Ralph Peterson Jr.

There is something about this new breed of jazz musician coming up today. These young players, in this so-called “renaissance of jazz,” have an intensity and excitement about what they are doing that is breathing life into a genre that has seemed to stagnate over the last decade. Ralph Peterson, Jr., is one of these musicians with a fierce devotion to his art and a vitality to his approach that is refreshing.

This energetic approach, combined with a deep respect for the history of the drums, has placed Peterson alongside some of the most respected jazz musicians today.

After being exposed to the drums early on by his father, who was a drummer himself, Peterson remained basically self-taught until he attended Rutgers University. After being accepted at Rutgers as a trumpet major, Peterson worked his way into the drum department and studied with jazz great Michael Carvin. In short order, Peterson won the drum chair in the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble, and in 1984, he won the award for distinguished performance on drums at the prestigious Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival. Long before his graduation from Rutgers, Peterson’s abilities became known in and around the New York jazz scene. Once Art Blakey heard Ralph play, he hired him for the Jazz Messengers Big Band. Peterson has also performed with such notables as Ron Carter, George Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, and the Wynton Marsalis Quintet.

Currently, Peterson is working with the quintets of Jon Faddis, Stanley Turrentine, and Terence Blanchard, as well as David Murray’s Octet. Peterson’s main concern is his activities with Out Of The Blue, a group of young musicians who recently signed a record deal with Blue Note. Their first record, O.T.B., was released in the fall of ’85 and received critical acclaim. With this impressive list of credentials, it is clear that Ralph Peterson, Jr., is a man who lives and craves to play.

RP: I’m from a town called Pleasantville, NJ, which is about four miles outside of Atlantic City. My father was a drummer and is now the chief of police. He was a professional musician a long time before I ever made the scene, so to speak, [laughs] My mother, grandmother, and sisters all have beautiful singing voices, and since I’m the youngest, I was exposed to music from day one. I used to sit on my sister’s lap when I was two years old swinging a pair of sticks, while they would be singing. I have had a love for drums and music ever since I can remember.

WFM: Since your father was a drummer, do you think his influence directed you towards being more of a jazz musician, like the artists he respected?

RP: I think in the long run, it worked out that way, but initially, no. I wasn’t immediately taken to that type of music. My father did his best to keep sounds around me that I could relate to and that I needed to understand in order to be a better musician. He had a lot more vision than I did at that point. I mean, when I was young, I was into playing James Brown, Tower Of Power, and the more popular music that was around at the time. That was what I was into until I was about 13.

Just before I turned 13, I had a musical experience that really affected me. I got a chance to sit in with the Count Basie Orchestra during a kid’s talent night that was being held on a cruise ship I was on. Most of the kids were either singing or dancing, but I played the drums.

WFM: Was Sonny Payne in the band at that point?

RP: Yes, he was. I had been following him around and walking on his heels during the whole cruise. So at that talent night, they let me sit in, and I played “Cute” with the band. That whole experience triggered a lot of personal inspiration for me. Up to that point, I had played in basement-type things and the school band, but those situations were something that I did because of the availability of the instruments. It wasn’t high-quality music. Once I heard the Basie band in person with Sonny and had the opportunity to sit in, I realized how great music can be. What an incredible feeling a person can get from being a musician! I was hooked.

WFM: Besides the drums, you also spent time studying the trumpet. Why did you want to play trumpet, as well as the drums?

RP: I started playing trumpet in the fourth grade, because I knew I wanted to be in the school band. I started playing drums at an early age, and since I was primarily self-taught, I developed all sorts of bad habits. I thought trumpet would be fun and something I could start fresh on. Also, there were a lot of people playing drums in the band; they didn’t need another drummer. I kept up playing both instruments through high school, and when I went to college, I ended up auditioning on both the trumpet and drums.

WFM: When did you make the decision to pursue drumming over playing the trumpet?

RP: Midway through high school, I real- ized that I had more natural ability on the drums. I still wanted to play both at that point, because I was leading little base- ment bands. In the Gospel group, I would play drums, and in the funk band I was with, I would play trumpet and write the horn arrangements, transcribing them off records, like Kool & The Gang and that type of stuff. Playing trumpet helped my theory chops and better prepared me for college.

