Home » Jazz Articles » Interview » Ralph Peterson: True Messenger, True Warrior


Ralph Peterson: True Messenger, True Warrior


View read count
Drumming is as natural to me as breathing.
—Ralph Peterson
Drummer Ralph Peterson has been on the jazz scene for some 35 years or more, carving out a career as a performer and an educator that would be the envy of many. His main influence is the legendary Art Blakey, and Peterson has been a standard bearer for that music and that style for some time.

It's not his only thing though. He's played with Walter Davis, David Murray, Stanley Turrentine, Craig Harris, Henry Threadgill, Michael Brecker, Betty Carter and many more, bring his exquisite touch and chops to the proceedings each time.

"It's a broad spectrum. I'm gratified by the variety," says Peterson. "I was never a camp follower. In the '80s, 90 percent of the jazz musicians my age talked a certain way, behaved a certain way, dressed a certain way and only dealt with that way. I tried to have my feet in as many musical camps as possible."

And his appreciation for Blakey is reverential. He even performed with a big band led by Blakey, also known as Buhaina, or just Bu, to many of his friends. Peterson came out this year with a double CD recording—Legacy Alive: Volume 6 at the Side Door-that is scintillating. The musicians are first-rate, all with connections to Blakey: tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Geoffrey Keezer and bassist Essiet Essiet. The members of the sextet play their asses off, in the hard bop style of Blakey. Amassing them was easy. "I didn't ever got the proposition completely out before all of them said, to a man, 'I'm in.'"

"The reaction has been amazing," says Peterson. We recorded the album in October 2018. We've been working every month and I'm booked out until May or June of 2020 already. It's an idea who's time has come, for sure. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be the standard bearer for his cause. Because his cause is my cause. My cause is built on his cause. The scaffolding of who I am is the foundation, the stones are people like Art Blakey and Walter Davis."

And last year, he recorded I Remember Bu with his students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he has taught for 18 years. The band, the Gen-Next Big Band, placed second in the recent Downbeat poll in the category of Rising Star Big Band. "That ain't no college band," he says with pride. "We were just at the D.C. Jazz festival and people did not see us coming. We hit them in the head. And it was great."

Peterson says the sextet album "was really kind of eye-opening, not surprising, but remarkable. We're finding out how much people are really appreciating this particular sound, the Jazz Messengers sound." Some groups today, with multiple horns, "their vocabulary is more rooted in the modern. Certainly built on the sound of the jazz Messengers. But that three-horn sound of the Jazz Messengers and that approach to soloing, the dynamics, and playing backgrounds and all of those things are something that people are realizing is a rare thing. You can take it for granted and forget about the impact of it while its gone. But if somebody stirs it up again, you begin to appreciate that particular flavor or sound."

Blakey, he says, is important to each person in the band. "I'm a Jazz Messenger like everyone else. Art had that mentoring, patriarchal, parenting type of relationship with pretty much everyone that worked in the band."

But there's more to Peterson than, leading various bands, like his Fo'Tet years ago and still doing hip sideman gigs and teaching at the collegiate level for 32 years. Peterson is battling cancer. Severe cancer. And his strength of will and upbeat approach to life and his music is astounding. Beyond remarkable. In a conversation of about 40 minutes. It was at the tail end he even revealed this situation, in a totally unfazed fashion that was akin to, "oh yeah, there's also this."

"Through this battle I've been having with the big C, the college [Berklee] has been amazing I'm so grateful. For all that they did to support what I'm trying to do. Things are going great musically, off the bandstand, academically, socially. I'm training. I'm taking care of whatever body I've got left. I'm not focused on what it is that might take me out, I'm just addressing it. I've had four cancer surgeries in the last three and a half years. Stage 4 liver cancer. It's now in my lymph nodes and is trying to advance on my lungs. We just started a new chemo which we will believe will be successful in repairing the lesions that just appeared on my lungs.

He adds, "Ultimately, I end up talking about it at least once a day, but I put a cap on how many times I talk about it in a day. Because I have to put a cap on how many times I think about it in a day. I have to focus on the living and what I have to do."

The thing he's most excited about is a second big band for Gen-Next is already in the can. And on YouTube, he says, is the first-ever 360 virtual reality video. "If you have an Oculus, definitely watch it with your Oculus on. It wraps the music and the imagery all around. If you don't sit down, you'll fall over. It's amazing. I'm excited about being on the front end of that technology, and that was all due to the support of the college."

