Pete “LaRoca” Sims is a legendary drummer. Not very well known among jazz fans, very few musicians can boast of having their jazz first concert recorded in one of Sonny Rollins’ masterpieces (A Night At The Village Vanguard, Blue Note), of having been a member of the John Coltrane Quartet and have recorded in a trio with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow during the 60’s. The drummer gave a long interview to José Francisco “Pachi” Tapiz aka diyeipetea in which he talks about Jazz with the Voice of Experience. Thanks to Diego Sánchez Cascado and Roberto Barahona. And also special thanks to Juan Carlos Hernández, mister links.
This interview was published in Tomajazz in 2004.
Q – What was your first contact with music?
Peter Sims – I grew up in a brownstone in 1940s-50s Harlem with an extended family that was much involved in Jazz. An uncle, Kenneth Bright, was a major shareholder in Circle Records – he owned set no. 2 of the well-known interview of Jelly Roll Morton, which now resides at the Smithsonian (musicologist Alan Lomax owned set no. 1). He also managed rehearsal rooms above Harlem’s renowned Lafayette Theater and, consequently, I was able to hear the rehearsals of many Jazz greats, like Bird, Dizzy, and Hot Lips Page, among others. Because he was active in the Jazz community, artists like Fats Waller would often play at family parties. Knowing of my fascination with Jazz, he arranged for the two of us to be the sole audience at a concert broadcast by James P. Johnson and Baby Dodds. I’m sure there are others who share the privilege (maybe they’ll read this), but I’ve never met anyone else who has heard Baby Dodds live. Does that mean anything to anybody anymore?
Also, my stepfather played Jazz trumpet. I often accompanied him to jam sessions and enjoyed hearing him practice at home. When I started playing, he would take me on his dance gigs and I would play bongos when the band played a calypso, mambo, etc. Later, he provided insight for my composing and arranging.
As to playing, I began at age 10 with a Junior High School orchestra. I played timpani (on tom-toms) and learned drum fundamentals. At Music & Art High School I played orchestral percussion (real timps) and, since they had no drummer on the faculty, I was a student instructor for 3 1/2 of my years there. I also played timpani in the City College of N.Y. orchestra for two years. Beginning in high school, I played timbales in dance bands for about six years and had one fondly-remembered duet with Tito Puente. In 1955 I started playing a drum set in a Catskill-mountain show band. My first Jazz gig was with Sonny Rollins in 1957 (memorialized by a couple of tracks on the Blue Note album, Night at the Village Vanguard).
Q – You played with Sonny Rollins for a couple of years. I suppose you spent some time on the road with him. What can you tell us about the great tenor sax?
Peter Sims – I worked with Sonny intermittently for a period covering a couple of years, but there weren’t many gigs (3-4 weeks of club work and 3 concerts). He was one of my favorite players well before I had the opportunity to play with him, so each of those jobs was treasured. It was his piano-less trio period and the interaction was intense.
What I love about Sonny’s playing is that he is so inventive within the mainstream Jazz vernacular. Because he knows so many ways to deal with musical material, he is never repetitive and hasn’t had to invent a new language. Also, he never asked me to do anything but swing!
Sonny was, and still is, one of my very few heroes! Incidentally, so is Max Roach, who recommended me to Sonny. I’m always impressed by Max’s inclination to explore other elements of percussion and Swing (Oom Boom, including a kettledrum, ensemble with strings). Max alone makes me feel like I might be lagging behind.
Q – Can you tell us something about George Russell?
Peter Sims – I know very little about George Russell. I had the opportunity to do only one album (two rehearsals?) and one concert with him. The primary time musicians spend together is on the road, when they travel, eat, and sometimes room together. George and I didn’t share that. What I do know is that he contributed a distinct, original voice, and that’s the thing I like and respect most in art.
I no longer have any of his recordings, but as I recollect, his music was loyal to the Swing tradition (if not, I wouldn’t have been there).
