I was recently in Athens, as part of my tour with Jack DeJohnette. Shortly after arriving, I'm sitting in my hotel room, and I get an unexpected call. "Colligan!"
And then I hear one of my obscure compositions, "Reaction", being sung by a gravelly yet pitch perfect voice. It could only be one person….
"Ralph? What are you doing here?"
Ralph Peterson is one of the greatest jazz drummers there is, period. Originally from Pleasantville, New Jersey, and also originally a trumpeter (I can relate to that…), Peterson rose to prominence as one of the great young drummers with a band called Out Of The Blue, more commonly known as OTB. (Indeed, I had a record, actually a cassette, of OTB called "Live At Mt. Fuji" that I listened to constantly in the early 90's.) Peterson also played as the second drummer with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers (that's a pretty high honor).
He has played with most of the greats in jazz, and has a long discography as a leader. Some of his Blue Note recordings were favorites of mine, albums like "Triangular", "Volition", and especially "Art", a tribute to Blakey. (Unfortunately, these are hard to find, since Blue Note destroyed a lot of their catalogue, for some reason. This was before Itunes….) Peterson recently started his own label, which is called Onyx Music; the first release is called "Outer Reaches" and features a fabulous organ quartet called the Unity Project ( I heard them last summer at the Iridium and was blown away. Organist Pat Bianchi was serious!)
What I love about Peterson's playing is what I would call passionate precision: the swing and energy is like a hurricane, but the time is consistent and grounded, and the form of the tune is always being addressed. Peterson has huge ears and is a quick study in terms of learning new compositions. He's also still pretty killing on the trumpet, and not a bad pianist and bassist. Furthermore, Peterson's passion for the music has translated into becoming a renowned teacher. He's been full time at Berklee for the better part of a decade.
Peterson was in Athens performing with some Greek musicians. I told him I wanted to get an interview and we agreed to meet the next morning out by the pool. As expected, he was candid and articulate.
GC: What do you think is the state of the jazz music business these days?
RP: The nature of the business is exploitative. So, once you’ve realized that, as an artist, you fall out of favor with those who have the power. The "chosen ones" are just getting younger and younger now to where all the guy has to do is get into college and he’s trying to get calls for gigs. I think that the cats who are now teaching in the colleges should be the development network. It should be, for example, that I could call Mulgrew Miller and say, “Ok, Who is the killing piano player out here? ” Or I’d call you and ask “Who is the killing piano player I should know about? ” And then, musicians can determine who is the next great player. Unfortunately, now it’s competitions and record labels that are determining who is the next great player.
Sometimes it’s not even the professors. It’s the administrators and the trustees and the Board of Directors deciding to put the weight and full force of support at a program behind a particular individual. You dig what I’m saying? When on the other hand, there are young students who are trying to go through the process and come out credentialed as well as experienced; like pianist Victor Gould...Yeah, Victor Gould is a cat that you should hear. He would leave you feeling encouraged about the future of your instrument...
And all of this is coming from me, a guy who was thought of as un-credentialed and unexperienced when I first hit the scene. Okay, so it ironic that I’m even saying it.
Back in ’85 and ’86 when OTB happened, they were saying the same shit about me. But I finished school. Under the loving threat of physical violence from my teacher, Michael Carvin, saying to me, “You can quit school and go to New York…. but don’t let me see you in the streets” …..(laughing)
GC: Let's go back a little. Talk a little bit about Alan Dawson and the Rudiment Ritual. Why you think it's important?
