As part of my ongoing pandemic project to digitize and transcribe as many of my previously un-transcribed WKCR shows as possible during my tenure there from 1985 through 2008, here are the transcripts of two encounters with the great drummer Pete “LaRoca” Sims, who between 1957 and 1967, appeared on some of the most consequential recordings of the time, before a long hiatus — he earned a law degree and became a practicing lawyer — that ended during the early 1990s.
Pete LaRoca Sims (Musician Show, Nov. 2, 1993) (Side 1 &2); OTL (June 11, 1998):
[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins-Wilbur Ware-Pete LaRoca, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”-Live At The Village Vanguard-1957]
TP: Pete LaRoca Sims has been playing every Sunday night at Yardbird Suite with various musicians comprising a sextet. Most of the best-known selections from that date, with the exception of “Night in Tunisia” from the original album, featured Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. Did Sonny spontaneously set up the other configuration?
PLR: I was called in, and did my part, and Elvin was there. It seemed to be that it had been preconceived. I didn’t get the impression that it was impromptu, but it may well have been.
TP: You said that this was your first gig out of the neighborhood.
PLR: That’s true. The first major jazz artist who I’d gotten a chance to work with. Previously, I had worked with my contemporaries. We had a dance band that did a good bit of work in and around the city, Harlem, the Bronx, etc. By something of a fluke, having sat in at a place in Brooklyn called Turbo Village, where Max Roach was working during the week… I sat in on a Monday night and I broke quite a few of his drumheads, and I called him up to apologize and offered to pay. He said, “That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You might be interested to know that Sonny Rollins is looking for a drummer.” So needless to say, I called Sonny Rollins and was fortunate enough to get that job from which that record resulted.
TP: That led to a several-year relationship, on and off, with Sonny. You toured with him in Europe in 1959, which has been documented on a bootleg on the Dragon label.
PLR: There were just a few concerts actually. I don’t think there was another week’s work or anything of that sort anywhere, except that we did go to Europe for three weeks. All of it was quite enjoyable. There could have been more, for my money.
TP: On the Musician Show we create a virtual biography of the musician through the music they’ve listened to and the people they’ve played with. Since that was your first major gig, let’s talk about the events that led you to being on the bandstand – your history as a drummer and some of the experiences you had. How did drums enter your life? Banging on pots and pans as a kid?
PLR: Not quite pots and pans. But various parts of pieces of furniture around the house and things of that sort. I came from a very musical household, with a stepfather who played trumpet and an uncle who was something of an investor in jazz at the time and had a fine record collection that I pretty well exhausted, I think.
My first actual playing was in the New York school system, beginning in junior high school. It was a primarily symphonic orchestra that actually toured a little bit and went to I guess a couple of other junior high schools to play concerts. That continued through Music and Art here in New York, and City College, where I was in the orchestra, and a brief period at Manhattan School of Music, though I didn’t complete that.
TP: Any particular teachers you’d mention helping you a great deal, or was it from watching drummers on gigs?
PLR: Well, it was mainly from being around the music just about all the time, at least with regard to jazz. But since you mentioned teachers, there was one gentleman, David Greitzer, who was instrumental just in the way he spread his great joy in music and his love for the music in such a way as to enthuse the entire orchestra that he was teaching at junior high school. We all got kind of fired up. He had previously taught at Music & Art, as a matter of fact, and prepped us for the entrance exam there, and I think at least half our junior high school orchestra then went on to Music & Art, as a body just about.
Not too many other teachers. There was a Fred Albright who I was assigned briefly at Manhattan – a grand old man of drums he was when I came to him. Just working with him for a semester, doing exercises and things like that, was indeed quite memorable. But that’s the only part of formal training that I think leads to anything like the jazz work that I’ve been doing since.
TP: I take it you start working professionally, or least for money on local gigs, as a teenager? Or when did that start, and what was that like, and who were some of the people that you played with? And where?
PLR: We worked primarily dances, Friday and Saturday nights. One guy who might be known from that band…there are a couple… George Braith, who is a saxophonist, was in that band at one time…
TP: He plays together and he also plays that welded-together…
PLR: He designed his own horn. Braithophone I think he calls it. Barry Rogers, who became very well known as a trombonist in the Latin bands, was also in that band. Some other guys who I know still work in music, like Arthur Jenkins, a pianist; John Mayer, a pianist who I saw last week when he came into Sweet Basil. I don’t know remember all the guys. Phil Newsome… If you’re into Latin music and you were around during that period, you’d probably remember that period, you’d probably remember him. We all called him Cowbell Phil because he did that so well.
We were about 15-16-17 was about the time that… I guess it went on through the time that I went to Sonny. If that was 1957, then I was about 19 at that time. So I guess it continued until then. It was sort of broken up into two pieces. Hugo Dickens actually originated or established the band, and I came along and emphasized the Latin side, and we had a sort of dual situation going on where he was responsible for the swing side and I was responsible for the Latin. This was a time when I was primarily a timbale player. I didn’t play a set of drums at all. It was primarily standards. We did transcriptions from records, and got sheet music on for the Latin music, etc. We got a lot of work. It was a good band.
TP: You were also hanging out, I’d think, and checking out various drummers of the upper echelon…?
PLR: I think it was mostly records at that time. First off, I was playing a lot, so I wasn’t going around to listen a lot. Those were school years, and homework and things took over much of the rest of the time. I didn’t get really that close to traps until I think I was 17, and there was a band that was going to work in the Catskills to do a show. I said, “That’s great, but I don’t happen to have a set of traps.” They said, “We’ll get some for you.” I think the virtue that they found in me was that I could read music, and therefore I could probably cut the show – and indeed, that’s what actually happened. It was from that time I got familiar with a set of traps and then got some other work playing jazz type music, etc. But there really wasn’t a lot of it. I’m sure I played for 6 or 7 years before I ever seriously sat down to play a set of traps.
