SF: You’re a musician who’s referred to as an expatriot who started his career in the U.S. and then moved to West Germany. What prompted the move?
AR: I moved in about 1978. I’d been living in New York and had a very good group. We were playing—I hate the term “avantgarde” music—we were playing creative music in lofts. In the mid ’70s, there was a big loft movement in New York City. We were doing well musically, but financially we were making car fare on these gigs. It was very hard; it’s always been hard. It was difficult to live under those conditions.
I always believed in playing and making a living from playing. I never wanted to do anything else to earn my living. I figured that if I could play, get paid and keep going, then my l i fe would be fairly complete. I was doing club dates, dances—whatever possible. The time left for the creative music was very small. The living conditions were getting very rough in New York. The music wasn’t in the environment.
I had a saxophonist named Peter Ponzil, who said to me, “I’ve been in Europe.” He said there were some people interested in what we were doing. So I went with him. I had a tape with me that I made in New York which became my first album. During the first stop in Paris, a record company called Atmosphere bought the master. Then in Germany, there was an agent who loved the music. Young, communal people offered to look for work for us and to show us around. Things just kept building. Activity-wise, I haven’t really been able to get out.
SF: I’ve read statements by jazz musicians—oftentimes “avant-garde” players—who love Europe because there’s so much more acceptance of their music in Europe. Yet, I’ve heard other people say it’s not as good as it’s cracked up to be. Is Europe a bed of roses? Why do you feel the acceptance is greater in Europe for the newer forms of jazz?
AR: It’s definitely not paradise anywhere for creative people. Even the term “avantgarde” is not good. I played straightahead jazz for most of my youth. I’ve played with Ira Sullivan, Laurindo Almeida, and Herman Foster. It was no paradise for any of those forms. There’s a lot of other things happening. They have a very big new wave movement in Germany. The majority of young people listen to that music. But, there’s a big enough audience to support what we do too. It’s not like you work every night or tour year ’round because you’re in Europe. But you can go into a club and you can play exactly what you want to. You don’t have to hold any punches. They consider our music an art form; American classical music. They have their own traditional classical music which is 500 years old, but they will support our music as an art form. They’re not swamped with the media as we are in the U.S.
I’m amazed at the 30 stations on cable TV, radio, advertisements and the constant pump in the U.S. That’s part of my heritage and I understand where it’s coming from, but it’s very, very different in Europe. On European radio, every tune is a different form of music. You can’t tune into one station and know it’s going to be just classical or just jazz?.. You’ll find a mixture.
I believe the people appreciate going out to a club for a live musical experience. I don’t see huge, huge concerts, but I do see big festivals that give people two or three days to partake of all kinds of music.
SF: Is there much music on TV in Europe?
AR: Some of the festivals are taped and shown on TV. So if you didn’t attend, you could see almost any good festival later on television. They do have rock concerts too.
SF: When did your concept of drumming change from straight-ahead playing to the way you’re playing now?
AR: I didn’t start playing until I was over 18. My father has been playing drums all his life. That’s how he supported us. He’s still playing at 70. I don’t think that he affected my concept, except that he made it possible for me to play in musical situations that I thought were corny at the time, but turned out to be very valuable later on.
I’m fooling with rhythms in my own band; playing things that I played on a club date somewhere, and utilizing them as a rhythm I can spread from. All that training and the opportunity I received from knowing my father and some of his people were very valuable later.
A lot of young people feel that if they’re not doing gigs that are “hip,” they’re wasting their time. But, I’ve heard Ronald Shannon Jackson’s band, with Shannon using rhythms that sounded like polkas or waltzes. I found myself recently composing around a march form and breaking it down later. It’s very valuable to have played in many varied styles so you can incorporate them when you want to express yourself.
SF: What made you decide to pursue the newer forms of jazz?
AR: When I started to play, I was very fortunate to jump into a trio we had in the ’60s. We played lounge music which consisted of piano, bass and drum trios, or quartets with saxophones. We started playing standards and listened to people like Ahmad Jamal, or the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ed Thigpen and Ray Brown. We were into that style and I loved it.
I was getting telephone calls for the first 15 years of my life to gig between New York and Florida. I played some shows, some Catskill show bands, and Burlesque houses. But mainly I was listening to jazz and playing in a jazz-oriented style.
I was on the Lower East Side in the ’60s and I heard the John Coltrane Quartet at the old Half Note. I would say that night had something to do with awakening my head. When I heard them play, when I heard what they were searching for and the energy that was happening, it changed my entire direction. Before t h a t , I was playing many years of straight ahead, I was trying to keep good time, which was definitely necessary, and I was copping a groove. But I wasn’t a voice. Somehow, Mr. Coltrane’s search and the power of his band really opened my head to other forms.
