One to watch: Berkeley drummer James Small

Drummer James Small Photo Courtesy of: Andrea Kash
James Small. Photo: courtesy Andrea Kash

At only 23 years old, James Small is about as seasoned a drummer as they come. He’s been a member of over 10 bands, opened a nationwide tour for a Grammy-winning artist, and attended one of the nation’s top music colleges. Yet Small’s journey hasn’t always been filled with success and achievement. The drummer has experienced his fair share of hardships and struggles along the way.

Small left school to chase a dream, experienced the rise and fall of a band, and, at one point, found himself teaching kindergarten at a performing arts school in Ohio. Through it all, he remains confident in his ability and excited about his future, however.

“It has all been worth it,” he said, smiling.

Now, as the drummer in four bands and working as an after-school program counselor at Emerson Elementary School, Small is intent on not only becoming the best drummer he can be, but the best person as well.


Small was destined to be a musician. Both James’s mother and father were heavily involved in the church, and in the church choir: his mother sang and his father was the choir pianist. Church was a family experience for the Smalls, and they made it a mission to get everyone involved. So at the tender age of two his father, James Small Sr. got James his first drum set. The bond between a boy and his drum set had begun.

“I guess my dad wanted me to get started as early as possible, so when it came time for me to join the choir I would already have some experience,” said Small.

That assumption proved to be right. A few years later, Small found himself playing right alongside his father. The next few years would be important ones for Small’s development as an artist. He says that gospel was his first experience with music, and it was in the church that he developed a love and understanding of music.

“Playing in the choir was great for me because it gave me a chance to learn,” he said. “I got the chance to understand rhythm and tempos and just practice my craft in its entirety.”

Small and members of the band Mama's Soup. Photo: courtesy Bill Evans
Small and members of the band Mama’s Soup. Photo: courtesy Bill Evans

It was after Small enrolled at Willard Middle School that he began to be exposed to different genres of music. In sixth grade, Small began playing for the school’s marching band, his first experience playing music that wasn’t gospel.


“When I was young, my dad was very selective with the music he let me listen to,” he said. “So for the most part I could only listen to and play gospel music. Willard’s marching band was the first time I was taken out that box.”

The next phase was Berkeley High: after electing not to join the Jazz Band his freshman year, Small was approached by a familiar face. That face was Charles Hamilton. Hamilton, who was the Berkeley High Jazz Band Director from 1981-2009, had worked with Small at Willard, and he was set on making sure the student reached his potential.

“From the moment I saw James play the drums, I knew he had a future,” said Hamilton. “Throughout his time at Willard I had been encouraging him to play for the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, so when I didn’t see him his freshman year I was shocked.”

Small and members of the band The Stang. Photo: courtesy Giovanni Galindo
Small and members of the band The Stang. Photo: courtesy Giovanni Galindo

Hamilton took every opportunity the had to convince Small of his talents, and talk about the possible future that awaited him if he took the drums seriously.

“I just reminded him that he could really be a special player,” said Hamilton. “I told him of all the scholarship opportunities and the doors that could open through drumming, and, of course, the fact that I signed him up for the class despite his skepticism helped a lot too.”


Those next three years spent playing with the Berkeley High Jazz Band paid off tremendously for Small. He says it was at Berkeley High that he began evolving into the drummer that people see today, and he gives most of that credit for his progress to Hamilton.

“Charles Hamilton was really involved with all the students in the Jazz Band,” said Small “He really wanted us to be great and he pushed us all to be the best we could be.”

Small got so good while at Berkeley High that he was presented with another opportunity to grow as a drummer. He was accepted into Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was at Berklee that Small would begin to experience the successes and failures that accompany life as a musician.

About one year into his studies at Berklee, Small was approached by Steve Basil. Basil had heard about Small and asked him if he would be interested in playing in a show with Steve’s band, Bedrock.

“Steve told me he had heard about me and the presented me with the opportunity to do a show in Kentucky,” said Small. “I figured it wouldn’t hurt, so we get down to Kentucky and I realized we’re opening for 2chainz and French Montana.”

Small said he remembers rocking the show, and Basil and the rest of the band members being really impressed. They were so impressed, in fact, that they offered Small the opportunity to go on tour with them, which for him meant dropping out of school.

“I had worked really hard to get into Berklee and I didn’t want to let all that go down the drain,” said Small. “But this tour meant opening up for artists like Lil Wayne and Macklemore. I knew I couldn’t let this slip away.”

He decided to leave Berklee and go on tour with Bedrock. He spent the next few months traveling across the United States and playing in front of thousands of fans.

“I was opening for some of the hottest artist in the industry at the time,” he said. “It was a great experience for me and I don’t regret it.”

What James does regret it how things ended with Bedrock. After the tour, the band stayed together for a while, but eventually things fell apart.

“There was just a lack of communication,” said Small. “I was new to the band and I didn’t want to step on any toes, but now I think if I would have spoken up we might still be together.”

After the break-up of Bedrock, Small found himself at a crossroads. He was out of school, out of a band, and now living in Cleveland, Ohio. With no job  and over 2,000 miles away from home, he says he felt lost and in need of direction. In efforts to keep his spirits up Small turned his attention to another passion: uplifting his community, particularly the youth. He took a job as an after-school program counselor at The Haley School of the Performing Arts, and before he knew it he was an assistant kindergarten teacher.

“That was a blessing in disguise for me,” said Small. “I ended up meeting some really great kids, and it gave me a chance to give back and see what mentorship can do for kids.”

Small and students from Emerson Elementary. Photo: courtesy of James Small
Small and students from Emerson Elementary. Photo: courtesy James Small

Although finding a balance has taken some time, Small might now have hit the sweet spot. He’s back in Berkeley, where he’s found work as both a drummer and an educator. Between the two careers he says he has found solace. He feels that everything he has been through was in efforts to prepare him for the life he lives now. Despite the struggles, he has developed a positive perspective.

“I think about if I wouldn’t have made some of the choices I did in the past I wouldn’t be who I am now,” said Small. “Take teaching in Ohio for example. Working with those kids taught me so much and I was able to come home and took what I learned at Haley School of the Performing Arts and at Emerson.”

Whether it be music or education, Small says he is set on giving it his all. He plans on being a great drummer in his own right, and also going back to school so that he can open up new opportunities for himself in the world of education.

“I’m working every day to be the best version of me I can be,” he said. “I want to impact this world in as many ways as I can.”

Catch James Small and Mama’s Soup at Ex’pression College For Digital Arts Thursday, May 5 at 8 p.m. for a free show, as they record a song in front of a live audience. For more info regarding dates and showtimes for other bands he plays for, check out the Facebook pages for Mama’s SoupThe Stang Band and Sal’s Greenhouse.

Related:
One to watch: BHS grad, musician Spencer Stevens (04.26.16)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.