TP: The first track you’ve selected is an amazing solo album by Baby Dodds on Folkways. I take it you’d heard him through your stepfather’s collection…
PLR: my uncle’s collection, yes. At that time, it was a 10″ 78 that was just drums on both sides. In my experience, that was quite an anomaly. I haven’t come across that before or since. And I loved it. I loved his whole collection, but that was one thing that really struck me in particular. That was before I even played drums at all. That was before even junior high school.
TP: I believe you said that it sounded like a tap dancer.
PLR: I brought a tape of Baby Dodds playing a version of “Tea For Two,” with just him and a piano player who I can’t identify, unfortunately. But in that, it’s mainly drum solo, and what he plays in there is…you can hear – it sounds like a tap dancer dancing.
TP: Also, you’ve mentioned Tito Puente as your main influence on timbales. Were you going out to dances and hearing Tito Puente and so forth…
PLR: Yes, and Tito Rodriguez at that time was around and had a great band. I was mainly interested in timbales at the time, and that’s what I was doing. Puente was a great influence primarily in the way that he strung ideas together. The next idea that he would play would be built upon the last idea that he had played, and he constantly strung it out that way. Which was something that didn’t happen a lot in drums. Drums being a non-pitched instrument, we do different things. There are many familiar rhythms that are in the vernacular, both the Latin vernacular and the jazz vernacular. But that particular way of stringing ideas together was really unique with Puente, and I glommed onto it and have been using it ever since, without a doubt.
[MUSIC: Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums”; Baby Dodds-Bechet, “Save It Pretty Mama”; Dodds-pianist, “Tea For Two”; Tito Puente, “El Rey Del Timbal”]
TP: Within the course of 15 minutes, we’ve outlined some of the sources of Pete La Roca Sims’ aesthetic on drums and timbales. You mentioned that Baby Dodds eschewed the sock cymbal, didn’t use it on these recordings. On timbales, that would also be the case. In both cases, we have drummers creating a broad dynamic range within a limited palette, so to speak.
PLR: Somewhat. Although I think the color…the metallic sound of the timbales actually adds color, so that you’ve got that to play with even though you don’t have something like the sock cymbal. And, as I was mentioning to you when we were off the air, Baby Dodds uses the press roll as a sort of…I don’t know whether he intended it as a substitute for the sock cymbal, but it does pretty much the same job of emphasizing the second and fourth beats, etc. – which I think is interesting.
TP: How much of an adjustment was it for you to operate on the trap drums? Did you pick it up quickly? Was it complicated?
PLR: As I said, the first thing I got a chance to do was a job in the Catskills, and it was an entire summer cutting a show. That will get you in shape. You’re playing for dancing and then you’re playing for dancers, including strippers, and you’re doing rim-shots and ka-boom-chas, as they said today, for comedians, etc. It’s a bit of everything, and quite a bit of experience.
TP: How long did you that?
PLR: Just the summer. It was the better part of 3 months.
TP: Pete Sims is leading a group Sunday nights at Yardbird Suite on Cooper Square. Also, in the last few years, we’ve had a chance to hear you with Mal Waldron’s group. It’s been exciting to see you developing a stronger presence on the jazz scene.
The first source you mentioned as far as jazz drums was Kenny Clarke.
PLR: It’s the question of time and how time is kept, etc. Kenny also I think de-emphasized the sock cymbal to some extent and instead put the emphasis on the ride cymbal. I think he was one of the first to truly do that. If you listen to Baby Dodds, the beat-by-beat emphasis is in the bass drum. Then, of course, there’s the press roll on the snare drum, emphasizing the off-beats. Klook, by putting it in the ride hand on the ride cymbal, I think sort of smoothed it out. Prior to that time, drummers and rhythm sections were playing pretty much like the Basie rhythm section wit the rhythm guitar and CHUNK-CHUNK, CHUNK-CHUNK, beat-by-beat. By putting it in the cymbal it just got smoother because of the bit of continuity of sound that a cymbal gives you. I loved it and adopted that immediately, and never did anything else.
TP: Did you ever see him in person?
PLR: I only saw him in person, as a matter of fact, the job with Sonny Rollins in Europe.
TP: There’s another bootleg recording from that period in which Kenny Clarke plays with Sonny, in a cathedral in Aix.
PLR: I haven’t heard it but I’d love to.
TP: We’ll hear a set of recordings featuring Kenny Clarke in the early 1950s. This one is from Kenny Clarke’s 2nd MJQ date from April 1952…
[MUSIC: MJQ, “True Blues”; Miles-Bags-Monk, “The Man I Love”-Take 2, 1954]
TP: I think that was my first Miles Davis album, and you mentioned it’s one that you listened to many times.
PLR: That and Miles Ahead were the two first Miles Davis albums that I had.
TP: You mentioned off-mike that your stepfather had played in bands with Monk before bebop, perhaps in the late 1930s, or around there.
PLR: Somewhere around there. I was mentioning that he was a difficult person to keep employed, because he wasn’t yet Thelonious Monk, bebop hadn’t yet quite happened, and the kind of shenanigans that he was into at the time were not appreciated by leaders of the dance bands that they were working in. The reason why you mentioned that particular take as having a little bit of hilarity to it is because of the lapse, the dropout in Monk’s solo, where Miles plays him a fanfare to get him going again.
TP: He plays “You’ve Got To Wake Up In The Morning.”
PLR: Right! [LAUGHS] There were a number of scenes like that, as I understand it, just from having listened to my stepfather talk about it
TP: You had a chance to play with many of the greats of the period, but you never had a chance to play with Monk.
