RS transparentthe official blog of the Percussive Arts Society

  • In Memoriam: B. Michael Williams

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Sep 05, 2020

    B. Michael WilliamsB. Michael Williams, who was Professor of Music and Director of Percussion Studies at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina from 1979 to 2016, died on Sept. 4, 2020.

    He held a B.M. degree from Furman University, M.M. from Northwestern University, and Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Active as a performer and clinician in symphonic and world music, Williams performed with the Charlotte (N.C.) Symphony, Lansing (Mich.) Symphony, Brevard Music Center Festival Orchestra, and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and appeared at several PASICs. He wrote articles for Accent Magazine, South Carolina Musician, and Percussive Notes, was a former Associate Editor (world percussion) for Percussive Notes, made scholarly presentations on the music of John Cage and on African music at meetings of the College Music Society and Percussive Arts Society, and contributed a chapter to the Cambridge Companion to Percussion titled “African Influences on Western Percussion Performance and Pedagogy.” In 2004, Dr. Williams received the Winthrop University Distinguished Professor Award, the highest honor given to a Winthrop faculty member. Under his direction, the Winthrop University World Percussion Ensemble performed a showcase concert at PASIC as winners of the 2012 PAS International World Percussion Ensemble Competition. He was given the Outstanding PAS Service Award in 2017.

    A composer of innovative works for percussion, his “Four Solos for Frame Drums” was among the first published compositions for the medium. Additional works to his credit include “Three Shona Songs” for marimba ensemble, “Recital Suite for Djembe,” “Bodhran Dance” and “Another New Riq.” His book, Learning Mbira: A Beginning, utilized a unique tablature notation for the Zimbabwean mbira dzavadzimu, and it has been acclaimed as an effective tutorial method for the instrument. Williams’ 4-volume set of 16 mbira transcriptions titled MbiraTab continued the series. Among his other compositions are “Rhythmic Journey No. 1: Conakry to Harare” for solo tar, “Rhythmic Journey No. 2: The Cage Sieve” for solo bodhrán, and “Rhythmic Journey No. 3: Post-Minimal” for solo riq, all published by Bachovich Music Publications. His 2005 CD recording, BataMbira, with Grammy-nominated percussionist and producer Michael Spiro, has been featured on National Public Radio, The Voice of America, and other broadcasts worldwide.

  • In Memoriam: Joe Porcaro

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 07, 2020

    Joe PorcaroDrummer and teacher Joe Porcaro died on July 7, 2020.

    Porcaro was born in New Britain, Connecticut. His father had originally been a trumpet player, but due to trouble with his teeth he switched to drums. When Joe was five years old, he found his dad’s drums and figured out how to play the cadences he had heard his father play. By the time Joe was eight, he would accompany his dad to Hartford, where his father played in an Italian symphonic band. Joe would play the cadences while the band marched.

    His first teacher gave him lessons in reading, time signatures, and note values. The Porcaro family moved to Hartford when Joe was 10, and he came in contact with Al Lepak. Porcaro said that Lepak was like a second father to him and allowed him to tag along to his rehearsals. Lepak taught at Hartt College and was timpanist in Hartt’s symphony orchestra. Lepak invited Joe to play percussion with them.

    When the Hartford Symphony formed in 1936, Porcaro was invited to be third percussionist. Joe was also playing in the house band at a local jazz club, where he played with such musicians as Mike Mainieri and Donald Byrd, and on weekends he worked at a Greek restaurant, playing in odd time signatures for belly dancers. He also did Broadway shows at the Goodspeed Opera House, and for a while he went on the road with the Tommy Dorsey band.

    Porcaro was playing at a jazz club when his longtime friend Emil Richards came by one night. Richards had been living in L.A. for ten years and enjoying a successful career as a percussionist. He invited Porcaro to visit L.A. and check out the scene. Soon after, in 1965, Porcaro went to Los Angeles and went on studio calls with Richards for a week. Later that year, the Porcaro family—his wife, Eileen; three boys, Jeff, Mike, and Steve; and daughter Joleen—left Hartford and moved to L.A.

