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Andrew Cyrille is one of the most prominent drummers in the world of avant-garde jazz—-and one of the first few to establish his own sound in the genre. Studying with Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and Babatunde Olatunji as a kid in Brooklyn, Cyrille really made his reputation working with Cecil Taylor for 11 years, from the ’60s to the mid ’70s. He’s also a formidable composer in his own right, and will perform his work tonight at Atlas Performing Arts Center with a large ensemble of local musicians (billed as “21st Century Big Band Unlimited”), in arrangements of friend and collaborator Mark Masters. Cyrille spoke yesterday to Arts Desk about his approaches to drumming as well as composing, the importance of dance, and some surprising tidbits of drumming history.

Washington City Paper: So you haven’t met any of the musicians you’re working with here. Do you often work like that?

Andrew Cyrille: On occasion. You know, this is more like a studio situation. I don’t know how many studios they have down here, but when I go to L.A. and do the same project with Mark Masters, he usually hires some people that he knows out there that can play the music the way he wants it.

WCP: To what extent is it your music, and to what extent Mark’s?

AC: They’re all my creations. It’s like Mark was an interior decorator that came into my house and rearranged the rooms! And he did a good job. He brought in instrumentation that I hadn’t thought of, and he did some things that I wouldn’t have thought of with my own stuff. I thought it was great, and working with Mark is great.

WCP: I know that right now there’s a sort of flourishing movement of drummer-composers; is that something you have much insight into?

AC: Well, with the college situation—-for instance, I’m at New School—-most of the students that come through there take the full gamut of courses that they have, all of the things that are available and the things that are necessary for graduation. So, in my classes, I give them material that I would like for them to play, and then I also encourage them to bring in their own material. So, on occasion, some of the drummers bring in some of the material that they write. So this might be another evolution in some of the younger generation of drummers who might write and perform at the same time.

WCP: That brings up the question of your own education—at Juilliard, before they had a jazz program. Were you learning more of a marching-band type style?

AC: To some degree, yeah, because I was playing rudiments. The rudiments, really, are just beats for soldiers to move in certain directions. Back up, move forward, drop your arms and get the hell out of here! [laughs] It used to be, if you shot the drummer the battle was over! Because then there were no more signals—-there was nobody to give signals. That’s why they had those big field drums, because the drummers would have to play among the gunfire and so on. You had to hear what was going on. Shoot the drummer, shit is over.

WCP: So how would you go from that, which would be pretty precise in terms of technique, to the free-form on which you made your career?

AC: I don’t care what you play; in any kind of music there’s gotta be some sort of precision, and in the avant-garde there’s gotta be a certain amount of precision, otherwise you couldn’t live.

WCP: Well, let me put it another way: What about that sort of training attracted, say, Cecil Taylor to your sound?

AC: Cecil was a student at New England Conservatory. So he of course learned that kind of Western methodology to playing the piano. Now, you take that, and with then again all of the heredity as far as him adoring Duke Ellington, and listening to Billie Holiday, and all of that other stuff that goes into who we are in terms of being American. So, you find out how do you get to that part of the picture to express yourself? Cecil was very into dancing as well.

I met Cecil in 1957. Now, I had been playing around town, and heard each other, and he’d say “I like the way you play—yeah, man, I like all that Philly Joe [Jones] stuff that you do.” So, I remember I was working for the June Taylor School of Dance; I was playing dance classes, which taught me something else again about playing drums and I think more of that should be done where you have live music and live dancers…so that you can see the music. But I remember that I had a private conversation with Cecil, much the same way that I’m talking to you, and he wanted to know what I thought about playing music. And I was very into dance, having also played with Babatunde Olatunji from Nigeria, so I said, “Well, I think about music as far as dancing is concerned.” Click! [snaps his fingers]

WCP: That’s what he wanted to hear?

AC: That’s what he heard! And that was what more or less got us together, in addition to that he had heard me play with many other people, and he asked me if I wanted to be part of his organization.

WCP: Can you tell me about the music we’ll be hearing at the concert?

AC: Well, it is stuff that I’ve written over the years, and most of it has been recorded. I’m not sure what Mark will choose, but on this demo I did with him out in L.A., we did “Given,” and “The Whirlwind,” and “Proximity,” which is a ballad, and then “Shell.” So we did four, and then I did a duet with a trumpet player on a Monk piece. So perhaps Mark will choose some of those pieces, and in addition I have the charts for “5-4-3-2,” for a piece called “Doctor Licks.” It’s a 6/8 piece that I did as a duet with Anthony Braxton.

WCP: Is it more tonal, or freeform?

AC: It’s tonal, because I usually write in a key. And sometimes we stay in tonality, and sometimes we open it up. But with Mark, it will be more metrically strict, and then with more open improvisation.

WCP: How do you work as a composer? Do you work up from the rhythm when you’re writing?

AC: Sometimes. If I come up with a rhythm, sometimes I’ll then work up notes to put to it. But you know, most of the time, the last thing I come up with is what I’m going to play on the drums. I get all the other stuff together, and then I decide, “Okay, this is what I’m going to play on the drums.” Which is interesting, because composers like Ellington, they would think of drum parts first, and then put other stuff on top of that. The rhythm is the strongest part of the production.

WCP: So where do you start?

AC: Anything. I can think of your personality, how I think of you, and then start from that. I can start with the mood, or start with writing some words and from that I can get rhythm, or a melody. And then I can extrapolate, interpolate, find a rhythm; watch the expressions on your face, how your eyes light up and how you smile, and say “All that’s rhythm!”

WCP: I don’t think non-musicians often consider music in those terms.

AC: Well, look! Anything you see around you, the chair even, had to come out of somebody’s mind! This is just a parallel to that.