The relationship between a city and its music is very personal, and can get as close as two friends can possibly be. Bob Gullotti and Boston, Massachusetts have been good friends for over 20 years, and a partnership such as this one rarely goes unnoticed. The Boston music scene frequently delights to this artist of unique style and flair. His approach is pure emotion, and the fluency and sensitivity he displays makes him a highly sought-after player, for any style of music.
Born in 1949, Bob started playing the drums at age 12. The youngest of three musical children, he immediately began studying with a teacher. He recalls going through a book per week, many times having six- to seven-hour lessons. “Drums were the only instrument that I heard in my head.” Bob entered Berklee School of Music, majoring in Music Education, and graduated with honors in 1972. During this time, he studied with Fred Buda, Low Magnano and later (for five years) with Alan Dawson. Gullotti’s real education came not from school, but from all the musicians he’s ever played with. His “teachers” include the likes of John Abercrombie, Jaki Byard, Bill Elgart, Webster Lewis, Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson, Cab Calloway, Miroslav Vitous and Rodney Dangerfield; just to mention a few. He plays everything from Broadway shows, comedians, Vegas-type productions, clinics, seminars and rock ‘n’ roll gigs, and still finds the time to be one of New England’s top private instructors. Being a journeyman is the way Bob makes his living in Beantown; the way he makes his life is the result of an avant-garde, original free jazz trio called The Fringe. The ensemble consists of Bob, Rich Appleman, bass, and George Garzone, saxes. The Fringe has been a powerful voice on the Boston jazz scene for the past 11 years. Their excellence has awarded them four visits to George Wein’s Festival productions, three Boston Globe Jazz Festivals, and in 1981, a rare performance at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City for the Kool Jazzfest. The group has released two albums on AP-GU-GA Records: The Fringe and Live Fringe. Their second album, Live Fringe, was hailed by critics in Cadence Magazine 05 one of the top LP’s of 1981 and was nominated in the top 10 albums of 1982 by Coda Magazine.
TS: Coming from a musical family, was there a lot of support when you were growing up?
BG: I had support to a certain point. During my sophomore year in high school, I started to become very serious. My older brother, Steve, was relatively serious on guitar. But one summer he did a gig on Nantucket Island, and came home with no money. From that point on, my father was negative as far as pursuing music as a career. There were some bad vibes between me and my father, because I was an absolute fanatic and I didn’t want to do anything else. Getting my degree seemed important in his thinking because it meant that now I could become a teacher and be a musician on the side. In some respects I guess that bad vibes made me want it even more, because I wanted to prove to him that I could become a pro and make a living.
TS: Tell me about your education.
BG: I worked very steadily all through my education period. I mean, we’re all still learning, but during my growth years I didn’t do any school music. I regretted it, a little bit, but I’m glad that I’ve gotten many, many years of experience playing in concerts and clubs. I had a great opportunity while I was at Berklee to play with a fine organ player, Webster Lewis. I got to do two and a half years with him. That was my real education, because I got to play with a lot of cats. He was pretty well known and I was his little, young drummer, so to speak. I don’t know why he kept me on the gig. It was way over my head, but for some reason we got along, and he dug the fact that my head was totally into playing, as was his.
TS: You’ve obviously had many, but who are some of your musical influences?
BG: My biggest influence has been the two other members of The Fringe. George and Rich are tremendous players, and they’ve allowed me to expand my own mind and abilities without any ego problems. I listen to Coltrane a lot, therefore I listen to Elvin a lot, and Rashied Ali. Coltrane was very important. You knew he was so heavy, and yet at times he emulated a very glowing, optimistic point of view in his playing. As far as drummers go, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Higgins, Gadd, Bernard Purdie, and I could go on and on. Alan Dawson has been a great influence on me. What he taught me, more than anything, was the discipline. What he gave me was the ability and concentration to go after my own and get it. But, let me just say that more than what they leave musically or technically, I’ve been able to grab feeling from people. The fire of some, the depth of others, and this helps me to believe that the way I’m thinking about my music is okay.
TS: How did The Fringe come to be?
BG: That didn’t happen until the very end of Berklee. I think we were all seniors when we started to session. We sessioned as a quartet, but we always had trouble finding a piano player, so we ended up doing without. Just acoustic bass, sax, and drums, and we’ve been together ever since.
TS: Why avant-garde music?
BG: The term “avant-garde” is a label, and I guess a good one for a certain gender of playing. The Fringe, in some respects, is original jazz. We never consciously thought, “Okay, let’s play avant-garde style.” We actually started off playing bebop and some post-bop things. As the years went on, we never played much with a piano or guitar, therefore things would be able to stretch outside of forms a little easier—sometimes by mistake and sometimes by allowing ourselves to explore. The next thing we knew there was a sound developing. It’s very free, but it’s also very disciplined and difficult. As you try to develop playing free music, you strongly see the need for the development of the structured music.
TS: Designing and creating your own voice is essential for the success of an artist. What are your thoughts on developing a sound on the drums?
