Ralph Peterson Jr.—who came to prominence in the 1980s as one of jazz’s swinging, improv-driven “Young Lions”—succumbed to cancer on March 1. He was just 58 years old.
Peterson’s commitment to bebop—as well as being an avid student of the history of drumming—earned him a long-time spot as the second drummer in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Blakey became a mentor, and, after Blakey passed on in 1990, Peterson kept his mentor’s spirit and legacy alive through several musical projects throughout the years.
“Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Philly Joe Jones were my holy trinity, but Blakey was my main inspiration, and he did the most to get me heard in the community by giving me the gig in the Jazz Messengers Big Band,” Peterson told MD in 1986. “Every drummer who has done that gig with him on the same bandstand has gone on to be a voice in the music field. From Blakey, I got the concept of building and constructing a solo with the soloist. While a drummer’s main role is as an accompanist, the jazz language has become more conversational, as compared to when the original role of drummers was being completely in service to the soloists. Now, the soloist is as responsible for listening to the ideas coming from the rhythm section as the rhythm section is for listening to the soloist’s ideas. I got all that from Blakey. I would watch him train Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis in the Jazz Messengers. Art would let them know when they made their move too soon, or when they played too long. He would simply go to another intensity of volume level and swallow them whole. They would be pushing and pushing, but you could only hear Art’s cymbals.”