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Peter Erskine: Up Front, In Time, and On Call, Part 1

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
Part 1 | Part 2

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.

AAJ: It's still work.

PE: It's still work. Years ago, I remember Manfred Eicher at ECM telling me that he didn't like me doing so many things. You know, here I am doing a Honey Nut Cheerios commercial or making a record with this singer or that person. But, you know, every experience informs the next, and secondly, here I am with a wife and two kids and private schools, etc. On top of that, it's my craft. I love the craft of playing, whether it's the Crazy Rich Asians, or La La Land, or The Secret Life of Pets, or whatever.

AAJ: Why was he opposed to you doing these things?

PE: He wanted me to have my head in the musical clouds where he spent most of his time. It may have been great if I had followed his advice, who knows? But I don't live in Europe, I live in LA. Maybe in Europe it would be a more practical thing to do, but not here. I like going in and doing the big band thing or playing a surf beat for Honey Nut Cheerios or a variety of things. I like that variety and none of them are easy things to do.

AAJ: What is the most gratifying part of teaching?

PE: That moment when you see the lightbulb go off. The moment when they gain an understanding. That makes the day for me. If I am lucky that might happen two or three times during a teaching day. The school serves as a magnet for a cross section of outstanding musicians. USC has an incredible faculty. The chair of the department is saxophonist Bob Mintzer. We also have pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Edwin Livingston, bassist Darek Oles, drummer Will Kennedy, pianist Patrice Rushen, and bassist Alphonso Johnson. The guitar department is stellar. The classical department is amazing. The principal players are from the LA Philharmonic. On the strength of everyone's relationship in the business we have been able to get incredible guests as well. Guitarist Paul Jackson Jr has been doing some teaching. It is just great to see all that talent on campus.

AAJ: What is the single most important thing for young musicians to focus on?

PE: To listen. I don't mean to just listen to the music while there on the bandstand playing. To listen and learn the language so that you can speak the vocabulary. To learn the history of it all. I was a very avid listener when I was young. But I was wanting, there were huge gaps. I'm still not over the embarrassment and shame of doing a Downbeat blindfold test and not knowing that it was drummer Chick Webb that they were playing for me. Sometime after that I ran into trumpeter Jon Faddis and he just looked at me and just said, "Chick Webb." So, I started listening. Better late than never. The riches in this music are many. So many great things that came out of the neo-classical movement, if you want to call it that. Wynton Marsalis and all the incredible things he has done. The Lincoln Center, of course. Moreover, getting Duke Ellington into the school systems. Thanks originally to the pioneering efforts of Stan Kenton we have jazz education in schools. The big band stuff was always Woody Herman, Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, and a lot of Count Basie, but very little Ellington.

AAJ: A valuable part of your education as a young musician was at the Stan Kenton jazz camps. I have spoken to several musicians, most recently bassist Tom Kennedy, who speak so very highly of the Kenton camps. What was it about those camps, or perhaps Kenton himself, that set it apart?

PE: At USC we have the jazz studies program. You didn't have jazz bands back in the late 50's and early 60's. You had stage bands, lab bands, the one o'clock band, the two o'clock band, because jazz was a dirty word.

AAJ: Ah, it was hidden under a different heading.

PE: Yes. Dance bands, lots of different names. Kenton, along with some key educators such as Clem DeRosa, Matt Benton, Leon Breeden, and Gene Morris dedicated themselves to trying to build what only a few schools had done. They had these summer jazz camps. My teacher heard about these when I was only six years old. He applied for me. We didn't realize the minimum age for admission was fourteen. We get to the camp and of course they tell us that I'm too young. Now my family had just driven nearly non-stop for two and a half days to get there. This was in the days before the interstate, so it was a pretty hearty drive. Kenton was smart to recognize an opportunity and they did an about-face after a short meeting. They told us that Stan wanted to hear me play that evening. They set up a private audition and Stan had a photographer there from the local newspaper. A picture of Stan and I was then used to promote the camp. Then as long as my parents were willing to stay with me in the dorm I was accepted to the camp. At this first camp there was Keith Jarrett, David Sanborn, Lou Marini Jr., and Don Grolnick. Randy Brecker was at the camp the next year, Gary Burton had been at the camp the year before. This was where a lot of us got our jazz fix. Our education and inspiration for the year. I went to a few of those camps and stayed in touch with Stan on and off. He was following what I was doing a bit here and there and word got back to him after I was playing with David Baker's Indiana University jazz band when I was seventeen. All of sudden, he needed a drummer. The drummer who was playing in his band was a fine drummer by the name of Jerry McKenzie. Well, Jerry had delivered an ultimatum to Stan that either the bassist goes, or he does.
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