Peter Erskine once stated that the most vital music is created by musicians who are vital people. “They have something to offer,” he said. “Music is only a reflection. Once you get past the techniques, licks, and whatever, it’s who you are and what you believe in that’s going to come out. Certainly in drumming it’s very evident. You can hear from the music what kind of person that drummer is. The amount of space, the sensitivity that involves shadings and touch, the way the music is propelled, how hard it swings or how gutsy it is, that’s all reflective of a drummer’s personality.”
Based on the drumming he has done over the past half-century, Erskine’s personality is obviously multi-faceted. He can swing and he can be funky. He can hit hard and aggressively, and he can play softly and with sensitivity. He is comfortable within the freedom of jazz, and he can easily handle the discipline of studio work. He can be structured and he can be spontaneous. He is serious about his art, but he also injects humor into his playing.
Over the years, Peter has often been described as being a particularly “musical” drummer. Indeed, in the newly expanded edition of his book The Drum Perspective, the word “musical” is ubiquitous. As just a few examples, “To play musically, we must respect each note to the fullest… A drummer had better find his or her own lasting musical values to sustain and nourish an artistic and playing career. That is to say, keep yourself centered, and always answer that which music begs and demands from all of us: to be musical… I require that all my students be aware that being musical (and making the music feel as good as possible) is their first responsibility… Players who follow their musical heart fulfill, I believe, the calling that music made so deeply to them when they were young… The opportunities to be musical are always there; it’s just a matter of training oneself to see (and hear) them.”
Born in 1954 in Somers Point, New Jersey, Peter Erskine started playing drums at age four, taking lessons from local drummer Johnny Civera. By age seven Peter was regularly attending the Stan Kenton National Stage Band Camps, where he studied with Louis Hayes, Charlie Perry, Ed Soph, and Alan Dawson. At age twelve, Erskine began occasional lessons with Indiana University percussion professor George Gaber, who encouraged him to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan for high school.
After graduating from Interlochen, Peter enrolled at Indiana University, studying again with Gaber. After a year, Peter left IU to go on the road with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. After three years with Kenton, Erskine resumed his studies with Gaber at IU. “Returning to Indiana was sort of a ‘now what?’ situation,” Peter says. “I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. My identity was ‘Peter Erskine, drummer with Stan Kenton.’ So on some level I intuited that I needed to escape from that very small bubble, musically and personally. I hoped to explore musics other than that which I had been playing. IU had started a jazz degree program, and the expectation was that I would go into the jazz band, but Gaber didn’t want me to do that. He recognized all the bad habits I had built up after three years of playing on the road with a very loud band, and he wanted me to focus on my hands. And I was fine with that. Gaber tuned me into getting the best tone out of the instrument. That not only became an important feature of the type of drumming I wanted to do, but it also helped me understand that for all the talk about groove and feel and whatever, as far as jazz goes, it really comes down to tone. Ultimately, the sound you get on the cymbals and drums has so much to do with how something feels.”
In 1976 Peter left IU again to join Maynard Ferguson’s band. One night, while the band was playing in Florida, Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius came to the show. He and Erskine formed a friendship, and Pastorius said he would stay in touch. A few months later, Pastorius recommended Erskine for Weather Report, which Peter was thrilled to join. A lot of people were surprised by Erskine joining such an iconic electric fusion band, as Peter had been typecast as a big band drummer as a result of working with Kenton and Ferguson.
“It’s funny,” Peter said in a 1983 interview, “because when I joined Kenton’s band, I was not listening to big band music at that time. I had been listening a lot to Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report. So even though I wasn’t thinking of doing that kind of big band thing then, I had grown up listening to big band music, and it excited this thing inside me. I think any kind of gig that has strong traditions built into it is an invaluable learning experience.”
Upon joining Weather Report, Erskine moved to Los Angeles. Between 1978 and 1982, Peter recorded five albums with the band, winning his first Grammy Award for the album 8:30. “Ultimately, Weather Report was about finding my own voice as a musician, and that’s when I stopped being a sideman,” Peter says. “At the end of a concert one night I disobeyed a cue from [Weather Report co-leader] Joe Zawinul, and I thought that I would be fired for that rebellious act. But, instead, it was celebrated as a graduation. One thing about making music with boxers: they like it when you punch back.
