Jazz drumming great Mickey Roker died this past May 22 in Philadelphia, at the age of eighty-four. Known for his propelling swing, Roker performed with top jazz artists throughout a career spanning six decades. A drummer sprung from swing and bop, Roker had an irresistible groove, sensitive dynamics, unshakable time, and tasteful kit artistry that earned him a long and impressive discography. Above all, he was supportive. “I just like to swing the band,” he told MD in a 2002 interview. “That’s where I get my kicks.”
Roker toured the world extensively, most notably during his nine-year stint with Dizzy Gillespie. Fellow musicians knew him as a kind man full of positive energy and humor.
Granville William “Mickey” Roker Jr. was born in Miami on September 3, 1932. After his mother died when he was ten, Roker was raised in Philadelphia by his grandmother. His uncle bought him his first drumkit, and the self-taught drummer began playing local R&B gigs, eventually gravitating to jazz. Philly Joe Jones was a significant inspiration.
In the mid-’50s, following army service, Roker circulated with notable local jazz figures, including Jimmy Heath and Jimmy Oliver. He married his wife, Priscilla, in 1956; they had two children, Ronald and Debra.
The rising drummer began gigging in New York in 1959 with Gigi Gryce, followed by stints with pianist Ray Bryant and with Junior Mance’s trio, backing up vocal great Joe Williams. Roker settled in the city in 1961, and his profile rose through appearances with Art Farmer, Stanley Turrentine, Clifford Jordan, Shirley Scott, and Mary Lou Williams.
In 1964, Roker began a long association with pianist, composer, and arranger Duke Pearson. Playing with small groups and big bands, he recorded nine Blue Note albums with Pearson and became a frequent call for many other Blue Note record dates during the label’s classic ’60s and early ’70s output. Roker frequently cited Pearson’s 1966 sextet LP, Sweet Honey Bee, as one of his favorite albums.
During his tenure with Gillespie from 1971 through 1979, Roker recorded numerous albums on the Pablo label that showcased his hard-driving yet sensitive energy, transported by his classic swinging cymbal ride. Gillespie famously incorporated Latin elements into his sound, and Roker deftly infused that rhythmic influence, as heard on the 1975 album Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods.
When Dizzy’s nonstop globe-hopping finally caught up with Roker, the drummer left the band, but soon hit the road again with Milt Jackson and with the Ray Brown Trio. Roker would later reunite with Jackson when he joined the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1992.
Although Roker claimed he didn’t favor playing with vocalists, many of the world’s finest certainly favored him. He worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, and Sarah Vaughan, and he cited his touring years with Nancy Wilson as one of his favorite gigs.
Although Roker humbly downplayed his sophistication, claiming he was a musician who “just played,” he was at ease with complexity and experimentation. His stint with Lee Morgan, as heard on Live at the Lighthouse (1970), shows him pushing the straight-ahead envelope while exploring odd meters. And on Speak Like a Child—a classic Herbie Hancock disc that Roker cited as another favorite—he wields his swinging pulse within a progressive framework. Among his other recording credits are titles by Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Phil Woods, Tommy Flanagan, Zoot Sims, Bobby Hutcherson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Roy Ayers, Frank Foster, Herbie Mann, Oscar Peterson, Blue Mitchell, McCoy Tyner, Harold Vick, Cedar Walton, Joe Pass, and Gene Harris.
Throughout the ’90s, Roker was a fixture at the Philadelphia nightclub Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus (he had relocated to his hometown in the mid-’70s) as a member of Shirley Scott’s trio and also as a bandleader. And, as heard on the 2005 album Rev-elation, he continued to swing strong into his mid-seventies with Joe Locke and the Milt Jackson Tribute Band.
Asked in a 1985 MD interview if he had a drumming trademark, Roker responded, “Certain drummers will play a certain lick, and you know it’s them. But people can feel my playing, and they know it’s me. That’s what I want. A good solo is beautiful, but if people feel good when they leave there, they come back for more.”