Q – I mistakenly though that you had a long term collaboration with George Russell, I hope doesn’t happen again! I apologize.
Peter Sims – Since I’ve had to spend so much time away from the Jazz scene, I don’t expect people (35 years later) to know much about my period of greatest musical activity. Even my personal discography is incomplete at 35 entries. The British magazine Music Makers published a 36-item discography of mine in the mid-1960s (there have been at least a dozen re-issues, new releases and compilations since then). If I don’t know the full details of my career, I can’t fault anyone else for not knowing. No apology is necessary.]
Q – You have played with another silent revolutionary of Jazz: Mr. Andrew Hill. With what sort (size, instruments-line-up) of group were you involved with? How do you feel about his music? I think it’s revolutionary, but not in an inmediate way.
Peter Sims – I recorded with Andrew Hill – once when we were both sideman and (I think) once with him as leader. We never played on a stage together. That happened a lot. I lived in NYC and was known to read music. Lots of musicians came to NYC alone because there were so many good musicians here to play with. Fortunately for me, Alfred Lion (Blue Note) and Max Gordon (Village Vanguard) would often recommend me to them. But I only got to play with them for one recording or a one week gig. I have no complaint.]
Blue Note told me that they polled their customers to determine which artists to include in their Connoisseur Series. Andrew got the most votes and I was second. That’s what caused the re-issue of Basra.
Q – You’ve had a long-term relationship with Joe Henderson. Can you tell us about it?
Peter Sims – Joe Henderson is one of those musicians with whom I got to record in the ’60s (I think he had then just recently arrived in NYC). There were two albums with him as leader and one for Freddie Hubbard. We were both getting lots of work then and went our separate ways.
I didn’t get a chance to play on stage with him until 1997, when he did a tour (3 concerts in Europe and 3 in the US) promoting his Verve recording of Porgy and Bess. He may have done some club work after that, but it was his final concert tour. Looking back, I feel quite privileged to have been a part of it.
I was deeply impressed and moved by his masterful playing. He was highly polished, profound, subtle, and intense. He was extremely fluent in a great combination of the traditional vernacular with his own. Hearing it unfold and being in a position to participate was a great pleasure. Part of being an accompanist is that the stronger the soloist, the more I can do all that I know to do. So, Joe was as good as it gets.
Q – Would you talk about your relationship with one of the most important figures in Jazz: John Coltrane.
Peter Sims – My relationship with Coltrane was short. When he got his opportunity to make a band (@1959-60), the three guys he wanted in his quartet McCoy, Garrison, and Elvin weren’t available. So, John’s opportunity became an opportunity for me. Although I never got to play with Miles, Miles recommended me to John, and I got to do the first 5-6 months.
That included the debut, which was 10 weeks at the Jazz gallery in NYC Ð 2 weeks each opening for Dizzy, Monk, Chico Hamilton, Max, and Count Basie. Jobs don’t come like that any more, and, what a way to introduce a band!
Steve Kuhn played piano for most of that 10-week gig along with Steve Francis, a bassist from Philadelphia. There was also a tour including Small’s Paradise in NYC’s Harlem, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago, by which time McCoy had joined the band. I think there were also a couple of concerts, but memory is uncertain.
It was the perfect time for me to play with John. He had recently recorded the album Giant Steps. The title tune was difficult for me. It has a hard-wired harmonic rhythm (i.e., the pattern established by the points at which a new chord is played). Drummers use those points as accents or anchors. When they dominate, as in Giant Steps, most drummers will do essentially the same thing and sound essentially the same. I never want to sound like every other drummer and, at the same time, I can’t ignore the character of the material. So, Giant Steps was difficult.
But John was moving away from that and we played Inchworm, Favorite Things, Equinox, Body and Soul (I orchestrated John’s arrangement for my sextet) and lots of other stuff that I was more than happy to play with him. Also, he had just left Miles and his playing was marvelous – a true treat.
