The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, lays claim to a set of freedom-founding parchments, a legendary local kite flyer, a big cracked bell, and a roster of incredible jazz artists, including a fiery drummer who proved himself on these historic grounds. The kite flyer, Ben Franklin, made a name for himself by drawing electricity. The drummer, Mickey Roker, made a name for himself by generating electricity to jazz fans all over the globe.
Mickey was born in Miami on October 3, 1932, but he was raised in Philly, and that’s where he developed into a musician. In 1959, he began commuting to New York in order to play a gig with saxman/composer Gigi Gryce, and that became his career springboard. The rising drummer performed throughout the ’60s on successive one- to two-year stints with a lineup of top jazz names. But his greatest exposure was gained as being the man who held the drummer’s chair with Dizzy Gillespie through the ’70s.
Dizzy demands versatility from a drummer, and especially a mastery of Latin rhythms as well as swing, bebop, funk, and blues. Being the first leader to introduce congas into a jazz band, a pioneer in the mixing of Cuban and jazz sounds, and a conga player himself, Dizzy is a consummate professor of rhythm, and his drummer must be no less. In addition to traveling with Gillespie in a frantic schedule of world tours, Mickey was the man providing the pulse on several of the trumpet master’s fine albums on Pablo Records, such as Dizzy Gillespie’s Big 4 (1974), Dizzy Gillespie y Machito: Afro-Cuban Jazz (1975), Dizzy’s Party (1976), and Carter, Gillespie Inc. (1976, featuring Betty Carter).
Album dates were also frequent when Mickey was one of the regular drummers on the classic Blue Note Records sessions of the ’60s—a prolific period for the label that set a standard for recorded jazz of the time. The Blue Note catalog is a testimony to Mickey’s talent and versatility. You can hear him burning through straight-ahead jazz on Live At The Lighthouse with Lee Morgan, swinging a big band on any of Duke Pearson’s many albums, or firing up a mixture of Latin, jazz, and R&B feels on a Horace Silver disc. Whatever the style, it all boils down to a driving and cleanly defined rhythmic foundation with a frosting of finesse. Other artists that Mickey has recorded with include Herbie Hancock, Joe Williams, Junior Mance, Mary Lou Williams, Zoot Sims, McCoy Tyner, Art Farmer, Nat Adderley, Gigi Gryce, Ray Bryant, Sonny Rollins, Frank Foster, Stanley Turrentine, and Count Basie.
After the whirlwind Dizzy decade, Mickey swung into the ’80s with Ella Fitzgerald for a six-month period that included a European tour. Various freelance engagements ensued with Oscar Peterson, Sam Jones, Zoot Sims, and others. Presently, his prime music-making is with his longtime comrade Milt Jackson. They first met during the early ’60s at a Newark, New Jersey, club where Mickey was working with Wes Montgomery, and they “have been good friends ever since,” says Roker.
“In fact, I just spoke with Milt on the phone today. He just got back from Japan!” Mickey beams. That kind of enthusiasm is a key to Mickey’s manner. An amiable and energetic makes-you-feel-at-home person, Mickey walks with a bounce and seems to be restraining stores of reserved energy. When responding to my technical questions about his drumming, Mickey slows down a bit, ponders the whole, but sometimes doesn’t quite muster the enthusiasm for getting analytical about his approach to the drumset: “I’m not sure how to put it. Billy Taylor and people like that are good at explaining jazz in words.” But just ask him about the musicians he has had the honor of playing with, and he pops into high gear, praising them with a glow reflecting the inspiration he draws from his talented peers.
He has the positive spirit found in naturals. Except for short periods of formal training, Mickey is basically self-taught, and to hear him talk or see him grin when recalling some fine music, you gradually glean the simple purity of his motivation: When he first heard good music, he “just wanted to play,” he learned by “just playing,” made a name for himself by “just playing,” and the final reward is, of course, “just playing.”
While I was driving home out of the historic city, Mickey’s voice came over the FM radio by amusing coincidence. “Hi, this is Mickey Roker. I listen to radio station. . . Support jazz by listening…” and so on. This seemed like a fitting farewell to Philly. I had just left the center of the city minutes before via the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. It was too bad that I didn’t get the chance to see the cracked bell. But I did spend time with one of Philadelphia’s bonafide cultural monuments.