PLR: Never had Monk and never Miles. I missed the opportunities. I had a lot of opportunities, so I can’t complain, but I sure would have liked to have had those guys, too.
TP: Among the trumpeters you’ve been using at Yardbird Suite are Jimmy Owens and Claudio Roditi; you’ve had Dave Liebman and David Sanchez; George Cables and Joanne Brackeen; other people as well…
PLR: Other people of like caliber.
TP: Next in the chronology will be Max Roach. You mentioned that the thing that most impressed you about Max apart from your overall appreciation was his working outside of 4/4 time, particularly the material in 3/4 that he explored in 1956. He did a recording for EmArcy that was all in that time signature.
PLR: Right. Plus, the main thing for me with Max is that he established so much of the bebop drum vernacular. He made it quite a bit looser, taking it away from just the timekeeping function that drums had pretty much before that, and dropping – as were called – “bombs,” which really has to do with punctuating what else is happening in the band, etc. And the way that it was done… First off, the front line, people like Bird and Diz and Miles, were playing new ideas that called for I think something new from the rhythm section, and Max was very much up to the job and did things that I think every drummer has borrowed a big portion of, if you play jazz.
TP: Were you able to check him out, observe him in the flesh early on? How important is it to see musicians in the flesh?
PLR: It makes a difference. I got to get good jobs working opposite some of these guys early on, so that I wasn’t so much going out and hanging out in the clubs just for the purpose of hanging out. If I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work opposite them, I’m sure I would have been hanging out in the clubs. But as it happened, I was there. Yes, it’s important to see them in the sense that especially if you know the musician and there’s something that you really do want to borrow, a device you think you can use… Sometimes you have to see how it’s done; you can’t really tell it all by just listening. But I think the bulk of it was really from records. Jazz music was at that time the popular music… The dance music of that time was derived from jazz. The swing era was still going on. There were still big dance bands going around. So major stations here in New York, like certainly WNEW and I think maybe WOR, were having jazz just about 24 hours a day. There was a show on Sunday afternoon that had Frank Sinatra, for instance, for 4 to 6 hours or something like that. So to get to hear the music at that time was very easy. Today you have to seek it out a little bit and guys don’t play as often as you might like, so you have to get them when they’re there. But then it was really all over the place.
TP: The selection we’ll play to represent Max Roach is “Valse Hot,” from March 1956.
[MUSIC: Rollins-Brown-Roach, “Valse Hot”-1956]
TP: On the next session we’ll hear some sessions that Pete Sims played on as “Au Privave.”
[MUSIC: George Russell, “Au Privave”; Pete LaRoca, “Lazy Afternoon”-Basra; Sonny Trio-Grimes-LaRoca, “I’ve Told Every Little Star”-1959]
TP: I’d think the surname quandary of “LaRoca” and “Sims” is a constant source of confusion.
PLR: I’m afraid so. But I answer to both. It just doesn’t matter.
TP: In these next couple of sets, we’ll hear two drummers who meant a great deal to you when you started to be a professional jazz drummer, Philly Joe Jones and Arthur Taylor. A few words about what Philly Joe Jones meant to you, and his special niche on the drums.
PLR: Swing. Summed up quite neatly, it’s just plain swing. For my taste, no one ever swung like that before or since. It’s full-bodied, it’s full-out. No messin’ around. All of his cuts are crisp, and he knew quite a few of them. He obviously did some big band drumming, and he brings that over to Miles’ band, especially on “Two Bass Hit,” where along with Red Garland, who was also a big band piano player, it just makes for a dynamite rhythm section. I think that every drummer around was very much impressed by Philly when things were being made.
TP: Did you get to know Philly, watch him check him out in person?
PLR: Some. We were friends. Drummers never work in the same band, and I was working a lot. I didn’t work opposite Philly that I can remember. He was one guy that I had to go hang out in clubs in order to get to hear him. Of course, since I was working, that wasn’t a big deal because you sort of had entree to most of the clubs. But I had to go catch him. They were working at places like Café Bohemia, Birdland, etc. It was mainly just the propulsion, the non-stop, strong as it could possibly be form of swing that apparently Miles at the time was just lapping up, because song after song after song called for it, and the rhythm section that he had at the time – which of course included Paul Chambers – was giving it to him.
[MUSIC: Miles-Philly Joe, “Two Bass Hit,” – [END OF SIDE 2]“Gone, Gone, Gone”]Pete Sims, Out To Lunch, June 11, 1998:
[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca Sims, “Amanda’s Song”]
TP: That was Chick Corea’s “Amanda’s Song,” from Swing Time, featuring Dave Liebman and Lance Bryant on soprano saxophones, Ricky Ford on tenor sax, Jimmy Owens, trumpet, George cables, piano, Santi DeBriano, bass.
Many of you know Pete LaRoca Sims from his middle name – he appeared on many recordings of the late 1950s and into the 1960s as Pete LaRoca. His two leader CDs from then are both in print – Basra on Blue Note and Turkish Woman At the Bath, for Douglas, reissued by 32Jazz. There’s a 30-year hiatus between recordings, and Swing Time comes next. The band is part of a rotating group of top-shelf New York musicians who’ve been recording with Pete since 1993, and the current version is appearing this week at Sweet Basil – Joe Ford on soprano sax, Don Braden on tenor; Jimmy Owens on trumpet; Steve Kuhn on piano; Santi DiBriano, bass. There’s a variety of arrangements, all sparked by Pete’s unique and original and unpredictable drumming.
Let’s talk about the origin of this group. You were one of the most active and respected drummers in jazz. The business became a bit too much for you to deal with in some ways. You became a lawyer. And you began playing actively again – although I gather you never stopped – in the early 90s with this band.