I say it was a perfect time for me because he hadn’t yet gotten to his Free/spiritual phase and was still swinging. I’ve already expressed my preference for Swing over Free.
Q – Is it true what is said about him the he was all time playing his instruments?
Peter Sims – “All time” has to be an overstatement. E.g., he was not playing when we were driving from one city to another. But, more than any other musician I’ve known, John was likely to spend the between-set breaks playing in a dressing room, hotel room, club cellar, or anyplace that provided a little privacy.
Withdrawal from Jazz business
Q – What are the reasons that forced you to leave the music profession to became a lawyer to practice show business law?
Peter Sims – Although it’s a common misconception, I never did, or even thought, anything remotely related to leaving music. You refer (below) to the critical time when Fusion arose. Fusion has been my nemesis and put me out of business.
A few examples: 1. I once played with a fine Jazz composer/arranger for a couple of years. He then decided to do an album with a very popular Rhythm & Blues singer. It was probably commercially advantageous for his band. But it required that I play the BackBeat and Shuffle – extremely repetitive (and boring) straight-eighth timekeeping, and the basis of Fusion. I protested. I was never asked to play with that band again.
- I once played for a fine Jazz soloist who was much favored by the “industry,” i.e., there were many forces at work to make him that year’s Golden Boy. He decided to do a recording that combined his ensemble with The Byrds. Well, clearly, The Byrds were not suddenly going to become swinging improvisors (to this day, they have not). Instead, I was expected to accommodate them by “swinging” straight eighths (that’s Fusion again, folks). Again I protested. And, again, I couldn’t play with that band again.
After I recorded Basra and Turkish Women, John Hammond at Columbia Records decided to record a great Jazz saxophonist with an East Indian singer. The ensemble was the sax quartet (including me), the singer, and an Indian band including sitar, tabla, etc. Frankly, the music was divine – with one glaring exception. Hammond, hoping to appeal to the broadest possible audience, included a Rock drummer. How was that related to this ensemble? I could easily fit in with the Jazz/Indian concept and the resulting fine rhythmic filigrees – but, not with a Rock drummer slamming a BackBeat. Again, I protested – actually, I refused to proceed as long as the Rock drummer was involved. They sent in a couple of guys who looked liked they wanted to break both my legs. I continued to refuse. The recording was cancelled. And, I became a Bad Boy. Blackballed! Not to be hired. My calls not to be answered.
After incident no. 2, I didn’t get many gigs for my band or calls to play as a sideman. My ex-wife then being pregnant, I started driving a taxi to pay the bills. After incident no. 3 – and five years of taxi driving – it was clear that the situation was not going to improve anytime soon.
If driving a taxi became permanent, Fusion might have come to look like a good way out (after all, it’s not that I can’t play that way). Fortunately, I found a way to resume my education.
So, from my point of view, I went back to school to escape the taxi – after the music business would have nothing to do with me. To say that I left music is a canard. Reminds me of the saying, “Cut off my legs and call me Shorty!”
Q – You also played during the heyday of Free-Jazz. What are your thoughts about Free-Jazz? What can you tell us about your record with Paul Bley? At the same time (more or less) of Free-Jazz in the USA, in Europe (Germany, England) there was a response to Free-Jazz. Musicians like Peter Brötzmann, Han Bennink, Alexander Von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker, Paul Lovens played that music in his own way. What do you think about this musical movement?
Peter Sims – I like Free Jazz mainly in a logical way, meaning that I respect its intention to extend the boundaries of music. As with everything else, if there are rules, there will be somebody who wants to break them. And, I’d rather hear free music than rhythmically repetitive Fusion.
Emotionally, I feel that Free music misses some of the fundamentals of music. I once read a story about soldiers having to break step when crossing an old wooden bridge, because if they walked in march cadence they might cause the bridge to come apart. In music, given the energy level we use, the strength of hitting together (attack) is very desirable. I seldom hear that kind of togetherness in Free music.
