Jazz Drumming Icon Jae Sinnett is the King of Tidewater Rhythm
Photo by David Uhrin
Sixty-two-year-old jazz drumming icon Jae Sinnett has backed some of the biggest names in the genre—including legends like late sax pioneer Joe Henderson and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard; contemporary staples like Branford Marsalis and New York sax slinger Ralph Bowen; jazz-rock guru Chuck Mangione; bossa nova guitarist Charlie Byrd; and many more. And that’s without mentioning Sinnett’s 250 original compositions and 15 albums as a bandleader—two of which have topped national jazz charts.
“To say he’s been successful would be an offensive understatement,” wrote longtime VEER Magazine Publisher/Editor Jeff Maisey in 2018. Sinnett is no less than “the lynchpin of Tidewater jazz and one of the leading figures of the Virginia music scene.”
Yet, Sinnett’s career began in a kind of self-imposed obscurity. He didn’t begin studying jazz until his mid-20s, when he used a GI Bill to enroll at Norfolk State University. And it was a long road to get there.
Growing up about 20 miles from Pittsburgh, Sinnett’s mom played piano at the family church. Following his grandmother’s example, Sinnett sang in the choir. At home, blues, soul and gospel were constantly on the radio. Inspired by the sounds, he took up drums at age 7 or 8.
“Nowadays I kick myself for not learning piano first thing, but back then it was all about the drums,” says Sinnett. “Though I played in rock bands with friends, I didn’t get any formal training until I joined the high school band.”
Sinnett excelled and was touted as a local prodigy. When he joined the Navy in 1974, friends encouraged him to try out for the band.
“Everyone kept telling me how great I was, so I went in there thinking it was true,” says Sinnett. The audition had him alone with an instructor. “He hands me some sheet music that may as well have been hieroglyphics. There was no way I could play it. I tell him that and he starts to look pretty irritated. Then he asks me to play a rock beat. I start jamming and, next thing I know, dude has grabbed me by the collar and is literally throwing me out the room.”
The effect was devastating. “I cried,” Sinnett says. But there was a silver lining: “When the shock wore off, I understood—and I mean, acutely—how much I didn’t know. I told myself, ‘I’m going to get better. I will never be humiliated like that again.’”
Following bootcamp, Sinnett was transferred to Norfolk. There, he dated a local singer. Her drummer, Mark Hopkins, was an R&B tour de force. Sinnett attended rehearsals to watch him play. Soon, he was taking lessons from both Hopkins and a neighbor—but in secret.
“I didn’t tell anybody but them that I played drums, not even my girlfriend,” says Sinnett with a laugh. Recalling the audition, he worked day and night to bring his artistry to a new level. “My confidence was shaken, but I was driven,” says Sinnett. “Next time I stuck my neck out, I wanted to be damn sure I was good enough.”
A few months later, he asked to sit in at rehearsal. “My girlfriend looked at me like I was crazy, but she went with it,” says Sinnett. The session went well. So well, it brought gigs with area disco, rock, dance and funk groups.
In 1977, a motorcycle accident led to Sinnett’s discharge from the Navy. Recovering, he pondered what to do with his life. The answer? Drumming.
By 1980 Sinnett was a local staple. But he wanted more. Enrolling at NSU, he threw himself into studying jazz.
“For a drummer, playing rock, soul, blues—that gets pretty repetitious,” he says. “I was craving creative freedom. I wanted to push my boundaries and challenge myself and see how far I could take things.”
About that time, Sinnett met Naval School of Music instructor and master saxophonist Abdu Salim. Struck by the young man’s passion and seriousness, Salim became a mentor.
“We’d get together four, five nights a week and jam for hours on end,” says Sinnett. “He taught me how to open up and improvise. It was freeing and exhilarating and profoundly impactful. I owe that cat everything.”
It was Salim that urged Sinnett to write his own music. “He impressed on me the importance of learning theory and composition,” says Sinnett. “Without him, I probably would’ve wound up a perpetual sideman. I would never have gotten what was in my head out into the world.”
Sinnett’s jazz career took off quickly. By 1986, he’d released his first album as a bandleader, Obsession. The record was well-received and featured former Count Basie Orchestra Director Frank Foster. More importantly, it introduced Sinnett to longtime saxophone collaborator Steve Wilson. With his 1997 release, “Listen,” Sinnett added Allen Farnham, who has since become his mainstay pianist. At this point, along with bassist Terry Burrell, the two have been featured in Sinnett’s groups and recordings for about three decades.
“I realized early on I wanted to form a group with longevity,” says Sinnett. Unlike rock bands—which often rehearse for as much as a year before touring—jazz units tend to practice sparsely and feature revolving personnel. That makes intimacy and nuance harder to achieve. “The best groups are the ones that play together for years,” Sinnett says. “You learn together and push one another into new musical territories and directions. The art becomes this living being that never stops evolving. For me, that kind of environment is deeply and creatively satisfying.”
The approach has led to a career characterized by relentless exploration. In addition to chart-topping albums like 2005’s The Sinnett Hearings and 2016’s Zero to 60, Sinnett has recorded funk and soul collections, produced and performed on records with prominent jazz vocalists, conducted Christmas ensembles and more. Most recently, 2018’s The Americana Groove Project had him fronting a band of Coastal Virginia all-stars as a singer.
Citing the influence of Salim and others, Sinnett has made a point of giving back to the community through education. He has taught at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk and Christopher Newport University and has conducted masterclasses at colleges throughout the U.S. Many former students are now professional players and/or instructors. The most notable is protégé and sometimes pianist 31-year-old Justin Kauflin, who recently signed with Quincy Jones Productions.