PLR: I got a few too many strong requests to do Fusion, which I was not interested in doing, and it was happening that many of the main jazz stars were going that way. It seemed to be the trend at the time. At the same time I was trying to get work for the band that did Basra, and without very much success. The missing link that people usually overlook when they tell that story is that between the time when I was getting a lot of work as a jazz sideman and the time I went back to school, I drove a cab for five years. It was after five years of cab driving that I figured out, “Hey, something has got to change here,” and then went back to academics. Then in 1993, as you say, I got the good fortune to collect a bunch of guys, all great players, mainly resident in New York or just across the river in New Jersey. We did months of Sunday nights and Monday nights at various clubs, and sort of teased the book into good shape. Working one night a week you can’t keep a steady group, so that’s where the rotating roster of musicians came in. Fortunately for me, a lot of great musicians around New York know my book. So usually, if I’ve got to get a band together, it turns out to be a pretty good one, like now.
TP: Let’s talk about this band, and a few words about each of the players. Maybe the overriding theme can be what it take to play in a band led by Pete Sims?
PLR: I’ve been told by the guys that the book is difficult. That’s number one. There have been occasions when guys have come aboard and stumbled there at having to read. If you’re not familiar with the book, you’re going to have to read, and that has been a stumbling block for a few fellas. So the main thing is that they wish to and can play freely when we finally get to solos, and they can content with the monster book, is what it’s called.
With regard to these guys: Jimmy Owens and I are actually both Music & Art, though not at the same time, and he has a lot of orchestral experience, which is what you do at places like Music & Art. He brings a lot of lore. He didn’t have the 30 years off, so he’s been in a lot of great bands and he brings a lot of lore and experience with him, and it’s a pleasure to have him.
Santi DiBriano has been in the group off and on since 1993. He comes from a Latin background. Along the way, before I ever played drums, I was a timbale player. So there’s a certain relationship there with regard to things that happen in time.
Steve Kuhn is playing piano this time around. He and I go back. We were together in the first Coltrane group. We subsequently worked together with Art Farmer and Stan Getz. So we have a history. He also has symphonic training, orchestral training, and he brings that lore.
Joe Ford is the guy you get when you’ve absolutely got to swing. There’s got to be one guy who you know you’ll give it to him and he’s going to swing with it. Don Braden is a new fellow; this is his first time in the group. He’s doing famously, brings a different color, a different style, so to speak, as most good jazz players do, and fills it out for us. A great ensemble sound he brings also.
TP: The record has three originals by you, Dave Liebman has one, there’s the Chick Corea tune and some standards. Who arranged the “Four In One” that you played last night?
PLR: That’s Hall Overton’s, from the big band album with Monk. It’s a wild thing to do, with that 2-chorus ensemble of Monk’s piano solo orchestrated out. That’s why guys say it’s a hard book!
TP: You have a sheaf of Chick Corea compositions, which I know are manna for drummers.
PLR: They are – Chick himself being a drummer. And he was good enough, at a time that we were talking about material to arrange, he said, “I’ll send you some stuff,” and about a week later I got a 2″ thick package of tunes he hadn’t recorded, snippets he hadn’t finished working on… It’s just a gold mine, and the first thing that’s come out of it is “Amanda Song,” which is for a singer.
TP: You’re writing. On “Basra,” from 1965, there are three of your pieces. The next track we’ll play is an updated version of a song that appears on Basra. How far back does writing and band-leading go for you?
PLR: Well, in my mid-teens there was a fellow up in Harlem named Hugo Dickinson, who had a group. I was then at Music & Art, and I had heard about him. Somebody said he was looking for a drummer. He and I met, and it developed into a situation where we had a sort of dual leadership. Latin music, the Mambo and Cha-Cha-Cha were quite popular then, and sort of at the beginning of their popularity – this is that far back. So he was doing the jazz side, and I, then, being a timbale player, was doing the Latin side. That’s when I started bringing in arrangements for the band. Some were simply sheet music that you could buy in places like the Music Exchange. Others were transcriptions. We heard a nice arrangement and we liked it, so I’d take it off the record. And some were original compositions that I wrote for the band. It was a big band, a 13-piece band or something.
We got a lot of dance work. It was really a dance band. We got a lot of work, mainly in Harlem, but some places in the Bronx or Brooklyn – wherever the gig was. Hugo was quite good at getting jobs. It was enough to keep the band together. A lot of great musicians came out of that band. Barry Rogers, for instance, who went over to the Latin world later, started out… That was one of his first big hits. George Braith. John Mayer, who is now on the West Coast, a piano player. A lot of guys came out of that band.
TP: Talk about the transition from timbales to trap drums.
PLR: Actually I started as a kettle drummer at Music & Art, and actually earlier at Stitt Junior High School. The transition from that to timbales was not that great, in the sense that the technique is the same. They both use what drummers call matched-grip, meaning that each hand holds the stick in the same way, as opposed to military style where you have that rotating motion in the left hand. So that wasn’t a big hump at all.
But then I sort of shied away from playing jazz. Jazz ran through my house all my childhood. My Uncle, Kenneth Bright, was involved in Circle Records, which originally recorded the Jelly Roll Morton… They were six 12″-78 albums where he is a raconteur and tells stories and plays bits to exemplify what he’s talking about. That was first released by Circle, which is the company my uncle was involved in. He was enough involved in the jazz scene that he would throw a party, and Fats Waller would come by the house and play piano. I’m sure that Fats would go anywhere and play piano, but our house was one of the places that he went.
