Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Drummers begin by whacking things for the thrill of turning serenity into noise. Over time, they learn rudiments, tools by which most rhythms are fundamentally formed. Drummers grow their abilities to keep rhythm and, with positive experiences, they learn to consider the aesthetic effect; how rhythm seduces us. Drummers who play long enough re-learn, or re-invent, themselves to change with the times. Musical growth is often cyclical; seldom does it go in straight lines."
- Gregory J. Robb
“The drum stick should be an extension of your hand. The motion should be as natural as waving a cap or to someone on the street.”
- Freddie Grubber
“Get out of your own way. Don’t think, just play it as its lays.”
- Freddie Grubber
Every instrument has one; a “Mr. Fix-it.”
Their reputations are carried word-of-mouth throughout the Jazz community.
They are the people to see when you hit the proverbial brick wall and can’t get into your hands what you are hearing in your head.
For drummers, names such as “Murray Spivak,” “Billy Gladstone,” and “Freddie Gruber” come to mind.
These guys had the ability to literally transform your playing.
When you went to see him,
wouldn’t let you play anything but snare
He’d sit back and observe while you read and played written exercises based on the 26 rudiments from the George Lawrence Stone or Jim Chapin books on drumming techniques.
Sometimes he would ask you to do certain things over again with his eyes never straying from watching your drum sticks in motion on the snare drum.
Then he would make a suggestion or two about grips or hand placements and everything just fell into place . No more barriers; things just started to flow again.
Freddie Gruber, who died on
October 11, 2011 at the age of eighty-four , was
another clinical wizard who had earned a revered place in the Pantheon of
Freddie had the uncanny ability to get inside your technique, both analytically and intuitively, and make suggestions that would literally elevate your playing to another dimension.
Freddie could free you; he could liberate you, often times while disguising the fact that he was “teaching” you by telling you parables, or fables or old war stories.
The next thing you know – shazam! – no more hang-ups.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would be nice to remember Freddie on these pages with the following piece by Bill Milkowski.
© -Jazz Times; Bill Milkowski. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Freddie Gruber: None of a Kind
Freddie Gruber and Buddy Rich are driving along at in
, heading to a 7-Eleven near Rich's pad to
get a late night nosh. They're kibitzing back and forth, as old-school New
Yorkers tend to do, when all of a sudden Rich blurts out, "Jesus Christ,
Gruber! You're one of a kind, man!" Palm Springs
One year later, Rich and Gruber are driving along that same stretch of road in Palm Springs, heading to the same 7-Eleven at three in the morning when out of nowhere Buddy blurts out, "I changed my mind. You're none of a kind!"
This is one of many classic Freddie Gruber stories-apocryphal or not-that many of his students like to tell.
But Rich was right.
Anyone who has ever gigged with, studied with or even encountered the colorfully cantankerous Freddie Gruber - as I did in a marathon late-night interview session at his midtown Manhattan pad-understands that he is indeed none of a kind. And though he may be regarded largely as irascible and enigmatic, Freddie remains one of the most widely revered figures in the drumming world.
's New York 52nd Street scene during the late '40s, Gruber has for
nearly 50 years been primarily behind the scenes as a world-renowned drum
teacher. Dispensing the Zen-like wisdom of Yoda with the caustic delivery of
Don Rickles, Freddie has enlightened and altered the playing habits of countless
students, including Bill Goodwin, John Guerin, Jim Keltner, Peter Erskine, Adam
Nussbaum, Ian Wallace, Anton Fig, Rod Morgenstein, Kenny Aronoff, Neil Peart,
Clayton Cameron, Dave Weckl and Steve Smith. As drummer Nussbaum notes: "Freddie
has helped me become more physically aware of what's happening with my body and
the instrument. He's really opened me up."
Vital Information bandleader Steve Smith adds, "Freddie was able to help me play with a much more graceful and natural approach, which translates to a more relaxed and swinging time feel and the ability to easily play my ideas. When he comes to my gigs and I'm getting in the way of the music or trying to force something, he'll nail me on it, and he'll always be right."
Or as Jim Keltner puts it, "Freddie is a veritable walking book of musical history and one of the few remaining links to the most innovative era in drumming."
27, 1927, Gruber
grew up in an East
Living in that ethnically mixed neighborhood, Freddie quickly soaked up the
clave feel until he had the Afro-Cuban rhythm in his bones. "I picked up
the Latin thing from playing in the backyards on soup cans and from hearing it
every day on the way to school. That was the language of the neighborhood and I
understood that language. It helped keep me from getting beat up."
