Chambers was born in Stoneacre, Virginia, but raised primarily in Chester, Pennsylvania. His earliest musical aspirations focused heavily on composing even while learning to play drums. After high school, he studied composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory and American University in Washington, D.C. His earliest professional gigs were with R&B artist Bobby Lewis when he was 18. While in D.C., he started playing with the JFK Quintet, which also featured saxophonist Andrew White and bassist Walter Booker. There, he caught the attention of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who urged him to move to New York City.
Chambers relocated in 1963 and earned work with Hugh Masekela, Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Giuffre, and Andrew Hill. In 1964, Hubbard hired him for Breaking Point, which was where Bobby Hutcherson and Wayne Shorter heard him. Chambers' kit technique showcased a light touch and driving approach that underscored excellent timekeeping and a superb command of dynamics. Unlike other drummers in the Blue Note stable, he wasn't flashy, but was an eager and generous collaborator. Chambers played on 1965's Dialogue, Hutcherson's leader debut, and contributed two compositions including the title track. That same year, he also appeared on Archie Shepp's legendary Fire Music for Impulse! The drummer worked with both men throughout the decade. Chambers composed the entire second side of Hutcherson's 1966 outing Contours, and also played on now-classic albums including Joe Henderson's Mode for Joe and Wayne Shorter's All-Seeing Eye and Adam's Apple.
Between 1967 and 1969, Chambers played on seminal Blue Note outings that included Hutcherson's Happenings, Oblique, Medina, and Total Eclipse, Andrew Hill's Compulsion, Sam Rivers' Contours, McCoy Tyner's Tender Moments, and Donald Byrd's Fancy Free. He also played on Chick Corea's leader debut, Tones for Joan's Bones, for Vortex/Atlantic, several titles by Shepp, and took part in the rehearsal and recording sessions for Miles Davis' In a Silent Way. Interestingly, Chambers was offered his own leader date for the label, but was so enthusiastic about the collaborative work he was doing that he turned it down.
In 1970, he played on Now, his final studio outing with Hutcherson, though they continued touring together for another year. He joined Max Roach's touring and recording percussion workshop ensemble M'Boom as an original member. Chambers also played on Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous' solo outing Infinite Search. The following year, he worked with WR keyboardist Joe Zawinul on his self-titled Columbia debut and returned to Vitous' group for Mountain in the Clouds. In fact, Chambers played with a great many of jazz's most prominent elder statesmen in the early 1970s, including Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus.
In 1973, Chambers signed to Muse and issued his leader debut, The Almoravid, the following year. He penned four of the set's six tracks and hired an assortment of sidemen playing acoustic and electric instruments, including bassists Cecil McBee and Richard Davis, trumpeter Woody Shaw, conguero Ray Mantilla, and pianist Cedar Walton. The Almoravid won respectable reviews (and has since become a jazz classic) and allowed Chambers to tour outside the country with his own groups. He brought Mantilla back for 1976's octet outing New World. That same year, he worked with Zawinul again on Concerto Retitled. In 1978, he cut the historic duo offering Double Exposure with organist Larry Young. The end the decade saw Chambers quite busy working with M'Boom, Shepp, Mantilla, Lee Konitz, and others. In 1979, he released Chamber Music for the Japanese Baystate label. With pianist Tommy Flanagan and bassist Reggie Workman, Chambers formed the touring and recording group Super Jazz Trio, and issued three albums for Baystate between 1978 and 1980. In 1979, he released his bracing solo piano debut, Punjab, for Denon Records.
In 1981, Chambers released the gorgeous New York Concerto, assisted by bassist Eddie Gomez, Mantilla, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, pianist Kenny Barron, and guitarist Yoshiaki Masuo. In February 1982, Chet Baker, Chambers, Buster Williams, and David Friedman recorded Peace, the trumpeter's last truly great outing. Over the next several years, Chambers recorded and toured with Steve Grossman, played in Ray Mantilla's Space Station for Hands of Fire, M'Boom on Collage, and with the Super Jazz Trio. In 1986, he played on Bill Lee's score for his son Spike Lee's debut feature film, She's Gotta Have It. Further, he joined David Murray's trio for The Hill.
