I came home from a Saturday night gig to hear that my beloved friend, Ndugu Chancler, had passed away from the illness he had been battling for several years. An immeasurable loss, not only for the industry, but for all the friends, loved ones, students and everyone he touched with his kindness, joy and positive outlook.
When people asked me about Ndugu’s work, my answer by way of description was, ‘He’s played with everyone from Miles to Michael Jackson.’ And pretty much everyone in between, to be honest. That’s Ndugu playing that iconic intro on Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on the Thriller album, the biggest selling pop album in history. For a deeper, yet still incomplete, outline of some of the people he recorded and toured with, see his obituary in the New York Times. Speaking of which, how many drummers get obituaries in the New York Times?
I went to NAMM with him once and it was like being with the President, we couldn’t walk more than five feet without being stopped by someone – colleagues, fans and swarms of pic-snapping Japanese who surrounded him at every turn. At a pre-JEN Jazz Educator’s Convention held during a frigid January in Manhattan, we’d be strolling to dinner with Ndugu wearing a full length white mink coat. Yes, he was fly.
I was his little buddy and he was my big, cool friend. We met when he came to the University of Southern California to advocate for the admission of one of his private students. I was finishing my masters degree and running the Jazz Studies office. We had a nice chat and I asked him if he would ever consider teaching in our department. He said yes and after he left I ran to my Chair’s office to give him the news.
Our chair at that time, Thom Mason, followed up with an official offer. There was a lot of excitement about this big of a get for the department and several of the male faculty were slapping each other on the back in celebration while I watched from my desk. To this day, I think they think they were the ones who thought of asking Ndugu to join us.
Ndugu never stopped giving his gifts to his students. Even toward the end, he traveled the world to meet with them in workshops, clinics and one-on-one. He was a towering industry figure who still got together for weekly lunches with friends from his youth. As well as I knew him, I never learned about his accomplishments from him, only from other people. He was a beautiful soul who will be sorely missed and never forgotten.