Peter Erskine – Do Your Part: Swing!

October 27, 2015

erskineby Christian Wissmuller

One of the most celebrated jazz drummers of the past half century, Peter Erskine has “lived music” in a way unlike most, having begun playing at the age of four (!) and launching his professional career by joining the Stan Kenton Orchestra at 18. Subsequent projects have seen him perform and record with the biggest names in jazz, rock, and fusion including Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Steely Dan, Kate Bush, Diana Krall, Gary Burton, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, and Linda Rondstadt, among many others, while his own projects as a leader have consistently earned praise from peers and fans, alike.

In addition to being a passionate, tireless scholar of music, Erskine is also a fierce advocate for music education. He currently serves as a professor at the Thornton School of Music at USC and leads numerous clinics and master classes across the globe. Additionally, he is an innovator of cutting-edge teaching methods (www.petererskine.com) and an author.

Recently Peter was kind enough to sit down with JAZZed to share his thoughts on his own musical journey, his experiences as an educator, and the importance of following your own muse. As he says, “Play what you’d like to hear.”

You started playing drums at a very young age. What was the catalyst behind that early interest in drums and in music?

Peter Erskine: The acorn becomes the oak tree. I believe that the musical seed was planted at birth. Then again, I believe that this seed is in all of us. I was fortunate to have a father who played the bass as a young man (before his becoming a doctor), and a mother and father, plus siblings, who were all tremendously supportive. I listened to music a lot as a child. I was exposed to a lot of music and to many great mentors.

Who were some of those early mentors and teachers who had a significant influence on how you approach playing and learning? What about their methods resonated with you?

My first instructor was drummer John Civera – a wonderfully gentle teacher who stoked my fire for jazz. He was also wise enough to recommend that I receive classical instruction, and I found the most important teacher in George Gaber. As I write in my book No Beethoven, “George Gaber would prove to be a lifelong friend, a man whose wisdom, advice and love for music has accompanied me every day and in most every circumstance, musical or otherwise. He’s always with me in word, thought, musical choice, or touch. Gaber taught his students to always strive for the best tone. Professionalism was his calling, musicality his ethos, compassion and laughter his response to life’s challenges. His advice was as sharp as his wit. Gaber would say of fame: “That, plus 50 cents, will get you a ride on any subway in New York.” The train costs more now but his advice is still true. He also offered, ‘There’ll always be that kid with the purple drumsticks.” In other words, something flashy might come and go, but musical values sustain a musician forever, i.e., it’s important to find lasting musical values for ones self. He also showed me perspective, and this during our first lesson at a band camp in Kentucky when I was twelve years old, my parents in attendance.

Gaber, intuiting and clearly sensing my post-jazz camp trauma and inherent insecurity, instructed me to play a snare drum etude on the practice pad and to not play any of it correctly, to do so otherwise would result in his walking over to the pad and hitting me with a drumstick. “Excuse me?” I asked. “You heard me,” he answered. “I want you to play that piece of music, but if you play any of it correctly or as written, you’re going to get hit with a drumstick. Hard. Now play it.” I glanced over at my mother and she had a puzzled if not horrified look on her face, as if to say, “Who is this madman?” But I did as instructed and played the snare drum etude on the practice pad, playing the notes upside down and completely out of rhythm, et cetera, rendering the piece of music unrecognizable. When I felt that I had done this long enough, I stopped and Gaber then took a satisfied puff on his cigar, said “Good” and continued: “Now, I want you to go over to that window, look outside and tell me what you see…” I followed these instructions, and he prompted me while I was at the window “Is the sun still shining? Are there clouds up in the sky? The trees are still there, it seems like the earth is still spinning, right?” My mother was smiling now, getting the point of where Professor Gaber was going. “Now, come back to the practice pad.” I did as he instructed. “You just played that snare drum piece as badly as it will ever be played. In fact, it could not be played any worse than how you played it. And yet, what happened? Absolutely nothing. Now, let’s begin…”

Now, if that’s not a life lesson then I don’t know what is.”

I’ll say. Powerful stuff. Let me ask, what first attracted you to jazz, specifically? Any early musical heroes et cetera?

