Mickey Roker: You Never Lose the Blues
Yet he has always maintained his Philadelphia roots, and is and has been a regular at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus in that city for many years. Still active as a drummer and a mentor, he has witnessed and been part of the jazz world in action for over six decades. An interview with him is like getting an insider's taste of jazz as it has evolved over time, and what it's like to be a musician in that milieu.
On Feb. 12, 2008, All About Jazz participated in a video interview of Mickey Roker under the auspices of the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Project, in cooperation with the University of the Arts and students from the College of Media and Communications.
Roker welcomed a video crew of students and their equipment, noted jazz vocalist Joanna Pascale, who is a close friend and who participated as co- interviewer, into his long-time South Philadelphia home. Following the interview held in his living room, he showed us around his home and his various memorabilia and photographs, including the "Key to the City" award given to him by the mayor of Philadelphia. Articulate and candid, he told of his own life, his musician cohorts, his take on drumming and jazz in general, and what he loves about the music.
AAJ: To start out, if you were going to that proverbial desert island, which recordings would you pick to take with you?
MR: Well, let's hope I'll never be on a desert island alone. [laughter.] But I have a couple of albums I like. I like an album with Herbie Hancock called Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968). I can listen to that one any time. I did a record with (Duke Pearson) called Sweet Honey Bee (Blue Note, 1966). That's one of my favorites. There's a song on that album called "Sudel." Man I love to listen to that song. And there's a big band album I did with Duke Pearson called Now Hear This (Blue Note, 1968). And I did an album with the Hard Bop Quintetthey were some guys from New York who came to Ortlieb's to play with me. And then we made a pretty good recording.
AAJ: Who was in that group?
MR: The pianist was Keith Saunders; the bassist was Bim Strasberg; the trumpet player was Joe Magnarelli. The saxophonist was Jerry Weldon. They were a bunch of guys that got together a couple of years ago to play some gigs. But it's hard to keep groups goingnot enough gigs. The guys have to do their own things.
AAJ: So you only listen to your own recordings?
AAJ: To go back to your beginnings, I understand you were born in Florida.
JP: How old were you when you moved to Philadelphia?
MR: I was 10 years old when I came to Philly.
AAJ: What are your memories of those first 10 years as a kid in Florida?
MR: Well, Miami was the place where I first heard the drums. I was a young cat. We lived in a housing project and I slept on the couch on the first floor. And many of the folks, like my father, were first generation from Nassau in the Bahamas. So every New Years Eve, they would come around playing calypso and playing the drums. I was only 3 or 4 years old, and it frightened me! So, the next year I stayed up waiting for them, and that was the first music I heardcalypso music.
Then, I would get a drum every year for Christmas, and I'd tear it up the first day I had it. So one year my mother got me a drum made of tin, and I kept that one all year, and that's how I got my stuff together. So the following year, I got a real drum for Christmas. Going past my house were bands playing on their way to a funeral, playing slow, somber rhythms. But on the way back, they'd be playing things like "When the Saints Go Marching In," and the drummer would wait for me to walk along with him, and I felt like I died and went to heaven.
AAJ: That marching band reminds me of the origins of jazz in New Orleans over a century ago.
MR: It's the same thingit's everywhere.
AAJ: Do you feel as if you still have some of that Caribbean influence?
MR: Oh, yeah! Of course, you never lose your blueshey, hey!
JP: Did you ever study music formally?
MR: No, I'm basically self-taught. I never went to school. I did have a couple of teachers. I decided to learn how to read music, but mostly I've had on- the-job training so to speak.
JP: How old were you when you got your full first drum set?
MR: I was 17 years old when I got my first drum set. It actually kept me out of prison, to tell the truth. Philadelphia was so gang-infested at the time, and the drums kept me in the house practicing, rather than being influenced by the gangs. I'd just be practicing drumsI practiced like a wild man when I was young.
AAJ: When did you get your first taste of jazz?
MR: My uncle wanted me to play so bad. He belonged to a record club which included Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings. And we got this album with Billy Eckstine's big band. Everybody was in that band: Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, Fats Navarro, all these cats was in that bandit was a popping band! The beat was easy to comprehend, but for jazz, you've got to know how to "breathe."