Starting out as a tap dancer gave Gruber a strongly ingrained sense of swing, which he applied to his drums. Along the way he studied with some great teachers, including Henry Adler, Freddie Albright and Mo Goldenberg, while apprenticing with pianist Joe Springer, who was also Billie Holiday's accompanist at the time. Gruber would later put in nine months of roadwork with Rudy Vallee and debut on
52nd Street with Harry "The Hipster" Gibson
at the Three Deuces. Meanwhile, his penchant for subdivisions and polyrhythms
behind the kit began drawing favorable notice from members of the jazz
"The Shape of Drums to Come," a 1947 Metronome article by Barry Ulanov, raves about the hotshot 19-year-old drummer from the Bronx: "This kid is the end, or anyway the beginning...something like a cross between a Belgian percussionist and Buddy Rich, with overtones of the music of Edgard Varese, that astonishing composer for the drums. It's a handsome amalgam of all the great schools of percussion-primitive, sophisticated, old, modern; and it jumps!"
Two years later, when he was playing in a quartet led by clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and also featuring guitarist Tal Farlow, Gruber was included in a 1949 Down Beat roundup, "Listing Top Drummers," that stated: "His ability to play multiple rhythms, his constant playing behind the band and what seemed like his impeccable taste in his choice of what to play, mark him as a musician to watch closely."
The legendary drum teacher Jim Chapin and jazz writer
Ira Gitler confirm that Gruber was indeed way ahead
of his time with his freewheeling approach to the kit. As Chapin said in a
recent instructional DVD: "Forty-five years have gone by, and nobody has caught up to
Freddie's solo style yet. He was the first one, to my knowledge, to play in a
Although Gruber's years in New York during the golden years of the 52nd Street scene are filled with rich tales of innumerable gigs, sessions, rehearsals and loft jams-a veritable bebop highlight reel-one of his more memorable musical situations was an all-star big band that came together briefly in 1949. The group was comprised of such heavyweights as Charlie Parker, Zoot Sims, Red Rodney, Frank Rosolino, Al Cohn and Al Porcino. "That was basically a rehearsal band, but the problem was you couldn't control these guys because everybody was a star and everybody was stoned out of their minds. The best moments happened when everybody went to the bathroom to get high, leaving just the rhythm section and Bird to play. That's when it really took off." (Today, only bootleg recordings exist of this mythical rehearsal group.)
Around this same time, Gruber also played several private parties at the home of
photographer Milton Greene (famed for his
iconic shots of a young Marilyn Monroe, among other celebrity subjects). Some
of the other participants at those bop-fueled jams included Bird, Dizzy
Gillespie, Sims, Cohn, Rodney and Allen Eager. A few of those 1949 jams at
Greene's place were documented and some are on a two-CD Allen Eager
compilation, In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee (Uptown, 2003). New York
From 1952 to 1955, Gruber maintained a special friendship with drummer Philly Joe Jones. He was living in
Greenwich Village during that period and gigging regularly at the nearby restaurant, where he played strictly
brushes in a piano trio with Riviera Roger "Ram" Ramirez (composer of "Lover Man"). The
subsequent pianists on that gig were George Handy and then Gil Evans,
a close friend from their Claude Thornhill big-band days. Gruber also played
briefly at Snooky's with bassist Oscar Pettiford while jamming and gigging
informally with a host of "under the table guys" including
saxophonists Brew Moore, Riviera Dave Schildkraut and Eddie Shu (who also worked as a ventriloquist when
he wasn't playing in the Gene Krupa Trio) and cult-figure trumpeter Tony
Fruscella, whom Gruber calls "the heart and soul of what lyricism is all
From 1952 to 1955, Gruber maintained a special friendship with drummer Philly Joe Jones. He was living in
But by 1955, Gruber's long-standing heroin habit had gotten the best of him. "By that time I was down to 92 pounds and I couldn't get further than the corner to see my connection," he says. "Every day it was the same horseshit, and at some point I just realized, 'Man, I'm gonna die!' Fuck this! I'm outta here!'"
He remembers seeing Charlie Parker three days before his death on
12, 1955, and by
May he left town with the intention of reclaiming his life and his career in . Los Angeles
And although he got sidetracked in Las Vegas for about a year and a half ("That was a fun time-staying up all night, having breakfast with crazy comics like Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene"), Gruber did eventually make it to Los Angeles in 1957. One of the first people he ran into there was fellow drummer Shelly Manne, who encountered him on Sunset Boulevard one day and stated, "I thought you were dead!"
