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Peter Erskine: Up Front, In Time, and On Call

Jim Worsley By

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The goal, in addition to being spontaneous and just playing, was to keep out of the way of the sound. —Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine is affable, engaging, and humorous. He, of course, is also one of the finest drummers of his generation. He has left his mark on the jazz and fusion world for nearly fifty years now. An icon, whose name is mentioned with the greats of all time, Erskine continues to gift us as he forges ahead by crafting new music, sharing his knowledge and expertise with aspiring young musicians, and continuing to reinvent himself again and again with a penchant for exploring uncharted territories. All About Jazz had the good fortune recently to go into the studio with Erskine and touch on a multitude of subjects. He was once a seven-year old playing drums on national television and is now Dr. Um. In between was Weather Report, Steps Ahead, the big bands of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson, a professorship at The Thornton School of Music at USC, a wonderful wife and family, author of several books, and a host of incredible musical relationships. We talked about it all, and then some.

All About Jazz: You have a large fan base derived from your many years as a successful jazz and fusion drummer. However, many may not know about your affiliation with The Thornton School of Music at USC. Perhaps you could take that one from the top.

Peter Erskine: I went to high school in Interlochen, Michigan, at a place called Interlochen Arts Academy. It's in the far north of Michigan. I grew up in New Jersey and was used to cold weather, but nothing like Michigan had to offer. Interlochen was a boarding school. So, I found myself away from home, plucked from my home environment when I was fourteen. I spent three years up there and was snowbound much of the time. Consequently, there wasn't much else to do other than to study, practice, and spend time with your girlfriend.

AAJ: If one was so fortunate.

PE: Indeed. It was an incredibly nurturing place, not only because of the teachers there and the way it was setup, but because the teachers and fellow students really constituted my family. I had my weekly phone calls with my mom and dad, of course. I had a very nurturing environment growing up, particularly in terms of education. My father had always encouraged me to ask a lot of questions. He believed in the adage that there are no dumb questions. He was very supportive. I think this all planted an early seed for my becoming a teacher down the road. I eventually went on the road with Stan Kenton's band when I was eighteen. Much of that was centered around what they called clinics. Afternoon educational presentations at whatever school we were at prior to a performance in the evening. A rhythm section specific class or something of that nature with area students. This began to make me very comfortable in terms of speaking to a group of students. I found that I was able to present in a way that was inviting and made them want to learn more. Some of that was just seeing the success or failure of how some of the other musicians in the band handled questions. I saw that if students weren't asking questions it was generally just a function of being shy, their brain just being jumbled, or not wanting to be the first one to raise their hand or something of this nature. It has much to do with establishing a comfort level whether it's an audience of one, or an audience of many.

In the drum industry, more than any other instrumental area, teaching is a big part of our extracurricular activities. The idea of teaching full time wasn't something I was looking to do. USC reached out back in 2000 regarding some part-time instruction, and I figured, why not? Pianist Shelly Berg was the chair of jazz studies at that time. Had it been UCLA I probably would have had the same response. After a short time, I went back out on the road with vocalist/pianist Diana Krall for a year. When I got back, I met with the dean, Rob Cutietta, and the assistant dean, Chris Sampson. They invited me to make more of a commitment and make it more of a full-time presence. Despite the fact that I had been associated with many bands, it was all essentially freelance work. A great bassist by the name of Charles Fambrough once said, "The only job security in this business is playing your ass off." Give you an example. One day pianist Joe Zawinul asked me to show him my passport, after I had already joined Weather Report. He looks at it and says, "Man, it's a good thing I didn't see this before I heard you play, or I never would have hired you." Naturally I asked why. His response was, "Because you look like one of those jive jazz education mother fuckers." (This had us both laughing out loud together.)

AAJ: What is your current position and job title?

PE: I am a full professor and the title is Professor of Practice. I enjoy the university, the faculty, and the students. Los Angeles is still a very fertile music scene. Both creatively, and with people being able to work. Sometimes it might not be the most creative film or TV score, or rank up there with the most aesthetically pleasing things you have done in your life, but it's still good.

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