So I decided to dedicated my life to jazz, because you can solo, you get to speak. In other music, you just play rhythm, but in jazz, you get to be yourself, you get to speak. In Europe, they love jazz, because it signifies freedom, freedom of expression.
AAJ: So you felt that, even at a young age?
MR: I learned it while playing. I learned that, with jazz, you utilize all the rhythms. You gotta play calypso, Latin, Dixieland, and so on. With other music, you're more limited. For me, it's like playing with handcuffs on.
AAJ: So you came of age literally in this house in South Philadelphia where we are sitting now in your living room. Who were the jazz musicians you started playing with back then?
MR: I started out playing with a band called "The High Five." We used to play the "top 40" tunes: Jimmy Divine, (Xavier Cugat. Then I played with a guy named Ken James, and we used to play all Ray Charles music. At that time, I decided to dedicate my life to jazz, so I started playing with Jimmy Oliver, Sam Reed, and then I got a gig with Jimmy Heath. And Jimmy introduced me to Milt Jacksonthat's how I went to New York. Milt had been working with the Modern Jazz Quartet, but he liked me because he found out I could shoot pool [laughter]. He had a pool table in his home, and I won against everybody! Except the tenor saxophonist, Billy Mitchell that cat could play like Mosconi.
JP: How did you learn to play pool?
MR: See, when I first came here to Philly as a kid, it was an Italian neighborhood. Right across the street from here, there was a pool room. I used to rack balls for them and shine shoes when I was 12 years old. An Italian guy named Joe Spino taught me how to shoot pool.
AAJ: How did Milt know you could play drums?
MR: He didn't realize it until he heard me play with Wes Montgomery. After I went to New York, originally to play with Gigi Gryce, I got jobs in a few groups then. I wasn't a great technician, but I could swing. I'd get a lot of gigs because a good instrumentalist wants you just to keep time for him. And I was good at that. So, I had a gig with Wes Montgomery and his brother at a club called the Front Room. And Bags [Milt Jackson] loved Wes, so he came to see us, and he said, "Man, who is that cat on drums?" And Jimmy Heath said, "That's Mickey Roker from Philadelphia." And that's how Milt and I got to be tightthe next thing you know he's calling me for a gig.
AAJ: So Milt sensed your talent on the drums.
MR: I was blessed with a good beat.
AAJ: Some drummers back then who were great with the swing bands couldn't make the transition to bebop, but you seemed to be a natural for it. How do you explain that?
MR: It's all the same"It don't mean a thing unless it's got that swing." The swing never changes; it's the fill-ins. The drum-roll has changed since I started playing. Now it's more sophisticated, more rhythmic, the drummer plays more. When I first came up, we'd play a lot for dances, so you couldn't break the beat up a lot.
AAJ: By contrast, bebop has more subtlety in the rhythm?
MR: Well, actually it's more complicated for the melodymakers and the chords. But the bottom is the same.
AAJ: I understood there was less emphasis in bebop on the bass drum, and more on the cymbals and snares.
MR: The bass drum in bebop is more syncopated, off the beat. When I first came up, you didn't drop all those bombs, that's what they call it.
AAJ: So how did you acquire that sense of syncopation in the bass drum, the "bombs?"
MR: Well, you have to adjust to different trends, or you won't be around- -someone else will be playing drums.
AAJ: You were telling me earlier that McCoy Tyner used to jam with you?
MR: Yeah, he used to sit right there [pointing to his right.] We had a piano right there.
AAJ: Who were some of the other guys?
MR: Arthur Harper was one of the bassists. There were several good drummers, man, Dave Jackson, Eddie Campbellhe used to make my mouth water when I heard him play the drums. He could take an idea and just wring it out, man, do something different every time but he still had the same idea going. He had a heck of a mind.
AAJ: What about horn players?
MR: We had Leon Grimes, Henry Grimes' brother, he used to come here and play tenor sax. Lee Morgan used to come here.
AAJ: Were they inspirations to you?
