Mickey Roker was born in Miami in 1932, and at age ten he moved to Philadelphia, where he still resides today. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Philadelphia was an epicenter for aspiring musicians, including John Coltrane, Stan Levey, the Heath brothers, and Benny Golson, who wanted to play new forms of improvisational music.
As a teenager, Roker received rudimental training in drum and bugle corps, and at seventeen he got a set of drums from his uncle. After serving two years in the army, Roker began working around Philadelphia in a variety of R&B groups. Then, in the ’60s, he became part of the elite stable of studio musicians for Blue Note Records. “Each record date we did was fun, but it was also serious business,” Roker says in MD founder Ron Spagnardi’s book The Great Jazz Drummers. “We’d rehearse for two days first. Engineer Rudy Van Gelder really knew how to get a good sound from people. He made it sound like you were listening to jazz live in the clubs. It was a beautiful experience for me, and I got to play with a lot of musicians.” From 1969 until 1971, Roker also played in Duke Pearson’s big band and with trumpeter Lee Morgan.
Known for his sense of propulsion and adaptability, Roker is regarded as one of the hardest-swinging drummers in history. His main sources for timekeeping are the ride cymbal and crisp-sounding hi-hats, while the snare and bass drum are reserved primarily for riff-based patterns. Roker’s ride beat has a loose feel with an emphasis on the quarter note (Example 1), while his up-tempo pattern is more dynamically consistent (Example 2).
Two of my favorite recordings featuring Roker are Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child and Lee Morgan’s Live at the Lighthouse. The open, airy ride cymbal that Roker uses on the Hancock record is reminiscent of the sound of Roy Haynes. Below is a time-playing solo example from the tune “Riot,” which acts as a conduit to move the composition from the piano solo back to the melody.
On the tune “First Trip,” also from Speak Like a Child, listen to how Roker frames the melody by playing the A sections on the hi-hat, with a transition to the ride cymbal for the bridge. “Toys” features Mickey playing the hi-hat with sticks, getting an extremely articulate yet loose sound. Here’s the last eight-measure phrase from the opening melody.
Roker uses brushes, cymbals, and space to create the perfect texture in the trio setting of the ballad “Goodbye to Childhood,” and on “The Sorcerer” he picks and chooses points within the phrase to resolve tension. Here are two examples, beginning at 3:00 and 4:05.
Lee Morgan’s Live at the Lighthouse features a set of original compositions, and the rhythm section can be heard taking a lot of chances. Check out Roker’s fiery up-tempo feels on “Beehive,” “Aon,” and “416 East 10th Street.” Notice the lift he gives the band with an intense yet relaxed ride beat and insistent hi-hats.
On the slinky, medium-tempo tune “Peyote,” Roker negotiates the seventeen-measure form, which is divided as 10+3+4, with ease. The center section of the form is in 5/4, and as the tune develops Mickey interprets this part with a slick Afro-Cuban bell pattern.
On “Nommo,” Roker swings hard in 7/4. What follows is a transcription of where the drummer enters in the introduction. Listen to how his beat has elements of the composition inside it, in particular the piano and bass comping rhythms.
The tune “Neophilia” features Roker playing in 3/4. Here are five of his beat variations.
Roker’s jazz-mambo feel on “Something Like This” reminds me of ideas that Art Blakey played, but with a funkier vibe. To hear this beat isolated, go to 10:29 in the track. I’ve included bell-pattern variations for you to experiment with once you have control of the basic beat.
On “The Sidewinder,” Mickey integrates ideas from the beat Billy Higgins played on the original recording, but he voices the groove on the hi-hat rather than on the ride. The tempo is also brighter when compared with the original.
“Beehive,” the opening track from Live at the Lighthouse, features Roker from the onset. His swing feel throughout this tune is fierce, and his ideas, which suggest Buddy Rich, Philly Joe Jones, and Art Blakey, are simply remarkable. His extended solo begins at 12:45.
As you practice the transcription, which we’ve posted at moderndrummer.com, listen for the way Roker centers ideas on the snare drum, with right-foot bass drum substitutions used throughout like a third hand. Mickey often resolves phrases by playing the crash cymbal or by crashing the ride cymbal with the shoulder of the stick. His command, control, and time feel are extraordinary.
Steve Fidyk has performed with Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield, Dick Oatts, Doc Severinsen, Wayne Bergeron, Phil Wilson, and Maureen McGovern, and he’s a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia. For more info, including how to sign up for lessons via Skype, visit stevefidyk.com.