JP: Can you tell me about your latest musical venture?
MR: Lately, I’ve been working with the Milt Jackson Quartet, along with Ray Brown on bass and Cedar Walton on piano. We work in between the times that the Modern Jazz Quartet is working. Other than that, I’ve been working around Philly. Since I moved out of New York, I don’t travel as much anymore. I just want to stay with one band, and I want to see my son’s baby now. I didn’t get to see my kids grow up, but I would like to spend some time with my grandbaby.
I’ve been playing with Milt Jackson for 20-some-odd-years, off and on, but now we’re getting a steady thing going. We work for maybe four months. Then he works three months a year with the MJQ, and the rest of us are free to work with other people.
JP: During the course of an interview that I did with Chico Hamilton, we were discussing the idea of “dividing” a note—the concept of laying behind, on, or in front of the beat, depending on who you’re accompanying. We compared different examples, and Chico commented, “Can you imagine playing behind Milt Jackson?” He was referring to the fact that Milt is a prime example of someone who lays phrases beautifully with the “behind the beat” feel. Now that I’ve got you here, you’re the man who can tell me just exactly what it is like.
MR: Milt depends on the rhythm to be right there for him. Sometimes he’s on top, and sometimes he lays back. But his feeling is right down the middle. When you feel his playing, it might sound like he’s back there, but he’s right in there. It’s like Billy Eckstine, who influenced a lot of musicians who played with him—Dizzy Gillespie and so forth. You know that instruments imitate the human voice. Billy Eckstine’s musical phrasing was so hip that a lot of instrumentalists would try to duplicate his sound and phrasing. That’s why the “lay behind the beat” feeling is so strong in jazz rather than the staccato feeling in rock. In jazz, you can play on top or behind, instead of right on it all the time. I guess that’s the difference between jazz and rock.
JP: One of the biggest news bits in the jazz world today is the resurrection of the Blue Note record label. You were a part of the stable of players for Blue Note during the ’60s—a period now considered to be a golden era. What was it like recording during that productive period?
MR: Each record date we did was fun, but it was also serious business. We would rehearse for two days first. But then when we went to the record date, it would be like a party. They would have food and a few drinks. It would be beautiful if everything went well. It usually did because everybody was so friendly. And Rudy Van Gelder, the recording engineer, really knew how to get a good sound from people. He really made it sound like you were listening to jazz live in the clubs. It was a beautiful experience for me, and I got to play with a lot of musicians. That was partly through the help of Duke Pearson.
Duke Pearson, Bob Cranshaw, and I had a trio together. We would record with a lot of musicians who came to New York and didn’t have a band. We would be the rhythm section—maybe write out a couple of arrangements. The main thing was just to swing—to get a good feeling. Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff co-owned Blue Note. They didn’t care about anything as long as you swung, because that’s what our music is. You’ve got to play it from your heart. So you could take a simple arrangement and use your creative ability to make something out of it. That’s what was so good about Blue Note recording sessions; it wasn’t all uptight.
JP: I heard that Blue Note was one of the only jazz labels at that time which paid for your prerecording rehearsals. That’s creatively encouraging.
MR: Right. And that was good for the musicians. You would get maybe $25 for a rehearsal. Boy, that $25 was a lifesaver back in those days. We were young musicians and weren’t making a lot of money in those days, but the music was somethin’ else.
JP: Could you pinpoint any of your favorite Blue Note album dates?
MR: One of my favorite ones was Speak Like A Child by Herbie Hancock. And I did a Duke Pearson record with Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard called Sweet Honey Bee. Oooh, that’s a superb album. When you record, you’re so busy working that you’ve got to bring yourself up to play, especially because there are no people there. You have to be up mentally, because sometimes you don’t have a chance to listen to everything so closely. Sometimes you don’t get a chance; you’ve got to go from one tune to another. But the fact that you’re playing with great musicians like that is what’s special. You just hope it all comes out so that you make a beautiful record.
JP: In contrast to recording with leaders like Lee Morgan who are highly spontaneous in the studio, you have worked with leaders like Horace Silver who are very arrangement/composition minded. Did that cramp your style?
