The end of 2017 didn’t pass without losses, and Indianapolis lost one of its greatest jazz legends last month when “Mad” Harold Cardwell passed away at the age of 77 in late December. In the days following Cardwell’s death, dozens of his friends and fellow musicians have stepped up to describe the drummer’s unique contribution to music. But none have captured the essence of Cardwell as succinctly as the late NEA Jazz Master and IU professor David Baker.
“Harold is the closest Indiana has to Elvin Jones,” quoted Baker in the bio of Cardwell’s press kit.
Cardwell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1940, but grew up in Buffalo, New York. Cardwell began performing professionally at age 15 playing with the legendary R&B group Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. During the ‘60s, Cardwell’s career kicked into high gear as he landed gigs with some of the biggest names in jazz. During the ’60s and ’70s Cardwell performed with artists including Eddie Harris, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Melvin Sparks. But the biggest break of Cardwell’s career came from jazz guitar icon Grant Green. Cardwell spent several years touring with Green, and recorded on a few of the guitarist’s classic albums for Blue Note, including Visions (1971), Shades of Green (1971), and The Final Comedown (1972).
In addition to the notoriety he gained from recording with Green on the prestigious Blue Note label, Cardwell picked up a couple defining elements of his career during his time with the guitarist. First being his nickname. I always assumed the title “Mad” Harold was a reference to Cardwell’s larger-than-life personality, but according to Cardwell’s bio, Green coined the name as an acronym for “master at drumming.”
Green also provided Cardwell with an opportunity to form one of his most significant musical partnerships when vibraphonist Billy Wooten joined Green’s touring band in 1969. After leaving Green’s band, Cardwell and Wooten formed a wildly popular Indianapolis-based group that prompted Cardwell to officially move to Indy in 1974. You can hear some incredible drumming from Cardwell on two classic Wooten-led LPs, The Nineteenth Whole’s Smilin’ (1972, Eastbound Records), and Wooden Glass’ Recorded Live (1972, Interim Records).
It’s worth noting that Cardwell was the last surviving member of Wooden Glass. Cardwell’s performance on the LP represents the best recorded document of his work. The album was recorded live at Indianapolis’ 19th Hole nightclub and has developed a huge cult following among soul and jazz fans around the world. Original copies of the record are considered a “holy grail” among vinyl collectors, and routinely sell for upwards of $1,000.
Over the years Billy Wooten has received the lion’s share of attention for the success of Wooden Glass, but I would offer that Cardwell deserves equal recognition. For fans of Wooden Glass, the centerpiece of Recorded Live is a haunting instrumental version of The Dramatics’ soul classic “In The Rain.” In my opinion, it’s Cardwell’s drumming that make this version truly distinct. Cardwell’s taut rhythmic patterns anticipate the percussive boom bap pulse of Golden Era ‘90s hip-hop. It’s no surprise that Recorded Live has been sampled multiple times on tracks by rappers like Mos Def and Denmark Vesey. The beloved underground producer Madlib even created an eight-minute tribute to Wooden Glass titled “6 Variations Of In The Rain.”
I regret that I never had a chance to interview Cardwell, but I did recently speak with one of his colleagues. Pianist Kenny Simms was leader of the acclaimed Indianapolis fusion group Merging Traffic. Simms remembers Cardwell playing a few gigs with Merging Traffic during the early 1970s. “He was a different guy, and a different drummer,” Simms said. “He left an impression on all the musicians here. If you didn’t know him in his early days, you missed the real Mad, the real player, the real fiery guy. As the cancer started taking its toll, he kind of wound down.”
Simms described Cardwell’s style as “flowing,” and shared a memory of his last performance with the drummer. “The last gig he did with me was at a fundraiser. I was trying to get him to play a song in 5/4, and he couldn’t even hear 5/4. That’s how flowing his style was. But once we started playing the song, whatever he put in there, it worked. But it wasn’t 5/4, and I don’t know what it was! [laughs] Now that’s Mad Harold. He was a water-fill-the-glass type of guy.”
Cardwell’s induction into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame is long overdue, as is further recognition in Indianapolis. But the music Cardwell recorded with Grant Green and Wooden Glass continues to move jazz fans around the world.