    A couple of months after Joe arrived in L.A., he was recommended to play with Chet Baker for a week at Shelly’s Manne-Hole. Manne liked the way Joe played drums, and when he found out that Joe was also a percussionist, Manne recommended Porcaro to his contractor. Joe subsequently I got a call to record music for the TV show Daktari. Not long after, Joe got called to play on Mission Impossible with Lalo Schifrin. Word began to spread about Porcaro amongst other L.A. studio contractors. Porcaro’s was especially valuable because he could play drums and percussion. 

    During his career, Porcaro played on over 1,000 movies and TV sessions. Some of the films include North by NorthwestDancing With WolvesFinding NemoAce VenturaAnalyze ThisAustin PowersBeverly Hills Cop IIComing to AmericaCongoDante’s PeakDie HardEdward ScissorhandsEmpire of the Sun, The Outlaw Josey WalesThe Wild Bunch, and The Fugitive. He also recorded for such TV shows as I Dream of JeannieThe Smothers Brothers Comedy HourMurder She WroteColumboIronsidesLittle House on the PrairieHighway to Heaven, and C.H.I.P.S., to name just a few. 

    Porcaro recorded on albums with a variety of artists, including Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd, Stan Getz, Bonnie Raitt, Madonna, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Natalie Cole, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Connick Jr., Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Marvin Gaye, and Johnny Mathis. 

    Joe’s sons Jeff, Mike, and Steve have all had successful careers in music. A highlight was at the 1983 Grammy Awards, where Joe was playing in the Grammy orchestra, and his sons’ band, Toto, won six Grammy Awards.

    As a teacher, Porcaro was at the core of establishing two important drum institutions in Los Angeles. In 1980, guitarist Tommy Tedesco invited Joe to get involved with Musicians Institute. Porcaro enlisted Ralph Humphrey, and they began PIT—Percussion Institute of Technology—in Hollywood. Around 1996, Porcaro and Humphrey cut ties with PIT and helped to begin LAMA—Los Angeles Music Academy—in Pasadena. The school has since become Los Angeles College of Music, an accredited music college, where Humphrey is director of the drum school and Porcaro helped put together the sight-reading program and taught jazz drums.

    Read Joe Porcaro’s PAS Hall of Fame bio here.

  • A Tribute to Alan Abel and the Greatest Generation of orchestral percussion artists

    by Hillary Henry | Jun 05, 2020

    By Niel DePonte
    Principal Percussion, The Oregon Symphony

    Alan AbelOnce upon a time, the world was not so small, not so interconnected, not so homogenized. Countries had provinces that were distinct with varying architectures, cuisines, and dialects. And if you loved orchestral music, the orchestra you loved best was the one in your major metropolitan area, the place where you lived. That group had its own sound! You knew it when you heard it. With the broad distribution of recorded music beginning in the 1940’s, the world became one degree smaller. You could hear orchestras from other parts of the USA. 

    Those of us who grew up with vinyl records, or lived in a major metropolitan city, primarily followed our hometown orchestras as one followed baseball teams. Who was the new manager (conductor)? Who was the star pitcher (concertmaster)? And for those of us who saw ourselves as perhaps 2nd basemen (clarinets), or outfielders (trumpets), or sluggers (trombones), we would have happily collected their orchestral baseball cards with their stats, if such a thing existed. 

    But for those of us who saw ourselves as pinch hitters (percussionists) or home run kings (timpanists), there were a group of men who were on most of our recordings, most radio broadcasts, and taught in most, if not all, of the important conservatories, or taught us privately. These men whom we followed fanatically, and whose styles and musical dialects were the subject of great debates in practice rooms across America, were the position players we came to revere and hoped to emulate.