“Whenever a former student makes it and calls me up or writes and says I helped them get there, man, that’s the best feeling in the world,” says Sinnett. “That tells me I did something right. It tells me I’m doing my part to ensure this music—which has meant everything to my life—will continue to bless the lives of generations to come. To listen to someone like Justin and hear a little piece of myself in that sound? That’s what inspires me to keep making records and writing music. And I hope I never stop.”
In addition to being one of the region’s most celebrated jazz drummers, Jae Sinnett is a wildly successful radio personality. His syndicated National Public Radio show, “Sinnett In Session,” has helped set the standard for modern jazz programming for more than 25 years. Local listeners can enjoy it—along with his fantastic “R&B Chronicles”—on WHRV-FM, 89.5.
“Friends will sometimes joke that putting together a jazz radio show can’t be but so hard,” says Sinnett with a laugh. “But in reality, it’s an art form. Learning to do it well takes a lot of practice and experience.”
For starters, the category features tremendous variance. What listeners think of as “jazz” can vary drastically. One person may prefer Big Band music from the 1920s and '30s. Another, pre-1960s standards. Still another, '70s-era acid jazz or genre-splicing fusion.
“Connoisseurs of a specific period or style can overlook and miss out on other great stuff,” says Sinnett. But introducing fickle listeners to new territory requires subtlety. Selections must be precise; historical context becomes paramount. “The goal is to carry listeners on a musical journey that’s as cool as it is educational. That way, you hear both the music’s roots and its evolution. To me, that’s the signature of a quality show.”
The approach hasn’t gone unnoticed. Topping a long list of accolades, Sinnett was named a finalist for JazzWeek magazine’s 2018 Presenter of the Year. The distinction led to WHRV’s nomination as Station of the Year.
Below, Sinnett offers advice on all things jazz. From the best area venues, to influential drummers, to great albums and local legends, here are a few of his favorites.
3 Favorite Jazz Drummers
Tony Williams—Described by Sinnett as “the greatest cymbal in jazz,” Williams launched his career as a 17-year-old playing in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet. Try 1969’s, Filles de Kilimanjaro, where jazz began to show signs of shifting toward electrified rock. If you like what you hear, continue to Williams' debut as a bandleader, Life Time.
Jack DeJohnette—“A master of four-way independence—or coordination—with astounding textural variation,” says Sinnett. The 20th century master performed as a star sideman for greats ranging from Bill Evans to Miles Davis to Freddie Hubbard and John Scofield. Check him out on fusion sax king Michael Brecker’s 1987 debut, Michael Brecker.
Vinnie Colaiuta—Born in 1956, the former Frank Zappa and Sting drummer features “extraordinarily creative and complex rhythms and has instant interpretation skills,” says Sinnett. Hear him with the Chick Corea Akoustic Band on Live from Blue Note Tokyo, released in 2000. Another stellar offering is guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s Secrets, from 1989.
3 Favorite Area Venues to Hear Jazz
Sinnett says there’s been a hole in the local jazz scene since Havana Nights closed in 2013. However, other clubs are starting to fill the void. If you’re itching to catch a swinging act, the following are your best bet.
The Vanguard, Hampton—“I’ve played this venue both with my trio and The Americana Groove Project,” says Sinnett. “Expect a great performance spot with good sound and an excellent vibe.” Meanwhile, enjoy locally brewed beers and handcrafted distilled spirits. Look for upcoming shows featuring jazz vocalist Elizabeth Terrell, as well as the Russell Scarborough Trio.
Café Stella, Norfolk—The original location on Colonial Avenue offers “a spot for local jazz players to get together and perform a night or two a week.” The Jazz After Dark series on Thursdays features area legends like bassist Chris Brydge, guitarist Woody Beckner and saxophonist Jeff Smith.
The Attucks Theatre, Norfolk—Opening in 1919, this designated National Historical Monument has showcased legendary performers like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole. “I’ve played with many greats here, including Lori Williams, Denise Donatelli, my own Zero to 60 Quartet and many more,” says Sinnett. Look for upcoming jazz performances by trombonist Ryan Keberle, pianist Ellis Marsalis and more.
3 Favorite Personal Albums
The Sinnett Hearings, 2005—Regarded as Sinnett’s masterpiece, collaborators include John D’Earth on trumpet and Steve Wilson on alto sax, as well as longtime pianist Allen Farnham and bassist Terry Burrell. Modern Drummer called its nine compositions, “Exciting, soulful, swinging and eclectic.” As an added local bonus: “First Impressions” marks the debut of Sinnett’s then 19-year-old protégé, pianist Justin Kauflin.
Subject to Change, 2014—The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review heralded this seven-song collection as “funky, swinging, energetic, soulful, introspective, beautiful and visionary.” The album features a seven-piece group, including Kauflin, Terrell, Wilson and visiting horn players J.C. Kuhl, Rob Dedominick, Bill Brown and Duane Smith. Try “The Flea Flicker,” where a busy horn section and undulating electric keys evoke the feel of '70s-era jazz-rock—with Sinnett erupting in a monstrous solo toward the climax.
Zero to 60, 2016—These 10 songs showcase Sinnett’s ability to arrange and compose intimate musical forays for his personnel. In addition to Farnham, the album features saxophonists Ralph Bowen and Joel Frahm, as well as Austrian bass phenom Hans Glawischnig. “This is modern jazz that sells itself through the marriage of sophistication and accessibility,” writes All About Jazz reviewer Dan Bilawsky. For an over-the-top barnburner, check out “Bowen’s Arrow.”