Manne had known Gruber from back in
and promptly set him up with a musicians' union card and a
job playing at the Beverly Wilshire. But Gruber rebelled against the
conservative nature of that gig and he soon gravitated to a wide-open
after-hours scene outside the city limits where he mixed it up with such potent
players as pianists Hampton Hawes, Elmo Hope and Joe Albany, saxophonists
Dexter Gordon, Teddy Edwards and Harold Land, bassist George Morrow and vibist
Bobby Hutcherson, among many others. A young bass player named Charlie Haden
had just come to town and he also participated in that free scene. It was there
that Haden met such similarly forward-thinking players as Paul Bley, Ornette
Coleman, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, whom Gruber refers to as "the
Nijinsky of drums" for his ability to hang in the air and defy gravity on
the kit. "After that lame hotel gig, I was in my element again,"
Gruber says. "We'd finish playing at sunrise, go have breakfast, then go
across town and play some more until We weren't making any money but we were
having a ball." New York
But by 1965, Gruber reverted to his old ways with heroin. "I went back to the
of my mind and took it out again," he
says. "I was having a picnic, periodically going into hiding, not being
seriously career-oriented." New York City
Around that time that he received a helping hand from another transplanted New Yorker living in
, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. "He was
getting involved with The Tonight Show and he asked me to start teaching at his
music store in Los Angeles ," Gruber recalls. "Next thing I knew I was doing
what I said I'd never do-teaching." Los Angeles
Drum students began seeking him out at Gibbs' music store strictly by word of mouth and Gruber generously shared his wisdom, experience and abrasive charm with every one of them. By the early 1970s, as he began to formalize his intuitive teaching methods somewhat, his students began getting jobs in small groups, big bands, TV, movies, jazz and pop. Another result of this teaching phase was that Gruber himself started to get healthy. "I was swimming every day in the reservoir, which was technically illegal, and banging everything that moved," he recalls with a tone of swagger. "I was as strong as a bull then. And every night around all these drummers were hanging at my house-Buddy, Irv Cottler [Frank Sinatra's longtime drummer], Mitch Mitchell [Jimi Hendrix's drummer], Jim Keltner and others. I was having a ball."
Gruber would return to
in the mid-'70s and begin a lengthy period of bonding and
just hanging out with his old pal Buddy Rich. "I ended up at Buddy's with
the keys," Gruber says. "We just spent a lot of time together-walking
around, shopping, just sitting in New York Central Park talking, watching the pickpockets do their thing, observing and
commenting on life going by. And I think back and realize now that whenever I
was out of my mind or in a bad place for whatever reason, Buddy was always
there for me. He was the best friend I ever had. I miss that guy a lot."
Through the '80s and '90s, Gruber's ideas about drum ergonomics-a means of achieving fluidity and alleviating tension while playing the drums-aided countless more players. "Freddie can watch a drummer play and be able to deeply understand where they are coming from," says Steve Smith. "He'll be able to understand their conceptual approach and technical approach, and he can zero in on exactly what they need in order to take their playing to the next level. He'll break a technique down, demonstrate the motions slowly and help you really get it."
Peter Erskine recounts one enlightening lesson with Gruber when he really "got it": "After a couple of false starts-lessons where we seemed to get to know each other over several cups of coffee, trading stories, but not much else-and my insisting that he show me something concrete, Freddie suddenly began to tap dance. So he's dancing away and he finally looks up at me with a big smile, and says, 'Do you see? Do you get it?' as he continued tapping away. I told him, 'Help me out here, I'm not getting it,' and he explained, still dancing, 'Don't you see, baby? I'm not trying to dance beneath the surface of the floor, I'm dancing on top of the floor.' A light bulb started to go off in my head and I asked him to show me this same idea on the drums: 'Sure,' he replied, and he danced over to the drums and proceeded to play his kit and produce a full and beautiful tone that was, at the same time, light and filled with velocity. At that point, I got it, and I thanked him. And his lesson has stayed with me.
"Freddie has shown me one other thing," he continues, "and that is about the beauty and importance of expressing our love and enthusiasm for each other and what we do. Freddie has been up and down during his storied lifetime, but he has always been a true believer in music and a true giver to other people. I'm grateful for his wisdom-street wisdom, drumming mechanics wisdom, jazz wisdom, human/life wisdom-that he imparts to our community. For drummers, Freddie is a national treasure."
last June, during which time he met up
with one old friend, Roy Haynes, and attended a memorial for another, Elvin
Jones, Gruber got caught up in the nostalgia of being back in his hometown.
"I tramped all over this town in the '40s, from the Bowery to Sugar Hill,
and every street along the way has memories," he says. "Man, if my
footprints could light up, this city wouldn't need Con Edison." New York
Though still energized and excited about the music, Gruber is far less frantic than he was during his fabled tenure on
52nd Street. "When I was young I was hopping and
zipping and coming and going like somebody jabbed me in the ass with a hot fork,"
he laughs. "Now it's time to take a swing, take a breath, be around the
people I love and say thanks."
"I've come to a period in my life where you begin to look back and wonder, 'What was it all about?'" he adds. "But I really had some fun in my life, man. And if I could do it all over again-all the good and the bad, the ups and the downs-I would do it exactly the same and not change a thing. I really am aware, man, of the magical thing that happened here in
. It was a helluva ride." New York