Mark Walker: Grammy Style

  Professor Mark Walker
  Phil Farnsworth

Percussion Department Professor Mark Walker frequently tells his Berklee students, "If you really want to learn a style, write a song in that style." That's his approach, and based on the outcome of the 2008 Grammy Awards, it's hard not to trust him. This year, Walker received nominations for two projects to which he contributed. He played drums and wrote a tune for Funk Tango by the Paquito D'Rivera Quintet, which won in the Best Latin Jazz Album category. The second nomination in the Best Instrumental Composition category was for his tune "Deep Six" on Oregon's album 1,000 Kilometers.

Born in Chicago, Walker has been drumming since childhood. When he was barely out of high school, he played professional gigs. He soon became a sought-after session drummer and percussionist, and by the 1990s, he embarked on a long stint with woodwind virtuoso Paquito D'Rivera. In 1995 he moved to New York and played with a long list of greats that includes Lyle Mays, Dave Samuels, Andy Narell, Michel Camilo, Eliane Elias, David Liebman, Diane Schuur, Michael Brecker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., and many others. In 2001 he joined the Berklee faculty, and recently he was promoted to the rank of full professor.

On D'Rivera's Grammy-winning CD Funk Tango, Walker set the groove for D'Rivera with fellow Berklee professor Oscar Stagnaro on bass, Diego Urcola '90 on trumpet and valve trombone, Alon Yavnai '94 on piano, and a powerful lineup of special guests. D'Rivera describes one guest, percussionist Pernell Saturnino '95, as the "greatest in the world, because you don't notice him. But when he's not playing, you notice." Stagnaro's son Paulo Stagnaro, a current Berklee student who is also a percussionist, guests on the album's arrangement of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," played in the Peruvian festejo rhythm.

The Funk Tango album was an independent release, marking a new business approach by Latin master D'Rivera. According to Walker, D'Rivera covered production expenses for the album, but the quintet's core members recorded on spec, with the promise of a portion of monies earned from sales at live shows. Walker says that the album has been a huge success and far more lucrative for him than had he simply gotten a flat fee for the sessions.

Each band member contributed tunes to the album. Walker penned "What About That," a samba/bãio tune written while on tour using his laptop workstation. D'Rivera provided encouragement and suggestions along the way and road-tested Walker's ideas during a Canadian tour last year.

In addition to his work with D'Rivera, for more than a decade Walker has been the drummer for the group Oregon. For the past 30 years, the group has successfully merged jazz, classical, world music, and folk elements in its groundbreaking sound. Walker's tune "Deep Six" was the opening track on the band's 1,000 Kilometers album.

Oregon is not new to the world of the Grammys; the group was nominated four times in previous years. "Deep Six" was the first tune Walker had ever written for the band, and he expresses deep gratitude to his colleague and mentor in the band, guitarist Ralph Towner, for including it on the disc. Its appearance in the final track list meant a lot to Walker, who has profound respect for Towner's composing abilities. As the band worked on material for album, Walker proposed numerous ideas. But, he says, "The stuff I played for Ralph didn't knock him out." Walker presented "Deep Six" in the late stages of recording, and to his surprise, Towner loved the tune, which is based on a 6/8 Afro-Cuban rhythm.

Walker's latest endeavors include writing a book for Berklee Press that is tentatively titled World Jazz Drumming. In it, he hopes to present the common ground he has found between the widely divergent musical worlds of D'Rivera and Oregon. "If you're interested in world drumming, you need to have the ability to express yourself in the traditional styles-but also be fully able to go in and out of the tradition when you need to," he says. "Ultimately, it's about being able to express yourself in any kind of music."

Walker is careful to drive these points home with his drum students at Berklee. He tells them to really dig into the material. "For drummers, knowing the music well makes it easier to play the drum part. If they are learning a particular tune, I tell them to be able to sing the melody, learn a little about the chords, and then start playing the tune in different ways on the drum set.

"Everything I teach comes from my professional experience," Walker says. "I teach music - not just drums." While much of his teaching covers the basics of drum technique, rudiments, and time-keeping patterns, he places special emphasis on learning the music, not just the technical skills of drumming.

At this year's Grammy Awards ceremony, Walker found it inspiring to see such artists as Doris Day, Burt Bacharach, and the late jazz drummer Max Roach awarded Lifetime Achievement awards. "Seeing that just made me want to work harder at what I love to do," he says. "And it makes me want to encourage my students to work hard. I tell them, 'You're next, so be prepared. I'll be there with my camera.'"

To hear Walker's playing, visit


Susan Gedutis Lindsay is the editor of The Future of Music by David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard and How to Get a Job in the Music and Recording Industry by Keith Hatschek and Kristen Schilo.