay the bills. But they also strive to be an influence on both the genres they play as well as other up-and-coming performers.

"That's the way it should be," Bryant says. "I emphasize to other musicians that everybody's got their own way."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108