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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.

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