I loved it so much, and it looked quite complicated and quite different from matched grip, playing kettle drums and timbales, that I shied away from it for a very long. Finally… I remember it was my 17th summer, because I couldn’t drink legally, and some guys I didn’t know, but who knew my name and knew I could read, had a summer-long job in the Catskills – a show band. They wanted me to play the drums. I said, “Hey, I’d love to do it, but I don’t even happen to have drums. I play timbales.” They said, “We’ll get you some drums,” which they did. I had something like 10 weeks at a place called the Kentucky Club up in the Catskills, cutting shows and playing for dancers, etc. That was my first real experience playing traps. It wasn’t even really a jazz band.
TP: Sounds like a trial and error thing for you?
PLR: I knew about it.
TP: What were the biggest demands about going from clave to swing?
PLR: The first big problem is coordination. Because you’ve got all 4 limbs going. You’ll see a lot of young drummers sort of staring into the middle distance as they try to figure out, “Now, which comes next?” Ultimately, when you really start playing, when you know you’re playing reasonably well, is when that stuff becomes second nature and you stop thinking about it.
TP: Was there a drum sound in your mind’s ear when you start playing jazz on trapset? Were there drummers you’d absorbed and wanted to sound like in some way or other?
PLR: Plenty of drummers. Not a drum sound as such. But plenty of drummers. Baby Dodds was a first major influence. In my uncle’s huge jazz record collection, there was a 78 (and again, this is back there) of Baby Dodds, just Baby Dodds, playing solo drums on both sides.
TP: Incredible record.
PLR: Absolutely incredible! One of those that I wore out. A major influence. I find that he’s an influence still, having listened to that. It’s not straight bebop. Certainly it predates bebop. It was a guy really playing impressionistically in a very early style on a set of drums – a BIG set of drums with temple blocks and all kinds of things like that.
Other major influences? Max was a major influence, and what he did at the inception of bebop with Bird and Dizzy – that’s fundamental jazz vernacular for drums.
TP: You were up on all of this?
PLR: I had heard it all. My stepfather was a trumpeter, and he played jazz. Jazz was always going on in the house. And it was a time at which jazz was extremely popular. It was the foundation for the swing bands, the dance bands. That hadn’t quite died yet, although I think it really did take a turn to a different direction with Bird, because he with his wonderful contribution sort of turned the music into ear candy, ear music, and not so much dancing music. That’s when we started having not dance halls, but cabarets, nightclubs without even a dance floor, where people just came and listened to the music. Once again, when the people stopped dancing to jazz, we lost a lot of public. Because really and truly, people want to be the show. They don’t want to go and sit and watch somebody else – be a spectator. But nevertheless, with regard to the music, loving jazz as much as I do, I’m glad Bird did what he did!
Kenny Clarke was a major influence because of the way that he smoothed out, to my perception, the beat. Guys were putting a lot of emphasis in their hands on the second and fourth beat, along with the sock cymbal playing on the second and fourth beat. He kind of had the sock cymbal going but smoothed out that right hand. To me, that was a revelation, and I play like that today.
Philly Joe Jones for the musicality. He played bebop and he played it hard, but he always played something appropriate for what was happening in the band.
These are the guys. You learn from them. You learn things to do. I still find quite a bit of Philly in my own playing, because some of the things he did are just the best way and the easiest way to get from one place to another.
TP: Were you a kid who went out to hear these drummers? Were you listening on records?
PLR: Pretty much. It really started with my going out to hear Latin bands. As I was sort of coming of age and allowed to go out at night by myself, that’s the stage at which I was playing timbales. But when it switched over, actually I was playing quite a bit. So once I started playing jazz, which was the job at the Village Vanguard with Sonny Rollins when I was 19…once that happened, I was in clubs where there were usually two bands then. So I would be in one band I’d really hear these guys in the other band, which in many ways is the best way to hear them – it was really intense.
TP: So at the time of Night at the Village Vanguard you hadn’t had that much listening to jazz experience?
PLR: I hadn’t had that much playing jazz experience. I’d only played with my contemporaries in the neighborhood, the guys in Hugo’s band, when we were… After the summer in the Catskills. That gives me about two years of playing traps.
TP: Who were some of the hand drummers or Latin drummers you found particularly stimulating, who might enter the way you sound today?
PLR: Tito Puente as a great timbale player, and from whom I stole a concept that I still use today. I haven’t found a better one. The drums not having the advantage of harmony and melody, one way to sort of make your solo playing coherent is to take the last part of one musical idea, one rhythmic idea, and make it the first part of the next rhythmic idea. That comes from Tito Puente. And it works.
TP: Worked then. Works now. Anyone else?
PLR: Direct lifts? Not so much.
TP: I don’t mean direct lifts, but just general influences.
PLR: Everybody is an influence. Sure. You listen to everybody. In the rare case you listen to some guys for what not to do. But everybody is an influence. You let it all filter through.
TP: But when we cite the people you’ve played with, it’s a roster of pivotal figures in the development of jazz – Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, on and on. Let’s hear some music and talk about some of those people when we get back.
“Candu” was first recorded on Basra, Pete’s 1965 Blue Note recording. This version is on Swingtime…
[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca, “Candu”; Sonny Rollins-Pete, “Oleo”-Stockholm-1959]
TP: Let me read a list of some of the highlights of your c.v. between 1957 and 1964-65. Sonny Rollins. Tony Scott. The Slide Hampton Octet and I imagine other configurations – a significant band not so well known these days. John Coltrane’s first attempt to organize a quartet, which he eventually settled on later with results we know. Art Farmer. You played with Joe Henderson in your own band and other situations. Chick Corea became part of your working band for a while. An incredible roster, on the cutting edge of the time.
You referred to “missing link” in regard to someone before. Some people think of you as a kind of missing link because of your absence over 3 decades in the development of modern jazz drumming. A number of drummers have said this to me.
