Leon Chancler, professor of popular music, dies at 65

Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, an adjunct assistant USC Thornton School of Music professor in percussion, jazz studies and popular music, died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 65.

Leon Chancler was a prominent percussionist who performed with the likes of Michael Jackson, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. Photo from USC News

Chancler was a professional drummer who recorded with Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner and other artists. He was also on multiple Michael Jackson songs like  “Thriller” and “Billie Jean.”

Chris Sampson, the founding director of the popular music program, confirmed his death to the Daily Trojan. Sampson said Chancler died of complications due to cancer, but he did not specify the type of cancer.

“He has been instrumental in developing and maintaining the quality of the popular music program,” Sampson said. “He was an amazing colleague and a vital part of our program.”

Along with percussion, Chancler was also a songwriter, and his work on the Dazz Band song “Let it Whip” earned him a Grammy nomination in 1982.

Chancler also worked with Santana and George Duke through his songwriting, and played percussion instruments for artists like Lionel Ritchie and Miles Davis, according to the Thornton website.

“His versatility, his vast knowledge of multiple genres of music, his resume with massive experience as a drummer, as a producer, as a composer, made him a very broad, well-rounded musician,” jazz studies program chair Bob Mintzer said.

He also performed and recorded music with Patrice Rushen — the chair of the Thornton popular music program — who has known Chancler since high school, when both of them attended the Locke High School in South Los Angeles.

“We were good friends because I think our feelings about music were the same,” Rushen said. “We had each other to talk about how we love so much music, and so many different kinds of music, that we wanted to be capable of playing anything.”

She said Chancler could play every genre of popular music, and every kind of jazz, in addition to being a skilled composer and producer.

Chancler started teaching at USC in 1995.

“To his last day, he was teaching and preparing for subsequent days of teaching,” Mintzer said. “He’s always been the most jovial, positive, uplifting person you’d ever want to meet. He was a beacon of light in our program.”

Chancler primarily taught one-on-one drum set classes for percussion majors, but he was also a frequent guest speaker in other Thornton classes, Sampson said. Luke Woodle, a junior majoring in jazz studies, took one-on-one percussion classes with Chancler.

“I met him my sophomore year, I realized after my freshman year what I was missing out on by not studying with him,” Woodle said. “From day one, he was the warmest person and welcomed me into the studio with love. That was our first interaction, and I remember it very clearly. Since day one, all the way to the last day that I saw him, he was always like that.”

Woodle also said that Chancler’s warm personality was paired with a direct and constructively critical teaching style.

“He was very real, was very honest,” Woodle said. “So if you were dropping the ball, he’d let you know how badly you dropped the ball. Which was a really great thing, because he found a balance between being supportive and being critical in a constructive way.”

According to Rushen, Chancler taught more than just music.

“He cared a lot about the students, and he cared a lot about their relationship to the music,” Rushen said. “It forced them to understand the privilege it is to be an artist, the privilege it is to play music and also instilled in them a certain responsibility of being able to always come to something that you love a lot with respect and joy and excellence.”

Chancler also put out his own musical projects. He recorded two albums under the name of Ndugu and the Chocolate Jam Co., “The Spread of the Future” in 1979, and “Do I Make You Feel Better” in 1980. In 2001 and 2007, Chancler recorded albums with Rushen and music producer Stanley Clarke.

Chancler is survived by his wife, Brenda Curry and his son, Rashon Chancler.

The Thornton School of Music is planning a memorial for Chancler, but they are still discussing how to honor his contribution and legacy at the school, Rushen said.