The self-sustaining rock ‘n’ roll drummer

Jonathan Ulman performs on October 25, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Jonathan Ulman dreamed of becoming a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. He made the dream come true. But his life is nothing like he imagined it would be.

For starters, he has a wife and a 2-year-old daughter at home. Faced with a choice, he chose them. And so he works a full-time job that provides his young family with health insurance and other benefits, and he makes time to fit his musical performances in the between.

“I’m not going to risk this job by going on the road for two months,” said Ulman, a 38-year-old who graduated from Northeastern in 2004. “I figured out the way to get all of it to work the way I want it to work without abusing it.”

Photos by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

He is a drummer for hire, a rhythmic freelancer in the new gig economy, and there has been no shortage of demand. Ulman is the two-time reigning “Session Musician of the Year” of the Boston Music Awards, with a chance to make it three in a row next month. In 2016, he was nominated for “Best New Drummer” by Rhythm, the British drumming and percussion magazine.

Bands hire Ulman to record in studio at least 65 times per year, so maybe you’ve heard him on any number of records without recognizing him. Or maybe you’ve seen him during the 150 or more live appearances he makes annually, mainly in the Boston area. His main assignment as a session musician is to fit in, seamlessly and instantly. Ulman performs on stage like the smart kid in the back of the class who aces every test without making a show of it.

His persona, a necessity of show business, is framed by his long black beard and matching baseball cap.

“I have a brand, I have a look,” said Ulman, whose drumsticks bear the logo of his black hat and beard. “My wife hates it, because she says, ‘So now you can never not have a beard.’”

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

That signature look gives him cover. It provides him with a liberating public identity. It enables him to focus on his music without having to wail away in the cliché of the typical rock ‘n’ roll drummer.

“When I’m not on tour, I can play two gigs in the night and do studio in the day. So I just got three gigs in one day,” he said. “I can be out five or six nights a week playing. I can double or triple my money, come home, and have breakfast with my daughter in the morning.”

Ulman grew up in an artists’ home. His mother is a photographer. His father and older brother, Michael Ulman, who graduated from Northeastern in 2000, are sculptors. Ulman found his calling at 11 when he listened to Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten. More than a decade later, while working the counter at a sporting goods store in Boston to pay the bills that weren’t covered by his nascent music career, he breathlessly explained his life story to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, a customer, who wound up leaving Ulman four tickets to the concert that night.

Then reality nestled in: love, marriage, their beautiful daughter. His parents had warned Ulman and his brother against making a career of their art; in his 30s, he found himself heeding their advice. He became the percussion department manager at the Berklee College of Music, where he has been encouraged to continue his musical career on the side. He also made use of his 2011 digital media master’s degree from Northeastern, which taught him to create his own website and otherwise market himself on social media.

“I went back to school to be able to market a really weird thing, which is me as a drummer,” he said. “A lot of people are like, ‘I’m just going to learn how to be really proficient in my instrument.’ And that’s awesome. Except nobody will ever know who you are if you can’t put it out in the world effectively.”

When Ulman joins a new band in studio, he asks to spend a short time in conversation with the other members of the band, in hope of establishing some kind of relationship or connection that can help blend their music into harmony.

His website lists more than 120 bands with whom he has played, live or in studio. He plays regularly with the local hip-hop band STL GLD, a finalist in “Artist of the Year” and several other categories at the Boston Music Awards.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Ulman keeps an ever-updated list of life goals. He hoped to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, and settled for playing on Jimmy Kimmel Live! He dreamed of fame, and found something more substantial and sustainable.

“I played in bands for many, many years,” he said. “And it was like, OK, this is the band that’s going to make it. I had all those dreams of playing in arenas all over the world. It wasn’t until my late 20s or early 30s that I realized I’m putting it in the hands of other people to make it happen.

“I became this self-sufficient ecosystem. And when you’re in charge of your own destiny, it’s like doors start flying open. Because you can pick the path that you want to go, you can take risky moves, you can put yourself out there in a whole different way. There’s all these things that you don’t have to do anymore.”

Only one thing could ruin this life he has made.

“If it’s Eddie Vedder,” he said, laughing. “Then I will quit my job and go on tour with Pearl Jam.”

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