Much in music is not actually played. In addition to the charged silence, the listener is often set up to fill in the blanks. For instance, if one plays Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, and then stops, the listener’s ear provides the final Do. This is a fundamental device for communicating through music. It draws on a universal human awareness (which is why music transcends culture and language) and it’s quite common in Jazz and Symphonic. Listen to Stravinsky and note how often you think you know where the music is headed, but he then takes it someplace else. It seems to me that Free music, by suspending the rules and avoiding any traditional vernacular, is less able to set up expectations in the listener.
Of course, as a Jazz drummer dedicated to Swing, my bias is obvious. I love the challenge and discipline of playing time. Sticking (pun intended) with a great Jazz improvisor is the fastest ride around. Anticipating what he’s going to play and shaping the time flow so that he’s always accompanied (never alone) is the height of playing.
Also, timekeeping is an element of music that everybody feels, so it lends itself very well to setting the listener up to expect one thing and then doing something else. That was the nature of the “bombs” dropped by the early Be-bop drummers. Surprise and excitement were added to the music. It’s a device that’s been used for a long time – e.g., Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony and lots of Beethoven.
Free music is in a constant state of surprise and, consequently, presents no surprise at all. So, I’m not really a fan of Free music. Having said that, Jazz is based on individual expression and I’m compelled to respect the Free player’s option to express himself as he chooses.
As to Paul Bley, he was living in NYC when I first started playing Jazz and, fortunately, I had several opportunities to play with him, including two of his albums, Footloose and Floater.
I hope I won’t offend Paul by saying so, but I don’t think of him as playing Free music. I think he is a free spirit. His music and playing are unique and obviously good. In his trio we played mainly his compositions and those of his then-wife, Carla. He never asked me to do anything but swing, though it was impossible to predict the direction his playing would take. The “glue” was our sense (the bassist was usually Steve Swallow) of when to come together for a strong attack in the midst of following our individual pursuits. At all times, the Western music tradition, Jazz vernacular, and Swing were happening, so I don’t call it Free music.
Most of the same comments apply to Andrew Hill. But, I didn’t play with him as often, so it’s harder to verbalize that experience.
I regret to say that I’m not familiar with the other musicians that you mention, though I would certainly like to be.
Present times and thoughts about the business…
Q – You have played during the golden age of Jazz. You were a contemporary to Miles Davis, Coltrane, Monk… You have also participated in those critical moments of fusion and the decline of Jazz’s major audiences. What’s your vision about the current Jazz scene?
Peter Sims – It is indeed sad that there seem to be fewer people who enjoy Jazz. However, what you refer to as “the decline of Jazz” I see as a decline of culture. Or, more accurately, the abandonment of a cultural tradition. Jazz is just one of many things that have suffered as a result.
My sense is that the damage was done in the 60s, when the status quo was challenged on many fronts. Some challenges are hard to deny, e.g., civil rights and women’s rights. Others were more subject to debate, e.g., the sex and drug revolutions, Viet Nam war resistance, Gay pride, etc. Then there were the assassinations – JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X – direct attacks upon institutions. Everybody had something they held important either destroyed or turned upside down.
Fusion took hold in this climate. Jazz musicians, even when self-taught, are pretty expert – they must be to create good music minute-by-minute, night after night, ad lib. But, Rock bands, most with musicians not nearly as good, were making the big money. Rhythm & Blues and Country & Western also earned greater profits than Jazz.
Many Jazz musicians, knowing that they could play anything from Bartok to Chuck Berry, decided to go for a bigger audience. There were other innovations, e.g., Free music, but Fusion had the broadest effect.
The best example is Miles. His sound alone made everything he played beautiful. It’s not often mentioned, but he was one of the all-time great Jazz arrangers. It was not only the tunes he chose, but also how he had the band deliver them. So, even when he went Fusion, with the rhythm section usually playing something repetitive in straight eighths, Miles himself continued to sound great.