MR: It’s much more confining; they don’t leave much to your creative ability. They want you to play a certain thing in a certain place all the time, which is good for your discipline. And it’s also good to be able to make up your own rhythm. It’s all good according to what you like best musically and financially. I prefer playing freer. Any musicians who study and are dedicated want to be themselves.
But sometimes you have to be somebody else, because you’re a sideman and not a leader. You have to be able to give leaders what they want, or you won’t work. One thing about Horace is that he knows exactly what he wants, which is good. There are a lot of leaders who depend on you to give them what they want, but they don’t even know what they really want. So it puts a hard responsibility on a drummer.
A lot of people who write good music don’t know what to write for the drums. They don’t know about rhythm. A lot of leaders might say, “On these eight bars, give me a real church feeling—real Gospel.” So you really have to know rhythm to play drums. You’ve got to know a rhythm authentically. You can’t just be talking about playing one way if you’re going to be a good sideman. I like being a sideman. I enjoy the challenge of being able to play something different. As for putting it together and being a bandleader, I never thought that way.
What made Herbie Hancock’s date special was the great musicians who were involved. During that time, Hancock was working with Miles and Tony Williams. When I got to the studio, I asked him, “Why are you using me on this record?” because Tony had done Maiden Voyage and other great records with this group, and everybody was there except Tony. I had so much respect for Tony that I had my mouth hanging open at the fact that Herbie called me to make the record. He said, “I called you because you’re the guy I wanted.” It made me feel so good. Those guys are much younger than me, but musically they were much more advanced, because I had just started playing in New York a couple of years before.
JP: How do you feel about the material that Hancock’s doing now? The role of the drums has sure changed in that.
MR: The rock stuff? I like it. If he plays it with conviction, I like it. I don’t care as long as there’s quality.
JP: He got a lot of flack from jazz musicians when he crossed over into funk, rock, and especially dance records with drum machines.
MR: People always have something to say. If you’re a listener, of course you can criticize, because all you’re doing is sitting and listening. But as a player, you’ve got a right to play what you want to play. There’s one thing about musicians: They’re criticized from the time they sit down to the time they get up. You can’t play and not expect to work hard. Most people go to work and look for a way for the day to go easy. But you can’t do that as a musician, because every ear is on you every time you play. Even when you practice, you’re going to hear something from somebody—even from your own family: “Oh, you didn’t practice for very long today!” [laughs]
JP: Everyone associates you with jazz. A lot of people don’t realize that you started in Philadelphia by playing with rock/rhythm & blues groups.
MR: Yeah, it was more rhythm & blues than rock. I’ve been playing drums since I was a baby. I could play naturally. I never had anything but a parade drum, and I played with marching bands until I went into the army. While I was in the army, I decided I wanted to play the set, so I practiced. I got out of the army in 1955 and played my first paying gig in 1956.
We used to have sessions right here in this house where I was raised. Lee Morgan, Reggie Workman, McCoy Tyner—all those guys used to come right here and my grandmother would be back there cooking. We would be in here all day. Each guy would have a jam session on a different day at his house; Sunday was my day. So we played every day when we were young—Kenny Barron, Arthur Hopper, C Sharpe, Jimmy Vance—a bunch of Philadelphia musicians.
I learned how to play jazz, but the only gigs I was getting were R&B gigs, because there were so many musicians around Philly that you had to prove yourself. For about a year, I played with a guy named King James, and he had a tenor player named Rudy Jones—meeaannn! Boy, this guy could swing. Then I played in another group called The Hi-Fives. We were all young guys trying to learn, so we played rhythm & blues. We didn’t understand jazz; you need a chance to do it. My chance was when I started playing with Sam Reed, an alto saxophone player. And then I started getting gigs with Jimmy Oliver and then with Jimmy Heath. He’s from a few blocks from here.
In ’59, I got a chance to go to New York to play. I had a day job all that time. I didn’t dream I would ever be a full-time musician. Reggie Workman, who I knew, called me up. He was much younger than me but was into music more heavily, knew all the musicians, and he had been playing longer. He asked me if I wanted to come to New York to play with Gigi Gryce. So I went to New York. In about 1962, I moved there to stay, until I moved back to Philly about six or seven years ago.