MR: Sure. I was just learning how to play. This was when I first came out of the Army. At that time, we used to have jam sessions everywhere at someone's house or at different clubs. So on Sunday, we'd have jam sessions here at my house. And I'd set my drums up right over there [pointing in front of him], and that's how I'd learn songs and get my repertoire.
JP: If you were so much into the Philly scene, what motivated you to move to New York?
MR: I had a day job because I had two kids, and the company relocated. So I got some odd jobs, and I wasn't going anywhere with my life. Then I got a call from Reggie Workman, and he had a gig in New York where Gigi Gryce needed a drummer. So Reggie, Sam Dockery, and I went to New York. But I still lived in Philly and commuted for two or three years, but then I broke up with my wife, partly because she didn't want to move to New York. But we did eventually get back together. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.
AAJ: So, when you were in New York, did you play in Harlem at all? Do you remember which clubs you worked at?
MR: I played at Minton's Playhouse, Count Basie's, and the Club Baron.
AAJ: And which clubs in Philly at that time?
MR: The Sahara, Peps, the Showboat, the Acqua Lounge. But I never worked at the Blue Note in North Philadelphia, although it was a very popular club.
AAJ: There was a very active jazz scene in both Philly and New York at that time.
MR: Because everything was cheap. If you went to the Showboat or Peps, you paid $2 for two tickets to get in. That included two drinks.
AAJ: Did the fans listen to the music then, rather than just socialize?
MR: Man, you better listen or someone would throw you out of there! Philadelphia was a very serious jazz town. Dizzy Gillespie's mother lived right up the street here.
AAJ: When did you first meet Dizzy?
MR: I met Dizzy when I was a kid because Dizzy's nephew was my friend, and our fathers weren't around. So Dizzy used to take us aroundone time he took us to the Blue Note to hear him play. I was 12 or 13 years old, and I was awestruck.
AAJ: Did he have the trumpet with the bell flipped up at an angle then?
MR: No, he was playing a straight trumpet.
JP: So then how did you have a chance to perform with him?
MR: That was later, when I was playing with Lee Morgan. Dizzy came to hear us all the time. Here's a funny story about that: I'm up at Lee Morgan's house for dinner, and the phone rings. Lee answers the phone, and it was Dizzy on the other end. So Lee says to him, "I know why you come around here all the timeyou just wanna steal my drummer!"
Dizzy was playing in New York at the Village Vanguard at the time, and Lee said, "Just for that, I ought to bring my horn on up there and burn on you!" Suddenly, Lee starts laughing hysterically. We asked Lee what Dizzy just said to him. He said, "Hey, if you come here to play, you'll get bruised!" [Laughter] Because Dizzy was really playing good back in them days, man. Lee Morgan was good, too, but no one could mess with Dizzy Gillespie, man.
JP: Tell the story about how Dizzy got your name wrong.
MR: For two years, Dizzy called me "Pete" there was another drummer named Pete LaRoca and he mixed that up with Roker! One day we were playing at the Club Baron, and Dizzy's sister and brother came in. They knew me from when I was a kid, and they saw me there, and suddenly Diz made the association to me being the kid from Philly, Mickey Roker! Dizzy was so into the music, that he wasn't thinking about anything elsejust music and rhythm. He called me Pete for two years!
AAJ: Why didn't you correct him?
MR: It was too much troubleI just let it go.
AAJ: Dizzy Gillespie is considered one of the greatest geniuses of jazz music. He innovated bebop with the help of a few friends like Charlie Parker. Having worked with him, what's your appraisal of his special qualities, his magic?
MR: He knew both music and rhythmcan't beat that. There are a lot of fine musicians who don't know rhythm. They know melody and harmony but they don't know rhythm. If you do something tricky on them, they're lost. But you can tell from the way that he played that he was very rhythmic.
AAJ: That must have felt great to you as a drummer.
MR: He used to work me to death, man! If he gave me a rhythm to do, he used to depend on me to be the rock. If you stand on a rock, you won't sink. For Dizzy, you had to be right on the money, you gotta keep good time, you gotta be strong, you gotta be soft, you gotta have all the dynamics. It's a serious business to play with someone like Dizzy Gillespie.
