Master drummer Grady Tate, whose sixty-year career featured work in nearly every prominent genre, died last October 8 in New York City. The drummer’s peer Roy Haynes’ style was often characterized as snap, crackle, and pop; Tate’s would be referred to as clean, crisp, and tasteful.
Tate was born in Durham, North Carolina, in 1932, and his love of music began when he saw his first show—which also turned out to be his first public performance. The youngster was in the audience with his parents when the MC asked if anyone in the crowd wanted to perform. Tate promptly ran onto the stage. Later he fondly recalled receiving a crate of RC Cola for his rendition of a song called “The One Rose,” and he always considered that to be his first payment for a performance.
Singing was Tate’s first love—he’d go on to record several CDs as a singer, and he sang and drummed on the TV series Schoolhouse Rock! But as a youngster, after his voice changed, he focused on the drumset. His voice would return later as a warm baritone that would inform his drum sound and approach. Tate would perfect his craft through college and in the U.S. Air Force.
The big break came when Tate sat in with jazz organist “Wild” Bill Davis, who was so impressed that he called the next day to offer the drummer a gig. That put Tate on a road that eventually led to his becoming one of the most recorded drummers in history.
What made Tate special? He simply played who he was—an attractive guy brimming with confidence, direct in his dealings with people, articulate, intensely musical, and a bit of a rascal. All of these characteristics informed his masterful groove.
Tate’s recording credits number more than a thousand, yet it’s not the quantity that counts, but the quality—along with the vast array of styles that he traversed. The New York recording scene from the ’50s through the ’80s was smoking, and it demanded drummers of vast ability to play the music of some of the best composers and arrangers in town. Quincy Jones, Milt Jackson, Oliver Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Paul Simon make up a small percentage of the top artists with whom Tate worked. Composer Angelo Badalamenti of TV’s Twin Peaks even provided a spot in the show’s soundtrack for a Tate brush solo called “Grady Groove,” a rare tribute to a session musician.
Tate preferred playing jazz, but thanks to his adaptability and his association with Quincy Jones, he began branching out, accepting dates in other genres. He not only survived but flourished during the changes that came with the ’60s, and he continued nonstop through the first decade of the twenty-first century.
There’s an old axiom in music that whatever gig you play, you should always bring something to the table. Grady Tate never failed to bring something special to every date he played, and music is the better for his presence.
Tate is survived by his wife, Vivian, and son, Grady Tate Jr.