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Mickey Roker: You Never Lose the Blues

By Published: January 18, 2010

AAJ: There were some really great jazz musicians whose careers seemed to come to an abrupt halt—Wardell Gray

Wardell Gray
Wardell Gray
1921 - 1955
sax, tenor
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 young—34.

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 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

Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
. I like so many drummers. There are some young cats I like a lot—a 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
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
, Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
. Those guys I listen to faithfully. Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
1917 - 1987
. 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 reasons—like Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
1914 - 1985
, 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 feeling—I 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

Specs Wright
because he used to play so softly. I love Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
1923 - 1985
because he used to play loud, yet he could sound soft.

But I don't want to play like Philly or Specs—I 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 died—she 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 me—he 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!

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