Early In 2018, piano maestro Patrice Rushen posted a moving tribute to her late close friend and musical colleague, drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, that was sent out to students at the USC Thornton School of Music.
Before his passing of cancer last year, Chancler an adjunct assistant professor at USC Thornton’s Contemporary Music Division for over two decades was a worldwide celebrated musician. He worked with Miles Davis. He collaborated with George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie, and Frank Sinatra, among others.
It is Chancler’s drum sounds that dominate the instrumentals in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” He picked up a Grammy nomination for “Let it Whip,” a song he co-wrote that was covered by the Dazz Band. Chancler was among the best in the business when it came to creating music.
But to Rushen, who is chair of the Popular Music Program and assistant professor in practice at the USC Thornton School of Music, Chancler was much more than that. The two longtime friends grew up in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood and attended Locke High School together. Their bond through the years was forged in musicianship as well interloping into a close-knit friendship.
An excerpt from the homage paid by the “Forget Me Not” hitmaker posted on the school’s website, provides a little bit of insight to what Chancler meant to Rushen.
“Joy truly describes what it was like to know and play with Ndugu,” Rushen said. “I have enjoyed a special bond with him in that way and he taught me a lot, too.”
To what extent that Chancler inspired Rushen, the first female musical director for the People’s Choice Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, and (46th, 47th, 48th) Grammy Awards, perhaps cannot be measured by those observing from an outside lens.
During a lengthy 2011 interview with The Jazz Gypsy and published in Smooth Jazz Vibes, Chancler talked briefly about his relationship with Rushen and the beginning of their musical collaborations.
“Oh! That goes back to high school,” Chancler said. “I’m a couple of years ahead of Patrice. Patrice and I were in the band at Locke High School. But Patrice and I used to just practice together. Just the two of us. We didn’t have a bass player that played with us. We would just get together and practice together because we had the same fervor and spirit of wanting to accomplish and become music greats. So, our association goes back to then. I remember her first records while I was on tour and coming back into town and doing records and all of that. So, we go [way] back. Patrice is like my little sister.”
Big brother. Little sister. Little sister. Big Brother. It’s easy to visualize that Rushen and Chancler were two peas in a pod, both musically and personally. Rushen went on a homage tour this past summer to honor Chancler for his musical contributions.
Playing on the stage with saxophonist Ernie Watts, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, guitarist Doc Powell, bassist Alphonso Johnson, and actor TC Carson, Rushen took part in the all-star band’s “Celebrating Ndugu Chancler” performance during the 41st Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. She kept that theme going at the 32nd Annual Long Beach Jazz Festival when The Jazz Classics featuring Patrice Rushen rocked Rainbow Lagoon Park with their version of honoring Chancler.
After concluding her set at the Playboy Jazz Festival in June, Rushen sat down with editor Dennis J. Freeman and talked about Chancler, her success, and her work in the community.
Dennis J. Freeman: What would Ndugu say about this tribute performance?
Patrice Rushen: “I don’t know what he would say. But I would want him…if he had been sitting out there watching the show…I would have wanted him to enjoy it so much and to get all the love that was radiantly from everybody, all those people on the stage-and off and the mad respect that he has deserved. I would want that feeling for him if he had been out there watching.”
Dennis J Freeman: Do you think he (Ndugu Chancler) has been or when he was alive, properly recognized as an artist?
Patrice Rushen: “No. I think among the drumming community, I think among that fraternity, I think…yes. I think among most musicians, particularly jazz musicians, definitely upper echelon, among the studio players…he did a lot. But I don’t know if these people associated him with certain kinds of people…A lot of people him knew him but I don’t think the public really knew (him). Even though they’ve danced to so much of his music (and) the music he was part of, they needed to be reminded. He covered so much ground. (He had) an amazing career.”
Dennis J. Freeman: What did he (Ndugu Chancler) mean to you?
Patrice Rushen: “Well, he’s my best friend. I don’t have any brothers, so he was like the closest to having a brother, and he really guided (me), in a very interesting way, just by an example. I would watch certain things that he would do, certain people he would play with, certain people and things he would say no to, how he handled things when people would ask him to play when he had already made commitments to something else, how he would handle that, and usually he would default to “I gave such and such my word.”
Dennis J. Freeman: Are there other ways, besides playing here (Hollywood Bowl) that you try to keep your friend’s legacy alive?
Patrice Rushen: “Absolutely. In the teaching that I do, a lot of the development of the programs that I teach at USC. At USC, I am the chair of music program….A lot of the work, a lot of the curriculum that comes out of the experiential learning that was part of our development before this music was institutionalized. Jazz as well, and it’s importance and its relevance today, in terms of being able to look back and pull from that tradition the important pieces of information that informs [people].”
Dennis J. Freeman: You have had such an amazing career. Do you ever have time to even think about what you’ve achieved and accomplished as a musician, as an artist?
Patrice Rushen: “I keep doing whatever I’m doing, but sometimes, especially in those times where I’m where I wonder, ‘What am I doing? Have I learned anything?’ I do have markers that now I can look back on and say, ‘Well, I did that at that point and I know now more than I did back then, so I feel like I’m making progress.’ But I keep on going because, first of all, because I love it.”
Dennis J. Freeman: Did you ever imagine being where you are today compared to when you first started in the music business?
Patrice Rushen: “It started off me admiring great performance(s), not just music; in dance, in painting. I was always aware of the fact art brings people to a different place. We need to think about that.”
Dennis J. Freeman: Can you talk about the joy you have in playing the piano?
Patrice Rushen: “Over the years, through practices and just diligence and wanting it so bad to get to a place where it no longer constantly feels like a foreign object. It now allows me to articulate what it is that I’m feeling at that time. I’ve (always) loved the sound of the piano, especially. I just kind of do all the kinds of things that I’ve wanted to do, and I appreciate the time and the effort that goes into playing. I’ve put in some time and effort.”
Dennis J. Freeman: Can you talk about mentoring and giving back to those young people that you work with to encourage their musical growth?
Patrice Rushen: “People did it for me. People extended themselves to me, took what I wanted to do seriously and would offer positive critiques and ways in which to improve what I needed to do, and weren’t afraid of offering a helping hand as long as I was willing to do the work and I was serious. That is as much an important part of this as the survival of this music as anything, and that is we share.”
Dennis J. Freeman: Can you talk about all the firsts during your career and what does it mean for other women?
Patrice Rushen: “When I was doing it, I wasn’t thinking about any of that and then it called to my attention after the fact. What I hope it will do is to let people know, particularly young women that if you prepare, decide what you’re going to do and then go do it. I was really lucky in that I came up at a time in my community, my high school, with those people, with that band, your Ndugus, and Gerald Albrights, those people from that neighborhood. Ricky Minor and Paul Jackson Jr., we were all from the same community. We all didn’t go to school together all the time. Paul lived right across the street from me. I was on the boundary. He was supposed to go to Washington High (School). I went to Locke because I was on the other side of the street. But as a community of young musicians trying to get it together, we pushed each other, and we encouraged each other. That was the biggest thing. The competition wasn’t the main focus. What do you bring to what we’re trying to do was the main thing, not there was a girl in the band. What happened as a result of that was that I was very protected. As long as I can do mine, I was very protected by these brothers. I had a very healthy experience with being involved in a male-dominated situation.”
Dennis J. Freeman: Playing at the Hollywood Bowl in the Playboy Jazz Festival means what to you?
Patrice Rushen: “It means a lot because I’m from here. Of course, this is an iconic place, iconic stage, and iconic festival. But the big thing is to be able to honor my brother at home. That’s the biggest thing. I think that most of the times that I have played on this stage…he’s been there.”