Without naming names, it seems safe to say that its the rare drummer who can step up as a bandleader or composer, who can move out of the realm of percussion and work with a variety of instrumental voices. Looked at from another angle, it could be worthwhile to name names of drummers who go beyond pulse and time and develop a musical approach from behind the kit. And as long as we're at it, a list of drummers who've played in duo with the master Cecil Taylor wouldn't be a bad way of suggesting some of the most interesting and innovative drummers in jazz in the last few decades. That list would include Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Paul Lovens, Han Bennink and Gunter "Baby Sömmer, among others and all three lists would include Gerry Hemingway.
Hemingway was, perhaps, fated to make such who's whos before he knew what was happening. As a teenager in Connecticut, he was playing with Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Anthony Davis, (Wadada) Leo Smith and others who were circling around Yale and Wesleyan universities. At just 19 he began giving solo concerts, dedicating performances to elder drummers Chick Webb, Sunny Murray, Tony Williams and Baby Dodds. And around the same time he was teaching at the New Haven's Educational Center for the Arts high school and launching his own record label, the still active Auricle Records.
New Haven was a hot spot of activity at the time. "There were a lot of interesting musicians living there, he said. "I was inspired by what was around me. I was playing with all of these people. It was more interesting to me than enrolling in college. Regular playing at The Loft on Arch Street, or more often in each others living rooms, gave Hemingway his first opportunities for group improvisation, eventually leading to the formation of BassDrumBone, a trio with Mark Helias and Ray Anderson that has remained active for close to 30 years.
But whether leading his own group, playing in bands led by Reggie Workman, Marilyn Crispell or Braxton (whose quartet he played in for a dozen years) or composing for chamber ensemble (as documented on his 1999 Tzadik release, Chamber Works), Hemingway said he feels a common approach to his various projects.
"All of the music that I'm involved in I blithely see as being related, he said. "My whole idea for solo music was to create a music that was as compelling and inviting as solo piano music. I didn't want it to be a rhythm showcase.
Performing and composing influence each other, he allowed, but said that he has always considered himself a composer first. "The diversity of the composing experience is completely a part of my performing experience, he said. "I think like an orchestrator. My whole development as a musician is that I started simultaneously being a composer and being a drummer.
In addition to that - perhaps even above that, he said - is the work he does as an organizer, promoter and concert manager. Having come to feel that jazz record distributors don't offer much that he can't do himself - they put records in stores but don't promote them, he said - Hemingway has made booking tours and selling records a significant part of his work week. He's kept his label active and sells those and other releases on his web site even offering CDRs of some of his records that have gone out of print on other labels.
"As a bandleader, I have a whole creative side of my work which is called 'getting work,' he said. "It's enormously consuming. It takes up about 80 percent of my creative work - it's disgusting.
That work, however, is what allowed him to build an audience of over 100 attending his solo concerts as a teenager and has carried him forward. Hemingway - who turned 50 on March 23rd and now makes his home in Plainsboro, NJ - has received Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships.
Despite such accomplishments, he said, opportunities to play in the area are few. The New Haven scene of the early '70s has disappeared and his New York appearances are, despite a "recent swirl of activity, relatively scarce, he said.
A recent tour with analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn (with whom he's recorded under the name "Tom & Gerry for Erstwhile, Red Toucan and Umbrella) stopped off in New York in March, and in April he'll be performing with John Butcher as a part of the Roulette series and at John Zorn's new venue The Stone with BassDrumBone. He also has two records coming out this year: The Whimbler (with Helias, Herb Robertson and Ellery Eskelin) and Double Blues Crossing (with Wolter Wierbos, Frank Gratkowski, Kermit Driscoll and Amit Sen). The latter group he'll also be taking to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in June. By the end of the year he also plans to self-release a solo DVD featuring "musical considerations based on visual ideas, he said and combining filmed performance with animation, graphics and processed imagery.