He helped raise the art of players already famous for their prowess on the kit. The drum community loses a “none of a kind.”
Jim Keltner recalls a fond memory of Freddie Gruber, who passed away in Los Angeles after a long illness on October 11, 2011, at the age of eighty-four. “I went to see Dave Weckl at Catalina’s once,” Keltner says. “Freddie was there, so he joined me at my table. We watched the first set, and Dave played his butt completely right off. There was nothing that he couldn’t do. The music was complex, the band was grooving and playing this insane stuff, and Dave was on fire, that beautiful way that he plays. I knew Dave, and he’s a great guy. He comes over to our table, and I say, ‘Dave, I want you to meet Freddie.’ And Freddie looks up at Dave, and the first thing he says is, ‘I can help you with that left hand.’ That’s what Freddie was all about right there. I was laughing like crazy. But Freddie was not laughing. He meant what he said. Dave wasn’t laughing either. Immediately Dave sat down, and they started talking about his left hand.”
There are drum teachers, and there are drum legends. Freddie Gruber was decidedly a member of the latter camp. He will be remembered for his distinctive personality and for his contributions to the many drummers he called both students and friends.
Longtime pal Buddy Rich described Gruber as “none of a kind,” the sort of compliment that only “Traps, the Drum Wonder” could bestow. But Freddie also counted among his drumming family Neil Peart, Anton Fig, Kenny Aronoff, Gregg Bissonette, Vinnie Colaiuta, Adam Nussbaum, Ian Wallace, Clayton Cameron, Rod Morgenstein, Peter Erskine, and Steve Smith. And during his Swing Street heyday, Gruber performed with Charlie Parker, Tal Farlow, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims, and countless other jazz greats.
“Freddie Gruber had a profound effect on my life,” Steve Smith says. “At my first lesson with him he said to me, ‘If you work on the concepts that I’ll show you, when someone asks you how you played a certain phrase on the drumset, your reply will be, “Easily.”’ And he was correct. His approach was organically connected to playing music. I not only became a better drummer, I became a better musician. He was grateful for every day he lived and would remind me to take a moment and give thanks for my talent, my great relationship with my wife, Diane, and my career. Freddie was truly a singular personality, and I am forever grateful to have known him.”
Distilling his teaching methods from years spent closely watching and befriending greats from Philly Joe Jones to Shelly Manne to Buddy Rich, Gruber took a unique approach with each student. Beyond simple stickings or rudimental drills, he understood—perhaps by intuition—that combining psychology with mechanics can make a good drummer a great one. Everyone who studied with Gruber became a better drummer, and perhaps a better person, for having done so. “Freddie had such great instincts,” says former student and close friend David Bronson. “He could instantly see what you needed as a player. He would trick you into what it’s really supposed to feel like. Freddie also had a genuine interest in how everyone was doing, not just with the drums but with their lives. He was generous with his time, his home, and his heart.”
“Freddie taught wrist turns, circular motion, finger and hand technique, grip, fulcrum—and he made sure you had each thing right,” says Gene Stone, who studied with Gruber for a year and a half in the early ’60s. Stone says he’s applied those methods ever since. “He gave insight into how a lot of the great drummers did things. He broke down the finger-bounce method for me, how you develop the wrists, how they work together, how they work separately, how they work as a system. And he taught how to play the sound up out of the drum instead of down into it. That’s how you develop speed and control. Freddie could visually imprint on your mind what you were looking for and then inspire you to do it.”
Like other students, Peter Erskine experienced Gruber’s focused method and concern for the musician and the inner person. “Freddie Gruber fashioned himself as a Zen master teacher,” Erskine says. “He often offered answers in the form of a question. In my case, he dismissed my concerns about technique, offering that the only bad technique was one where the drummer might hurt himself. Freddie wanted me to lift the sound out of the instrument. Our lessons consisted of Freddie tap dancing for me in his kitchen, and when I failed to grasp the significance of the dance, he shuffled over to the drumset and played exactly as he danced: ‘Don’t you see? I’m dancing on top of the floor, not trying to dance beneath the surface.’ And when I saw and heard the beautiful tone he produced in this way at the kit, my light-bulb moment began to glow more and more, and that light guides me to this day. Thank you, Freddie. Your lessons have proven to be, just like you, timeless.”
