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Interviews

Mickey Roker: You Never Lose the Blues

By Published: January 18, 2010

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

Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
1914 - 1993
vocalist
's big band. Everybody was in that band: Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Gene Ammons
Gene Ammons
Gene Ammons
1925 - 1974
sax, tenor
, Fats Navarro
Fats Navarro
Fats Navarro
1923 - 1950
trumpet
, all these cats was in that band—it 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

Xavier Cugat
Xavier Cugat
1900 - 1990
composer/conductor
. Then I played with a guy named Ken James
Ken James
Ken James
b.1944
, and we used to play all Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
piano
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
Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
b.1926
sax, tenor
. And Jimmy introduced me to Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
1923 - 1999
vibraphone
—that's how I went to New York. Milt had been working with the Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet

band/orchestra
, 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
Billy Mitchell
Billy Mitchell
1926 - 2001
saxophone
— 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

Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
. After I went to New York, originally to play with Gigi Gryce
Gigi Gryce
Gigi Gryce
1927 - 1983
saxophone
, 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 tight—the 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 melody—makers 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

McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
b.1938
piano
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 C. Campbell

—he 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

Henry Grimes
Henry Grimes
b.1935
bass, acoustic
' 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

Reggie Workman
Reggie Workman
b.1937
bass
, and he had a gig in New York where Gigi Gryce needed a drummer. So Reggie, Sam Dockery
Sam Dockery
Sam Dockery

piano
, 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.


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