PHILADELPHIA — While watching Justin Bethel play the drums, one can’t help but notice there are moments when the Patriots special teams ace fixates on his bandmates, whether it be guitarist Jonathan Knott or his younger brother Gabriel on the trumpet.
On this Saturday evening, Bethel is on a stage much smaller than the one he plays on in the fall at Gillette Stadium. He’s performing with House of Bethel, a jazz band he and Gabriel founded with their older brother Dione seven years ago. The trio released an album and expanded, adding Knott, bassist Tim Khayat, and pianist Jonathan Lovett.
They’ve set up shop in a hotel ballroom overlooking Penn’s Landing and the Delaware River. Their set list for the night features a mix of original tracks, written by Gabriel, as well as renditions of popular tunes, such as “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Amazing Grace,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.”
If it weren’t known that Bethel is a professional football player, one who logged a team-high 84.1 percent of the Patriots’ special teams snaps last season, the hourlong concert would be more than enough to convince the average listener that he’s a formally trained musician, just like the others on stage. His rhythm and feel are on-point, his passion evident.
But Bethel will be the first to say he’s “the least talented” of the bunch. And his intense concentration on his bandmates has nothing to do with staying on beat or waiting for a cue. It’s simply out of admiration.
“I haven’t heard my brother play like that in a while,” Bethel said after the show. “I was like, ‘Oooh, he got better since the last time I heard.’ ”
Although Dione wasn’t present — he’s currently stationed in South Korea as an Army officer, but is expected to rejoin the band upon his impending return — the opportunity to play alongside his brothers is only fitting for Bethel.
He, Gabriel, and Dione gravitated toward instruments at a young age because their father Chris, a minister and musician, was heavily involved with gospel music at their church.
Chris, who dabbled in several instruments, served as his sons’ first music instructor.
“I’m like Joe Jackson,” joked Chris, making a reference to the father who put together the Jackson Five in the 1960s.
Even now, years later, Chris doesn’t miss an opportunity to share his feedback as the band’s manager.
“Just do that one more time,” imitated Gabriel.
“That last part, I don’t know,” said Bethel, offering his best impression. “Y’all might as well run through the whole thing again.”
A passion emerges
Bethel’s first taste of percussion instruments came at 7 years old, when he was tasked with playing the bongos at church — or so he thought.
“I thought I was playing,” he said. “Apparently, I wasn’t. The mike was never on. They just had me up there making me feel like I was doing something.”
A couple of years later, Bethel began playing the drums (for real). Once he reached middle school, he decided he wanted to join the school band. But he kept procrastinating and ultimately missed the deadline for signing up.
So he opted to try out for football, which he had just started playing a year earlier. Things ended up working out; about a decade later, he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals.
Still, the drums remained a passion. In high school, Bethel continued to play casually, teaching himself rhythmic patterns with assistance from his father. Chris would have him practice with click tracks, so that a metronome could guide him through songs and help him stay on beat. Bethel wasn’t a fan, though, because he preferred to experiment himself.
“You want to try stuff, you want to do your own thing and throw it around and have fun,” he said.
Bethel never enrolled in lessons, instead trusting his instincts and picking things up on his own.
“It was something I always liked doing,” he said. “I remember in high school, my ninth-grade year, I was wrestling and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to go to wrestling practice. I want to play the drums.’ ”
Following high school graduation, Bethel went on to play football at Presbyterian College, where he also found time to join the school’s pep and jazz band. And following graduation, he has made sure to have access to a drum kit whenever he goes.
In Massachusetts, where he lives during the NFL season? Bethel keeps an electric drum set, perfect for practice. In Arizona, where he still resides during much of the offseason? He has a newly renovated music studio, complete with a five-piece acoustic set, as well as the original electric drum set he purchased after getting drafted.
And in South Carolina, where he grew up? The family still has a dedicated music room, and whenever Bethel returns home, his mother knows it’s only a matter of time before he, his brothers, and his dad find their way there.
“I have drums everywhere,” Bethel said.
Practice, practice, practice
Save for the few occasions when football practice gets the better of him, Bethel will carve out time to hone his skills. He has made a concerted effort this offseason to practice on the drums every day, either improvising or playing along with drumless tracks.
“When I start really working out, or even like this week with OTAs, you get so tired and sometimes you say, ‘OK, I need to practice and play,’ ” said Bethel. “But when you get home, I’m so tired, the next thing you know it’s 9 o’clock, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I got to go to bed.’ ”
Oftentimes he’ll play solo, but sometimes he’ll jam with friends from church. He’s also had the opportunity to meet and play with three of his favorite professional drummers — Jerome Flood II, Aaron Smith, and Jerrod Sullivan — whom he regularly turns to for inspiration.
His goal is to keep refining his skills.
“The older I’ve gotten, you get more into trying to play more musically than just hitting and making feels whenever you want to,” he said. “Trying to make the music sound better. I’m still learning. I’m still getting there.”
One of the hardest parts about playing the drums, according to Bethel, is the coordination required to play the right pieces of the set at the right time. He’s also been working on his hand speed, with a focus on maintaining it around the kit, especially when playing fast.
“Practice makes perfect,” he said. “You got to keep practicing. As you get older and the better you get, with the stuff you thought was super hard that you couldn’t ever do, it’s like, ‘Oh, I can do it now,’ or it doesn’t sound as difficult as it used to.”
The Saturday show marked what House of Bethel hopes to be the first of several gigs. The band hoped to ramp up its schedule last year, only for the coronavirus pandemic to halt its plans. Now that many restrictions have been lifted across the country, the group is aiming to book shows more frequently, about 10-15 times per year.
Bethel might not make every date, given the demands of his NFL schedule, but he’ll do his best to meet up with his bandmates whenever he can. And once he decides it’s time to hang up his cleats, he’s confident in his next steps.
“When I finish playing, that’s definitely what I’ll be doing,” he said.
Or, as his father put it, with a smile: “When he stops playing, he’ll keep playing.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.