RP: There are a group of fantastic drummers at Berklee who studied with Alan. Alan and Joe Hunt started the program (When I had my back surgery, Joe Hunt subbed for me- I was out on medical leave ). Alan’s body of work is a teacher’s would speak for itself in his students, right? So, I was always talking about my philosophy regarding any kind of musical information: take what you need and leave the rest. And don’t buy in lock – stock- and- barrel to any philosophy that is not based in your own experience. Because then you are not living your life. You are living somebody else’s. And so, to the extent that the program is now moving back towards a complete embracing – of every idea that Alan had, every idea that Alan has is not going to work for everybody, and what Alan taught , he lived, and he might have taught it differently to Kenwood Dennard, and then differently to Terri Lynne Carrington, and that might have been different from the way he taught John Ramsay. Because Alan is making you do three rudiments at a time, and you don’t get anymore rudiments until you come back for the next lesson. Maybe it's because he doesn’t think you can handle any more information than that. Maybe another student who has either a better work ethic... or ability to absorb information at a greater rate….they might get more. You can give information many different ways. But I‘m personally not going to hold somebody back based on a pre-described formula.
I have looked at the ritual and found a way to develop it, using the principles of three-part writing, to do the exercises using parallel, contrary, and oblique motion. You apply those rules to your hands and the Rudiment Ritual and you come up with some very interesting things around the instrument. But I refuse to teach any drummer the motions on the ritual until they have memorized the exercise in their body. Because I don’t want him read it while he’s trying to expand it. So if you teach that way, it’s kind of like peeling an onion in reverse. You stuff a layer and then you make sure that, that layer is internalized and then, once you are sure that layer of information is internalized; you put the next expansion on top of it. Like in the Navy Seals….talking about the next evolution. When you go to a Navy Seal’s training, they talk about how it ratchets up in intensity. Each ratchet is called an evolution.
That’s my approach, and I think the power and greatness of the Berklee Program is the fact that these are maybe 37 great drummers there all with different approaches to teach you.
GC: Well, the way you play, the way Terri Lynne plays, the way Kenwood Dennard plays, these are all completely different.
RP: Completely different. And Neil Smith as well. But each has its own value. There are times at Berklee when Neil will come over and just bring his student and sit in the room , while I’m working with my student. And vice-versa. Although truthfully, there are some union restrictions at Berklee with so-called "team teaching" …but informally, this is collaborative education. Where the individual components, when combined in the right way, offer a better education experience for the students than sitting in the room with me by myself.
GC: Is there a lot more to playing jazz drums, than just playing the instrument?
RP: Well, yeah, and that’s been the niche I've kind of carved out for myself at Berklee. When I got there and I realized that, even the best drummers there, the ones that were playing with Gary Burton didn’t know how many bars are in the “A” Section of Benny Golson's"Stablemates".
GC: "Stablemates" can be revealing for a drummer….
RP: You know what I’m saying! Oh! Didn’t know the tune at all! It became the "AHA!" moment when I realized why I was there.... that this is what I have to contribute. This is why I’ve kept playing trumpet – even when I was studying drums. This is why I survived Ted Dunbar's class, as opposed to quit it or be failed in it. I kind of side-stepped by taking an independent study on it on a graduate level. Because when I was a student. I loved Ted for what he stood for, and what he taught- but we were just like oil and water, with regard to the drums, to be melodic. So once he found out that I played trumpet, I had to play trumpet in the class!
So, my experience as a student cast the metal for what I teach now. Drummers have to learn tunes. The other thing I teach is break your dependence on the Real Book. First of all, 60% of the Real Book is wrong. The other thing is if you only learn repertoire out of the book? Then you won't learn application. You won't learn the syntax and the language.You will learn the syntax and the language by listening to the recording. And you can learn the melody, but, to hear how the melody was..... most creatively improvised on, you have to listen to the records .
GC: There are a lot of great tunes that aren’t in the books.
RP: Sometimes the best tunes aren't in the books! The Book covers kind of the basic language. Rudimentary tune knowledge – right? And so I created this class for Jazz Drum Set Repertoire a while ago .They have 15 weeks to learn about 50 tunes. I am still getting pushed back over the number of tunes that I require students to learn. Out of the 50, 20 to 30 of them they should already know if they are considering themselves in any way shape or form serious about jazz. So half the class is….what’s the word? Not rudimentary... but remedial in nature. But the other half of the class is with recordings and the Real Book. I usually disseminate five tunes a week. 5 tunes a week is not a lot.That's one tune a day with two days off!