JP: Is it hard to keep contact with the New York club circuit now that you have resettled here?
MR: Yeah, I miss New York. There’s no place in the world like New York. Philadelphia used to be a good town, but now there are not too many places to play. I lived in New York for 18 years. If you leave it, you can only go downhill, musically speaking. I don’t care where you go. You go to heaven and it ain’t like New York, man. It’s hard for me to commute back and forth now. When Milt Jackson travels, I travel.
You’ve got to know rhythm if you’re going to play drums and live in New York, because all of your gigs in the City are not going to be jazz gigs. Did you know that I worked with Muddy Waters years ago? I think it was at the Village Gate. You’ve got to listen to the players who do various styles authentically and keep an open mind. You can’t be a musical snob. I enjoy all kinds of music. I played Dixieland, blues . . . . I prefer playing bebop jazz, but in order to make a living, you have got to be able to play anything. You never know when you’re going to be called upon to play something other than what you like yourself.
JP: You were one of the first drummers ever to mount timbales onto your drumset.
MR: When I worked for Dizzy, we used to play all these Latin tunes. I wanted to get that sound for the Latin frame of music.
JP: Dizzy’s gig must be incredibly demanding for a drummer.
MR: Oh man!
JP: Dizzy is a drummer himself, so he must know exactly what he wants from you.
MR: He loves the drums.
JP: About his particularity with drummers—I’ve heard the story about his favorite bag of cymbals that he requires all his drummers to use.
MR: [Laughs] Most trumpet players are drummers at heart. They love it. I always call it the drum & bugle corps. Dizzy is always beating on something. Lee Morgan was the same. So it is hard. But no matter what you do, it’s hard. There’s no easy way to play the drums. Dizzy’s always giving directions and coming back whispering things in your ear. You can’t let it offend you because it happens. If you understand him, then you will understand that sometimes he can’t think of something until a couple choruses go by.
He likes you to try things. He will give you a rhythm, and man, let me tell you, this guy is a master of rhythm. He will give you a rhythm, but he wants you to take that rhythm and wring it out—put the accent here, put the accent there—so that you exhaust the possibilities. And each time you play the rhythm, then you find something new. You don’t just want to find a rhythm and stay on the same rhythm for the rest of your duration with the band.
JP: So Dizzy depends on his soloing inspiration from the drummer?
MR: His inspiration or his depression from the drummer. [laughs]
JP: So he might throw the evil eye occasionally?
MR: Of course! This guy has played with the greatest drummers in the world. So it’s like going to school. You can’t satisfy that savage beast in him with every beat. But he’s cool. He accepts you if he basically digs you. He’s not down your throat all the time.
JP: Well, I guess if you stayed with him for nine years, then you passed the test.
MR: Yeah, we had some good times, man. We really had some good times. About the cymbals—he just has one cymbal, a swish, that he likes you to play. When he’s soloing, he likes that cushion under him. I don’t mind using it.
JP: Do you know why Dizzy wants that certain cymbal sound? That swish has a dark sound. I always wondered if it was because of the timbre factor. A lot of trumpet players feel that bright, brassy cymbals can clash with their range.
MR: I never asked him the reason. All I know is that he liked the cymbal and I liked him, so it doesn’t hurt me to play the cymbal. As long as I’m playing, I don’t care. Sometimes a different sound is necessary for a little inspiration. A lot of drummers were offended by playing that cymbal. They might have thought it wasn’t hip. What’s hip is being able to get along with your fellow musicians.
JP: Dizzy’s gig is just as physically taxing as it is musically challenging. He’s notorious for constant globe-hopping. With jetlagged schedules, how did you keep in shape to deliver your energetic drumming from stage to stage?
MR: He travels all the time. That’s one thing that I really regretted. I loved it at first—say, the first five years or so. It was beautiful; we went all over the world, man. We went to Cuba playing a concert on a ship. We sailed all up and down the Mediterranean. We covered Europe, all over Africa . . . . But then I’m not a young guy, and playing drums and traveling like that is not the same as playing trumpet and traveling like that. That’s why I don’t do too much now. I’m still trying to come down from that gig. But it’s beautiful for a young musician to get that experience for a couple of years or as long as you can take the traveling, because Dizzy loves to travel. That’s his life. It’s the life of every musician that’s as famous as he is. He has to; it’s the only way. Of course, Dizzy is making enough money so he can love it. [laughs] But he deserves every penny he gets; he is something else. Working with Dizzy is not easy. You have to be in good shape, and you have to keep an open mind. I made sure I exercised every day on the road, even if I only had the chance to jog in place in my hotel room.