“Weather Report was a door-opener and it was fun. It’s certainly interesting to contemplate what I might have done differently if I’d had more discipline over the years, but that’s not the way life works. I heard a great quote from the comedian Sarah Silverman, who said, ‘You can’t change your past, but you can be changed by your past.’
“Being part of a band like Weather Report makes you aware of your place in the timeline,” Peter adds. “The work we did was significant, and it informed me of a lot of possibilities and options.”
During his time in L.A., in addition to playing with Weather Report, Erskine worked and/or recorded with Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Farrell, Joni Mitchell, and George Cables.
Although Erskine was playing a lot of jazz in L.A., Zawinul told him that if he really wanted to be a jazz musician, he needed to move to New York. So Peter left L.A. and went to New York City, where he soon joined the band Steps Ahead, working for five years with such musicians as Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Eddie Gomez, Don Grolnick, and Eliane Elias. He also worked with John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Marc Johnson in the group Bass Desires, toured and recorded with Gary Burton and Pat Metheny, worked with Jaco Pastorius’s band Word of Mouth, and played in the John Abercrombie Trio and the Bob Mintzer Big Band. He also recorded his first album as a leader.
“Before my move, I would fly into New York for some gigs and recordings, but this put me in the life and opened up playing opportunities,” Peter says. “The most significant opportunity was working with John Abercrombie and Marc Johnson in the John Abercrombie Trio, which is where I discovered that, to paraphrase an old saying, ‘everything I knew was wrong.’ All the playing devices I had relied upon and habitually employed didn’t work in the trio setting with guitar — at least not with someone with John’s sensibilities and tone. So it was the beginning of loosening up a lot of conceptual glue.
“Also, New York was very much the kind of place where, if you were playing in a club, anybody might — and did — walk in. Oftentimes I’d have pretty well-known drummers standing by my hi-hat looking down at me with either an approving or skeptical look,” Peter says, chuckling at the memory.
In 1986 Peter flew to L.A. to work on the final Weather Report album, This Is This, and then toured with Weather Update, in which guitarist Steve Khan replaced saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Peter returned to L.A. permanently in 1987 and began playing live and/or recording with such artists as Diana Krall, Joni Mitchell, Vince Mendoza, Steely Dan, Chick Corea, Jan Garbarek, Kenny Wheeler, the Yellowjackets, Mike Mainieri, Sadao Watanabe, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Boz Scaggs, Palle Danielsson, John Taylor, Kate Bush, Nguyen Lê, Rita Marcotulli, Seth MacFarlane, Bob Florence, Patrick Williams, and the Norrbotten Big Band in Sweden. He won his second Grammy Award as the drummer of the WDR Big Band in Köln along with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Vince Mendoza, and others for the Some Skunk Funk album.
“When I left New York, I eventually ceased to appear on the ‘live’ jazz radar there,” Erskine says. “The blessing in disguise was that it gave me the time and place to start a family, even though I was traveling a lot. I was still being called for recording projects back east, and I was doing more and more work in Europe.”
Thanks to the training he received from Gaber at IU, Peter was also able to handle the structure and discipline of studio work, ranging from commercial jingles to movie soundtracks. Films in which Peter’s drumming can be heard include Memoirs of a Geisha, all three Austin Powers movies, The Secret Life of Pets, and the title music of the Steven Spielberg/John Williams collaboration The Adventures of Tintin. He also played on the Academy Award-winning soundtrack for La La Land, and can be heard on the scores for Sing, Logan, Let Them All Talk, Mank, and the upcoming Babylon.
Erskine has appeared as a soloist with the London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Frankfurt Radio, Scottish Chamber, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Royal Opera House, BBC Symphony, Oslo, and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. He premièred the double percussion concerto “Fractured Lines,” composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage, alongside Evelyn Glennie at the BBC Proms with Andrew Davis conducting, and has collaborated frequently with Sir Simon Rattle. He also premiered the Turnage opera “Anna Nicole” at the Royal Opera House in London. Turnage composed a solo concerto for Peter titled “Erskine,” which received its world premiere in Bonn, Germany in 2013, with a U.S. premiere at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“I’ve always felt that one playing experience or environment informs the next one,” Peter says. “I grew up in a time when variety made total sense. So it was as natural to embrace Count Basie as to embrace James Brown. And I did. At a certain point I had to confront the fact that I’m not the master of every style, but I feel that I am versatile. The most important ability for me in all those situations is the ability to swing, which I think I do pretty well.”
