The following was taped at Mickey Roker’s house in April 2011. Thanks to Mike Boone for arranging the introduction and to Hyland Harris for the transcription. Before my visit, Red O’Sullivan supplied valuable commentary on Roker’s vast discography and suggested I bring up Arthur Harper.
Ethan Iverson: Thanks for seeing me today. I’ve always enjoyed your playing very much.
Mickey Roker: Oh, man. I’m just a swinger. I’m from the old school you know, so I’m not too much of a solo player but just a good time-keeper.
EI: Your first name is actually Granville.
EI: Where is that from?
MR: I’m a junior. My father’s name is Granville. He’s from Nassau. It’s a British Isle. Slave master name. You know black people are named after their plantation owners: It’s like a British name.
In fact the first time I went to London, me and Cranshaw went together with Joe Williams and we saw a street called Granville and the cross street was called Melbourne. Melbourne is Cranshaw’s middle name; Robert Melbourne Cranshaw.
EI: That’s great.
I have a CD here; I thought the coolest thing to do would be to play some excerpts of some records and see if they spark some memories.
MR: OK — you want me to put it on? Let me check this out.
(Gigi Gryce, “Frankie and Johnny” from The Hap’nins, 1960)
MR: Who’s this?
EI: This is Gigi Gryce.
MR: Oh man, one of the first records when I went to New York.
EI: Julian Euell on bass. Did you know him much? He sounds great but he’s not on that many records.
MR: I knew him during those years. We weren’t really personal friends. He took Reggie Workman’s place. That’s Richard Wyands on piano. Boy, that brings back memories.
Gigi was a great arranger. I couldn’t read a note, man. But I memorized. We rehearsed and we played it a couple of times and I would have it. I had to learn how to read over the years. When I first went to New York I couldn’t read music.
EI: I am surprised, because you are on so many studio dates where you are playing the charts perfectly.
MR: Well, I would tell them in the beginning that I did not know how to read. Usually by the time the horns players got it, I had been listening and I got it. After I had been in New York for a while I got a teacher called Charlie Perry. Charlie Perry gave me the basics in reading and I studied with him for about six months. Then I started getting so many gigs cause I could spell pretty good, you know. That enabled me to play with Duke Pearson’s big band. From there I went on to Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Modern Jazz Quartet. They all had written music.
EI: These are some of the last records Gigi made before dropping out for a while. Did you guys play many gigs or just record?
MR: We played around New York and we went to Pittsburgh one time. We did not do that many gigs, ’cause the system was against Gigi. Gigi was instrumental in showing guys how to set up their own publishing company. So those people were losing a lot of money, and they kind of blackballed Gigi, as far as I know. He studied law and he showed a lot of guys how to publish their own records. I don’t know what happened to Gigi but I think he died of heartbreak ’cause a lot of guys did not back him up. That money makes people do some weird stuff.
EI: No doubt.
MR: You gotta excuse my voice. My throat has been messed up.
EI: What’s wrong with your throat?
MR: I don’t have no idea. I remember one time, about ten years ago, maybe a little longer… I had a motorcycle accident and I had a collapsed lung. (Imitates Miles’ voice) I sounded like Miles Davis. Then they drained the fluid out of me. I don’t know. I went to the doctor and they don’t see nothing. I sing quite a bit in my church choir so they figure that I am straining my voice.
EI: Is this the neighborhood you grew up in?
MR: Yeah, I was raised in this house. When we first came to Philadelphia, we got an apartment right around the corner. 1133 Kaplan Street. My grandmother worked for an Italian family that lived here. When they moved out, my uncle had just got discharged out of the army. So he got the GI loan and she sold it to him for about a thousand. 1947.
EI: So this house has been in your family since 1947?
MR: 1947. And look, it was full of people. My grandmother and my uncle and we had roomers to help pay the rent. Then me and my wife lived here and we had two kids and they got married and they started having kids. The house was full. So me and my wife, one day said; look these kids are driving us crazy. We can’t do nothing. We can’t get no rest or nothing. So we bought a house around the corner and fixed it up and put our kids in there.
My wife died about nine years ago.
EI: I’m sorry to hear that.
MR: Me, too. My son took it so hard that he mourned himself to death. He had bad sugar diabetes and just would not take care of himself.
EI: How old was he when he passed?
