FEATURE — Winter 2005


He’s into Drums

Virtuoso timpanist Jonathan Haas’ musical career has been a “wild ride” through classical, jazz, rock, and world music. His infectious love and command of music knows no bounds.

By Steve Givens

Jonathan Haas is not one to beat his own drum, but … well … he’s paid to do it and he’s got a lot of them to beat. 

Haas, A.B. ’75, is a virtuoso timpanist who has almost single-handedly raised the status of the timpani to that of a solo instrument. His career has spanned more than 20 years and several genres of music. From classical concertos to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, from symphonic masterpieces to the most experimental compositions of living composers, Haas has championed, commissioned, unearthed, and celebrated music for his instrument, becoming, as Ovation magazine hailed him, “The Paganini of the timpani.” 

For Haas, 51, the allure of playing the timpani (or kettledrum) can be found in the physics of the instrument.

“It reaches to the lowest frequencies that we can hear,” says Haas, who lives in Thornwood, New York, just 30 miles north of Manhattan. “I love low frequencies, and I think most audience members respond to low frequencies. I think that’s why rock ‘n’ roll became so influential and important. It’s visceral. It’s what you feel in your shoes and the chair of your seat. And when the moment is right, that’s what makes live music uplifting.”

Haas’ performances in the world’s most prestigious concert halls and his groundbreaking recordings have delighted critics and listeners around the globe. He is the principal timpanist of the Aspen Chamber Orchestra and principal percussionist of the American Symphony Orchestra. He’s a member of the American Composers Orchestra and has performed with symphony orchestras all over the world. He has performed with rock ‘n’ roll icons like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; Aerosmith; and Black Sabbath. He has commissioned, performed, and produced concerts and concertos composed by the likes of Frank Zappa and Philip Glass.

Following a fruitful and eclectic musical youth in the Chicago area, where he started a Doors cover band at age 13 and went on to play sock hops, Beethoven symphonies, jazz, and Sousa marches at New Trier High School, he came to Washington University in the early 1970s for three reasons, he says: It was only six hours from Chicago; it was one of the great liberal arts schools in the United States; and there was a percussion teacher named Rich O’Donnell, then the principal percussionist with the Saint Louis Symphony.

“My story at Washington U. is one of those that sounds like a movie,” says Haas, whose recordings include both classical and jazz works, including some by his jazz ensemble, Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing. “But it was very much a dream come true.”

When he arrived on campus, the orchestral rehearsal room was in an actual garage. As a freshman he played in the orchestra, took classes, and buckled down to work. But then, as in every great movie, he had an illuminating experience. He saw the light. Literally.

“I noticed there was always a light on in the garage late into the night,” he says, “and I stopped in one night about one in the morning. A percussionist, a graduate student named Andy Linden, was there. He had a pot of coffee, a carton of cigarettes, and a stack of music. He beckoned me to come in and watch what he was doing. Then, he and I began to stay up all night practicing together.”

In his sophomore year, Haas’ life in music took another giant leap forward, and the impetus came from perhaps an unlikely source—a philosophy professor in a game theory class. 

“At the end of one of his lectures, Professor [Ned] McClennen said, ‘Mr. Haas, can you meet me in my office?’ I had no idea what he wanted. I figured I was flunking. So I got to his office in Brookings, and there he was in his big leather chair smoking a pipe. This is movie stuff. I sat down, and he said, ‘I’ve called you in because I was at a concert last night of the Washington University Orchestra, and I saw you playing. It looked like you were having the greatest time of your life.’

“I said, ‘Well, I was.’ And he said, ‘Why aren’t you pursuing music as a career? Given the expression on your face, why don’t you do something like that for the rest of your life?’”

Among Jonathoan Haas' teaching assignments is director of the Classical Percussion Performance Department at New York University.

Haas left the meeting and declared music his major. “I never looked back from that day on,” he says. 

Percussionist O’Donnell was also a tremendous influence on Haas, as was another professor who has remained a close friend, Tom Hamilton, who was in charge of the electronic music studio. When Hamilton gave Haas a key to the studio, suddenly he had a place to experiment, rehearse, and record.

“For three years, I lived every night on the music campus,” Haas says. “It was a real wild ride. We were doing a lot of experimentation—a lot of the same things that were going on in New York and California unbeknownst to us.”

Soon, Haas began to create concerts for a contemporary music group and a percussion ensemble in Graham Chapel. In 1973, the first concert he produced there featured performers from the Saint Louis Symphony and attracted a reviewer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Nobody ever said ‘no’ at Washington U.,” he says. “So when I got my first ‘no,’ I never believed it.”

His first celebrated ‘no’ came years later, after graduate school at Juilliard and a year spent with the Charlotte (North Carolina) Symphony. It came from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation when he was trying to fund his Carnegie Recital Hall debut as a timpanist. He got a letter back that said, basically, “Sorry, we only fund musicians.”

Haas was taken aback, but only for as long as it took him to make an appointment with the head of the foundation and explain that, in fact, timpanists are musicians. He got the funding and the recital—the first-ever such recital at Carnegie Hall.

His Juilliard training and his love for the classical repertoire have placed one of his feet firmly in the world of symphonies and concertos, while his “wild ride” at Washington University helped prepare him for the wider musical world as a performer and producer. While still at Juilliard, he had toured briefly with the experimental classic rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but that was only the beginning.

During his long career, he has continued to celebrate the diversity of his instrument by collaborating with myriad artists, although his collaboration with Philip Glass, resulting in Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, has been his “Mount Everest,” he says. The piece features two timpanists playing seven timpani each, all downstage in front of the orchestra. 

During his long career, Haas has continued to celebrate the diversity of his instrument by collaborating with myriad artists, although his collaboration with Philip Glass, resulting in Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, has been his “Mount Everest,” he says.

While Haas stays busy performing, he also holds parallel careers as business owner (of a percussion rental service called Kettles and Company that grew out of his own huge collection of percussion instruments) and as a dedicated and inspiring teacher. He is the director of the Peabody Conservatory Percussion Studio (for 22 years) and a faculty artist of the Aspen Music School (for 20), and he recently became the director of the Classical Percussion Performance Department at New York University and a faculty member of the Juilliard’s Pre-College Division. His percussion collection now numbers some 800 instruments, including a 300-year-old, 9-foot-high drum from the Philippines and the world’s largest timpani, a 6-foot-wide instrument he built himself (photo at top).

So with his hands and feet in so many musical places, one might think it would be hard to discern where Haas’ musical heart resides. But it’s not so tough, as Haas explains it.

“[My attention] has to be in a lot of different places because I’m a teacher,” says Haas, who shares his life in New York with his wife, Pia, a theater director, and their three daughters. “It’s important for me to embrace all these different genres—classical, jazz, rock, and world music. Because if my students don’t sense that I’m dedicated to all of it and that I love it all—which I really do—they’re not going to learn what they really need to learn, because learning is infectious.”

Steve Givens is the assistant to the chancellor and a former editor of this magazine.