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Steve Gadd: Consummate Drummer

R.J. DeLuke By

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Gadd is a drummer of such broad experience that many may not know his roots in jazz. It was the music he was hearing, catching live acts and association with people in the Rochester area like Chuck and Gap Mangione. "That's what I started out playing," Gadd says. "If roots is what you started listening to when you first started, then that is my roots. But as I continued to listen to different genres, I loved jazz, but I loved good grooves and a simpler approach. I think that's really valid. I have a big love for that, musically. I continue to try and develop that."

At a young age, he was studying the drums with Elmer Frolig at Levis Music, across the street from the Eastman School Of Music that he would one day attend. A couple years later, age 11, he found himself successfully auditioning for the Disney television show "The Mickey Mouse Club."

"I remember Jimmy Dodge came through Rochester he had a talent show. People performed and the winners won a trip to California for two weeks, went to Disneyland and performed on The Mickey Mouse Club. That was an exciting thing for me," Gadd recalls. "The Mickey Mouse Club was very popular for kids my age back then. That was an exciting moment. I met Walt Disney and the Mousketeers and went to Disneyland." He played a drum solo and tap danced.

"I had good teachers. My first teacher was Elmer Frolig. Later on I had Stanley Street and then John Beck. They were all fantastic teachers. So they were inspiring and encouraging and nurturing. Someone needs that to keep on doing what they're doing. Encouraging them to keep playing, encouraging them to go out and listen, to try new things, to listen to different things," Gadd says.

He also acknowledges that his family is as influential as all the great musicians he listened to and learned from. "They encouraged me and supported me. They were very supportive and loving and nurturing. Not just my mom and dad, but my uncle and grandparents. They were inspiring. They got me to the people that I heard that inspired me. In those years, when you're growing, anyone you heard that could play was an inspiration."

As a youngster, his father took him to clubs and he got the chance to sit in with people like Richard "Groove" Holmes, Jack McDuff and George Benson. He did a three-year hitch in the U.S. Army, playing drums with the Field Band and Stage Band. Locally, he was playing with the Mangiones. Eastman School of Music was close to home and around town he met people like Corea and Tony Levin. In the 1970s, his reputation was growing and his career began to take flight, including many recordings on Creed Taylor's CTI label. A 1977 appearance on Steely Dan's Aja album created a big buzz. He's never really looked back.

He's also never forgotten the early days. "They were very important," he says of the Mangione boys. "I grew up with those guys. I worked in bands with them before I got to high school, when I was in high school, when I was in college. I worked six nights a week with Gap and Tony Levin while I was in college. It helped me pay my way through school. Those guys are a big part of my life. My lifetime friends."

The outstanding saxophonist Gerry Niewood, who became well known with Chuck Mangione's groups in the 1970s, was also an old chum and part of that Rochester connection. Niewood died in 2009 in an airplane crash. He and guitarist Coleman Mellett were en route to join Mangione for a gig at the time.

"That took its toll," Gadd recalls. "Gerry and I grew up together. We started with each other in late grammar school and early high school and throughout college. When it happens to someone you're that close to, it's very surreal. And Cole. I didn't know him as well but we'd played a show together not long before that happened. It was devastating."

Gadd rolls along making music based on what's right for the moment. He can summon massive chops. He can be deft and whispery. His time is immaculate, not matter the frenzy or delicacy of the moment.

He says of music, "When it feels good, I hope that translates to the audience so they can feel some more things. I've experienced that happening and its very rewarding. I know how I feel when the music is on fire. I think that's what the people get. I can't speak for the people. But the times when it feels magical is when I'm feeling that they're feeling the things that I am. They're accepting how hard we're trying to give them something. Sharing positive energy. When there's a band playing in front of people and the music is happening there's a loving energy there that washes over us, I think. Like James Taylor. It's been a joy every night. The people just love him. And he loves the band. All that kind of stuff is felt and shared. It's all positive. Nothing negative. It's nice to be a part of that."

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