MR: He was fifty two and my wife was sixty two. Now I am in this great big old house by myself. I don’t want to sell it and I don’t want to move cause there is too much sentiment here.
EI: It’s in great condition.
MR: I keep it in shape.
I am going to make you work hard in this hour, Mickey because I have a lot of stuff to play.
MR: Play it.
(Junior Mance, “Tin Tin Deo” from Happy Time, 1962.)
MR: Yeah! “Tin Tin Deo.”
EI: Tell us about that “Tin Tin Deo” beat.
MR: That’s a bolero beat. (Sings the beat) The first part is just a set up for the bolero.
EI: Junior Mance and Ron Carter with you.
MR: Oh yeah. That’s the first album I did with Junior Mance. It was with Ron Carter. He was supposed to go with us. When I joined Junior Mance it was me and Ron Carter. Of course we always had a good time playing together, but then Ron Carter went with Bobby Timmons. He and Tootie Heath went with Timmons. So I got Cranshaw.
(Listens to the arrangement at the turnaround)
Ha ha…You see every tune Dizzy writes has a built in arrangement. If you just play the song, there is an arrangement already.
EI: Seems like these Dizzy Gillespie tunes are special tunes. You need to learn them when you are growing up to learn about the music.
MR: Yeah. When I first started playing, we used to have jam sessions right here in this house. With a piano over there. My uncle bought a piano. The drums would be set up right here and the bass would be over there. Every Sunday we would have jam sessions with cats like McCoy, Kenny Barron, Arthur Harper, Reggie Workman. An alto player named “C” Sharpe. Odean Pope used to come. Philadelphia cats, you know. The drummer that inspired me the most was Eddie Campbell. Boy, that cat could play, man. He could take an idea and just wring it out. And he would be smiling all of the time.
EI: What about Lex Humphries?
MR: I didn’t know Lex Humphries too well, although I knew about him. He’s younger than me. When I first started playing, Lex was in the army. I had been in the army and was out. I got out of the army about ’55… my first jazz gig was around ’56. Around ’57 he was getting out of the army. I was supposed to play with Sam Reed at this place called Spider Kelly’s, here in Philly, ’cause I was a rhythm and blues player. Lex got out of the army and Sam gave Lex the gig because Lex was supposed to get ready and play with Dizzy in New York and he needed some money. Lex was a fantastic drummer. Philadelphia has a way with coming up with some drummers, boy.
EI: That’s for sure.
MR: And it’s still like that, and there are still young drummers like that. There’s a young drummer named Byron Landham, and some others…Rodney Green…There are a bunch of young drummers that play their buns off in Philly. But the drum is such a powerful instrument, it goes to a lot of young drummers heads. When people tell them how good they sound, they can’t handle it.
EI: What happened to Lex Humphries?
MR: Lex Humphries died. I don’t know what happened to him. He was in New York and then when I went to New York, he came back to Philly. Because of marital problems and from what I understand, not to be able to be with his child, his son…he just had the heartache. Some people take stuff real hard. I don’t know.
EI: Fair enough. He always sounds great and it’s too bad he didn’t do more.
MR: What a drummer he was!
EI: I just want to show you one thing in your playing here on “Tin Tin Deo.” (an off-kilter accent a ways into the tune) That’s some bad shit, right in the crack of the beat. You are on the cymbal now: is this still a bolero to you or something else?
MR: Yeah, you just embellish on it but is still a bolero. You know (plays the beat on the table with his fingers).
EI: The next I got here is pretty famous.
(Sonny Rollins, “Three Little Words” from On Impulse!, 1965)
MR: (within a few notes) That’s Sonny Rollins. (starts singing along)
At that time I could have gone with either Sonny Rollins or Trane. McCoy and I came up together. After Elvin was getting ready to leave, McCoy asked me if I would be interested in working with Trane. I said, “Yeah, of course.” Then I decided to go with Sonny because Bob Cranshaw was there.
But when we made this record, Bob Cranshaw wasn’t there. He was with Carmen McRae. So they got Walter Booker to play bass and Ray Bryant. During the time I was working with Sonny he didn’t tell you nothing. He waited to the last minute to tell you something.