In any event, let’s talk about your experience with Sonny Rollins, who’s been known to be tough on drummers, though maybe not on you.
PLR: I didn’t find him to be tough on drummers and such. At the time, it seemed to me that he was not so much band-oriented. I’m coming out of symphonic background, and my first real work playing traps was in a show band, where you’re really expected to do certain things. Sonny really wanted to, at that time, follow his own nose, meaning he might change key in mid tune, he might change a tune in mid-tune. He would change the tempo in mid-tune. And he really just expected whoever was in the band to follow him, wherever he happened to go. If that’s what you mean… I didn’t think of it as being rough on drummers. He’s a very strong player, and when he set out to go from one place to another, it was kind of obvious what he was doing and not that difficult to follow along.
TP: Did this 1959 engagement end your association? He entered his hiatus following that.
PLR: There was really only the Vanguard, which was a one-week job, and I think the tour with him in Europe that included the Stockholm recording was 10 days-2 weeks, something like that. Other than that, there were really just a few concerts here and there. I think I might have had a half-dozen other nights playing with him at most over that whole two-year period.
TP: I’m sure the Vanguard gig opened eyes around New York. Did it open up work opportunities playing jazz for you?
PLR: I’m certain that it did. I think the next good job I got was for a longer period of time, with Tony Scott, who had a quartet at the time, a very nice quartet for a good period of that time, with Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison. We worked for about 2 months solid at a place called the Showplace in Greenwich Village, which is no longer there. He had other people as well. It wasn’t all that.. It was just that two months with those two particular musicians. But it included a concert with Langston Hughes at Carnegie Hall for instance.
There was work. I was getting lots of work. Given the Sonny Rollins recording, which was Blue note, and the Jackie McLean recording…
TP: New Soil.
PLR: Yes, which was also Blue Note. I kind of fell into favor, as it were, with Alfred Lion of Blue Note, and he would often recommend me for records and the musicians would accept me. The same was true with Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. He’d very often bring just a horn player to town and pick up a local rhythm section… Well, a local rhythm section in New York City, you’re not doing too bad. Max would often recommend me for some of those jobs. So I got to work a lot, and I think that’s how I got to play with so many fine musicians.
TP: Your experience playing with John Coltrane in 1959 and 1960.
PLR: Obviously a great experience. It was a great job in the sense that it started with 10 weeks on the same bandstand at the Jazz Gallery. Now, that’s unheard of today, but that’s… If you want to start a band, that’s a great way to go at it. We did 10 weeks, two weeks each opposite Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Hamilton, Count Basie (the big band…it was really a great job) and Max Roach also. It was kind of fierce.
I think what had happened is that he had always intended, I think, to have the band that he ultimately ended up with. But all the guys he wanted weren’t available at the time that he got his opportunity to start. So I just had really the good fortune to get those first…it was probably 4 or 5 months, because we did those 10 weeks and then a tour around the Eastern Seaboard.
TP: What were the dynamics, the special demands of playing with John Coltrane.
PLR: A lot of energy. [LAUGHS] It’s kind of contrary, in a way, to my sort of natural bent. I’m not exactly a soft drummer. But I do like…or what I’ve developed into liking over time is to have my peaks of energy and then to come back down. Hopefully that allows a horn player to get his breath and think about it again; you don’t keep him at the top of his lungs constantly. But with John, that’s the way John played. He was always not so much necessarily at the top of his lungs, but certainly at the top of his energy. He never let that part come down. So it really was not natural, in a way, for me – but it sure was fun to do.
[END OF SIDE 1]
TP: …the material he recorded for Atlantic around that time, or was he looking for other things?
PLR: It started with the material from Atlantic, “Giant Steps,” etc. I think there might have been some earlier recordings for another label. “Equinox” I think preceded some of that music, the Atlantic period. “Mr. Syms,” I think, which people thought was me, but actually it was a barber of his in Philadelphia. During the period that I was there, he branched out into “My Favorite Things,” “Chasin’ The Trane”…
TP: He was playing “Chasin’ The Trane” in 1960, then.
PLR: He was playing the tune, yeah. And “Impressions,” that he did the long extended solo on. And “Inchworm.”
TP: So he was playing extended solos when you were playing with him.
PLR: Yes. Not so much a whole 20 minutes worth necessarily. But they were getting there. They were on their way to that. And he was getting to modal, as opposed to “Giant Steps.” In fact, we had a conversation about that. I really didn’t like the “Giant Steps” type stuff very much at all. Certainly for me, and I think for most drummers, our main device is harmonic rhythm. Meaning we go for the places where there are harmonic changes, where the chords sit down. In something like “Giant Steps,” the chords are just about note-for-note. So almost every drummer is going to play that the same way. BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TI-BASH, BANG BANG. It’s going to happen every time.
TP: If they can.
PLR: Right. Well, ok, but it’s just a natural. And I’m not too partial to things where I sound like any other drummer! I just don’t like to do things that way. So the things where the harmonic rhythm was more disparate, more interesting, were the things that I preferred. I loved “Equinox.” I loved “Body and Soul,” his great arrangement of “Body and Soul” that I have since orchestrated to put into my own group, etc.
TP: Perfect segue. That arrangement of “Body and Soul” appears on Swingtime, and let’s get to it.
[MUSIC: Pete, “Body and Soul”; w/Chick-Gilmore-Booker, “Bliss”]
TP: I’m one of many people who initially thought it was either Chick Corea’s or John Gilmore’s recording, as I’ve seen both incarnations.
TP: Actually your entire output as a leader is currently in print – Basra for Blue Note, Turkish Women At The Baths, and most recently, Swingtime, which is the name of his current ensemble, which is performing this week at Sweet Basil.