In his home town of Pleasantville, N.J., Peterson's father played drums and an uncle played drums. His grandfather played cymbals in the church. He has since gotten possession of them and is trying to reconfigure them so they can be used on modern cymbal stands. He was holding sticks and playing at about the age of three. "Drumming is as natural to me as breathing."

But it's not the only instrument he played. He learned to read music playing the trumpet as a youngster. "I've been playing professionally since I was 14 or 15. I had a funk band. I'm not a jazz baby. I always make it a point to say that for those people who think all jazz musicians come from places like New Orleans and Chicago or Kansas City. We don't. Some come from little places like Pleasantville, caught in between Philadelphia and New York ... Though New Jersey has a proud and rich music tradition for music in general and jazz specifically. From Count Basie to Wayne Shorter. Queen Latifah. Bruce Springsteen. There's all kinds of music represented. Cozy Cole. Woody Shaw. A lot of bad cats are from Jersey."

He had a group in high school called Black Spirit. "That was my first attempt of transcriptions. Earth Wind & Fire. The Commodores, the Ohio Players. That's the kind of shit I was throwing out. Then I played baritone in a band with the uncle of drummer John Lamkin... Everybody who was anybody in Atlantic City and South Jersey played in this band. The name was Cosmic Nirvana."

Another of his groups was the Vanguard Jazz Ensembles that included the outstanding trumpeter Terence Blanchard. "Not long after that, Terence got the gig with Lionel Hampton and then with Blakey," says Peterson.

After high school, Peterson wanted to continue pursuing the drums. But he failed the percussion audition as a freshman at Rutgers University, where he was to study with noted drummer and educator Michael Carvin.

"I wasn't prepared. He told me you can't get into a college-level English course without knowing the 26 letters of the alphabet. So go learn the 26 rudiments and learn something about reading rhythm before you come back and try to get into college," he recalls. "It was a powerful experience, because it was one of the first important 'No' that I received. I was somewhat of an athlete and somewhat of a musical natural. So I didn't hear the word 'no' very often. I could keep people focused on what I could do, to keep them from seeing what I couldn't do. He was the first guy to pull all the covers off my shit. I love him for that. He'll always be my teacher because of that. I came back the next semester loaded for bear and we got to work."

His friend Blanchard left school and was working, and Peterson told Carvin it was his intention to leave school and move to New York City. There was another awakening from Carvin.

"He told me, 'You can do that shit if you want to, but you better not let me see you on the bandstand.' I asked what he was talking about. He said, 'I'll whup your ass and then I'm going to hold you down and call your father until he gets to New York so he can whup your ass.' I said, 'Why are you doing this?' He said, 'Because it's not your time. If you go now, you'll be in Smitty's time (young drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith) and Tain's time (another youngster at the time, Jeff Tain Watts). You'll be jumping the gun, based on impatience. Finish school. Things happen in cycles for a reason.'"

"He was absolutely right. I don't know if I trusted him so much or was afraid of him. He was quite the imposing figure. It's funny that I kind of hold that relationship with some of my students. It's a beautiful thing. They come to support me in my health challenges. They show up at the hospital and at the house. They help me move things. It's amazing, the relationship. It leaves me confident about the future. These kids can write, they can play."

When it came to meeting Blakey, Peterson took a cautious approach, going to a lot of Jazz Messenger gigs and observing. When it came time, he was ready.

"The two-drummer big band goes back to at least the late '70s. In fact, the original Jazz Messengers was a big band. Horace Silver and Art Blakey started the big band together. Art Blakey and Horace Silver and the 17 Messengers. That evolved into the Jazz Messengers, as Horace established his own voice as a leader and Art maintained the Messengers. Through the years there have always been opportunities for young drummers to sit in at rehearsals. Even sit in on the gig. Since I knew that, I worked hard in the '80s to prepare myself for the opportunity."

His friend Blanchard was the trumpet player and Peterson went to as many gigs as he could. "One night at the Jazz Forum on Bleecker Street, New York, Art came off the bandstand and patted me on the shoulder on his way past, just as an acknowledgment of my presence. I would sit right up front and I would be glued to what he was doing. He let me know, 'I've seen your face before.' That kind of thing."

