"I started out in rhythm 'n' blues when I first got a trap drum set as a teenager," says Mickey Roker, 76, from his home, "because I was young and it was easier to play that music than playing jazz since I didn't go to school for music". But after he got back to Philadelphia from the Army in 1955, he decided "it would be better for me to play in jazz where I could learn more since they utilized all the rhythms to play jazz. But I still had the feeling of the blues because that's my first love."
Roker's jazz school was the jam session. "They had jam sessions where when you were a young guy you could learn how to play. But you had to have the ability to swing or they wouldn't let you play. That's the main function for a drummer, to be able to swing the band. I don't approach the drums from the solo aspect; I approach it as swinging the band. I'd rather have something to give that way than to show how much trickery I can do [soloing]."
Roker's ability to swing a band was once attested to by no less than Dizzy Gillespie, with whose band Roker spent most of the '70s: "Once he sets a groove, whatever it is, you can go to Paris and come back and it's right there. You never have to worry about it."
Another Roker fan is guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who also enjoys the rhythm section role as much or more than soloing. Pizzarelli called Roker to fill the drum chair when he was recording a tribute to the great Count Basie rhythm guitarist Freddie Green. Now Roker plays with the Statesmen of Jazz touring group Pizzarelli leads that is sponsored by Concord Records.
"Mickey is one of the great brush players of all time," says Pizzarelli. "He really knows how to play them. A lot of new drummers don't even have them. I first admired him when I heard him with Bags [Milt Jackson]; he's just a marvelous drummer."
When he first started playing jazz in Philadelphia, Roker got to jam locally with such up and coming Philly players as Lee Morgan, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Barron and McCoy Tyner. By the '60s he was spending a lot of time in the Big Apple, playing with such artists as Gigi Gryce, Stanley Turrentine, Ray Bryant and Junior Mance. He also fondly remembers holding down the drum chair in Duke Pearson's fabled big band. But it was while playing with Joe Williams as a member of Ray Nance's trio that he had a chance to play with some of the legends of the Swing Era, like Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Ben Webster.
"Joe [Williams] loved saxophonists," he remembers, "especially Ben Webster. I did too; Ben was a unique dude, a unique tenor player."
It was also while playing with Williams that Roker gained a reputation as a singer's accompanist, leading to stints with Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson. With both singers he had the chance to play with some of the top big bands of the time, including those of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson, because the trio would take over the rhythm section of the band when it was accompanying the singer. So did he enjoy working with singers or with instrumentalists like Gillespie and Bags better?
"I enjoyed playing the drums, man. I mean all of this is a gift from God so you take whatever He gives you. You have to have joy, you gotta enjoy it because if you don't enjoy it it's gonna sound like that. And music is music, all of it has got to swing, even gospel and country and western. If you're a professional you have to play all kinds of music. That's why I love jazz, it uses all kinds of rhythms, from blues to Latin to Brazilian."
Even after he tired of being on the road, Roker would go out with Milt Jackson, because "Bags was a helluva musician who loved to play jazz, to swing, man. When I played with the Modern Jazz Quartet [after the death of Connie Kay] Bags and John Lewis were always feuding because Bags didn't want to play that classical stuff, he wanted to swing, to play jazz."
Although he treasures the time he spent playing with Gillespie, Roker has a different perspective as one who sat in Dizzy's drum chair. "Dizzy would run me crazy with those conga drums of his," he says. "He'd be playing the drums but he was no drummer; his rhythms would run me up the wall. But he would do anything to keep from playing his trumpet. Dance, sing, bang his rhythm stick and his congas, anything to keep from putting that horn in his mouth. He'd say he wanted to last as long as he could and the trumpet gets harder the older you get."
Roker knows firsthand, as he just took up the trumpet earlier this year. "It took me about three weeks to just get a sound out of it. I was trying too hard; you have to take it easy and relax and the sound just flows out. I like to learn new instruments, just for myself, it's a kind of therapy, keeps your mind active. I also play some flute and guitar and I have a piano downstairs I'm going to take a crack at one day. Ain't nothing more humbling than learning to play an instrument."
Gigi GryceThe Hap'nin's (1960)
Duke PearsonWahoo (Blue Note, 1964)
Lee MorganLive at the Lighthouse (Blue Note, 1970)
Mary Lou WilliamsZoning (Mary-Smithsonian Folkways, 1974)
Milt JacksonMemories of Thelonious Sphere Monk (Pablo-OJC, 1982)
Odean PopeNinety-Six (Enja, 1995)