The problem is that this was Miles. An alumnus of the Charlie Parker quintet. The leader of many bands including the early quintet with Bags, Monk, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke, that recorded one of the great versions of “The Man I Love”. Also, leader of great swinging combos that can be identified by drummers – Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams – and the reader should remember (or go hear) the great albums that resulted. And, of course, there was the marvelous collaboration with Gil Evans, that brought the marriage of the African-derived Jazz tradition (rhythm, melody) with the European symphonic tradition (form, harmony, devices) to its greatest height since Gershwin.
So, when this iconic champion of Jazz (with several other Jazz greats) went Fusion, it was the death knell for Swing. Since this is my chance to tell the story, I’ll put it another way: Miles opted for Fusion and nobody listened when I said it was a catastrophic mistake – that Swing was the sine qua non of Jazz. Yet, the fact that your question refers to “the decline of Jazz to major audiences” proves (to me) that I was correct. And, Jazz musicians did much of the damage by abandoning the essence of Jazz, Swing.
A couple of definitions: All popular music gets a “groove”. A groove indicates where to bob one’s head, snap fingers, pat feet, or make a dance step. There’s one particular groove that’s called Swing. It’s syncopated (not straight eighths) and American-born. I think of it as chank-a-dang (say that a few times and you’ll know what I mean). It occurs only in Jazz! All other popular musics use straight (even) eighths.
There’s another, even more vital, element of Jazz, i.e., the walking bass. To me, it’s the greatest musical development of the 20th century (12-tone notwithstanding). If one is aware of European music history, and its evolution from Plainsong, then there’ll probably be no serious dispute. The walking bass provides basic propulsion and a countermelody (ad lib) at the bottom of the ensemble. Fusion abandons the walking bass and, again, it was Jazz musicians who did the most damage.
It was during the heyday of my predecessors, Clarke, Max, Haynes, the two Joneses, Shelley Manne, and so many others, that nightclubs got rid of the dance floor. Drummers were free to “drop bombs” (as it was called), i.e., to play accents in unexpected places that were not limited by dance rhythms. The drummer became a creative player; timekeeping was a living thing determined by the tune and/or soloist.
What an insult for Fusion to impose the repetitive BackBeat on Jazz drummers! How ironic, since the BackBeat is merely the handclap used by American slaves when they were forbidden to have drums! How bizarre to haul a set of drums just to do what people did without drums! Given my origin (described above), and given that I can still Swing, Fusion was/is not an option.
The critical element in all this is human nature. Great masses of people find their comfort zone in Fusion, Rock & Roll, etc. The 60’s revolutions undermined the positive elements of Society’s institutions as well as the negative. The assassinations deprived us (in the U.S.) of reliance upon (s)elected leaders.
Who profited from this? Of all things, the common man! That’s a good thing, right? Well, if we forget that all musicians used to have their own sound, and we don’t mind that today’s musicians and bands sound more alike than different, then that’s a good thing. If we forget that there are guitarists like Jim Hall, and don’t mind that rather mediocre Rock guitarists define today’s guitar vernacular, then that’s a good thing. If we remember, then we’ve lost precious values, including our taste for excellence and virtuosity.
There is some evidence of loss in the names today’s bands choose. Here are some from ads in a recent Village Voice: The Barbarians, erasure, Dead Emotion, Pungent Stench, Lost Souls Society. This nihilistic trend has eclipsed the traditional artistic goals of emphasizing the best of human nature and trying to expand our grasp of reality.
There is further evidence in the (U.S.?) television and film trend toward “reality” programming. News announcers host “Magazine” shows that use documentary-type footage of actual events. “Law and Order” and similar shows dramatize real-life legal events and situations. Films too often take the form, “The Story of …” – some actual person’s crisis. And of course there are the “reality” shows that take people of no particular distinction and put them into an artificial competition often depending upon their willingness to eat spiders, etc. I like a good Whodunit, but that takes an imaginative writer and they don’t get much work either.
Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t have a Secretary of Culture who would correlate to the Minister of Culture in many European countries. If we did have, he would probably put this soccer-club mentality in the proper perspective and promote the higher values and potential of culture. Instead, MBAs look at the bottom line and declare that whatever produced the greatest profits last year is what should be done again this year. For the arts, that’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope. An artist doesn’t ask his audience what to create next.
It’s curious that Jazz is belittled for its origin in bordellos and now I’m speaking like an elitist. But things have gone too far. E.g., an ad for a popular U.S. beer features a young Rock band and one of the “musicians” states, “You don’t have to be good. You just have to really mean it.” Well, where does that leave people who have invested the time and effort to become really good at what they do? Does the ad intend that we should not strive to be good at what we do? Some defense is necessary here, even if it sounds elitist.
If great numbers of people are satisfied by jumping up and down in place, returning to paganism/tribalism, and watching people just like themselves, then they should have those things, and the MBA’s will make sure they do. But when they suppress creativity and imagination then it’s a tyranny of the majority. Jazz has suffered from this as have many elements of culture. With luck, this will be a temporary aberration and we’ll have more truly creative art to enjoy.
Q – What’s your opinion about the current state of Jazz, musically and economically?
Peter Sims – I’ve stated much of my opinion in terms of the “decline of culture”, how Fusion displaced Swing, the tyranny of MBAs catering to the masses, the resulting loss of interest in virtuosity, and the absurdity of Music Television.
There are a few other issues. i) One is that Jazz typically combined African-American with European culture. The African-American elements included “blue” notes, syncopation, harmony (much enriched by the European counterpart, and a vernacular that is, perhaps, best identified when back-related to Black Gospel music.
As Jazz survives today, the African-American elements are less and less apparent. Just as Free music is a logical extension of the Jazz tradition of personal expression, so is Jazz without the African-American elements a logical extension.
Again, my bias as a Black Swing drummer is obvious, but I submit that neither such extension is authentic. Apparently, there are more people who disagree with me than there are who agree, but, that’s exactly the problem with the current state of Jazz and why it’s sensed as a decline Ð it’s not what it used to be, and that’s not necessarily progress.
It must also be said that since Black performers have discovered they can make a fortune in Rap and Hip-Hop, they’re not much interested in learning to play less profitable Jazz.
ii) The technological revolution also has a detrimental effect on the arts and, particularly, Jazz. The best-known problem is the new idea that “since my computer can do it (e.g., download music), it’s OK.” But there are other aspects.
First, there’s the home entertainment center. When I was young, people read newspapers and gathered around the radio. Going out was a common form of relief from the everyday routine. Today, TV, VCRs, CDs, and DVDs seem to bring the world into one’s living room, so why bother to leave home? Of course, the venues that present live performances then lose their audience and disappear!
Performing arts need to be performed. Bands blend and coordinate when they play together over time. Composers scale the scope of their projects to what they can get rehearsed and performed. IMO, there is no greater economical detriment on the current state of the arts than people staying home and not attending live performances. Only acting and related screen/TV arts can prosper in the Home-Entertainment environment. Music, in particular, suffers because a few musicians who can manipulate MIDI, write for screen/TV, and displace live musicians.
iii) Next technologically, a recording of me is my only real competition. But, more importantly, a recording “freezes” the music. A recording is the image of one performance, once upon a time. In real life, performance incorporates the instant time, place, personnel, acoustics, audience, and, among other things, the possibility that one of the performers is having a difficult time in his personal life. The same tune performed the next time with the same personnel may take on quite a different character. On many levels, recordings are the enemy of live performance. If people only hear recordings, they will never get the sense that music is a living thing – yet everybody is rushing to download free recorded music. A professional Jazz player has tremendous lore on tap that allows him to respond quickly and appropriately to the various thrusts and nuances that arise during live performance.
iv) Also, I’ve owned one computer or another since 1980 and they have become a wonderful aid to creativity. But they’ve also contributed to the decline of culture and, especially, music tradition. For example, Time magazine (Jan. 26, 2004) reviewed Apple Computer’s new program, Garage Band, as follows: “Garage Band is aimed at amateurs. You don’t need to read the manual to put together a pretty professional-sounding tune. You don’t even need much talent.”