AAJ: What would happen if you goofed?
MR: There's no one who doesn't goof, including Dizzy. Everybody makes mistakes. You make mistakes when you go out on a limb, but you gotta get out on a limb. If you get out on a limb, the branch can break; you gotta take chances. If you get satisfied with yourself, you go backwards.
AAJ: Which groups did you do with Dizzy?
MR: Big bands, small groups, symphony orchestras. For nine years, we went all over the world together. All over Africa, South America, to Europe several times a year, and all over the U.S.A.
AAJ: It must have been thrilling.
MR: It was, but after a few years, you get a little tired of the traveling.
JP: Who else was in the band at the time?
AAJ: The bands changed. When I first joined the band, there was James Moody on saxophone, Mike Longo on pianoWe did a TV show one time in New Jersey. It was Milt Jackson, James Moody, Dizzy, Sam Jones and Hank Jones, and me. Sam and I worked together so well, we were going to join Dizzy together, but then Sam got sick. I went to play with Lee Morgan at the Lighthouse, and when I came back, Sam told me he couldn't make it. I was hurt, but I called Dizzy and came on board with him. He got Earl May on bassthere's a picture of him right over there [gestures behind him]. When Longo left, Dizzy got a guitarist named Al Gaffer, and then he got some young guys who only played rhythm and blues. So we ended up playing rock, that's where the money was at.
JP: What year was that?
MR: It had to be in the 1970s because I was with Dizzy most of that decade.
MR: That's what I liked about Milt Jacksonhe always played jazz. He never went another way, he always stuck to his guns. He never turned his back on what got him where he was.
AAJ: You played with Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet for a while.
MR: For one year. Connie Kay got sick and I took his place for a year.
AAJ: There was something very special about the MJQ, of course, something more sophisticated than other groups.
MR: Well, they went more classical than jazz, in a way. John Lewis and Milt Jackson played beautifully, and it was wonderful for me because I had never played music that beautiful before. But unfortunately, nothing is perfect. No matter how good it seems from the outside, when you get inside, you find that nothing is ever perfect. Milt and John used to feud a lot. Musically they were great, but they argued about the style of playingJohn wanted a more classical sound and Milt wanted to do straight ahead jazz.
AAJ: In a way, the tension between them may actually have helped the music itself.
MR: I can't explain it. All I know is that I couldn't wait for that year to end! It was no fun, and if you can't have any fun, man, I don't want to be there.
JP: What groups did you really enjoy playing with?
MR: Lee Morgan's band. And Milt was great as an individual. And Sonny RollinsI enjoyed playing with him for a couple of years. I played with Ella Fitzgerald for a year. A lot of the groups then were pickup groups: Blue Note would call a bunch of us in to do a record. Or guys would just say, "I want Mickey on my record." But I had a great time playing with Ray Bryant's triothat was one of my first jobs. Arthur Harper was on bass. I had a good time with Junior Mance, too. That was when me and (Bob) Cranshaw first played together. We played in a club in Chicago called The Sutherland. It was a hotel and they had bands come from all over. So they had a group called MJT Plus Three, which included Harold Mabern, Bob Cranshaw, Willie Thomas, and Frank Strozier. The drummer was Walter Perkins. I was in Ray Bryant's Trio and we played opposite them. So one time, Harper got drunk and didn't come down for the last set, so Cranshaw said, "I know the music." So he covered for Harper in our trio, and that was it, we really hit it off, and we played a lot of records together.
JP: Are you still close?
MR: Oh, yeah, we're like brothers. Every time he comes to Philly, he stays right here with me.
AAJ: What's Cranshaw doing these days?
MR: He's traveling all overhe still works with Sonny Rollins. Right now, he's in Miami playing with Gregory Hines' brother, Maurice Hines. That cat Cranshaw is one of the busiest guys in the world.
AAJ: Let's talk specifically about the music. One of the things that's discussed about jazz groups is who sets the rhythm. Now, it seems obvious that the drummer sets the rhythm, but Gerry Mulligan said he was always listening to the bassist.
