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  • 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.

  • In Memoriam: Jimmy Cobb by Rick Mattingly

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | May 25, 2020

    Jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played on Miles Davis’ Kind of Bluealbum and many other classic albums, died on Sunday, May 24, 2020, at age 91, after a battle with lung cancer.

    Cobb was the last surviving member of the Kind of Blue band—which included Davis, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans, and bassist Paul Chambers—and one of the last of the drummers who defined the post-bop style of the 1950s and ’60s. Although Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album in history, Cobb was not as widely known by the general public as some of his contemporaries such as Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, or Roy Haynes. But as his extensive discography confirms, countless musicians wanted him in their bands for his solid, swinging timekeeping. With his understated, non-flamboyant approach, Cobb could drive a band harder with quarter notes on a ride cymbal or brushes on a snare drum than many drummers can with fast and furious cymbal patterns enhanced with syncopated snare and bass drum punches. 

    Wilbur James “Jimmy” Cobb was born on January 20, 1929 in Washington, D.C. In a 1978 Modern Drummer interview he recalled buying his first set of drums when he was 13, from money he saved from being a busboy at a drugstore lunch counter. He studied briefly with National Symphony percussionist Jack Dennett, started playing drums in his school band, and was soon getting professional gigs. When it came to drummers, Cobb cited Max Roach as his biggest influence. “At the time, that was the hippest music going,” Cobb said. “I also listened to Kenny Clark, Shadow Wilson, and Big Sid Catlett. Then a little later there was Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.”

    Cobb’s first major gig in Washington was with saxophonist Charlie Rouse. While in Washington Cobb also played with Leo Parker, Benny Golson, Billie Holiday, and Pearl Bailey. When Cobb was 21, he went to New York and landed a job with Earl Bostic. A year later he went with Dinah Washington, with whom he recorded an album called For Those in Love, which had some of Quincy Jones’s first arrangements.

    After working with Washington for three and a half years, Cobb joined the quintet of Cannonball and Nat Adderley for about a year, appearing on the album Sharpshooters. After that band broke up, Cobb worked with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie and recorded with Tito Puente. In the meantime, Cannonball Adderley had joined the Miles Davis band, which had Philly Joe Jones on drums. Adderley told Cobb to come to the Davis gigs and play if Jones did not show up, which was often the case. Cobb ended up playing on half of Davis’ Porgy and Bessalbum, and then Davis hired him to be in the band. After joining Davis’s group full time, Cobb appeared on several Miles Davis albums, including Sketches of SpainSomeday My Prince Will ComeLive at Carnegie Hall, and Live at the Blackhawk, along with Kind of Blue.

    During the time Cobb was with Davis, he also recorded with a number of prominent jazz artists, including solo albums by Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly—who were all in the Davis group with Cobb—as well as with Kenny Dorham, Wayne Shorter, Paul Gonsalves, Art Pepper, Bobby Timmons, Donald Byrd, and Pepper Adams.

    Cobb also appeared on a 1960 album called Son of Drum Suite, which was a six-movement piece that featured drummers Mel Lewis, Don Lamond, Charli Persip, Louis Hayes, Gus Johnson, and Cobb. Around that same time, Jimmy participated in some Gretsch Drum Nights with Elvin Jones, Alan Dawson, and Art Blakey.

    Cobb left Davis in 1962. The next day, he recorded Boss Guitar with Wes Montgomery. Shortly after that, Cobb, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly formed a trio. In addition to performing and recording as the Wynton Kelly Trio, they toured with Montgomery and backed him on several albums, including Smokin’ at the Half Note and Willow Weep for Me. They also backed J.J. Johnson and Joe Henderson, working together until Chambers died in 1969.                       

    In 1970 Cobb began working with singer Sarah Vaughan, with whom he stayed until 1978. Cobb cited the 1973 recording Sarah Vaughan: Live in Japan as one of his favorites. Afterward, Jimmy freelanced with a variety of artists throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s including Sonny Stitt, Nat Adderley, Hank Jones, Ron Carter, George Coleman, David “Fathead” Newman, the Great Jazz Trio, Nancy Wilson, Dave Holland, Warren Bernhardt, and many others.

    Cobb also led his own groups starting in the 1980s, often under the name Jimmy Cobb’s Mob. Some of his notable releases include: Four Generations of Miles with guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Ron Carter, and saxophonist George Coleman; Yesterdays with Michael Brecker on tenor, Marion Meadows on soprano, Roy Hargrove on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Jon Faddis on trumpet; and New York Time with Christian McBride on bass, Javon Jackson on tenor sax, and Cedar Walton on piano. He released his two final albums, This I Dig of You and Cobb’s Pocket, in 2019.

    In June 2008, Cobb was the recipient of the Don Redman Jazz Heritage award. The following October, he was one of six to be presented with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters award. In December 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives honored Cobb and the 50th Anniversary of Kind of Blue. In 2011, Cobb was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. “It’s fitting and appropriate that this assembly of percussionists give Jimmy Cobb the greatest honor possible,” said Peter Erskine at that time. “Simply put, the world’s a better place because of Jimmy Cobb’s drumming.”

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