Time magazine continues: “… you lay down loops Ð prerecorded short riffs by drums, bass, piano and so on. … The loops are arranged … also under mood-based headings like ‘Relaxed,’ ‘Intense,’ ‘Cheerful’ and so on. Click and drag your loops into the score, and they become interactive.”
It’s hard to know what to say. Time magazine, in a way, sums up all that I’ve been getting at. I’ve been privileged to hear and play with, or, as a kettledrummer, play the music of, some of the most talented musicians who ever lived. In this case, Apple Computer and Time’s uncritical review are extremely offensive and dangerous. Next there will be an algorithm that enables the computer itself to select and combine the loops and eliminate the human factor entirely Ð and they’ll say that’s music, too.
Well, excuse me, but music is the result of bow on string, breath through metal, fingers on ivory, sticks and mallets on brass and skins – all applied by real people who’ve taken the time to learn the skill and magic of it. Musical compositions are created by people who are well aware of what was written before and are respectful and caring enough to be sure that they have something significant to add. And, any musician worth the title hears phrases longer in time than 4-bar and 8-bar loops.
Technology gives a person with no particular talent a videocam and it’s, “Look, Ma, I’m on television!” He gets Garage Band and it’s, “Listen, Ma, I’m a Rock star.”
The harm is that the passage of time diminishes the number of true artists among us and our memory of their work. As the definitions of music, professionalism, art, etc., are changed, we’ll get lulled into acceptance and find it harder and harder to preserve any semblance of true creativity.
At bottom, again, is human nature. I can only regret that so many people are satisfied by childish timekeeping, repetitive melodies, and banal lyrics (Cole Porter, where are you when we need you?).
Peter Sims: the musician nowadays
Q – You are now enjoying a brilliant rejuvenation. You have recorded for Blue Note. Are there plans for a new record?
Peter Sims – There aren’t likely to be any recordings for an established label since, advised by MBA’s, they’re looking for Pop artists and the “next hot act” (Alfred Lion of Blue Note is twirling in his grave). I do have some DAT’s of the band’s last performance at Sweet Basil and I’m mastering them for an artist-released CD.
I want to make one comment outside the context of your question. Music today is in a strange, unfortunate position. In the U.S., we have a TV channel called Music Television (MTV) which makes the absurdity obvious. Music can’t be seen! Music is a treat for the ear. So what is MTV about? Well, it’s about celebrities, visuals, lyrics, dancing, etc. It’s not about music. When music is subordinated to all these other purposes, it doesn’t have to be very good music – and, most often, it is not. But MTV has changed the definition of music, and actual music, that transcends language and doesn’t need lyrics or costumes or any other trimmings, gets lost. If you like real music, close your eyes and listen to MTV, you’ll soon get bored; close your eyes and listen to actual music, it becomes ever more clear and powerful.
Q – You perform in live concerts. Would you introduce the members of your group?
Peter Sims – Taking this position, I’m not an industry favorite and I don’t get a lot of work. Also, SwingTime’s repertoire is not easy. Since, as a result, the band’s personnel changes a lot, I’m fortunate to have a lot of fine musicians who have learned the material and enable me always to get a great band together. Usually, many of the following are available:
Dave Liebman, Chris Potter, Marcus Strickland or Joe Ford – s. sax
Don Braden, Ricky Ford, Ravi Coltrane or David Sanchez – t. sax
Jimmy Owens, Eddie Henderson or Claudio Roditi – tpt./flŸg.
Steve Kuhn, JoAnne Brackeen, George Cables or Carlos McKinney – pno.
Santi DeBriano or Walter Booker – bass
Q – What is the quality of the music you wish to deliver to your audiences?
Peter Sims – Your question regarding musical “quality” is very interesting. I hope I understand it correctly. The following is an attempt to direct the listener’s ear and attention.