JP: Jazz recording has changed greatly since the Blue Note days. How do you feel about the overdub format in jazz recording?
MR: What I like about music is that you can take three or four, or even 10 or 15, musicians and they try to get together. I like that feeling of being able to play with somebody. If I have to play by myself, I’m terrible, man. [laughs] I feel like I’m practicing, not playing. I like family.
JP: Then have you always found it hard to practice alone, too?
MR: It has always been hard for me to practice, because I get bored if I don’t hear music—if I’m just hearing the drums. I still practice. I do some teaching, too. So I have to practice to be ready for those students, because they’re sharp. I practice for stamina. But for ideas, I go from one thing to the next to keep me from being bored. When I was young, it was different because everything was new to me then.
JP: Then you don’t sit down to figure out specific patterns?
MR: I learn all the rhythms basically. Then you learn how to create—how to improvise. If you can think, then all you’ve got to do is think. I learned the rhythms in their basic form—the calypso, bolero, reggae— but then you need music. You learn how to do things when you’re on that bandstand or rehearsing with other musicians. But as for sitting there, I just think about playing. That’s my gift. When I practice, I don’t say, “I’m going to get this or that lick together.” What I like is change. Once you make a statement, you can’t keep saying the same thing over and over.
But I don’t discourage my students from formal practice or using books. There are great things in drum method books—as long as you can make it sound natural. You want to sound natural, not mechanical. I have the natural ability, so I appreciate what is in the books. I appreciate the technical, and even if I might not be able to do it, I appreciate it when I hear it. But I don’t teach it, because that’s not natural to me. I just teach basics, because I know I can give that to students. They might end up going a little further than me, because I’m not the ultimate drummer.
JP: What is the most common initial problem with a new student?
MR: It’s overplaying. They want to be like what they hear on records. They’re too fast without having the bottom together. They want to be stylists. They’re very influenced by their favorite drummer with a distinctive style—which inspires them to play at first. But what I stress is to get the basics, and then you can be the one to inspire other drummers. The ice is too thin to be somebody else.
In order to get a good gig, you’ve got to be out there. It’s luck or fate, because there are a million musicians. There are thousands and thousands of good musicians. But you have got to have an open mind and be ready to play anything. It might not be exactly what you want on the first gig you play. But if you play a gig, it gets you exposure. If you’re playing your buns off, somebody’s going to hear everything you do. So, in order to get a good gig, you have to have yourself together. You don’t have to worry about getting a gig. If you get yourself together, you will get a gig. It might not be tomorrow; you have no control over time. There’s no set time. If you say, “I’m going to practice six months and get a gig”—life ain’t like that! Life is ready for you if you’re ready for life. That’s the main thing. Get yourself together: Be clean, don’t use drugs, and exercise every day. You have to do that when you are young, because when you’re older, you have too many other things on your mind. Know the basics of every rhythm—Indian music, Chinese, whatever. You don’t have to be the creative genius on every rhythm you play but at least know it.
JP: You have played for many vocalists including Ella, Nancy Wilson, Carmen McCrae, and Joe Williams. Like most vocalists, these performers are very arrangement oriented, especially when a big band is involved. What did you have to change in your playing to approach the vocalists’ gigs?
MR: It’s the same. You just have to be a good musician. The only difference I see is the length of the music. When you are playing with horns, there is more stretching out; you play longer. With a singer, it’s shorter; you don’t get to stretch out. But certain things you do within the chorus are the same. You don’t have to play a different way. You just play the music. The intensity and the dynamics should be the same. I don’t care who you are playing with, whether it be a vocalist, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, a small band, or a big band.
JP: Speaking of Sonny Rollins, tell me about the experience of working with him from a musical standpoint.