AAJ: Well, I was going to ask you who sets the rhythm, and does that change from group to group?
MR: You listen to different players for different things. I listen to the bassist for stability. I listen to the horn players, man, for their beauty and for the melodic chances that they take. You find something to listen to that's inspiring, and that's what you listen to. But I listen to the bassist for stability. We're stable mates.
AAJ: So you and the bassist are a pair?
MR: The bassist and drummer are supposed to "lock up." The two of us are "the rock."
AAJ: Which bassists did you have the most rapport with?
AAJ: Tell us more about Harper.
MR: Arthur Harper was one of the greatest jazz playersintelligent, too. He and Lee Morgan went to high school togetherthey both were in the All City High School Orchestra. Harper was a good artist, actor, very talented. He played with Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson. He was his own worst enemy thoughhe'd do things to hurt himself. But when he was OK when he played, as far as I'm concerned, there was no one like him. And we played together with Shirley Scott.
AAJ: There were some really great jazz musicians whose careers seemed to come to an abrupt haltWardell Gray is a good example. In his case, he was absent from a gig, and later found dead of unknown causes. Maybe murdered, maybe drug-related. Very young34.
MR: Harper died just a few years ago.
AAJ: So he had a longer career?
MR: Musically, man, that guy was something else. A lot of people didn't know, but I was with him a lot and I know how bad he was. When I say bad, I mean good...you dig? [laughter]
AAJ: So these were the guys you really swung with, and you had a personal rapport as well, I take it.
MR: See, with jazz music, you're working with your friends. They call you for gigs because you're their friend. It's very personal. Some, like classical musicians, they don't care. They sit next to each other and don't even speak to each other. But in jazz, your friends relate to you and recommend you. That's what makes the music so warm and so embraceable..."Embraceable You." [laughs]
JP: Who were some of the drummers that you most admired?
MR: I like Roy Haynes. I like so many drummers. There are some young cats I like a lota cat from Philly named Byron Landham. I love him to death. Anywhere he's playing, I'm gonna go see him. I talk about him all the time. Of course, Art Blakey, Max Roach. Those guys I listen to faithfully. Buddy Rich. I got a tape on my machine now of Buddy Rich. I want my cousin to hear it. I like a lot of guys for different reasonslike Kenny Clarke, love him.
AAJ: Did you know Kenny?
MR: Yeah, I met Kenny when I was with Dizzy's band.
AAJ: What do you listen for when you hear a drummer play?
MR: I listen for steadiness, his ideas, his dynamics. The main thing I listen for is his swing. His pulse.
AAJ: As a drummer, do you ever wish you could play notes, melodies?
JP: Do you play any other instruments besides drums?
MR: I own a couple of them. I can't play them seriously, but I can get some sounds out of them.
JP: Have you ever composed?
MR: I wrote one song, a calypso song. It's recorded on one of Lee Morgan's albums. I like to sing. I know melodies and have good memory for them.
AAJ: Does that influence your drumming?
MR: Yeah, because you can sing the melody and you never get lost.
< AAJ: So even though you're playing rhythm, you still find it useful to know the melody and harmonies?
MR: Yeah, because you see, opposites attract. If you play a rhythm instrument you should know melody, and if you play a melodic instrument, you should know rhythm. That's what made Dizzy Gillespie so bad [good]he knew rhythm. Lee Morgan understood rhythm. Music consists of rhythm, melody and harmony as one thing together.
AAJ: You've got to get into all three, even as a drummer.
MR: Yeah, because it broadens your scope.
AAJ: So you're still active today, in Philly and internationally. What kind of work have you been doing recently?
MR: Well, I've been playing a lot recently. I go to New York periodically. I don't travel as much as I used to. After 9/11, traveling turned me off. But I can go to New York and Washington by train, so I go there often. And I play in Philly. Now, I've been to Italy a couple of times a while back. As for the future, I'll take it a day at a time.
AAJ: Ortlieb's Jazzhaus is one of your favorite places to play in Philly.
MR: I'll play there one or two weekends a month.
JP: You're really involved with your church as well.
