Three dozen pairs of feet restlessly tap a backbeat into the carpet, and the guy in front of me is wearing a T-shirt that reads, "It's a drum thing -- you wouldn't understand." Onstage, two drum kits sit empty, their cymbals bright under the lights.
The crowd is gathered at the Memphis Drum Shop in Cooper-Young for a clinic that is sort of a cross between a concert and a seminar.
The clinic takes place in an airy studio nestled deep inside the Drum Shop. Nearly 50 people are waiting for Gerry Brown and Sonny Emory, two drum legends whose work has served as inspiration and instruction for many in the crowd, to come onstage.
"They are big influences on me. I can remember listening to [Brown] play School Days," says Myron McLean, a professional drummer who works locally on the casino circuit. "Listen to that album and you can hear how Gerry was really an innovator of the fusion style."
Brown, who played first, certainly has the chops to wow the crowd. He has been the drummer for Stevie Wonder for 14 years, as well as playing for Roberta Flack, Lionel Ritchie, and Chick Corea. Yet Brown is equally interested in impressing upon the young drummers the value of versatility.
"You should listen to different kinds of music because if you wear many different hats," he says, removing his own cap to wipe sweat from his brow, "you will always have a roof over your head."
An audience member asks Brown to play the lick from Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," and Brown obliges. He plays a spare, dead-on rhythm, and when the applause settles down, he intones the value of not overplaying a song. "One thing that was key to me learning that song was to remember that this is a blind man's groove. If I ever started to stray, Stevie would lean back and yell, 'Hey, Gerry, do you know what job security is?'"
Even when there isn't a clinic, the shop is still a place for young drummers to come and learn about the craft. "We have the vintage vault," says owner Jim Pettit, "with antique drums going back to 1900.
"We try and have a mix between the purely educational clinics and something more like a live show," says Pettit, adding that both events are usually followed by a question-and-answer session.
"You are really lucky to have this place," says Brown after his set. "Not only do you have a great drum store but a museum, as well."
Emory, the next drummer, has played at the Drum Shop before, and his performance leaves the audience rapturous. Emory was the drummer for Earth, Wind & Fire for more than a decade. With his left foot, he keeps the Latin clave rhythm going on a woodblock; with his right, a steady backbeat on the base drum. With his left hand, he works the cymbals, and with his right, he approximates a line of melody across his four finely tuned toms.
"For me, it's all about learning to play beyond the drum," Emory says. "My phrasing, my attempts at melody, come from listening to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and my own father, who was a saxophonist."
An audience member asks Emory for advice on playing. "When I was young, it was Gerry's playing that really fed and nurtured me, just listening and trying to learn. I'm the result of cats like him, and that's why I'm taking the time to do stuff like this now."