Fifty albums have been released under Peter’s own name or as co-leader. The groups he has led for recordings and live playing over the years have ranged from trios to ensembles with eight or more players. Some of the more well-known groups include the trio that recorded several albums on ECM, which included pianist John Taylor and bassist Palle Danielsson; the Lounge Art Ensemble, with saxophonist Bob Sheppard and either Dave Carpenter or Darek Oles on bass; and the Dr. Um Band, with Bob Sheppard, keyboardist John Beasley, and bassist Benjamin Sheppard. Erskine has also co-led the groups Steps Ahead, Relativity (with saxophonist Marty Ehrlich and bassist Michael Formanek), Trio E_L_B (with guitarist Nguyen Le and bassist Michel Benita), and Trio M/E/D (with pianist Rita Marcotulli and bassist Palle Danielsson).
In 1994, Peter launched his own record label, Fuzzy Music. In addition to recordings featuring Erskine, the label has also released CDs by other jazz artists and has earned four Grammy nominations. Erskine has also produced a series of iOS play-along apps suitable for all instruments covering jazz, big band, Brazilian, funk, and Afro-Cuban styles.
Peter is an active author with several books to his credit; titles include The Drum Perspective (Hal Leonard), No Beethoven: Autobiography & Chronicle of Weather Report (Fuzzy Music/Alfred), Time Awareness for All Musicians, Drum Essentials (in three volumes), and Essential Drum Fills (Alfred) and The Musician’s Lifeline and The Drummer’s Lifeline, both co-authored with Dave Black (Alfred). He has also written numerous articles for Modern Drummer, Drum!, and Percussive Notes magazines.
Peter has been voted Best Jazz Drummer ten times by the readers of Modern Drummer magazine and was elected to the magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2017. He has won two Grammy Awards and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in 1992.
Peter began teaching at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California in 2000, and now serves as Professor of Practice and Director of Drumset Studies. “The cliché,” he says, “is ‘I learn more from the students than they learn from me,’ but I do, in fact, learn a lot from teaching. I’ve always enjoyed teaching because my father was such a great teacher to me. To be able to emulate and try to rise to that level of empathy and wisdom is a nice way to go through life.”
Erskine has been very involved with PAS over the years. He first appeared at PASIC ’83 in Knoxville when he performed with Louie Bellson on Bellson’s “Concerto for Two Drumsets and Orchestra,” which included Vic Firth on timpani. He subsequently did clinics and concerts at numerous PASICs in such cities as San Antonio, Nashville, Columbus, Anaheim, Louisville, Phoenix, and Indianapolis, and appeared at several PAS state chapter Days of Percussion. He served on the PAS Board of Directors three times, and in 2001 he received the Outstanding PAS Supporter Award.
“PAS is the ultimate expression of the synergy that is possible between all the elements of the drumming and percussion community that I’m interested in and care about,” he says. “Drummers love to share what we know, and there is no greater authority on this than my wife, Mutsy, who once said to me, ‘Drummers are unlike any other group of musicians; they are supportive and share what they know so readily.’ And at a TMEA convention, Lauren Vogel Weiss’s husband, Ron, said to me, ‘Drummers are the only group of people who share their trade secrets.’ And it’s true. So PAS is all about all of us sharing our trade secrets and cheering each other on. And having the music industry so closely involved and integrated at PASIC, where they see and hear and witness how their instruments inspire us or frustrate us, or how their instruments work on a day-to-day basis, creates and sustains the dialog. I appreciate the amount of scholarly research that is supported by PAS, the encouragement of new repertoire, and the intermingling of all the various styles.”
Erskine says he is honored to be elected to the PAS Hall of Fame. “It is humbling to have your name on a list of people who genuinely are your heroes,” Peter says. “More than being honored at PASIC this year, I’m looking forward, as always, to sharing the celebration of these instruments and these musics that we all love so much.
“After the pandemic and lockdown,” he adds, “I am of the mind that everyone should concentrate on having fun when they make music, and be as forgiving as possible to themselves and to their musical colleagues. Letting go has become the best way for me to experience, enjoy, and produce percussive art.”