MR: It was a beautiful experience. He and McCoy Tyner are two of the strongest people I know. Sonny might play one tune and utilize every rhythm that you can imagine. We would rehearse with Sonny, and when we got to the gig, we wouldn’t play anything that we had rehearsed. At least, that’s how it was when I worked with him. We rehearsed for two days to do the Sonny Rollins On Impulse album. Then, we got to the recording studio and did not play one thing that we had rehearsed. [laughs]
JP: Did he do that consciously to keep the band fresh, giving the recordings a spontaneous feeling?
MR: I don’t know. When you’re the bandleader, you can do what you want to do, and you just have to have enough faith that your band will listen to you. That’s one of the things that I like about jazz music: It’s personal. You’re playing with your friends most of the time. And they have faith in you; they know what you’re capable of doing. They will stretch out on you sometimes to make you go a little further than your capabilities, and you’re not going to get your fingers cut off if you make a mistake.
JP: Can all of these pro situations be so easygoing? It sounds a bit ideal. After all, there are a lot of leaders who are notorious for their iron fists.
MR: If you demand a certain standard from yourself, then you don’t have to worry about the bandleaders. They’re glad to have you there. If you’re giving leaders what they want, or as long as you’re trying, they should be satisfied.
JP: In giving the leaders what they want, how can you strike that delicate balance between satisfying their demands but still keeping your playing, as you said, “personal”?
MR: I like to be open-minded. I would like to be able to play anything. I can’t do everything. But I like to think that way. I don’t always know how it will come out, but I like to think that way. Tony Williams can play anything. Al Foster can play anything, and that’s the way I like to think. To me, that’s being a better musician than just being a hell of a stylist.
JP: Dizzy has that kind of open mind. He must be one of the first bebop-era players to enthusiastically incorporate funk and rock grooves into his band’s regular repertoire.
MR: Yeah, Dizzy really knows rhythm. There are a lot of good players who know music but don’t understand rhythm. It’s amazing, man. You can’t play with them, because they just don’t understand rhythm.
JP: Here’s a slightly unfair question: What do you like to think of as being your drumming trademark?
MR: [Laughs] Just a groove, man! People say they like the feel of my cymbal beat.
JP: Is that the defining center of your pulse?
MR: Yeah, I think so. And the sock cymbal— that separates me from other drummers. 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. That’s what I try to do. I don’t think about soloing, because soloing doesn’t last long enough. To me, a good feeling lasts much longer. A good solo is beautiful, but if people feel good when they leave there, they come back for more.
JP: If your feel is your trademark, how do you keep your trademark intact when the chemistry of a certain group of musicians is forcing you to adapt to their feel? One example might be the shifts in pulse definition in a big band.
MR: You’ve got to make a mark with the bass drum. Yes, having your own feel is when everything is relaxed—when you’re playing. But when you’ve got to go to work, that’s a different thing. If things get a little off—a little weak—then you’ve got to go to work. But when you’re playing, everything is cool so that you can play. When things get shaky, it’s up to the drummer to get it cool time-wise.
When that happens, I’m just going to be there. You can get with me if you want to. If you don’t want to, you can be over there. But time-wise, I’m going to be right here, right or wrong. I can’t make you come with me; all I can do is be there for you. Music is just an expression of life and drumming is like being a father: “I’m here for you, man. If you want to talk to me, I’ll be here for you. If you need me to take you somewhere, I’m here for you. If you want me to pick you up and bring you back, okay, I’ll do it. But if you want to go off on your own, you’ve got it. I’m going to be right here.”
My favorite types of albums to play on are the ones that have more than one rhythm on them. I would hate to do an album that is rhythmically all the same style, because all a drummer has is rhythm. That’s why I never worked with a funk band. I enjoy the rhythm, but if you play with a funk band, you’ve got to play funk all night. If you work with a Latin band, it’s Latin all night, and so forth. But what’s so beautiful about jazz is that you get to utilize all the rhythms.
JP: Was there any particular band that you enjoyed working with most?
MR: Any band that I stayed with for a length of time, I had a good time with. But I must say that the band I had the most fun with—and it didn’t last too long—was Duke Pearson’s. I loved him, man. And it was new for me, too, because at that time, I was just really learning to read music well. That gig, for me, was like going to school. At first, when I started, I could hear what soloists were going to do right before they did it. But with a big band, it’s a different type of discipline. You have to be really simple and very correct. At first, Duke wouldn’t write any music for me. So I said, “Look, man, if you don’t write some music, then it won’t help me.” I had to force myself to learn how to read.