Hearing Art Blakey on record. That said, my early listening menu was diversified if not oddball. I liked “exotic” music, much of what’s known now as space-age bachelor pad music (recordings by Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Esquivel, et. al., which happened to expose me to some of the best of the Los Angeles session musicians!), as well as Blakey, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Papa Jo Jones, and Buddy Rich. Pretty soon I was exposed to the recordings of Louis Hayes, then Eddie Marshall, and then Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Grady Tate, Don Lamond and Ed Shaughnessy, Jack Sperling and Osie Johnson… other names that come to mind: Donald MacDonald, Joe Cocuzzo, Alvin Stoller and Steve Bohannon. And, of course, Phillie Joe Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Bernard Purdie, Al Jackson, Jr… it was all jazz to me! And the list is endless.

Can you talk about your time at Interlochen and then Indiana University? Aside from that early encounter you outlined, what did you find most effective and impactful about Gaber’s approach to teaching?

Interlochen inspired experimentation. Anything was possible. Spectacular place. Gaber inspired touch and tone at IU. I made lifelong friends, musically and otherwise, at both schools. I should also mention Dave Sporny who led the jazz band at Interlochen, and David Baker at IU… both men still with us, happily!

Your professional career got off to an impressive start very quickly. How did you land the gig with Stan Kenton? How did that lead to working with Ferguson and then Weather Report?

One thing leads to another! I first met Stan at the summer jazz camps he was so instrumental in bringing to being (when I was 7 years old in 1961. Other students at that camp included Keith Jarrett, Don Grolnick, Lew Marini, Jr., David Sanborn, Jim McNeely, and Randy Brecker.). Stan and I became friends, as did Stan and my parents. I would sit in with the band every once in a while. Anyways, Stan was hearing about me and my drumming while I was 17 and playing with David Baker’s IU Jazz Band. He needed a drummer all of a sudden and called my father and asked him, “Fred? This is Stan. Is Peter ready?” My dad told him, “Yes,” and an audition was arranged at Lincoln Center the following week where the band was appearing with June Christy (Woody Herman’s band was also on the bill). I played her rehearsal and then did the show (the Newport Jazz Festival) that evening! And joined the band on the road a week later, at my alma mater Interlochen of all places.

After almost three years on the road with Stan, I went back to IU. I had developed a lot of bad playing habits, especially in terms of touch and technique. Gaber worked patiently with me and I was looking forward to finishing college, but Maynard Ferguson called. Three or four times, in fact… kept turning down the offer… they finally asked me if I would be willing to tour for just that summer so that I could go back to IU in the fall. One night in concert with Maynard was all it took to convince me to stay on the road with him – for two years. He was a wonderful boss. And that led to my meeting Jaco Pastorius, his hearing me play, and then his recommending me to Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter to join Weather Report. Let me say that I consider myself first and foremost extremely lucky and fortunate. Beyond that, I’ve tried to do my best to be prepared and to “bring it” to any playing situation or challenge. “Be prepared.” And play the music like I own it. That’s an important quality, a really important quality that bands are looking for. Solid time, sure. Swing? Check. Good dynamic balance? Helps. Plays the time and the music like he or she owns it? A must. Sometimes I feel like a Greyhound bus, especially when I’m in a good rhythm section: “Leave the driving to us…”

Having played with arguably the most revered bassist of his generation and having co-comprised one of the most legendary rhythm sections of contemporary jazz, can you talk about working with Jaco and how that impacted your own approach to playing drums?

One of the first things Jaco said to me after we met and I was walking back to the bandstand to play the next set with Maynard’s band (and he knew that I knew that he would be checking me out): “Hey man… Have Fun!” Which, oddly enough, no one had ever said to me before. And so I did. And that could well characterize our working and personal relationship for most all of the time we played together: we had fun.

He was rhythmically the most reliable bassist I had ever encountered. And his intonation was exact. And the depth and profundity of his ideas and conception were brilliant and stunning. He was one-of-a-kind, that’s for sure.

While always remaining firmly rooted in jazz, your career has nonetheless found you playing with a number of disparate artists, working on films et cetera. If you were to single out three or four, what would be your proudest and/or most enjoyable projects?