WFM: You attended Rutgers University.

RP: Yes, and I auditioned on trumpet. I was accepted into the music school on trumpet, the same way I got into the high school band. I played trumpet during my first year of college, and that was my primary instrument. I wanted to study drums as well, but I failed the audition. Like I mentioned earlier, I was primarily a self-taught player, and I didn’t really know the basics. I auditioned for Michael Carvin, and he failed me. I didn’t know any rudiments, and Carvin told me something that still stays with me today. He said, “You cannot come into my class on a college level. That’s why you are auditioning. That’s why it’s not open registration. You have to be on a certain level to be in my department. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, and there are 26 basic rudiments that you should at least know by the time you enter college. You can’t go into an English class without knowing the 26 letters of the alphabet, so I can’t see you coming into my class.” Well, this was the first time that anything like that ever happened to me.

WFM: That must have been tough on you.

RP: Sure, but that’s why I say that I studied with Michael for four years. He said, “We can hang. You can come down here and hang out, and we can talk and be buddies, but you can’t come into my class until you learn this.”

One of the first things Michael had me do, besides the technical thing, was to go out and research the history of the instrument. He had me check out Sid Catlett, Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, Papa Jo, and many other drummers who were major forces in the evolution and history of the instrument. After I would check these guys out, Michael and I would talk about it, and he would point out some of the different characteristics each player had. He was also checking me to see if I had listened to these guys. When I officially started studying with Michael, he had me do a lot of research into all kinds of drummers, and it helped give me the foundation I was lacking. Also, I learned of the rich heritage of our instrument, and how it is our duty to draw from the past and create music that is meaningful. Michael helped me immensely.

WFM: It sounds as if you weren’t exposed to straight-ahead playing until after you met Carvin.

RP: Before I got to college and really got serious about drumming, I couldn’t swing from a rope, [laughs] I didn’t have too many opportunities to play straight-ahead until I got to college. However, the music was around me since I was a child. My father listened to and loved all of that stuff, and in his own way, he tried to get me into jazz, but I wasn’t that interested when I was younger. I went from listening to pop things to funk things.

I think the trumpet also helped get me into jazz. As I mentioned before, I was writing horn arrangements when I was in that funk band, and from that I got into the theory behind the notes. As my theory and trumpet chops got better, I started listening to better trumpet players. I went from funk tunes to the crossover music of Chuck Mangione. Then I went a little farther and got into Maynard Ferguson, and from Maynard, I got into Freddie Hubbard and finally Miles. So through my interest in the trumpet, I exposed myself to the music that I’m playing on drums now.

At Rutgers, I decided to audition for the drum chair in the jazz ensemble. I had been studying with Michael Carvin, so I was confident. Unfortunately, the bandleader didn’t take me seriously when I said I wanted to audition on drums. He only knew me as a trumpet player. Without even hearing me, he told me I should go and practice my horn. A lot of horn players think they can play drums, but I was actually a drummer who was playing the trumpet just to stay in the music department! Up to my freshman year in college, I really didn’t have any way of putting the trumpet aside and taking up drumming full-time, but once I got the drum chair in that ensemble, I knew that I was really a drummer, and everyone else knew it, too. I had business cards that had both the trumpet and the drums printed on them, but in my sophomore year, I had the trumpet taken off.

WFM: It sounds as though your diverse background in Gospel, funk, and all of your different activities with the trumpet and arranging have really helped your development in being a well-rounded musician.

RP: I feel fortunate that I did get involved with all of these different areas. I try to impress upon any younger players coming up that they should develop all facets of their musicianship, as well as their craft of drumming. There is something beyond the technical knowledge of the drums that makes you a complete musician. It’s very important. I feel that I’ve gained a sense of sympathy being on the other side of the drumset. I know what other musicians want to hear from a drummer, in terms of being supportive and not getting in the way. I understand what a horn player wants when it comes to using dynamics and shading to help motivate and move that player. I know what it’s like to be playing a horn with a drummer, not just the other way around. Because of this, I’ve learned to ask questions of the other group members and talk to them on their terms. I can build up a rapport with the other musicians on and off the stand, which they appreciate. I try to give to the music what is desired by the people who are playing, as well as listening.