In the meantime I am rehearsing with Milt Jackson to come to Philadelphia to play at the Showboat. We rehearse Monday and it’s Friday now. We take off Saturday and Sunday to open on Monday, the matinee. On Friday Sonny calls my house. He calls me “Mister Mickey.” (imitating Sonny’s voice) “Mister Mickey, we have a job in Philadelphia starting Monday.”
I said, “Sonny, I have been rehearsing with Milt Jackson to play with him in Philly. I just can’t…” He didn’t speak to me for two years.
EI: There’s one record with Sonny and you and Billy Higgins both playing in the rain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I didn’t bring it because this one is hard to find. Do you remember anything about that date?
MR: I remember! I had been playing with Sonny for a couple of gigs. I went to set up and I see Billy Higgins setting up too. I say, “What’s happening?” and he said I guess he wants both of us to play on this gig. So the way we did it was, on one chorus I play time and he would embellish, and the next chorus he would play time and I would embellish. Just color up. That’s what we did on the whole record date. And it rained! We were outside and it was summer and the rain was beating on the cymbals. That’s why it took so long for them to release that album cause they had to get the technology to get the raindrops from messing up the sound.
EI: Sonny’s rhythm is so strong. It must be a special feeling to be able to play drums with him.
MR: Yeah. He’s got his pulse. You know who else plays with a pulse like that? Stanley Turrentine. They make it so easy for a drummer because they are so strong with their beat. Their heart is in the right place. I like Joe Henderson for the same reason. Certain people, they don’t give you nothing as far as the beat is concerned but them cats are full of rhythm. They’re full of the beat.
EI: I want to talk to you about the ride cymbal beat you are playing on this track, “Three Little Words.”
MR: I just play the cymbal beat but I turn it around sometimes to keep it interesting.
EI: To me it sounds like it is rising and falling in some kind of way. Like there is a bigger wave through it as well as perfect time.
MR: Well, dynamically you got to color your music up. That’s how you color your music up by swelling, like the ocean. You know how the ocean is.
EI: When you are playing this fast, are you feathering the bass drum?
MR: I almost always pat the bass drum because that’s the bottom of the drums. I’m from the old school. We used to play with no bass player and you had to pat the bass drum. I am so used to that. Sometimes I get too rambunctious with it but I don’t want to sound like Papa Joe Jones. That’s why I like cats like Vernel Fournier. Nobody played that bass drum like that guy, you can hear it all the time. Some drummers tune their bass drum at too high a pitch and you can hear it but it gets on your nerves. But if it is down and damp, it don’t get in the way of the bass player.
EI: Do you think you are feathering here?
MR: (listens to track) No, I am not playing it here. Well, it’s hard to do that on something fast. You can’t do that on something that is extremely fast, unless you are playing without a bass player. (Listening to Sonny solo) Bad dude. Sonny Rollins!
EI: Here’s the next one.
(Duke Pearson, “Sudel,” from Sweet Honey Bee, 1966.)
MR: Oh, this is my favorite record here. That’s a bolero again. Duke Pearson. This is one of my favorite records.
EI: That’s why I brought this. I saw in another interview, you cited this tune as one of your favorite tunes.
MR: Oh, yeah! That band, man… Ron Carter, Duke Pearson, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and James Spaulding. What a band.
The first time I played at Birdland, it was the same band except with Herbie Hancock on piano. It was the same band but Duke changed piano players. They used to have Monday night jam sessions, young people would be coming up and play at the old Birdland at 52nd and Broadway. That was the first time I ever played at Birdland.
EI: You had a close relationship with Duke Pearson. You are on almost all of his records and some of the other ones he arranged for Stanley Turrentine and Donald Byrd.
MR: He was an A&R man for Blue Note and I was one of the drummers he would call. Billy Higgins, Al Foster, me and Al Harewood. They did a recording every week and I was blessed to be on quite a few of them.
EI: How much would you rehearse for a date like this?
MR: We rehearsed two days. We rehearsed Wednesday and Thursday and we recorded on Friday. We rehearsed for about three or four hours each day. We would rehearse for two hours and take a break or something. Get coffee and come back for another hour and a half or hour and fifteen minutes. Every Wednesday and Thursday we would rehearse at a place called Lynn Oliver’s. It was on 89th right around Broadway. It was between Broadway and West End but it was closer to Broadway.
EI: There were drums there and everything?
MR: Yeah, they had some raggedy old drums and a raggedy old tired bass. Cranshaw bought one of those basses. He had to put a lot of money in it to fix it up. It’s a hell of a bass now!
