How Arny Young became the first free jazz drummer in KC

Photos provided by Arny Young

When Arny Young was in high school, he would always ask music teachers why everything needed to be over a preset form. “They’d tell me that was the only way to play sensible music,” says the drummer.

Then Young discovered free jazz. 

In 1963, just three days after Young’s high school graduation, he moved from Paola up to KC to study jazz at the UMKC Conservatory. He quickly became friends with a bassist from New York, Richard Youngstein. That summer, Youngstein showed Young his favorite albums, which is when Young was introduced to free jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra.

Just a year later, Young was the first drummer to play free jazz in Kansas City.

On a Saturday morning in October 1964, Youngstein spontaneously showed up at Young’s apartment, woke him up and took him down to the recording studio. “Well, the other drummer they were going to use got drunk and fell down the fire escape and broke his leg,” Young says.

After recording a couple of tunes, Youngstein called out the next tune, “God’s Museum.” “I don’t know that one,” Young said, perplexed. “We’re going to make it up as we go along.”

Young pondered for just a second and then began playing along.

Now, more than fifty years later, Young remains on the scene, leading his own group, The Roughtet. The group, which features Quin Wallace on trumpet, Jacob Schwartzberg on tenor sax and John Nichols on bass, released the free jazz album Fear Is the Mind Killer earlier this year. 

Despite what Young’s early teachers may have said regarding the need for form and structure, Fear Is the Mind Killer remains sensible. “It’s not all aleatoric noise,” Young jokes. 

Photos provided by Arny Young

But Young plays a lot more than just free jazz, which informs his uniquely captivating and lively style. His vast influences include electronic music, R&B, funk, Afro-Cuban and Afrobeat, which are on full display in this album. His style is set further apart by the touches he learned from spending over a decade in the Bay area beginning in 1980, where he studied West African drumming at UC Berkeley.

The album features several of Young’s compositions, including “Honey I Shrunk the Monk,” which starts out fragmented yet funky, with a soulful trumpet solo from Wallace, later moving into a hard, driving swing and Young’s virtuosic solo. Shortly after the release of the album, Young came down with shingles. “I had to slow down,” he says. “I missed a lot of gigs.” 

Now, he’s on the upswing and is looking forward to a summer of performing, especially with the Roughtet. “This is the best avant-garde group I’ve had here [in KC] so far,” he says.

But Young wants to do a lot more than just performing and plans to pursue his other passions: traveling, writing, painting and, most of all, teaching. “Sooner or later, I know I won’t be able to play drums anymore, and then I’ll really concentrate on writing and painting.”

“I just want to play as much as I can while I still can,” Young says. 

GO:  Arnold Young and The Roughtet and Dave Scott, Sunday, July 10 at 6 pm, Westport Coffeehouse Theater, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave., KCMO.

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