Nat Yarbrough never loses his cool. A slender, long-legged man with a calming, regal aspect, he moves as beautifully as a panther and rarely betrays the slightest hint of physical exertion -- not even in the mounting heat of a solo, when both feet are thumping the pedals, his sculpted hands are flying over tom-toms and cymbals and his sticks are two blurry fans of white. True to form, Yarbrough's observations about art and life are equally elegant. He would no sooner waste a word or let fly an unfinished thought than lead his pianist astray at the bridge.
"The drums stole my heart when I was sixteen," he says quietly. "They still have it."
That's Yarbrough's brand of cool in a few words. But he might -- we say, might -- lose his composure on Saturday, June 22, at the Burnsley Hotel. When friends, family and fellow musicians gather in the hotel's cozy jazz bar to celebrate the release of Yarbrough's CD, El Yabah (Capri), there may be some emotional moments. Born in New Jersey and a veteran of the New York jazz wars, Yarbrough has been a mainstay in Denver clubs for most of three decades. But the brilliant, hard-driving El Yabah (named for his late father, Ellis Yarbrough -- "El Yabah" to friends) is the 65-year-old drummer's first recording as a bandleader. Local jazz fans knows it's been way too long in coming. Some of them also know that Nat Yarbrough is a sick man: Suffering from renal failure, he undergoes five-hour sessions of dialysis three afternoons a week while waiting (and waiting) for a kidney transplant.
"I wanted to have a recorded legacy," he said the other day. "To represent some of the work I've done over the years. I've been thinking about it for a long time, but never did anything about it. Through other people's encouragement and my own plain common sense, I know that I'm not going to be here forever. So I better put something down, so that people know I was here."
Every time Yarbrough slips in behind his Slingerlands and starts to play, the audience becomes very much aware of the here and now. First influenced in the '50s by the extroverted drummers Art Blakey and Gene Krupa, Yarbrough can still bash with the best of them, but over the years his style has taken on such individual nuance and personal shading that there's no mistaking his touch: All his aches and dreams seem to reside on those skins and in the sizzle of those cymbals.
This was never lost on the scores of young musicians Yarbrough has helped over the years. On Saturday, the sextet that recorded El Yabah at Denver's Greywood Studios back in December of 1999 will be reunited at the Burnsley, its rhythm section manned by veteran Denver bassist D. Minor and the fluent pianist Eric Gunnison, its front line composed of three Denver homeboys who have, in their early thirties, grown into respected players on the international jazz scene. Alto saxophonist Brad Leali now leads his own New York-based quintet. Widely recorded trumpeter Greg Gisbert is a veteran of the Woody Herman and Maria Schneider big bands and a founder of the group Convergence. Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson earned his big-league credentials in the '80s as a sideman with Freddie Hubbard and as a member of one of the last Jazz Messengers groups led by Yarbrough's idol Art Blakey. Jackson has recorded half a dozen Blue Note CDs under his own name and is now regarded as one of the finest tenor players on the planet. (Participating in an exceptionally busy week in local jazz, Leali and Jackson will also perform on Sunday, June 23, as part of Mayor Wellington E. Webb's Music Festival; see Michael Roberts's "Bridge to the Future," page 96.)
None of them has forgotten Yarbrough's generous urging when they were teenagers and how he encouraged them to join him on the bandstand at El Chapultepec and other clubs, where they transformed uncertainty into experience. When the notably modest drummer was planning El Yabah three years ago, he envisioned a quartet recording with Leali as the only horn. But when Gisbert and Jackson got wind of the date, they insisted on joining the group.
"They love me," Yarbrough says with a wry smile. Well, yes, actually, they do. Sitting in New York's late, lamented jazz mecca, Bradley's, one night several years ago, Jackson talked about Yarbrough's influence. "Every young musician needs people like Nat," he said. "People who show you what the possibilities are, what the territory looks like. I owe a tremendous debt to him." Yarbrough's longtime lady love, East High schoolteacher Linda Wooten, says it another way. "He always brings out the best in people. He's supportive. He's a stabilizer. He's one of the most deserving people -- humble and hardworking, but sometimes he doesn't get the recognition he deserves. He's my drummer."
In the '70s Yarbrough was also pianist Gene Harris's drummer. For two years he worked the Chitlin' Circuit with organist Big John Patton, and he toured Europe and South Africa amid a three-year stint with saxophonist Lou Donaldson. He paid road dues with the underrated organist Freddie Roach and frequently backed stars like Ernestine Anderson, Freddie Hubbard and Eddie Harris. Way, way back, when he was just a raw kid fresh out of the U.S. Marine Corps, he even played a gig in Queens, New York, with saxophonist Ben Webster, a jazz legend as famous for his temper as for his beautiful ballad playing. "I was scared to death," Yarbrough remembers. "He was definitely old-school. We played together for a week, but he never offered any criticism or praise. He hardly said hello. I think he grunted at me a few times."
Webster's dismissiveness stayed with the young drummer, and it's a source of his own generosity around young musicians. On El Yabah, for instance, Yarbrough plays only one brief drum solo (on the title tune), while yielding lots of solo space to his cohorts -- even on the three tunes he composed. "I wanted to make a point of my musicality, rather than my muscles," he explains. "Maybe there will be another CD, though. Maybe on that one, I'll go all out."
Meanwhile, Yarbrough's health remains a serious issue. Like many jazz musicians of his era, he made some substance-abuse decisions years ago that may have contributed to his present plight, and three years ago doctors gave him the bad news about renal failure. He spent eighteen months working in Seattle at the behest of former Denver pianist Billy Wallace, but he returned to Denver in April because the waiting period for a kidney transplant here is said to be two years shorter than in Washington State. "In the beginning, I didn't realize how sick I was," Yarbrough says. "I just thought I was getting old. Now I know. But the body is a wonderful instrument. It adjusts. The after-effects of the dialysis are not as bad as when I started, and I'm very hopeful about the future. I can't let it get me down. I still try to practice every day, thirty to sixty minutes."
Linda Wooten, recouping from some near-fatal surgery herself, loves that spirit in her man. "I'm more worried about Nat's health than he is," she says. "What I respect most about him is his tremendous resilience. He accepts what life hands him. He's a cat; he lands on his feet."
On Saturday night he'll also land in a long-overdue, well-deserved spotlight.
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