"I'd like like to go out in a blaze of glory. If the drum set catches fire one day while I'm playing, I will have achieved my purpose, Eric Kamau Grávátt says with a hearty laugh from his home in Minneapolis, where he has resided for the better part of the last three decades. "For the future, I'm just trying to sharpen my game up with McCoy and play as much as I can now because I have that much less time left over than I've already used, he confesses, referring to his twenty-plus year sabbatical from the national jazz scene.
The name of Eric Kamau Grávátt is conspicuously absent from standard jazz reference books, despite the great drummer's impressive resume documenting a most illustrious career. He was born in Philadelphia on March 6, 1947 and grew up in Germantown, home to many great black musicians, during the city's glory days of jazz. He remembers, "My first success at even trying to play a drum came with conga drums. My teacher George Lockhardt was kind enough to show me what to do in that section. I had been playing snare drum and tympani in the junior high school band prior to that, but my real concern was with music in the battery contextthe Latin American contextbecause at that time in Philadelphia you could hear a lot of Cuban music.
Grávátt eventually moved on to trap drums (thanks to a neighborhood Art Blakey devotee who allowed him to work out on his kit) and began making gigs around the city. His first paying gig was with an air traffic controller friend of the family covering James Brown and other popular R&B hits "At that time you could find a job playing at almost any kind of venue, he recalls. "I mean, at the same time I remember working around with Mike Brecker and Mark Kramer, I could play as many as three bah mitzvahs a month, at least back then, and depend on it. He was also moving into the new jazz scene, making his recording debut in 1966, while still a teenager, on saxophonist Byard Lancaster's It's Not Up To Us
album that also featured a young Sonny Sharrock on guitar.
Two years later Grávátt moved to Washington, DC, ostensibly to pursue his interest in existentialist philosophy, but when he began classes at Howard the professor with whom he has sought to study had already left the university. All was not lost, though. Grávátt became an import addition to the capitol city jazz scene performing and recording with two of the areas most important artists, Andrew White and Lloyd McNeil, as well as making gigs with Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. When Billy Hart heard him playing with a local group opening for Charles Lloyd, he recommended that he call McCoy Tyner, who was looking for a drummer to replace the departing Freddie Waits. Grávátt's African influenced style of drumming was a perfect foil for the pianist's modal explorations and thus began a musical relationship that continues to this day.
McCoy worked frequently at New York City's East Village jazz mecca, Slugs. "At one point in time it seemed like everybody in New York would sit in at Slug's, Grávátt says. "I cut my teeth on that - I have him to thank for that. It was rough at the time, but now you can't get that kind of experience, you know, a young cat can't get that kind of experience now. Unfortunately, despite a busy schedule, Grávátt was not making a decent living traveling back and forth from DC. "I worked out of DC, he says. "I'd ride the bus, throw the drums on the bus, ride up to Port Authority station, McCoy would pick me up and we'd go down and set up at Slug's and we'd play from 10 to 4. It got to be too much and eventually he gave Tyner his two weeks notice.
As the saying goes, When one door closes, another one opens and soon afterwards, Wayne Shorter called and offered Grávátt the drum chair in Weather Report. He made major contributions to the band's classic I Sing The Body Electric
(and the later released Live In Tokyo) albums and traveled with the group enough to "wear out three passports. Then after returning from having "just set Europe on fire and rehearsing for a full week for a record date, he got a phone call from the band's manager saying, "Eric, the guys decided they want to use another drummer. We'll send your drums. Click.
Shortly thereafter Grávátt moved to San Francisco to play with the pianist Bayete, but that fizzled out and after playing a gig in Minneapolis with Bobby Lyle the saxophonist in the band, Bob Rockwell, invited him to move there and join the cooperative group Natural Life. When that group disbanded he decided that he had had enough of the indignities of the music business and took a job with the state as a corrections officer "teaching convicted felons how to productively structure their time. For the next twenty-one years he played only sporadically, raising a family, staying on the job and earning a pension.
Ironically, shortly after retiring, while sitting at home and pondering his next move, the phone rang. It was McCoy Tyner, inviting him to rejoin his trio. His timing could not have been more perfect. Since returning to McCoy's band Grávátt has kept a busy schedule of playing with the trio, often with special guests such as Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane, Gary Bartz and Savion Glover. This summer he's been on the road touring with Tyner and his all-star "Impulse Story septet with the likes of Wallace Roney, Donald Harrison, Dave Liebman, Eric Alexander, Steve Turre and Charnett. While Grávátt's incendiary drumming has yet to cause his kit to catch fire, it seems that he is indeed well on his way to going out in a blaze of glory.
· Byard Lancaster - It's Not Up To Us (Vortex-Water Music, 1966)
· Lloyd McNeil - Asha (Asha, 1969)
· Weather Report - I Sing the Body Electric (Columbia, 1971)
· Weather Report - Live in Tokyo (Columbia, 1972)
· Weather Report - Sweetnighter (Columbia, 1973)
· Julian Priester - Love, Love (ECM, 1973)