When we were speaking before that set of music, Pete, you made a comment that you don’t like to do things the way other people do – it’s not your policy. Has that been an ongoing character trait – the principle of individualism.
PLR: I don’t know that it was a guiding light, but it turned out to be the turn that I took on a number of different occasions. I was asked recently by an interviewer, “What was the first influence that caused you to go out, outside?” I said, “Nobody ever asked me that before,” and it took me a few minutes to think. The one person who I came up with was Moondog, who is called a street drummer. He’s a very unusual character who I used to see around on the street both in Midtown and in Harlem. He’d be standing on the street wearing Army blankets, sandals, and carrying a long staff. And he happened to be a drummer, and wrote music – and I think he played the flute also.
TP: He has a record out recently.
PLR: It’s a reissue. He also did a concert at the YMHA that I went to, and he had a beautiful triangular drum, about 6 feet long, sat on the floor, and he straddled it. There was a head on one end and the other end open, and he played on the head with a maraca and on the wooden side with a clave – and played the most marvelous things. I think that kind of led my ear to know that things can be done differently and still be quite musical. Drums being what they are, a very repetitive instrument. We hold the beat down. We end up with the backbeat, which I’ve avoided like the plague because it’s just so repetitive and boring – though people love it. People are comfortable with it. It’s obvious. You can feel it. But I just tended toward those things that were more like Moondog, and you know, the great drummers who played things that were interesting, that you’d never heard before, and that made it exciting.
TP: I guess stretching out over 10 weeks with John Coltrane would have given you food for thought.
PLR: It really developed into following the lead from whoever was up front. That started with Sonny, though of course it was pertinent to Coltrane as well. I still do that. It’s not so much that I have a pattern in mind. That goes back to the issue of having to maintain coordination. If you’re really working at it, then there are certain things, licks that you would play that you’re going to be comfortable with and you know how to do. My approach I hope is different in the sense that I prefer to listen to what the soloist mainly is doing and do something that complements whatever it is that he’s into. How should I play the time behind a soloist who is playing that particular kind of phrase up front. That leads you. Because they’re always playing something different, so that leaves me to always be playing something different, and I always liked that combination.
TP: You also became involved in studying Indian music during the 60s, according to the liner notes.
PLR: Yes. Though it was more a general period of Eastern studies. I was also investigating yoga and Zen, etc., as many people were at the time – and Indian music, which was a big part of it.
TP: Did the rhythmic structures of Indian music have an effect on your concept of drumming?
PLR: Not very much. It came across as intensely beautiful but also intensely complex, and I couldn’t find a way to carry it along. Actually I’ve had a similar experience recently with Native American music. Many of the tunes that I’ve written are drawn from other folk musics, not necessarily jazz. I was looking for something that would be from the Native American vernacular. Once again, I love what I hear, but I haven’t found anything that I can take to make it swing. It’s been done. Jim Pepper did “Witchi-tai-to,” which was great. So I know there’s probably something out there, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s very difficult. They don’t use time in so regular a fashion. Some of the time, meter signs – if there were one – seem to be irregular. They’re not circular like a 3/4 or 4/4 even or 5/4. They seem to change, to my ear, in large part, based upon their language. In other words, they’re singing a phrase, and whatever music or rhythm they’re going to do takes the shape of that phrase, as if it were spoken. That’s the rhythm of the music. It doesn’t have to be circular. Nobody is going to improvise. It doesn’t need to be a recognizable pattern. I’ve found that in many folk musics. I may be mistaken, but I think in Greek folk music I’ve also heard that, where they use wild meter signs. But it seems to follow the spoken phrase, not necessarily conducive to something that you want to swing.
TP: You started off in Latin music, and much of the roots therein are Yoruba-Cuban music. Have you continued exploring those feels and does it inflect the way you play?
PLR: Not much directly. I would go a little further back than Yoruba-Cuban to just plain African. When I was a kid, I lived in Harlem, and I was going to Music & Art, which was then at 135th Street, and the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library was at 136th and Lenox Avenue. So these things were close by, and I spent a lot of time at the Schomburg Collection, listening to their records. That’s where I picked up the African elements of my playing. Then I got a chance to use them, of course, was I was playing timbales.
TP: When we break down Pete LaRoca’s influences, it sounds very complex, which it is, but there’s nothing daunting when you hear Pete LaRoca play. It’s endless swing, as the band’s apropos title, Swingtime, would indicate.
PLR: I wrote this for my daughter when she was 4 or 5, which is 25 or more years ago.
[MUSIC: Pete Sims, “Susan’s Waltz”]
[MUSIC: Miles, “Two Bass Hit”; Miles, “Gone”; Miles-PC-PJJ, “Billy Boy”]
TP: Next we’ll focus on Arthur Taylor, who you saw quite frequently during the late 50s.
PLR: Yes, late 50s-early 60s, and picked up a tip from him, actually, regarding the sock cymbal, which previously I had only seen played in only a rock-the-foot-heel-to-toe-and-back fashion. A.T. did it with just his toe, which bounced up and down, so to speak, on beat, and the heel never touched the pedal. That for me was a true find. It allowed a lot of flexibility as to how to use the sock cymbal. Or, perhaps what I should say is, it avoided the sort of locked-in motion of heel-to-toe, which is one of those things you can see drummers concentrating on getting it coordinated, and as long as you’re concentrating on getting it coordinated you’re not going to play anything that’s very loose. So it was a freeing-up device to learn from A.T. that, they, you can do it with just the toe, and there are then different things that involve balance and you get loose – for which I am forever grateful to A.T. It would be a pleasure to hear him play something.