For more on the life and times of Freddie Gruber, go to moderndrummer.com.
THE GIFT OF SELF-DISCOVERY
Vinnie Colaiuta on Drumming’s Zen Master
Freddie, to some, was enigmatic. And also a “character.”As for his being enigmatic, I would say that perhaps it’s worthwhile to really listen to what he said nonjudgmentally for a moment. Because I’ve found that, when one does this, something extraordinary happens. It’s called thinking. Thinking for yourself, to be precise.
Hearing a Zen master ask, “What is it?” and giving no answer might cause one to suspect said Zen master. Does the Zen master care? Will he “give” you the answer? I’d say not. Freddie inspired one to look inside oneself to experience, and develop. Wise, indeed.
Characters? Sadly, they don’t make ’em like that anymore. Harmless, and hilarious. Freddie delivered his message to us with wit, charm, and humor that never distilled the message but rather made the medicine taste good. I’m going to miss him.
Rest in peace, Freddie, and thank you for helping us to help ourselves, as no one else. Brilliant.
OPENING UP TO THE KNOWLEDGE
Dave Weckl on Freddie Gruber’s Unique Insight
I remember when I started to gain enough recognition as a drummer on the scene to pull in big crowds at clinics, and I saw Freddie for the first time. My initial thought was, Who is this loud, boisterous older dude in shades, chains, and old-fashioned fancy duds talking jive BS to everyone? That’s how Freddie came off to me, and I remember that at other events not very long after that, if I saw him coming I’d literally go out of my way to avoid him.
Funny how we humans can form opinions that can detour us from more knowledge and a possible richer life in many ways. I have to thank Steve Smith for convincing me to give Freddie a chance. I’m glad he did.
Fast-forward six years or so from that first impression. After witnessing the growth in Steve, and really wanting and needing guidance to learn and grow more myself, and then formally meeting Freddie with Jim Keltner when they came to see me play, I decided to put my guard down and see what this guy had to offer.
I’m not sure if it was at the gig when Jim was there—I actually think it was a bit later—when I decided to consider studying with Freddie. I was playing, again at Catalina’s in Hollywood. I saw Freddie standing off stage to my right, checking me out. He was there, with his ever-present unlit cigarette, for most of the set, just watching me. I was not feeling particularly “on” or comfortable that night, but by the last song of the set I finally felt I played something worthy of the music and of his (and everyone else’s) viewing/listening.
But I was still a bit skeptical of this character, about what he actually knew about playing drums and how he could help me. I came off the stage, and Freddie was backstage hanging and waiting for me. I started to say to him, “Sorry for that, I was not really comfortable…”
“Until the last song,” he interrupted me, mid-sentence. It was at that moment when I realized, Wow, maybe he does know what’s going on. He SAW what I felt. Freddie then proceeded to tell me, “You play great. You’re in the zone some of the time—I want to get you there all the time.”
That was enough for me—I started studying with him the next week. And although being in the zone at a one-hundred percent level is always at a distance, thanks to Freddie I now know where it is, and how to look for it, and I damn near get there a hundred percent on occasion. No teacher ever helped me to understand the physics of playing the drums like he did, and his teachings live on in every clinic I do, with every student I teach.
Needless to say, my time spent with Freddie was profound and special. We had somewhere between six and ten lessons over the next few years in the mid-’90s and spent lots of time hanging and talking after that as well. My touring schedule has taken me out of town quite a bit for many years now, so unfortunately my time with Freddie was limited. But I will never forget what this loud, boisterous, older dude in chains and fancy duds, talking the real deal, did for me.