    I am talking now about the 1960s–1970s in the main here. And I will quickly apologize for being regionally biased, or Big Five Orchestra biased, or having missed some important names from our field. It is nearly impossible to be complete and comprehensive in an article such as this. But if you feel I left out your favorite percussionist or timpanist from this period (or abbreviated a list below because sections changed over 20 years), it is very possible that they came from a slightly smaller city, recorded less often than these men, or taught fewer students during this period of time. Or, even more likely, they were already disciples of these percussion titans, having been taught by them in the recent past. In any event, here are the timpanists and percussionists from the Big Five Orchestras of this period whose names we most remember.

    • Chicago Symphony: Donald Koss, timpani, Gordon Peters, Al Payson, Sam Denov, James Ross Sr.  
    • New York Philharmonic: Saul Goodman, timpani, Walter Rosenberger, Elden “Buster” Bailey, Morris “Arnie” Lang
    • Philadelphia Orchestra: Fred Hinger, timpani, Michael “Mickey” Bookspan, Charles Owen, Alan Abel
    • Boston Symphony: Everett “Vic” Firth, timpani, Arthur Press, Tommy Thompson, Tom Gauger, Frank Epstein
    • Cleveland Orchestra: Cloyd Duff, timpani, Richard Weiner, Joe Adato, Robert Matson, Donald Miller

    Consider these percussionists the trunk of the great tree of percussionists that sprang from the roots set by German, Russian, Italian, Jewish and other emigres from Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those of us who are at least 45 years of age or older know these names, knew these men, studied with them, performed with them at times, and expanded the percussion diaspora that, with the world growing smaller and smaller each decade, created the enormous percussion world as we know it today. It is an incredibly diverse world, an incredibly intelligent world, and an incredibly talented world. We stand on the shoulders of these great men, from “The Greatest Generation,” as the book would tell us, who were innovators, who were professionals in every sense, and who were generous in their artistry in performance, on record (and cassette, 8-track, CD, and retro-concert streaming), and in their teaching.

    And it is why the passing of a man like Alan Abel strikes each of us so profoundly. I had a few connections to him. I loved the sound the Philadelphia Orchestra percussionists made in concert and on recordings. Then most of my teachers were from the Eastman School of Music and studied with Philadelphian William Street, or were from Philly like my friend percussionist Bill Cahn. The Nexus percussion ensemble members were also acquaintances of mine and many had studied with the Philly section growing up. And Mr. Abel was part of a trio of orchestral percussionists who chose me as the winner of the first PASIC Mock Audition at the first PASIC in 1976. He was a man whom I could call and ask advice. He was always generous with his time and thoughts.

    More than that, I knew dozens of percussionists who went to Temple University where Mr. Abel taught, and I learned from them in turn. And for those of us who knew any of the other players from The Greatest Generation, you knew that when you had a moment with them, even just to meet them, that this was a precious moment. 

    Most of these men are gone now. My friend Arnie Lang is still with us, and I am not sure of the others. But I know Mr. Abel’s passing was the end of an era in Philadelphia, and I feel the loss as if I were related to him. In a sense, we all are. His was a rare gift of generosity that permeated our field. We all felt somehow connected to him, I believe. I have some of his percussion DNA within me, not as much as others, but enough to leave me feeling his loss more profoundly than I thought possible.

    I met or knew about half of these men. I studied with Hinger for a time. I once received a nice note from Charley Owen after he played a piece of mine with his wife playing clarinet. I got to talk shop with him once when he said, “You know, nobody ever plays snare drum softly enough in an audition.” But with the passing of Alan Abel, and my own retirement in June as principal of the Oregon Symphony after 42 years, you begin to see the long line of players that have moved our field forward. And you hope that you have contributed in a way that would have won the approval of the men you looked up to when you were at the back of the line. 

    May God grant peace to all these men, and all the others of that generation, who gave all of us so much. And may all of us along the lineage of players, at the front, middle, or back of the line, always look long and hard, and in both directions, down that line and learn something from everyone who is on it.

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