Elvin Jones, with Coltrane, naturally had a lot to do with exploding my head. I spoke with Elvin and I’ve written a poem for him published in Germany. It’s in my book. The poem’s called, “With Love to Elvin Jones.” I used to stand in the Professional
Percussion Shop with Frank Ippolito and Elvin was there often. I used to chat with him. I was a little afraid of Elvin when I was young. His power and energy are unbelievable. But everytime I’ve spoken with him, he’s been beautiful—a real gentleman.
SF: Can you say technically how your concept has changed to where it is today?
AR: I was, and am, a timekeeper, which is the underlying foundation. But there’s a circle that happens in most creative music when the improvisation is happening. When you’re locked in the circle, when all players are equal, and when everybody is establishing the time, there’s a lot of freedom there for everyone. Naturally, you must be attuned and it must be happening. I’ve been exposed to “free music” where everybody gets up and plays nothing that relates to anything. I’m not speaking about that. I’m talking about coming from a form. When it does connect up, you’re capable of letting go of the feeling that you have to be locked to a certain time function. The time is established. In that time you are able to express yourself and react spontaneously, which is what jazz is about. When I found myself in playing situations where that happened, I played things and I didn’t know where they came from. They seemed to have come through me. I also played at very high-energy levels without feeling any physical stress whatsoever. I knew there was a force happening that was not totally controlled by me. I was just a conductor of it. That kind of spirit ual connection, the energy, has always been my main search. I’ve searched in other areas too.
I just learned to react. I learned to stop the thoughts and play the music, because when you’re taking time to think, you’re not really in the moment of the music. I learned to become a musician, to play the composition and be part of it, and to react spontaneously in the improvisations. It seemed to me to be the most fulfilling form. I enjoy playing gigs of other styles, but this type of playing is the best chance you get to express yourself creatively.
SF: Can you be aware of the moment in other forms of music?
AR: Not as much, personally. If there’s a rhythm going on in a certain group and you’re behind a singer or in some kind of repeating function—a tune that must lay a certain way—naturally your skill lies in keeping it together, being tasteful and keeping the time right. But you’re not getting that much opportunity to stretch out.
SF: I received two albums in the mail the other day—your new album and another artist’s album. Both were duets between a drummer and another instrumentalist. The differences in approach were striking. Although at times your music became frenetic, I still heard melody and a relation to form in it. The other album was like the “free music” you mentioned that seems to relate to nothing. It was an interesting contrast.
AR: That’s the dangerous part. In Europe they have what they call “free music.” I’ve never called the music “free” because we’ve never really played without somewhere to start from. We never really played free. There’s nothing free about it. You can’t have freedom without a foundation. A building would fall over if it wasn’t grounded in something. But in European improvised or “free music,” musicians get up and they just play. Sometimes it looks like a clown show. I’ve seen musicians lighting instruments on fire and throwing saucers into the wall. I’ve never been a part of that. It has to swing. That other kind of unconnected energy is not what I consider jazz or creative music. Without swinging, you’re not connected. If you’re not connected, all the energies are not being used for the one force, for the music or for delivering the music. It could be anything. It could be a kid that doesn’t know what he or she is doing. It could be a musician on an ego trip. It could be all forms of disconnected energy which do not make a whole for the people.
I know I’ve played some music that was aggressive or frantic, but it was always tied together. It might have reflected the moods of the players, but it came from players who always had years of musical background and knowledge. They were connected when they played. That’s very important.
SF: You’ve established a nice teaching practice in Germany. What approach to the drumset do you teach?
AR: At the University, I’ve been teaching people who are mainly going to be music teachers and some who want to be professionals. Most of them are not aware of rudiments. It’s not that they’re not aware of it; they don’t pay attention. A lot of Germans want to get free because they feel they’ve been noted to be stiff. Everybody wants to be somebody else. The Germans want to get away from strict forms. I stress the rudiments, because without that facil ity, without the hands and feet being able to move in all different directions, the students are not going to say anything.
I stress independence. We have two drumsets in every place and we play together. It’s very important to talk and play together. We’ll trade fours and eights, and we’ll talk about form and melody. I’ve had classical musicians who want to play drumset, and they don’t know the length of an AABA tune. They don’t know anything about blues, and they’re going to go out and be music teachers! It’s frightening.
So we stress song form and we stress playing melodically, when they’re ready. A lot of students come in and they have their rock beats together. They show them to you and then it’s over. They don’t have the opportunity to play in different forms and there’s very limited work there. They don’t have club dates or lounge bands. They don’t get the exposure. I try to talk with them about what I’ve been through; introduce them to a sax player or a trumpet player passing through. I’ve built up a very good relationship with my students. I have 35 dear friends now.