WFM: From what I read about you, you must have been playing a lot of gigs at the time when you were still in school. How did you balance school and work?

RP: Well, I graduated by the skin of my teeth, [laughs]

WFM: Okay, that’s honest.

RP: I spent a lot of time in the Village and in the practice room, when I should have been in the library trying to get out of school with a degree and not waste my money. But the one thing about being at Rutgers that was most important to me was the practice room, where I had an iron and a little hot plate. I would spend two or three days in there and neglect my classes. But when I got going like that, I really was able to develop. Also, playing with some of the great teachers at Rutgers and having them around all of the time was just invaluable. Since Rutgers is close to the City, I was able to get into New York and check things out.

I started working in New York with Terence Blanchard, who I met at Rutgers, and through him I met a lot of people. Terence would use me on his little gigs. Then, when Terence got the gig with Art Blakey, naturally I was going to come out and give him support. It gave me the opportunity to see Art, and just hang out and check out Art’s playing. I did that for almost a full school year. Every time the Messengers were in New York, I’d sit right up under Art and watch him. After about nine months, it got to the point where Art would come off the bandstand and tap me on the shoulder to let me know that he knew I was there. Then, I started coming in the back and hanging out with the other cats in the band.

After some time, and after I had worked some gigs with the Marsalis brothers, Wynton came down to Mikell’s and introduced me to Art. Wynton said, “Art, you should let him sit in,” in the true Marsallian fashion. Art said, and I’ll never forget this, “If he plays that good, why don’t you hire him?” Now, Jeff Watts [Wynton’s drummer] was there, and Jeff and I are good friends. Jeff sat in that night, and Art, to prevent any type of competition going down, told me that, if I wanted to play, I would have to go to one of their rehearsals first. He said, “Be at rehearsal, tomorrow at 2:00.” Well, the next day, I went to the rehearsal, and Art wasn’t there. He didn’t come to rehearsal at all. The drums were set up in the club—cymbals, sticks, and everything. So I rehearsed with the rest of the Messengers. I showed up that night at the gig, and I was all dressed up and ready to play. As the night progressed, the club filled up, and some big names were showing up, like Bill Cosby. I found Art, and he asked me if I had made the rehearsal. I said yes. So later that night, he called me up to the stand to play. When I played, I tried to emulate and not go outside of the Blakey-Messengers style of playing—the way they play the music. I played sort of a kaleidoscope of all the Art Blakey solos that I had ever memorized or written down. I think it really meant a lot to him to see that somebody was very interested in his musical contributions and in preserving them, as well as developing his ideas while staying true to them.

WFM: Was Blakey your main inspiration?

RP: At that time, Blakey was my main inspiration and did the most to get me heard in the community by giving me the gig in the Art Blakey-Jazz Messengers Big Band. The big band doesn’t work regularly, but every drummer who has been through there and done that gig with him on the same bandstand has gone on to be a voice in the music field somewhere. It was a great honor to perform in a big band that had such talented people involved, like Jon Faddis, Wynton Marsalis, and Terence Blanchard on trumpet, Robin Eubanks, and Kevin Weave on trombone, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, John Tuscon, and Doug Miller on sax. So, just being associated with that band put me in contact with a lot of very talented people who I’ve been able to continue working with on different occasions.

WFM: You have an impressive list of credentials, having worked with some of the brightest up-and-coming players in jazz today, along with many of the old pros. What do you think it is about your playing that is your strong point, and what do you think allows you to work in all these differ- ent types of situations?

RP: I like to think that it’s the energy that I have to offer and the energy I have on a consistent level, regardless of how often a band works. It’s hard to really keep something happening in the group when the leader is off doing all-star dates and gigs. When the band does get together, you have to be able to put it together quickly to go on the road, do rehearsals, and do a record date in three or four weeks, especially after not playing together.