EI: How would you guys get out to Rudy Van Gelder’s?
MR: Some people had cars or we would meet at a hotel at 65th and Broadway. We would meet there if you didn’t have a ride. They had drums out there, we would just bring our cymbals and sticks, because it was out in Jersey.
EI: It makes sense that you rehearsed a lot. When you look at the discographies, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of alternate takes.
MR: Well, considering the caliber of musicians and that we were young dudes, and we knew the music before we got there… Sometimes we got it in one take, just to check the sound and we’ll keep that one you know. ‘Cause you know it isn’t going to get no better. Usually it gets worse.
EI: You are on something like 20 Blue Note records.
MR: I don’t know. I know I did quite a few of them.
EI: They all have involved arrangements and everyone plays them perfectly, it’s really something. Duke Pearson was an influence on Herbie Hancock.
MR: You think so?
EI: I think that album Speak Like a Child had some Duke Pearson influence on it.
MR: Yeah, that’s a nice album. Thad Jones did the arrangements for that. He conducted the band.
EI: You got any good Duke Pearson stories for us?
MR: I got a million of them but I am gonna let him rest in peace! (Laughter)
(Mary Lou Williams, “Blues for Timme” from Free Spirits, 1975.)
MR: Who’s that?
EI: Mary Lou Williams and Buster Williams.
MR: I was really on board then.
EI: This was from ’75.
MR: Mary Lou was something else. That’s when I really started to learn how to read. When I was worked with Mary Lou we was playing at the Hickory House in New York. One of the last clubs in New York. A steakhouse. We stayed there for seven months, working every night.
EI: Who played bass?
MR: When we started out it was Larry Gales. Larry Gales got me the gig and then he left to go play with Monk. When he left I got Arthur Harper. We was living together. We had an apartment in New York that we got from Andrew Hill.
EI: Where was that apartment?
MR: On Eighty Fifth Street. Beautiful place. A whole floor. On the third floor. One hundred and eighty dollars a month. This was in ’62.
EI: Did you play there?
MR: The people (neighbors) were architects and they loved music. I wouldn’t play after 7 o’clock at night. And any time after 12 o’clock ’cause I practiced. I was a practice fanatic back in those days. I had the kind of drums that were pads called Fipps. They were practice pads and I could play on them until midnight if I wanted to.
EI: What did you practice?
MR: Just rudiments and rhythm. Single strokes, double strokes, triplets. Just practice different things utilizing those beats. I practiced rhythms like the bossa nova rhythm and practiced playing in ¾ time and in 5/4 time. I just practiced whatever I couldn’t do that well.
EI: Where there any books that were particularly helpful?
MR: When I first started reading I had Ted Reed’s Syncopation. That book was good. I had all of the horn players reading Syncopation when they came over the house. George Coleman, Sonny Redd, Blue Mitchell. We used to exercise together every morning. Not Sonny Redd so much. But Blue Mitchell, strong dude, boy. Him and George Coleman. George Coleman was Superman! Strong dude. He could do a handstand and push ups with his feet up against the wall. And he ain’t a little guy.
(Pulls out an old copy of Ted Reed’s Syncopation for the Modern Drummer)
EI: You would get the horn players to play out of this too?
MR: Yeah, the syncopation parts in the back. (Starts singing lines from the book) It’s a good book and when I teach, I teach out of this book. It starts out simple then it gets involved.
EI: Tell me a little bit about Mary Lou Williams. You are on a few records with her and you did that gig at the Hickory House.
MR: Mary Lou Williams was a very religious woman. She was a Catholic. I used to just see her on the gig. I went to her house one time and she said ‘The way you play the drums, you need to learn how to play the piano.” But she used to frighten me. I went up there once but I never went back. I am sorry I didn’t go back. I regret not knowing about the keyboard. She was strong. She loved the blues, man. She was a good piano player.
EI: She’s playing some great blues here.
MR: (Listening to the music) Yeah, she can play, man.
EI: Buster sounds great too.
MR: This is when he was young, before he decided he wanted to be a bandleader. I played with him with Nancy Wilson.
EI: Who was in that band?
MR: It was a trio. They had a guy named Donn Trenner. He was a piano player and musical director, conductor.
EI: Must have been a great gig.