[MUSIC: A.T.’s Delight, “Syeeda’s Song Flute”-1960]
TP: On the next segment we’ll hear a number of tracks from dates on which Pete LaRoca appeared. Alfred Lion called you fairly frequently. You played on several Joe Henderson records, including Page One, which debuted “Blue Bossa.” There are several Jackie McLean sides, Walter Davis, Jr., Sonny Clark…
PLR: Kenny Dorham.
TP: How did the relationship with Blue Note begin?
PLR: It was the Sonny Rollins date, which of course was the first thing I did. The next thing was Jackie’s New Soil, with “Minor Apprehension.” I guess Alfred was happy with the results, and I got into quite a few dates, including my date Basra.
[MUSIC: Art Farmer-PLR, “Tears”–Sing Me Softly Of the Blues; Jackie McLean, “Minor Apprehension”-1959; Joe Henderson-Andrew Hill, “Our Thing”-1963]
PLR: …when I was asked my name, and I said, “Peter,” I’d get a lot of “Ha,” etc., and I finally started making what I thought was a clever connection at the time – Peter meaning “rock” and LaRoca meaning “rock.” I sort of allowed myself to get stuck with it, and that’s how that name came about.
TP: It’s a catchy, recognizable name. You say “Pete LaRoca,” and it sticks in your mind.
PLR: The name has done its work well. People do not forget the name! If I had to choose, I did well with that one. Sims is my given name, and I’m just trying to be known as who I am without the 13-year-old cleverness…
TP: Sometimes the best inspirations…
PLR: Are when you’re 13 years old?
TP: This gentleman’s second question was: Where has he been since Night of the Cookers?
PLR: Right here, dealing with the vagaries of the jazz music business and the impossibility of getting the opportunity to work and be heard by people like your interested caller. I drove a cab for a while in order to survive. I’ve become a lawyer in order both to survive and to keep myself interested in life, etc. And now, at this particular juncture, I have this marvelous opportunity to have a band working and to indulge in music in a number of different ways again.
TP: Now we’ll get back to some other drummers, both from recordings with Thelonious. Roy Haynes is one of the masters in the pantheon; and also Frankie Dunlop.
PLR: Again, drummers don’t get to play with each other, so it’s only as a listener. With regard to Roy Haynes, I’ve always been fascinated by most particularly his left-hand technique, the very intricate and sometimes delicate things that he does on snare drum with his left hand, that I think are among the drumming marvels in jazz. The devices that he uses have a sort of military sound, which I think may be how he got his nickname “Sarge.”
Frankie Dunlap is a drummer I only heard in one context, and that was with Monk. I heard a number of other drummers with Monk, but there was something about Frankie Dunlap that has caused me to always think that he was just the ideal drummer for Monk. Monk was a little angular in his compositions and in his playing, and Frankie was a little angular in his drumming, and they seemed to go together quite well.
TP: It seems to me that your sense of the essential of being a drummer are boiled down into one word, which begins with an “s” and ends with a “g” – swing.
TP: Talk about what comprises swing with a drummer. There are so many ways to do it. What’s that fine line? Is it something definable?
PLR: I personally would go back to Baby Dodds. I call it today CHANK-A-DANG. He wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think. But if you listen to his playing, that sense of TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A is there. CHANK-A-DANG is the same thing on a cymbal that has an extended sound, so it’s smoothed out a bit, as I’ve been talking about smoothing things out. To me, that’s the essence. I think that’s what Duke Ellington was talking about when he said “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” We didn’t have all the other versions and varieties and extensions of swing when he said that. So to me, CHANK-A-DANG is the heart of it. And there are then many questions as to on what part of the drums it’s actually done; one’s touch in doing it. The drums being such a forceful instrument, discretion in playing drums is always significant, and being able to play, for instance, soft and still keep the drive going. All of these things are the things that really, to me, comprise swing, and that’s what swing is about.
People have done other things, and other things are interesting. They are logically sound, or they may be commercially viable, or whatever the case may be. But they are not necessarily swing. A person can say that the absence of something is a form of that thing. That may be a nice, logical argument, like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But it doesn’t come down to making that other thing, or that non-thing the thing itself, in my estimation, at least not when we’re talking about swing. There’s one thing. It’s CHANK-A-DANG. It goes right up the middle, and all the trimmings that you can add to it are great. But it never changes its own identity.
TP: During your younger days you played a lot for dancers on those Latin gigs, and I’m sure that imparted a whole sense of what sort of feeling to have on the drums, though that was on timbales at the time.
PLR: Yes. And I think everything I’ve done since that time has been in an effort to stay away from music for dancers because, though it may swing…
TP: It sounds a little contradictory, on the face of it, to say that.
PLR: It may. But a drummer has a function. In addition to the aesthetics of it, and the music of it, and the expression, a drummer has the function of setting down the time. And the closer you get to dancers, the more firmly you are locked into that function and the less you do anything else, to today where most of today’s popular dance music also derived from jazz is based on the hand-clap, or, as a drummer would call it, the backbeat. Well, you don’t need a drummer to clap hands. There’s a contradiction in terms there. Basically, that’s what it comes down to. It’s swing, and I don’t think there’s that much doubt about it, though people raise many questions as to what it is.
[MUSIC: Monk-Roy Haynes-Griffin, “In Walked Bud”-1958; Monk-Rouse-Dunlap, “Rhythm-A-Ning”]
TP: [re “Bliss”]
PLR: That album began with a cover. I was given the painting, Turkish Women At the Bath, by Ingres, and asked to write some music for it. I thought it was a little outrageous, but one doesn’t say no when somebody offers you a record date. So I did, and this set of songs resulted, and “Bliss” is one of those.
[Pete LaRoca,” “Bliss” and “Basra”]