SF: You said earlier that none of them ever cancel out or miss a lesson?
AR: They never miss, man. It’s a treat for them. See, the drumset is an American invention. It wasn’t considered an instrument in Europe, and it’s still not by the older professors. In their school system, they only had snare drumming or classical percussion. They never had drumset. They have a catalog of what’s proper and what’s not, and jazz—which would relate to drumset playing—was listed as a viable form, so they allowed me to go ahead and do it. It’s been very good for me because it’s made me work, and shown me what happens in other parts of the world, how much interest there is in what we’re doing, and how much respect there is.
SF: You mentioned how much more patriotic you felt towards America after living in Europe and experiencing things like the Berlin Wall. Maybe you could touch on the tremendous opportunity that young players have in America which they wouldn’t have anywhere else. Sometimes we overlook this fact because we’re born and raised in the U.S.
AR: America is probably the most free country in the world, and the greatest country in terms of pursuing whatever you’d like to pursue.
I met a trio from Czechoslovakia when I was coming from a gig in Norway. We had to take a ferry boat. These three men were playing on the boat. They were from a Communist country and the drummer played excellently. They spoke about jazz because that’s what they loved. They spoke about waiting seven years for an instrument of very bad quality. They spoke about waiting 10 years for an apartment with a bathroom. This man had a family, he was playing drumset in a jazz fashion very well, and the love for the music was in his eyes. But what he had to go through just to have a place for his children to take a shower and to buy an instrument was incredible. Yet with all those odds, these people were going ahead.
He told me he once had a Duke Ellington record which he waited a year to get. He was buying one album a year. With that, with the family pressure, and without the things we take for granted in America, this man was functioning.
SF: Why did he have to wait so long to buy an instrument?
AR: It wasn’t available, there were no imports and he had no money. After passing a series of tests, he was allowed to be a drummer because he had qualified. The reason they were playing on the boat was that they were allowed by the government to make a certain amount of money every year. For a certain number of weeks each year they were allowed to work, and the work was set up by their government. Then they had to come back. The availability of instruments is also controlled by the government. A person can’t go down to a music store on 48th Street. Musicians in America are complaining, but I’ve seen people with equipment here that’s incredible.
SF: So in Communist countries, it’s up to the government to decide if you can be a drummer in the first place?
AR: Yes. Europe is free in a sense. But in Europe, young people are raised to know one thing—everybody must be a professional. In Germany, everybody must function in a professional capacity and must prepare with a lot of security for the future. It is very rare for a young person to play an instrument and take a chance on being a musician. The people don’t have that kind of freedom. They’re afraid they may not make it. I’ve heard many times, “What happens when I’m 30, if…?”
SF: I’m hearing that more and more from young people in America. “I’d like to become a musician, but what’s the security?”
AR: Security is an illusion. When I started to play, I don’t ever remember saying, “How much will I make?” I saw musicians play, I loved what I heard, I loved what I saw, and I loved the magic of it. I didn’t start out because of numbers. Maybe today with the media and the commercialism of it, musicians are considering that right off the bat. They’re squashing their spirits a bit.
I’m 39, I have two new sons, and I’m playing stronger. I think I’ve just started to play. I put in 20 years. I think if you do 20 years and you’re still alive, functioning and still playing your instrument, then you’ve passed your apprenticeship in this society. I feel like I’ve really just developed my voice and I’m ready to go. I can’t see why a young person should be afraid. Afraid of what?
SF: It seems to me that many of the musicians living in free countries have a tendency to embrace Socialist or Communist philosophies when they’re in bad financial situations. Have you ever found that to be true?
AR: I’ve seen that. Naturally, when you’re down, you’re groping for the reason or you’re looking to be against something. What happens to you is definitely a Karmic response. Supposedly, you should be respectful of what happens to you regardless of whether it’s down or up, and accept that as being what’s happening to you in a moment in reality. It’s nobody’s fault outside of your own.
I’ve never thought that way. It’s destructive. I don’t think you can change power structures with violent movements or responses like that. You have to develop your work and you’ll get what you deserve. I’m not a very famous man, but I’ve been allotted a very successful life as far as family, instruments, and a band are concerned. And it’s getting better and better. I developed a positive attitude from the practices, or experience, or whatever. The positive attitude is very important; that positive energy. It’s very important to real ize exactly who you are, regardless of whether it’s good or bad, to stick with it, to develop it, and to try to put out that positive attitude to other people.