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Ralph Peterson: Music Teaches You Life

George Colligan By

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[Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

I was recently in Athens, as part of my tour with Jack DeJohnette. Shortly after arriving, I'm sitting in my hotel room, and I get an unexpected call. "Colligan!" "Uh...yes?" And then I hear one of my obscure compositions, "Reaction," being sung by a gravelly yet pitch perfect voice. It could only be one person.... "Ralph? What are you doing here?"

Ralph Peterson is one of the greatest jazz drummers there is, period. Originally from Pleasantville, New Jersey, and also originally a trumpeter (I can relate to that), Peterson rose to prominence as one of the great young drummers with a band called Out of the Blue, more commonly known as OTB. (Indeed, I had a record, actually a cassette, of OTB called Live At Mt. Fuji (Capitol, 1990) that I listened to constantly in the early '90s.) Peterson also played as the second drummer with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers—that's a pretty high honor.

He has played with most of the greats in jazz, and has a long discography as a leader. Some of his Blue Note recordings were favorites of mine, albums like Triangular, Volition, and especially Art, a tribute to Blakey. Unfortunately, these are hard to find, since Blue Note destroyed a lot of their catalogue, for some reason. This was before iTunes. Peterson recently started his own label, which is called Onyx Music; the first release is called Outer Reaches and features a fabulous organ quartet called the Unity Project. I heard them last summer at the Iridium and was blown away. Organist Pat Bianchi was serious!

I was personally fortunate that Peterson played on two of my CDs as a leader; Activism(Steeplechase, 1996) and Ultimatum (Criss Cross, 2002), respectively. He also performed in a series of quartet concerts featuring a suite I composed entitled "Post 9-11," which was funded by Chamber Music America and the now defunct Arts International. There is a recording, but for now, it remains unreleased.

What I love about Peterson's playing is what I would call passionate precision: the swing and energy is like a hurricane, but the time is consistent and grounded, and the form of the tune is always being addressed. Peterson has huge ears and is a quick study in terms of learning new compositions. He's also still pretty killing on the trumpet, and not a bad pianist and bassist. Furthermore, Peterson's passion for the music has translated into becoming a renowned teacher. He's been full time at Berklee for the better part of a decade.

Peterson was in Athens performing with some Greek musicians. I told him I wanted to get an interview and we agreed to meet the next morning out by the pool. As expected, he was candid and articulate.

George Colligan: What do you think is the state of the jazz music business these days?

Ralph Peterson: The nature of the business is exploitative. So, once you've realized that, as an artist, you fall out of favor with those who have the power. The chosen ones are just getting younger and younger now to where all the guy has to do is get into college and he's trying to get calls for gigs. I think that the cats who are now teaching in the colleges should be the development network. It should be, for example, that I could call Mulgrew Miller and say, "Ok, Who is the killing pianist out here? " Or I'd call you and ask "Who is the killing pianist I should know about? " And then, musicians can determine who is the next great player. Unfortunately, now it's competitions and record labels that are determining who is the next great player.

Sometimes it's not even the professors. It's the administrators and the trustees and the Board of Directors deciding to put the weight and full force of support at a program behind a particular individual. You dig what I'm saying? When on the other hand, there are young students who are trying to go through the process and come out credentialed as well as experienced; like pianist Victor Gould. Yeah, Victor Gould is a cat that you should hear. He would leave you feeling encouraged about the future of your instrument.

And all of this is coming from me, a guy who was thought of as un- credentialed and inexperienced when I first hit the scene. Okay, so it ironic that I'm even saying it. Back in '85 and '86 when OTB happened, they were saying the same shit about me. But I finished school. [laughs] Under the loving threat of physical violence from my teacher, Michael Carvin, saying to me, "You can quit school and go to New York, but don't let me see you in the streets."

GC: Let's go back a little. Talk a little bit about Alan Dawson and the Rudiment Ritual. Why you think it's important?

RP: There are a group of fantastic drummers at Berklee who studied with Alan. Alan and Joe Hunt started the program (When I had my back surgery, Joe Hunt subbed for me—I was out on medical leave ). Alan's body of work as a teacher would speak for itself in his students, right? So, I was always talking about my philosophy regarding any kind of musical information: take what you need and leave the rest. And don't buy in lock—stock-and-barrel to any philosophy that is not based in your own experience, because then you are not living your life. You are living somebody else's. And so, to the extent that the program is now moving back towards a complete embracing—of every idea that Alan had, every idea that Alan has is not going to work for everybody. And what Alan taught , he lived, and he might have taught it differently to Kenwood Dennard, and then differently to Terri Lyne Carrington, and that might have been different from the way he taught John Ramsay. Because Alan is making you do three rudiments at a time, and you don't get any more rudiments until you come back for the next lesson. Maybe it's because he doesn't think you can handle any more information than that. Maybe another student who has either a better work ethic, or ability to absorb information at a greater rate, they might get more. You can give information many different ways. But I'm personally not going to hold somebody back based on a pre- described formula.
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