Ari Hoenig, who grew up in Mt. Airy and attended Germantown Friends School and then Central High School, has become one of the world’s foremost jazz drummers. (Photo by Marianna Marisova)

by Lou Mancinelli

Ari Hoenig, 39, who grew up in Mt. Airy and attended Germantown Friends School and then Central High School, recently received the BMW WELT (German for “world”) Award at a competition hosted in Munich in May. The theme was drummers who lead bands. He performed his own compositions with his quartet, the Ari Hoenig Quartet, with Tivon Pennicott, Eden Ladin and Alex Claffy. That’s the same quartet he performed with recently at Chris’ Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St., and World Café Live, 3100 Chestnut St. Hoenig is known for his unusual and intense approach to drumming, emphasizing complex rhythms.

In 2009 Hoenig married Tracy Appleton. They now have a daughter, Lyric, who is almost one, and they currently live in the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn. Last week we had a Q-and-A session with Ari, who offered up the following information:

Q: How did you get your start in music?

A: I was able to delve more into music at Central High than at GFS. I studied music performance at the University of North Texas until 1995, when I transferred to William Paterson University in New Jersey in order to be closer to New York. I studied one semester at Paterson but did not graduate. I moved to New York in 1997.

Q: I know you started playing at a very young age. Why did you give up the piano and violin in favor of the drums?

A: It was much more fun and lively. It kind of gave me more of an opportunity to be less constrictive. Both my parents were classical musicians, and the drums were an instrument they didn’t really know. With the drums I found something that my parents couldn’t tell me what to do.

Q: Why jazz as opposed to other forms of music?

A: “I don’t play jazz because I love the music more than any other music. Within jazz I have the ability to improvise, which means you can play whatever you want. I can play rock, hip hop, ska or samba, and it’s still all considered jazz. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Existing in that freedom musically is really the point.

Q: Is it harder than in the past to find venues to play jazz? If so, why?

A: No. The venues, in a sense, follow the music. I have been able to make a solid living. If you’re in that scene and you know what’s going on, you know where to go. It’s more a matter of developing with like-minded musicians and getting to be established in the community.

Q: I know you have played with a many well-known names, for example, with Herbie Hancock in Carnegie Hall. Who were the most fun to play with? Why?

A: I prefer playing mostly with the people I play with and surround myself with. The thing is that music is a conversation. Like a friend you can talk to, you might have a deeper connection with a musician you are more familiar with. You develop a language, a repertoire. You can communicate on a much deeper level … It’s really off the charts better. If you’ve been playing with somebody for a long time, the conversation might be more like “What do you think about the meaning of life? Or about the meaning of death?”

Q: Why did you get kicked off stage by security while playing with Gerry Mulligan?

A: He was not kicked off the stage by security. It is a joke. He was so bad they threw his ass off the stage.

Q: Do you live in New York because of the more lively jazz scene there as opposed to Philly?

A: New York is pretty much the center of improvisational music, I would say, in the world. I liked living in Philly, but for what I do New York is much better.

Q: I have read about the teaching and educational products you have produced. What is it about your own playing that is unique to yourself and different from other drummers?

A: The beauty of it is it’s really left up to the listener. A drummer’s sound is about what he is actually playing. A number of factors contribute to his sound like consistency and control over time and dynamics.

Once you’ve mastered something like that, you can really do things that are creative and unique. Sometimes people talk about style like it is some mysterious thing. But like a good writer knows what makes a sentence, a good drummer knows what makes a good beat …

The basics really apply to all styles of drumming and music.

Q: How often have you played in Philly in the past few years? How are the audiences here compared to New York?

A: I play in Philly a few times a year. The audience depends on the place. I usually play at Chris’ Jazz Café, where people come for good food and good music.

Q: What are the names of your parents? Do they still live here? 

A: My parents, Lynn Mather and Larry Hoenig, still live in Mt. Airy. (Ed. Note: Lynn is a violinist/violist, and Larry is a retired music faculty member from Germantown Friends School.)

For more information about Ari, visit