MR: I play at my church, too. Every Sunday morning, I play for the choir. And that's a challenge that takes me back to my roots. I love it.
AAJ: All of jazz is rooted in gospel music.
MR: Yeah. That's the rock, that's how it started. You should never lose that feelingI don't care what you play. It's that feeling of the blues because the blues comes from the gospel.
JP: Some people talk of specifically "Philly jazz"do you think that the musicians that came from Philadelphia have their own sound?
MR: I think everyone has their own unique sound. You have to be yourself. There are a lot of people who inspire you. When you're young, you play like the guy that inspired you until you find yourself; you have to define yourself. Now I used to love a drummer named Specs Wright because he used to play so softly. I love Philly Jo Jones because he used to play loud, yet he could sound soft.
But I don't want to play like Philly or SpecsI want to play like me. I want to be my own voice.
AAJ: And it's a pretty good voice. Charlie Parker said something that I think is profound. He said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn."
MR: Music is an expression of life.
AAJ: OK. So what things happened in your life that have helped you to understand the emotions of the music you play?
MR: Wow, that's a tough question! Well, my mother died when I was young. But what hurt me most of all was when my grandmother diedshe raised me. When she died, it was like a piece of me be missing. When I was young, I felt like something was missing because my father wasn't around. But my uncle tried to be my father, but he was only four years older than mehe was still a kid himself. So I had to learn to take care of myself since I was a kid. That influences your playing because you know if you don't play good, you ain't gonna eat!
AAJ: It's a matter of survival.
MR: Right! Survival of the fittest.
AAJ: Survival of the most talented musicians, the guys that are able to "step up" and do their thing, and say something meaningful with their horn.
MR: You have to. Drummers come out of the woodwork in this town. There's so many good musicians in Philly, so many young guys. This guy, Wayne Smith, he went to high school with my granddaughter. That cat will be an amazing drummer one day if he don't lose his head. If he stay humble, he'll be cool. A lot of young drummers are too cocky. It's OK to be confident but not cocky.
AAJ: So humility is an important trait for a musician. You get such a feeling from Byron Landham. He plays like the music is so much more important than his ego.
MR: The music is the most important thing. Not you- it isn't about you. You, know we're the slavesthe music is the master. And I don't care how much you know, the more you know, the more you find out how much you don't know. How are you going to blow if you think you know everything?
AAJ: So you're always learning.
MR: You're always gonna grow, man, if you just open up your mind.
AAJ: Where do you think jazz is going today? Do you think it's going in a good direction?
MR: I hope it stays the same. All music is the same. It seems like jazz always has to go someplace. They've bastardized it enough already. Just play jazz. Where else can it go? The avant-garde is not the answer. There's no such thing as "free" music. Nothing is freeeverything costs you something.
AAJ: Don't you think jazz has to evolve? It changed over the entire 20th century, from Dixie to swing, to bebop, to hard bop, to fusion, and so on.
MR: I don't think it's changed. The names they use for it have changed. You're a product of the times. I remember when there was no penicillin. Now they have antibiotics better than penicillin, but it's still the same thing. With jazz, the main thing is swing. It's a feeling and you can't explain a feeling. Unlike classical, jazz is made up as you go along, and yet, when five guys play together, they sound like one. You gotta listen, open your heart and mind. That's what jazz is.
Odean Pope, Ninety-Six (Enja, 1995)
Milt Jackson, Memories of Thelonious Sphere Monk (Pablo-OJC, 1982)
Lee Morgan, Sonic Boom (Blue Note, 1979)
Joe Pass/Milt Jackson/Ray Brown, Mickey Roker, Quadrant (Pablo, 1979)
Mary Lou Williams, Zoning (Mary-Smithsonian Folkways, 1974)
Bobby Hutcherson, San Francisco (Blue Note, 1971)
Lee Morgan, Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note, 1970)
Horace Silver Quintet, Serenade to a Soul Sister (Blue Note, 1968)
Blue Mitchell, Boss Horn (Blue Note, 1966)
Sonny Rollins, On Impulse! (Impulse!, 1965)
Duke Pearson, Wahoo (Blue Note, 1964)