John S. Pratt
by Lauren Vogel Weiss
Most percussionists recognize the name John S. Pratt as the author of the well-known book 14 Modern Contest Solos for Snare Drum. But did you know he taught high school English for a quarter of a century? Or that he was President of the Chaucer Guild, a New Jersey poets society? John Sterling Pratt is not only a uniquely talented individual but also one of the most admired rudimental drummers and composers of the last half of the 20th century.
"Jack," as he is known to his friends and family, was born on January 13, 1931 in Seneca Falls, New York. He began playing the drums at age ten under the guidance of his high school band director, John Frasier. Pratt also played in the school marching and concert bands, as well as the school orchestra.
One day in 1947, when he was a junior in high school, Pratt went to the VFW post in Seneca Falls to check out the local drum and bugle corps. "I had this crazy idea that they might need a drum instructor," he recalls with a laugh. There he met Norman Peth, who was instructing the corps and who would also become Pratt's most influential teacher. "I was flabbergasted when I heard him play," remembers Pratt. "He was a fabulous drummer."
Pratt soon followed Peth to a drum corps in nearby Geneva, New York, where they both played in the drum line, which in those days consisted of four snares, four tenors, two bass drummers, and two cymbal players. The Geneva "Appleknockers" was one of the first corps to introduce jazz onto the marching field. Pratt stayed with the corps through his senior year in high school and traveled with them to the 1949 American Legion Nationals in Philadelphia, where they finished in sixth place.
After high school, Pratt joined the Army. He went through the band school at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and was encouraged to audition for the West Point Band. "The audition was sight-reading, and they also asked me to play something from memory," Pratt recalls. "I didn't have anything memorized, so I ad-libbed something on the snare drum." He was accepted into the Field Music Unit, also known as the "Hellcats" Drum and Bugle Corps, where he stayed for the remainder of his twenty-year military career. In 1959, he became Rudimental Drum Instructor/Arranger for the Field Music Unit.
He has many memories of his nearly two decades in the Hudson Valley. "One of the biggest events in my life involved Leopold Stokowski," Pratt recalls with a smile. The famous conductor had been at West Point celebrating his 90th birthday. "I was on my way back to the barracks to put my drum away when I was summoned to the orderly room, and there was Stokowski!
"He said, `I was told that you were the gentleman who wrote the drum parts. I would like to congratulate you; it was an experience to watch and listen to.' I was flabbergasted! I have treasured his comments for years. We talked for about half an hour. He knew more about drumming than any conductor I had ever met. I took a pair of sticks out of my back pocket and showed him how to lift the roll out rather than just trying to bounce it. He was so gracious and his wisdom was incredible."
Dennis DeLucia--an internationally recognized authority on marching percussion and former instructor with such championship drumlines as the Bayonne Bridgemen and Hawthorne Caballeros--marched side by side with Pratt at West Point from 1966 until 1969. "Jack is one of the most intellectually brilliant men I've ever met," says DeLucia. "As a rudimental player, he is a man with unbelievable hands who can play anything he wants at any height, at any volume, and at any tempo! Even though he was a few years older than many of us in the Hellcats drumline, he was a player that none of us could touch."
Another member of the Hellcats' drumline was Harold Green, who served at West point from 1955 until 1982. "Jack gave me lessons and helped me get into the band," recalls Green. "He is one of the greatest rudimental drummers I have ever worked with. He's taught so many people as well as being an excellent musician in his own right. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame." Does Green have a favorite snare drum solo composed by his colleague? "That would have to be `Hellcat Halftime'," he says. "It was based on `Connecticut Halftime,' but Jack changed the rudiments around and added others. He made it exciting to play."
One of the "legendary" stories about Pratt's life at West Point was related by several old friends. It seems Jack could often be found on the roof of his house, watering his lawn from above. When asked to explain, he replied that the grass would think it was raining!
During the 1950s and '60s, Pratt was actively involved in the drum and bugle corps movement of the Northeast. One of the first corps he taught was the Grey Knights from Rochester, New York. He also taught the Interstatesmen from the Albany area and many other smaller corps.
Pratt retired from the Army in 1969 after twenty years, almost all of them at West Point. During his military career, he went to college at night and received an Associate in Arts degree from Orange County Community College in Middletown, New York. He then transferred his credits to Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English. Thus began his second career as an English teacher at Hackensack High School in New Jersey, which lasted for 25 years until he retired in 1995.
In 1971, Pratt joined the teaching staff of the Hawthorne Caballeros from Hawthorne, New Jersey, where he taught execution alongside the late George Tuthill, who did most of the arranging. During Pratt's ten years with the corps, the Caballeros won three American Legion Championships (1974, 1975, and 1980) and four Drum Corps Associates (DCA, also known as "senior corps") Championships (1972, 1973, 1974, and 1976). They also won "high drums" at the 1975 American Legion National Championship. In 1990, Pratt was inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame alongside DeLucia.
In addition to teaching drum corps, Pratt began to judge them in the late 1950s. He served as an adjudicator for the New York chapter of the All American Drum and Bugle Corps and Band Association and also with the Metropolitan All-American when they opened a chapter in New Jersey. He stopped judging about the same time he left the Caballeros.