The gig with Duke Pearson enabled me to get the gig with Nancy Wilson, who always had a big band. I stayed with her about two to three years. If I hadn’t had the experience with Duke Pearson’s big band, I wouldn’t have been ready to take that gig. That was one of the best gigs I ever had in my life. That was the only time I had ever been paid when I didn’t work. Everything was first class. That’s the most respect I had ever had in my life, musically speaking.
JP: Dizzy is internationally popular—even to the layman. Weren’t his tours set up nicely?
MR: Dizzy’s was a good job. But when you work with singers, everything is financially much better per week, because singers make much more money than instrumentalists. Singers are much more respected by the layman than instrumentalists. You’ve seen what happens on the Grammys. How many instrumentalists do you see?
JP: True, because the Grammys are biased to rock, pop, and record sales. But in terms of jazz, I would think Dizzy is as well known and respected by the public as most jazz vocalists. He’s one of those rare jazzmen who is a household word, partly because of his entertaining stage personality. He adapts to The Tonight Show just as well as a small nightclub.
The Blue Note comeback is good news to that part of the public that does respect instrumentalists. Despite the label’s quality, it folded the first time around. Do you think that the golden-age status of the newly reissued recordings will give the albums a new boost the second time around?
MR: I have no way of knowing how Blue Note will do. You have to make money if you are going to open up a business. If you’re going to do creative things like they did in the ’60s—well, the music was newer then. That’s 20-some years ago. Things are so different now. People don’t go to clubs that much anymore, because they just can’t afford it. They buy records or videodiscs. I just don’t know what will happen.
When I speak of jazz, I think of Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Miles, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane. I don’t think of the concept of some of the new stuff. I’m not putting it down. It’s just that, in my way of thinking, it’s not the same thing as jazz. It’s hard to put in words what I mean by “jazz.” In order to play it, you need to know a little about all the rhythms. But the feeling of the music is extended from the blues. Now, the feeling should be in whatever harmonies, changes, and so forth you use. That type of intense feeling—from the church, Mahalia Jackson—should be in anything you play as far as jazz is concerned.
JP: A lot of “new” players love and respect jazz but they grew up with rock in their blood also. The combination can make for a different feel.
MR: But when I hear that backbeat—to me, it’s not “jazz.” I’m not saying I don’t like it. I don’t know how to put this feeling into words; I’m really interested in playing it.
After the interview, Mickey led me down to the cellar, where his drums and timbales stand in the corner and the walls are lined with his favorite framed photos. I was treated to a guided tour of the collection. As with the interview, Mickey showed a penchant for bringing my attention to his fellow musicians—his inspirations.
“Look—there’s Junior Mance and Ray Bryant. Oh, man, they’re beautiful musicians. And here’s Papa Jo Jones with Gene Krupa. And this is one from my first date at The Apollo.” There was a circular collage, and I quickly scanned the pictures, searching for the young Mickey Roker. Before I could locate the shot, in his enthusiasm, he directed me to others. “There’s Joe Williams—what a talent! And there is . . . ” My eyes detoured to a photo of Mickey with the Gillespie band being greeted by Jimmy Carter at their 1977 White House performance.
“Over here is one of my all-time favorites. . . .” I walked over, anticipating an impressive shot of, perhaps, Mickey driving Dizzy’s band in Cuba with a huge percussion section or thrilling an arena full of fans in Japan. Instead, it is an old blackand- white shot given to him by a photographer friend showing a young black man leaning over his drumset in intense concentration. The setting is informal—possibly a jam session. Surrounding the kit is a smiling circle of men with all eyes riveted on the drummer. Among the faces can be seen jazzmen J.J. Johnson, Kenny Dorham, Wilbur Ware, and sitting directly across from the floor tom in rapt attention is Max Roach.
Mickey is glowing, “See that? I’m not even sure of who that drummer is. I think it’s Specs Wright. But I like this picture, because whoever it is, he must be playing some amazing drums.”