The practical application of learning tunes quickly is like so: if I get a call today- it's Thursday- for recording on Saturday... the best a band leader can do is next day mail us the music. Or I suppose with email you could get the music by tonight. Right? Fine. We can see and hear the music tonight. Right? But the best we have is 24 hours to learn the music. And you need to be ready to record on Saturday!
RP: And so learning 50 tunes in 15 weeks is just the tip of the iceberg. You know it's funny, George … I always mention you at the beginning of every semester, as a high example of this skill set. This is a skill set; the ability to learn people’s music and internalize it. You know if I called you for a gig you’d be playing some of my music from memory……..
GC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RP: Still, that’s one of the thing I love most about you. It's your commitment to internalize music – which is why you play so well.
GC: But it takes work.
RP: Yeah! You have to want it!
GC: Let me ask about that. Do you think that, in general these days, the work ethic amongst students is lower?
RP: Yes. And I believe it is so…. because as a culture, we have come to a place where the number of students is more important than the quality of students. Colleges, institutions of higher learning, are now fund raising machines; they’re not instruments of education. And considering we are sitting here in the shadow of the Acropolis, what with Socrates, and all, it's kind of ironic. The Greeks, they were about enlightenment. It wasn’t about funding, it was about the information.
And that pendulum swings back and forth. Just like the pendulum we were discussing earlier: the need for the credentials. You know, when I started at college, you didn’t really need a lot of credentials to be a college professor. By the time I finished college, you couldn’t imagine having more than an adjunct position without a master’s degree. And then, by the ‘90’s, it loosened up again.
Well, now that having money is what drives the schools in a sense... and it's not about having money to pay teachers, mind you – it's having money in the building, or having money to give away scholarships to people who don’t necessarily deserve them. It's having money to send students on trips, rather than keep their ass in class, you know? Colleges are notorious for sending students on concert tours. They say to the students, "Do this this concert and represent your college. Travel here, represent your college. And, oh by the way, you are on academic probation – for all the classes you missed!" It's like a shell game.
The other thing that contributes to the state of me answering yes to that question, is that these conservatory minded music departments departments don't even know what jazz means anymore. When you have institutions trying to position themselves to take credit for the success of anybody who ever ate lunch in their cafeteria, regardless of whether or not they complete the program, then that's a problem. Plus, a mentality on the part of students that, because they came from the McDonald's All American State Band or the All County Band, or what have you, then they should go to music school. And that's in the few communities left in America where music programs are supported at the secondary level. Which is a whole other issue, the lack of music in the schools, and how to fix that problem. You don’t even start in high school, but we need to start in grade school, in terms of fixing this problem. Things are so different now, because when I was at school , and when you were in school, people didn’t come to school with guns….
GC: No, no.
RP: No. I don’t think it’s a straight line, but there’s a line from the absence of music programs to the increasing violence in schools. There is an absolute co-relative line: Music teaches people who they are. It teaches you about yourself. You learn your own limitations. You learn about your ego. You learn about having courage. So, these principles are not being taught in computer stations. And for many kids, both parents are working. You know, parents working two jobs to send the kid to the best school, but sadly, the parents aren’t around to teach them anything....
And so, it's an interesting dilemma. I think the first step in solving the problem is admitting the exact nature of it. ( I am slipping into familiar language, based on my life’s experience.) But once you find principles that are universally true, it's one size fits all. So if you're throwing money at the symptom, by installing metal detectors, and increased security, and more video cameras, that's throwing money at the symptom – right?
GC: Right. That’s not a solution.
RP: That’s like moving a drug addict to the suburbs from the inter city to the suburbs. It's sending him to some country club for some 28 days. It doesn’t work.
