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Mickey Roker: You Never Lose the Blues

By Published: January 18, 2010

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 around—one 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 time—you 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 else—just music and rhythm. He called me Pete for two years!

AAJ: Why didn't you correct him?

MR: It was too much trouble—I 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

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
. Having worked with him, what's your appraisal of his special qualities, his magic?

MR: He knew both music and rhythm—can'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?

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