Leon (Ndugu) Chancler, Versatile Drummer, Dies at 65
Posted February 7, 2018 5:02 p.m. EST
Leon (Ndugu) Chancler, a drummer whose crisp grooves and pinpoint fireworks of syncopation were heard on hundreds of albums — including Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” on which his drumbeat starts the song “Billie Jean” — died Saturday. He was 65.
The cause was prostate cancer, his family said in a statement, which did not say where he died.
Chancler (pronounced CHANCE-ler) prided himself on versatility. He played on jazz, pop, funk, disco and country sessions and recorded with Lionel Richie, Tina Turner, Donna Summer, Frank Sinatra, John Lee Hooker, Kenny Rogers, LeAnn Rimes, DeBarge and Fantasia.
In his notable jazz catalog, he backed Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Flora Purim, Hubert Laws, George Duke and others, and shared decades of collaboration with the keyboardist and singer Patrice Rushen.
In the 1970s, Chancler toured with Miles Davis and Santana before increasingly turning to studio work. He was also a Grammy-nominated songwriter (for the Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip”), as well as a producer and an educator.
“You learn to play all different styles,” he advised aspiring musicians in a podcast interview with drummersresource.com. He added: “You really immerse yourself in those styles and really learn them. I don’t mean play at them. I mean get into them.”
Chancler was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on July 1, 1952, and moved with his family to Los Angeles. At 13 he started teaching himself to play drums, with advice from older musicians.
He started playing Latin jazz with percussionist Willie Bobo while still in high school, and soon after graduation he joined Gerald Wilson’s big band. He performed with trumpeter Hugh Masekela on weekends (he died Jan. 23) while studying music education at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Chancler turned down an offer to join keyboardist Herbie Hancock’s band, choosing to stay in college, but he was a guest percussionist on Hancock’s 1971 album, “Mwandishi.” His reputation spread as he performed with visiting musicians at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, a top Los Angeles jazz club.
Throughout his recording career, he billed himself as Leon (Ndugu) Chancler, or sometimes Ndugu Chancler. Ndugu is Swahili for “earth brother,” a family member or comrade.
Chancler was 19 when Davis asked him to join his group in 1971, and he left college behind. A CD-length performance by that group was released on the 2015 collection “Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4.”
Chancler worked widely and steadily, in the studio and on the road, in the 1970s. After a guest appearance on Santana’s 1974 album “Borboletta,” he joined Santana on tour and on its 1976 album, “Amigos,” for which he was also one of the songwriters and producers
The jazz-rock band Weather Report, led by Shorter and Joe Zawinul, heard Chancler while working in a nearby studio and invited him to sit in. The sessions stretched to a week and yielded the 1975 album “Tale Spinnin’." Chancler later played drums for a 1988 Montreux Jazz Festival collaboration between Carlos Santana and Shorter.
As the 1970s ended, Chancler founded his own funk-pop group, the Chocolate Jam Co., which made two albums before disbanding, and became a first-call studio player in Los Angeles. Producer Quincy Jones hired Chancler for three songs on “Thriller,” Michael Jackson’s record-shattering 1982 album: “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” “Baby Be Mine” and “Billie Jean.”
“'Billie Jean,’ for me, was a lesson in musical discipline,” Chancler told Modern Drummer magazine in 1983. “A very simple rhythm that anybody can play who can play drums, but the whole discipline of it was just playing that, and being consistent at it.”
In an Instagram post, Questlove, the Roots’ drummer and bandleader, wrote that Chancler’s drumming on “Billie Jean” was “timeless like a tuxedo” and “literally gives MJ his DNA.”
Chancler also appeared on Jackson’s next album, “Bad,” and on another early 1980s blockbuster album, Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” (1984). He embraced electronic drums and drum machines, learning to work with and alongside them, but also maintained his jazz virtuosity.
In recent decades, Chancler had mixed performing and teaching. He was a professor of jazz studies at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, where he created the drum curriculum. Since 1997 he had taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, a summer program held at Stanford University. He also performed at drum clinics presented by musical instrument companies.
“He sponsored and funded kids for percussion and education trips, offering his own home,” his son, Rashon Chancler, said in a statement. In addition to his son, he is survived by his companion, Brenda Curry.
Chancler learned he had prostate cancer in 2003, but he continued to teach, perform and record until recently. He published a book of musical and career advice, “Pocket Change,” in 2013.
“The player has to do much more listening than the listener coming to enjoy the music,” he told Drummer’s Resource. “And if that player is doing that listening, he will become a great player.”