MR: Beautiful gig. Best job I ever had in my life.
EI: Was she easy to work for?
MR: Yeah, and paid well. Paid you when you was off. I never had that! Most people don’t want to pay you when you work. (laughs) But Nancy she paid me more money when I was off then most guys paid me when I was working. I must say that was the best job I ever had. She was so sweet. Kind hearted. We would go to Hawaii and she would take us on tour. She was beautiful.
Do you know a drummer named Roy McCurdy? I think he’s playing with her now. He’s out in California. He moved out there. I remember when him and Ron Carter were going to the Eastman School of Music up in Rochester. They was playing with the Mangione Brothers.
(Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, “Ow,” from The Gifted Ones, 1977.)
MR: Is that Ray Brown? I recorded a lot of music when I was with Dizzy. Everybody wanted to record with him and he would always take me with him.
EI: You are on about a thousand Pablo records.
MR: Every year we would go to Montreux and we would record. They recorded everything.
EI: What was Norman Granz like to deal with?
MR: He was OK. I didn’t have too many problems with him. I would just see him when we went to Switzerland. When Bobby Durham left Ella Fitzgerald, he called me and asked me to play with her but I did not want to play with no singers. I was tired of playing with singers. Not they are not good or anything but I wanted to play with instrumentalists. He said, “Look Mickey, I need you to help me out. Ella doesn’t have a drummer.” So I did that for about a year but I was not happy with that gig. I did it for a year and I did the best I could with it but after a year, I just couldn’t go back.
EI: You played with Dizzy for a decade.
MR: Nine years.
EI: Billy Hart always tells me that the Dizzy Gillespie language was one of the most important languages to know.
MR: The language?
EI: Like you was saying, the arrangements, those pieces…
MR: Yeah, because is the beginning of the way we play. Him and Charlie Parker. You they are (assumes a British accent) the Founding Fathers. A lot of people call Dizzy old fashioned but so is the Bible. You know what I am saying? But it is full of truth. Dizzy does not mind teaching you. He is a great teacher. I know I learned a lot playing with him.
EI: Did you enjoy playing with Ray Brown?
MR: Yeah, in the beginning. Then Ray will try and gorilla you. He tries to push you around. He’s a bully. When that started, it makes you nuts. It makes you ignore him. I didn’t want to play with nobody when you gotta ignore them.
EI: Do you mean gorilla in terms of, off the bandstand or on the bandstand?
MR: On the bandstand, off the bandstand. It was his personality. (Exasperated) I don’t want to talk about Ray Brown.
EI: OK, you got it! How about Count Basie?
MR: Well, Count Basie is another one. He is the King of Swing. Count Basie, what can you say? He is one of the greatest big band leaders ever.
EI: Was it easy for you to play with him?
MR: Yeah, because it’s just swing. I can swing and listen. That’s what I do, I listen and I try to accompany what I hear. I don’t try to take over or change anything. I’m just listening and I accompany what I hear. That’s how come I play with so many people. (Laughs)
At one time, Ray Brown was a great bass player. He still is a great player. (Listening to Brown) Listen to that sound. His hands were soft as a baby’s skin. No corns. Most bass players have corns. He knows how to play it right.
EI: That China cymbal here…
MR: Yeah, that China cymbal, Dizzy liked that when he played. Big ole thirty inch. You know what started him playing that was Cozy Cole gave him one when Charlie Persip was with him. I guess it was Charlie Persip but it was back before my time. Dizzy liked it because it sounds good up under him. I didn’t mind playing it. A different sound, you know.
EI: I think Mel Lewis had one of those too.
MR: A lot of drummers had them. I think the first person I know had one was Chris Columbo, with Wild Bill Davis. Chris Columbo was Sonny Payne’s father.
MR: Yeah and he had cowboy feet. He had saddles feet, that go up and down when he plays. (laughter) And the house would be rocking and he would build up to that cymbal. And they get to romping and when he start playing on that cymbal… It’s all over! The groove was way up there. He’s the first one I ever heard play a Chinese cymbal.
EI: Do you still play one? Would you bring one to the gig?
MR: No. I got one left. I had twelve of them things. I give them to different drummers and I got one left. Every time I go to New York and play with Jon Faddis, he asks me, “Where’s the cymbal at?” (laughs) I said enough of that Jon, I had nine years with Dizzy.
