Friday, October 21, 2011

Roy Harte and Drum City: “Drummers are a lot like hockey goalies ….”


© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.


I know I spend a lot of time talking about Jazz drummers on the blog.

But sometimes it can’t be helped especially when someone asks me to recount my memories about Roy Harte, one of the nicest Jazz drummers ever, and someone who did a ton for drummers of all musical persuasions.

So when Robert Gordon asked me to recount a few stories about Roy for him, I thought that I would also share them on these pages in the form of the three, anecdotes posted below.

Bob is the author of an excellent book on Jazz on the West Coast in the 1950s and 1960s. You can find all nine chapters of the book in the JazzProfiles archives by typing “Robert Gordon” into the “Search This Blog” feature on the site.

He is planning to use my Roy reminiscences as part of his Friday, October 21, 2011 presentation entitled Jazz in Hollywood – The Nocturne Records/Drum City Story which is sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Society as part of its 4-day, Jazz festival entitled Modern Sounds: Celebrating the West Coast Sound [October 20-23, 2011, Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel].

Roy was the owner-operator of Drum City and he along with bassist Harry Babasin founded Nocturne Records in the mid-1950s.

Fresh Sound Records has made available a 3 CD retrospective of the label in a boxed set entitled The Complete Nocturne Recordings: Jazz in Hollywood Series.

Bob Yaeger and Chuck Molinnari opened the Professional Drum Shop across from the Musicians Union on Vine Street in Hollywood,CA in 1959 where it still stands. I shopped there often. Bob and Chuck are great guys.

But as long as Roy's Drum City was around [on Santa Monica Blvd; around the corner from the Pro Drum Shop], I just had to go visit with Roy, too.

Because if you were a drummer, Drum City, like the family home, was the place where they had to take you in.

For drummers, knowing Roy Harte was like having another father in your life.

Like he used to say: "Drummers are like hockey goalies; nobody knows how to talk to them except another drummer."


First Anecdote:

I went to John Burroughs high school in Burbank, CA in the late 1950s. At the time, there were a number of fine young drummers in the general area including Harry Smallenberg at Burbank High, Mike Romero at Pasadena and some guy named Bill Goodwin, who went to North Hollywood High and whom I'd never met.

Each year, Roy Harte would sponsor a competition for young drummers that involved our best effort at writing and then playing a 32-bar Jazz drum solo.

The ability to write the solo so that other drummers could read it and play it was a much a part of the competition as playing the solo itself.

You also had to use as many of the standard 26 drum rudiments as possible, but you could only use the snare drum when playing the solo.

One last requirement was that the solo had to be repeated at a slow, then a medium and then at the fastest tempo at which you could play it.

Entry forms which consisted of contact information and a blank sheet of music notation paper where available at Drum City and had to be returned to Roy about a month before the competition.

The great day comes and a horde of drummers descends on Drum City 

I entered it twice and I always had the feeling that Roy picked anyone of us who could actually write a 32-bar drum part to play their solo in the competition.

Steve Bohannon who later went on the Don Ellis band and I were selected as finalists along with none other than Bill Goodwin.

Well, Bill sat down at the snare drum, tighten the drum head to within a millimeter of splitting it in two and then proceeded to play a 32 bar solo that blew us all away.

The solo was so musical and just cooked like mad. 

From that moment on, I certainly knew who Bill Goodwin was  

During the playing of Bill's solo, Roy was standing off to the side grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Everyone in the room knew we had just heard the birth of a great drummer, but you could tell just by looking at him that Roy was already taking ownership of the bragging rights to Bill!


Second Anecdote:

I studied drums for a few years with Larry Bunker who lived in the Los Feliz area of the Hollywood Hills.

During one of my hour-long-trips into humility, Larry said: "You need some different drum sticks; let's go over to Roy’s."

We were at Drum City in less than 10 minutes.

As we're walking in, Larry sees a bunch of drummers milling around the glass case where Roy stored the drum sticks and says to me: "Watch this; most of those guys don't know the difference between a paradiddle and a seven stroke roll [didn't I mention that Larry could be a little abrasive?].

Roy kept the drumstick on a shelf just below the top of an enclosed, glass display case.

In those days, the making of drum sticks hadn't progressed much further than a cottage industry so many of the sticks were poorly formed if not downright warped [think of the pool cue that Inspector Clouseau uses in The Pink Panther - that's how bad many of them were].

Roy, who was behind the display case, would reach down to the shelf and bring out a fistful of the model you requested and then the fun began as you started rolling the sticks along the top of the glass case until you found a pair that were in fairly good shape.

It took Larry a few minutes to find a pair he liked.

At the end of the display case, Roy always kept a rubber practice pad which you could use to try out the sticks without hitting on the heads of the new drum kits that he had displayed around the store.

Next to the practice pad was a book with a slew of drum exercises based on the standard 26 drum rudiments which you could read through while trying out the sticks.

Larry is laying down all sorts of great drumming stuff when all of a sudden, Stan Levey, who [with his back turned toward us] had been among the group of drummers standing by Roy when we walked into Drum City, says: "Hey let me try those sticks." Larry pushes the pad and the exercise book toward Stan while handing him the sticks.

Stan, who is all of 6’2” and 220 pounds, says: "Nah, I don't want to read that crap." He then goes over to a brand new set of Ludwig drums in the middle of the store and plays a gorgeous series of bebop drumming licks all over the drum kit.

When he's through, Stan gets up turns to Roy and says: "I like these sticks, put 'em on my tab, Roy," and walks out of the store.

After he leaves, Roy looks at Larry and me and says: "What am I going to do, say 'No?'"


Third Anecdote:

For years, I was a first call drummer with Rudy Friml Jr., a music contractor who had a lot of gigs for TV series, TV commercials and radio jingles.

One day Rudy calls and says I need to bring a triangle to a recording date involving a TV commercial for a cigarette company.

It's a rush deal, so I'm over to Roy's Drum City on Santa Monica before heading to the RCA recording studios on Sunset Blvd where the session is taking place.

"Roy, you got a triangle in the shop? I need it for a commercial gig."

"Sure, here you go."

So he hands me the triangle and I'm just about out the store when he asks: "Do you even know how to play one?"

I replied: "Of course, why do you ask?"

He said: "Well, for starters, you took the triangle, but you left the holder and the wand [beater] behind!"

After a quick course in how to properly hold and play the instrument, both open and closed, and a lecture on whether the true pitch of a triangle is a G or an A-Flat or did I know that the class of instruments that the triangle belongs to is called an "idiophone" or did I realize that when struck properly the sound this bent metal triangle makes could rise about an entire symphony orchestra, I was dutifully allowed to leave and "Go attend your recording session."

When I brought the triangle back to Drum City the following day, Roy wouldn't allow me to pay him for the use of it.

He said: "Maybe you can play a solo on it for me the next time."