Drummer Edgar Bateman Jr. has been around music his entire life. An aunt played piano, her husband played trumpet in jazz bands, and, ironically, his sister introduced him to the drums. Because of a childhood illness (rheumatic fever and an enlarged heart), he was not allowed strenuous activity. But his sister was in the drum corps, and, he says, "She brought some drumsticks home after the first practice they had, and she was showing me the beats they were playing on an oatmeal box. So that's actually how I got started."
From that inauspicious start, Bateman began to play regularly and his mother eventually relented. He joined the drum corps too. "We would be in parades and I would hear other drum corps, and I could pick up their beats." He became so adept at this that he would teach them to everybody else. Getting his start in a structured setting gave him a foundation to build on. Says Bateman, "I made the senior band, but I couldn't read. I was playing all the marches and things by ear. I think my rolls sounded like biscuits." In his St. Louis high school band, he played with another youngster who was also destined for greatness, Oliver Nelson.
His first influence was an unlikely one, Gene Krupa. "He had his own good-sounding band, and he got a lot of solos. And he played those accented triplets. When I got my first professional gig, I almost wore those triplets out until somebody made me aware that the only thing I played was triplets." Eventually, friends turned him on to Max Roach first, and, then, Art Blakey. "I started buying everything he [Blakey] was on, copying him to the point where I was sounding exactly like him. The only thing was, I never soloed like anyone else because, at one point, I didn't know how. I didn't know much about coordination and independence. Later on, that became a strong point of my playing."
His determination to become the "greatest drummer that ever lived" kept him pursuing his own musical vision. He also continued to expand his musical reach. Bateman continues, "I found a great teacher, Bernie Morgan, who helped me with composition. He took me from triads to scales to Schoenberg. He was great. In fact, he went to Hollywood and scored two films for Warner Brothers. He also did some stuff for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Pops...he only charged me $5 a lesson."
Bateman is also a master teacher. His son, Edgar Bateman III, says, "As far as teaching is concerned right now, the context for my dad is either he'll teach beginners one-on-one or in a master class setting" [as he has done previously at Temple University]. His teaching philosophy is to work with students to give them a strong foundation and not just to show them how to do one or two particular things. His son continues, "Many professionals want to learn the showmanship aspect, but my dad's concept is all music. In order to physically accomplish it on the instrument, it may be flashy, but his purpose is musical."
This all-music philosophy has given Bateman a faithful, if small, following. A benefactor in Brussels, Belgium, has presented him in a solo-concert setting. "After he had heard me play he told me, 'You don't need anybody else, Edgaaaaar!' It's something I would like to do again."
In 2005 Bateman is poised to begin performing again on a regular basis. "I'm not a working musician right now, but I was at the age of 14." Bateman's son adds that his father not only has something technical to offer but something human too: "So much is missing from the lives that are behind the music. Technology and the availability of information have diluted the stories behind the musicians. The younger players also need to know something about the lives of the people who make the music, as well as hearing them play and showing them how to do things. That's where there is a missing link. There is more than just the technical."
The Batemans scoff at the drummer's reputation as a "free" player. Says his son, "If you listen, he is not being free because the right hand and the left foot are always where they need to be. Hank Mobley said once, 'Bateman always knows where one is.'"
While not as well known as many of his contemporaries, Bateman says, "I look back and I feel blessed about many of the things that have happened to me." His life is full of music - as well as his children and grandchildren. As he approaches 76, Bateman works out regularly to stay physically strong.
It is obvious that father and son are very close. "When I hear him play on a gig, my mouth and eyes are as wide open as everyone else's. You have to buy into the spirit of his music."
Walt Dickerson - A Sense of Direction (New Jazz-OJC, 1961)
John Handy - Jazz (Roulette, 1962)
Eric Dolphy - Live at Gaslight Inn (Ingo, 1962)
Ken McIntyre - Way, Way Out (United Artists, 1963)
Walt Dickerson - Unity (Audio Fidelity-Chiaroscuro, 1964)