Jack Bruno: Staying Power

Story and Photos by Sayre Berman

Jack Bruno : Modern Drummer

Relationships these days are tough—for whatever the reason that sense of commitment of “I’m in this for the long haul” just doesn’t seem to be there as much as it used to be. So how does drummer Jack Bruno, who for more than a decade has been pulling double duty with not just one but two rock legends, do it? Bruno, who just celebrated his fifty-eighth birthday this past February 16, has been keeping the beat for music icons Tina Turner since 1981 and Joe Cocker since 1994. That kind of staying power is almost unheard of.

Modern Drummer met up with the gentle, good-humored drummer during his tour stop with Tina at the Bank Atlantic Center in South Florida. The tour was nearing the end of its North American leg, and everyone was looking forward to a short break before heading overseas to begin the European swing.

MD: Do you particularly enjoy playing any one type of concert venue?

Jack: The large arenas are a lot of fun when everyone comes to the party. When you’ve got fifteen to twenty thousand people into it, singing along and dancing, it’s a great buzz. But I really love playing in the smaller venues—large clubs to small theaters. The sound is always better, the band is always tighter, and the crowd is closer. It just feels better. The Beacon Theater in NYC is a great one. I used to love playing The Ritz in New York as well. It was an open floor and held about 1,200 people—enough people to rock the place. And the stage sound was large, but clean. And I still love playing small clubs where the crowd is in your lap. You don’t need monitors; everyone in the band makes adjustments, and you get a great mix and sound on stage. Advertisement

MD: What or who has had the most profound impact on your career as a drummer?

Jack: Early on I was fortunate to be around a lot of professional, working musicians in my family. I learned a lot just being around these guys. They’d let me sit in on some gigs when I was around eleven or twelve—like casuals, weddings, etc. Got my feet wet that way. Also, when I was around fourteen or fifteen, growing up in the Boston area in the ’60s, I got to hear a lot of live music. The club scene and coffeehouse circuit were full on. There was so much great music going on in town, from slick lounge acts doing old-school R&B to great blues, folk, and bluegrass groups.

These days there are so many creative things you hear and see, especially with all the audio and visual information available to us via the Internet. I get tons of stuff from people to check out on YouTube. It’s amazing how many talented people there are out there. You can hear great sounds while you’re out in the street. There was a guy in Washington, D.C. playing those plastic pickle barrels on the corner. He had a full kit with a huge plastic garbage can for a kick drum. He had such a great groove…really inspiring! Also, I recently got turned on to a percussion instrument called a Hang Drum. It’s a bit like a steel drum, but with a warmer sound. It’s dome-shaped and you play it with your hands. You can get them tuned to any scale you like.

There’s just so much music out there you hear on a daily basis—from a simple groove, to the way somebody plays a fill, or just the sound of a plastic barrel—that can have an impact on your own playing. Advertisement

MD: You’ve been with Tina Turner since 1981 and Joe Cocker since 1994—certainly relationships to be proud of. How did you originally hook up with Tina and Joe?

Jack: I was living in L.A., trying to make a living as a player, and I got a call to audition for Tina. But the guy never called me back to set up a time. About two weeks later I called to see what was happening. The gig was gone, but I was asked if I knew any guitar players. I gave him a couple of names of guys I had been working with and left it at that. Maybe a month later I got a call from the same guy, saying Tina wasn’t happy with her new drummer. The guitar player I recommended got the gig and returned the favor by recommending me. So I went to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where they were working, and I met Tina and played a few tunes for her and the guitar player. And I got the gig!

With Cocker, a couple of guys that I’d been playing with on the Tina gig were also working with Joe—also, Tina and Joe had the same manager—so when they decided to make a drummer change, I got the call. As long as Joe was comfortable, the gig was mine.

MD: How have your relationships with Tina and Joe stood the test of time?

Jack: I don’t think there are any secrets to having these gigs for so long. Obviously, they like my style of playing. It works for singers. They don’t have to think about where the time is. It’s pretty simple, and I stay out of the way. I just try to groove hard and pick my spots, play the song, play with the band. And luckily for me, both Tina and Joe like having someone back there at the kit that they know and are comfortable with. They don’t need to make changes. It’s also about knowing that it’s their shows. You’ve got to be willing to play what they like if they need it. And when you’re on the road for weeks and months, you’ve got to be able to get along. That’s as important as anything else. MD: In 2008, several weeks after completing your tour with Joe, you got back on the road with Tina. The musical styles of each are unique. Describe your transition period. Jack: The biggest difference is that Tina’s show is so high-energy. Even at sixty-nine years young, she likes it pumping. No playing behind the beat, always leaning forward—you know, the old-school show tempos. You have to put out. With Joe it’s a little different; the energy is still there, just not as edgy—more back in the pocket. A couple of days of rehearsal with Tina got me up to speed! Advertisement

MD: When touring with Tina or Joe, what opportunities do you have to improvise…to make each night a little different from the night before?

Jack: There’s always a little wiggle room to change it up a bit, more with Joe than with Tina. Tina’s show is more constructed, staged, and choreographed. The grooves are locked in, and there are some fills that she likes in certain places. But there are other spaces where I can change up a fill and she’s fine with it. With Joe you can just go with it. If it’s a little weird for him, he’ll let you know. He’ll jokingly say something like, “What was that weird groove you played in “Cry Me a River”?

MD: What other recent projects have you become involved with that allow you to release your creative energy?

Jack: Well, I’ve been on the road a lot with Joe and Tina, so I haven’t been involved with much else for the past couple of years. But I’ve got a tour starting in August with Taj Mahal. I’m a huge fan and can’t wait to play his stuff. It’ll be a great combination of blues, reggae, and world music.

MD: What would you like the future to have in store for you?

Jack: At this point I’m just happy to still be doing this for a living. I still love playing and want to do it till I drop. Just bury me in my bunk on the bus. [laughs]

MD: Timing is everything, as the saying goes, and nobody knows that better than a drummer. There has been some discussion about extending the Tina tour. If that were to happen, it might run beyond when the Joe Cocker tour is scheduled to begin. How will you cover that, and what is your Plan B? Advertisement

Jack: That sort of thing can happen with any tour. Hopefully the artist you’re about to start with will understand. And they usually do. It depends a bit on your relationship and how long you’ve been doing the gig. If not, the one who extended will hopefully understand that you already had something booked. You either have to get someone to cover the gig you’re going to or coming from, or hopefully they’ll have someone who’s done it before and can cover for you. If it’s a new gig you’re going to, you might just loose it if you don’t show up on time. In this particular case Joe has Kenny Aronoff to call on. He’s toured with Joe in the past, and Joe likes his playing and is comfortable with him. Even if he hadn’t worked with Joe, Kenny is the kind of player who can come in and do the gig cold.

Note: Despite his otherwise perfect timing, Jack ran into this very dilemma. The Tina tour did, in fact, add a number of dates in Europe, bringing the end of that tour to late April, beyond the start of the Cocker tour, whose opening show was on April 17 in St. Augustine, Florida. Add to the mix Tina’s unfortunate bout with the flu, causing the cancellation and subsequent make-up dates in England in early May. Jack didn’t get back to the USA until May 6. A few short days later he was back on the road, joining the Cocker tour in Wisconsin. Plan B, Kenny Aronoff standing in for Jack, did, indeed, go into effect. Joe Cocker will be touring North America through summer 2009, so there is still plenty of time to catch up with Jack, Joe, and the rest of the band. For Joe Cocker tour dates, go to