EI: A lot of the time with Dizzy, there was electric guitar and funk rhythms.
MR: Yeah. See when I first joined Dizzy it was Mike Longo on piano and Al Gafa on guitar. It was supposed to be me and Sam Jones. Then Sam Jones got sick and they got Earl May and me and Dizzy. So there was five of us. When Mike Longo left and soon after Al Galfa left, then he got Ben Brown and Rodney Jones.
EI: Dizzy played a lot of gigs. Were you on tour a lot?
MR: We used to stay on the road. We used to be on the road all of the time. I never got to come home. I’ll never forget one year we played all over Europe and then we went to Africa. We went to Kenya and East Africa. Kenya and Tanzania. Came home at Christmas time; we got into the airport in New York and we never left the airport and went to California.
When we got out there, there was nobody in the club.
That’s when I decided that was it for me. I got kids you know. I said, “Wait a minute.” That was it for me.
EI: Is that when you moved back to Philly?
MR: I came to Philly before I left Dizzy.
EI: What year did you move back to Philly?
MR: Either ‘76 or ‘77, something like that. And I stayed on the road with Dizzy and when that happened, I said fuck it. Then I went back on the road with Milt Jackson and them. There was nothing around here. I’d be starving to death around here. (Laughter)
EI: I believe it. I bet Dizzy didn’t pay as well as Nancy Wilson.
MR: No. Nobody paid like that. Most of those guys are selfish guys. Lee Morgan paid me more money than Dizzy Gillespie, and that’s a shame. Them guys are cheap. Bags, all of them were cheap. Sonny Rollins was generous. Stanley Turrentine: cheap! Most of those guys paid us as little as they could. (Laughs) I worked with guys with lesser names and make better money than I do with the guys with the names. It’s selfish.
EI: It’s a drag.
MR: Yeah, but they are greedy. Like a tapeworm. But they play so good! Milt Jackson, I would have paid to play with him. He played so good, I never heard him sound bad. That cat used to make me smile every night. Milt Jackson could play a ballad…I can’t say what I want to say. (laughs) He would play a ballad and it would get really exciting.
(Shirley Scott, “Blues Everywhere” from Blues Everywhere, 1991.)
MR: That’s Shirley Scott.
EI: And Arthur Harper. This was recorded in New York but you guys played in Philly a lot. This is like the “Philly trio.”
MR: We did about two or three albums in New York. Both of them are dead now. That was a hell of a bass player there.
EI: Tell us about Arthur Harper. Who was Arthur Harper?
MR: Arthur Harper was young bass player who came up in Philly. We played together all over Philly with all kinds of people, like Jimmy Oliver and Owen Marshall. I came up with Arthur Harper and Kenny Barron. We had a trio. We would play for Owen Marshall who was a trumpet player. He would have Sunday jam sessions.
Harper: What a great bass player. He went to New York before me to play with J.J. Johnson and he played with Wes Montgomery. Harper was the type of dude who was his own worst enemy. Played his buns off but he liked the taste of alcohol. When he drank he turned into another person. When he was sober he’d give you the shirt off his back. He was a sweetheart, a true friend, a beautiful dude. When he turned he was another guy. He’d make you love him and he’d make you hate him. I’d been on gigs with him where he was so drunk he couldn’t stand to hold the bass and I have been on gigs when he was sober and he make you want to grab him and hug him. He played so much stuff. What a bass player he was but I don’t know what was on his mind. Something must have been on his mind so he tried to absorb it with drugs and alcohol. You can’t talk to people. People have to find themselves, but, man, what a bass player that motherfucker was. He was one of the baddest bass players I ever played with.
EI: He sounds great here. I didn’t really know about him until I was researching for this.
MR: He’s one of the baddest bass players. Listen to that sound. You know who he liked? He liked Oscar Pettiford. That was his man. Oscar Pettiford was a genius.
EI: Shirley Scott sounds great too.
