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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.

I have looked at the ritual and found a way to develop it, using the principles of three-part writing, to do the exercises using parallel, contrary, and oblique motion. You apply those rules to your hands and the Rudiment Ritual and you come up with some very interesting things around the instrument. But I refuse to teach any drummer the motions on the ritual until they have memorized the exercise in their body. Because I don't want him read it while he's trying to expand it. So if you teach that way, it's kind of like peeling an onion in reverse. You stuff a layer and then you make sure that, that layer is internalized and then, once you are sure that layer of information is internalized; you put the next expansion on top of it. Like in the Navy Seals.... talking about the next evolution. When you go to a Navy Seal's training, they talk about how it ratchets up in intensity. Each ratchet is called an evolution.

That's my approach, and I think the power and greatness of the Berklee Program is the fact that these are maybe 37 great drummers there all with different approaches to teach you.

GC: Well, the way you play, the way Terri Lyne plays, the way Kenwood Dennard plays, these are all completely different.

RP: Completely different.; and Neil Smith as well. But each has its own value. There are times at Berklee when Neil will come over and just bring his student and sit in the room , while I'm working with my student. And vice-versa. Although truthfully, there are some union restrictions at Berklee with so-called team teaching; but informally, this is collaborative education. Where the individual components, when combined in the right way, offer a better education experience for the students than sitting in the room with me by myself.

GC: Is there a lot more to playing jazz drums, than just playing the instrument?

RP: Well, yeah, and that's been the niche I've kind of carved out for myself at Berklee. When I got there and I realized that even the best drummers there, the ones that were playing with Gary Burton didn't know how many bars are in the A Section of Benny Golson's"Stablemates."

GC: "Stablemates" can be revealing for a drummer...

RP: You know what I'm saying! Oh! Didn't know the tune at all! It became the "AHA!" moment when I realized why I was there. That this is what I have to contribute. This is why I've kept playing trumpet—even when I was studying drums. This is why I survived Ted Dunbar's class, as opposed to quit it or be failed in it. I kind of sidestepped by taking an independent study on it on a graduate level. Because when I was a student I loved Ted for what he stood for, and what he taught, but we were just like oil and water with regard to the drums to be melodic. So once he found out that I played trumpet, I had to play trumpet in the class!

So, my experience as a student cast the metal for what I teach now. Drummers have to learn tunes. The other thing I teach is break your dependence on the Real Book. First of all, 60% of the Real Book is wrong. The other thing is if you only learn repertoire out of the book? Then you won't learn application. You won't learn the syntax and the language. You will learn the syntax and the language by listening to the recording. And you can learn the melody, but, to hear how the melody was most creatively improvised on. You have to listen to the records .

GC: There are a lot of great tunes that aren't in the books.

RP: Sometimes the best tunes aren't in the books! The book covers kind of the basic language; rudimentary tune knowledge right? And so I created this class for Jazz Drum Set Repertoire a while ago. They have 15 weeks to learn about 50 tunes. I am still getting pushed back over the number of tunes that I require students to learn. Out of the 50, 20 to 30 of them they should already know if they are considering themselves in any way shape or form serious about jazz. So half the class is... what's the word? Not rudimentary, but remedial in nature. But the other half of the class is with recordings and the Real Book. I usually disseminate five tunes a week. Five tunes a week is not a lot. That's one tune a day with two days off!
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