Of course, Pratt is best known as a prolific composer. "I had written a large book that I sent to various publishers in the late 1950s," he explains. "Belwin, Inc. was the only one interested, but they asked me to divide it up into three separate books, which became 14 Modern Contest Solos, Ancient Rudimental Snare and Bass Drum Solos, and 128 Rudimental Street Beats. About a year later, I came out with the 26 Standard American Drum Rudiments and their variations. So over a two-year period they published the four books.
"I had so much on my mind that I just had to unload it," Pratt laughs. "I had a lousy memory--still do!--so I started putting things down on paper. My stickings were not awkward, so people have been able to pick them up and play them well.
Among the first supporters of Pratt's book when it was published in 1959 was Warren Benson, an instructor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. He graded each of the 14 Modern Contest Solos and put them on the New York State list. He also added a couple of the rudimental snare and bass drum solos from the Ancient book to the duet category. "He even included all five of the sheet music solos that were published that year, which were leftovers from 14 Modern Contest Solos," adds Pratt. "Warren's efforts pushed the books into a wider circulation. Warren also invited me, accompanied by some of the Hellcat drummers, to do a clinic for the New York State School Music Association in 1963."
One of the people who, according to Pratt, "had obviously been teethed on rudimental drumming" from his book was Robin Engelman, a member of Nexus and a 1999 PAS Hall of Fame inductee. "[Jack] took a rather four square drumming tradition, which was exemplified by NARD [National Association of Rudimental Drummers] and their book of contest solos, and expanded the horizon of rudimental drumming by putting rudiments over the barline and using deceptive cadences," says Engelman. "The swing and musicality of his solos changed the course of rudimental writing and performance.
"If I had been asked about John Pratt a few years ago, I would have speculated, as would many others, that he was either dead or in retirement," Engelman admits. "To learn that he was still alive, a member of a fife and drum corps, a published poet, the author of an acclaimed thesis on the poetry of John Keats, a teacher of the English language, a composer of dozens of rudimental snare drum solos, a selfless propagator of the art of rudimental drumming, and an honorary member of the Canadian Rudimental organization CADRE was only half as revealing as actually meeting him in person forty years after discovering and falling in love with his great book, 14 Modern Contest Solos. John is one of those people who arrived at the right time with the talent and will to change the direction of music."
Engelman met his rudimental drumming idol at a 1999 clinic sponsored by CADRE [Canadian Associates Drumming Rudimental Excellence] in Hamilton, Ontario. "Robin introduced himself and hauled out an early copy of 14 Modern Contest Solos, which was pretty well patched together with cardboard," Pratt recalls. "Robin said, `I've wanted to meet you for forty years,' and then he asked if I'd autograph it! I even played his favorite solo of mine, `Gingersnap,' for Robin and some of his percussion-ensemble students from the University of Toronto."
Engelman and Pratt subsequently played that solo together at a special performance during a musical celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Eastman Wind Ensemble held in Rochester, New York last February.
"Because Robin loves rudimental drumming," Pratt continues, "I sent him about twenty-five or thirty pieces I had recently written, because I've always shared my music. I had no idea that he was going to show it to a publisher! The next thing I know, I got a call from Garwood Whaley from Meredith Music and we decided which solos were going to go in it." Pratt's most recent book, Rudimental Solos for Accomplished Drummers, was released in 2000.
Does Pratt have a favorite among his solos? After much prodding, he finally narrowed it down to five! "My first favorite is `My Friend Norman' from 14 Modern Contest Solos, which was dedicated to my drum instructor Norm Peth. The second favorite is `The Conquering Legions of Rome' from The New Pratt Book  which I wrote while I was at Hackensack High School. And there are three that I like from my latest book: `Moby Dick,' which I dedicated to Robin Engelman, `Farmers Museum Muster,' and `Westbrook Muster'." The solos continue to pour out of Pratt; he has written over 120 since his heart surgery less than two years ago--the first one was titled "Cardiac Bypass"!
"If there's anything my books have done," says Pratt, "they may have drawn together the two very distant poles of drumming: the strict rudimental drumming of the Connecticut fife and drum corps, or drum and bugle corps in general, and the concert players, both orchestral and symphonic. People tell me that my solos were quite rudimental, yet they were not phrased rudimentally because I extended things across the barline. I tried to maintain the rudiments as a separate entity without losing them in a pile of notes. All I know is that everywhere I go, people tell me that they've been using my books for years. I had no idea that they would become such an integral part of rudimental drumming. The last few years have just bowled me over!"
At age 68 and after almost a decade away from music, Pratt joined the Ex-Fifth Regiment Fife and Drums Corps of Paterson, New Jersey in 1997 and still participates in several parades and musters each year. Most important, he has some advice for young drummers. "If they want to become good rudimental drummers, they should be prepared to spend hours at the practice pad so they can develop control."
Despite triple-bypass heart surgery in December 2000, Pratt performed his snare drum solo "Moby Dick" at PASIC 2001 in Nashville. He is planning to participate in his second PASIC in a row as a performer at this year's "Drummers' Heritage" concert.
Pratt continues to write rudimental solos. "It's entertaining for me," he says. "The more challenging I make the material, the harder I have to work at it to get it down. That's a challenge that I still enjoy."
How would he liked to be remembered by future generations? "Just as a drummer boy who loved to drum!" He pauses a moment and then adds, "I just thank God that I can still play."