MR: Shirley’s bad, man. When I first met her she was playing organ. She was a piano player first. She’s from Philly but I didn’t know her until I went to New York. She was married to Stanley Turrentine and a drummer named Walter Perkins was playing with her a club called Count Basie’s. He couldn’t make it so he had me to take his place. That was beautiful, I went on tour with them and after that tour is when I met Nancy Wilson. Buster had been calling to try and get me to play with Nancy. I said, “I don’t want to be playing with no singer.” (Laughs)
Stanley and Shirley used to argue on the bandstand. I hated that. I just endured. We did two weeks in Chicago at the Plugged Nickel. When those two weeks were over I had already set up to stay in Chicago and play at a place called Mister Kelly’s with Nancy. So they got held over, because the joint was packed. That was a hell of a trio with Stanley and Shirley. Stanley would make you join a church if you listen to him. (laughs) So they held us over but I said I couldn’t do it. I wanted to get away from that anyway. I like to be happy on the bandstand. I don’t like to be around all of that arguing. They were married then and Stanley was extremely jealous.
EI: She was beautiful.
MR: Yeah! Shit. But I wouldn’t give a shit what she looked like, she was beautiful the way she played! (Laughs) But she was a very attractive woman. Strong woman, she didn’t take no teeth from a fever. She didn’t take no shit off of Stanley. Sometimes everything ain’t what it seems to be, so that was the end of that but I still did a lot of records with Stanley and with her.
EI: In the early nineties you guys was playing a lot in Philly.
MR: Yeah. We played at a jazz club called Ortlieb’s Jazz House. We played a lot of other places.
EI: I think you were really important for that generation of Philly musicians to be able to see you and Shirley and Arthur Harper…
MR: And they could sit in, a place where they can bring their horns or drummers could come and play with people like Harper. The owner got fed up with that club so he sold it, and it died. The people who bought it didn’t really know about jazz.
EI: I was only there once but I got to see Edgar Bateman play there. Did you know Bateman well?
MR: Yeah, we were in New York at the same time. Young boy.
EI: He had that weird independence thing. I watched him and didn’t know what he was doing!
MR: Right. He would overshoot the runway. He would just do too much. He was always trying to show you how much he knows. It ain’t necessary. Just because you know every word in the dictionary doesn’t mean every chance you get to speak, you get to use every word. He didn’t work a lot because of that. I guess in his mind, he figured if he showed people how much he knows, he would get more gigs. It ain’t about that! It’s about being humble. Just play the beat. While people were soloing he would be soloing. When he took a solo he would be playing some hell of a lot of stuff but he would overshoot the runway. That’s a crash!
[Ed: I meant to praise Bateman with my comment, “I didn’t know what he was doing,” but Roker took it another way. I sure wish there were more records with Bateman.]
(“Thad’s Pad” from One More – the Music of Hank Jones, 2004)
MR: I’m on that?
EI: It’s an album of Thad Jones music. With Jimmy Owens, Moody, Richard Davis, Hank Jones.
MR: I remember that album. Look, man, I got fifteen more minutes and I got to get ready.
EI: I only got one more track after this.
On this track is Richard Davis, who is kind of a wild bass player.
MR: Man, let me tell you about Richard Davis. When he plays pizzicato he can be kind of avant garde like Jymie Merritt. But when he plays with the bow, he’ll put tears in your eyes. It’s so beautiful, it sounds like he can sit in a symphony orchestra. He is very advanced musician.
He is a hell of a musician but some people are trying to find something different. There ain’t nothing different! What ever you do has been done a million times. He’s a hell of a bass player. In fact he was in Thad Jones’ first big band with Roland Hanna.
EI: Tootie told me that they said Richard Davis played Chinese music on the bass on that album with the Thad and Mel big band. (Laughter)
MR: I had a gig one time with Andrew Hill and Richard Davis. We played a house party someplace. I fit like two left shoes cause them muthafuckers were out to lunch and I am talking about (sings a swinging cymbal beat). So Richard turns around and says, “You’re swinging too much!” (Laughter) That’s the first time someone told me that I was swinging too much. I didn’t know what to do. I just started sweating and trying to figure out something crazy to play.
EI: I got one more here for you. Joe Locke and Mike LeDonne.
(Joe Locke And The Milt Jackson Tribute Band, “Rev-elation” from Rev-elation, 2005)
MR: Oh yeah, tribute to Bags. (Sings along with the melody)
EI: What do you call that beat? Is there a name for that beat?
MR: It’s like a conga beat.
EI: I saved the track with you and Cranshaw for the last track. Tell me about Cranshaw.
MR: That’s my favorite bass player. That’s my best friend in the world. What a bass player.
