Mickey Roker: You Never Lose the Blues

Victor L. Schermer By

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Drummer Mickey Roker is a mainstay and icon of the jazz world, having a played with Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lee Morgan, and many of the other signature groups of modern jazz.

Yet he has always maintained his Philadelphia roots, and is and has been a regular at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus in that city for many years. Still active as a drummer and a mentor, he has witnessed and been part of the jazz world in action for over six decades. An interview with him is like getting an insider's taste of jazz as it has evolved over time, and what it's like to be a musician in that milieu.

On Feb. 12, 2008, All About Jazz participated in a video interview of Mickey Roker under the auspices of the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Project, in cooperation with the University of the Arts and students from the College of Media and Communications.

Roker welcomed a video crew of students and their equipment, noted jazz vocalist Joanna Pascale, who is a close friend and who participated as co- interviewer, into his long-time South Philadelphia home. Following the interview held in his living room, he showed us around his home and his various memorabilia and photographs, including the "Key to the City" award given to him by the mayor of Philadelphia. Articulate and candid, he told of his own life, his musician cohorts, his take on drumming and jazz in general, and what he loves about the music.

AAJ: To start out, if you were going to that proverbial desert island, which recordings would you pick to take with you?

MR: Well, let's hope I'll never be on a desert island alone. [laughter.] But I have a couple of albums I like. I like an album with Herbie Hancock called Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968). I can listen to that one any time. I did a record with (Duke Pearson) called Sweet Honey Bee (Blue Note, 1966). That's one of my favorites. There's a song on that album called "Sudel." Man I love to listen to that song. And there's a big band album I did with Duke Pearson called Now Hear This (Blue Note, 1968). And I did an album with the Hard Bop Quintet—they were some guys from New York who came to Ortlieb's to play with me. And then we made a pretty good recording.

AAJ: Who was in that group?

MR: The pianist was Keith Saunders; the bassist was Bim Strasberg; the trumpet player was Joe Magnarelli. The saxophonist was Jerry Weldon. They were a bunch of guys that got together a couple of years ago to play some gigs. But it's hard to keep groups going—not enough gigs. The guys have to do their own things.

AAJ: So you only listen to your own recordings?

MR: No, I seldom listen to my own recordings. My favorite musicians to listen to are Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ahmad Jamal, Buddy Rich, Sonny Rollins...

AAJ: To go back to your beginnings, I understand you were born in Florida.

JP: How old were you when you moved to Philadelphia?

MR: I was 10 years old when I came to Philly.

AAJ: What are your memories of those first 10 years as a kid in Florida?

MR: Well, Miami was the place where I first heard the drums. I was a young cat. We lived in a housing project and I slept on the couch on the first floor. And many of the folks, like my father, were first generation from Nassau in the Bahamas. So every New Years Eve, they would come around playing calypso and playing the drums. I was only 3 or 4 years old, and it frightened me! So, the next year I stayed up waiting for them, and that was the first music I heard—calypso music.

Then, I would get a drum every year for Christmas, and I'd tear it up the first day I had it. So one year my mother got me a drum made of tin, and I kept that one all year, and that's how I got my stuff together. So the following year, I got a real drum for Christmas. Going past my house were bands playing on their way to a funeral, playing slow, somber rhythms. But on the way back, they'd be playing things like "When the Saints Go Marching In," and the drummer would wait for me to walk along with him, and I felt like I died and went to heaven.

AAJ: That marching band reminds me of the origins of jazz in New Orleans over a century ago.

MR: It's the same thing—it's everywhere.

AAJ: Do you feel as if you still have some of that Caribbean influence?

MR: Oh, yeah! Of course, you never lose your blues—hey, hey!

JP: Did you ever study music formally?

MR: No, I'm basically self-taught. I never went to school. I did have a couple of teachers. I decided to learn how to read music, but mostly I've had on- the-job training so to speak.

JP: How old were you when you got your full first drum set?

MR: I was 17 years old when I got my first drum set. It actually kept me out of prison, to tell the truth. Philadelphia was so gang-infested at the time, and the drums kept me in the house practicing, rather than being influenced by the gangs. I'd just be practicing drums—I practiced like a wild man when I was young.

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's big band. Everybody was in that band: Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, Fats Navarro, 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. Then I played with a guy named Ken James, and we used to play all Ray Charles 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. And Jimmy introduced me to Milt Jackson—that's how I went to New York. Milt had been working with the Modern Jazz Quartet, 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— 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. After I went to New York, originally to play with Gigi Gryce, 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 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' 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, and he had a gig in New York where Gigi Gryce needed a drummer. So Reggie, Sam Dockery, 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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