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In memoriam: drummer Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler, 65

The musician was a popular teacher in USC Thornton’s Contemporary Music Division who was celebrated for his work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album

Leon "Ndugu" Chancler
Leon “Ndugu” Chancler in 2017 (Photo/Courtesy of the Chancler family)

Drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, who has taught in the Jazz Studies and Popular Music programs at the USC Thornton School of Music since 1995, passed away on Feb. 3 after a battle with cancer. He was 65.

Chancler was widely celebrated for his performances on Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller album, most notably on “Billy Jean,” and he received a Grammy Award nomination for co-writing the song “Let It Whip” in the same year. Over six decades, Chancler also performed and recorded with Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Weather Report, Santana, Tina Turner, Patrice Rushen and Kenny Rogers, among many others.

A percussionist, composer, producer and clinician, Chancler graduated from California State University, Dominguez Hills with a degree in music education and remained committed to teaching his craft through 23 years as a beloved adjunct assistant professor in USC Thornton’s Contemporary Music Division.

We will miss his smile, optimism and ‘can-do’ attitude.

Robert Cutietta

“When one becomes a musician, one is not just a drummer or a composer. You train to be diverse. You train to arrange, write, play and produce,” Chancler said in 2012. “All of it goes together for me. I simply call myself a musician and these are all just things I do.”

USC Thornton Dean Robert Cutietta reflected on Chancler’s many contributions to the school.

“As the first and only drum set teacher in the Popular Music program, he was fundamental in creating the musical and professional climate in that department,” Cutietta said. “We will miss his smile, optimism and ‘can-do’ attitude. Our students will miss his dedicated teaching and mentoring personality. He was dedicated to the Thornton School and his students until the end.”

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In memoriam: drummer Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler, 65

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