A drummer he may be, but veteran jazz musician Poogie Bell, who will present his brand new album My America at Sofia's jazz bar Soul in da Hole on November 30*, is not so modest that he won't take centre-stage occasionally.
"People may think of drummer as a support vehicle, but the drums aren't at the back of the band and I'm interacting with the people. A drummer can be a bandleader. Think of Chuck Webb or Buddy Rich or Billy Cobham," he says.
Born in 1961, Bell grew us in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but moved to New York when he was still very young. His professional debut was at the tender age of two-and-a-half, but even by then he'd "drummed" up some experience.
"My father had a band. I was about 12 months and I sat in a high chair and all I did during rehearsals was stare at the drummer. My mother said I had a wet diaper but I sat through a three-hour band rehearsal! The next morning my mother was awakened to the sound of drums. Her first thought was that the drummer was in the household, but it was me. Somehow I'd managed to climb onto the drum stool!"
Poogie says for as long as he can remember he was able to play the drums.
"It was a blessing from God. Many people who start very young burn out – child stars and musicians – but I've been able to continue. Come high school and job fair days I was the one who always knew what I wanted to do."
Poogie can also play other instruments, the base and the piano, but says he would never do so in public.
As a child he was on a Variety show called the Hollywood place, then on the Mike Douglas chat show with Pearl Bailey in 1966.
"She was rather mean to me. She wanted me to sit on a piano while she sang to me. Even at that age I went 'no, I came here to play my drums'. Then she said to me: 'If you don't sit on the piano and let me sing to you again I'm gonna break your hands and you'll never play again.' She was married to a drummer called Louie Bellson who worked with Duke Ellington, and he apologised to me profusely."
For Poogie, there was no question of being forced into practising the drums or pursuing it as a career. "I always wanted to do it. Nobody had to tell me what to do. I had a little makeshift drum set in my room and a little stereo and I'd just put on record after record and I'd play all day."
He grew up in a jazz household, surrounded by great jazz musicians. "Paul Chambers lived down the road from us, on 93rd street in Manhattan. Guys like Ron Carter and Andrew Hill would be in my living room hanging around with my father."
He liked other music too but kept coming back to jazz. "I had a jazz heart and funk mind. Jazz was instilled in me from an early age. I think if you can play jazz music, then almost any other kind of music is easy because when you play jazz you have to think on your feet and improvise continuously. So when it comes to R&B, funk, pop, it's a piece of cake."
Unlike so many other would-be musicians, Poogie has been lucky to spend almost his entire working life doing what he loves. That may be just as well because his attempts at ordinary jobs were not very auspicious.
"I worked as a security guard in a bank. I got fired because I told the boss, 'if people come down here with guns to raid the vault, I'm not getting shot for your money.' That was the last normal job I ever had. Fortunately, a gig always followed these experiences. Some guys would let themselves starve rather than get a normal job. I could never understand that."
Poogie has now worked with Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford and Angelique Kidjo, among many others, both in live sessions and on recordings. His most recent gig in Sofia was with the Marcus Miller band in 2007 but Poogie has done so many concerts he admits to only a hazy memory of that night in NDK. His November 30 gig is in a smaller venue, Soul in da Hole on Vitosha Boulevard.
He always adjusts his repertoire and pitch according to the setting.
"If you're in a small place, you don't want to play so loud that people can't enjoy the music. If you're playing in a baseball stadium, then it's balls to the wall. You shouldn't force-feed people. Last year I played in Monaco to an old crowd – people with diamonds and jewellery everywhere. I guessed that the real funky stuff would not work, so I picked songs that were more laid back and easier to digest."
He greatly enjoyed working with Marcus Miller, whom he's known since they were both teenagers. His other favourite experience was working with Roberta Flack because, he says, she's a "genius". "People don't realise she was once a bebop player but she can really play. Playing in her band was demanding because you had to play whisper whisper soft but with the same intensity as if you were going all out and playing as loud as you can. Working with Herbie Hancock was also a dream come true for me," he says.
Poogie's next stops are Tbilisi and Vienna. Perhaps surprisingly, he says his niche in the US is getting smaller.
"You have the jazz police who separate acoustic jazz from smooth jazz (personified by Kenny G). There used to be a place in the middle for guys like me but it's getting smaller," he says.
Poogie is frustrated by what he says is the emergence of "wallpaper" jazz designed for people to talk over at cocktail parties or in malls.
"Experts conduct tests at malls. They put electrodes on people's fingers and start playing records. Any record that comes on that breaks the conversation – they take it and throw it away. The powers that be want jazz that is just background music for the radio. But I don't want to make music to put people to sleep. People used to play music because it had a function, I don't want to play music that's just wallpaper. Now there's even a new jazz station called water-colours where a Kenny G song would be too deep," he says.
Poogie says he's too set in his ways to change his style of music, even though it could have been lucrative.
He likes performing in Europe, believing that audiences over here are more "astute listeners", even more so in Eastern Europe where listeners were starved of jazz during the communist era.
Poogie's road show looks likely to take him on many future journeys around the world. The members of his band are all old friends – Bobby Sparks on keys, Keith Anderson on saxophones and Patches Stewart on the trumpet. In the old days Poogie says the band used to party together but these days – Poogie has an eight-year-old son – they've calmed down a bit. He claims that nothing fazes them – whether it's a mistake or a technical glitch – they know each other's repertoire so well that they can move on effortlessly. The result is a true band of experienced professionals.
Easy listening indeed...but not elevator music, I hasten to add.
*Poogie Bell's Special Band will perform at Soul in da Hole, 180 Vitosha Boulevard, on November 30 from 9pm onwards. Tickets at 30 leva each are available at the door.