When Chuck Flores was a youngster growing up in Orange, he got a big thrill banging away on a bunch of cardboard boxes that he imagined to be a drum set.
After more than 40 years' worth of gigs as a pro with many jazz greats under his belt, Flores, 56, still gets that same charge.
"I love playing the drums. It gives me energy and youth," he said in a recent phone conversation from his home in Van Nuys. "The thing that's so great about playing is that it's as if you're on a rocket ship, and heading into new territory."
Flores' career certainly took off in wham-bam fashion. Through a high-school friend, Flores met Los Angeles drum legend Shelly Manne, who took the youth on as a student. When Flores was just 19, Manne recommended him for a spot with Woody Herman's band, and Flores got the job.
Flores said the time spent with Herman--from 1954 to '55--was inspirational. He toured Europe and the United States with the band and even backed bop giant Charlie (Bird) Parker on the few occasions he sat in with Herman. "Bird liked Woody's band," Flores said. "Woody wanted cats to play; he had that spirit, and that's what Bird liked."
After a successful career as a small-band trapsman, the memory of the experience with Herman provided the spark for Flores, in the mid-1980s, to start his own large ensemble.
"There was a 50th-anniversary concert for Woody in 1984, and I felt there had to be someone to try to continue that spirit: of having guys play just for the sake of playing, trying to be creative and keep things that were important from those early days: time, musicality, dynamics," he said.
The 1991 version of the band Flores started in 1985 performs tonight at El Matador in Huntington Beach, but he has yet to take his large ensemble into the recording studio.
Flores' repertoire includes arrangements written by such notables as Bill Holman, Gordon Brisker, Kim Richmond and Gil Evans (a transcription of George Gershwin's "Gone"). The leader tries--as did Herman and Stan Kenton, with whom Flores played briefly--to bring a fresh approach to big-band jazz.
"We take some of the old, and some of the new, and try to make the old new and new old, so there's a balance," said Flores, who spent the latter part of the '50s working in Los Angeles with the likes of Bud Shank and Art Pepper. "I think of all the things I respected about Woody and Stan, and bring those aspects into this band, particularly the idea of breaking new ground."
Flores, who also leads a small group around the Los Angeles area besides working occasionally with such artists as guitarist Laurindo Almeida and saxophonist Bill Perkins, doesn't read or write music, but he has composed some songs. Flores recorded one of those, "Dawn and Liz," with a quintet on his "Drum Flower" album in 1976 and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance.
"I have a pretty good ear, I can remember melodies. I sing them into a tape recorder and then have someone write the chords for me, then have someone write an arrangement," he said of his writing technique.
He was reluctant to study the elements of written music because he was too busy with the art of playing the drums. "I feel like I'm still learning, still growing," Flores said.
Flores, originally influenced by Herman drummer Dave Tough and, later, Art Blakey, reveals a solid feel for his instrument. He can be heard playing with fire and conviction on such recordings as Bud Shank's "Live at the Haig," a 1956 session at the now-defunct Los Angeles nightspot, as well as on Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin's "Long Yellow Road" from 1975.
The core of Flores' playing--which might be described as crisp, detailed, and potentially explosive--is "time," a term he uses roughly to mean "swing feel."
"Time is creating the pulse of the rhythm and embellishing the accents of the music on the drum set, and trying to build the energy as you get into the song," he explained.
Besides performing, Flores teaches. He leads a class in small group playing at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, and he has a number of private students. These up-and-comers give him a boost similar to the one he gets from sitting at his own trap set.
"It makes me feel young to be able to play and teach," he said. "Young people are great. I hope they learn from me, but I know I learn from them."
* Drummer Chuck Flores lead his big band tonight at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. at El Matador, 16903 Algonquin St., Huntington Beach. Admission: $5. Information: (714) 846-5337.