SwingTime’s musical qualities center around the fact that it’s a drummer’s band. Drums are typically an accompanying instrument. Many drummers who play in a very personal style have their own bands because the style is more prominent than is appropriate for a pure accompanist. One prominent element of my playing is an intensity that, hopefully, propels the soloists and provides excitement for the audience.
To cushion the intensity and, as a good accompanist, get out of the soloists’ way, I do everything I can to smooth the timeflow. One technique is to phrase everything in one (1/4, 1/8, etc.), i.e., every beat gets the same emphasis as every other beat; the meter sign doesn’t dictate where accents occur (remember those bombs!). Another device is to play as much on the leading edge of the beat as possible, which has the effect of blurring the separation of one beat from another (how different from the BackBeat, Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues, Country & Western, HipHop, and every other form of popular music). This also gives a feeling of speed, even at medium tempi.
Another major idea is avoiding patterns. Once a pattern is begun, it will be missed if it stops, particularly a rhythmic pattern. So, of course, the best course is never to start a pattern. Instead, we rely on the power that comes from attack – even at off-beat places.
Hopefully, the audience will be engaged in an interactive way – staying with the twists and turns and eager to see how they’re going to resolve. At best, they’ll find themselves suspended/floating in an unfamiliar place. With the beat smoothed, no dance rhythms, and robust syncopation, the music never sets down and is always in motion. The unfamiliarity comes from an impression of newness, since everything is designed to change. The tunes are chosen and arranged to result in quite different performances from night to night (Heaven forfend that I should get bored). And, much of the basic character of the band changes depending upon which of the above musicians are playing; consistency comes from the repertoire (and me).
Perhaps most important, I hope the audience senses being in the heart of Mainstream Jazz, played, as always, in a very personal way. They should perceive that variety can be had by importing music from other genres and cultures (Basra, Turkish Women, Drum Town, Nihon Bashi) to produce a band that can swing all night, without resort to Fusion, Funk, etc.,. And they may conclude that if one is interested in helping Jazz to thrive, then one should preserve Swing, one of the main components that distinguishes Jazz from all other musics.
Q – I understand that you like Indian music. How do you relate to it?
Peter Sims – Actually, among the tunes I’ve recorded are Basra (Middle Eastern), Malague–a (Spanish), Drum Town (African), Nihon Bashi (Japanese) and Turkish Women at the Bath (a set of six tunes based upon themes from various Middle Eastern countries and Turkey, intended to “illuminate” the Ingres painting that is so named). One of my tunes, Raga, is based upon a definition I once read of how an Indian raga is constructed, but I haven’t had the opportunity yet to record it. (More to come!)
Q – What do you find in it that makes it such a special musi?
Peter Sims – My use of these ethnic themes is primarily an homage to their beautiful qualities. Also, it’s my way to expand the Swing vernacular. Usually, people borrow elements of Jazz, e.g., harmony, melodic devices, improvisational sense, and take them to other musics. The one thing they don’t (can’t?) take is Swing. If they take Swing, then they’re playing a form of Jazz.
I try to do the opposite, and bring elements of other music into Jazz and apply Swing. It’s much like what many other Jazz musicians have done when they take popular tunes, Broadway tunes, folk tunes, even nursery rhyme melodies, and Swing them. On a lesser scale, it’s akin to Gil and Bill Evans, and Gershwin bringing elements of Symphonic to Jazz.
IMO, those who borrow from Jazz without borrowing Swing simply want to associate themselves with Jazz (it is a credential with cachet) with no concern for the wellbeing of Jazz. Those who bring elements of other musics to Jazz (i.e., Swing) help Jazz to thrive (survive?).
Finally, as a Jazz drummer, I’m looking for material that allows me to Swing with a broad brush and does not restrict me to repetitive rhythmic patterns. Such ethnic material accomplishes that and is about 1/6 of SwingTime’s book.
© José Francisco Tapiz, TomaJazz 2021