Blanchard introduced Peterson to Blakey that night. About a month later, the Jazz Messengers played a gig a a club called Mikell's. "I go to Mikell's and I watched in wonder as Jeff Watts, Smitty Smith and Cindy Blackman all sit in with Art over a period of two nights. Between the gig at the Jazz Forum and the gig at Mikell's, I did my first professional gig in New York. That was with Walter Davis (piano) with Branford Marsalis on sax and Phil Bowler on bass. As a result of that gig I got to know Wynton Marsalis and Branford. Wynton re-introduced me to Art.

"He said, 'Hey Bu, this is a fellow from Jersey. He's swingin.' You ought to let him sit in.' Art looks at me and says to Wynton, 'If he sounds that good, why don't you hire him.' He asked me if I wanted to play. The word 'yes' came out of my mouth, but inside my head was shaking 'no.' Because the bandstand was top already, between Cindy, Smitty, Jeff and Art. The level was so high. Much to my relief, he said, 'Come to rehearsal at 2 o'clock tomorrow.' I show up at rehearsal, I rehearsed with the band. I knew the book. Michael Carvin had taught me that no one gives you gigs in New York. You take them by knowing the book. That's something that I live by. It's a code that I honor. Not just on the Messenger Legacy, but in all my gigs. My bandstand is an open door. But it's also a trap door, so you better know what it is we're dealing with musically, because the bottom will fall out on you."

Peterson was there at 2. Blakey showed up at about 8 for a 9 o'clock hit. "The first thing he asks the cats is, 'Was he on time?' I had my suit on since 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I was dressed the part and very excited. It was the first time that Charnett Moffett [bass] ever sat in."

Peterson was playing "The Theme" with the Messengers as Blakey was making his way back to the stage. "The way that the Jazz Messengers do it, with all the breaks and stop time. The New Orleans feel, to the double time in the bridge. So I bust into my best imitation of that shit, and he eats it up. He keeps me up talking until 4 in the morning. 'Man, I've been waiting for you. We're going to get the big band back together and bring everybody. Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Bill Hardman. I was like, 'wait a minute, Bu. The last two cats you mentioned aren't here no more.' [laughs] But true to his word, March of 1983 he called me to play at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival in a two-drummer big band. I've been at Berklee teaching for 18 years, and every time I go into that performance center I still get chills from that moment."

"That's how it happened. I did it from 1983 until he passed," Peterson says with pride and also respect.

Blakey would have turned 100 on October 11. A force in jazz, he died in 1990 at age 71. The Jazz Messengers defined a style often called "hard bop" and helped shape a yet wider range of small-ensemble jazz.

"Thirty-five years later, to be able to put out a big band record and give that same opportunity for my students to play with me in a big band situation, I feel real good about. The record is doing great. I'm grateful for both projects, the Messenger Legacy and the big band. Both, in their way, represent the legacy of Art Blakey."

Peterson's playing is still crisp and swinging, with no evidence of health issues. He cooks.

"This was a live double album. I have every intention next year to go in the studio sometime and do a record that will have more Blakey classics, but also start to explore the Jazz Messenger sound post Art Blakey's death. A.B., of you will— After Bu."

Referring to all his other outstanding associations in music, Peterson reflects, "I've been fortunate. It takes me back to the timing issue that Carvin was talking about. Being where you're supposed to be. Who knows where I would have been if I had jumped out (of college) two years early, maybe two years less prepared, maybe had my ass handed to me more than it already had been done. How would I have responded to that?"

"It's been great to be doing the gigs as a leader. Doing the gigs as a sideman even now. I play a lot with Wayne Escoffery. Sean Jones. The number of significant voices in the music now that have come through my bands is something I feel good about. It is its own expression of the legacy of Art Blakey because that was the template.

As for his health, the indomitable Peterson says, "I have already beat the odds. I have been drink and drug free for over 23 years. I've already won. So I'm still here for a reason. In four cancer surgeries, I coded on three of them. So I'm here for a reason. I believe that... Nobody gets out of this life alive. I don't focus on what's going to happen when I'm not here. I get my ass up and go to the gym and keep my body as strong as possible, so that the chemo doesn't deplete me to where the disease can advance. I have my students, they're my legacy."



Support All About Jazz

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

How You Can Help

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.



Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.