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Ted Sirota: Drummer with the Soul of a Rebel

By Published: April 12, 2004
He discovered the Jazz Showcase in Chicago and would go there after his drum lesson. “That’s where I heard Max Roach and Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins, along with Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson, Tony Williams, Art Farmer, Benny Golson. I heard all these people. So seeing the music and hearing it at the same time, then I really started to get into it pretty heavily,” he says. The proliferation of classic jazz records reissued in CD format in the 1980s also helped his appreciation of the music and he spent time investigating it all. “Obviously, I didn’t grow up with that [jazz] era. I grew up where a lot of us were listening to rock and roll and punk rock and all this stuff. I feel like it’s somewhat reflected in my music with this band and it’s just a natural thing with me. It’s who I am. These are my influences. I try not to filter them out too much.”

After high school, Sirota knew he wanted to be a musician, but was skeptical of college. “I had an idea of bourgeois education and what they are trying to teach me to do, and I didn’t want to have any part of it. But I went and part of that was to appease my parents. But there was so many great musicians there when I was there. I knew they were great at the time, but I didn’t know at the time it was going to be sort of a Who’s Who of mid-30s jazz musicians.” Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Chris Cheek and more were at the famed school at the time. Sirota studied with Allan Dawson and Joe Hunt. There were also other good musicians in Boston and the drummer made lifelong friends and contacts.

It was about five years later that Sirota returned to Chicago and hook up with Parker and others he knew from Berklee. “As soon as I got to town, I was trying to get gigs so I could make rent. I pretty immediately started playing with a tenor player by the name of Lin Halliday. He was kind of a local legend. My name started getting around a little bit. People, I guess, would say I could play time so I started getting calls. Through Jeff (Parker), I met Rob Mazurek right away and George Fludas and so many good musicians here. It wasn’t like a big break in Chicago. It’s kind of like a working city. You just sort of get worked into the scene. There’s only a handful of national touring acts. It’s different from New York in that way.”

He got chances to play with Chicago greats like Von Freeman, Jody Christian and Fred Hopkins. He’s played blues with Pinetop Perkins and Eddie Kirkland. And for about a decade, he plays a Saturday night gig with Sabertooth at the Green Mill, band he says combines straight ahead jazz with covers of Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers tunes.

As one would imagine, from listening to his music, Sirota does not see himself as a “jazz guy.” To the drummer, it’s more of a search and desire for new challenges. “In a way I look back and I feel like the things that I’ve been most known for and most known to other musicians for aren’t even really quite represented on my records. At times, I’ve been sort of typecast as a bebop drummer. And I haven’t really played any bebop, any real just straight ahead swinging music on my records. It’s not that I don’t like it. I guess it gets back to just trying to stake some different ground. There’s so many people doing it. There’s a lot of people that that’s all they do. A drummer like Kenny Washington or Joe Farnsworth or, here, George Fludas. Those guys play that style just so strong and so well. But that’s kind of all they do on record,” he says.

“I guess I’m trying to put forward myself. I think I’m a unique person and I think everybody’s unique. But I have confidence if I just put forward who I am, in whole, then it will come off as sounding somewhat unique. But I guess I’m always trying to surprise myself too.”

He admits it may not always work. And on some gigs, he gets tired of sounding the same, quipping that he thinks some nights “if I have to hear myself play one more set I’m going to vomit.” But he works on, knowing that out there lies “the challenge of surprising yourself, reaching out and not being afraid to fall on your face and take the risk to approach the unknown and surprise yourself as far as how you sound.”

“When you can, and when you can play in the language of bebop, you can get categorized as just playing that. I feel that I’m pretty good at playing straight ahead jazz,” Sirota says. “I don’t think of myself as a just straight ahead jazz guy, but a large part of my influence comes from that.”

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