I have great memories of playing in the Studio Orchestra at Interlochen Art Academy and with Kenton and Maynard. Weather Report was a real door-opener and a total education. Steps Ahead was liberating. John Abercrombie even more freeing. The trio with John Taylor and Palle Danielsson was a real peak. Playing with Joni Mitchell and the orchestra with Vince Mendoza arranging and conducting was one of my favorite tours. Wow. Hard to name only a few… Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kenny Wheeler, Bob Mintzer’s big band… Apologies for any names left off this short list. The late, great Dave Carpenter (with Bob Sheppard or Alan Pasqua)… I love playing with Alan, we’ve been buddies since 1971 when we first met at IU. And we still play together and we’re both professors at the Thornton School of Music at USC. Same for Bob Mintzer, who I’ve known since 1969. Steely Dan was fun – my kids got a kick out of that. But my real cup of tea is jazz. Speaking of which, I’m playing tonight with Seth MacFarlane of “Family Guy” and “Ted” fame – he’s a terrific singer. I like music that swings. Oh yeah – Patrick Williams’ new album, Home Suite Home, was incredible fun and a challenge. With Chuck Berghofer on bass, any project we do together make my Top Ten list. But perhaps the most fun thing has been my return to a bit of the fusion and R&B/funk milieu. The name of the album is Dr. Um. Get it? It connects my dots and completes so many of my circles. Perhaps that album is the best answer to your question(s).

While it was a lighting-rod for discussion for a while, now that some time has passed, do you feel that the movie Whiplash was a positive for jazz culture? A negative? A non-factor?

As I’ve said in print: it’s Hollywood. That said, any movie that features jazz can only be a good thing. It just gets the education thing so wrong, applying a military basic training or college sports reality into music education, which I have never encountered personally. It does a disservice to all of the music educators and musicians I know, and since it got so many elements of that, as well as drumming wrong, I had a hard time enjoying the film. Since my remarks were published, I have worked with the director of that film Damian Charzelle, on his new movie La La Land, about a piano player who is incredibly “into” Thelonious Monk. The music we recorded for the pre-record didn’t seem very Monk-ish to me in tune or style, so I’m a fellow conspirator now in getting it less-than-right. That’s Hollywood in the nutshell I know. Looks like a pretty entreating film regardless, and Damian is one very talented director.

As a scholar of music, what do you find to be more meaningful – learning via “traditional” methods (classroom, one-on-one lessons) or learning by doing (playing out)?

These need not be mutually exclusive pathways. I did both.

Fair enough! As a teacher, what formats do you prefer: master classes? classroom? private lessons?

Hmmm… I like all three formats, but I feel that I can accomplish the most or be most effective when I’m teaching one-on-one. But I’m not shy, and I’m always happy to talk and explore music with one person or fifty or five hundred. Thinking back to a couple of incredibly enjoyable master classes at the University of North Texas – what a great program they have there! Indiana University, too. Steve Houghton and John Tafoya have put together the single most impressive and all-encompassing percussion department that I’ve come across. That said: we are in the midst of reaching across the musical boundary lines that got set up a few years back at USC, and I’m having a wonderful time teaching the classical students of Joe Pereira and Jim Babor – both of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We pioneered the drum set proficiency program at USC with the help of Roland Corporation, utilizing their electronic kits and creating a drum set version of the piano lab. All pop and, now, jazz students are required to take a semester of drum set proficiency. I deigned the curriculum, lecture the classes (we have 11 sections in total, now) while teaching privately at USC. And all of the ensembles benefit from this drum and rhythmic knowledge. “Time awareness,” I call it.

What do you find to be most rewarding about teaching? Most frustrating?

I love that moment when you can see and hear the lightbulb go “on” and light up in the student’s head. I love it when they ask me something I don’t know. I love it when they kick my ass and play better than me in the lesson – and this happens a lot with the drummers we have at USC. Most frustrating? A lack of passion, I suppose. You do really need to care in order to play this music and have it mean something. I am like most everyone who might be reading this: I have the desire for the music to sound good and to mean something. We are incredibly fortunate to do something every day that can actually help to make the world a slightly better place. Every little bit helps. Do your part: swing!

To younger students of jazz drumming out there, if you were to give one essential piece of advice what would it be?

Play what you’d like to hear.

Any advice for your fellow educators?

Yeah… Don’t be like that dude in Whiplash.

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