I can’t really say what it is that makes cats call me. I try to be true to the idiom. Just be true to the idiom that you’re playing and give the cats what they want, if they know what they want. A lot of times, cats don’t know what they want. You’ve got to be patient and help them search for their thing.

WFM: You were saying that you’re trying to please all of these different leaders and describing what you have to do to be successful at that. Now, with your own band Out Of The Blue, it’s all up to you.

RP: Partly. Only a sixth of it is mine. It’s ours, and I really think of it as that.

WFM: Is this more satisfying to you than being a sideman, working for a leader?

RP: Sometimes it’s more musically satisfying than any other gig I’m doing. This is unique, because to a certain extent, I can develop this the way that I want to. That might be Blakey one tune and Elvin the next. It’s all up to how the music moves me, and what the group and I feel works.

WFM: How did the whole idea for OTB come together?

RP: Blue Note leaked the fact that there was a group being formed with a contract going out to some young musicians and that there would be auditions. When I first auditioned for the group, I was told that, because I was working with Faddis and had done gigs with Blakey and Wynton, I was considered too established. As skinny and as hungry as I was at that point, I really thought that wasn’t right. But inadvertently, Louis Nash, the original drummer who was going to take the gig, decided not to, so the drum auditions were reopened. I auditioned a second time for the group and got it. I really felt that I was musically correct for this situation, and I wanted to be involved with a situation like this. The entire concept for the group appealed to me.

The concept of the group is based on a co-op concept. This means that everybody is a leader, and that each of us has equal responsibilities. It was an idea based on the record company’s desire to give exposure to relatively obscure talent who could play, but didn’t have an outlet to be discovered. Years ago, there were many more bands and places for bands to play where a young musician could get valuable experience and exposure in the business. More importantly, players could devote themselves to their craft, because they could at least make some kind of a living playing the music. Now, people are starting again to realize that everyone has to make a living, and that, as an artist, you sacrifice a lot of money and time, which you are not compensated for.

WFM: If a musician had spent the amount of time he or she devotes to practicing and developing, let’s say, studying medicine, that person could be in a wealthy position. Yet a musician doesn’t seem to get anywhere near the respect, and has even more devotion to his or her craft than other individuals.

RP: That’s so true. I am a musician and I’m at least living reasonably comfortably, but I do have to do other things to stay in a certain economic position.

WFM: I understand that you also teach drums when you’re not working.

RP: I’m teaching at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. I just recently started, but I am finding that I enjoy it. Back when I was in college, I used to substitute teach for Michael Carvin when he would be on the road performing. That’s when I realized that I have a knack for it and that it can be very fulfilling. That’s why I finished school and didn’t just quit in order to play full-time. I knew that someday I might want to be able to teach and have that thing to work at. Also, and more importantly, I knew that, loving the music the way I do, I wanted to be sincere and true to it. I also had to be a responsible adult, and for fear of compromising the music, I made the decision to be able to work outside the playing aspect of this idiom to make survival money. I don’t ever want to compromise the music that I play. So by having the option of teaching and playing the music, I don’t have to give up my personal ethics.

WFM: What are your future goals?

RP: I would like to see OTB develop into a group that will stay together as our careers go their separate ways. There aren’t that many groups performing the style we play that stay together very long. The ones that do are the exception. So many cats are into their own thing so heavily that they don’t want to commit to anything. I hope OTB will continue to work as a democratic unit. The most I have right now that is mine is this group, and I’m going to give it all the energy that I have in order to get the most out of it.

I think, in the future, I would like to do my own date. I’d love to have people listen to some of my music and have more of my music played. I’m doing more writing now than I’ve ever done before, and playing in all the different groups that I am involved with has certainly given me a broad view of musics to influence me. I definitely want to go on working with the artists I’m working for now. Also, there are artists that I want to get into a musical exchange with, and play with on a gig or a session sometime in the future. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t have to get paid every time I play. You can gain musical benefits that can pay off monetarily in the future, by making you a more well-rounded musician and more employable. If it improves my playing, I’m all for it.