GC: How important is it to have musical heroes?
RP: I think if you don’t know how to play like somebody else first, you can never arrive at what somebody can identify as your own style. That’s another problem with what’s going on right now. All these institutions are pushing kids to have their own style.
GC: Before they are ready.
RP: I’m telling you…. they ain’t got no fucking style. I don’t have no fucking style. My style is copying the style of the people I love and the way I combine it and that’s nothing more.
GC: But it has come out as your own identifiable style?
RP: Yeah, the way I combine these musical things is not going to be the way you combine them, even if we study the same guy’s playing. Because it’s art and art is subjective. Subjective means two people standing in front of art and coming away with different things from the experience that’s the nature of art.
One of the phenomenons of the music industry is that art is not necessarily promoting formula. The formula is copied and redone until it becomes so common that it doesn’t attract any attention anymore! They have to find a way to rework it, right? I mean anybody that’s old enough to know Madonna, they don't think Lady Gaga is anything new.
But, it’s a hell of a thing getting old, right? You find yourselves thinking things and saying things that you remember your parents or your teachers saying to you and you think, “I’ll never think that way!!” Well, here we are! Amazing how different things become. And in that way, life is like a doorknob: everybody gets a turn!
GC: Especially when you have kids.
RP: Man!! And when that happens in your life, as an artist and a musician…it changes what you think to be important. My daughter just graduated from college. She’ll be 22 in June. You know…. whether you're in a cohesive type of family or whether you’re in kind of some adaptation of that, it's still family. And so, being a parent is some shit that nobody can prepare you for, and nobody can tell you about.
I'm watching Facebook. Some of the shit people write makes me laugh! Because, you know, they write some shit, and they don’t have kids, and they are talking about parenthood…. or they are talking about what’s wrong with kids. I say to them: have some. Yeah, have one. And then come talk to me.
GC: But there are good things about Facebook, no?
RP: I use it to keep in contact with people that are important to me. But that’s on the positive side. It's really a platform that lives up to the old saying my grandmother used to tell me,“ it's one thing to go through life being quiet and having people think you’re an idiot, it's another thing all together to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
But regarding having kids, I think that having a family redefines our purpose. It redefines the purpose of your life, and when that happens, the purpose of your heart transforms.
GC: What's going on with you lately in terms of your music?
RP: There are times when I feel my musical repertoire leaning towards things like the music that created the “Unity Project”. Then there are times when I think about the Subliminal Seduction recording, where I want to play and write my own music. And then there is this whole venture that I am off into now: being a record label owner. And I really want to make that mean something. I don’t want to be a guy who only puts out his own records. Because a lot of people who do that already. I really want to try to create a platform for other people who go through the process, and are deserving of the platform. Not because of the way they look or some other superficial aspect of what they present, but just because the cat can play! He or she does not have to be handsome or beautiful. They don’t have to play classical. You know what I’m saying? They don’t have to sing popular songs…… just you know, be great with your instrument. If we get back to the quality of the music being enough.... and the technology is the thing that’s going to empower us musicians to take over that.That’s why I really believe in what you’re doing here, with your blog, and interviewing the cats. It’s part of taking it back for the musicians.
Jazz writers used to know a little bit more about the music than they know now, besides recordings. They actually used to spend sometime trying to play ... Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch... these cats played instruments. But we as musicians... we ought to be defining for ourselves what’s great. We shouldn’t be beholden to people who don’t do what we do for validation, to make us a employable commodity, or entity in the industry. We have the power now through the technology to redefine that.
So, I’ve written some liner notes for some CDs. I intend to do more. I think cats should write other cats liner notes! Bassist Dwayne Burno wrote the liner notes for Jeremy Pelt's latest record. This is the thing that need to happen more. Because in doing so, we can reclaim what’s good, and it doesn’t become this subjective, myopic view point of somebody that can’t see past the certain period of music.