When Harper left from that apartment in New York — this was in the sixties — I could not afford that place by myself. Not right then. I called Cranshaw and we stayed together for ten years, although he never stayed there. He stayed with his girlfriend on 89th street or 87th street. He would leave his clothes up there or a bass.
The way I met Cranshaw was, we was in Chicago with the Ray Bryant trio. The Ray Bryant trio consisted of me and Arthur Harper. Now, Arthur Harper used to get drunk. We had been there for about three or four days. Harper got drunk and didn’t show up. There was two bands; the MJ+3 with Cranshaw, Walter Perkins, Harold Mabern, Frank Strozier and a trumpet player named Willie Thomas. They would play first and we were the headliners with the trio. One night Harper didn’t show up for the last set. Cranshaw said, “I know the tunes,” and we have been tight ever since. We hit it off right away. We played together with a lot of people; Milt Jackson, Horace Silver, Frank Foster, and a lot of Blue Note stuff together.
EI: What was it like playing with Horace Silver?
MR: He has certain rhythms for you to play throughout the arrangement. He wanted it the same way every chorus. I don’t know if I would play on the road with him, because that would get kind of stagnant. All of his arrangement are something like Dizzy arrangements: They are more mapped out, which is good, it teaches you a different form of discipline. That’s what Edgar didn’t have. If Bateman had been a little bit more disciplined, he would have been a much better drummer. He’s got something on the ball but he just wanted to be free. Sometimes you can’t do everything that comes in your head. Horace was good for me.
EI: Thank you for your time, Mr. Roker.
MR: I appreciate it. I wish I could spend more time with you cause I’m having a good time.
EI: Maybe we’ll do it again! Thank you for the pleasure you have given to me, listening to you over the years.
Vic Schermer’s talk with Mickey Roker.
Notes on a partial Roker playlist leading up to my interview:
Gigi Gryce, The Hap’nin’s One of Roker’s first records. He sends off a heartfelt “Frankie and Johnny” with flair.
Bobby Timmons, Connecticut Jazz Party An incredibly swinging bootleg. Timmons may overplay a bit (he’s undoubtedly high) but Sam Jones and Roker sound sweet together. Haven’t really heard Sonny Red before — interesting player!
Milt Jackson and the Hip String Quartet Pre-CTI but not by much. Fun and funky.
Mike Longo, Funkia Not bad, but Ron Carter and Mickey Roker could be allowed more room in a trio session.
One More – The Music of Thad Jones (with Hank Jones, Richard Davis, Jimmy Owens, Benny Golson, James Moody, Bob Brookmeyer) Have I seen even one review of this recent record? Really pretty great. Strange bass performance, of course. Roker has his hands full dealing with Davis, but that makes it all the more interesting.
Hank Jones and Frank Wess Hank and Frank H’mm, I’ll keep listening, but my first impression is that this is a bit disappointing.
Eddie Diehl Well, Here It Is Who is Eddie Diehl? I didn’t even know what instrument he played when I bought it off iTunes. It turns out that he’s been around a long time and even recorded with Brother Jack McDuff and Hank Mobley. Fans of straight-ahead guitar or Hank Jones should get this. Much better than the contemporaneous Hank and Frank for some reason.
Duke Pearson Prairie Dog, Sweet Honey Bee, Wahoo Some the best for Roker’s playing.
Mary Lou Williams Free Spirits Magical trio with Buster Williams.
Dizzy Gillespie Live at Ronnie Scott’s I had high hopes for this but it hasn’t gotten me interested yet.
Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, The Gifted Ones Incredibly casual quartet with Ray Brown. Why didn’t Norman Granz insist on at least one rehearsal or a musical director for all these jam session records? But “Ow,” is killing, Basie plays modern rhythm changes!
Junior Mance Happy Time Jaysus, young Ron Carter throwing down. Duck and cover! Ron is almost too strong.
Joe Locke, Mike LeDonne, Bob Cranshaw, Mickey Roker Rev-elation I haven’t heard enough of Locke or LeDonne, they sound great. The Rhodes works amazingly well. Straight ahead lives. It’s a tribute to Milt Jackson.
Shirley Scott, Blues Everywhere Thanks to Red for the tip. Roker in residence with now-deceased fellow legends Scott (on piano, not organ) and Arthur Harper. Philly soul indeed.