BG: The development of an original sound on this instrument is very, very complex. It all has to do with getting a discipline for yourself and the depth of yourself. Being able to concentrate on the music, rather than what you’re putting into it. My sound developed as the group’s did and vice-versa. As our minds got heavier into the music, I had to be able to get deeper on my instrument.
TS: Was your own development a conscious one?
BG: Yes, I think it was very conscious development. I was very concerned with doing something different as far as the touch and flavor of it. You know, we all learn a lot of technical things and the instrument can be taught very technically, but if you can somehow just have a direction of your own growth pattern, your own style and ideas seem to unconsciously seep through with different things you play. More and more, those were the kind of things I focused in on and tried to expand. Just about anything any of us has played, someone else already has. It’s the sound you produce that has to be unique. It’s also the most difficult thing to achieve, improve and teach.
TS: What do you think about when you play?
BG: Actually, I try to play unconsciously. When I play, I’m very capable of almost thinking nothing about the instrument; just trying to play with the music that is above the group.
TS: So what do you do to achieve that sort of mental state?
BG: That’s a tough question to answer. By reaching for a mental attitude that whenever you get on the stand the music is the most important thing. Eventually that attitude becomes a consistent force. Let’s say my kid was real sick. What I would do, in order to make that part of my music, would be to play for him to feel better. When my father died, I played for him for two months like he was the only one in the audience. It somehow would make the music as pure and honest as it could be.
TS: With The Fringe you play in a lot of concepts, colors and textures. What makes you think in those terms and how do you relate and teach that to a student?
BG: I believe the reason I can think in those terms is because of what has developed with The Fringe. We know each other so well, both musically and personally, that our ideas and musical explorations are welcomed and allowed to be totally and freely expressed. We find ourselves latching on to like, “Man, that was really dark colored,” and expanding on that. Sometimes we, as a unit, think “fiery red,” and that feel and intensity will emit from the group. It’s absolutely emotional, and that whole sound can be unbelievably exciting. As far as teaching a student to play free and conceptually, it’s most difficult. It’s not tangible. It’s not a lick or a sticking. It’s as much, if not more, mental placement of the music as it is physical. You do need chops to be able to execute what’s in your mind. You’re always trying to create a sound. That’s why it’s so hard to teach. It’s such an individual thing. Music is art and we should be able to paint a picture. I might have a student play in a particular place in his mind, like he was on top of a mountain looking down over a river. Or depict a scene from a day in his life and recreate it. Or, even more simply, try to play some shapes on the instrument—circular motions, angles or squares. Concentration and the development of the mind is absolutely utmost in playing free music.
TS: Tell me about your drums.
BG: The kit I use for most gigs is an old set of Gretsch. I use an 18″ bass drum, a mounted 8 x 12, two floor-toms, a 14″ and a 16″. I’m using an Eames snare drum, and I alternate that with a 1945 W.F.L. mahogany snare. Right now I’m using the Eames more and more. It’s a beautiful instrument. Cymbal-wise I’m using Zildjians. I just got a new set of K’s at the factory and I’m flipping over them! They’re really so individual. I use 14″ hi-hats, a 20″ ride, an 18″ crash ride (all K’S), a 20″ thin swish (an A), and also a 35″ Paiste gong in D-flat. I have a small endorsement with Mandile Dhakabellas slit drums. For heads I use straight ahead white coated Remos, and for pedals I use an old Gretsch Floating Action and a D.W. 5000. Overall, I like my equipment to be as simple as possible.
TS: Where is drumming going commercially?
BG: As far as in the studio, commercially, it’s very mechanical. I’m very disturbed about it, actually. The industry has always put a real specific role on the drummer. We’ve always been known as “keepin’ time, keepin’ time.” I think that it has gotten so sophisticated, that the time has gotten more important than the music. The drummers that can play the time real machine-like and good, are the ones that are going to become very rich. I’m not putting that down, so to speak, but I’m putting down the direction of the instrument having to play that kind of role. In other parts of the world, the drum plays a much more important role and hopefully, in the long run, things will change here.
TS: Where do you think the art of drumming is headed?
BG: I don’t believe that there’s anyone who knows that answer. It has to be the development of all the players getting older, and being able to look back; taking what the players did before them and after going through the period of emulating it, hopefully finding their own new voice. I think drums have developed, probably more than any other instrument, incredibly over the last 20 years. Enormous drumsets, new devices and pedals, electronics—it’s all going by so fast. It’s almost hard to hold onto your own.
TS: Are we moving into an electronic age, or is all this just a fad?
BG: No, I don’t think it’s just a fad. It’s much more than that. It’s a development. I don’t know how things will turn out. No one does. Music goes in cycles. Right now we’re in a very fast one. But there will come a cycle when another type of music will become popular.
TS: So, what’s going to survive?
BG: Art will survive.
TS: What do you look for, or like to hear, from other drummers?
BG: Probably more than anything, interaction between the other band members. I like to hear a drummer listening, pushing the band and having some control over the dynamics. Mainly being able to listen and react to the other players.
TS: Do you think listening is the most important thing a musician can do?
BG: Yes. When you really learn to listen to what you’re a part of, and not thinking technically, you’re thinking of the music. And the minute you’re thinking of what that music is creating, then it’s art.