Chambers began a lengthy career as an educator in 1990. First, he taught at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. In 1992, he appeared on Roach's To the Max!, which showcased new tunes from M'Boom, his orchestra, and smaller ensembles. As an instructor as well as an artist, Chambers sought out new settings to experiment in. He played with flutist Jeremy Steig on Jigsaw, with saxophonist Rickey Woodard on The Tokyo Express, and with the Jazz Tribe, a collective composed of saxophonists Grossman and Bobby Watson, bassist Charles Fambrough, Mantilla, pianist Walter Bishop Jr., and trumpeter Jack Walrath. They released a lone, self-titled album for Italy's Red Records. Chambers returned to Blue Note to appear on Bob Belden's Puccini's Turandot, playing drums, vibes, marimba, and chimes. The other drummers in the large all-star ensemble included Paul Motian and Tony Williams. That same year, Chambers drums were sampled on rapper Nas' global breakout hit "N.Y. State of Mind."
In 1995, Chambers issued Isla Verde for Japan's Paddle Wheel label, leading a trio with bassist Gomez and pianist Ronnie Matthews. In 1998, Chambers released Mirrors, his Blue Note leader debut, more than 30 years after the label's initial offer. Produced by Brian Bacchus, the set featured seven original compositions and two covers played by a quintet that included trumpeter Eddie Henderson, saxophonist Vincent Herring, bassist Ira Coleman, and pianist Mulgrew Miller. Mirrors made the jazz charts.
The 21st century began with Chambers moving to teach at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He continued to play and record. In 2002, he issued Urban Grooves for New York's tiny indie 441 Records. The set offered a funky, Afro-Latin futurist approach to jazz standards, played by a quintet that included saxophonist Gary Bartz, bassist Rufus Reid, drummer/percussionist Bobby Sanabria, and pianist/keyboardist Eric Reed.
In 2006, Chambers worked with Belden again on Three Days of Rain, a varied outing that featured tenorist Joe Lovano, guitarist Ronnie Jordan, and pianists Jason Moran and Marc Copland. Later that year, Chambers released Outlaw, his debut for Savant. The set was comprised of three original compositions, standards, and tunes by Duke Ellington, Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver, and Stanley Cowell. In addition to Chambers arranging an impeccably articulated session and playing no less than six instruments, the album was notable for hosting the second recorded appearance by saxophonist, composer, and future bandleader Logan Richardson. Also in 2008, Chambers was selected as the first Thomas S. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Jazz at University of North Carolina.
In 2010, Chambers paid tribute to Silver with the nine-track Horace to Max for Savant. He led a quintet executing a program of the pianist's compositions that featured bassist Dwayne Burno, saxophonist Eric Alexander, pianist Xavier Davis (Helen Sung guested on one track), and drummer/percussionist Steve Berrios. The set charted and Chambers took his band on a tour of jazz festivals across the United States, Europe, and Japan. Two years later, he retired from teaching and released Joe Chambers Moving Pictures Orchestra. The set featured Chambers arranging for, playing in, and conducting a 17-piece big band performing an original long-form, four-movement composition live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. In 2016, he returned to a more conventional setting on Landscapes leading a trio with bassist Ira Coleman and pianist Rick Germanson.
Chambers returned to Blue Note for the third time with 2021's Samba de Maracatu. He played vibes, marimba, drums, and many Brazilian percussion instruments while leading a trio that included bassist Steve Haines and pianist/synthesist Brad Merritt. The nine-track set included original compositions, standards, and pieces by Shorter, Hutcherson, and Silver. It also included "New York State of Mind Rain," which joined Chambers and Larry Young's 1978 tune "Mind Rain" to the song it was most notoriously sampled for: Nas' "N.Y. State of Mind." The rap on the organic version was performed by MC Parrain. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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